Taiji Mantis Master Zhou Zhen Dong

 Master Zhou Zhen Dong (周振东) is the inheritor of the skills of Zhang Kai Tang (张楷堂), who studied with two mantis greats; Taiji mantis (太极螳螂拳) with Cui Shou Shan (催寿山) and Hao family meihua mantis (郝家梅花螳螂拳) with Hao Heng Lu (郝恒碌).

A second interview I did with him can be read at Study Martial Arts.

Master Zhou was a closed door disciple of his master and learnt in secret during the cultural revolution. Now with China’s open door policy he is enjoying success as one of the “10 great masters of Yantai” and “10 famous kung fu schools of Yantai”.

After training one morning, I invited Master Zhou to my apartment to find out more about about his experiences and about his master.


 Master Zhou, please could you tell us how you came to practice Mantis…..

In fact, in the beginning I was young and didn’t really understand what mantis is. My first teacher was called Yu Zhi Ru (于枝如) and he taught me Meihua Mantis. I studied for three years, learning three forms: Bai Yuan Chu Dong (白猿出洞 white ape exits cave), Bai Yuan Kui Yuan (白猿窥园 white ape spies the orchard) and Bai Yuan Tou Tao (白猿偷桃 white ape steals peaches), as well as a spear form which I never finished. These three forms are a set of forms mixing mantis and monkey styles which tells a little story. Later my master became too old and decided to teach me Chinese medicine instead, such as pulse reading and the theory such as meridians etc. To be honest, I was too young and couldn’t really understand it, but my master was sick and needed me to look after him.

In the late 1950s after he died, I met Zhang Kai Tang (pictured to the left, teaching Zhou Zhen Dong, circa 1970’s). My older sister was dating his son, and I found out this old guy knew some kung fu, at the same time he heard I knew some, so we met up. He asked me to show him what I learnt, so I performed the form Bai Yuan Tou Tao. He just looked at me, and didn’t say anything. I couldn’t believe it, normally people told me my kung fu was really good, I was even teaching the class for my first shifu before he passed! What the hell could this old guy know! He just shook his head at me. Anyway, he agreed to teach me and said I will learn Taiji Mantis. I didnt know what that meant, but he taught me the form Beng Bu.

So how was the new training, was it very different?

I remember thinking how hard it was, the movements were so complicated, using my whole body to generate power; it was really tough. Before I was just using my arms to move; now I had to completely retrain my body.

But I understand Master Zhang also taught you meihua mantis…..

Yes, after I finished bengbu, shifu said “ok, now I will teach you some meihua mantis.”

I asked “what’s the difference?”

“Meihua tanglang (plum blossom mantis) is what I learnt from master Hao, Taiji tanglang (supreme ultimate mantis) is what I learnt from master Cui.”

I still didnt exactly understand, but I did as I was told, and spent two years learning a series of forms called Chuan Zhi. This series is in four parts, and later I learnt it is the cream of Master Hao Lian Rus (郝莲如) experience and knowledge. He had learnt Shaolin Luohan Quan, monkey style and hua hui men, which is a style women used where they put metal claws on their fingers. Master Hao later trained with the son of Liang Xue Xiang (梁学香) while living in Beijing, and they exchanged ideas. Later, Master Hao took the mantis he learnt from him and combined it with his previous knowledge to create the Hao family mantis. My shifu, Zhang Kai Tang learnt from Hao Heng Lu (pictured to the right circa 1920s) and Hao Heng Xin, sons of Hao Lian Ru. Only those who trained for a very long time learnt Chuan Zhi (穿枝), so even among the Hao family now has it been lost.

Later, shifu taught me Taiji mantis, which he said he learnt from Cui Shou Shan (pictured to the left). Master Cui’s lineage is very direct from the source; he learnt from Song Zi De (宋子德), who learnt from Jiang Hua Long (姜华龙), who learnt from Liang Xue Xiang and back. Master Cui was one of the top three students of Song Zi De, the other two being Li Kun Shan (李昆山) and Wang Yu Shan (王玉山). Together they were called Laiyang San Shan (three mountains of Laiyang). After completing his training with master Hao, my shifu invited master Cui to live in his house and teach him every day for six years. This made the Hao family very angry, as Hao Heng Lu gave all his knowledge to my shifu and now he went off with another master. They had a meeting and my shifu said he learnt everything; he must keep studying to get a higher level.

Shifu, I understand you continued your training into the Cultural Revolution, was that possible? Didn’t people get persecuted for that?

Actually my master was a quiet man. He didn’t participate in public events or political groups, so he avoided persecution. Other masters however were persecuted severely and often sent to the countryside to do forced labour (seen to the right). I used to visit my master after he finished work on the weekends and we would train in the darkness of night, making sure nobody watched out the windows. Then, I would go away and train by myself in a quiet place in the hills to avoid being seen.

My master only taught four people at that time: his two sons, me and another guy who was the son of my masters close friend. I used to spar with him a lot, one time we sparred all through masters house and even continued out into the courtyard and the chicken coop. All the chickens flapped around and went everywhere! Master just cheered us; he thought it was funny as hell!

Later my shifu invited me to train in his house every day. One night I was outside practicing while my master and his sons were eating dinner. Shifu said to his sons “listen to him training, just from the sound you can hear his kung fu is good, the two of you should be ashamed, you’re too lazy!”

Before you mentioned to me your master learnt iron palm (铁砂掌 tie sha zhang), can you tell us about that

Yes, he learnt that from Master Hao for six years. Many people practice incorrectly and injure their hands, getting arthritis or deformities in their fingers, but my master used a special medicine made from tiger bones, eagle talons and special herbs soaked in alcohol. After warming the solution, he would soak his hands in it, and then thrust his hands into a huge urn of iron ball bearings using different strikes and grabs. It was said Master Hao would soak his hands in poison before fights, so when the opponent drew blood from a hard hit, it would get infected and swell up. Also, Master Hao could strike matches on his hands!

Thank you for sharing your exeriences with us, Master Zhou