OVER THE MANY YEARS I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN THE TEACHING OF WING CHUN, TIME AND TIME AGAIN, MY STUDENTS (AND VISITORS TO OUR CLASSES) HAVE ASKED THE SAME QUESTION: “WHAT ARE THE KEY FACTORS THAT DETERMINE ONE IS MAKING GOOD PROGRESS THROUGH THE SYSTEM?”
Whilst the possible answers may seem endless and could involve everything from diligent practice and understanding the detail within the forms to practising specific drills or even mastering one’s “inner powers” (I’m kidding!), my answer has invariably been to focus on two things: correct structure of the body and the ability to relax under all circumstances.
Structure and relaxation are, in my humble opinion, the keys to not only being good at Wing Chun but to excelling at it! I base this belief upon the close observation of my many peers over the years and upon my late teacher, Sifu Wong Shun Leung, who was the ultimate example of this philosophy. Although not a big man, by any stretch of the imagination, on multiple occasions I witnessed him easily deal with training partners larger and heavier than himself, with relative ease and no signs of stress. He would deflect their strength with subtle adjustments to his structure and with relaxed movements, with both speed and power—much to the amazement of his opponent and all those watching.
Not being a big person myself and definitely not someone you would call powerful in bodily strength, I quickly realised the means to my own improvement in the system was to emulate his example as much as possible, so I would engage him in conversations about why he could do what he did so effortlessly. It became very clear that two things stood out as being his “secret recipe” in that regard: correct structure and relaxation of the body. As such, I have sought to improve my understanding and application of these two concepts ever since and to share the same advice with my own students. On several occasions when teaching, particularly in seminar presentations, I have referred to structure and relaxation as “The Dynamic Duo” when it comes to great Wing Chun skill.
For you to appreciate what I am referring to, it’s probably the appropriate time to define what I mean by these two terms within the context of Wing Chun Kuen. “Structure” is a “buzz word” that has been bouncing around for some time now, but perhaps without everyone agreeing upon what is meant by the term. I will define it in the manner my late Sifu defined it, and yes, he used the term when he taught all those years ago, so it isn’t some modern addition to the system as some have claimed. His definition of structure begins with the teaching of the Siu Nim Tau form, which he stressed contains all the essential information to appreciate AND develop this concept, commencing with the formation of the basic Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma and the basic “tools” of the system, in particular, the Taan Sau, Fook Sau and Wu Sau actions as practised in the first section of the form.
In terms of the stance, it is important that one literally “sits in the Horse” (Choh Ma, 坐馬), rather than trying to hold themselves up. They must also tilt the hip area slightly, rather than thrust the hips upwards; many people overdo this aspect of the stance, creating a weakness, rather than a strength, in it. There should be no leaning back, but the spine should be kept upright so the head sits directly above the heels, whilst a line drawn from the shoulders (as viewed side-on) intersects with the hips and the knees. The knees should be bent and point in the same direction as the feet which, if angled correctly, point towards a common position directly ahead of the body approximately one natural step in front of where one is standing, forming a triangle with an imaginary line drawn between the heels representing the base.
If held correctly, this stance will not collapse if pressure is applied downwards by pressing the shoulders, no matter how much force is used. However, if the hips are not aligned correctly, or if there is excessive leaning forwards or backwards, the stance will buckle at the waist, and the knees will give way. Similarly, if pressure is gradually applied to the chest of the person being tested, not straight forward but slightly downwards into the stance, as long as the structure of the stance is as described, it can absorb the increasing pressure at least for a few moments before eventually collapsing into Tui Ma (退馬), rather than collapsing immediately when pressure is applied. If these results can be achieved on repeated instances, then the practitioner is on the right track as for their posture, with the structure working to its maximum capacity with no physical exertion.
If this structure is then consistently applied, regardless of the stance or footwork being utilised, then the natural strength of the body is doing the work, rather than muscular exertion being required. One can then experience the motto Lik Chung Dei Hei (力從地起), or “Power Comes from the Ground Upwards” just as the founders meant it to be. Once the structure of the body is corrected, then one must address the issue of utilising the same concept to the limbs. The actions of the arms and legs, whether it be via punching, kicking, deflection, or (dare I say it) blocking, or whatever one must apply, must also act as an extension of this structure to get the best results with the least e ort being required.
One reason Wing Chun has been seen to deviate further from the original concepts taught by Sigung Ip Man is that as it has become increasingly more widely practised in the West (where many people are physically bigger and heavier than their counterparts in the East). Size and strength, as opposed to skill and structure, have become more greatly emphasised, so much of the Wing Chun practised these days looks more like a long-range version of Western Boxing.
If people took a serious look at what they are doing, they would realise this is the case, but sadly, it would seem the Wing Chun Kuen of Sigung Ip Man is dying and being replaced by a different animal. The chief reason? The fact that structure has been overlooked in favour of speed and power, resulting in a greater use of upper body strength and less emphasis on how to gain power from the ground through the correct alignment of the stance.
Worse still, and directly connected with this trend, has been the greater usage of tension and muscular effort, as opposed to relaxation of the body. “The Dynamic Duo” has been abandoned in preference to the “quick fix” of applying muscle, which is great when you are young and strong, but isn’t so useful when you are getting older and slower, plus the fact that relying purely on size and strength is a guarantee the stronger man will always win. Kind of defeats the point of the system, right?
Which brings us to the concept of relaxation and, again, a definition of sorts is required. What is the implication of being relaxed? To some, it means being weak, not resisting, and even yielding to the point of defeat. This is not the case, and once one can appreciate the concept of relaxation, it is amazing the amount of power and strength that can be attained. Our natural response to having pressure placed upon our limbs or body is to push back with equal strength, usually by increasing muscular tension not just in the affected limb, but often with the entire body. That’s fine if you are more physically powerful than the person applying the force, but what if you are not?
If instead, we respond to such pressure or force by first relaxing the muscles and making use of correct structure to maintain the position under stress, it is possible to transmit that pressure through the bones and sinews, as opposed to the muscles, and redirect that force into the ground, avoiding the need for muscular strength. This frees those very same muscles to be used for redirection of force and creates movement in the opposite direction for both attack and defence. We are then enabled to apply the Lat Sau Jik Chung (甩手直衝) and Jie Lik (借力) concepts, as introduced in Siu Nim Tau, greatly improving our ability to survive the assault AND strike back with speed and power!
In applying our bodies in this way, we are returning to the original intention of Wing Chun Kuen as taught by Sigung Ip Man, whereby he described the system as a “Southern region, stick to the body, short strike, narrow stance, short bridges method”, also adding the body should have a loose, flexible “rattan-like” quality. You cannot achieve THAT Wing Chun if you do not have correct structure and relaxation—it just will not work if you are solely applying brute strength, long reach and stiff limbs! Recently, there has been a great deal said and written about the so-called “Internal” aspect of Wing Chun Kuen, with many claiming Ip Man’s take on the system does not contain such methods. I contend it does, and they have been there all along, but the misconception lies in the fact that many of his students cannot, or chose not to, explore that side of what he taught.
Remember that the emphasis in the early days of Wing Chun in Hong Kong was on the fighting side of the system, and quick results were desired, as opposed to a long-term dedication to a deeper study of the system. Not that Sigung Ip Man didn’t teach those aspects of the system, and there is ample evidence in some of his original students he did! The problem is, apparently, many in the system “cannot see the woods for the trees”, and most are overlooking these elements in favour of a more streamlined approach.
Unfortunately, this lack of attention to “The Dynamic Duo” of structure and relaxation is not just short-sighted in developing one’s proficiency in the system, but it is also endangering the long-term survival of the system, because NOT paying attention to these concepts is changing it in negative ways. Space doesn’t provide for a deeper discussion, but I hope this article has got you thinking in the right direction. Remember, we aren’t all built like The Incredible Hulk, but neither was Ip Man, Wong Shun Leung, et al. What was their secret? That’s right, you guessed it—“The Dynamic Duo” of structure and relaxation!