Getting It Right ...the “Wong Way”!!!
by David Peterson & Enzo Verratti
There are many people claiming to teach ving tsun, and as many different “versions” of ving tsun as there are teachers, or so it seems. The reasons for these variations are many and complex, one factor which immediately springs to mind being that there are at least three or four different systems of Chinese boxing which take the name ving tsun (though the Chinese characters may differ). At least two of these appear to have originated in or around the city of Fatsaan (Foshan in the Mandarin dialect), the southern Chinese city where Grandmaster Yip Man of the Hong Kong-style first studied the system under his teacher, Chan Wa Sun, who in turn had learnt from the most celebrated of ving tsun “ancestors”, Leung Jan, the undefeated “King of Ving Tsun”, a man who is said to have been very protective when it came to passing on his skills.
Herein lies just one of the many causes of today’s confusion, that Leung Jan in fact may have taught two interpretations of the same art in order to preserve its uniqueness, one to his own sons (whom he hoped would inherit and pass on his skills), and a somewhat less sophisticated method to “Chan the money-changer”, the man under whom Grandmaster Yip Man began his ving tsun training. If we are to believe the stories handed down through history concerning Leung Jan and his attitude to teaching “outsiders”, it is therefore possible that Leung (who was an intelligent, educated man) did in fact “simplify things” for his not so bright, but physically powerful student Chan, who, it has been said, was a far more gifted fighter than he was a thinking man. What Chan learnt and made use of was a cruder, less sophisticated, but nevertheless very effective form of ving tsun.
Two events in recent ving tsun history tend to lend substance to this belief. One of these is the well known story of how Grandmaster Yip was easily defeated by Leung Bik, the son of Leung Jan. According to the story (which has, it must be said, been thrown into some doubt in recent years) said to have been told by Grandmaster Yip himself, and retold by many of his students over the years, he suffered his first and possibly only defeat at the hands of an old man whom he had challenged while a student in Hong Kong during the early part of this century. To cut a long story short, Yip Man was to learn that his opponent was the son of his own teacher’s teacher, and Yip Man in turn became Leung’s student during which time he was taught a much more refined and subtle approach to ving tsun, something which may well have influenced what he was to teach to his own students later on.
The second event, which is not so widely known, except to students of the late sifu Wong Shun Leung (and anyone who attended his seminars on the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form over the years), concerns the fact that sifu Wong’s “version” of the first form contains an extra movement in the third section. The following story explains this fact. While fighting a rather stubborn opponent during one of sifu Wong’s many celebrated “contests”, his opponent, in a fit of desperation and at the point of exhaustion, dropped to one knee and lashed out with a punch which sifu Wong attempted to deflect with the ‘Jam Sau’ movement contained within his form. Because the attack was so low, the ‘Jam Sau’ only partially deflected the blow which then struck Wong in the upper thigh, leading to an injury which nagged him for months. He of course went on to dispatch his opponent, afterwhich he and Grandmaster Yip got into some heavy discussion about what had transpired.
As a result of this discussion, Yip Man advised his students to include the technique known as ‘Gaan Sau’ in place of the ‘Jam Sau’ previously found in this section of the form. Prior to this time, the ‘Gaan Sau’ technique was only seen in the ‘Biu Ji’ and ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) forms. Sifu Wong decided that both techniques were important (especially in view of the fact that the ‘Jam Sau’ is an integral part of the basic single-hand ‘Chi Sau’ exercise), and so continued to include both, while most, if not all of his contemporaries (the instructors of today) dropped the “old” technique in favour of the “new” one.
According to sifu Wong, Grandmaster Yip Man had explained to him that the ‘Jam Sau’ movement had been taught to him by Leung Bik, his second teacher, who had been a very small man and had not needed to make much use of the lower action ‘Gaan Sau’. Chan Wa Sun, on the other hand, being a taller man, would often make use of the lower action as many of his opponents had been smaller than himself, and therefore were more likely to hit lower. Grandmaster Yip, being more influenced by his second teacher, Leung Bik, had therefore altered his form accordingly. ‘Jam Sau’ is also a much more subtle action than the ‘Gaan Sau’ movement and therefore less likely to be included in the arsenal of a man like Chan who tended to just blast his opponents out of his way.
It has often been suggested, though not proven by any means, that Yip Man taught in a fairly un-systematic way, tending to pass on skills according to the student’s size, reach and so on. It is also said that he didn't have much time for his slower, less intelligent or less diligent students, and actually taught few people the entire system in person. This, in turn, possibly led to the fact that many people learnt by observing others training, rather than at first-hand, and that quite a few of these individuals actually learnt a “second-hand” or even “third-hand” version of ving tsun, filling the gaps in their knowledge with guesswork based on what they could recall seeing others do, or even worse, making it up out of their own imagination. This, of course, gave rise to the variations in technique (and the interpretation of these techniques) extant today amongst instructors of the same generation, not to mention those of their younger ving tsun brothers and sisters.
Of all Yip Man’s students, sifu Wong Shun Leung probably spent the longest time under his tutelage because it was sifu Wong who in fact did most of the teaching in Yip Man’s school over the years. Whereas most of the other senior students opened their own schools and went about doing things their own way quite early on, Wong did not have a school of his own until the end of the 60s. Wong was therefore always close to his teacher, could confer with his teacher and, most importantly, could train with and observe his teacher thereby picking up many of the subtleties which his peers never did. Sifu Wong was also the one student of Yip Man who always put everything he had learnt to the test so he soon developed what can only be described as an intimate knowledge of the ving tsun system. Becoming known throughout Hong Kong as ‘Gong Sau Wong’, or the “King of Talking with the Hands”, sifu Wong took the ving tsun system to a whole new level and was never defeated in dozens of real life encounters with practitioners of a myriad of martial styles.
All of the ideas and opinions expressed above would tend to be supported by the fact that the majority of ving tsun teachers have a fairly similar looking ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form (though concepts and applications still tend to vary), but that the more advanced forms differ by greater and greater amounts, often appearing like completely different systems! To make matters worse, some of these teachers have withheld certain techniques from their students, or have been unable (or unwilling) to teach certain techniques or concepts at a given time or to particular students. What a present day instructor teaches therefore has many factors influencing it, depending on what his instructor learnt directly from his teacher, or what he may have learnt indirectly from other sources (ie. other students).
We need to bear these factors in mind, and understand that ving tsun is a unique system of Chinese boxing, unlike any other fighting art, Chinese or otherwise. The ving tsun system is strongly influenced (one could say, obsessed) with three main qualities. These are DIRECTNESS, EFFICIENCY and SIMPLICITY. These three qualities are immediately evident in any genuine representation of the system, from the physical application of the techniques to the structure, practise and content of the six training forms (‘Siu Nim Tau’, ‘Cham Kiu’, ‘Biu Ji’, ‘Muk Yan Jong’, ‘Luk Dim Boon Gwan’ and ‘Baat Jaam Do’). While one would assume that the majority of ving tsun practitioners are aware of these three qualities, some present day instructors defy all logic by ignoring them altogether! How often have we seen sequences of movements where the instructor demonstrating his or her defence against various forms of attack, takes five or six techniques to deal with a situation that should only have taken one, or at most, two techniques to control?
What is even more disturbing (and frustrating) is that many very intelligent people blindly continue to follow such instructors, even when confronted by convincing arguments which clearly prove that what they are doing does not conform to this very logical approach. Instead, they take what is basically a simple, straightforward method, and turn it into a complicated and less efficient one. Like the person who pulls the flower to pieces to discover its beauty, they completely miss the point, becoming obsessed with needless analysis. So many ving tsun practitioners invent endless sequences of defensive actions when what is clearly the obvious message of the system is that “attack is ALWAYS the best form of defence”.
Let's pause here to define, in simple terms, what is meant by these three above-mentioned qualities:-
DIRECTNESS: Extending or moving in a straight line, or by the shortest route; not crooked or oblique; going straight to the point.
EFFICIENCY: Productive; with minimum waste of effort; ratio of useful work performed to energy expended.
SIMPLICITY: Easily understood or done; not complicated or elaborate; consisting of, or involving only one element of operation.
By recognising and understanding these three concepts, deciding if what you are learning or teaching is valid and/or deserving of the title VING TSUN!! should (if one has an open mind and a willingness to improve) be a relatively easy process. The sad fact is, however, that the majority of people do tend to freely accept much of what they are told by their instructors when in fact some healthy scepticism, coupled with some positive discussion and experimentation, could and would lead to a better standard of ving tsun throughout the world. We are in no way advocating anarchy in the classroom, simply that instructors should encourage their students to think rather than blindly follow, to seek out ways of making what they do even more DIRECT, EFFICIENT and SIMPLE.
This is the attitude with which the late Bruce Lee approached his personal training, leading to the development of his now well-known fighting concepts. Lee departed Hong Kong as a very young man and found himself without an instructor and with an incomplete knowledge of the ving tsun system. However, he knew enough of the concepts of the system to realise that by applying those same three qualities to other ideas and methods, he could begin to fill the gaps in his knowledge. Interestingly, sifu Wong Shun Leung, now generally acknowledged by many to be the most influential teacher Bruce Lee ever had, noted that the more Lee explored the intricacies of combat, the more his ideas and techniques began to resemble the ving tsun he would have eventually learnt had he remained in Hong Kong! In their many all night discussion-come-training sessions on those occasions when Lee returned to Hong Kong to work, sifu Wong found that Lee was rediscovering many of ving tsun’s most basic concepts in his efforts to develop ways of becoming more DIRECT, EFFICIENT and SIMPLE. It is unfortunate that Lee’s own followers have in many ways missed the point of his philosophy, complicating things when the whole idea was to make everything more streamlined.
Present day instructors need to take a long hard look at themselves and what they teach, to put aside pride and ego in preference to developing a higher standard of teaching. Even if it means going back to the basics to re-learn and perfect their knowledge, surely it’s worth it, and their students will respect them for it as well, not to mention the pride the instructor will feel when he starts being honest with himself and starts producing even better students. Take it from two people who have been down that very same road....it’s a big step to take but you'll never regret taking it. Having had our eyes well and truly opened up by our teacher, sifu Wong, after many years of far less efficient ving tsun training (under an instructor with a poor understanding of the system), we’ve never looked back!
In the long run, when all is said and done, the concepts of ving tsun are far more important than any particular technique/combination, though obviously if the movement being utilised meets the aforementioned criteria (DIRECT, EFFICIENT and SIMPLE) it has far more likelihood of succeeding. With this in mind, the examples offered on these pages are not to be taken as “The Way”, but as illustrations of methods already available to the ving tsun practitioner within the basic forms, examples which exhibit the three qualities being discussed. In particular it is hoped that they clearly show how the “tools” within the forms can be applied as needed, rather than in set combinations as practised in the training forms. As sifu Wong Shun Leung so often repeated over the years, "Be the master of ving tsun, not it’s slave!"
To put it even more plainly, the sequence of the movements in the ving tsun forms MUST NOT be taken literally, to be copied and applied verbatim, because if so used, the real purpose for doing them is missed altogether, often with disastrous results. The forms contain a combination of theory and technique, of structured movements and concepts which, when seen in the right perspective, provide the ving tsun student with a system of combat which adapts naturally to any situation, without the need to rote learn an infinite number of combinations to deal with an equally infinite number of possibilities. Like a well-equipped workshop, the ving tsun forms provide a full range of tools from which one may choose to make use of within a given situation, but there is no need to use all the tools all of the time, nor in any fixed sequence. To put it another way, we only use the ingredients required by the recipe at hand, we don’t just empty the pantry because it’s full, and not all dishes require the ingredients to be used in the same order.
Like learning a language, ving tsun starts with an alphabet through the practise of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form (the “young idea” from which everything grows), and then proceeds to teach the student to make words and sentences, to “engage in conversation” in a natural way, responding to the opponent’s movements and the changes that angling and positioning bring to the basic concepts of the first form. This is the purpose of the ‘Cham Kiu’ form which provides the keys for “finding & maintaining the bridge” with the opponent. Finally, like the tertiary stage in one’s education, ‘Biu Ji’ form highlights the need for looking beyond one’s own ideas, to step outside one’s own universe and consider potential weaknesses or problems and to apply the logic of the three qualities mentioned so as to overcome adverse situations whilst sustaining the least amount of damage to oneself. The ‘Biu Ji’ form “points the finger” to the fact that rules sometimes need to be broken, that no one and no method is infallible.
Finally, through ‘Chi Sau’ (“sticky hands”) training, the ving tsun student learns to utilise this knowledge and to improve his or her skills and understanding in a free-flowing exercise that develops the “language” and is forever emphasising the need for, and advantages of DIRECTNESS, EFFICIENCY and SIMPLICITY. Although ‘Chi Sau’ is not fighting per se, it encourages the development of reflexes necessary for effectively responding to situations where one is grabbed, pushed, dragged or otherwise prevented from completing one’s own attack (by virtue of clashing limbs), at the very range where real combat generally takes place, and where split second changes at a sub-conscious level mean the difference between defeat or victory. As such, ‘Chi Sau’ provides the perfect environment in which to develop the skills to control the most dangerous (and most likely) range in which one may find themselves, and where most people (and many systems) lack the necessary skills to survive.
As a final point, please keep in mind that this article has been written with the deliberate intention of provoking some thought, comment or inquiry into what it actually is that some instructors/schools are teaching. It is our intention to make ving tsun practitioners everywhere question the validity of what they have been taught, to test the effectiveness and practicality of their “brand” of ving tsun, and to be prepared to change their approach if it fails to live up to the definition presented here. It is also deliberately aimed at the average martial arts enthusiast, and to those contemplating becoming involved in the martial arts, to help them sort out the VING TSUN!! from the VING TSUN?? To this end we can only hope that we have succeeded in invoking a response which will lead to an even brighter future for this most dynamic form of Chinese boxing.
Ving tsun owes its very existence to the fact that somewhere back in time, someone bothered to question the combat theories that they encountered and sought a method that offered more than those at their disposal. Sifu Wong Shun Leung, the “King of the Challenge Fight”, spent much of his life attempting to raise the curtain of ignorance surrounding the martial arts, and to test, improve and teach the ving tsun system minus the “Bull****” that keeps on raising its ugly head time and time again. His personal motto was “...To better myself with each day of training”. Now it’s up to us, the next generation of ving tsun practitioners, to see that we pass on the best system possible, to ensure that only the very best that this system has to offer survives into the 21st century. So then, it’s time to ask yourself, ...how does your ving tsun measure up?
Editors note: The spelling “ving tsun” is the preferred way by which the late sifu Wong Shun Leung, chose to represent, in English, the name of the system he taught, which is otherwise known as “wing chun” in most other publications. The authors, being students of sifu Wong, have also adopted this spelling throughout the following article out of respect for their teacher, and as a means of identifying their lineage.