I’m at the lake this week, so no article from me this week. I’ve reached out to May Chan, a Wing Chun instructor in Vancouver, to discuss Wing Chun. Wing Chun has become a broad term with no one definition for what “Wing Chun” is, and that, mixed with a lack of “alive” training practices has made it a bit of a punching bag in the greater martial arts community. A Kickboxer as well as a WC practitioner, I thought May would be an excellent choice to discuss her vision of what WC is and is not.
May Chan is an avid martial artist and athlete. In addition to her Wing Chun roots she has trained in Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Muay Thai/Kickboxing, for which she has a 2-0 amateur record.. She runs her own school, Rocket Wing Chun, in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Wing Chun is an interesting martial art. There are countless videos on the internet of sifu’s showing their techniques and forms, and while they all sort of look ‘like wing chun’, each school’s expression of the art is uniquely different from the others.
Which one is correct? How can we tell which version, which lineage or school of Wing Chun is right or best? At first glance this question is difficult, if not impossible to answer.
Even among the respected masters in the community, there is a great deal of variation in the expression of the art. Some schools are hard and fast, some are slow and meditative. Some are explosive and focused on overwhelming speed and power. Some are subtle, flowing and quiet.
Taking a wider view, the approach to teaching the art is just as varied. Some schools are hyper focused on the forms, drilling each motion down to its minutest detail. Others seemingly jump straight into sticky hands at the earliest opportunity and only give a brief nod to the forms. Some schools focus on partner drills, others don’t do them at all. Many schools these days are incorporating techniques and training drills from other arts into their training, such as grappling, ground work and sparring.
And all of them, in spite of these differences, are Wing Chun.
The reason for this is simple. Wing Chun at its core is a principles based art. Its foundations are a set of fundamental ideas that, when applied, form the movements, techniques and expression of the art. Examples of some of the most common principles are Center Line Theory, Forward Intention and Economy of Motion. There are, as one would expect, many principles in Wing Chun. There is no comprehensive list, or even core list, that every school follows. On top of that, different schools place different priorities on the principles that they do follow. This complicates things but is the topic for another article.
When evaluating whether a technique is “Wing Chun” or not, it’s not enough to look at the form of the strike – the intent has to be examined as well. How well does this adhere to the principles? And which ones?
Take for example one of the most iconic techniques in Wing Chun – the Chain Punch. This punch is executed with a vertical fist starting at the center of the chest, and pushed straight outward to the point of contact. The fist then drops and is withdrawn while the other hand punches along the same path, straight down the center. By repeating this motion, alternating the hands, it forms the chain punch.
Different schools will express this punch differently. Some schools extend their arms completely while some keep the elbows bent. Some rotate their shoulders or torsos slightly to add power. Some tilt the fist so it is not completely vertical but instead at a 45 degree angle. Some aim towards the chest, some to the face. Some of them add an upward motion to the punch making it reminiscent of an uppercut. Each of these changes is small and yet significant, to the point that practitioners from different schools will argue and criticize each other about why their version is right and the other way is wrong.
And this is just for the chain punch, the most basic attack in the system. Every technique, every stance, every form is expressed differently in every school.
Some people look at this as a failure of Wing Chun as a whole. How can any school claim to be good, if there is no basis of which to judge each system? No absolute “correct” form or expression? There is no way to compare two schools to each other, yet each school claims that its way is the right way.
The answer to this lies in understanding the nature of Wing Chun as a principles based art. The quality and value of a technique in Wing Chun is not determined by how it looks, but rather how it expresses the principles of Wing Chun. The more principles the technique or movement adheres to, and the closer it adheres to them, the more “correct” a technique is.
In our example of the Chain Punch, regardless of its specific technical expression, it is iconic of Wing Chun because of the principles it follows. It is simple, direct and efficient. It travels along and targets the center line. Its power comes from internal structure, rather than muscular force. By viewing the punch as an extension of the principles of Wing Chun, it is easy to evaluate the strengths of the technique.
In this way, despite all the differences between schools in the expression of techniques, even one as basic and fundamental as the chain punch, every school’s chain punch can be called “Wing Chun”, because every school applies their understanding of the principles to the expression of the technique.
If the school is legitimately Wing Chun, then everything that they do is an expression of its principles. A good practitioner’s techniques will follow these principles simply because that is how they are taught to perform. At higher levels, a practitioner will be able to explain the relationship between principles and techniques in detail, and as their understanding deepens their expression of the art will change. Form follows function in Wing Chun, meaning above all else, the function must be understood.
Most people tend to take the wrong approach in evaluating something that claims to be Wing Chun. They take the technique or video at face value and they apply their understanding of the form of the techniques to spot the differences. These differences are perceived as errors, which are used as ammunition for criticism. They are taking Form and evaluating it per what they think the Function should be.
Instead of coming directly from a place of form critique when evaluating something that claims to be Wing Chun, the main question that needs to be answered is – What are the principles that this technique (or drill, or school) is founded on, and how are the principles expressed? What is the Function that the Form originates from?
In this way, a deeper understanding of the nature of the technique can be found. For an experienced practitioner, the value of this approach is that you keep yourself open to learning from others and open to new ideas. It is too easy to fall into the trap of false confidence and safe comfort, if you evaluate everything from the confines of your own knowledge. Even for a layperson or someone not experienced with Wing Chun, keeping your mind focused on the ‘intent’ rather than the form will keep the mind open to the lessons being explored in each technique.
There are many examples of drills (Wing Chun or otherwise) that are criticized and summarily dismissed by people as being unrealistic and as only possibly working on compliant partners, when the deeper purpose of the drill is to develop the structure or motion of the technique in a safe and controlled environment. By criticizing the ‘form’ of the technique (the application of the move in a self defense scenario), the ‘principles’ of the exercise are lost.
It could be that even after analyzing the principles, the evaluation of a technique or drill or school comes up negative. There are certainly many examples of useless techniques, or even techniques that are dangerous to the practitioner themselves. But coming from a place of open-minded evaluation is more valuable than dismissive criticism and opens one up to learning and growth.
Wing Chun is a beautiful and deep martial art that seems to be often misunderstood. I hope that this article will help provide insight and perspective on the nature of the art, for both those who practice it and those who are curious but unfamiliar.