Reflections on popular notions of wing chun kuen

October 2nd, 2014 | by Master Jack Ling

Legitimacy: Legend and the Structure of Wing Chun

The legendary figures of Abbess Ng Muy and Yim Wing Chun are generally accepted, with some reason- able skepticism, as the originators of Yip Man Wing Chun Kuen. For different reasons, some practitioners of Wing Chun attribute more weight to the viability of this belief than is warranted by historical evidence. On occasions, Wing Chun enthusiasts will legitimize their whole way of practice around the “fact” that the alleged founders were women, (thus) reasoning that the system would better fit within an “internal” framework. Pursuant to this line of thought, stories about the impressive fighting prowess of the lightly built Yip Man would be cited as further evidence.

However, enthusiastic claims notwithstanding, one may still ask whether the development of a relaxed (Cantonese: Fong Sung), economic approach such as Wing Chun (A) is contingent upon the female iden- tity of its originator or originators (B). This general question may be, further, framed as, at least, three (3) specific propositions:

  • That the relaxed training approach in Wing Chun definitely reflects and/or suits a female muscular organization/structure;
  • That the sex of a martial artist tends to shape the structure and guiding principles of a system she/he creates; and
  • That (A) can be developed by a person or persons not of female identity (B).

It is reasonable to assume that a “woman created” martial arts system would be structured around certain observations, principles, and assumptions about the woman’s bodily being-in-the-world. For example, it is plausible to believe that this system will not rely on upper body strength for the “fueling” of its fighting techniques. If indeed an elderly woman like Ng Muy created this Wing Chun system, the B-thus-A rela- tionship would seem quite logical. However, it is just as reasonable to believe that a man of small frame and physique like Yip Man would learn not to rely on physical strength (Kong Gh’in) for fighting. In this case, a unique, coherent fighting system based on adroitness, economic deployment of body strength, sen- sitivity, subtle deflection skills and finesse can develop irrespective of (B), and the apparent relationship between (A) and (B) may be quite coincidental. Also, considering that the entire Wing Chun weapons system (Bak Dzam Do and Lok Dim Boon Gwun) grew out of the existing Sil Lum arsenal, one may at- tribute Yip Man Wing Chun’s emphasis on “roots or rootedness” to the influence of a prevailing prefer- ence in Southern Chinese martial arts systems. Following this hypothesis of creative incorporation, one may also explain how aspects of an “internal way/approach” (Nei Lu) could find its way into the system. After all, notions like “Nei Wai He I” (Internal and External Combined as One) and “Nei Wai Kwei Zhung” (Internal and External Belong to the Same) may be found in the sayings of different martial arts styles in North and South China. Why, then, did Yip Man trace his lineage to Ng Muy? How likely is the association of Ng Muy and Yim Wing Chun to Yip’s form of martial arts a matter of convenience, consid- ering that Chinese authors have customarily attributed their work to people with greater prestige and/or mythical prominence? Indeed, if Yip Man did incorporate internal (Nei Jia) principles/practices into Wing Chun, why has the system not developed a more comprehensive “internal” training orientation? Has Yip Man created a hybrid system that has elements of both “internal” and “external” martial traditions? If so, can this new “form” be deconstructed sufficiently to reveal its Nei-and-Wai roots and influence? Did Yip advocate a Nei Jia orientation for its basic training (Sil Niem Tao) and a more Wai Jia appearance in the more aggressive, penetrating maneuvers? Indeed, the Wing Chun motto that points out the inadequa- cies of either a “soft” or “hard” approach cannot be ignored in this analysis (Yuen but nun sau, kong but nun tsee or Soft cannot defend, and hard cannot be sustained).

Another related and controversial aspect of Yip Man’s Wing Chun is whether he taught and emphasized his relaxed approach to all his students, considering that apparent differences in approach and practice existed even between his earliest students. Many of his students, irrespective of physical size, practiced and taught a system based on speed, technique, and muscle. However, Leung Shueng, Yip’s first and most physically prominent student in Hong Kong propagated a powerful but relaxed approach. Which of these subsequent approaches can best explain Yip Man’s reputed ability to neutralize forceful attacks by small relaxed and economic moves? Who, in the early days, would Yip have needed to (seriously) train and transmit his system to? Did Leung Shueng, therefore, learn and inherit the essentials of Yip’s system?

By all accounts, Leung Shueng lived and studied earnestly with him on a daily basis for about five years. Being Yip’s first student in Hong Kong, and a significant conduit to future Wing Chun Kuen’s popularity, Leung presented the Grandmaster with sufficient reason(s) to train him, well. Even though, Leung was known to speak about his learning from Yip in modest terms (elevating his teacher’s martial prowess), his fighting abilities did help his teacher “launch” the system in Hong Kong or Dah Tien Hah (Fight to Take Over What’s Below Heaven). Thus, an explication of Leung’s approach may shed light on our questions about the source of power behind Yip Man’s economical and, reputed, effortless fighting maneuvers.

Leung Sheung’s Teachings

Leung, the senior most of Yip Man’s students in Hong Kong, used a traditional mnemonic device for training. This included a collection of sayings and descriptive verses he learned from Yip Man. Leung re- peated them on a regular basis. Many of these iconic training guides are known to and adopted by other Wing Chun teachers. However, Leung’s framing of them may be unique. When teaching the first form, Sil Niem Tao, he used to emphasize the particular significance of ten (10) or so interrelated points for the long bridge (Tsuen Kui) Wing Chun stance (based on the recollections of several of his students):

  • Turn in (Keem) the knees ( Sut )in Cantonese (with feet turned inward accordingly);
  • Drop (Lok) knee-in stance (Ma) as low as possible without changing posture ;
  • Keep head up (Tao) and level with eyes (Ng’an) pointing forward (Mong Tseen);
  • Keep back (Eue) straight (Tingh) or Tingh Eue;
  • Keep elbow (Zhang) turned in (Mai) or Mai Zhang as much as possible (with arm perpendicular to the center line);
  • Keep elbow in front and away from the body about the width of a rounded fist (Cantonese: Tseung Kui Ma or Long Bridge Stance);
  • Keep extended, arm (Cantonese: Tan* Sau) “relaxed” (Fong Song) and “flat” (Ping), parallel to the ground (my language);
  • Relax or ease (Song) shoulder (Bok) muscles, keeping shoulders natural (not lifting in any way);
  • Practice Under (Dai) Elbow (Zhang) Strength (Lik) or Zhang Dai Lik; and
  • Relax breathing, and sink (Tsum) breath (Hay) i.e. don’t hold breath or hyperventilate, breathe with diaphragm (my language).

* “Tan” means to spread out or to lay out and open e.g. spreading a blanket.

Apparently, judging from a survey of books and articles, most Wing Chun teachers will talk about some of these training points. However, different interpretations and “weights” may be assigned to them. Only Leung Shueng emphasized the long bridge; and only he and his students saw an intimate connection be- tween these training clues and the development of long bridge strength. In recent years, his student, Chung Man Nien (Ken Chung), extended the concept of Fong Song or easing muscles to another level, giving long bridge strength a Nei Gung (internal) quality. (Note: Even though Leung never talked about his powerful arm drops and thrusts as “internally” driven, his arm and upper body muscles were, para- doxically, relaxed when executing those forceful moves.)

Chung Man Nien (Ken Chung) and His “Relaxed Approach”

Chung attributes his finely honed touch sensitivity and his ability to generate exploding power while re- laxed to his long years of deeply rooted stance and relaxed long bridge training. In fact, his practice movements are intentionally unhurried and relaxed, involving no perceptible tensing of upper body and arm muscles. His frontal bodily movements are also unimpeded by the favorite stance that places most of the body weight on the back leg. Chung’s apparent speed comes from the efficient touch based coordina- tion of timing and positioning of himself in relations to an opponent’s body and movements. He calls that “sticking power”. His powerful and effective Wing Chun is amazing to behold especially because of the compelling paradoxical features gathered together in seemingly effortless movements.

Let’s examine the relatedness of specific anchoring concepts expressed in both Chung’s and Leung Shueng’s training practices. How well do they support each other from a systemic perspective?

Anchoring Concepts in Both the Leung and Chung Long Bridge Training Systems

Zhang Dai Lik (Elbow Strength). The concept of elbow strength (Zhang Dai Lik) is pivotal to the logic (“logos’) behind the other training points or foci. In order that the weight of the upper body and the arms can “rest” on the elbows, the arm and the upper body must be sufficiently relaxed (Note: the tightening of muscles in the shoulders lifts the whole chest cage and, thus, the arms). The fixed, in-turned elbows (Mai Zhang), extended slight away and in front of the body (the long bridge), serve as a fulcrum behind which the up-right but rooted body can push (when moving forward). They, also, provide an axis along which the arms can rotate up and down in a virtual (forward intended) screwing motion (Cantonese: Bon Sau). Any frontal pushing action against or weight on the arms will be absorbed by the fixed in-turned elbow, channeled into the body, into the legs, and down to the ground. Any push of the legs against the ground in a forward movement (with the body in a rooted up-right position) will transmit “force” through the same path, expressed in a punch or any hand gesture. This dynamic, two-way energy transmission (generation and absorption) is halted when the elbows are turn out or not turned in (Cantonese: Song Zhang). The concept of Zhang Dai Lik or “under elbow strength” describes, at once, the weight down the elbow as well as its central function in the transmitting of forward energy generated by body movement and the ab- sorbing of incoming force down the arm. (The distance from the tip of the fingers/fist to the body remains constant, creating a fixed and protected zone around the body, an area an opponent needs to penetrate in a fight). Incidentally, the turned-in elbows and the long bridge position together serve as a protective bar- rier between an incoming punch to the mid-body section.

Zhang Dai Lik (Elbow Strength) and the “Strike”. Leung Shueng talked consistently about three (3) hit- ting actions: the pushing/pressing out movement against virtual weight (Cantonese: “y’arn”), the ham- mering action (Cantonese: “Dup” or “Humg”), and the double-arm, downward, hammer swinging action (Cantonese: “Tzor”).

Leung used the “Dup” for the relaxed hammering action on the sandbag while in a slight, Lok Ma stance. He would drop his two arm-fists vertically down onto the bag in front of him, rhythmically as in a con- tinuous punch sequence. (When he actually used that action on someone, he called it, “Humg” or ham- mer.) On occasions, when Leung executed a straight punch sequence, for example at the end of Sil Neem Tao, he used the “y’arn” motion, generating this relaxed but deliberate forward movement by the pushing action of the in-turned elbows (Zhang). Leung, also, used this term, “y’arn”, to describe the forward, step- ping kicks evident in the second form and in the Wooden Dummy set. The “Tzor” or the double-arm, downward swinging hammer action was an arm dropping and hand drilling action (a movement involv- ing the relaxed closing of slightly open hands) was executed to cut through blocks such as the Wing Chun, Bon Sau (“chicken wing” block) and Lan Sau (horizontal, cross-chest block). Chung Man Nien or Ken Chung used this relaxed action most effectively against powerful mid-body blocks, sinking the sur- prised opponent down with simultaneous action on the neck.

All the “dup”/”Humg”, “y’arn”, and “Tzor” hitting actions were “heavy” (primarily) from the relaxed, rooted and upright body behind them. Leung’s punches, apparently counter-intuitive to a person not on the receiving end, felt like a series of heavy weights pushed through or dropped on an opponent. In an actual encounter, his punches or spear hand actions, “fark” (whipping from elbow), “Tz’arn” (shovel ac- tion), and “Bui” (spear action), would extend (synchronically) with the forward movement of the whole upright body (back leg stance), filling in the “space” exposed by his moving opponent in penetrating force. At no time, would Leung accelerate his movements to create speed and momentum; he insisted that the power of his strikes came from Zhang Dai Lik (elbow strength).

Zhang Dai Lik’s Sphere of Maximum Effectiveness. As indicated above, Leung Shueng and his students demonstrated how a structurally and dynamically related connection exists between the proper pushing or pressing/dropping action of the “strike”(punching and kicking) and the pivotal position and level of the elbow-and-arm. In fact, the effectiveness of elbow strength or Zhang Dai Lik hinges on that relationship between the intended action and the configuration of the bridge structure. As the Wing Chun maxim says, this Zhang Dai Lik empowered fighting system works best for the taller Wing Chun practitioner with longer arms. In other words, the shorter person simply has a smaller sphere of maximum effectiveness. The smaller person’s ability to penetrate the taller opponent’s “guarded gate” (Cantonese: “Moon Wu”) will depend, in part, on that special finesse that can be brought to bear on the opponent, bringing the fight closer and to a lower arm-hand level. Taking this a step further, one may arguably assert that the Wing Chun practitioner should always bring an opponent into his/her sphere of maximum effectiveness where Zhang Dai Lik (elbow strength) can be applied and properly executed.

Some Points of Difference in Training Emphasis Between Leung Shueng and Chung Man Nien (Ken)

Lok Ma emphasis in Sil Neem Tao (first form). Leung Shueng used to have his students Lok Ma (get down on the Keem Yueng Ma or Wing Chun standing stance) for as long as they can bear but always stand up to rest before any inappropriate, reflexive/inadvertent bodily compensations and shifts occurred. He was emphatic about not allowing “bad habits” to occur because of over stressed knees. Judging from anecdotal information, Leung’s beginning students did not perceive this sanctioned respite from pain as an excuse to avoid hard work. The common term, Elvis Presley legs”, used by his students to describe their shaking and wobbly movements after stance practice appears to lend further support to this observation.

However, Ken Chung appears to focus more on “staying in position and moving through the pain” during this phase of stance training. Unlike his teacher, he emphasized the training goal of maintaining the low stance until the “whole body shook” (involuntarily). This shift in pedagogical consideration may have been due to the influence of Chan Taiji. Clearly, both Leung and Chung demonstrated the same corner- stone belief in the “strong stance” as fundamental to Wing Chun Kuen.

Bon Sau (“chicken wing block”) and the Gum Sau (downward push hand). Leung Shueng taught three (3) levels of Bon Sau: high (Cantonese: Goh), middle (Cantonese: Zhong), and low (Cantonese: Dei). Chung, by emphasizing the relaxed state of the forearm in the Bon configuration, may have (in effect) slightly lowered the inside-out-turned forearm in the high or Goh Bon. This minor adjustment helped to eliminate any potential raising of the shoulder in training and execution, and keep the height of the elbow always at the same level of the upper arm-and-shoulder but higher than the position of the hand in front.

In so doing, the middle and the low Bon are determined primarily if not solely by the height of the elbow from the ground. Everything else in the configuration remains relatively constant. In other words, the po- sition of the elbow gives the Bon Sau its capacity to partially absorb (into the body) and deflect any in- coming pressure on the arm. When moved synchronically with the turning of the body on its back stance (90 degrees to the direction of the incoming force), it can fully absorb and deflect a powerful strike or frontal attack. Again, by pushing and/or dropping the position of the elbow, the forearm-hand combina- tion of the Bon Sau can quickly “flow” into several strike positions.

Leung Shueng included the Gum Sau (downward press hand) in both the first and second forms. In the Sil Neem Tao, the Gum Sau is in the second section, following the double extended Fok Sau (resting, palm- down hands). The extended arms are lowered from shoulder height, and the hands remain relaxed with palms facing down. As they reach the final position, the palms are bent slightly upward from the wrists. In Chung’s 1999 version, the relaxed palms do not bend at all. This point of departure is seen toward the final moves of the second form where the Gum Sau ends in a back stance (repeated three times), becom- ing a straight arm Fark Sau as it swings up to the front with the pivoting body. The same difference in palm positions existed. Chung sees the bent palm as a handicap when the Gum Sau is actually used to block a strike coming from below: the combination of the bent palm and the downward motion may end up in a likely wrist fracture. His Gum Sau is a relaxed downward movement that can turn side ways with the turning body to function as a “sticky” and relaxed Pak Sau. This modified Gum Sau slides the in- coming strike away from the body.

Ngoi Moon (Outside Gate) Kum Sau (covering hand) and Man Ghen (neck pulling). Chung Man Nien concentrates his penetrating strikes and forward movements to the Noi Mun (inside gate). He seldom at- tacks from the “outside”, using the Kum Sau only as a light, well timed, frontal, and downward move of his relaxed palm-down hands to neutralize the extended arm(s) of an opponent, an action easily confused by others as the traditional pressing or (Gum.) Chung will Man Ghen when the hand “just happens” to be on the neck (Ghen), and the pulling (Man) action is more downward than forward. Leung Shueng, on the other hand, would use the heavy Kum Sau* action (propelled by the body moving forward) to control and collapse (in and downward) the elbow of an opponent’s attacking arm from the outside position. (Note: Leung would transform a Park Sau further up the opponent’s arm into the Gum Sau by sliding down the opponent’s arm to the elbow position described here.) He would, also, hit simultaneously with the other fist while controlling the opponent’s front leg (back of the knee) with his own. In addition to Chung’s way of using Man Ghen, Leung would also deliberately coordinate the Man Ghen action with an apparent Bui Jee (spear finger) strike, using the same hand. Perhaps, an explanation for these differences may be found in Leung’s own words (expressing a pragmatism that can cross the boundaries of keen pugilistic consid- erations): “A correct strike is the one that hits the opponent”.

Dunn Gwung or Pole Dropping/Bouncing. Leung Shueng emphasized this piece of pole practice. He first taught students (with three or more years of training) to lift the Wing Chun Six-And-a-Half-Point pole by lightly grasping-leveraging it at the thicker end with both hands (fingers facing up). The pole must be par- allel to the floor, the position of the hands gripping the pole must be at the level of the heart. Both elbows must also be pointing down toward the floor, and shoulders must (naturally) stay relaxed. Then, students were instructed to drop both their arms directly down to an extended position, lowering the pole in the process: the lowered pole remains parallel to the floor, and the grip of the hands are now turned 180 de- grees from the original position (fingers facing inward, knuckles, downward). This lifting and dropping of the arms and pole can be repeated as many times as desired. The effect of this exercise is significant: the fingers, wrists, and elbows are all strengthened, and the practitioner develops a powerful drop arm energy and a sharp, penetrating “inch fist”. I believe that Chung Man Nien’s different “arm drop” and “inch fist” maneuvers developed, to a great extent, from the practice of Dunn Gwung. Thus, no serious Wing Chun Kuen practitioner can afford to skip this difficult but essential exercise.

The Paradox of the So Called “Girl Hand” and the “Relaxed, Heavy Hand”: Full Circle Back to the Ques- tion of Abbess Ng Mui

Ken Chung Man Nien gives a very impressive demonstration of what he calls the “girl hand” at his Wing Chun workshops. He tugs in his elbows in front of him (long bridge position) and drops two relaxed-and- open palms (from a slightly raised position) onto the shoulders of a new attendee. The effect is bone shaking. Then, this same action will be repeated across a line of attendees in rapid succession with the same alarming impact! Chung attributes the power of this deceptively “innocent” gesture to “Niem Lik”, a term coined by Leung Shueng’s classmate, Tsui Shueng Tien (one of the four earliest students of Yip Man in Hong Kong). Niew Lik, according to Tsui and Chung, comes from the continuous and properly disci- plined practice of Sil Niem Tao. Clearly, Chung sees a reasonable affinity between his relaxed, explosive power (A), Niem Lik (B), and the notion of Wing Chun as a “woman originated style” (C). Assuming that Tsui and Leung, Yip’s first students in Hong Kong, learned and taught the essential fundamentals of the Yip Man system, one may still question the plausibility of the A-B-C connection forwarded by Chung. At least two (2) questions may be asked:

  1. Can practitioners who continuously practice Sil Niem Tao in the proper way expect to develop (A)?
  2. Does a causal link between the acquisition of (B) and the expression of (A) necessarily validate the claim of (C)?

A probable answer to the first question may be inferred from two (2) complementary measures. First, one may document the proportion of Yip Man’s dedicated disciples who demonstrated or can demonstrate this relaxed, explosive power. Two, one can count the number of long-time Wing Chun practitioners, Ken Chung’s senior students included, who can demonstrate this prowess. A low count, especially in both measures, will also suggest, at least, four (4) alternate possibilities to the plausible negative answer to question one:

  • that most Wing Chun students do not or did not practice Sil Niem Tao in the proper rigorous manner;
  • that most Wing Chun teachers fail to teach the proper rigor required to practice the Sil Niem Tao;
  • that most of Yip Man’s students developed the art according to their own personal needs and preferences, (thus) deviating from Yip’s basic teachings; and
  • that Yip Man was an uneven or generally unwilling teacher, sharing particular information selectively on a student specific basis.

The first set of two (2) proposals involving present day Wing Chun students and their teachers can be em- pirically tested. The next two (2) hypotheses about Yip Man and his students are historical in nature. In- ferences must be made from verbal and written accounts obtained from persons who actually received hands on training from the Grandmaster. This sampling criterion becomes particularly important when considering the fact that Wing Chun is best communicated through actual physical contact.

In the event that the impressive long bridge power of Ken Chung Man Nien is causally linked to Niem Lik, then, the proposed female nature of Wing Chun (symbolized by the Ng Mui connection) deserves closer examination. Minimally, the apparent bridge between the relaxed orientation of the Sil Niem Tao and the paradoxically powerful “girl hand” strike should be explored. One can, then, judge the appropri- ateness of classifying this relaxed-power as female, and whether the whole system should be similarly framed. Approaching from a different perspective, one can ask whether women are much more likely (than men) to generate this heavy and penetrating power through the relaxed practices such as the Sil Niem Tao. (Do women have a special affinity for Niem Lik?)

Concluding Remarks

This short essay raised more questions than answers. As one who studied with Leung Shueng in Hong Kong almost forty years ago, the author’s dormant interest in Wing Chun became reawakened by Ken Chung’s amazing achievement in and interpretation of our teacher’s approach. Most of the questions and topics addressed here were inspired by Chung’s unique interpretation of Leung’s teachings and practice. Chung’s impressive demonstration of Zhang Dai Lik and “sticking” power evoked (in me) a new interest to revisit old questions and familiar Wing Chun concepts, terms, and sayings.

Chung Man Nien’s workshops reminded me of the more fatherly Leung Shueng, patiently reiterating the basics to a young twelve-year old, tirelessly emphasizing posture, relaxation of the arm and upper body, long bridge elbow strength and other training points. Chung’s stories of the “old days” also brought back vivid memories of my final weekend lessons with Leung. Even then, as my teacher corrected my Bui Gee and my moves on the wooden dummy, he reminded me of the fundamental lessons of relaxation and “Zhang Dai Lik”. As he dragged me around the floor while “sticking hands”, he warned me not to stoop and put weight on my front leg. Even as Leung let me use my “Bon Sau” to move him* and counter his forward action with the “Gum (press) Tah (hit)”, he called out to caution me about his double-arm, “hammer” recovery. Somehow, memories of my teacher’s relaxed, heavy “hands” and devastating-but- effortless strikes also became connected in a new way. For example, I realized that his powerful “K’wad Sau” or straight, downward “scrapping” action of the arm that cleared practically anything before it was not muscle generated. (I used to attribute my teacher’s power to his size.) Oddly, as I got excited about practicing Wing Chun again, I would also hear my teacher’s parting words: “Ah Lum (ling), remember! Your studies always come first. Martial arts (Wahrn Kuen) will not feed you!”

In a way, through meeting Ken, Leung Shueng and his teachings came back to life for me. I came to ac- cept that Leung taught me a lot more than fighting skills. He was a traditonal Sifu who also paid attention to my overall development. Hopefully, in a similar way, this article will excite new interests and release fresh enthusiasm, and also promote deeper reflections on our own experiences with Wing Chun Kuen.

*Leung would often say that a person must be pretty good to get pass his “Mun Sau” (Asking Hand or Bridge Hand) or to move him in any way without his permission.