Wing Chun is today a popular art of combat thanks to Donnie Yen’s series of Ip Man movies. And thanks to Bruce Lee too for pioneering the popularity of an art he once learned, incomplete as his learning may be.
However, the popularity and rapid spread of Wing Chun, particularly that of the Ip Man lineage, comes at a cost – lowering of standards of performance and deviation from the principles and characteristics that define the art regardless of lineage and style.
It is very common for practitioners to identify themselves with the teacher, the lineage, the style and the method, in this order. What is uncommon is for the practitioner to identify themselves in the reverse order that is by the method, the style, the lineage and then the teacher.
If you are interested in improving and eventually mastering Wing Chun skills then following the latter will allow you a better chance of doing so. This is because you are more interested in learning and understanding Wing Chun instead of being captivated by the teacher and glorious tales of the lineage.
Why I say this is because you cannot master a style by being associated with its name and history. I won’t even mention the landmines of lineage wars, inter-seniors rivalries, issue of fake, modified versus fake forms, and so on.
Instead, you master the way by knowing what you are practicing, putting in the practice time, and getting corrections until you are on the path to mastery rather than muddling along in the perception that you are going forward but in reality you are not.
Do not be discouraged by certain styles that claim exclusivity to certain knowledge, certain forms, certain techniques. What man can create, man can rediscover. After all, there are only so many ways the human body can move anatomically and in conformity to the laws of physics.
On the other hand, be wary of those who add too much stuff from other styles into their Wing Chun to the point of losing the flavor, characteristic and the plot altogether. Nowadays, certain teachers like to add internal arts such as Tai Chi to their Wing Chun and claim that their Wing Chun is internal. The only thing I see happening is that their Wing Chun has changed to the point whereby it should not be called Wing Chun any more.
Do not misunderstand me, I am not against learning other styles to help you understand Wing Chun or eventually importing stuff to elevate it. But you first have to know what Wing Chun is. If you do not know what the design of the art is by mastering it properly then how do you modify it and what are you actually changing?
In the beginning there was no rose, only a seed. Then the seed grew into a rose. For a while, how long I know not, there was only one rose. Later, there came more varieties of roses. Guess how many varieties of roses there are today?
150. Yes, that’s right. There is an estimated 150 species of roses today. And they are not all red in color!
Similarly, there was no Wing Chun in the beginning. Whatever Wing Chun was before it likely came from Shaolin. Most of us know that Wing Chun came to Fatshan by the red boats. Not many know that Wing Chun also came in via the road.
Today we know of two major styles that we differentiate by the name Wing Chun (咏春) and Weng Chun (永春). We say that both styles are not the same. If we were to take a glance at the forms they seem to be different so we conclude that they are not the same.
However, it is said that originally there was no Wing Chun (咏春). There was only one Weng Chun (永春). For a long time only the name Weng Chun (永春) was used for both styles. At a certain point the name Wing Chun (咏春) began to be used as a means to differentiate between the old and the new, with Wing Chun (咏春) being the new, as the old ways fell out of favor with the government of the day, with things old at risk of persecution if not prosecution.
The anticipated persecution did not come to pass but the name Wing Chun (咏春) continued to be used and what was temporary became permanent. At some point a single style became two styles, and within each style occurred more sub-division.
The Ip Man style came from the school of Chan Wah Shun, who himself learned from Leung Jan. The style of Chan Wah Shun as it exists today is more complex than the style of Ip Man which by itself has fragmented into sub-styles based on lineages.
You would think that within the style of Ip Man there would be general consensus as to what this style constitutes. I guess there are when it comes to the number of forms. As for the rest the politics of who learned what, who learned not what, secret dim mak, secret footwork claims have for a period of time torn the style apart inside.
To a student learning Wing Chun the claims and counter-claims can be confusing. Most students just stuck to learning and kept the politics out, perhaps hoping, praying that they are learning the right stuff.
If you don’t care, couldn’t care about the diversity then all was well. But if you are even remotely curious, perhaps wondering why the differences are there even though they came from the same source the answer is more likely than not a case of when the person learned it, his learning capability, his understanding, his personality quirks (like how some masters like it hard while others like it soft), etc.
Still, if one were to claim that his was the style of Ip Man as opposed to his version of the style of Ip Man then questions would arise as to the differences between the art of old and the art of new. I personally find the differences interesting yet perplexing, wondering which is the approach used by Ip Man and which favored by the master of the current lineage.
Fortunately, there exists stories of Ip Man’s prowess, many not just hearsay but witnessed by his students. That and the existence of the boxing maxims of Leung Jan which was passed around different schools of Wing Chun in China act as indicators as to what Ip’s approach might have been.
Will the real Ip Man Wing Chun stand up?
I don’t think there is a definitive version of what the real Ip Man Wing Chun is. There might be different versions of what the style was at different times in Ip Man’s life.
There might be a Ip Man style as it exists at the time of his learning from Ng Chung So. Another version may arise at a certain time when he associated with Yuen Kay San. There might be more but I doubt we will ever really know.
What we have heard is that by the time Ip Man came to Hong Kong he had already forgotten forms like the wooden dummy. To reconstruct the dummy he went to see his uncle who was a master of Weng Chun (永春) in Dai Duk Lan. What else he picked up, what else he changed is an open question.
Still, what was Ip Man’s kung fu like? It has been written that he was fond of the use of kicks, he was able to fight a boxer (a young Wong Shun Leung) who showed up to challenge him and he used a posture that looked like he could be pushed over.
One Trunk, Many Branches
Today many practitioners of Ip Man style of Wing Chun is claiming authenticity of what I would say are branches of the tree, rather than the trunk itself.
Branches are good, branches are fine but when possible I want to go with the trunk, or glimpses of the trunk. The way some practitioners argue over the branches make it seem as if their way is that of the trunk, not the branches.
Each practitioner finds the way that works for him. For example, Ip Man liked to kick but not everyone does. The typical dummy that Ip Man taught has eight sections. However, there is a version taught by Ip Man that has nine sections. In this ninth section we can see how kicks are built into the style and how they can be injurious perhaps lethal when used by the right person.
In seeing the many versions of Wing Chun and Weng Chun I sometimes become confused. Why this, why that? I had so many questions but no forthcoming answers.
I would see one style of Wing Chun and they would have one technique that another style did not have. At one point I had to ask was the missing technique originally there but gone missing during the course of transmission or the missing technique is a newly created technique.
On a broader level if all Wing Chun (let’s not consider Weng Chun here) are family, coming from the same source why can’t the learning of one style help me to answer and understand the different approach of another style from the same family. After all, if the seed is the same then this should be the case but it mostly is not.
Learning more Ip Man style Wing Chun, learning other styles of Wing Chun did not answer my question. I only ended with more questions. I continued to look, to seek but did not seem to see an ending. When will this end, if ever?
The problem is that I was learning models specific to the sub-style rather than the general model which can be applied to all styles of Wing Chun, which can be customized if desired, built on, modified, changed but essentially the same, just expressed differently for whatever reasons.
Is there ever a general model that was passed down intact? Today I would venture to answer I do not know if any model, however ancient it claims to be, is passed down intact. My opinion is that it is impossible to pass down a model as we originally learned it because our own understanding, own bias would creep in. Models change, how much is the question.
Sometimes we end up with a part of the model, hence the limited model causes us to have more questions than answers. You would know when you have a general model because it will allow you to answer many questions about your own style. In addition, you can also use it to understand the other styles of Wing Chun in spite of the different lineages because remember originally the style came from a common point of origin.
In my research and study of the art I have been taught a model that comes close to what a general model is like. The model is robust enough to allow me to answer many questions as well as apply it to analyze a different style of Wing Chun. I had to promise not to reveal what this model is to the public and I can understand why in light of how certain masters have used the traditional maxims from another style of Wing Chun to alter their style and then market their revamped style as an internal style.
What is Wing Chun? Today some masters want to elevate the marketing of their art by claiming Wing Chun is an internal art.
Is Wing Chun an internal art?
Traditionally, Chinese martial arts are said to have internal and external components rather than being an internal or an external style. At some point in history the styles of Xingyiquan, Baguazhang and Taijiquan were categorized as internal styles and elevated to a high level of desirability. I feel that this is nonsense because every style has their merits and used by the right exponent is very bit as effective as the next style.
However, the internal label stuck to the three styles of Xingyiquan, Baguazhang and Taijiquan and today many styles are claiming that their style is also an internal style. If you ask me whether Wing Chun is an internal style I would ask internal in what sense.
If the question is framed as whether Wing Chun is internal when compared to Taijiquan as a reference standard then I would say no for reasons very specific to our Yang style that is from the Grandmaster Wei Shuren lineage.
If the question is instead posed as whether Wing Chun is internal relative to the Taijiquan that is generally seen then I would say yes. This is because Wing Chun can too be soft in the way that many Tai Chi styles are soft.
I cannot speak for other Wing Chun styles or even practitioners of Wing Chun styles that I have learned but my experience from learning a very specific Wing Chun style as compared to a very specific style of Tai Chi tells me that there is a difference between even the softness of Wing Chun and that of Tai Chi.
If you learn two different styles and train them side by side or if you discover things by yourself rather than being guided in a specific direction by a teacher then chances are you will find not much difference between Wing Chun and Tai Chi.
The differences exist because the method of softness in Wing Chun was designed to be used with their principles and method of using the techniques and Tai Chi for their own. This is why for those in the know and who can tell the difference they will give a knowing smile when they see certain masters use Tai Chi in their Wing Chun and call it internal.
I don’t claim to know everything about Wing Chun because I truly do not. If I have an interest in the art it is how can it be used to realize in practice the principles and maxims of the style.
I have long ago realized that knowing all the forms, having the right lineage, old style or new style or modified style, and so on means nothing. You either know and can apply the techniques or you cannot.
If you can use the techniques then good and fine. Whether it is true to the path, deviated from the path or a mashup of different styles is your own choice. I prefer to view the question as whether what I do is optimal for me, the individual being. I am not you and you me so to each is tailored our own learning.
In the end, I urge you to find your path and see where fate leads you. Remember in the beginning styles did not exist and were made up. You too can make up a style from scratch. It will take time, not impossible. Learning a style that is on the market simply saves you time. A style can be proven in the past but a style is never proven for everyone who learns it nor against every opponent. As a very wise senior once said “I can tell you techniques but I cannot teach you how to win“.