WONG SHUN LEUNG VING TSUN GUNG-FU A Scientific Approach to Combat
by David Peterson
Author’s Note: For those “in the know” in the world of ving tsun gung-fu (or wing chun gung-fu, the spelling variant by which this combat system is better known), the late Wong sifu is famous (or at least deserves to be) for two very good reasons, especially in Hong Kong where he was based until his death in January of 1997. The first reason is due to his formidable reputation as an unbeaten participant in dozens of “no-holds-barred” tests of skill (beimo) in the Hong Kong of the ‘50s and ‘60s, against practitioners of a myriad of Chinese and other fighting disciplines. He became known as Gong Sau Wong, “King of Talking With the Hands”, quite literally putting the previously unknown ving tsun system of the late grandmaster Yip Man on the martial arts map. The second reason, for which I hasten to add that he never personally claimed credit, was that Wong sifu was the late Bruce Lee’s most influential instructor prior to his departure to fame and glory in the United States. It is well known that Lee was a student of the Yip Man school, but it was in fact under the direct instruction of Wong Shun Leung that he learnt his most valuable lessons, and it was Wong’s philosophy of combat that steered Lee in his quest for martial arts perfection. Bruce Lee’s own original student in the USA, sifu Jesse Glover, maintains that if it were not for Wong Shun Leung and his influence, the world would never have seen the greatness that was Bruce Lee. With Wong sifu’s passing, the world has certainly lost one of the great warriors and teachers of the 20th century, a man who was as brilliant an instructor, as he was a fighter, something most would agree is a rarity. His pragmatic approach to combat was honed in the real world, not in the relative safety of the kwoon, dojo or dojang, and as such, his interpretation of the ving tsun system truly reflects the reality of what personal combat is all about. With respect to him, the spelling “ving tsun” that he preferred, has been used throughout this article. He coined this spelling way back in the early 60s when he became annoyed that rival styles, jealous of his successes in the challenge fights, started referring to WC as “toilet fist”, so he chose to use the less phonetically less accurate VT spelling, which he liked to say stood for “victory fist”. I hope that the reader will enjoy this introduction to his the legacy he has left us with.
The Wong Shun Leung (WSL) ving tsun system of Chinese gung-fu is not a style for robots, nor is it a form of martial arts practiced purely for its visual appeal. It is the thinking person’s fighting art, perfectly suited to today’s high-tech environment where quick results and practicality are the chief requirements of any activity. This is not to say that WSL ving tsun is beyond the reach of the “average” person, nor does it suggest that WSL ving tsun is an “ugly” martial art. On the contrary, WSL ving tsun has an inherent beauty all its own – it is simple, direct and efficient, and offers a no-nonsense approach to combat.
To learn and make use of WSL ving tsun, one doesn’t (and should not) have to concern oneself with the drilling of endless combinations of techniques to deal with endless possible situations. WSL ving tsun is not a system which requires the rote learning of set sequences of movement. Instead, it makes use of a handful of concepts, coupled with a small repertoire of techniques (which are all derived from just six basics – taan sau, bong sau, fook sau, the basic vertical punch (yat ji jik kuen), basic stance (yi ji kim yeung ma), and the dang geuk, or basic “ascending heel kick”) to deal with any situation. These concepts and techniques are taught within the three basic forms (or “empty-hand” training patterns) and are collectively trained via a series of reflex drills, the most famous of which is chi sau, or “sticking hands” technique.
The road to proficiency in WSL ving tsun begins with the first form – siu nim tau, or “young idea” form – which lays the foundation for all which follows. Siu nim tau exposes the student of WSL ving tsun to all the basic concepts, such as the Centreline Theory and the principle of Economy of Motion, and the cultivation of constant forward force (lat sau jik chung), the most basic essential requirement of the ving tsun system. It guides the student through the various hand techniques which form the basis of chi sau practice, and also offers some practical solutions to many of the typical grappling-type attacks that can occur in combat, such as wrist grabs, arm-locks, bear hugs, and so on.
Although the siu nim tau form contains no movement of the feet or stance, it provides the basis of all stepping and kicking techniques in the guise of the basic “goat-gripping” stance (yi ji kim yeung ma). This is not a “fighting form” like those of other systems, where the practitioner goes through the motions of fighting one or more opponents. In fact, in WSL ving tsun, none of the training patterns could be regarded as “fighting forms” – they are more like “moving textbooks” of theory and technique, set out in a logical and very structured fashion. Siu nim tau form is practised in a stationary position, from beginning to end, the ving tsun approach being to train the concepts without motion first so as to perfect positioning and structure, and to prevent the ving tsun fighter from over using or over-relying on footwork, as well as developing stability, balance and a “power base” for all techniques.
Stance-shifting and stepping is only used when necessary, in response to the opponent’s actions, and it is not introduced formally until the second form, cham kiu, in which kicking is also seen (although both stepping and kicking are normally taught separately prior to learning cham kiu). In this second form, the concepts of motion and angles are explored, adding to the knowledge already developed in siu nim tau. Likewise, chi sau is also practiced in a stationary position first, footwork only being added when arm positions and efficiency of technique have been developed to the point where the addition of footwork is both necessary and applicable.
Like siu nim tau, the chi sau exercise begins with one hand, then two in unison, and finally the independent use of both hands, often with one hand performing several movements in sequence. Chi sau is really the siu nim tau form with a partner, each person either acting on, or reacting to, their partner’s techniques, competing for control of the Centreline. Footwork is used sparingly, and where necessary, to achieve the most favourable angles or positions for the concepts and techniques of siu nim tau to be applied.
The siu nim tau form can be thought of as the “alphabet”, the “primary school” stage of learning in WSL ving tsun. It provides the student with the building blocks, the basic “letters” and “words” of the WSL ving tsun “language”. Cham kiu form helps the student to understand and exploit subtle variations that can occur to the “words” and “expressions” of the first form. Where siu nim tau is very “one-dimensional” in its concept of the “target”, like shooting at a stationary target from a stationary position, cham kiu is “multi-dimensional” in its approach, in that it considers the complex reality of hitting a moving target while oneself also in motion. Like a kind of “middle/secondary school” stage, cham kiu allows the WSL ving tsun student to practice the more complex “combinations of words” while at the same time adding some “new expressions” to the student’s “vocabulary”. Finally, chi sau acts as the “university” stage, allowing the WSL ving tsun practitioner to explore and perfect the use of the “language” in a free-flowing exercise in which anything can, and does, take place.
This then is the very practical stage where the students are exposed to an ever-changing, unpredictable environment and must learn, by trial and error, to express themselves in a natural, free-flowing and efficient manner, making use of all that the previous stages have made available to them. By constantly drilling their skills against partners whose techniques are as efficient as their own, WSL ving tsun practitioners are able to fine-tune their skills and reflexes to the point where they will react instinctively, without conscious thought, to counter their opponent’s attack with a superior attack, and not to engage in unnecessary defensive actions, the so-called “chasing the hands” syndrome common in many interpretations of this style. They learn to become the master of the system, making it serve them, instead of impeding their progress with too much thought and analysis. The “what ifs” that plague and over-complicate other interpretations of ving tsun, play no role in WSL ving tsun because students are trained to only react to “what is”, always putting reality and substance ahead of style and appearance.
At the cham kiu/chi sau stage of learning, the muk yan jong (“wooden dummy”) form is usually commenced. The jong provides the WSL ving tsun student with someone to practice with when there isn’t a “live” training partner available, or when something more dangerous needs to be drilled with full power and intensity. More importantly, it also provides one with a training partner who will never become bored with endless repetitions of one or more movements. The jong allows for techniques from all three “empty-hand” forms to be trained, as well as many variations of the basic kicking technique. Correct distancing, timing, application of force, striking and trapping techniques can all be drilled with this training apparatus.
Ving tsun’s third form, biu ji, offers the student a collection of practical solutions for situations where the techniques from siu nim tau and cham kiu have been mis-used or countered, or in instances where the WSL ving tsun fighter has been injured, overpowered or otherwise caught out of position. In other words, biu ji is a “problem-solving” form, its purpose being to look at ving tsun from “outside” the system to see what could go wrong, and to provide, or else inspire, a solution which may, or may not, require the “bending of the rules” in order to regain control of the situation, or at the very least, survive and escape it. The late Wong Shun Leung sifu, founder of and inspiration behind this approach to ving tsun, likened the theory of biu ji to a smart modern businessman’s attempts to survive an impending financial crisis – in other words, it provides one with strategies and/or methods for “cutting one’s losses” in order to escape relatively unscathed. Wong sifu was always quick to add, when speaking about this form, that if the occasion arose where biu ji concepts needed to be applied, one had better realise that the situation was already quite serious, and that there was a very real chance of sustaining injury – WSL ving tsun practitioners therefore always hope that they will not need to make use of the techniques or concepts of the biu ji form as these do not guarantee victory, but rather only really offer some hope of survival under extreme circumstances.
Formal training in WSL ving tsun ends with the learning of the two weapons of the system. These are of course the luk dim boon gwan (“6½-point pole” form) and the baat jaam do (“eight-slash knives” form). Few people reach this stage of training, even fewer ending up mastering these weapons. The basic principles of directness and logic still apply, however, and any differences in technical application are readily explainable once the extra length and/or weight and physical characteristics of the weapons are taken into account. There is also the important fact that these forms were designed to counter an enemy who is also armed, hence the strategies of distance, stepping and so on may differ from the “empty-hands” forms, but the underlying principles remain the same.
Although there are those people who claim that traditional weapons have no place in modern martial arts, the usefulness in learning the ving tsun weapons should not be underestimated. The concepts contained within the weapons forms are just as applicable to “empty-hand” training, and lay a foundation which can be applied to many objects commonly at hand which would enable them to be utilised in combat with great efficiency and effect. These factors aside, there is still the very obvious benefit to the health and well-being as the weight and size of these weapons forces one to train much harder, developing strength and stamina as a result. Both weapons are especially valuable in developing strong wrists (from where much of the power in the hand techniques is derived) as well as strong, yet nimble footwork.
Progress in WSL ving tsun is of course up to the student and his or her teacher. The teacher must keep an open mind and really understand the theory of the system, while the student must work hard, making the most of each opportunity to train. It is important to realise that there are no “right” or “wrong” techniques in the system, only more or less efficient ones. In WSL ving tsun, the angle of the arm is never as important as the concept behind the movement, so long as logic and commonsense is always applied. One has to make the system work for them, to be the master of ving tsun, not its slave!
Too many people are bound-up by this technique or that technique, and in doing so, fail to see the simplicity and logic of the ving tsun concepts. Far too many people place barriers in front of their own development as martial artists by dismissing another person’s approach as “not ving tsun” when what they ought to be concerned with is the practicality and efficiency of what they have observed. After all, it is the end result that should be of the highest priority, that is, the defeat of the opponent. In simple terms, as far as WSL ving tsun is concerned, the “golden rule” of combat is to strike the nearest target with the closest available weapon, regardless of whether or not that means adhering to “classical/traditional” ving tsun techniques!
As the ving tsun system is one built on concepts rather than specific techniques, there are bound to be variations amongst its many practitioners. Surely this is to the betterment of the system for it indicates that the skills are being adapted to the changing needs of the practitioners, that it is being used rather than just copied. As stated at the beginning of this article, WSL ving tsun is not a style for robots, but for people who can think for themselves and who wish to express themselves through their chosen martial art. It was with this kind of thinking, and with the inspiration of his teacher and senior ving tsun brother Wong Shun Leung sifu, that the late Bruce Lee reached such an outstanding level of expertise through his art of jeet kune do, which was very simply his personal expression of the ving tsun concepts. This has been confirmed many times by his friend and original student, sifu Jesse Glover, who refutes all claims made by latter-day students and others that Lee ever “gave up” his beloved ving tsun.
As far as WSL ving tsun is concerned, students and teachers alike should keep two sayings in mind at all times so as to approach their training in the most positive and realistic way. The first, a paraphrase of the words of Confucius, the celebrated Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived over two thousand years ago, goes as follows: “One can learn for a lifetime and still not master all knowledge”. That is to say, there is always something to learn or improve, and someone from whom one can learn, regardless of age, status, sex or experience. Put more simply, you never stop learning and should strive to keep an open mind to ensure that you don’t. The second is a quote from Wong sifu, who said many times, “It doesn’t matter how senior you are, but how good you are. You need to study hard”. The message here is loud and clear. To sum up, as long as the teacher teaches the student to understand the concepts of the system and encourages the student to train hard, the necessary skills will be there when called upon, and the student and teacher alike will improve their skills as each day goes by. This is the most valuable lesson given to us by one who truly lived this philosophy throughout his lifetime, and who left us such a brilliant legacy in the form of his very pragmatic approach to combat.
Wong Shun Leung sifu, who preferred to call his interpretation of the system ‘Ving Tsun Kuen Hok’, or the “Science of Ving Tsun Gung-fu”, encouraged his followers to always “look beyond his pointing finger”, to take the knowledge that he gave us and train it, test it, prove or disprove it, and where necessary, discard it, refine or improve upon it, so as to reach our own potential through the system, and not to merely mimic him like cheap copies of an original work of art. For this reason, we his followers will be forever grateful to him for opening our eyes to both our own potential, and that of the system. It is also for this reason that we openly and unselfishly strive to share this knowledge with all ving tsun devotees around the world, just as he openly and generously shared it with us over the years that we were fortunate to learn from him. As a means of recognising and celebrating his gift to us, we proudly promote what we have chosen to name Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Gung-fu in his honour. Hopefully, you the reader may perhaps soon become a convert to the “WSL Way”, or at least open your mind to ideas that will enhance your own personal development as a martial artist, regardless of your background, lineage or chosen style.
About the Author:
David Peterson, 50, has been training in the Chinese martial arts since 1973. He became a student of Sifu Wong Shun Leung after travelling to Hong Kong in 1983. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, where he majored in Chinese studies, and a teacher of the Chinese language for over twenty years, having now taught at two of Melbourne's most prestigious private schools, 'Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar' and 'Camberwell Grammar School'. Peterson is a speaker of both the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects, and principal instructor of the ‘Melbourne Chinese Martial Arts Club’ (MCMAC) which he established in 1983, and where he instructs in the “Wong Shun Leung Way”.
Peterson is one of only two qualified instructors of Wong’s system in Australia, authorised by Sifu Wong personally before his death, and a fully endorsed member of the world-wide ‘Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) Martial Arts Association’ and the Hong Kong-based 'Ving Tsun Athletic Association'. Peterson interpreted for his teacher whenever Sifu Wong conducted seminars in Australia, and in 1996 was employed as script translator on Jackie Chan’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’, which was shot on location in Melbourne. Actively involved in the local Chinese community, Peterson is the only non-Chinese member of the 'Melbourne Chinese Masonic Society' ('Man Ji Dong') and a prominent member of their Lion Dance Team. He is a former Victorian Chairman of the 'Federation of Australasian Kung-fu Organizations' (FAKO), a position he held for eight consecutive years, and an Accredited Coach under the 'National Coaching Accreditation Scheme' (NCAS) run by the Australian Federal Government.
He is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in many local (Australian) and overseas journals, including ‘Combat’, ‘Inside Kung-fu’, ‘Black Belt’, ‘Masters of the Martial Arts’, ‘Impact: the Action Movie Magazine’, ‘Eastern Heroes’, ‘Australasian Fighting Arts’, ‘Blitz Australasian Martial Arts Magazine’, ‘Traditional Martial Arts Journal’, ‘Impact Martial Arts Magazine’, ‘Qi Magazine’, ‘Australasian Martial Arts Magazine’, ‘Martial Arts Illustrated’, ‘Kung Fu Qigong Magazine’, ‘Fight Times’, ‘Ging Wing Chun’, ‘Kicksider’ and ‘Kung-fu Illustrierte’. More recently, his articles have featured on several international Web sites, including ‘wingchunkuen.com’, ‘Planet Wing Chun’, ‘Wing Chun World’, ‘vtmuseum.org’ and ‘WongShunLeung.com’.
In 1998, Peterson was invited to America for the first time by Sifu Jesse Glover, the late Bruce Lee's original student, teaching in both Seattle and Los Angeles. In November 1999, Peterson was a guest presenter at the '1st World Ving Tsun Conference' in Hong Kong, presenting his views on the future of the Wing Chun system. A highly respected seminar presenter of the ‘WSL Method’ of Wing Chun, both in Australia and overseas, Peterson travelled to the USA for a second time in 2000 to conduct seminars and workshops at the 'Ving Tsun Museum' in Dayton, Ohio, and to an enthusiastic group of Wing Chun and JKD enthusiasts in Orlando and Fort Myers, Florida.
In July 2003, on the invitation of devotees of the ‘WSL Method’ there, he travelled to the UK for the first time, conducting seminars and workshops in Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Southampton and London (St Albans). While there, he was interviewed by both ‘Combat’ and ‘Martial Arts Illustrated’ magazines, two of Britain’s most prominent martial arts journals. As a result of the success of this trip, a second trip to the UK took place in September with seminars and workshops being presented in Whitley Bay, and again in both Newcastle and Manchester. A third trip to the UK took place in April of this year (2005), followed by yet another in July to both Manchester and Southampton. So successful was that visit, that he was invited back to both places again in September by the ‘Stockport Wing Chun Academy’ (sifu Ged Kennerk) and the ‘Wing Chun Federation’ (sifu Alan Gibson)! This year (2006) there were two more trips to the UK, a trip to Denmark, and a trip to Holland. As this document was being written, two more seminar trips were booked in for 2007, while talks are underway for return trips to Denmark and Holland, as well as a possible first trip to Bulgaria to spread the WSL Method even further a field! Peterson is the author of ‘Look Beyond the Pointing Finger: the Combat Philosophy of Wong Shun Leung’, the first-ever English language book on his teacher’s interpretation of the Wing Chun system, published in September of 2001. It is hoped that a second edition will be available in 2007, as well as a DVD detailing the SiuNim Tau and Cham Kiu forms.
David Peterson can be contacted by mail at: PO Box 150, Ivanhoe, Victoria 3079, Australia; by telephone at: 0407-043-303 (International: +61-407-043-303); or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org and the website of the ‘MCMAC’ can be found at: www.wslwingchun.com and www.citywingchun.com.au.
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