Why Wing Chun?
Wing Chun, also known as Wing Tsun, Wing Tzun, Ving Tsun, Ving Chun, Wing Tsung, and Young Shun, is a chinese martial art that first started to develop around 250 to 300 years ago. It’s founder (as legend has it) was a Buddhist nun by the name of Ng Mui (also known as Wu Mei, more on her in another article). Ng Mui was also a skilled martial artist having being borne out of a noble household. She had access to the finest education and finest Kung Fu teachers at the time. Ng Mui entered the White Crane convent. Ng Mui was one of Five Elders, survivors after the destruction of the Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty. These five elders has been said to have been working on a style of Kung Fu that would exploit the weaknesses of the Shaolin styles due to suspicion that there may be traitors among the Shoalin Monks siding with the contemporary rulers.
Most Kung Fu styles requires up to 20 years of practice (daily!) in order to master them. This new style that was being developed had to be mastered in a much shorter period of time (it’s been said that Ng Mui intended that it should only take 5 years of daily practice).
After the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, Ng Mui went into hiding and lived unnoticed in various villages. She did not teach her art to anyone out of fear of being discovered until she overheard a conversation between a soy bean patty seller, a young girl by the name of Yim Wing Chun, and her mother. The girl was being bullied by a man, a criminal, who was intent on marrying her by force although she was already promised to another man, Leung Bok Chau. The criminal challenged her in that if she could defeat him in a fight, he’d leave. If the girl lost, she’d had to marry him.
The nun Ng Mui took young Yim Wing Chun aside and offered to help her by teaching her the basics of her fighting art in order to defend herself against the villain. It’s been said that Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui for about 2 years. As the criminal returned to challenge the young Wing Chun, she beat him easily. It’s been said that Yim Wing Chun was only 15 years old at the time. After the marriage of Wing Chun to her promised husband, Leung Bok Chau, she instructed her husband in the new fighting art. Afterwards, her husband offered to name the new art after Ng Mui’s first student, Wing Chun.
Wing Chun is based on physics, body mechanics and not brute strength. It is a “soft art”, but not in the way of Tai Chi Chuan. It is “soft” in the way that it does not pit brute force against brute force as in many other martial arts. You don’t have to be an athlete, nor in top physical condition to learn and practice Wing Chun.
Wing Chun has only 6 Forms (3 Weaponless, Wooden Dummy Form, Double Swords, 9 1/2 Point Pole), while many other martial arts have 1o, 12, 20 or more. Wing Chun has only 3 kicks, and a small quantity of hand techniques. Wing Chun has officially no ground-fighting techniques (the Wing Chun artist wants to avoid being on the ground) but when one understands the principles, one can use the art for the floor as well.
The legendary actor, philosopher and martial artist, Bruce Lee, used Wing Chun as the basis of his own fighting art Jeet Kune Do. The main objective is to use what is useful and discard all that is superficial, just as Ng Mui had done centuries ago.
Wing Chun can be practiced by young and old, male and female, learned and used quickly.
The Second Form of Wing Chun.
Chum Kiu (Cham Kiu), or “Seeking the Bridge” is Wing Chun’s second weaponless form. The Chum Kiu form builds upon the skills developed from the first form Siu Nim Tao.
It is important to continue practicing the first form for it is the foundation of your entire Wing Chun. Chum Kiu, although it has fewer sections as the Siu Nim Tao, its performance is longer and demands additional skills.
As in all Wing Chun lineages, there are different ways to perform the Chum Kiu. None of them are incorrect. All are different interpretations of the knowledge and experiences in the art of Wing Chun.
The Difference to Siu Nim Tao
In the Siu Nim Tao form, the Wing Chun practitioner learns to stand stable in his/her “Yee Ji Kim Yun Ma”, (Character two, goat clamping, horse stance), or IRAS (Inner Rotating Abduction Stance).
In the Chum Kiu form, the practitioner now moves his/her body. The Wing Chun practitioner shifts his body, rotates, turns, steps, kicks, and attacks at one angle while moving in another.
These skills are further supported in “Lat Sao” (fighting techniques) drills to learn the proper use of them.
Bridging the Gap
In the Chum Kiu, the student learns to “bridge the gap” between himself and the attacker. Use of the Lap Sao – Kuen, or Lap-Da, as well as the Bong Sao / Wu Sao, or Bong-Wu position come into play.
The student learns to defend and counter-attack in fluid movements while paying close attention to body mechanics.
The Lap Sao drills and use of Bong-Wu are further supported in the first section Chi Sao (Pon Sao) drill with the first attack and defense.
The 45-degree Angle
The important use of the 45-degree angle is first introduced in Chum Kiu and has to be closely paid attention to. Most students overestimate the size of the 45-degree angle. It is smaller than what most think.
This angle of attack and defense has proven time and again of its effectiveness and strength without one having to be strong physically.
This, along with the use of the triangle, is invaluable to your Wing Chun technique.
The 3 Main Kicks of Wing Chun
For the first time (until the Wooden Dummy form) are kicks of Wing Chun are introduced in the Chum Kiu form.
These kicks are; the front kick, the “Bong-Kick” (sidekick), and “Tan-kick”.
Note: Ip Man used only the front and “Tan-kick” in his Chum Kiu form. His student, Leung Ting added the “Bong-Kick”, into the form for the mere reason that otherwise, the kick would not appear until one learned the Wooden Dummy form.
Performing the Chum Kiu strengthens your stance, tests your balance, schools your coordination of simultaneous hand and body movements.
There are so many things to learn in the Chum Kiu that is a good reason why some much time (in the lineage I practice, from the 2nd through 12th student degrees) is spent learning and perfecting it.
As in the practice of all forms, it is necessary to perform them at first slow in sections. Then continue on paying close attention to alignment and body structure. Finally, power is applied.
The Chum Kiu form is an essential step toward understanding and improving one’s technique, skills, and understanding of the Art of Wing Chun.
Here is a video of the Chum Kiu form once performed by Grandmaster Leung Ting.
The legendary actor, martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee not only graced us with his presence on the screen and television, but he left behind his philosophy and fighting art, Jeet Kune Do, for us to contemplate on for decades after such a short life.
“The Way of the Intercepting Fist” was Bruce Lee’s vision of how a martial art should be and how he expressed himself through that philosophy. Jeet Kune Do was meant to be a philosophy rather than a fighting system.
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not” is the credo of JKD. Whatever is useful or not is dependent on the practitioner himself and not what the founder of the philosophy regulates that to be. JKD is supposed to be about expression of one’s individual self and not a system to be mimicked by others.
It is often said that Wing Chun was Bruce Lee’s first martial art of study. This is not entirely true. Bruce himself said his first martial art instructor was his father. Through him Bruce learned Taiji chuan. During his years in school he learned western boxing and became a school champion. He also practiced the art of fencing.
At the age of 16 he was introduced to Master Ip (Yip) Man and began his study of Ving Chun (as Ip Man named his school). Bruce practiced a number of years and was mainly taught by his Sihing, Wong Shun Leung. Although Bruce Lee never learned the complete Wing Chun system, he incorporated many principles and techniques of Wing Chun into JKD.
Wing Chun’s “center-line theory” is still present in JKD.
The center-line runs directly through the center of the body from the head to the rump. Along this line are all major organs of the body. The head, heart, solar plexus, stomach, bladder and genitals. They are there for you to protect yours and attack that of your opponent. Although JKD uses a lead leg position rather than a squared shouldered position as its basic fighting stance, protection and attack of the center-line is essential.
Simulataneous defense and attack. The simultaneous defence and attack attributes to Wing Chun’s as well as JKD’s devasting speed and efficiency. Psychologically, the attacker expects to land a punch, but not only eventually misses his target, but gets hit himself in the same instant.
Trapping. Trapping of the limbs opens more possibilities for your own attacks while disabling the attacker’s ability to counterattack.
Siu Nim Tao. This first form of the Wing Chun System Bruce Lee maintained in his own arts of Jun Fan Kung Fu as well as Jeet Kune Do. It has been also said that he continued to practice this form several times a day, everyday up until his death.
Wooden Dummy training. Bruce Lee did not learn the Wooden Dummy Form from Ip Man himself and it is not known if he had ever learned it from anyone else. Nonetheless, Bruce Lee developed his own way of practicing on the Muk Yan Jong.
Biu Jee Sau (Darting fingers). The Biu Jee Sau is one of the main techniques of the JKD artist targeting the eyes.
Although Bruce Lee never learned the complete Wing Chun System, he was able to optimise what he did learn into a full-fledged fighting art on the solid principles of Wing Chun and other arts.
Since Wing Chun is not really a style but more a philosophy and a self-defence system based on body mechanics, Jeet Kune Do in essence is another form of Wing Chun.
Bruce Lee was insistent that one needs to develop their own way of interpreting a fighting art as self-expression. JKD/Jun Fan Kung Fu was his Wing Chun. Once you understand and practice to develop your Wing Chun skills and endeavour for self-improvement, you too can develop your own Wing Chun.
The title of this essay may seem odd to the reader. What possible connection could there be between the martial art of Wing Chun and Improvised Music? Martial Arts, or “Warrior Arts” gives the connotations of the destruction of another human being. Music hopes to be constructive and to stir the emotions and expand intellect of a human being. These two arts may seem to be even diametrically opposed, but it is my hopes that the reader will be able to understand at least how I connect the two in my life.
At best, I will begin with the art of improvised music.
I am a professional saxophonist / musician. My main field of expertise is in jazz and jazz improvisation. Not only its performance, but as an educator as well.
What is improvisation?
Generally speaking, it is the ability to create or compose music in the moment, either based on a predetermined framework or without a specific framework. In the smallest scenario, a framework can be a single chord, a collection of notes defining a harmony. The “improvisor” interprets the chord being played and instantaneously creates a melody to match the harmony of the chord. In a larger framework, taken from an example in jazz, the “rhythm section” (piano and/or guitar, contrabass and drummer) can play a “12-bar Blues” Form, various chords played within a certain hormonic/rhythmic sequence. The improvisor(s) spontaneously compose/play their melodic ideas over this form for either a predetermined or desired number of repetitions of the form.
In order for the improvisor to acquire this ability and prepare him- or herself for various improvisational scenarios. He/she must study and practice the use of small melodic ideas, a kind of minimalist approach. One studies one or more music genres, lieten to recordings, and attend live performances of experienced improvisors.
The improvisor ultimately seeks to expand their musicality and creativity as a way of self-expression / self-realization. This becomes a kind of spiritual journey for the improvisor.
What does the martial artist do?
The “martial artist” (i.e. anyone who has trained in any form of fighting art or self-defense) prepares him- or herself for a possible violent attack by learning and practicing various fighting principles and techniques. The martial artist expands his vocabulary through advanced learning and practice in his chosen martial art or exploring additional martial arts systems and styles. All this is done to seek various solutions to the same problems.
Through the practice of martial arts, one gets to know themselves and their body better and in turn, it can become a spiritual journey that leads to self-realization.
The Basic Connection
Both the Improvisor and the martial artist prepares him- or herself for a scenario where one has to react instantaneously based on the situation on hand. Both strive for each see as a successful goal. The improvisor wants to successfully play through the musical form with sonorous and logical melodies. The martial artist wants to protect themselves and/or others and survive a violent altercation. Preferably unscathed!
Methodologies in learning the Arts
In Music one often practices what are often called Etudes (Studies). These Etudes are not necessarily compositions meant for public performance, but are primarily used to aid the student in learning the “language” of a musical genre (typically classical). In jazz improvisation, “jazz etudes” or “improv etudes” can be used to the same effect. They are clearly not improvised soli, but they aid in the language of jazz improvisation.
This can be compared to Chi Sao in Wing Chun. Chi Sao or “sticky hands” is a method of sensitivity training. They are not real combat but it aids in learning the language of Wing Chun.
The Next Level
The experienced martial artist wants to develop his/her skills to be able to react intelligently to a potentially dangerous situation, and that as quickly as possible.
The improvisor wishes to develop their improvisational vocabulary to successfully create new and interesting melodies and hopefully emotionally reach the listening audience.
What makes Wing Chun so attractive as a martial art to me, the improvisor?
Before I go into detail, I’d like to diverge and describe how I became involved in music and martial arts.
The year 1971 was when martial arts films started to become popular in the United States. The martial art of “Kung Fu” was emerging, but no one really knew anything about it. At first, it was often refered to “chinese karate”.
I had my first experience with martial arts at the age of 10. A neighbor of mine started attending a Karate school. We were part of the same clique at school so he taught us what he learned. I thus learned my first kata. Another boy in our group was a good boxer. Another knew some Judo. We practiced the few techniques we knew during our lunch breaks at school or on the weekends.
Due to the popularity of the television series “Kung Fu”, I became acquainted with the philosophy of the martial arts. I started to look for books about Kung Fu. There wasn’t much to find. But from what I found, I started learning the basic techniques.
At the age of 11, I became a self-taught guitarist and later switched to saxophone in junior high school.
It wasn’t until I started studying music in college that I began to formally take up instruction in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu (Tan Tui or “Springing Leg” style).
Styles vs. Systems
In music, there are various styles or genres. With each style, be it Jazz, Classical, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Country, Pop , etc. Each style has its rules, guidelines and characteristics that define each genre. Improvising in musical styles also have its rules, etc. as well.
In martial arts there are also various styles and “systems”. Martial art styles such as Karate , Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jujitsu and myriads of Kung Fu styles, such as Eagle Claw, White Crane, Praying Mantis, Tiger, Hsing-I, Baguachang, Tai Chi and others. Each has its characteristics, rules and guidelines that define each as well. Self-defense using any of these styles also adheres to certain philosophies and techniques.
Just as the improvisor learns scales, melodic patterns and musical quotes from other improvisors and compositions. Regardless of the styles, there are still only 12 notes (in Western Music). That is “bare bones” of music.
Most martial art styles have many forms often called “kata”(jap.), “kuen”(chin.), which usually mimick fighting situations. Since there are so many fighting scenarios that can happen in the real world, hence there are many forms. Some styles have as many as 40 different forms! Regardless of styles, we humans only have two arms and two legs. Those are our basic weapons.
The advanced improvisor strives for the freedom to be able to masterfully use the basics of the system and create according to the musical situation at hand. The advanced improvisor seeks not to be locked in any musical style. He seeks to break to rules in order to expand his creativity.
A fighting “system” works differently. Fighting systems recognize the improbability of predicting the development of a dangerous situation, hence there are very few forms and will have solely a set of fighting principles. This is done in order to be free to react instantaneously in any situation without being locked in preconceived fighting routines.
Wing Chun is exactly the system that attracts the musical improvisor in me. Wing Chun has no set fighting routines, nor rules about how to defend yourself. Just simple guidlines.
The Glaring Difference
Wing Chun is about self-defense, self-protection. The goal is to make your attacker unwilling to fight or not unable to fight in order to protect your life and limb.
In a musical setting, the improvisors goal is to add constructively to the whole. The improvisor seeks to express himself musically. There is no danger to his life if he is unsuccessful. If anything goes wrong, any mistake can only result in a scratched ego at the most. The improvisor is not defending himself against attackers, but he is working as a cohort in the musical endeavor and is supported by the others.
Nonetheless, both can be paths to personal and spiritual growth and self-realization.
Siu Nim Tao
The first and most important form in the art of Wing Chun.
There are almost as many variations in the Siu Nim Tao from as there are different lineages of Wing Chun. Some masters wanted to keep everything “original”, others saw the need for improvements. Others wanted to emphasize a specific aspect over the other. Not one of these variations are “more authentic”, or “more correct” than the other.
The “Little Idea” (as Siu Nim Tao is often translated) conveys not only the most common techniques used in Wing Chun, but emphasizes certain skills to be learned.
Usually, the first 3 sections of the form are performed relatively slowly (with exception of the strikes). One may wonder why the third section, where the Tan Sau extends from the centerline, turns to a Wu Sau, withdraws, and then forms a Fuk Sau before extended forward once again? This occurs three times on each side.
In Chinese Martial Arts (Wu Su), repetition is often a way of encoding the importance of a certain skill. Yes, sometimes there were also religious meanings, but nonetheless it was important to convey the importance of a skill to the warrior.
One interpretation of this repeated movement is that the practitioner learns to relax his/her energy before dispersion within a short distance. As the hand moves outward along the centerline, the abdomen is pressed together, the back is arched slightly, as the hand comes forward to strike with the Wu Sau, the back is straightened. As the hand returns, the body is contracted once again.
Some lineages may not practice the Siu Nim Tao in this way, and as said above, that’s OK. May southern Kung Fu styles emphasize the importance of being able to strike with full power in short range distance. The idea of the “One-Inch Punch” does not only exist in Wing Chun, or Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. This is an older concept that also exists in Southern Mantis and other styles.
From the fourths section, the movements become faster and some sections having many movements. Each technique is demonstrated on either side of the body. Only in the last section do the arms work together displaying two different arm positions.
During the entire form one is standing in a stationary position. The “Yee Ji Kim Yuen Ma“, aka “Character two, goat-clamping stance”. The legs form a chinese character number 2, a short line (between the knees) and a long line (between the feet). From above this is also formed between the toes (short line) and between the heels (long line). The knees are put under tension toward each other as though one would hold a goat between the legs and trying to prevent it from running away.
This stance strengthens the legs and trains discipline. One would not always fight in this position, by all means no, but it is an important to understand the flexibility of this stance.
The Siu Nim Tao, just like many chinese kung fu forms, is NOT a fighting sequence but merely a “toolbox”. It displays various “ideas” of the art. Actually, one could decide to perform the sections of the SNT in a different sequence and it would not really matter. The purpose behind the form would not really change.
In later forms, Chum Kiu and Biu Tze, there are very few “new” techniques. There are only new “ideas” of using the techniques in those form. But more on those forms in future posts.
The Siu Nim Tao is so important to Wing Chun that it is said, if your “Siu Nim Tao is poor, your Wing Chun is poor.”