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Wing Chun: when the “Wong Way” gets results!

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By David Peterson (with thanks to Ernie Barrios & Kevin Bell)

***This article was recently published in the USA-based ‘Masters’ magazine (Spring 2009 issue) under the title “Wing Chun: the Wong Shun Leung Way”

The southern Chinese combat system of wing chun (ving tsun) gung-fu, virtually unknown barely sixty years ago,is now popular throughout the world. There are a number of different interpretations of this system in existence, with various spellings of the name in English, but probably best known and most widely practised is the interpretation known as Hong Kong-style.

Brought there from Fatsaan (Foshan) in mainland China and taught to the wider public for the first time in 1949 by legendary grandmaster and patriarch of the Hong Kong-style, Yip Man, it is somewhat surprising to find that within that one lineage there is an incredible diversity amongst its practitioners. I say surprising because many of the older generation of instructors are themselves all direct students of the late grandmaster, yet so many deviate from the concepts handed down to them by their late teacher.

Amongst his many students, one name that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Wong Shun Leung, also known as ‘Gong Sau Wong’ (“King of Talking Hands”) in recognition of his fearsome reputation as a fighter who almost single-handedly established the reputation of wing chun in Hong Kong’s infamous beimo or “martial comparisons” during the 50s and 60s. An extremely pragmatic individual with a penchant for testing both the limits of his adopted fighting system, as well as his own personal limits, Wong Sifu took the methods passed on to him to a whole new level, applying science and logic to radically advance the effectiveness of what was already a very dynamic and effective fighting method.

How he did this was to look closely at the basic concepts of the system and ensure that he not only completely understood them, but that he tested and proved them under pressure. Once proven to be viable, he then adhered to them absolutely, but if found wanting in any way, Wong Sifu would discard or modify aspects of the system to make the theoretical concepts become a credible reality. So skilful and in tune with combat was he, that his own teacher adopted many of his ideas, or else modified the system as a result of Wong’s experiences.

The outcome of this constant research, testing, modification and development over many years is what he came to refer to as ‘Wing Chun Kuen Hok’ or ‘Scientific Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) Boxing’ – these days, those of us fortunate to have been his students respectfully name it the Wong Shun Leung Method (or WSLVT ) in his honour. Since his untimely passing in January 1997, a handful of dedicated students, both in Hong Kong and scattered around the globe, have done what they can to make sure that his legacy is not lost to the martial arts world. This article is hopefully another small step in that direction.

If wing chun was to be summed up in a sentence, then the traditional maxim ‘Loi Lau Hoi Sung, Lat Sau Jik Chung’ is, in essence, the very basis of how this system operates, …at least in theory. Frustratingly (for purists at least) the fact is that, while most branches of the wing chun family tree proclaim this concept as their “way”, in truth, few interpretations of the system actually convert the concept into reality. It is, however, the perfect summary of how the Wong Shun Leung Method operates, and the foundation upon which all other technical and theoretical aspects of this interpretation of wing chun are derived. In this brief article, I will attempt to provide a summary of what the WSL Method is all about, and how it differs from other approaches, by expanding upon this concept and how it is applied.

The opening phrase of the verse, ‘Loi Lau,’ refers to engaging the enemy: literally, “When it comes, stay with it”. In other words we must aim to form a bridge with the attack (hence the basic notion of the ‘Cham Kiu’ form) by intercepting the path that it takes. Wong Sifu taught that this is best achieved by utilising a “soft” approach, whereby there is little or no rigidity in the arm that first engages, but instead a “spongy” approach where skeletal (structural) strength is used, supported by relaxed muscular action. This is what we seek to develop every time we practice the “fook sau section” of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form. Thus the ‘Loi Lau’ aspect of this concept encompasses and is indicative of both ‘SNT’ and ‘CK’ ideas.

It also points the way towards developing and applying the wing chun trademark skill of ‘Lin Siu Dai Da’ or “simultaneous attack and defence.” Wong Sifu would always insist that the very best way to overcome an adversary was to attack them at the very moment that they were themselves committed to an attack. By extending the ‘Loi Lau’ idea, he taught his students to not only meet the oncoming attack, but to launch ones own counter measure at exactly the same time, thus (as he would say) “Hitting the enemy after he/she has launched the first attack, …but before they can launch another.” This approach can be applied equally against linear or circular attacks, and forms the basis of the ‘Jeet Kune Do’ theory of his famous classmate and former personal student, the late Bruce Lee.

The phrase ‘Hoi Sung’ (literally: “When it leaves, accompany it”) makes reference to the importance of taking advantage of the opponents “errors” by following his/her centre of mass whenever he/she withdraws  hand, leg or body. Normally, and in keeping with the basic principles of human motion and physics, whenever one moves a limb in one direction, they will normally move another limb or part of the body in an opposite direction to counterbalance their position.

Well trained WSL wing chun practitioners are not prone to this “error” as we learn, particularly through ‘Chi Sau’ and related drills, to move our limbs quite independently of each other, whereby quite often one arm may well be attacking while the other arm remains relatively motionless and in control of the opponents hands and/or body. Thus, if and when an enemy tries to withdraw the limb, or indeed the whole body, complying with the ‘Hoi Sung’ concept implies that we immediately follow that withdrawal and seek a pathway to attack, or at the very least, further control and dominate the situation by maintaining a constant threatening position through forward aggression. What it DOES NOT signify (but sadly, what the majority of wing chun lineages in fact do) is that we “chase the hands” without thought and/or control.

Doing so leaves them completely at the mercy of the enemy because, instead of keeping their opponent under attack and therefore in defensive mode, “chasing the hands” allows the enemy to reposition and regain the ability to take control. At its very worst, “chasing hands” turns one into a puppet, completely at the mercy of the opponent, losing position and timing, and exposed to all manner of attack. The place where this problem is most evident is within ‘Chi Sau’ training, with far too many practitionerstotally missing the point of the drill which is NOT to teach one how to fight per se (nor is it meant as a “be-all-and-end-all” means to prepare for combat), but to teach the hands, legs and body to respond automatically to changes of pressure and angle so as to instantly and effectively find the next best pathway to strike the opponent when the initial attempt to attack is inhibited. This is the essence of what ‘Hoi Sung’ is telling us.

The final part of the couplet, ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ is most definitely the most important part of the maxim, and the part of it most quoted by my late Sifu as a means of summarising his approach to wing chun. “When the hands are released, attack directly without hesitation” is a very literal translation of this verse (a Chinese colleague of mine, who does not practise MA, when shown this verse read it as “attack without any worries”) and best describes what we are trying to develop firstly at the beginning of the ‘SNT’ form, and then further enhance through ‘Chi Sau’ and other drills, as well as through what is contained within the ‘CK’ form which is particularly ‘Chi Sau’ specific in nature.

In simple terms, ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ is the ability to attack, with power and effectiveness, the instant that a gap appears in the defences of the enemy, regardless of whether we are consciously aware of the gap or not. It removes the need to see every opening or to engage in conscious decision making in the heat of battle. The ability to apply this concept instinctively means that even when the vision is totally impaired, so long as there is contact of any kind with limb or body, we are able to respond at a neural level, reducing reaction time and virtually guaranteeing the ability to both defend and attack with relative effectiveness.

Wong Sifu often stated that this was the difference between GOOD wing chun and EXCELLENT wing chun, in that the practitioner who could utilise the ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ concept was the one who would be victorious more often. Again, this involves relaxation and the use of “soft” resistance against greater force; if done so, the reaction will apply even when the arms are well off the “Centreline” because the elbow will always find its way back to the centre and drive the fist/palm, etc directly towards the opponent’s centre of mass. To better understand and develop all three attributes, one should regularly go back to the ‘SNT’ form, slow down and relax, check and correct the body structure, and work simple drills with like minded training partners. Many wing chun devotees could enhance their skills and understanding by assessing how well they are utilising this fundamental and essential concept.

WSLVT is not just about the thinking, but about the training methods, methods that offer constant checks and balances to develop the habits that such concepts guide us to cultivate. Everyone can say the words, but few can bring out consistent results in the average man – this was where Wong Sifu excelled as a teacher par excellence. For him, wing chun had to be relevant for modern times, and he taught it as a concept-based system that was adaptive, its purpose to create individuals, free thinkers and problem solvers, not people repeating the loop like a broken record. This is the why the “Wong Way” gets results where others fail to do so.

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