The Bedrock of Wing Chun
This week is a new beginning. The beginning of a new year for the Chinese. Embedded deeply in their culture, despite how heavily their life style have weaved with the rest of the world, is their farming almanac, i.e. The Chinese Calendar. The Chinese calendar tells them when spring arrives, so they can plant their crops; when the fall arrives, so they can begin their harvest. And among all the events in their calendar lies the most significant one of the year: The Chinese New Year. Your neighborhood Chinese take out place or your friendly Asian grocery market may open on Christmas, but perhaps not on Chinese New Year (probably depends on how badly rent has gotten). On this day, they visit friends and families and send their regards. It marks a new beginning, and with a new beginning comes many rituals and traditions. The concept of these traditions are frequently passed on from elders of the society. They may not always make intuitive sense, but many times their reasons lie with lessons and learning of their ancestors. It's all about what worked and less what makes intuitive sense.
In the historic days of joining a martial arts practice, the teacher would have a formal gathering to accept new students and start them off with fundamental stance training. Stance training is generally a low standing position to strengthen the legs. The day to day practice and instruction typically came from elder students in the class. But the teacher would personally start the new student in the fundamental stance to condition their body. There are no exception to this rule. All conventional Chinese martial arts begin with some form of body position training. Until the teacher feels that the student was adequately prepared, he would not condone to moving on to a basic routine of any sort. The fundamental stance position training is the bedrock of all Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun included. We will examine reasons for this tradition and whether it still merit the time and effort for it.
To carry on Leung Sheung Wing Chun, Sifu Kenneth Chung had insisted on starting students with training of knees and elbows by way of the basic stance position for 50 years. He places the student in a low standing triangular stance position in which knees are about three to four inches apart, then he ask the student to maintain the position the best he can. This precise stance push the body's limit and strengthen it. Most student find himself shaking and sweating in less than four minutes and muse that it look much easier than it is. In what felt like an eternity to the student, Sifu Ken would spend a minute or two telling this was exactly how he started in Wing Chun in 1965. In the span of 65 years since Yip Man brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong, teachers and students of Wing Chun alike have made changes and adjustments for many reasons. I do not envy those who were adequately trained having to see students come and go because society have speeded up, and students expect to learn more quickly than their body develop. In the present day, emphasis on basic stance training are few and far in between. Many of the elderly have wavered from their vigilant stance training and focused on speed, power and whatever else attract the most students. Many teachers and students alike have never been taught or told the significance of a precise stance training, brushing it off as old school stuff meant for healthy living but not necessarily useful in fights. They question whether these traditions and forms and positions have any merit. After all, through numerous sparring exercises, they have found their way to fight. And just as importantly to them, a justification for their modified Wing Chun. The stance position never seemed to have bought them any favors, so why not just "modernize" it by shedding what isn't necessary?
But isn't this a circular logic? Doesn't this line of logic beg the question of whether the art is worth learning in the first place if it was so easy to pick and choose elements that are useful and those that aren't? Pablo Picasso once said it took him a decade to learn to draw like the old masters, but it took him a life time to learn how to draw like a child. So there needs to be room for changes and adjustments for anyone who practices it. But yet there should be fundamentals on which these liberties are built upon. After all, Picasso did spent over a decade on classical training before he let loose. And if there are so many obvious fallacies in the Wing Chun style, then why bother with something so poorly constructed in the first place? And why was Yip Man, the smallest guy in any room, so well respected in the martial arts circle? Something ain't right.
Stephen Wilkes and Ansel Adams had mused in interviews about how frequently folks praised them for their ability to use high end equipment to construct breathtaking photographs, when many times these breathtaking pictures were in fact taken by a pinhole camera. It is easy to appreciate the fruit of these master photographers' genius. But it would be a mistake to assume their success was built on top gears or pretty landscapes. Practicing Wing Chun techniques without basic body position training would be akin to buying a top dollar full frame Canon camera body with Leica lens without learning about composition, lighting and color theory first.
One common argument against the necessity for stance training is that Yip Man taught his students all differently based on their talents and built. That seems sensible unless you observed that Yip Man was frequently the smallest guy in a room, and his most senior student Leung Sheung was a giant for his times. Their body shapes were polar opposites. And both of them argued for the need of basic stance proficiency in their teaching. But since neither of them are alive, what proof do I have today that can validate their emphasis on stance training?
I recently came into some old pictures from 50-60 years ago, of a then young man who just started learning the Wing Chun dummy under Leung Sheung. The details of his dummy routine can certainly be sharpened, but you can clearly see the unmistakable basic Wing Chun stance training. I found the pictures to be particularly curious since picture taking was still a somewhat big deal given camera wasn't all that common in that era. That is exactly why photographic proof are particularly rare to come by. Sifu Kenneth Chung and Sifu Petrus Wai, both students of Leung Sheung, pointed out that the young man was Tong Kwok. His older brother, Kang Kwok, was one of the earliest student of Leung Sheung in the late 1950's. Out of curiosity, I looked up the older brother on google to see what I can find. What was surprisingly to me was that the only thing I found of him was a recent article on a feud between Leung Ting (who popularized Wing Chun among Europeans and Americans, and taught the Wing Chun castle in Germany until being disassociated from later on) and Yip Chun (son of Yip Man). The article reported on a press conference in which Leung Ting was defending himself as the protege of Yip Man in his latter years against Yip Chun's claim that Leung Ting was never a student of Yip Man.
To provide rebuttal evidence at the press conference, Leung Ting showed a picture of his younger self practicing the Wing Chun dummy in front of Yip Man and Kang Kwok about 60 years ago. And to further rebuttal Yip Chun, he brought along the only other person presently alive in that picture, Kang Kwok, to the press conference to attest his case. In a surprising turn of events, probably due to habit, he introduced Kang Kwok to the press as his Si Hing, i.e. his senior in the class. The press may not have caught on to this, but Kang Kwok was a well known student of Leung Sheung, which makes Leung Ting a grand-student of Yip Man. The way Leung Ting introduced his key witness should have given away his case for being a protege of Yip Man. But all this happened 60 years ago, so perhaps the press and the audience did not catch on. But enough with digression.
In this article was the picture of Leung Ting practicing the Wing Chun dummy in front of Yip Man and Kang Kwok. Immediately, because of having trained under Sifu Kenneth Chung, something in this picture triggered me. And it had nothing to do with the feud. It was rather the fact that Leung Ting was in a low standing triangular Wing Chun stance in front of the dummy. The same one I was taught by Sifu Kenneth Chung and the same one I found in the series of Wing Chun dummy pictures of Tong Kwok. The reason this is surprisingly is because Leung Ting, and all his students or grand students (many of them teach all across American and Europe) neither practice nor teach the low standing Wing Chun stance. For the most part, they either stand straight or very lightly bend their knees. But you would find no sign of the low standing triangular stance in the picture. And surely I don't assume you would find this stance very many places.
Like a good amateur journalist that I am, I fact checked my observation with Sifu Kenneth Chung. He elaborated that a low standing Wing Chun stance was a common place in Leung Sheung's school because it was heavily emphasized. Therefore it should be no surprise that all these pictures had a classical Wing Chun stance to it. He believes the lack of this stance training is a tragedy of present day Wing Chun. It is so fundamental that without it, Wing Chun techniques are no more than movements. If I look to the martial arts world today, I can see all too many young man and woman being lost in perfecting their stage perfect Dragon form or Crane style. But without the bedrock in their respective art, it merely comes across as a beautifully orchestrated dance. And in fights, you see them resorting to boxing and wrestling. Why practice these forms and routines if you plan on boxing and wrestling? Because a house built without a solid bedrock is only a house of cards.