SIFU CLIFF AU YEUNG BEGAN HIS WING CHUN TRAINING UNDER THE LATE SIFU WONG SHUN LEUNG IN 1981. HE TRAVELLED WITH SIFU WONG TO SEMINARS IN EUROPE TWICE, IN 1990 AND 1992, AND WAS ONE OF SIFU WONG’S CHIEF INTERPRETERS IN DELIVERING HIS COMBAT THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY TO FOREIGN STUDENTS. SIFU CLIFF IS THE PRINCIPLE INSTRUCTOR AT THE VING TSUN MARTIAL ARTS INSTITUTE IN HONG KONG.
Has your vision of Wing Chun changed since you started teaching?
Of course! I only understood what Wing Chun really was about when I started teaching. I thought about what teaching is, what movement is, what my own feelings within is. To find the right way, I studied science, physics and biomechanics to change my Gung Fu into a more understandable, modern approach. Nowadays, many people only try to use brute force, but if you felt Chi Sau with those great masters, such as Wong Shun Leung and Ip Man, they were so soft, like leather on your arms. That fascinated me, and I tried to reproduce that feeling using scientific explanations.
Can you explain your understanding of the empty-hand forms and what they represent to you?
Wing Chun is for intelligent, educated people. It was founded by experience, but before Dr. Leung Jan and Ip Man, they were mainly theories and concepts. The forms are a representation of these concepts. According to Wong Shun Leung’s understanding, Siu Nim Tau is the mother form—the mother of your arm’s conversations. It develops your body shape to get you ready to fight. Cham Kiu is a beauty! Hands and body work together perfectly. It teaches you about in-fighting and how to become confident with that. Because you and your opponent have the same chances to hit each other, you need to develop skills to dominate the fight. The Biu Ji form is about a very simple concept: survival!
What do you think are the most important principles to be developed?
I would say many focus on the uniqueness of the concept of Centreline and Structure. However, you can find the same concepts in many other Internal and External martial arts. So, I would say the more important principle, no matter what the style, is to understand how you want to use the body and then apply your style’s strategies to fight in an efficient way.
Tell us more about your view on Wing Chun.
I do Wing Chun, using the Internal way. In Chinese martial arts, there are a few very famous Internal systems: Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua. I would say Wing Chun is an Internal system; however, it uses the body differently compared to those methods. When I use Internal power, I find it’s about joining the power from the ground, to my waist, and to my elbow. It’s about accepting the force from outside and letting my arms and elbow become more stable under speed and pressure.
The problem, nowadays, is people learn Internal arts, and they are influenced a lot by their forms. If I want to learn singing, teach me how to use my voice; don’t teach me Chinese, Spanish or French. If I want to learn the Internal power, don’t teach me Tai Chi; teach me the correct way to use the body to generate this power, so I can apply it to Wing Chun, instead of integrating another form.
Internal is opposite to External. You can clearly see when someone is using External power. When using Internal power, you can’t see it clearly, but you know something happened. The forces are very fine-tuned. The External power is hands-on body, but the Internal power reduces the mere use of your arms and tries to focus on how your body works as a unit. It focuses on how to gain power from the ground, how to let the bodywork first, not the arms. We use the arms, first. That’s the main difference between the two.
What’s your opinion on the differences between Wing Chun taught in China, Hong Kong and worldwide?
There’s actually a big difference! “Traditional” Wing Chun is still being taught in Foshan, with traditional drills that Westerners find difficult to relate to real fighting situations. However, in the West, many people try to use brute force to overcome the opponent, and that goes against the founding concepts of Wing Chun: to borrow your opponent’s force and use soft power. In Hong Kong, which has been exposed to Western mentality for a long time, it developed in a way that makes more sense to modern approaches but still retains some traditional characteristics.
What do you think makes Wing Chun different from other martial arts?
The difference is the mindset. You can fight or exercise; it all depends on the mind. However, they say that Wing Chun is effective for fighting. Most of all, it’s simple. When Dr. Leung Jan stayed in Foshan, he had a good friend, who was also a Wing Chun guy: Fong Siu Qing. They were famous for their Long Pole forms and decided to compare forms. The Fong form was based on two main principles, while the Leung Jan form was about seven movements. After training for a while, Dr. Leung Jan said, “I use seven movements against your two movements, so your form ideas are better than mine. It’s simpler, but it can cover much more.” That’s the Core principle—try to simplify. In the moment of fighting, how can you make it complicated? Time’s the judge. If you need more time, you get into more trouble.
Do you see any difference in the way people learn Gung Fu nowadays and the way they learned back then?
Nowadays, people are greedier! They have no patience, and the relationship between student and Sifu is based only on business. In Hong Kong, and elsewhere, they do martial arts with too much emphasis on physical effort. That’s why they have many young students, but when they get old, they can’t use it anymore.
Have you developed any specific drills for particular skills?
For anything related to gravity, students must understand how to generate and transfer power from the ground—from your legs to your neck to your arms. It’s all about moving those joints properly to generate the most power in a soft way. It’s about alignment and making the subconscious clear to release what we call “Intention.” When your intention can freely reach any joint, then you can properly release soft energy. It’s all about the mind.
Is Chi Sau important? Many see it as essential, but many think is overrated. What is your view on this?
Chi Sau is about reactions and should be trained with an emphasis on soft power. Wong Sifu had a saying, “You should show me how to hit you,” meaning the opponent is the only one who can show you how to react to him—if you are paying attention. Chi Sau is not about fighting; it’s the step between fighting and training, between the real and the unreal.