Various systems of praying-mantis kung fu can be found in the different locales and subcultures of China. Of them, the northern seven-star school is perhaps the most widely practiced.

The art dates back to the end of the Ming dynasty, when the invading Manchus began to subjugate the Han Chinese. Legend has it that Wong Long, a native and nationalistic Han, traveled the countryside studying different martial arts in an effort to help remove the Manchus and restore Ming rule. He reportedly spent some time as a disciple at Shaolin Temple in Henan province, where he learned basic combat skills. Eventually, the Manchus’ increasing surveillance caused him and many other freedom fighters to seek martial arts instruction elsewhere.

When he finally went home to further his development, however, the abbot of a local temple bested him repeatedly. While sitting exhausted under a tree after one such match, Wong happened to see a praying mantis catch a large cicada with ease. He studied the motions of the insect’s grasping forelegs, watching it tease its prey with a reed and goad it into fighting. Later, he also observed monkeys chasing one another in the trees and noted their rapid and agile footwork. The synthesis of his knowledge of kung fu with the animal-inspired movements became the foundation of the northern praying-mantis system.

A leading seven-star authority, Dr. John Cheng teaches the system at his three schools in Orange County, California. Here, he reveals the 12 basic keywords formula that conveys the style’s essential concepts:


  • Ou—To hook or intercept an incoming strike (by bending your last three fingers into a partial fist with your thumb supporting your index finger), then deflect the strike laterally.
  • Lou—To grasp the elbow of the striking limb for firmer control of your opponent.
  • Choi—To pluck or pull the incoming strike to the outside in combination with your own strike.
  • Kwa—To hang or block upwardly to move your opponent’s strike from a lower to a higher position.
  • Diu—To use the mantis hook with soft energy to block and intercept the attack.
  • Beng—To chop or crash downward offensively from a high position, as with a backfist.
  • Jim—To strike.
  • Lim—To use strikes to make contact with an attack, then stick to your opponent’s arm using your sensitivity so you can flow into a trap.
  • Tip—To close the gap.
  • Kao—To lean on your opponent after you enter so you can throw him or knock him off-balance.
  • Shim—To dodge or avoid an attack by means of superior footwork.
  • Teng na—To bounce or use quick leg movements to effect a jump kick, avoid a sweep or hop away from an attack.

If you’re a beginner, you may not comprehend the subtlety of the 12 keywords, but once you’ve invested some time in your training, you’ll see how you can use the concepts to create powerful and effective combinations. For example, the first three keywords, ou-lou-choi, reflect a common defensive technique that’s employed in almost all northern mantis styles. As your opponent attacks with a hand strike, you deflect and ensnare his wrist with a mantis hand, then immediately establish control over his elbow with your other hand. You finish by yanking him off-line and into your counterattack.

This logical system of kung fu exemplifies the appeal of fusing existing systems with combative principles taken from nature. The result is then tailored to suit the needs and goals of any martial artist.

(Mark Cheng is a traditional Chinese-medicine physician and martial arts researcher based in West Los Angeles.)
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