By René Ritchie
Martial Arts Legends Presents Wing Chun, December 1998
Excerpted from Yuen Kay-San
Wing Chun Kuen: History & Practice
The fifteen year old had been learning Wing
Chun kuen for the last couple of years from a fellow Foshan restaurant
worker. During those years, the he'd oticed that every once in a
while, a slender looking old man would come to the restaurant to
take tea. Sometimes, following dinner, the old man would remain
behind long after the establishment closed and watch their Wing
Chun kuen practice. Although the old man looked on intently and
was presumably quite interested in their activities, he always sat
quietly, never criticizing anything he saw. Thus, it came as quite
a shock to the youth when, one day, his teacher came to him and
stated that the old man was in fact a Wing Chun kuen master of highly
advanced skill. His teacher went on to tell the youth that the old
man had been impressed by his dedication and hard work and had offered
to take over his training. The youth was uncertain how to proceed.
He turned his attention first to his teacher, large and powerful
and then to the old man, who was small and thin and presumably long
passed his prime. The youth's observations led him to express doubts
about the old man's abilities. Nevertheless his teacher, Cheung
Bo brought him over and introduced the youth, Sum Nung, to the old
man, Yuen Kay-San. They spoke for a few minutes and Sum again stated
his reservations. Intrigued by the youth and sensing his potential,
Yuen decided to offer him a potential solution. The old man told
the youngster that he was going to place eggs inside his pockets
and then they would have a match. If, during the match, the youth
succeeded in breaking even one of the eggs, the old man vowed he
would admit defeat and be on his way. The youth quickly agreed to
the simple sounding challenge and the contest was soon underway.
Sum attacked repeatedly with all the power and skill his hard work
and training had given him, yet each time he felt himself cut off
and unable to continue after only one or two actions. Yuen remained
calm throughout and hardly seemed to be moving at all. Nevertheless,
when the match ended, Sum Nung stood back, confident that he had
been victorious. It took mere moments for that confidence to shatter,
however, as Yuen Kay-San slowly pulled all the eggs from his pockets.
None were broken, not even so much as a crack.
Chun kuen is not a technical style, it is a conceptual system. More
than a set combinations of pre-patterned movements, it is an ingenious
index and guide to the core principles of Southern Chinese martial
arts. Thus, in the Wing Chun kuen of Yuen Kay-San, as taught by
grandmaster Sum Nung, it is the yiu dim (yao dian,
important ideas) that are vital, since from them come the many individual
applications and implications.
Yuen Kay-San (Ruan Qishan) was born in 1889 to
a wealthy family who owned a fire-works store. The fifth son of
the family, he was often called by the nickname Yuen Lo Jia (Ruan
Laozha, Yuen the Fifth). At a young age, Yuen Kay-San and his elder
brother Chai-Wan (Jiyun) began studying Wing Chun kuen under a Foshan
constable named Fok Bo-Chuen (Huo Baoquan). Fok had learned the
art from Hung Suen Hay Ban (Hongchuan Xiban, Red Junk Opera Company)
classmates Wong Wah-Bo (Huang Huabao) and Dai Fa Min Kam (Dahuamian
Jin, Painted Face Kam). After completing their studies under Fok,
the Yuen brothers sought out another student of Painted Face Kam
named Fung Siu-Ching (Feng Shaoqing). Fung had worked as an Imperial
Marshal and a guard for the Sichuan governor but by the time the
Yuen's approached him, he was just over 70 and ready to retire.
The Yuen's invited Fung to move into their family estate on Foshan's
Songyuan Dajie (Mulberry Gardens Main Street) where he taught Wing
Chun kuen to them and a few of their friends. Since Yuen Kay-San
was already accomplished in Wing Chun kuen, Fung Siu-Ching concentrated
on teaching him practical application and close-body fighting (including
joint locks and breaks, reverse locking, etc.)
Following their training with Fung Siu-Ching, the
Yuen brothers took different paths. In 1936, Yuen Chai-Wan moved
to Vietnam where he taught Wing Chun at the Nanhai and Shunde Expatriates
Association. Yuen Kay-San, on the other hand, stayed in Foshan and
worked on developing his Wing Chun kuen. Throughout his lessons,
Yuen had always taken copious notes. He then spent time analyzing
the scientific principles of Wing Chun kuen and became one of the
first to document its formal concepts. Linking together and refining
all the knowledge he had acquired, he developed a complete understanding
of Wing Chun kuen and went on to found remarkable methods and principles
encompassing its forms and functions.
One of Yuen Kay-San's close friends at the time,
Cheung Bo (Zhang Bao), worked as a chef at Tien Hoi, a local restaurant
next to Kuaizi (Chopstick) street. Cheung, a large and powerful
man, taught san sik (san shi, twelve separate forms)
based Wing Chun kuen to a small group of fellow staff members at
night when the establishment was closed. One of his students at
the time was a teenager named Sum Nung (Cen Neng).
After a brief introduction and quick lesson in
the skills of Yuen Kay-San, Sum Nung became Yuen's student. Over
the years, Yuen and Sum spent much time together, constantly practicing
Wing Chun kuen. From Yuen, Sum learned the siu lien tao (xiao
lian tou, little first training), chum kiu (chen qiao,sinking
bridge), biu jee (biao zhi, darting fingers), muk
yan jong (mu ren zhuang, wooden dummy), luk dim boon
gwun (liu dian ban gun, six-and-a-half-point pole), yee
jee seung do (er zi shuang dao, parallel double knives)
and worked at developing his chi sao (chi shou, sticking
arms) and other skills. When not practicing, Sum would sit beside
Yuen Kay-San while Yuen discussed Wing Chun kuen's concepts. Under
Yuen's guidance, Sum continued to refine and polish his Wing Chun
kuen, developing an intelligent and practical system, as efficient
as it was effective.
By the mid-1940s, Sum Nung had gained a great reputation
in Foshan for his depth of knowledge and fighting skills. In the
late 1940s, Sum Nung moved to the nearby provincial capitol of Guangzhou
to pursue his medical career. In the early days, he supported himself
by teaching Wing Chun kuen and providing medical services to members
of the local Workers' Unions.
Although Sum Nung, like Yuen Kay-San before him,
did not boast of his abilities nor seek out confrontation, he did
on occasion have friendly tests of skill with practitioners of other
martial art styles. Although he seldom spoke of the encounters out
of respect for his opponents' reputations, it is said that in them,
he never met with failure and his reputation in Guangzhou grew steadily.
Following Yuen Kay-San's passing in 1956, Sum Nung
renamed his system in his teacher's honor in order to ensure Yuen's
name and contributions to Wing Chun kuen would live on. Due to the
turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution that followed, Sum Nung
taught his system privately. Over the last half-century, however,
teaching only those whom he felt were upright and trustworthy, grandmaster
Sum Nung has gone on to train many outstanding students.
Due to the quality of his training, and the many
sources from which Wing Chun kuen flowed down to him, grandmaster
Sum Nung was able to give his students not only his practical experience
in application, but also his deep insight into the concepts and
principles behind it.
Wing Chun Kuen Concepts
There are many important concepts in Wing Chun
kuen such as "linking defense to bring in offense", "techniques
come from the heart", "sticking hands is like asking the way", and
one of the most famous, the "meridian line"
The jee ng sien (zi wu xian, meridian
line), sometimes referred to as the central line, sagittal place,
etc. is behind many of the major concepts of Wing Chun kuen. Like
most Chinese concepts, it can be viewed in several different ways.
Firstly, it defines the line that vertically bisects the practitioner's
body from the crown-point all the way down to the central point
between the feet. Secondly, it indicates the same line through an
opponent's body. Thirdly, it encompasses the most direct root between
the practitioner's center and that of the opponent.
Wing Chun kuen seeks advantage by aligning its
structure and weapons on the central meridian, striking the opponent's
center of balance, and maintaining dominance of the line between
the two throughout combat.
In addition to the general principles, Yuen Kay-San
left behind several formal written sets in poetic form, including
the sup yee faat (shi er fa, twelve methods). Wing
Chun kuen is based on these methods of joining, intercepting, sinking,
darting, sticking, feeling, pressing, swinging, swallowing, slicing,
stealing, and leaking. They are at the same time the simplest and
yet the most profound of Yuen Kay-San's written principles. Profound
in meaning, the twelve methods provide a gateway to deeper understanding
of the style.
Although each of the twelve methods can be interpreted
and applied in different ways, basic explanations can help give
insight into their potential. Joining is to make contact with the
bridges. Intercepting involves the cutting-off the offense of an
opponent. Sinking deals with the destruction of the opponent's structure.
Darting advocates the relaxed and accurate thrusting of power. Sticking
relies on contact to gather information. Feeling uses contact to
maintain positioning during the dynamics of combat. Pressing applies
power like an iron on clothing. Swinging turns the reactions of
opponents against them. Swallowing accepts an opponent's power instead
of resisting it. Slicing carves into an opponent to disrupt their
center of gravity. Stealing fills the empty holes in an opponent's
defense. Leaking runs through an opponent's actions.
Tactical advice is passed down in the system through
sets of four character rhyming couplets such as the yiu ku
(yao jue, important rhymed formulae) and the similar faat
mun (fa men, methodologies).
These formulae impart advice including; as force
comes, it should be received and kept. It is never resisted or knocked
away but accepted and adhered to. As force goes, it is accompanied,
escorted back, and added to. When a loss of contact occurs, or the
body is crossed, a practitioner is advised to charge straight down
the central meridian.
Wing Chun kuen does not prepare or plan out ahead
of time and stubbornly enact these plans regardless of circumstance.
It attacks according to current conditions and is alive and ever
changing. Every offense is a defense and each defense is an offense.
When changes are done skillfully, a practitioner can achieve twice
the results with only half the effort.
Wing Chun kuen boxers must learn to apply their
power in the most advantageous way, moving with the wind rather
than against it. Its power is soft, calm, and quiet. Practitioners
must therefore have faith in themselves to use it. Soft is employed
to overcome hard, but both hard and soft are combined in use. Enemies
are fought fiercely and attacks may be initiated in order to gain
control. Once an initial attack is made, it is followed in succession
until the target is no more.
of five character rhyming couplets pass along training principles
in the Yuen Kay-San system. They include the yiu jee (yao
zhi, important ideas) and the ching yan (qian yin,
introductions). These sets relate to working hard, being healthy,
studying, being nimble, using the eyes, and being first.
Some of the training principles include that strength
must be exacting in position, never overextended. It is aware, follows,
and changes with feeling. During training, the eyes should be angry
and look straight forward. Changes should be explored through sticking
with a partner. A teacher must correct these practices. When there
is no teacher and no partner, a mirror and dummy should be used
to aid in this pursuit and one must imagine an enemy is present.
In addition, practitioners are advised to follow
the methods of the ancestors, but to remember to change according
to conditions. Lastly, it is said that if one works hard and trains,
one is unlikely to meet with failure.
Preserving the Legacy
Among the better known individuals fortunate enough
to have learned from grandmaster Sum Nung (with apologies, far to
many to list completely here) are Leung Dai-Chiu (Liang Dazhao),
Ngo Lui-Kay (Ao Leiqi), Kwok Wan-Ping (Guo Yunping), Lee Chi-Yiu
(Li Zhiyao), Wong Wah (Huang Hua, Tom Wong), as well as Teddy Wong
and many, many others.
Ngo Lui-Kay followed grandmaster Sum Nung from
the mid-1960s until he relocated to Canada in 1982. As the concepts
were passed from Yuen Kay-San to grandmaster Sum Nung, and from
grandmaster Sum Nung to Ngo Lui-Kay and his many classmates, so
have Ngo Lui-Kay and his classmates begun to share them with their
own students and descendants. It is hoped that by introducing these
concepts in the west, it will help to preserve the rare and unique
system of Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen, and the teachings of grandmaster
Sum Nung for future generations
About the Author
René Ritchie has been studying the Yuen Kay-San
style of Wing Chun under the guidance of Ngo Lui-Kay since 1990.
This article is excerpted, in part, from his book, Yuen
Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen History & Foundations. René Ritchie
is also co-author, along with Robert Chu and Y. Wu, of the book
Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to the Historical Traditions of
Wing Chun Kung-Fu and has written articles for Martial Arts
Masters, Martial Arts Illustrated, and Martial Arts Legends magazines
and the Wing Chun Today newsletter. Creator of the Internet WingChunKuen
website, he works and practices in Eastern Canada.