March 6, 2009

The Power of Myth in Chinese Martial Arts

In Praying Mantis Kung fu there is a Myth surrounding the creation of the art at the hands of Wang Lang. This is one such version of the story.

In a bid to test his martial skill, Wang Lang ventured to the Temple in the Lao Shan mountains to challenge the monks. When he arrived at the Temple he came across several monks in the main plaza practising their boxing skills. Wang Lang issued his first challenge to one of the monks but received no response. When Wang continued his challenge, the monk agreed to let him fight a lower level student. Wang fought hard against the student but was defeated.

He returned home knowing that he'd have to train a lot harder to match the might and skill of the monks. Two years later Wang returned to the Temple to once again test his skills. He was in far better physical shape than he had been during his previous trip and was once again matched against a student of the Temple. This time Wang won the bout and fought his way through the ranks of the Temple until he eventually stood toe-to-toe with the head abbot.

Wang fought at the height of his skill but was soundly beaten by the abbot. In pain from his fight with the abbot, Wang rested against a tree by the Lao Shan mountains. It was here that he spotted two insects fighting - a cicada and a much smaller praying mantis. He observed carefully as the mantis used its long arms and quick movements to defeat its much larger opponent.

In awe of the mantis, Wang took the insect home and built a cage for it. He studied the insect's every movement and used a pair of chopsticks to battle with the mantis to see how it would react to various strikes and thrusts. Wang took these techniques and incorporated them into his own training. With these new techniques he once again ventured to the Temple to test his newfound skills. He fought the head abbot again and was successful, stunning the monks with his newfound skills.

While these stories are not a literal account of actual events, they express ideas that are symbolic to the nature of kung fu. The way a thing was created establishes that thing's nature, the pattern to which it should conform.

First, there is Wang Langs perseverance and dedication to gain a high level of skill. His victories did not come easy, and he knew defeat many times before he could prevail. We too should strive to emulate his fortitude, practicing hard and long, challenging ourselves, and growing in defeat.

Second, these stories often describe the battle between the insects in such a way as to describe key principle of the style. Here the story only says that you should use skill to overcome strength.

Lastly, in Wang Langs quest he finds his answers in Nature. In doing so he is following the Tao, which seeks to emulate the harmony found in nature. We too sould seek understanding through the Tao as many of the pricipals of mantis are rooted in the Tao, such as overcome hard with soft, and much much more.

"We have not even to face the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time, have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World." - Joseph Campbell