Wing Chun: whatever happened to reality?


  by David Peterson 

Wing Chun Malaysia - David PetersonPractitioners of Wing Chun pride themselves on the fact that it is a true combat system, designed for the brutal reality of the street. But is it? Based upon how some schools train, you wouldn’t think so! Most are so tied up in pointless games of “chasing hands” or endless amounts of complex ‘Chi Sau’ training to ever reach the stage where they could survive a full-blooded street assault. Some of them would even struggle to beat a novice boxer!

Where has it all gone wrong, you ask? Well, the biggest problem is that everybody wants to reinvent the wheel when what we were originally given wasn’t half bad at all. On top of that, Wing Chun has become “trendy” now, especially since the recent Ip Man movie phenomenon, leading to a great many far-from-qualified “instructors” peddling their wares to a largely uninformed public. The result: lots of fancy moves, but no substance.

So, how do we identify the problems and how do we fix them? That’s what I hope to do right here in this brief essay. So let’s begin by trying to recognise some of the main problem areas as I see them (you may not agree, but if I can get you thinking, then I’ve achieved my goal) and then consider ways to get things back on track. Coming from a lineage that is concept-based, which avoids set sequences and fixed ideas like the plague, I see the opposite technique-based approach as the single biggest threat to Wing Chun today.

Wing Chun Malaysia - David PetersonNo one, I repeat, NO ONE! …is ever going to attack you like a robot, using a set sequence of predictable motions. Why is it, then, that so many schools have their students stand in lines endlessly repeating set responses to outrageously unrealistic attack scenarios? These very same schools also insist that the forms are set sequences that have exacting (often times totally impractical) applications, so it’s no wonder that they apply such ridiculous thinking across the board.

The forms are NOT set sequences at all – they are a collection of concepts, structures, tools and strategies that need to be pulled apart, understood, trained and tested INDIVIDUALLY in order to then apply them spontaneously and naturally under real conditions. As such, these same concepts, structures, tools and strategies require long-term training and realistic pressure testing, not boring, repetitive, unrealistic drilling against cooperative partners who aren’t even trying to hit you with any venom.

“But we do sparring!” I hear you saying, “So we ARE testing our skills under pressure!” No, I’m afraid that you are NOT! You see, sparring is NOT the same as fighting, because it involves imposed rules, time limits, a different kind of timing and mind-set. I’m not against sparring per se (in fact, I believe that it DOES provide a great deal of valuable attribute development), but people must realise that it is simply not an exact replication of true violent aggression. Nor is the practice of ‘Chi Sau’ in all of its variations, but I’ll get back to that later.

In real combat, we must accept that there are only two options: fight or flight. If you cannot do the latter (ie: run away!), then you have to be capable of doing the former, with total commitment and adequately trained skills that work in the real world, not fancy combos that only work in the classroom. The solution? Regularly putting yourself and your training partners “under the gun” in what I refer to as “open drills”, whereby we are forced to deal with, respond to and shut down a full-blooded attack that is really trying to hit us.

Wing Chun Malaysia - David PetersonOf course, you don’t try smashing the head off the newbies in the class on the very first training session. Initially, you teach and practice “closed drills” in which one simple concept or technique is tested, slowly adding to the complexity and intensity of the task. Once the particular skills are working under the “normal” conditions of Wing Chun vs. Wing Chun, then you MUST start testing them against non-Wing Chun conditions. In doing so, you enhance the students’ ability to adapt to changing scenarios, to actually use CONCEPTS in action, rather than relying upon fixed ideas.

Eventually, the drills become more and more “open” – that is, you start introducing randomness, broken timing, intense aggression and less-than-perfect conditions – everything that a real violent assault can and will entail. The student quickly comes to realise that they have one extremely brief moment in time to survive, control and shut down the attacker. If they don’t, then they get hit, it’s that simple. Believe me, once the student knows that the person in front of them IS going to hit them, they improve out of sight immediately. Reality is a bitch, but a great teacher!

So what about ‘Chi Sau’ then? Where does it fit in and what is its role? Put simply, as stated in this column in the last issue of ‘WCI’ magazine, the purpose of ‘Chi Sau’ is to teach us how to hit the opponent when our limbs are in anyway impeded from doing so, to teach us spinal arc reflexes which allow us to react instinctively and without conscious thought the moment that any contact or pressure occurs. But in order to do this, many Wing Chun practitioners need to re-learn how to do their ‘Chi Sau’ practice.

In fact, in many cases, they need to re-address their entire approach to the drill, otherwise they may as well not practice it at all. Far too many practitioners engage in pointless “hand chasing” exercises, following the “If you do that, then I’ll do this” mentality, achieving little more than bad habits and dangerous muscle memory for their efforts. They end up, as my late teacher referred to it, engaged in ‘Juen Ngau Gok Jim’ or “going round and around in the bulls horn, but getting nowhere.” It is futile and meaningless practice.

At the opposite end of the scale, there are many who treat ‘Chi Sau’ like a sparring match, looking to take “cheap shots” or to use brute strength, shoving and pushing their partners around. This defeats the whole purpose of the drill. If you want to fight, then just fight! Why even bother to do ‘Chi Sau’? Instead, what they should be doing is following the true purpose of the drill, to learn how to deal with greater force and strength by NOT meeting it head-on, but by re-directing and “stealing” their enemy’s power. Thus, the hands should be light, springy, relaxed, with a constant (subtle) forward force that comes from the stance and structure (skeletal), rather than upper body and muscle.

Wing Chun Malaysia - David PetersonWhere is your proof, you ask? Well, these are the methods that the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung himself used to great effect in his ‘beimo’ (“martial comparison”) days, and in more recent times, myself and many of my ‘WSLVT’ brethren have done the same. To cite one very typical example, just a few short years ago, a student of mine, Blair Johnston, now an instructor in his own right based in Osaka, Japan, was invited to enter an all-styles full-contact championship in that city.

Blair had never been in a tournament of any kind before, but had trained consistently via the methods described above for several years, including brief Hong Kong training experience under my Sihing, Cliff Au Yeung. With just four days notice, he entered the competition against practitioners of various martial disciplines (not a single Wing Chun fighter amongst them), and proceeded to defeat each and every opponent that he faced, ultimately winning the entire tournament.

Wing Chun Malaysia - David PetersonTo top it off, he was able to use clearly recognisable Wing Chun skills in every single encounter, never resorting to the typical brawler-style that one usually sees in such contests. No matter what his opponents threw at him, Blair responded with simple, direct and aggressive Wing Chun counter-attacks, exactly as drilled into his neural system by the training that he had done. He hadn’t sparred to any real extent, but had done countless hours of forms, basics, open drills and ‘Chi Sau’ practice, resulting in an outstanding performance under very real pressure.

Okay, so where does this all take us? Put simply, it is time to put reality back into the curriculum, to escape from the safety of the “Chi Sau bubble” mentality that has prevailed in recent times, or from the “sparring is the answer to everything” train of thought . As stated earlier, both ‘Chi Sau’ AND sparring have a role to play, but make up only one small part of a much bigger picture, and only if trained as originally intended, with the correct thinking, structure, strategies and attitude that will enable us to extract valuable attributes from their practice.

True combat skill, as always it seems, comes from the simple basics that make up the system. If we do not have the correct core basics, if we fail to develop the correct core structures and drill them realistically under greater and greater levels of pressure, then in the end we are left with a hollow shell that will crumble when the proverbial really hits the fan. Take a look at what and how you are drilling your Wing Chun and ask yourself honestly if what you are doing is preparing you or your students for real combat.

There are many more components involved, but if you address at least those that I’ve mentioned here, you are headed down a far more realistic path. Good Luck!


Editors note: This article was originally published in Wing Chun Illustrated magazine, Issue 3 (2011)