An introduction To The Beautiful Art of Wing Chun Gong Fu
A series of exclusive articles writen by Sifu Danny Xuan
Spring is a powerful time of the year. Massive ice and snow melt under her gentle rule. Flowers bloom, animals enliven, and birds return from the south. This is the time of the year when many life forms begin. It is considered the most beautiful of the four seasons.
Spring Recital, "Wing Chun" was the name that was bestowed upon a frail and beautiful girl in China, by her father, about three hundred fifty years ago. Little did he know that she would ironically live up to everything her name represented. Even more, her name would live on to this day. If you have not heard of Wing Chun, it is because she was the best kept secret until recently. Probably, it is also because you are not a martial arts enthusiast. If you are one and have not heard her name before, then you have not reached this high level of artistry. You have not searched and found the ultimate "Truth".
Before you pass this off as so much nonsense, just consider this: Would you bother learning martial arts or self-defense forms in order to combat someone you know you can defeat, someone who is smaller, weaker and handicapped? Of course not! Why bother with the time and effort. You would only want to learn it to combat someone who you feel you are handicapped against because of his size, physical strength, and/or his skills at some form of pugilism. In other words, you would want to use scientific and technical means to overcome the physical disadvantage you have against your opponent. What could be better than learning a combat form, proven effective, and developed by a woman, the "weaker" sex.
Men with a macho attitude discard the thought of learning a woman's form of fighting. They go to the school of hard knocks and end up where they started, being bounced around by bigger guys. In return, they get their ego boosted by pounding the smaller guys.
In the study of Chinese medicine and Taoism, it is the female form (Yin) that is the stronger of the two. Water puts out Fire. Dark colors overcome light ones. Women triumph over men (a controversial debate). Wing Chun takes into account that you are smaller than your opponent. You learn to apply his force, weight, and attack against himself. You learn to utilize nature's force, your weight, and strength to the maximum. You immobilize him knowing all his anatomical weak points. You take control of the combative situation by becoming him. You will thus know all his moves, like a female ballroom dancer and disrupt his lead at anytime, according to your whim.
Chinese history dates back to 5000 BC. It tells the story of a very learned, yet warring society. For its own security, it created a very secretive society. Wing Chun was kept secret amongst a tightly knitted family and shared only with a handful of non-family members. It went public only after the Second World War. Even so, it was limited to the Chinese. In the 70's, it became known that Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and movie star, had come from a Wing Chun school. It was the one and only formal martial art training he had taken. (He learned pieces of other styles from his friends and research, and developed a style he named, Jeet Kune Do.) Only the super enthusiastic (and fanatic) martial arts students know this. There was a big stir about Wing Chun amongst these enthusiasts. Frantic searches for Wing Chun schools for many came to a dead end when none were found in their cities. Many who found and joined them dropped out when they saw something quite different from Bruce Lee's spectacular, made-for-movie performance. When the hype settled, it was the hardcore, deep searching martial artists who discovered the truth about Wing Chun.
In this decade, there is a resurgence of martial arts popularity. With Chinese Martial Arts movies populating the American silver screen, people have started joining pugilistic schools again. Brandon Lee, the late son of Bruce Lee, displayed his Jeet Kune Do/Wing Chun skills beautifully in the movie, Rapid Fire. The movie, Dragon, based on the story of Bruce Lee, exposed Wing Chun to the public. Jackie Chan's movie, Gorgeous, showed his moves on the Wing Chun wooden dummy. With all the exposure Wing Chun got from these movies, there came about an influx of students to the Wing Chun schools. Unfortunately, just as many unqualified Wing Chun schools popped up to take advantage of the trend.
Wing Chun is an easy form of martial art to learn to enable practical use in a short time, but a hard one to master. The English language is a good analogy. One can learn it quickly and use it to converse but it is difficult to master. You can go anywhere in the world and find vendors who speak English ... broken it may be, but communicable and comprehensible, although they have never taken a formal course. On the other hand, you will have those born with English as their first language, who have graduated from Universities, who are unable to master the English language. One would have to major in it to come close to mastering.
There are only a few masters of Wing Chun. There are too many wannabes. This is evident in the martial arts books and magazines out there. In the early years, there were hardly any articles on Wing Chun. Today, it is filled with them. Not only articles, but advertisements galore!
Although I don't have all the answers to Wing Chun, I have decided to write about it so those searching for the truth can see Wing Chun in the light I have come to discover. Truth is relative. What makes sense to your honest self (mind and soul) is what truth is for you. If it works for you, then it is your truth.
Who is best suited to learn Wing Chun? Although ideally suited for women and children, men, however, outnumber them when it comes to Wing Chun membership. Women and children learn it quickly because of their gentleness, softness, and yielding way. Men find it hard to shed their brute strength and aggressiveness. Men learn it because they are fond of pugilism. Women do not because of their dislike for violence. Often men learn it wrongly. They use their brawn instead of brain. Instead of adapting to the form, they adapt the form to them. Ironically, the form is closest to nature. Men move away from it when they go into adolescence. Women and children do not need to adapt, as they are closest to nature. In actuality, men do not need to "adapt" either, but need to shed away the shell that is covering their true nature. Although children are the best learners (as with learning languages), they lack the patience and understanding of the complexities of the Wing Chun principles. The training methods are too mundane and non-physical for them. I would recommend youths over 13 to commence Wing Chun training. Girls and women over this age are the best learners and performers of Wing Chun, particularly those who have taken up another form of martial arts; they would appreciate the complexity and superiority of this form. Adult men find it most to difficult to learn and master Wing Chun, especially those who have taken a hard form of pugilism previously. Although they would appreciate and marvel at the superiority of Wing Chun, they would find it hard to deprogram their past training. It is not impossible though; I was one of them. Adults who have no past experiences in martial arts have the advantage of learning Wing Chun from a clean start. The drawback is that they have no practical experience as the converts do and do not appreciate the subtleties and beauty of Wing Chun. All said ... to answer the first question, my experience tells me that whoever, whatever sex or age, desiring to learn, is suited for Wing Chun and can be master of it when he or she puts his/her mind, heart and time into it.
Gongfu, or Kungfu, is a misnomer given to all forms of Chinese martial arts. When the Western world was introduced to Asian martial arts, someone coined the Chinese styles as Kungfu, after hearing it spoken repeatedly by Chinese martial artists. The term actually means "skill," "power" or "ability." When someone performs an act of great skill, power, or ability, they are often praised with the expression "Hao (great) Gongfu!" The expression is not only used in the martial arts circle but for every form of skills, from culinary to computer programming. The actual Chinese word for martial arts is "wushu". Today, China uses this term for one of the fighting forms. The common terms for pugilism in the past and still used today is "Quan" (Chuan) or Quanfa (Chuanfa), meaning, "fists" or "the way of the fists". So much so was the term "Kungfu" popularized by the Western world, that the overseas Chinese community accepted it to represent their form of martial arts. They used it to advertise their schools.
The origins of Gongfu is debatable. Some scholars claim it originated from India while some say it was formed in China. The truth of the matter is, every country ... for that matter, regions in countries, had developed some form of open-hand fighting style of their own. This is indisputable, as war and fighting have been part of human since the history of time. However, one point the martial arts scholars agree on, is that modern martial arts rooted from China. For example, the founder of Japanese Karate, Funakoshi Gichin, first learned the "Chinese Hand" when it was introduced to Okinawa. He later incorporated the indigenous fighting techniques and renamed it "Open Hand". Although both names, when transliterated into English, read "Karate", the original Japanese character "kara" meant "Chinese". Sensai Gichin changed the character (although sounding the same) to mean "Empty". Taekwondo, on the other hand, is a spin off of Karate. General Choi, the founder of modern Taekwondo, acquired his black belt in Karate, in Japan, before incorporating the existing Korean fighting style into one of the most popular sport and self defense art.
Pugilistic scholars believe that martial arts had reached the highest level of art in a temple called Shaolin. It is widely believed that the temple began during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when China flourished economically, militarily, artistically, literally and culturally. The Emperors gave free reins and support not only to the economists, the military and the educators, but to the martial artists as well. The Taoists and the Buddhists explored the mysteries of nature and man, particularly his mind, body and soul. The Shaolin Temple became well known for its researches and excellence in this department.
The study of mind and soul was the main study at the Shaolin Temple. Through it came the art of meditation and Qigong. The term Qi (Chi) in Chinese is a generic term for air and breath in a simple sense. In a broader sense, it means energy, electrons, atom, oxygen, nutrients, natural chemistry, white corpuscle, red corpuscle and more. Basically, it represents all that is within nature and the human body. Qigong, therefore would mean, nature's power, kinetic power and so forth. Abbots and masters of Qigong were known to defy the laws of nature, as we know it, enabling them to leap incredible heights and distances; to move objects with their mind, and cast explosive energy at a distance.
Later, the study of Qigong was divided into Waigong (external energy) and Neigong (inner energy). Much of the Qigong training put a trainer in either a sitting or standing position. The young monks were impatient and were poor learners. The abbots then decided that some kind of physical training needed to be incorporated into the Qigong training for the young and restless. Thus, the "gongfu" forms were born.
The Shaolin Temple came to demise during China's last Dynasty, the Qing (Ching). The Qings came from Manchuria and conquered the Chinese (Ming Dynasty) then ruled the country from 1644 to 1912. During their rule, the "Han" Chinese of previous dynasties fought underground to try to oust them. The Qing rulers forbade the Hans to carry weapons. Common household and farm tools became their weapons. Some were incorporated into the gongfu systems. The Manchurian rulers feared the Shaolin Temple and suspected it to be the source of trouble where the underground fighters took their refuge and martial arts training. The story goes that they implanted a spy in the temple who then created a fire within, causing the temple to burn while the army attacked from the outside. Not all the monks were killed. The ones who escaped took refuge amongst the civilians. Thus, the secrets of the Shaolin Temple were revealed to the laity.
Gongfu took on many forms when it passed to the laity, depending on the situation, environment, and the physics of the practitioners. China's North, being colder, forced practitioners to create forms that required more energy to perform in order to keep warm. Long kicks, long steps, and jumping moves were incorporated into their forms. The South being hot and rainy took to smaller movements; low stances, short kicks and close contact fighting. The Northerners, being taller in stature, took advantage of their longer legs to keep or strike their opponents at bay. The Southerners often fought in rice fields in knee-deep waters and did not have the luxury of swinging their legs from the bottom. Their legs were used to firm their balance or throw short kicks to the opponent's knees or below. They could easily conceal their kicks below the water or under their skirts. Northern China had vast open land, large cities with large roads. One had the space to bounce around or swing long weapons. The South, on the contrary, was congested. There was never room to move about. One had to take advantage of confined space, whether on a rocky boat or a moving cart, and use short weapons like the broad sword.
During their dispersal, many Shaolin monks disguised themselves as stage, opera or acrobatic actors. They developed stage acts that concealed their pugilistic forms. It not only kept them fit and tuned to their skills, but kept them off Manchurian suspicion. The secret of these moves was only revealed to their most ardent followers. Unfortunately, some of the secrets died with the masters.
As the art was handed down, it passed on to serious practitioners as well as to gongfu quacks. The serious ones kept true to the art and taught it as it was meant to be. The quacks learn it haphazardly and claim themselves as masters of it, teaching either incomplete or incorrect forms. Some of them even changed the style to suit their limits. Some beefed it up with nonsense to make the product look thick. Today, you will find many gongfu practitioners doing moves that are not only incomprehensible, but also impractical. They are the prodigies of these quacks.
I must point out that apart from pugilistic gongfu, there are acrobatic gongfu, health maintenance gongfu, healing gongfu, and so on. The point is that an acrobatic gongfu school should not promote itself as pugilistic, nor a pugilistic school claim to be a healing one. The distinction should be clear.
Today, you will find martial arts schools in almost every corner of the world. How do you know which one is good? Watch the performance of the students. This may be difficult because a non-practitioner would not know what to look for and is easily impressed by fancy moves. The best thing is for you to ask the master what are the underlying principles of his style. Does he give you an answer? Does his answer satisfy you? Does he spend time explaining details to his students? These are the prerequisites of a good school.
History is a record of the past. It is also a study of the present. It tells us of how we have developed and why we are what we are today.
History is also written in perspective from a writer's point of view. It can be debatable and rewritten.
Much of ancient history is theorized through archeological and anthropological findings. The accuracy of its content is arguable.
While history of a subject, maybe of importance to some and none to others, it is worth a mention in the case of Wing Chun Gongfu because of its uniqueness.
The following is a brief account of the history of Wing Chun, the person, and the gongfu system, passed down from generation to generation, from masters to students, and as recorded by Master Yip Man:
Wing Chun was born in Guongdong (Canton) during the reign of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Her mother passed away at a young age and so her father, Yim Yee, raised her alone. Yim Yee was a practitioner of Shaolin gongfu system. Although he tried to teach Wing Chun the Shaolin gongfu system, she found it difficult to learn and practise it, as it required physical strength and stamina. She soon lost interest.
When Wing Chun bloomed into a young, beautiful, and sassy woman, her father took her to live in the foothills of Daliang mountain, bordering Yunnan and Sichuan (Southwest China). There, they setup a stand, selling bean curd. The local warlord, an influential and wealthy man in the community, was also a renowned fighter, but the townsmen had little respect for him because of his arrogance and bullying ways. When he first laid eyes on Wing Chun, he decided that he must have her for his wife. He first sent a go-between to speak for him. To his surprise, he was declined in spite of his wealth and status. He began to threaten them.
A certain nun had befriended Yim Yee and Wing Chun during this time. She was a regular customer who came down from the White Crane Temple to buy bean curd from them. She learned of the trouble the Yim's were having and offered to take them to her temple for refuge. Lay people were not free to enter temples unless invited by a superior. Wing Chun was assured safety there. Unbeknownst to the Yim's, this nun was none other than the famous Ng Mui of Shaolin Temple.
Ng Mui was one of the escapees of the Shaolin fire incident. She was a superior nun at the Shaolin and an expert martial artist. During her years in Shaolin, she founded her own style of pugilism based on the movements of the snake and crane. She found the traditional Shaolin style too awkward for her. The wide horse stance, frontal charges, and iron palm training just did not do it for her. She concluded that this was a man's style and that she should develop one for women. When she did, she was able to overpower male fighters of considerable size and skill.
When Wing Chun learned of Ng Mui's true identity, she asked to be taught her style of pugilism. Ng Mui was happy to accept her as her pupil. She had itched to teach the local bully a lesson but did not want to expose her identity. She could now do it and serve two purposes. With this in mind, Ng Mui taught Wing Chun her style of fighting.
Wing Chun learned Ng Mui's form of fighting very quickly. Ng Mui was proud of her and declared after three years that she had mastered it and told her to return to town. When she did, the local bully approached her with the same proposal and threat. He gave her a deadline and told her that he would kidnap her and force her into marriage if she did not do it voluntarily. She made him an offer he could not refuse. She challenged him to a dual in public. If he wins, he could have her; otherwise, he leaves town. Having never been defeated by any man, far less a woman, he accepted it willingly.
On the scheduled day, the Wing Chun got on stage with her pursuer, with the townsmen crowding in to see the outcome. The bout began. The bully thought he would just clown around with this beautiful and petite woman to make a joke out of the event. At first contact, he was floored. Second attempt to contact her brought the same result. The townsmen laughed. He was furious. He got up with the intent of firing his best and teaching this brat and the townspeople a lesson. With every increase of force he applied, he was returned twice-fold and brought to his knees. He decided to switch to another fighting style. The result was the same. He was unable to hit her although he could see her clearly and had her in the line of fire. Just when he thought he had her in control, she would reverse the situation. The bully was defeated badly to shame. He did not have to be reminded to leave town. He disappeared and was never heard of again.
Wing Chun married Leung Bok Chau, the man she was betrothed to when she was at an early age. He was a fine martial artist himself. It was not until several years after their marriage that he discovered her skills as a martial artist. He was amazed at how effortlessly she could maneuver around and take control of men twice her size. Together, they worked to improve the style. When they developed it into a system, Leung Bok Chau named it after her.
Through the years following, the system was handed down exclusively to family members and very close friends, who in turn contributed to the development of the style. Wooden Dummy training, the 6.5 point staff and the butterfly twin swords were added as training tools and weapons.
In the gongfu system, when a system is handed down from a master to his students they are categorized as "generation" students. Therefore, the first group to learn from the originator is called "first generation" student.
Wing Chun stayed low key until it reached the 5th generation. Although there were great masters of Wing Chun in between, none of them made a name for Wing Chun as much as Master Yip Man did.
Wing Chun would not be where it is today if not for the venerable great-grand master, Yip Man. It was he who lifted the tightly closed lid on the sophisticated and secret art.
Yip Man was born to a wealthy family in Fushan, Guangzhou. His father rented the Yip ancestral temple to Mr.Chan Wah Shun, the local money-changer, who used it to teach Wing Chun. Mr. Chan treated Wing Chun as a part-time hobby, so never ran a full-time school. Nevertheless, he was well known for his skills, and was hired by the Imperial army to teach a selective few. He was in his seventies when he setup the Wing Chun center in the Yip ancestral temple. He was very particular with who he accepted as his student. During his 36 years of teaching, he was known to have had only 16 students. The last one, being Yip Man.
Yip Man was thirteen years old when he first saw Wing Chun in action. He had watched Mr. Chan teach a handful of students, and was fascinated by the way the elderly master took control of robust men, as if they were puppets on strings. Yip Man, broke his piggy bank and presented three taels of silver to Mr. Wah, and begged to be accepted as his student. Mr. Chan, when he found out that it was his own money rather than his father's, was moved, and took young Yip Man as his 16th and last student.
Yip Man became very proficient in Wing Chun. He put it to test by accepting challenges and challenging other martial artists. He was undefeatable in his hometown, as well as in Hong Kong, where he went to study.
One day, a friend of Yip Man told him that he knew of a middle-age martial artist who was undefeated in all the fights he has had. The friend asked if Yip Man would like to tackle him. Yip Man confidently replied that he would, and asked for the contest to be arranged.
The contest was held in the back street of the silk shop where the fifty-five-year-old man, Mr. Leung, worked. Mr. Leung, looked at young Yip Man, who was still in his teens, and told him to attack him as he wished, and that he (Leung) would only defend himself and not make any offensive moves. Yip Man was infuriated with this man's arrogance and wanted to humble him. However, all his attacks were deflected with ease. As he said, Mr. Leung, made no attempts to strike Yip Man, but brought him down to the floor, using only Yip Man's uncontrolled force and balance.
Yip Man was embarrassed, and left quickly after accepting defeat. Later, he learned that Mr. Leung Bik was the son of Leung Jan, his grandmaster, the teacher who taught his master. He went back to Mr. Leung, and asked to accept him as his student. Mr. Leung saw Yip Man's potential and earnesty, and accepted his request.
What Yip Man lacked in his youth was the knowledge of Wing Chun science. Mr. Chan, Yip Man's master in Fushan, was an excellent fighter. He was not an educated man, and could not express himself eloquently. He initially learned Wing Chun watching Leung Jan's classes through a key hole. When he finally joined the class, Leung Jan was surprised to learn how much Mr. Chan knew from just watching. He had a natural gift for martial arts. Mr. Chan learned the physical aspect of Wing Chun, but not the physics. He knew how to do a move, but did not know the principles behind it. He therefore could not teach the science behind Wing Chun. This is what Leung Bik had to offer Yip Man. Yip Man excelled in Wing Chun under the guidance of Leung Bik. Not only did he learn from Leung Bik the fine art of Wing Chun, but the art of humanity. Yip Man, under his tutelage, became a modest and humble man.
Yip Man returned to Fushan after graduation and did not go back to Hong Kong until after WWII. The war had stripped his family of its wealth. Like his masters before him, he viewed Wing Chun as a part-time hobby, and did not want to earn a living from it. Because of his financial state, he reluctantly accepted a post as a martial art instructor for the Hong Kong Restaurant Workers' Association. Initially, the members were not impressed with the little man and his little kungfu, until he was tested by the instructors of other styles. He easily took control of the fights and knocked down every challenger. Word spread quickly and people outside the association began asking Yip Man to teach them. Yip Man filled the demand by opening his first school in Kowloon. Thus the first seed was sown for the Yip Man's branch of Wing Chun, which is found worldwide today.