Ip Man Wing Chun – A Unique Martial Art

Ip Man Wing Chun is a most unique martial art. It may be the only one that was possibly founded by a woman, using principles and techniques that a smaller person can use effectively to overcome a bigger and stronger opponent.

The general consensus with martial arts is that the adept must be strong, fast, and super-fit. This is not necessary with Wing Chun, as the objective is not to confront or compete, but to use less force to defeat a stronger force. This does not mean not to use strength at all: it means to use force where there is no resistance. Women, by and large, are not able to compete physically with men (despite what Hollywood and television will have us believe), but by using greater sensitivity and mobility, and superior positioning, to control the opponent’s energy, these then become decisive factors. This shows Wing Chun to be a most intelligent and scientific art. And, regardless of how strong a man may be, the eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus, groin and knees are all extremely vulnerable target areas that generally cannot be trained to withstand blows. Also, many of Wing Chun’s hand shapes, including Bong Sau (Wing Hand) or Fuk Sau (Resting Hand) are quite unusual, and not found within other traditional Chinese martial arts, though some modern eclectic styles incorporate some of these (and use some of Wing Chun’s empty hand drills). Wing Chun possesses its own upright style that is distinguished and very recognizable.

The full and correct name of the art is Wing Chun Kuen or Wing Chun Kungfu. There are actually different branches of Wing Chun, and some lineages take quite different approaches, so for clarity, it is Ip Man Wing Chun that is being discussed – the lineage coming through Grandmaster Ip Man, going back to his Sigong (teacher’s teacher), Leung Jan. But, for simplicity, the abbreviation “Wing Chun”, as it is most commonly known, is used here.

One account of the origin of this art lies with a Buddhist nun and master of Shaolin Kungfu named Ng Moy, who escaped the ransacking of the Fujian Shaolin Monastery by the Qing Emperor’s military forces. She founded the art after witnessing a crane and wildcat fighting, and taught her skill to a young woman to help prevent her forced marriage to a local warlord. Yim Wing Chun promised the warlord that if he could defeat her she would marry him, and not knowing she had leaned Kungfu, he accepted the wager and consequently lost. So, she became free to marry the man she truly loved. Master Ng Moy then suggested this martial art take the first name of her student, Wing Chun. An alternative story is that a master martial artist named Cheung Ng, who also was accomplished in Chinese opera, brought the skill to Foshan from the north. He was also known by his nickname Tan Sau Ng (Tan Sau being one of Wing Chun’s hand shapes for which he was renowned). Regardless of which story is true, Wing Chun’s specialty is using soft force to overcome hard, and using the opponent’s strength.

Most traditional Chinese martial arts tend to include forms of stance training as foundations, in order to develop Qi (vital energy), develop strong legs for strength and power, and still the mind for relaxation, awareness, patience, and endurance. Wing Chun’s basic training stance is quite unlike that found within any other martial arts. It is known by the name “Yee Chi Kim Yeung Ma”, which literally translates as “Two Legs Gripping Like a Goat Stance”. The knees and toes are turned inwards, to form a triangle shape, which creates a gripping effect with the ground that is both firm and flexible, and yet comfortable. The name allegedly came from Ng Moy, who had witnessed a man attempting to move a stubborn goat so he tied a rope around its neck. As he pulled, the goat turned its legs inwards and locked them, and the man was completely unable to move it, no matter how hard he tried. This stance is employed throughout Wing Chun’s first form, Siu Lim Tao, which develops internal training (Qigong) and a still mind for health, Gong Lik (internal strength or Elbow Energy), all the basic hand skills, and Fa Ging (releasing short distance power). Siu Lim Tao can also be trained on one leg (alternating legs).  There are not many, if any, martial arts that train form on one leg for extended periods of time, and even many of the other branches of Wing Chun are unfamiliar with this method. Grandmaster Ip Man was reputed to invite others to tie a rope around the ankle of his raised leg, and attempt to unbalance him. Apparently, nobody could manage to do so.

Wing Chun is perhaps the only martial art that adheres to the centerline principle stringently and exclusively. It aims to protect the vertical centerline at all times, and also to attack and unbalance the opponent’s centerline. Most of the body’s most vulnerable and sensitive areas fall along this centerline, midway down the body, including the eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus, and groin. If either side of the centerline is struck, the defender can easily relax and swing, following the energy of the blow to neutralize the impact. Striking along the centerline does not allow for the possibility to turn, so the full force must be received. This also causes the opponent o lose balance. When a person is unbalanced in this manner, it is very difficult to mount an effective counter-attack. Wing Chun theory is “Simple and Direct”, and it takes the closest distance for fighting. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so Wing Chun follows the straight-line principle. Therefore, unlike most styles of martial art, there are no round (hook) punches or “roundhouse” kicks in this style.

Unique to Wing Chun is the Centerline Punch (Jung Kuen); a vertical fist that snaps from the elbow, with the elbow down. Most martial arts employ horizontal fists that tend to corkscrew and use the two largest knuckles of the hand. Other martial arts that include the vertical fist use the top three knuckles, whereas Wing Chun uses the bottom three knuckles, because Jung Kuen twists upward from the wrist upon point of contact, to add more power and penetration.

Other arts use various combinations of punches and use the lead punch (jab) to set up a big punch (rear cross) and inflict the most damage. They tend to focus all the power into the one big punch, which is aimed to finish the fight. Wing Chun’s Jung Kuen is employed in a continuous barrage of rapid strikes, to overwhelm the opponent’s senses, and give him no opportunity to counter-attack. The power in the punches is uniform: no one punch is designed to be more forceful than the previous. This method of punching is also known as the “Chain Punch” (Lin Wan Kuen), whereby the hands rotate, one coming forward and over to strike, as the other returns to the guard position, underneath the outgoing hand, like a conveyor belt, only to come forward to strike again, as the other hand returns. In this way multiple punches can be landed every single second.

With most punches, power is generated at the beginning of the strike. Punches that travel greater distances, such as the rear cross, and especially the “haymaker” (a wide arcing punch designed to knock out an opponent) all expend energy, and tend to be “telegraphed”, or easier to read by the opponent because they have to be set up, cocked, or primed first. Wing Chun can release power from short distance without needing to withdraw the fist first, so punches are not telegraphed to the opponent. Some refer to this as “The One Inch Punch”. Every missed punch exhausts a fighter, which is why most arts emphasize time spent on developing fitness and stamina through cardiovascular training. Wing Chun only uses the energy, or power, at the very last inch of the extended punch, when almost touching the opponent. The arm is relaxed right up until that moment, upon which it tenses, and then immediately relaxes again. So, energy is not wasted at all, and “Olympic” fitness is not necessary. A fight should be ended quickly.

A traditional martial art is not trained for sport or competition matches which can last for many rounds, with rests in between, and go on for over an hour, often to be decided by judges’ scorecards. Wing Chun has serious techniques including Chop (Pek) to the Throat, Thrusting Fingers (Biu Jee) to the eyes, and Horizontal Elbow (Pai Jahn) across the face. These particular techniques will neutralize a threat instantly, and are not trained fully with our partners, as they are too dangerous, and should only be used in emergency situations. So, unlike most martial arts that require superior strength, and fitness, Wing Chun has no need for this because the purpose is to use less energy, and avoid meeting force with force, or struggling and using effort. Training with weights and exercise equipment for strength is not advisable for Wing Chun, as it only makes the body bulkier and stiffer, which is a hindrance to sensitivity and reaction speed. For strength and power, training Wing Chun’s Long Pole Training (Luk Dim Boon Guan) is most suitable and sufficient.

Gong Lik is a trained strength that comes from the bones and connects the entire body. All traditional Chinese martial arts that include internal training with stance training develop this kind of strength and power, but Wing Chun’s Gong Lik is unique because it manifests as Elbow Energy. This is developed through daily practice, especially of the first form, Siu Lim Tao. Within the first section, the elbow is trained by bringing it forwards and towards the centerline very slowly, even excruciatingly slowly, and held there for long periods. The energy transfers from the elbow to the forearm, creating a solid firm structure, needed to maintain protection of the centerline. When an opponent/ partner uses Slapping Hand (Pak Sau), from either inside or outside position, to knock the forearm out of the way and open up the centerline, and provide a clear path through which to strike, if Gong Lik is present he will be unsuccessful. The structure will not be broken, even with multiple attempts.

Wing Chun demands absolute accuracy with regards to hand positions – both correct height and correct distance from the body must be maintained. This level of precision is not as important with other martial arts that focus more on attack, absorbing blows, and counterattacking. The elbows should always be carried at least two fists distance forward from the body. Any closer than this and the opponent/ partner is allowed more space to advance, which lessens reaction time, making it more difficult to evade or intercept an attack. When the arms lack Gong Lik, and become tired from using to much strength (common amongst all beginner students!) the arms begin to feel heavy and more effort is required to maintain the correct position. Seniors will apply even more pressure for the beginner to struggle against. The hardest lesson, and for our Wing Chun standard to be good, is avoiding the strength and pressure altogether by stepping back and/ or turning. When the arms inevitably drop, or return closer to the body, to rest and recover, the opponent/ partner can easily go straight through the defense. Using too much strength can be read, and will be used against you in a variety of ways by those more experienced, and using too little will cause the structure to collapse under pressure. Later, as Gong Lik is developed, true strength becomes natural and not forced, so the student can relax and let go more, and then the hands actually become softer and lighter. (An example of “Steel Wrapped In Cotton”!) Soft hands are considered far more “dangerous” because the moment you make contact with them, they give nothing away; there is nothing to read or use, and it feels like chasing shadows, as there is no resistance. Wing Chun has many different hand shapes and each has its own energy and usage. Understanding and applying these correctly is the essence of the skill.

Most martial arts favor balanced weight in the legs, or 60/40 on the front foot. Wing Chun maintains the weight on the rear leg. The boxer’s jab and cross transfer weight to the front foot for distance and penetrating power. Wing Chun’s weight remains on the rear leg even when punching, with the power coming from the coordinated action of the body behind the punch as the rear foot steps in. Every fighting system will use turning of the body, in defense to avoid or neutralize attacks, and in offense to create power and also distance for penetration. Generally, the feet are planted and it is the waist that turns. Wing Chun’s method called “Shifting”, is not performed in the same manner as other martial arts, because the whole body pivots on the heels, with the soles of the feet maintaining contact with the ground. Shifting is used evade and also to open up the opponent/ partner’s centerline and unlock his defenses. The torque created from shifting when combined with Lap Sau (Grasp and Pull) and Jung Kuen increases the power of the technique, as the opponent is literally being pulled into the path of the oncoming fist with a whipping action.

Pivoting on the heels seems a simple enough action, but it requires much repeated practice to perform correctly, so that the whole body is connected and moves as one unit on the turn.  In the beginning, it is quite common for the student to initiate the movement from the upper body, so the legs lag fractionally behind, and finish late. The movement is not crisp, and its functionality is impaired. Instead of the body moving as one unit, there is a separation between upper and lower body, and each turn is broken into two parts. Also, when novice students shift, their feet don’t always align and point in the same direction. When one foot turns out too far, the movement is not sharp, and the energy is not cohesive. With shifting too, it is important to be mindful of the centre of gravity, so that you are not bobbing up and down while pivoting to each side.

Of all the martial arts, Wing Chun is the one most associated with The Wooden Dummy (Mook Yan Jong)  Although Southern styles such as Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut also are known to use this training apparatus, the Wing Chun Dummy form is unique because Wing Chun’s hand shapes, used to stick to the dummy’s arms, and usage are so different from other styles. The dummy is like a training partner, used to develop positioning and footwork and understanding correct distance, as well as accuracy. It is not, as some may think, for conditioning the arms and hands.

While the forms play an important role, the Wing Chun student is not judged on his forms, but his ability to perform Chi Sau (Sticking Hands) well. This partner training exercise is not the same as free fighting, where there is a winner and loser; it acts more like the bridge between forms and free fighting. The purpose of Chi Sau is for students to learn together, and hone the skill through developing sensitivity and reflexes, how to use the energy wisely and efficiently, the hand shapes correctly, and how to use footwork to develop good positions from which to attack and defend. It is an ingenious method of training as it provides a way to develop skill in a safe manner with minimal to no risk of injury. With many other martial arts injuries are commonplace, and just accepted and expected.

In the beginning, single hand Chi Sau is trained to develop sensitivity and sticking, through use of the basic techniques. Then, both hands are trained simultaneously, in contact, rolling together from top to bottom positions, and changing from inside to outside positions, in an unbroken flow. Afterwards, techniques like Trapping Hands, Crossing Hands, Jerking Hand, and Grasping Hand etc. are introduced. Around this time, Chi Sau can be practiced with broken contact, or sometimes just one hand may be in contact. This is called Gwo Sau (Passing Over Hands) and is becoming closer to resemble free fighting, but this is still practiced with safety concern for our training partners. Gwo Sau prepares the student for Gong Sau (Talking Hands), which is actual fighting. This test is encountered only in seeking and accepting challenges, competing with other styles, or having to protect yourself and others from real threats of violence. This is no longer training, but real life experience; what some consider to be “The Truth”.

At higher levels, Chi Sau can be treated almost like meditation, as the mind is firmly concentrated in the present, aware and flowing and adapting, moment to moment, and we are completely focused on this one thing to the exclusion of everything else. When we become this comfortable with the skill, and more confident, we can take Chi Sau to another level, which is to train with eyes closed, or blindfolded. Training without vision means we must learn to trust in our skill, let go of fear, and rely more on our sensitivity, to our partner’s energy; his movement and use of strength. The skin is the largest sensory organ. There are not really any martial arts I can think of whereby partner training is performed with the eyes closed, because “blind” without physical contact, and no frame of reference, there is no way to know the partner’s position or from where the attack will come. Because with Wing Chun contact is sought (‘Seeking The Bridge”), once our arms or wrists, or even just one hand, make contact with our partner’s, then even with eyes closed, it is possible to sense the energy of the attack and react, and we can even sense when his position is weak, or his centerline is exposed. Through contact, with eyes closed, we can know exactly where our partner’s face is, where his throat, chest and ribs are, and come to know the correct distance to these. So, even “blind”, we can execute techniques and land them with control and a light touch, without injuring our partner. Through hand contact we can even sense our partner’s weight distribution. So, with good sensitivity, and again with eyes closed, we can literally feel when he picks up his leg to kick, and can intercept this.

Another level of Chi Sau is training on the top of a table. This restricts movement to just one step, or no steps at all, so we need to work angles more and use shifting more. As well as Sticking Hands we also have Sticking Legs (Chi Geuk), whereby the legs make contact and front, side and hooking kicks can be practiced, intercepted and countered. The final test is practicing Chi Sau and Chi Geuk on top of a table, while blindfolded.

Wing Chun, like all traditional Chinese martial arts, but unlike most other nation’s martial arts, contains internal training (Qigong) for health. This trains the mind to be calm and empty (an integral aspect to health and wellbeing still not fully understood in the West), promotes the smooth flow of Qi, and develops Bone Qi and strength. Most martial arts training will make the student fit, but Wing Chun makes the student internally healthy. Fitness and health are not one and the same thing! Strength and speed, necessary for most martial arts, naturally decrease as we age, but as Wing Chun is concerned with conserving energy, and we use experience and more strategy, we can actually improve as we age. My Sigong, Grandmaster Ip Chun, now in his mid-nineties, can still “Roll” or Chi Sau with young students, and control them effortlessly. This is what a true high-level skill entails.

In Hong Kong, Wing Chun was known as “Gangster’s Fist (Lan Chia Kuen) as it was favored by Triad members since it is both effective and easy-to-learn. Many gangsters did not carry weapons, to avoid trouble with the police, and used Kungfu instead. But, Wing Chun was also known as “Gentleman’s Boxing” (Sie Man Kuen) as it is elegant and refined, with minimal motions and no fancy or flashy movements, such as high kicks, or jumping spinning kicks, or whirling arms, that are associated with Chinese Kungfu. Wing Chun is very upright and dignified with no bobbing and weaving, or ducking and rolling, and professional people like doctors, bankers and executives would learn it too for self-protection. In recent years, it was even made compulsory for the cabin crew of Hong Kong Airlines to learn Wing Chun, as they commonly face at least three disruptive passenger incidents each week. Wing Chun was the art chosen for them because of its speed and effectiveness, its perfect use within small, confined spaces, so most suited for an airplane, and, of course, it is quick and easy to learn. While this very special, unique and intelligent martial art may indeed be quick and easy-to-learn, it nevertheless takes a long time of consistent practice to master!

– Adam Wallace