I jump forward, doing a chest level heel kick. At the same time my hand shoots forward; the intent being that the opponent would be distracted by the hand and the kick would land. I am performing a set. A set is a collection of techniques put together into a memorized routine. Sets were how, in a largely preliterate society, martial arts techniques and strategies were successfully passed on. Sets have themes and strategies associated with them. The student would know the theme and, because of this, it would be easier to remember the techniques. To illustrate, I could give a person twenty techniques to memorize and maybe they could. But, if I give that same person a set with a theme and rationale, it becomes far easier to remember. A well-crafted set is like a song, and will have consistently chosen techniques that interrelate.
Sets were so effective at communicating strategy and technique that some Kung-Fu practitioners became known for fighting in accordance with a single set. A mantis practitioner named Li Danbai, for instance, was known as Zhong Lu Fan Che Li or “Middle Turning Wheel Li” because he fought so often with the techniques of that particular set.
The set I am practicing is today is called Chop Choi Kuen, the Stabbing Fist. It was based off of another set created long ago during the Song Dynasty, by the Emperor Tai Zhu (927-976). He was a martial arts enthusiast and, as Emperor, a patron of the Shaolin Temple.
Chop Choi has, as its emphasis, the use of kicks to support the attacks of the hands. At one moment, the practitioner skips forward at his opponent with a front kick to the midsection. Should the opponent dodge the kick and attack, the kicking leg would come down, coordinating with the upper body to turn into a powerful takedown. What appears to be a straightforward attack, the skipping kick, has within it an ambush, the hidden takedown that the opponent charges directly into it.
In the midst of the set, the creator changes themes, however. Suddenly turning, to face the rear, the practitioner executes what appears to be a series of six strikes one after the other. While doing so the feet drive rapidly forward; covering an incredible distance in a second. What is being seen is what is called the Coy Ma Saam Sao or “Hidden Horse Three Hands”. This series is what is considered the “Emergency Techniques” of the style. Manuals written about this set say that you are surrounded by enemies and you must fight in more than one direction.
Sifu Brendan Lai once told us a story about how he used this series in a sparring match. Sifu Lai’s teacher, Wong Hanfun, often had sparring sessions on top of his building. During one, he had his more senior students go against junior students. Sifu Lai was one of the juniors and was paired against a senior who was renowned for his kicking ability. Known as “Ghost Kicker” he was one of the most feared opponents in the school. Sifu Lai, then a youth, went up to Ghost Kicker and said, “Si Hing, (Senior Kung-Fu Brother), please go easy on me”. Ghost Kicker agreed not to hurt him.
When they saluted and began, Sifu Lai suddenly charged at Ghost Kicker as fast as he could, executing the Emergency Techniques. Though forced back by the speed and aggressiveness of the attack, Ghost Kicker recognized the technique and managed to escape.
After such treachery, Sifu Lai knew there would be no mercy. Ghost Kicker drove young Sifu Lai back with a rapid-fire series of kicks and punches. Sifu Lai had no idea where on the roof he was so, when he hit the edge of the roof, he was totally unprepared. He tripped, falling backwards over the edge of the roof. The roof was on the sixth floor of the building; falling meant death.
Suddenly his fall was stopped. Other students, quickly reacting, grabbed Sifu Lai by his arms, legs and torso and drug him back to safety. The match was declared over and Ghost Kicker was declared the winner.
Many of the techniques of Chop Choi, have actually been a part of Mantis Kung-Fu from the beginning. However, this is not known by many today. As mentioned above, Chop Choi was based on an earlier set. The techniques of this earlier set were included at the creation of the Mantis style. It was called the “Long Fist Thirty-Two Posture Set”. Years later, it was Mantis practitioner and Long Fist master, Wang Rongsheng (1854-1926, thank you, Brendan Tunks for the dates) who actually created the set and included it in the style.
Below is a video of my teacher, Sifu Brendan Lai, performing Chop Choi Kuen at 1:33.
After we have the original Thirty-Two Posture Form as it is done today.
Here is Mantis Master Yu Tian Lu of Qixing Tanglang Quan, (Seven Star Mantis) performing the same set:
To be sure, over the centuries, there has been drift and change in the set. But, if you look closely, you can see that much remains the same, across schools of Mantis and even in its resemblance to its Long Fist ancestor. It is with this sense of being a part of a long and storied tradition, that we perform this set today.