Grand Master

In arts, there has long been a tradition to honor distinguished individuals who transformed their subject. In music, the Italian coined the term Maestro for those who excel in music. In Japan, the national government declare these exceptional individuals Ningen Kokuho, a Living National Treasure. For the Chinese, they salute to these transformational individuals as a Grand Master. It is a rarity. It is not a common word. I would consider Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne as Grand Masters of the Impressionist era, Pablo Picasso was a Grand Master of the Surrealism movement and Alfred Hitchcock was a Grand Master of Suspense and film. By these standards, how did we to so many people who teaches or practices Wing Chun proclaiming to be "Grand Master”, as if it was something you give to a child at a soccer game as a participation award. Is it insecurity? Perhaps vanity? If I were to hold up my standard for a Grand Master, then perhaps there would not be very many of them in martial arts history. But that is supposed to be the point. An abundance of Grand Masters would defeat the purpose of the honorary title.

It is my observation that Grand Masters share similar paths in their journey of becoming one. They are talented people who excelled at the art that they perform and dedicated their life to the art. They are perfectionists who obsessed over every detail of their craft. And universally they came across a major obstacle that caused them to redefine or transform something fundamental about their beliefs. In French art history, there is a famous story about how the Impressionist claim to fame. When Claude Monet first became accomplished as a painter, the threshold to crossover to stardom required the admittance and showing of his work in the annual Salon de Paris art exhibit. In the 1800s, only paintings that captured accurate details would be admitted for the exhibit. Monet and his impressionist friends struggled whether to conform to the standards of the salon or continued with what they believed in. They struggled for years and eventually managed to hold their own show, which they ironically named “Salon des Refuses”, i.e. the rejects of the salon. It was their symbolic rebellion to the establishment, and it led to the transformation of the art scene in the 18th century France.

Yip Man, 葉問, is perhaps the only one in Wing Chun who can adequately be named Grand Master. Yip Man is certainly an exemplary study of Wing Chun. But that alone did not qualify him as a Grand Master. In addition, prior to arriving in Hong Kong in 1949 at the age of 56, Wing Chun was virtually unheard of. Praying Mantis, Dragon style, Hung Kuen dominated the martial arts landscape of that time. And Yip Man himself was practically an unknown. So it begs the question of what was his pivotal moment where he transformed Wing Chun the way Claude Monet transformed the way the world understood art?

When Yip Man arrived in Hong Kong, Leung Sheung (梁相) invited him to teach Wing Chun at the Restaurant Worker Union's office. And in the process of teaching Wing Chun, Yip Man ran into an obstacle that laid the plot line for what would transform him to be perhaps the most important figure in the history of Wing Chun. That obstacle is the lack of Wa-Wa trees in Hong Kong. Wa-Wa trees were commonly found in Yip Man's home town of Fa Shan (佛山). Since Wa-Wa trees are relatively short and sturdy, and they resemble a human stick figure, Wing Chun students would cut off some of the branches and sand it down to a rudimentary version of the Wing Chun Wooden Dummy (木人樁). And they would leave it planted in the yard. In a city where the cost of rent rivaled Manhattan, Yip Man had neither a yard nor Wa-Wa trees. He needed a replacement. That was the pivotal point that turned Yip Man into a Grand Master. He engineered the design of our modern day Wing Chun Wooden Dummy, made of a large trunk body and wooden arms that loosely hung to the trunk body. Then he hung the full assembly on wood planks, known as Wang Dam (橫檐) rather than planting it on a base. The reason this is pivotal is because Yip Man felt the need for Wing Chun to shape its training to sharpen its sensitivity, capture an enemy’s balance while in motion and tip it to his favor. This is precisely the purpose of transitioning from a planted wooden dummy to a hanging wooden dummy. It was neither hastily put together nor was it a make shift solution. It was a silent revolution. The sensation of a mildly bouncing dummy, when used properly, can resemble the wobbling sensation of an enemy when his balance is challenged. This sensation and practice of it is uniquely Wing Chun, and not as strongly emphasized in the training previously.

The redesign of the Wooden Dummy, along with bringing Wing Chun into the modern era, making it known to world, would certainly qualify as transformational.

This is my standard for a Grand Master. And the standard should never be lowered just because we wish there were more of them.

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