The following article originally appeared as a two-part feature article in the October & November 2008 issues of ‘Inside Kung-fu’ magazine:
‘Looking Beyond the Pointing Finger’ - the “Wong perspective” on personal combat
By David Peterson
Anyone who has watched the film ‘Enter the Dragon’ will immediately recognise the source of the above phrase, whereby the character portrayed by the legendary Bruce Lee admonished his young student for failing to comprehend the point of his impromptu lesson. Yet how many truly understand the full implications of its meaning? One who did, and who strove to pass on the wisdom of that lesson was celebrated philosopher and scientist of the wing chun (ving tsun) gung-fu system, the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung, former teacher and friend of Lee.
Rather than depend on pseudo-theories developed in the relative safety of the classroom, Wong Shun Leung took his art to the streets, testing his own skills and the merit of his chosen system under the most realistic of conditions available to him at the time. Known as beimo, or “skill comparisons”, these bouts consisted of bare-knuckle fights between practitioners of many styles, involving limited rules and generally ending in one of the participants taking a severe beating at the hands of his opponent.
His success rate is now considered a matter of history, although people still don’t know just how many such “battles” he fought and Wong Sifu himself always downplayed both the number as well as his fighting record. However, most people accept that there were dozens of them over many years, sometimes more than two in a day, and that Wong Shun Leung emerged the victor on each such occasion, earning the title Gong Sau Wong or the “King of talking with the hands” (a clever play on the sound of his surname which is a homonym for “king” as well as stating the obvious – he let his hands do the talking, rather than just mouthing off about his skills).
The result of these experiences was a unique perspective on personal combat, and an enhancement of his understanding and ability to utilise the system passed on to him by his teacher, grandmaster Yip Man, the man responsible for bringing wing chun to the general public after arriving in Hong Kong in 1949 as a refugee from war-torn China. Between them, and later on through the fame that Bruce Lee brought to the name of wing chun as potentially its most well-known practitioner, the system grew to become probably the most widely-practised Chinese martial art in the world today.
However, like the young naive student in the movie, few present-day devotees of this system are able to see “beyond the finger” and are “trapped” by the art that they practice, constantly and blindly mimicking sequences or drilling habits that are not consistent with effective combat and are more akin to preparing for defeat rather than victory. As a means of helping more of my wing chun brothers and sisters “…look beyond the finger and see all that Heavenly glory…”, I offer the following observations of my late teacher with a view to enhancing one’s ability to see more in their chosen lineage, system or style. This knowledge, developed in the “Pavement Arena” of real combat, is relevant to all martial artists and not in any way limited to only those practising the wing chun system.
Adaptable concepts vs. rigid rules
"Wing chun is an expression of concepts. Wing chun does not have to be done to the letter. Only enough needs to be done to fulfil the requirements of the theory. An example of what is meant by this is the “fixed elbow position”. The beginner is taught simply to keep his elbows as close to the 'Centreline' as possible....this is the concept. Once we are good at this, we need to relax our elbows rather than stick rigidly to a (prescribed) position and (possibly) restrict our movements. The skills which we develop in wing chun will allow us to relax our arms and to use the “fixed elbow position” only when needed. After all, the elbow belongs to the fighter, and not the fighter to his elbow....they (the elbows) work for you!"
Sifu was not in the business of producing robots, but of passing on skills and concepts that could be taken and applied by anyone, regardless of size, sex, strength or speed. For him, a concept was something to be understood, tested, refined and then applied, not a rigid, inflexible rule that had to be adhered to at all costs, no matter how difficult or impractical, if not at times dangerous, it might be to actually utilise. The “fixed elbow position” mentioned in his remarks above is just one of many concepts that so many devotees of wing chun not only misunderstand, but generally misapply. From the beginning of training in wing chun, during the practice of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form, we “rehearse” certain shapes and positions so as to absorb concepts into our neural system whereby particular reactions and movements become second nature. It becomes apparent, after much ‘Chi Sau’ and other drills, that having the elbows as close to the centre as possible is indeed a way of controlling our opponent’s limbs and guarding our own body, but our arms are not attached at the centre of our chest and it is not at all natural to be constantly holding our arms “elbows-in”. It is all about being natural and spontaneous, and it is natural to allow our elbows to remain in a loose, comfortable position until needed, rather than making ourselves tense and tired by maintaining a more artificial posture. Believe it or not, there are times when having your elbows tucked-in is not only difficult to do, it’s downright impossible….and dangerous! Concepts are tools to be used, not rules to be blindly followed.
Sticking Hands is not Chasing Hands
"By "chasing the hands" of the opponent, like the man who puts the cart in front of the horse, you will end up at the mercy of the opponent. So, when fighting, one should fix one's eyes firmly on the target with only one idea in mind; that of attacking the enemy most simply and directly. It is only if your attack meets with an obstruction that you have to change to attain your goal and this is where "sticking hands" comes into play, as a means to an end, with the end being the winning of the fight."
Wong Sifu was very specific about the purpose of 'chi sau' training and how it should be practised and utilised by the wing chun exponent. He saw the greatest mistake being the tendency to always try to "stick" to the arms of the opponent, with the mistaken belief that in a fight, all one had to do was "stick" and all would be well. Fighting to him was all about hitting an opponent, not playing with him, and training 'chi sau' in order to simply "chase the arms" of the enemy was, in his experience, a recipe for disaster. Instead, he saw 'chi sau' as a means to an end, a way to enhance the reflexes and sharpen the ability to continue the attack whenever the path to the intended target was impeded. In his opinion, you either hit the enemy, or the enemy tries to prevent you from doing so. In the first case, victory is more or less ensured as the enemy is put on the defensive and injured. But if they do prevent the attack, whether by luck or design, it is at that precise moment that the fight will be won or lost because it will be, Wong Sifu believed, the fighter with the keenest touch-reflexes who will automatically find the next best means of continuing the attack. This is what 'chi sau' is preparing us for, and not some unrealistic notion that we can somehow guarantee making contact with an opponent and then, like a character in a martial arts saga, magically control his or her limbs in such a way that they can't move or strike. Instead, Wong Sifu viewed 'chi sau' training as a means of getting the hands to be "alive", to be always actively pressing the attack, yet ready to nullify and redirect any attempt by the enemy to thwart our attack. In effect, 'chi sau' gives us the ability to "see" things about the opponent's attack that our eyes cannot see, to "read his/her intentions" at a neural level, thus accelerating our potential to respond effectively. Practising ‘chi sau’ with “soft force”, or with pre-arranged sequences, unrealistic counterattacks from impossible situations, and the implementation of “rules of engagement” (such as no attacking to the head, et cetera), totally contradict the purpose of the exercise. This is not to say that we have to try to bash our training partner at every opportunity, but that we need to make the drill as close to reality as possible. In combat, if we clash with an opponent, force will be applied, especially by the enemy (after all, he/she is trying to hit you!). Therefore, in ‘chi sau’ practice, we need to apply forward force, with an intention to attack if and when an opening occurs or an attack succeeds. The energy used should be flexible, like compressed rubber, not stiff like solid steel, with firmness and not tension. This approach should begin with the “single-hand” exercise (‘daan chi sau’), and continue on through to the ‘gwoh sau’ or “free-attack” stage. Only in this way, free of restrictions and with an emphasis on attacking the man rather than “chasing the arms”, will the ‘chi sau’ drill bear any relevance to real combat.
Use your opponent against himself
"When fighting, your opponent will be free to move how he likes, he will not think as you do. Hence your movements will be determined by his actions. If your intentions are to hit your opponent above all else, then you may over commit yourself or allow your opponent to attack you easily. It is far better to allow your opponent to guide you during the fight, to show you how to hit him."
This was an essential part of the "Wong Shun Leung Way", to let the opponent dictate the course of the fight wherever possible. Sifu always felt that having a set idea of how the fight would progress would prevent one from responding effectively to the inevitable changes that would occur. His fight plan was, in essence, to have little or no fight plan at all. Assuming to know how the opponent would move was, in his opinion, assuming too much. He would simply allow his opponent to direct his own destruction, to "make the first mistake", as it were, and then capitalize on this move with a lethal counter measure. Sifu would generally say that his strategy was, "To attack his opponent after they had thrown their first attack, and before they could attempt a second one." Of course, his experience told him that there were occasions where making the first move was valid and practical, but only when the opponent was already compromised in some way, whether that be physically, psychologically, emotionally, or whatever. In effect, this was still a case of letting the opponent “show you how to hit him."
Don’t become a slave to your art
"It is never a case of correcting one's system, but improving one's self. Say you play chess with a very good chess player. Even if he wins, he will have had to sacrifice some pieces along the way, but he knows that the sacrifices were necessary to ensure the victory. Some people, when they get hit, feel that they have been hurt and that their particular Gung-fu system is no good. In wing chun, if this happens (that we get hit), we don't think in these terms. Instead, we'll ask ourselves "What have I done wrong?" or "What is it that I can't do?" Our question isn't ever "How does wing chun work?" but, "How can I make wing chun work for me?" In other words, don't be bound by wing chun, …or any other system for that matter; make it work for you. Be the MASTER, not the SLAVE."
If there was a single maxim for which Wong Sifu was to be remembered, this would probably be the one. At every opportunity he would stress time and time again how important it was to use the system, rather than be used by it. He observed on so many occasions, amongst his own less experienced students and those of the many "branches" of the wing chun system, how people would allow themselves to be "trapped" by the so-called "rules" of wing chun. He would recount one story from his younger days to illustrate the point, whereby he described a fight that he was having with an exponent of another martial art style. At one point in the exchange, his opponent, who was taking a battering and trying to avoid further punishment, ducked low and attempted to cover up from Wong Sifu's onslaught. Sifu immediately seized upon the opportunity to raise his knee, connecting with the guy's face and knocking him out. Instead of congratulating him on his victory, several of his sihing-dai present at the "contest" chastised him for not using "pure" wing chun technique. "Where is the knee strike in the forms?" they asked him, "That wasn't wing chun….you should have moved back and done a proper 'dang geuk' ("ascending kick") to his head or body!" Sifu, exasperated by their remarks and their ignorance of the system as he viewed it, responded with, "We have been taught that in wing chun, the most effective method is to attack the nearest target with the closest weapon, right? Well, his head was the nearest target….and my knee was the closest weapon....that's wing chun!" Their comments, he mused later on, were typical of those who missed the whole point of the system. They were, by his definition, the SLAVES of their art, not its MASTERS.
Treat every attack as real
"It doesn't matter whether the punch (coming at you) is fake or not. There are hundreds of styles of attacking and you can't anticipate them all. Forget about what they do, and stick to what you know. If you do a fake punch, then that punch may actually connect, and then you do a real punch and that one may miss! Which is fake and which is real? In other words, you don't care whether it is a fake punch or a real punch, because when it comes you can still use it to close in. You do the same thing. If my opponent fakes to the left and the real punch comes from the right, I will go straight down the middle, between the two punches. He does one, then two, but I just do one, ...wing chun will never use a fake punch."
Put quite simply, no matter what the opponent may attempt to do in order to attack us, Sifu taught us to treat every move made by the enemy as real, and therefore to always apply the concept of "attacking the attack" on every occasion. In this way, should the enemy attempt to employ a fake attack, it will lead to his/her undoing because we have been taught to respond aggressively to any movement. For the very same reason, we will not employ a fake move of our own because the same approach can certainly be used against us. Likewise, he taught us to maintain a steady on-guard position at all times, rather than constantly changing the position of the hands for no reason. In this way we avoid being caught half way through a change of position, with our hands moving in the wrong direction as an attack comes towards us. In addition, we make the opponent's job all the more difficult because it forces him/her to initiate the attack and he/she must then try to force a gap through our defences, meaning that all we have to do is respond with an attack of our own. A defensive movement becomes superfluous when the guard is always present.
Offence vs. Defence
"Wing chun never, never speaks of just blocking an attack, but rather to counter with another attack. Offence is the best form of defence. For example, if for 9 out of 10 seconds, I am concentrating on hitting you, then for 9 seconds you must be defending. I have a better chance of striking you."
It is very difficult to fault this kind of logic. Wong Sifu based all such opinions on his vast experiences in applying the concepts and techniques of wing chun under the most realistic of conditions. He made the concept of "Offence is the best form of defence" an absolute reality during his dozens of 'beimo' encounters where he is known to have defeated most of his opponents within three punches. Rarely, outside of training, was he required to apply defensive strategies, always advocating and making use of the concept of 'lin siu dai da', or "simultaneous attack and defence", whereby the structure of his attacks and counter measures provided him with the ability to attack his opponents without fear of exposing his own position. By taking the elementary "fook sau concept", as taught in the 'Siu Nim Tau' form, Wong Sifu could both attack and defend simultaneously with consummate ease. If his opponent launched a straight-line attack, Sifu would counter-attack with a straight-line attack of his own, taking a better line than his enemy and overwhelming him. If the opponent attacked in a circular fashion, Sifu would apply the same approach, attacking his enemy straight down the middle. If he chose to attack first, he would physically and/or psychologically set up his enemy and apply the same basic approach, attacking simply, directly and aggressively until his opponent was unable to continue the fight. There was never any attempt to defend or "trap" the hands of the enemy, as this would only waste time and create opportunities for him to counter. Wong's method was all about attack, pure and simple, and that's what made him so difficult to deal with in a fight. It is what fundamentally distinguishes his "Way" from that of virtually all other interpretations of the wing chun system.
Skill is a product of good training
“Being a good fighter depends on how hard you practise and how much time you put into it. Fighting abilities are based upon perseverance, confidence, and physical power….not talk.”
"Superficial training will only mislead people into believing that they have special skills which, in fact, no one can possess. Fighting is a savage business and will usually cause injuries to both parties. Soft training will not prepare you for this."
Soft training, mimicking animals, set routines and "tit-for-tat" sparring were all things to avoid as far as Wong Sifu was concerned. The first and most important criterion for attaining real combat skill was the recognition that fighting was indeed a "...savage business" with no place for "...horsing around." Realizing that fighting always implied injuries, often to both parties, was paramount to being able to deal with and, hopefully, overcome one's enemy in combat. This meant that training, by definition, had to be as realistic as possible, with the training partner always putting you under as much pressure as possible. Many were the days that I, and all my sihing-dai in Hong Kong, would go home with split lips, bloody noses, and a variety of other injuries, both minor and, occasionally, more major. Having this approach to training has sometimes led me into "altercations" with people from other wing chun lineages, simply because Sifu encouraged us to treat our training as real, never a game, something that many of my martial arts brethren misunderstand and misinterpret as unwarranted aggression, when in fact all that is intended is to help him/her through realistic training. Sadly, many practising martial artists are in fact not practising realistically at all, they are rehearsing for defeat! This was something Sifu tried to steer us very clear of at all times.
Everything starts and ends in the mind
"A lot of wing chun is in the mind. The actions or movements are not that important. What wing chun teaches is that it is more important to use what is in your head."
When all is said and done, perhaps the truest statement about wing chun that Wong Sifu ever made is this last one. I often tell my students or those who come to my school and ask about the nature of 'Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun' that, while some systems stress the use of this muscle or that muscle, good wing chun makes maximum use of the biggest "muscle" of all.....the human mind! Without a clear and calm mind at the crucial moment, a heightened consciousness, and the will to complete the task, wing chun remains just another set of ideas, at the purely intellectual level, that may or may not work when push comes to shove. Quite often, in one's training, it is when we truly understand the technique, when we trust that we can do the technique or apply the concept, when we really put our mind to work, that is when we meet with the most success. If we don't understand what is in our head, if we don't apply the full spectrum of positive, logical, rational and wise thinking, then we will never progress far in our chosen art, let alone survive a violent encounter. It is now the 21st century, not the 17th, and the adversary of today is a completely different one to that of times past when the wing chun system was in its infancy. Whilst Sifu fought many times in the 1950s and 1960s, if he were still alive today, he would be the first one to say that what worked for him then is not necessarily appropriate for today. After all, if we put things into perspective, while many of Sifu’s “matches” were brutal to say the least, the majority of his opponents were classically trained martial artists and a certain etiquette existed whereby there were definite expectations concerning what would take place and how much injury could be expected. On the whole, these fights were not all out brawls where anyone’s life was truly on the line. This is in no way meant to take anything away from Sifu’s skill or reputation, as it is well known that he did indeed face several life threatening situations, quite apart from his ‘beimo’ experiences, and survived them. Rather, it is to point out that, on the whole, today’s adversary is far less likely to be a classically trained fighter, makes use of many tactics that were less prevalent then, such as deception, the strength of numbers, the use of modern weapons and the element of surprise, just to name a few, and is totally unbound by any notion of “fighting etiquette”. If one expects to survive an encounter with one or more persons whose aim is robbing, beating, raping or even murdering them, then one’s thinking and training must change with the times and allow for reality. The days of “gentlemanly combat” are well and truly over….sadly, the streets of today, at least in some parts of the world, can be likened more to a war zone than a playground! For all of these and many other good reasons, I hope that if you have taken the time to reach this portion of the article, and if you have reflected on this brief introduction to the deep wisdom of my teacher's approach to wing chun, then you are well on the way to being able to "Look Beyond the Pointing Finger" and to discover the potential that you have in yourself and in your chosen fighting system. I take no credit for any of the knowledge that you may have gleaned from these pages, because everything that has been presented is either directly or indirectly the wisdom of my late teacher. The best way to honour him now would be to start using his words and ideas as a springboard to finding your own path to self-improvement. Good Luck on your journey!Share