At this point of deep uncertainty clinging to the fringes of a successful research project, for each praying mantis, they are grappling for their right to defend themselves or eat, and stay in the biggest conversation of them of all; can I recreate Chinese martial arts history?
I’ve put my cards out on the table, the insane fear of insects, now here in front of me, high roller stakes, education, martial arts, to gleam at warriors staring into each other’s poker faces, playing the insect hands they’ve been dealt; life or death; eat or be eaten. Science can be so twisted.
How did my life come down to this? Fear. Yet the outcome was something I could never have predicted; working and learning with the most unique martial arts training partners I’ve ever had. What are your greatest fears in life? For me, by March of 1973, two things, insects and death.
When I was six years old, I asked my extremely well-mannered and proper mum, "When we burp, we must cover our mouth. So when we pass wind, why don't we cover our bottoms?"
She flashed a Queen of England, neck-strained ostrich glare and commanded, "Don't be so insolent you cheeky little boy." I didn't know what that meant. Even when she spelt it out for me, it didn't sink in because I was a poor speller in school. After that ostrich glare, I should have hidden my head in the sand when mum asked, "Want to watch Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle (1954) on BBC tonight?" Charlton who?
Set in the Amazon, a billion, voracious red army ants, invade Heston's plantation. He plans to flood the moat around the plantation and rely on ranch hand Pedro to open the floodgates. The wry ants use their bodies to bridge across the moat. What!!? I screamed, "Open the floodgates!" Pedro's asleep! As ants creep up his legs, I'm yelling, "Pedro, wake up!" THEN…"Aaaah!" his face is covered by flesh-eating ants. NEXT…ants ooze out of his skeletal skull orifices!
That night, an ant is in my bed. I couldn’t sleep knowing it would return to its nest to fetch mates so they could eat me. Next morning, butterflies, bees and ladybugs leered at me. They were in cahoots with the ants and all were out to get me. Seeing Pedro covered in ants etched unabashed terror into my life that began a life-long fear of insects. No wonder I was ant-isocial.
I’ve shared parts of this story before, yet for those unaware, at 16, my doctor told me I’d be dead in five years from the lethal terminal disease Cystic Fibrosis. I decided to commit suicide so my parents wouldn’t have to watch me slowly die. The jackals were after me, no place to Hyde. Two weeks later and almost dead, after seeing Bruce Lee’s first fight in The Big Boss (1971), I instantly went from being depressed and waiting to die, to wanting to live and learn kung fu.
The Effect of a Big Bully
In 1978, when I was a junior at Cornell, a karate bully who disliked me, approached, and began trash talking my Chinese friends then viciously lunged at me. Seconds later, I apologized for hurting him, we spoke and cleared the air. As I moseyed off, a bug attacked me. Freaking out I punched it out of mid-air. It flew west and I ran east believing it would get its gang and seek revenge.
Heart racing, my mind roared, "Stop! Why can I calmly defend myself against vicious men, but insects fearfully disable me?" Martial arts instantly removed my fear of death but not my life-long fear of insects. Solution? Enroll in Cornell's entomology program.
I was already training in probably one of the toughest dojos in America, where thrice a week, we’d do bone-on-bone training until our wrists looked like something a boa constrictor would regurgitate. More on that dojo experience in Part 3 and why over-the-top training is important.
I came up with an undergraduate thesis project that blew my thesis adviser’s mind. He later told me that the sheer audacity left him so flabbergasted that his piqued curiosity couldn’t say no.
According to one account, when 17th-century Shaolin monk Wang Lung was one day studying his Buddhist texts, he heard a praying mantis attacking a cricket. Struck by how easily the mantis defeated its prey, Wang prodded the mantis with a piece of straw. He observed how the mantis jumped back and forth to escape harm and used its front legs to parry, grasp and crush the straw.
Three years later, Wang had created the 13 Arm and Hand Movements of the Mantis. My research goal was to scientifically re-create Wang Lung's work and prove that we can learn martial arts from animals, in my case, a praying mantis. Think about it, this creature has walked and fought on our planet since the Jurassic Period, 145.5 million years ago. That’s far out man.
Lights, Camera, Action
My two roommates were excited about my plan of to raise praying mantises in our apartment. I was initially squeamish having to capture live insects for food. Weeks later, no big deal.
I’d walk around the apartment withmantises perched on my shoulders like a pirate’s parrot. They’d never fly off. I had one perched on my shoulder during an exam, when the teacher asked me why, I said, “Noone’s an atheist around exam time, I have extra hands praying for me.”
Borrowing a friend’s aquarium, I strategically placed twigs, rocks and hiding places to create an artificial habitat as their dojo. I borrowed a reel-to-reel videotape machine, a black and white camera, and a 10” B&W TV from the library for a semester. I had raised 20 adult European mantids (Mantis religiosa Linnaeus), pale green insects two inches in length. It was time.
I shot the mantises fighting each other, defending themselves against other predaceous insects and like Wang, I studied them while provoking aggressive behavior with pieces of straw.
After logging hundreds of hours of videotape and using slow-motion playback, I was able to identify ten stereotypical patterns of behavior employed by the mantises during attack, defense, and provocation. Next, I set out to replicate their movements for humans. With a reaction time of 1/40th of a second, mantids are 70% successful in catching walking flies and 25% for catching flying flies. I wasn’t that fast yet I could throw five punches in one second.
Thesis Self Defense The octo is gone, it’s my thesis adviser’s square entomology office. The professor, who knew how to box, prepared to attack me like a large predacious stinkbug, by protruding its powerful spear-like mouthparts forward as to pierce it into a mantis’ gut like a battering ram. I assume a standard upright mantis posture, raptorial arms (modified front legs) held like a half opened Swiss army knife that has a serrated blade in front of my body. He charges in, I shuffle to one side and deflect his arm (battering ram spear-like mouthparts) then immediately with both arms I strike at the same time to do one of three things: push him back to create distance between us; to grab his body and pull him toward me; or to grab and crush his body. With my arms above my head (wings wide), I look bigger and offer him an opening to charge in, instead I strike down at the charging in head, grab him or his mouthparts and crush them. Regardless of prey size, spiders, large predacious bugs (beetles, stinkbugs), non-predacious bugs (crickets, beetles) and other mantids, the strikes, blocks, trapping maneuvers, are extremely quick and filled with snapping rough and rumble jumps, grappling holds, lots of nibbling, wings expanding out for balance and to look larger. It’s collections of repeatedly quick combos, where the mantis ends up distancing itself from its attacker as if measuring its opponent. My adviser enjoys the combat and asks if he can attack me with boxing and I use the mantis skills I’ve learned. WHAM, WHAM, WHAM, WHAM! He rattles off combinations of punches to my face and body. To his and my surprise, I effortlessly block and parry each strike while moving side-to-side then counter by grabbing the back of his head and pulling him toward me. Since I knew no one who practiced mantis kung fu, how could I know if I had successfully learned what Wang did and re-created martial arts history using modern technology?
Two years later, while studying rice pests in Taiwan, I was cast as a Persian magician on kung fu TV soap opera. The fight choreographer, Zhou Shifu, who trained the President’s body guards, was the Zhang Men Ren (head dude) of Zi Ran Men’s (Natural Door) Praying Mantis Division. He had me do a short fight using mantis kung fu and was impressed I picked up what he wanted me to do. I told him that I learned the movement from a real mantis. He sneered, saying, "Show me." By then, I had put the 10 movements into a flowing sequence using the mantis stances. He said I had crudely performed 10 of the 13 basic techniques created 300+ years ago by Wang Lung, which also happened to be the first 10 of his 20-move mantis form adding, "You are the American Wang Lung." I joked, “Wang studied the larger, five-inch-long Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis, which would explain why I missed the other three movements.”
Mantis-Monkey to Rabbit-Crane In the realm of yin-yang…balance…attack or defend…fight or escape…be serious or humorous, I’ve learned over the past 67 years to first be humorous then serious. Where mantis kung fu adopted the leg work of another animal, the monkey, I too was influenced to take two non-related animals and create a unique manimal style by combining rabbit gentleness with the stalwart white crane leg work. Why? Just to say, “Happy Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rabbit. In Scotland, my ancestors would bellow, ‘Have a Bonnie Year,’ yet perhaps today, they might say, ‘Have a Bunny Year,’ because it’s more in line with the wonders of nature and environmental inclusiveness.”
On that serious note, due to the nature of the praying mantis that allowed me to step into their environment, apart from learning the basic movements of a martial arts style in the same manner of its founder, they helped me to overcome my lifelong fear of insects as well as to develop a keen power of observation, which is an extremely important device for self-preservation. By stepping back and quietly observing you can train yourself to assess life scenarios, whether it’s combative, social, workplace, lifestyle, interactions with others, etc.
Observing is a key component to survival that can create powerful ways of critical thinking and to think, it all evolved from watching praying mantises duke it out.