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When Stars Align

In case you missed Malcolm Gladwell’s popular podcast episode “Hallelujah” from Revisionist History, let me try to give you a synopsis of the story. You might ask what does "Hallelujah" has to do with Wing Chun. Stay with me and I promise you those two are related.

In the 1984, famous Canadian song writer Leonard Cohen wrote “Hallelujah”. You may have heard a rendition of the song from Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi or Bono. It is a beautiful song. It is a work of genius. But what you might not know is that this song was virtually unknown when Leonard Cohen released it in 1984. It wasn’t that there is no genius in it, but perhaps it’s because the genius in it wasn’t ready yet. Mr. Gladwell talked about the idea that some work of genius are done quickly. Paul Simon wrote "Bridge over Troubled Water" in 15 minutes. But what happens when a work of genius takes its sweet time to develop? Mr. Gladwell calls this “Experimental Genius”. Leonard Cohen’s genius is nothing like Paul Simon’s genius.

Leonard Cohen spent 5 years writing and rewriting the song. When Cohen tried to release “Hallelujah”, his producer at CBS called it a disaster and would not release it. The song was later released by an independent record company, but no one bought it. Cohen did not give up. He kept tinkering with it. He played it in concerts. He slowed it down and rewrote verses. One day, he played it at The Beacon Ballroom, and John Cale, a pivotal figure in Rock and Roll was present and loved the song. He asked Cohen if he could do a version of the song. So Cohen faxed him 15 pages. There were too many versions on them. So Cale took the first 2 verses of the lyrics and combined it with 3 verses from Cohen’s live performance. Cale changed the theme and brought back verses from Cohen’s original version with biblical references. Cale’s cover version was released by an obscure French music magazine. One of the very few people who took notice was a guy named Jeff Buckley. Buckley then decided to do a version himself and covered it in a club in New York. A Columbia record company agent was there, and he signed Buckley and released his first album in 1994. By then, Buckley’s version was a cover of Cale’s version, which was a cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Buckley was an extraordinary musician but still no one really paid attention to “Hallelujah". That was until Buckley’s tragic death in 1997. The tragedy propelled Buckley and “Hallelujah” into popularity. It had been 15 years since Cohen first released the song! Think about all the twist and turn the song took before it made itself into a work of genius. If all the stars didn’t align, then the world may never have heard the song. The art of the experimental genius is elusive. There was no clear path to success. The obsessiveness and perseverance were what kept the song alive. It took so many tries before it stumbled across a successful version of the song. The keyword here being “stumbled”.

So what does this has to do with Wing Chun. I would take a step further and say this has to do with every intelligent form of martial arts. There isn’t one person in history who knew in advance how to build and design an intelligent form of martial arts. But in time, not one person, but many, may have stumbled across a version that worked. And that version got tinkered and tweaked by generations of martial artists. Obviously not all versions survived. So over centuries, the forefather of Wing Chun had meticulously placed every position of Wing Chun into perfection and designed the three sets of Wing Chun. But all this was still virtually unknown to anyone. Then by happenstance, Yip Man left mainland China as a refugee and migrated to Hong Kong. And because of circumstance, he redesigned the Wooden Dummy and made it better. Finally, Yip Man and his two students Leung Sheung and Lok Yiu worked at teaching Wing Chun long enough to garner a critical threshold to bring Wing Chun to limelight. Does this begin to sound a little like “Hallelujah”?

In Sifu Kenneth Chung’s recent video release titled “Strangeness of Wing Chun Position”, he talked about the reasons behind the way Wing Chun positions were designed. Unlike musical work of genius like “Hallelujah”, the genius of Wing Chun is not obvious to everybody. Plenty of Wing Chun practitioners never had the opportunity to learn the accurate positions of Wing Chun, not to mention understanding the genius behind it. The genius of Wing Chun requires thoughtful instructions, guidance, repetition and obsession with perfection. And with enough repetition, perhaps you may finally stumble across the successful version of Wing Chun positions. Sifu Kenneth Chung once told me he felt fortunate that he began his study in Wing Chun at the perfect time with Leung Sheung. In 1965, Sifu Chung was a teenager and like many others in Hong Kong at that time, he wanted to practice martial arts. His friend Ivan had been studying a new martial arts called Wing Chun from Lok Yiu, and Sifu Chung was mesmerized by his friend’s moves. Sifu Chung wanted to study Wing Chun from Lok Yiu or Yip Man at that point, but Ivan objected. He had the same opinion that many of my elderly martial arts acquaintances had about them.They were reluctant to teach. Ivan insisted that Sifu Chung go see Leung Sheung instead and took him there. By then, Leung Sheung had moved away from his shared apartment with Yip Man for almost 10 years. He had spent that 10 years trying to assimilate and refine what he had learned from Yip Man. Leung Sheung was in his 50’s. He has had time for his Wing Chun to mature, and he was full of energy. He taught and worked out with students throughout the day. Sifu Chung and all of Leung Sheung’s students I came across said the same thing. They said Leung Sheung was always actively engaged with his students. He felt that was the only way his students would have a prayer at getting it. By the mid 1970s, Leung Sheung’s health was in decline. While his understanding of Wing Chun had advanced further, he would not have been able to teach the way he wanted to. Sifu Chung spent the last 4 decades doing a cover version of Leung Sheung’s Wing Chun and his teaching method.

The next time you hear someone say practicing the 3 sets of Wing Chun is a waste of time, and sets are nothing more than a worthless choreographed routine. Or you hear someone say “Tan Sou” doesn’t work for them, and it is ineffective. And that’s why they changed “Tan Sou", tightening their shoulders, lifting their elbow and their forearm angled. Perhaps you can tell them the story about “Hallelujah”.

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