Seven Star Praying Mantis with Brendan Tunks

A good friend of mine, Brendan Tunks, is one of the leading teachers of Seven Star Praying Mantis in the western world. I caught up with him recently for a chat about his martial arts training, and his thoughts on Seven Star Praying Mantis and martial arts in general. Brendan runs a school in Canberra, Australia. You can find out more at his site here http://www.mantisboxing.com. You may also like my interview with Thomas Holtmann.

To start with, can you tell us a bit about your martial arts background?

I started judo in year 3 at primary school. Although my older brother and sister had studied some judo/jujitsu in the 70s, my parents weren’t too keen on me learning martial arts. Luckily my friend’s uncle ran the school, so I was able to attend without paying fees which made it hard for them to disagree. I stuck it out through primary school but stopped training when the club changed hands. I soon learned that I needed to learn striking and improve my overall conditioning. So I took up Goshin-Ryu Karate, an offshoot of Shotokan, at a school that soon after switched to Shobu-Kai, an offshoot of Shito-Ryu founded by Sadaharu Fujimoto. It was a good school with excellent teachers and regular hard sparring. I trained Karate all through high school, grading to purple belt.

Although starting with Japanese styles, I had always wanted to study Chinese martial arts since a young age. I was obsessed with the story ‘Journey to the West’ (西遊記), beginning with the Japanese TV series ‘Monkey’, which aired in Australia in 1981, and then seeing the Beijing Opera ‘Havoc in Heaven ‘ (Da Nao Tian Gong, 大鬧天宮) performed by a visiting troupe from the PRC that same year. I was blown away, particularly with the weapon sparring, but also overall skill of the performers. I kept my eye out for a decent gongfu teacher ever since but did not get the opportunity until around 86, when I was lucky enough to learn some fundamentals of Wing Chun from a student of William Cheung. The same year, whilst still training karate I started training Long Fist.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I started to train intensively in ‘real’ TCMA, primarily studying Tantui (with elements of Xinyi and various other internal styles) under a master from Shanghai. I studied with him for a couple of years until it was eventually suggested that I ‘find something more suitable’, as I regularly turned up to training with black eyes, cuts, broken nose or hands from weekend adventures.

Over the years, apart from Tanglang I‘ve trained in sanda (military and sport), qinna, Monkey Boxing, freestyle wrestling etc. I’ve also been involved in kickboxing to some extent since the late 80’s.

 

What prompted you to start with Mantis?

I first trained Chang Quan because it was one of the only things around at the time, but left when I
started fighting competitively. After a couple of fights, I started training Tan Tui etc. A couple of years later I went back to Long Fist in order to keep in shape and also to train alongside my bro David (Mac) Cuthbert until something better came up.

There was a little tank of a Chinese guy, Wang Xiaohua (Hua), who led all of the drills in the wushu academy. Mac and I couldn’t understand why every single one of his movements had a very distinct non-Long Fist flavour. It seemed to us as if he was permanently locked into the mechanics of some other style. One night in 1992 at the end of training we found him practicing on his own outside. He was blazing through Zhaiyao at lightning speed and with obvious power. I recognised the style and I asked him straight away if it was Mantis Boxing. He was a little surprised but answered that it was the Seven Star Mantis of Grandmaster Li Zhanyuan of Qingdao, Shandong. I asked if we could learn it from him. To our surprise, without hesitation he said ‘no worries, we can start tomorrow morning at 6.30am’ and then gave us his address. That was it. No kneeling before the temple gates for six months etc.. The following morning Mac, another classmate Ki and I turned up to the park beside Hua’s block of flats and completed our first 3 hour session. It was strenuous and extremely challenging – more so than anything I had ever experienced and I became terminally infected with the Tanglang disease on that day.

To his credit, Mac is also still going strong 25 years later.

 

How did you end up going to China? What was your experience there?

I trained solidly with Hua for the next five years. By that time he had taught me the majority of his
material and suggested that I go to China to continue my training. I had always wanted to do so, particularly since visiting in 94, where I attended Hua’s wedding, trained in Hangzhou and also travelled to Shaolin Temple. I didn’t have time to go to Shandong on that trip and a planned televised sanda fight between me and a Zhejiang heavyweight champion fell through in 1995, so Hua advised that going directly to Qingdao to train directly with his family would be the best way forward. Unfortunately, he had lost contact with Li Zhanyuan after migrating to Australia in the late 80s and was unaware that he had recently passed away. He wrote me a formal letter of introduction to the late master Li asking that he consider taking me as his student and gave me a couple of potentially viable contact details in order to track him down and off I went with basic mandarin skills and future wife in tow, with the intention of a year of full-time training in Qingdao.

The first couple of weeks in Qingdao were pure drama. Hua’s first teacher was a Taiji Tanglang master who trained under, among others, Wang Yushan. That master, who has now passed away, was one of the only contacts I initially had. He worked at the same University where I was staying and knew I was seeking Li Zhanyuan or his descendants. Without consulting me he decided to bring one of China’s most famous Tanglang masters to Qingdao from another city, with a view to returning with me to study at his academy full-time for a year. Of course this would cost me several thousand US dollars, but at the end I would be a fully certified official representative, and then of course bring him out to Australia to conduct seminars etc. – none of which I was the least bit interested in. Anyway, after a very expensive and frustrating three hour banquet in which time both masters proceeded to bad mouth not only Li Zhanyuan, but also my own teacher and Qixing Tanglang in general, I told them both where they could stick their proposal.

To cut a long story short I was threatened with arrest and deportation if I didn’t agree but I declined and eventually got in touch with Hua’s ‘uncle’ Chen Suotian of the Taidong Veteran’s Athletic Association, who had originally introduced him to Li Zhanyuan. He was a good friend of former Shandong and National Team member and coach Li Qiming, who advised Chen to introduce me to Kang Zhiqiang. Kang was a senior disciple of Li Zhanyuan, commencing under him in the 1950’s. After introduction I undertook a full examination on the spot, which included Kang reviewing everything I knew, plus basically throwing a bunch of random attacks at me to see how I would respond. He kindly agreed to teach me out of respect for his late master and also his brother in Australia. I started training the next morning.

The first session was 6 hours and I threw up several times. He was the hardest teacher I ever had and I had never experienced that level of intensity. To top it off, after the first session he and Li Qiming took me for ‘real training’ – a six hour banquet/drinking marathon. Kang ended up calling the two masters that evening to let them know that I was now with him and then threatened to kill them for good measure.

 

When we met up in Australia recently, I really enjoyed watching your class. You have a good no-nonsense teaching style. Is this attributed to your own teacher?

My first teacher Wang Xiaohua was definitely the no nonsense type. He was (and still is) very direct and honest and refrained from inflating students’ ego via excessive praise. You could either do something correctly or not. Often you simply couldn’t. Bad luck! Either train harder and fix the problem or forget about it.

Kang Zhiqiang was on the extreme end of the spectrum.  He would demonstrate and explain new techniques meticulously but you really needed to pay close attention because you would get only a limited number of chances. Generally he would demonstrate and explain something a maximum of three times. You could attempt it and he would correct you a couple of times – but after that, you missed the boat. No more demonstrations and no more questions. That approach meant that you really had to pay attention and make sure you got it right and drilled it hard. In fact in my final year training with him before he died in 2002 he yelled at me one day ‘you always do that f*cking movement wrong!’ I was really surprised as it was a key technique that I’d done thousands of times and I had no idea it was wrong. By that stage we were much closer and I felt comfortable enough to ask why he’d never corrected it. His answer – ‘I already told you in 1997’.

My other teachers, Li Qiming and Li Qiyu had a different approach altogether, both lifelong elite level athletes and professional coaches. I would hope that my teaching style is a synthesis of all of the above approaches. As far as the way I treat my students, it’s definitely not the way I was taught. I attempt to deliver everything I’ve learned in a manner that is easily absorbed and understood by Westerners. Whether or not anyone is actually interested in learning is another matter altogether…

 

Regarding teaching style/training, what do you think is the biggest reason a lot of people who train CMA can’t use it? What are your suggestions to people who want to be able to use what they learn?

Firstly, not everyone who trains CMA wants to be able to fight and therefore doesn’t care that they can’t ‘use it’. CMA for them is about other things. Secondly there are those that can’t really use it to fight but believe that they can. They will either never find out because they will never be tested and will quite happily go on believing they can use it, or they will find out the hard way and either seek a solution or quit martial arts. There are also those that train hard, love the art and would like to be able to apply but don’t possess the tools.

The teacher is far more at fault than the deluded student. He either knowingly passes on poor, ineffective material (usually driven by financial gain), allowing the deluded student to feel a false sense of security, or attempts to pass on ‘legitimate’ material but does so in an incompetent manner. No surprise, as he is usually himself just a self-graduated, former deluded student. On top of that, there are also many styles of CMA that have become useless/borderline useless for combat, and also many techniques and strategies from otherwise legitimate schools of CMA that are also useless. There’s actually no problem with that, as long as we acknowledge it and understand these things for what they are. Another contributing factor is the culture that tolerates, or worse still encourages the perpetuation of the fraud – i.e. there are large pockets in each country where the fantasy of combat effectiveness is fostered and protected.

As far as my suggestions – firstly when it comes to real combat, as much as I hate to say it, you are either born to fight or you’re not. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to fight, just that the path will be much longer and more difficult. You can’t teach courage (though you can develop it) and you need courage to be able to fight. So you need to ask yourself why you want to/need to fight in the first place. If you really want to ‘learn’ to fight, you should assess why it needs to be a CMA. If you choose a particular style of CMA based on its reputation for fighting effectiveness, first you should try to objectively examine any available supporting evidence.

You need to find a decent teacher with a good reputation and train as often and as hard as possible. You also need to be in optimal condition. Some CMA people say you don’t need strength or physical conditioning, but should be ‘soft as a feather, yielding as a reed in the wind’ etc. – they are the ones who can’t teach you to fight, so avoid them. Most importantly you need to practice agonistically – i.e. with a non-compliant partner that is attempting to beat you. You need to do this regularly and at a high enough intensity that some risk of injury is present each time. You also need to learn tolerate hard strikes to the head and face with composure. Many CMA practitioners learn to tolerate hard contact to the body but unfortunately remove the head from the equation.

Other than that, in order to be able to fight you need to fight. In my opinion, the safest way to do that is in the ring. It’s not for everyone though and you can certainly still be competent without it, but I encourage anyone young and fit enough to push themselves to try.

Train hard, train often, test, assess, adjust and repeat. It’s not rocket science.

 

Why choose CMA at all? What value do you think it has over other systems? 

I believe the majority of systems can be useful if the practitioner puts in the work. No one system or style has it all, or is superior to all others; however some are clearly the best in their field of specialty (e.g. BJJ in ground fighting). CMA is so diverse that I can’t safely make a blanket statement about its qualities or value over other systems. However, like other traditional martial arts, CMA generally has a lot of depth. There’s more to them than just fighting – though that certainly is the base intent. Most Chinese styles contain enough material (technical, theoretical, cultural, historical etc.) to keep you occupied for a whole lifetime. They are multifaceted, complex and painstaking to master. The decision to select a CMA over any other martial art should be based on an understanding of the above.

At its most simple, most types of CMA generally encompass all forms of striking, grappling, locking and throwing and the use of various weapons. Their main deficit is ground fighting – i.e. grappling on the ground, as opposed to the Chinese concept of ground fighting, which deals with falling methods and attacking a standing opponent from the ground.

 

If you do a simple YouTube search of Mantis, a lot of absolute shit comes up. Where do you think people went wrong, and why is authentic Mantis so hard to come across?

There is a lot of shit out there for sure. Of course I do judge, though I generally keep it to myself. What’s good or bad is highly subjective, though lack of gongfu is blatantly obvious. YouTube has allowed thousands of Tanglang fans to share their material with the world and  amongst all the shit are some diamonds and I’m very appreciative of that.  Although I’m generally reluctant to criticise, I don’t avoid it when it comes to those peddling bullshit ‘fusion’, or worse still, completely fabricated Mantis styles and staining the reputation of our art.

As far as ‘authentic’ Mantis, that’s a whole other kettle of cicadas. One thing I don’t believe in is orthodoxy, so to me, any claims of orthodoxy do not equal authenticity. If authentic Tanglang is any style of Mantis Boxing that is largely based on the tenets set down and curriculum formulated in the major schools by the end of the republic era – then there is certainly authentic Tanglang out there. It’s just that there’s plenty of inauthentic people teaching and practicing. Regardless, there are also plenty of real deal practitioners out there, but in many cases, they avoid the spotlight (internet included) or just go unnoticed.

 

You have fought competitively, how do you think your Mantis helped with that?

I could already fight before I studied Tanglang. Back when I was studying Long Fist in the 80s I wanted to test myself in the ring but the school couldn’t train me to fight. I entered my first kickboxing competition in 1988 in the super flyweight category (weighing in at 48kg) entirely self-trained. My brother Lee, a former Okinawan Goju-Ryu full-contact national champion, flew from hours away to corner me in my first fight and he was pissed off that it was over in 33 seconds. I kicked my opponent so hard in the guts that he threw up in the ring and was unable to continue. I fought on the same promotion the following year, again without a coach or team. After those first couple of WKA kickboxing fights, I had a few more in the early 90s under ‘oriental’ rules, the forerunner of modified Thai rules in Australia (kicks, punches and knees, no throws or rear leg sweeps) and also in freestyle kung-fu, which was basically the equivalent to sanda, minus headgear and chest protection and leitai (platform).

It wasn’t until the Qingdao International Wushu Championships in 1999 that I got the chance to officially test Tanglang in competition. By that time I was already 27 and hadn’t competed in a sanctioned bout in years. It was the first Tanglang Sanda Championships of the modern era and the organisers tried their best to develop an appropriate ruleset. In truth it was a bit of a disaster. They wanted to allow thrusting and slashing finger attacks to the eyes so they gave us soccer goalkeeper’s gloves and added a protective cage consisting of three or four steel bars to the front of boxing headgear. The result was that you couldn’t see unless you tilted your head forward at a ridiculous angle. Of course, not a single eye poke was attempted that day and every fighter that was punched straight in the eye guard had their nose crushed by the grill.

It was fun, although I ended up fighting a martial brother who had watched me prepare each day in the lead up without me knowing we had been preselected to fight each other. I attempted to employ combat strategy and techniques of Mantis Boxing. However, it quickly escalated into a wild brawl after my opponent got me with the old ‘hey brother, let’s just take it easy out there and have some fun’ and then immediately proceeded to try to take my head off. I dropped him in the 1st round as he was backpedalling and soccer kicked him across the chest/neck as he attempted to kick me from the ground. Kicks to grounded opponents were supposedly allowed but I was penalised and the fight was eventually awarded in his favour, even though I bashed him for the entire bout. I was disappointed but not surprised, as earlier one of the Chinese fighters who literally had his face smashed in with punches was also declared the winner.

The main thing was that my opponent’s face swelled up like a balloon and he couldn’t walk for a couple of days from my leg kicks, which was enough for me and my teachers – who particularly enjoyed the ground kick. So, although my Mantis Boxing didn’t assist me to put on a beautiful technical showcase, it definitely didn’t let me down when it came to hanging in the brawl and causing damage.

 

Usually, people either love forms, or love fighting. But you seem to be equally enthusiastic about both. What do you think the real value forms is? How should forms be trained, used and understood?

I definitely like fighting more than forms, but I do appreciate taolu as unique and vital tools of TCMA. They are valuable in transmitting the principles and tactics of a style, not to mention their most obvious function as a catalogue of techniques. They can help to develop and lock in the stylistic flavours and all contributing components (such as bu fa, shen fa, shou fa, various types of jing etc) that make each style unique. As practitioners of TCMA it’s our obligation to learn at least the core taolu of our style, and it is the duty of anyone transmitting the style to pass on all/as many of them as possible in the interests of preservation.

In my understanding forms should be ‘trained’ particularly in the elementary or growth phase of training. Later, they should be practiced less frequently, rather, taken like doses of medicine for upkeep/conditioning. Unfortunately TCMA went nuts over taolu from the Republic era onwards (and not only in China) so they eventually came to occupy a disproportionate component of training. In my own school the pyramid is flipped and taolu makes up the lowest proportion.

One of the things that make TCMA so unattractive for many people these days is the lack of a one-to-one relationship between forms and fighting. Any link is largely intangible and in my opinion its best we don’t try to play it up. Forms instil characteristics that can inform fighting but only fighting can develop fighting skills.

 

What’s your favourite form and why?

Zhaiyao Yi Lu – though there are a couple of close competitors. I also love Lanjie/Luanjie and Tou Tao, plus Cha Chui is seared into my brain as I’ve practiced it endlessly since it was the form that was prescribed to me to reprogram my body for Qixing Tanglang. Zhaiyao was the form that most helped to develop my bu fa and shen fa and it contains many practical and aggressive combinations. Personally I find that it has a lower proportion of overly complex or unrealistic techniques, plus is physically demanding to perform correctly. There are valuable techniques and principles in every form – though some have a lower proportion than others.

 

Traditionally, your lineage and mine have had a bitter rivalry, including some deaths. What are your thoughts on that?

To be honest, I think it’s largely bullshit. A lot of it is the martial equivalent of urban legends, which have snowballed over the past hundred years or less. Some of it can be attributed to jealousy over periods of percieved dominance throughout various periods – e.g. Qixing has always been closely tied to the Qing Bang (Green Gang) and enjoyed a lot of influence on the mainland from the Republic era up until 1949, thereafter the tables turned. Whilst Meihua/Taiji eventually rose to prominence in China, Qixing went on to be the most widespread/popular outside of China (except in Taiwan and Vietnam).

The rivalry is real, but it’s nothing compared to the intra-family rivalries, which are generally worse. There has definitely been some violence, but as far as death –  I don’t think there has been a verifiable case. Even the most oft-cited incident, Yang Weixin, killing two alleged Meihua Tanglang challengers, cannot be verified. People apparently died, as he spent time in jail as a result (though personally I haven’t seen any records) – but what evidence is there that they were Meihua? What were their names? Which school did they come from? Who did they study under? No one seems to know, and it’s not something that would readily be forgotten. On top of that, Yang Weixin actually had good relationships with Meihua Tanglang people both before and after this was supposed to have occurred. His descendants also did, particularly in Shanghai, where the factionalism seemed to be relatively absent. In truth I think the rivalry became blown out of proportion in fairly recent times – more likely, the last few generations. Even within that time most of it has been nothing more than talking behind the back and competitive trash talk. The two families are a lot closer than most people would imagine or would like.

 

At the same time there has been a lot of interaction between the two. Can you share any stories or anecdotes?

They are inextricably intertwined, even since the so-called split – which wasn’t even a clean cut division in the first place.

It was/is really just about branding and even the brand names have been interchangeable in some instances – e.g. Li Kunshan registered his school as Qixing Tanglang in Taiwan. Wang Songting also used the name Qixing, though what he taught was predominantly Meihua. On top of that, a great number of masters trained in both major schools (I’m grouping Meihua, Taiji and Taijimeihua together here for convenience), though their descendants usually retrospectively sweep that fact under the rug for propaganda purposes. For example, Ji Chunting first trained Qixing under Fan Xudong, Yang Weixin trained Meihua and most likely also Xiao Shubin and Luo Guangyu. And then you had the high incidence of ‘brotherly exchange’ throughout history, which is most cases was really nothing more than a face saving way to portray the incorporation of material from outside one’s own family. Whether or not sworn brothers actually taught each other, such relationships were quite common – for example, Wang Yunsheng and Jiang Hualong, Wang Yunsheng and Hao Lianru, Luo Guangyu and Wang Songting, Cui Shoushan and Lin Jingshan, Xiao Shubin and Liu Duoshan, Wang Yunpeng and Wang Yushan, Li Zhanyuan and He Shikan, Li Zhanyuan and Hao Bin – the list goes on.

 

You also know a fair bit of Hao Jia and Wang Yu Shan branch Taiji Mantis. How do you integrate this material into your Qixing?

I know a little Taiji Tanglang, a fair bit more Taijimeihua and even some Liuhe. Over the years I have had the good fortune to learn a little from many masters. My teacher Kang had many close friends from other families and would occasionally bring guest masters to teach me. Like me, he didn’t care whether it was Qixing or Meihua as long as it was good Tanglang. In addition, a lot of what I have studied under the Li brothers (Qiming and Qiyu) has been from Meihua/Taijimeihua. Technically I don’t really integrate it into my Qixing. If I knowingly pass on anything from those families, I pass it on as what it is. I do however incorporate it into my Tanglang. When I fight, I use whatever is at my disposal and make no distinction where it comes from.

As far as how I perform or apply what I have learned from these other families, there is no doubt that I do it with Qixing flavour. I don’t do it intentionally or out of disrespect, just that I’m well and truly ‘cooked’ and Qixing to the bone.

 

Ok, so final question. What do you think are the major differences between the various lineages? (both form/movement wise and strategy/application wise)

I think when you take forms out of the equation and remove peculiarities of shen fa (which again, really primarily manifest in performance of taolu) the differences are negligible. Sure, there are different types of ‘jing’, or specialised stepping methods etc. favoured by different families, but these variations are even present within families and are more dictated by lineage. In regards to flavour, a lot of it is actually regional rather than familial – largely a result of above mentioned cross-pollination and the influence of dominant or popular styles. Application-wise, there is very little difference at all. Give or take a small number of techniques, there is nothing that one family has that the others don’t. The most important techniques are shared by each family and all of these pre-date any split. In addition, stereotypical characteristics attributed to each clan are rather inaccurate, e.g. Meihua/Taiji doesn’t have a monopoly on close quarter combat, just as Qixing doesn’t on long range.

So, apart from the way someone moves and their particular strategic preferences being markers of their descent, essentially Tanglang is Tanglang. Having said that, family markers are kind of like gang signs or colours that let others know what set you’re from and promote your particular clan. Although I’m largely concerned with greater Tanglang, I recognise these markers as treasures that should be preserved and maintained.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!