OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE OBSERVED MANY PEOPLE PRACTISING WING CHUN AND DISCUSSED WING CHUN TRAINING, PRACTICE AND PRINCIPLES. I HAVE OBSERVED THAT THE MORE WE APPEAR TO KNOW, THE LESS CERTAIN WE ARE AS TO WHAT EXACTLY WING CHUN IS AND WHEN WING CHUN IS NOT WING CHUN.
When I started Wing Chun in 1979, it was “oh so simple”; a Demi-god, called Ip Man, fled from Mainland China, settled in Hong Kong, and in 1949, started teaching students through necessity. Over the years, he trained many students, including the late Bruce Lee, who, through his films, brought Wing Chun to the attention of the world.
As Hong Kong was a British colony, at the time, and English was taught as a second official language, several of Ip Man’s students emigrated from Hong Kong to British speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia, North America and Canada, and started teaching Wing Chun there as taught by Ip Man, whilst others opened classes in Hong Kong.
I knew this as Wing Chun; the story of Ip Man and some of his students had been featured in several martial arts magazines, such as New Martial Hero, Combat Magazine, Fighter’s Only Magazine, Black Belt Magazine, etc.
Wing Chun outside of Hong Kong or from any other source than directly or indirectly via Ip Man was unheard of, and Ip Man was a real “Grandmaster” not some character in a movie far removed from reality.
Life in 1979 was simple.
In 1982, when I started teaching in the UK, there were only a few known and accessible instructors, such as Lau Fuk Leung (Simon), Lee Singh, Kan Wah Chit (Victor) and Alan Lamb, and studying Wing Chun comprised of Siu Nim Tau, Chum Kiu and Chi Sau. Biu Tze, Muk Yan Jong and the weapons were not taught or demonstrated openly.
In 1985, my Wing Chun world changed somewhat when I attended the first open seminars in the UK by Ip Chun, Wong Shun Leung, Leung Ting and William Cheung—the world of Ip Man Wing Chun in the UK had expanded. At those seminars, I noticed differences in application, sequence of the moves of the forms, and the explanations of the moves, which at first, caused me some confusion why they had differences and which “version” of the truth I should believe. However, I was very lucky. My friend Bey Logan, then editor of Combat Magazine, was also training with me, and whenever there was a Wing Chun seminar by a Hong Kong Sifu in the UK, Bey would be invited to cover it for the magazine, and I was thankfully invited to accompany him.
That offered me the opportunity to meet and chat at length with these Sifus about all aspects of Wing Chun, their training with Ip Man, and with Ip Man himself. Through those Sifus, I started to appreciate that Wing Chun was unique to each individual, not just because of physique, but also because of needs and requirements. Ip Man taught each student to develop their own Wing Chun, giving each student answers to their own questions, problems, or explorations.
Later, during my first training trip to Hong Kong with Sifu Ip Chun in 1989, and in the subsequent 45 plus trips to continue my training, I was also fortunate to meet many well-known Ip Man students, such as Wong Shun Leung, Tsui Sheung Tin, Lok Yiu, Ip Ching, Siu Yuk Men, Law Bing, Leung Ting, and some not known at all, such as the group of gentleman who watched me train outside Sifu’s flat and who turned out to have trained with Sigung Ip Man for quite a while but never taught. They all gave me the same basic message that Ip Man taught each individually, plus he had three distinct groups of students: seasoned martial artists, who had trained other martial arts before studying with him, who were traditional in their approach and learning style, young teenage street lads, who wanted Wing Chun to protect themselves, and finally, professionals, such as police, lawyers and businessmen, who wanted the forms and Chi Sau for health, stress management and well-being.
Despite all their differences in interpretation, application and explanation, I found they all used the basic tools: Taan, Bong, Paak, Jum and Gang Sau, the basic stance, turning stance, and advancing stances. The body mechanics were the same, the centreline concepts the same, and all utilised the same concepts and principles, such as “hand comes, detain; hand goes, follow; hand lost, spring forwards”, etc.
This was, to me, what made Wing Chun (perhaps, I should say Ip Man Wing Chun), but each was keen to stress that Ip Man was the only person to claim to teach Ip Man Wing Chun, as each person he taught did it slightly different to their teacher.
Even with all those differences, there was commonality. Whilst training with Sifu at his home, or later at the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, his brother Ip Ching would regularly come visit, and we would Chi Sau, and I noticed the difference between the two brothers because of their age, build and size difference; not better, not worse. Different, perhaps even complementary.
Spending time with Sifus Wong Shun Leung, Tsui Sheung Tin, and a little time chatting with Sifu Lok Yiu (actual practice was very limited, as he had had a heart operation) gave me further insight into the differences and the commonalities.
Things back then were simple; the discussions were around Ip Man Wing Chun, making it work, training applications, and researching and discussing triangulation, body mechanics and muscular skeletal structures.
Today, there has been a plethora of research, digging back in the past, new ideas, and explanations, and so much more diversity of pre-Ip Man Wing Chun, parallel families of Wing Chun, and numerous other roots—it’s now hard to know what constitutes Wing Chun!
I have recently observed Wing Chun instructors teaching grappling, starting from a kneeling or “mounted” position on a mat as in Jiu-Jitsu and claiming this is Wing Chun grappling technique. Now, I am all for exploration of fighting techniques, etc., but let’s have a reality check here(!)—a matted classroom and kneeling to start rolling around trying to get an arm bar or leg lock is so far removed from the street-fighting system of Wing Chun it’s ridiculous. If instructors want to mix fighting styles, then at least be honest. When Bruce Lee mixed styles and utilised different methodologies, he didn’t pass it off as Wing Chun; he had the confidence to name it his own methodology, Jeet Kune Do.
I recently experienced this phenomenon of instructors mixing styles under the banner of Wing Chun first-hand when I did a seminar at one of my schools. One of the students asked what would happen if I lost balance or fell over and landed on my back on the floor. So, I asked him to dump me on the floor, which he did, and then showed how I would cover my centreline, use his force against him, and then when he tried to punch down on me, I seized the opportunity to grab his hair, off-balance him, and gain the upper hand to strike and escape.
As often happens, fellow students filmed this, and it appeared on Facebook, and within an hour, there was a comment saying, “But if your opponent was a Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he would have had you in a side arm bar” or something along those lines. I mean WTF! (1.) I don’ t care who or what they are. I am going for the testicles, eyes, hair and/or throat. There are no rules in the street. (2.) What are the chances on a Saturday night in a pub, club or street confrontation I would roll on the floor with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert as opposed to a drunken thug? (3.) The solution was MY solution to that specific situation, which needed to be seen and appreciated in context, not watched in a video and incorrect assumptions made as the circumstances.
Wing Chun, as I learnt in Hong Kong, was developed and refined for self-protection outside of a classroom. It was the system that many teenagers turned to in Hong Kong to protect themselves in street fights, gang fights and Beimo challenges. It is not a competition style. It doesn’t require mats nor protective padding or learning restrictive rules.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for evolution and development, but changing something entirely is not evolution, and I feel we are in danger of diluting and losing a fabulous martial art system by adding unnecessary moves, techniques and applications from other martial arts systems and calling it Wing Chun.
I have stated often that Wing Chun is a set of simple and practical tools that can be deployed in a myriad of ways. Those tools have been refined and simplified over many years and are more a collection of experiences of past fighters than a martial arts style. Just because the tool set is over a hundred years old doesn’t mean it needs to be changed, added to, or detracted from.
Since around 1481, the English language has used the same 26 letters, despite new inventions occurring and the need for new words (iPhone, Bluetooth, laptop, etc.). There has been no need to add any new letters; the same is true of Wing Chun. We need not add new techniques, but combine and utilise the existing tools we have to deal with modern street fighting.
Wing Chun in its truest form cannot compete with competition fighters because it is not designed to do so, as a shark is not designed to fight a tiger; each is a supreme predator/fighter in its own environment, but not in the other’s environment.
Again, I am not against Wing Chun fighters training for competition, MMA, or any other rule-based environment, but that it will not be true Wing Chun used, as the rules prohibit thumbs in the eyes, testicle grabs, throat grabs, and elbow strikes, etc.—the tools I would use to protect myself and/or my loved ones against a serious assault, which is all I train for.
I am not saying I am right and everyone else is wrong. I am saying don’t mix Wing Chun with other arts and fighting styles and still claim it to be Wing Chun. There is not one style of Wing Chun, that is true, but there are common principles and techniques that define it, and it is those that are in danger of getting lost.
As I said, Wing Chun used to be simple…