Rescuing Wing Chun from Fundamentalism

(An afterword by Rolf Clausnitzer in the the book "Look beyond the pointing finger. The combat philosophy of Wong Shun Leung by David Peterson.)

When David Peterson asked me to write an afterword to his much awaited book, I felt thrilled, honoured, and appreciative. As I began to write, feelings of sadness form…but they invariably give way to feelings of inspiration and gratitude, when I reflect on the difference that Wong Sifu has made to my life and that of countless others. To my mind, whilst he blazed a trail of Wing Chun with his legendary combat skills, Wong Shun Leung was more concerned with pointing his students in the direction of their own deeper wisdom, urging them to reflect on and test what they were learning, rather than expect anything blindly. Not all his students listened, but those who did were able to experience their own insights, not only about combat, but about life in general.

To digress for a moment, I count myself lucky that I was originally introduced to Sifu by a former student of mine when I was teaching English and History at a private school in Hong Kong. I have forgotten his name and have not met him since, but will always be grateful to him. Equally, I feel grateful and consider myself lucky that I was befriended by Ron Li, now living in Australia, who became my training partner and interpreter, as I had forgotten my Mandarin and Shanghainese by then, and had never got around to learning Cantonese. One day, I hope to share my experiences of training under Sifu more widely, but for now back to Sifu…

Sifu was an amazing human being, formidable, charismatic, and yet disarmingly humble. Free from the curse of ego, Wong Sifu was the antithesis of today’s ubiquitous “master” or “grandmaster”. Instead of using the widespread combination of mystique, deception, intimidation, and coercion, supported by unquestioning followers, to create an aura of invincibility, Sifu was more like a modern coach than a traditional teacher, more a friendly older brother than a stern, authoritarian father figure. He had a great sense of humour and often smiled at foibles and self-delusion of certain martial artist, but never with malice. He never boasted, played down his own accomplishments (to the extent that he did not even bother to keep many of his priceless, eyewitness press reports of his Gong Sau matches), and saw that it was up to him to better himself everyday by continuing to learn and train.

Yet, what it was that really set him apart, not only from other Sifus or other martial arts, but also from his contemporaries in the Wing Chun family? What is the real legacy of Wong Shun Leung? I speak only for myself and offer my humble perspective.

To my mind, Sifu was not only a teacher but also a perennial student of the philosophy of combat, exploring and remaining open to insight and change. He was neither prisoner nor slave to the “fundamentalist” mentality he observed in so many martial arts teachers, who were not accessing their own wisdom but blindly and rigidly following the techniques and dogmas laid down and “set in concrete” by their predecessors. Intuitively seeing that most of what was being perpetuated and taught would not work in the reality of modern combat, Sifu nevertheless went out and tested his perceptions in a scientific spirit, to the dismay of his hapless opponents. He had a deep understanding of the basic concepts of Wing Chun and was constantly seeking more effective and efficient applications of these concepts. And having done that he became quite passionate about pointing his students in the same direction. In this respect, too, Sifu seemed to differ from traditional teachers, in that he would never intimidate or coerce his students into doing anything…it was up to them to use their initiative, to access their own wisdom, and to express their individuality accordingly. The extent to which they were able to do that determined their level of competence. This is why it is often difficult to recognise a WSL exponent, but easy to identify practitioners from most other lineages, from their stereotypical postures and movements.

Although without formal scientific training, Sifu displayed iconoclastic, remarkably scientific attitude and approach to his teaching of Wing Chun. He examined, tested, and rejected many traditional beliefs held by Gung-Fu teachers, and instead placed his trust in logic, laws of physics, and a deep understanding of combat as it is in the moment and not as one expects or wants it to be. He was constantly pointing away from complexity and towards directness and simplicity. It was ironic that many newcomers to Wing Chun have been, and continue to be, unmoved by the WSL approach, because it appears to be too simple and direct…it seems as if they are looking for something complex, mystical, and magical, having taken seriously the myths surrounding traditional Gung-Fu.

In essence, Sifu was saying that Wing Chun is a concept based approach to combat rather than a technique based martial art, placing particular emphasis on the concepts of simplicity, directness, and follows therefore that by using these concepts as a guide, we can remain open to discovering new, fresh and more relevant and effective applications of these concepts, with no foreseeable end to the process. Whilst there is doubt that many effective techniques exist in Gung-Fu generally and Wing Chun specifically, they are often not all that efficient. The search for increasing efficiency is a fact in most areas of human endeavours, yet it does not seem to be in evidence in most Wing Chun schools today.

Wing Chun did not originate in a vacuum, but owed its development to a succession of wise, questioning individuals who observed the structural and other limitations of the traditional martial arts, and then turned to internal reflection and analysis to come up with their own original insights for change and transformation. Unfortunately, what generally happens is that the cycle of continuing reflection and insight comes to a halt and the original wisdom of the founders and pioneers is turned into dogma, ritual, and a focus on detailed content. This has been the case of religions, philosophies, and other beliefs systems, throughout history. On the other hand, observable and demonstrable improvements have been made and continue to be made in many areas of human endeavour. Athletics is an obvious example: today’s athletes are better equipped, better trained, and more skilled than their counterparts of yesteryear. Why should Wing Chun be an exception? Why do tens of thousands of Wing Chun practitioners (and followers of other martial arts) around the world still appear rigidly and religiously to stick to the very precise teachings and techniques their teachers and their teachers’ teachers? It is all very well to preserve traditional martial arts for cultural and historical reasons, but common sense alone would suggest that techniques which may have worked effectively 150 years ago in China would generally not work against that vicious and deadly skills and mindsets of many of the street fighters and barroom brawlers of contemporary society.

The obsolete, “fundamentalist” mentality of many Wing Chun practitioners also manifests itself in other ways, both obvious and remarkably subtle. How many readers may have been wondered and continue to wonder why:

• In magazine articles, books, and videos, practitioners continue to demonstrate, ad nauseam, Wing Chun counter attacks that are

  unrealistic, inaptly, and ineptly performed (has anyone, for example, seen a boxing attack executed in a way that would not make an

  experienced boxer laugh?)?

• Exponents demonstrate counters to other Wing Chun attacks? This is an unlikely scenario that may occur only in a rare ‘Beimo’ or

  similar encounter. 

• After long periods, often after man years, of dedicated and intensive training, students are unable to “score” on their teachers? Not

  only would it be difficult to think of parallels in any other sphere of human endeavour, but one would seriously question the teacher’s

  teaching ability and integrity.

• Students never ask themselves if the teachers, consciously or not, have been teaching conditioned, programmed reactions designed to

  keep students “sticking to the rules”, whilst allowing the teachers greater flexibility?

• Exponents demonstrate initial and even interim purely defensive moves, instead of immediately counterattacking an opponent who

  often, mysteriously, stops moving after his initial attack and allows himself to be beaten up, without offering any resistance?

• Teachers show off their “Chi Sau” skills against students who are visibly intimidated, fearful, “cooperative”, and usually offer such

  poor or limited resistance, that one wonders if they are being taught properly?

For Sifu, Wing Chun was a system to be utilised, not one to be slavishly followed.  It seems that his oft-quoted exhortation to “make Wing Chun your slave, not your master” has gone over the heads of most Wing Chun practitioners, even of many within his own lineage. He also said something which has caused me to reflect ever since. I cannot recall the exact words, but he seemed to be suggesting that nobody has a copyright on the concepts of Wing Chun , that they can be applied to any form of combat, that the actual techniques did not have to even look like a “Taan Sau” or a “Fook Sau” to work. Therefore, a western boxer, a grappler, or even a Karateka can improve if he is guided by the basic concepts, consciously or not. In any case, it is already happening…sooner or later individuals will wake up and start to look within. An obvious example of this is that way in which certain teachers of Karate and Tae Kwan Do have abandoned traditional techniques in favour of simpler and more rational ones.

Remarkably free of ego, Sifu had an open, inquisitive mind, interested in the thoughts of others and in different cultures. He was certainly a philosopher, not in an academic sense, but in a very pragmatic way, observing and enjoying life to the full. One could say he was a true student of life and enjoyed nothing more than guiding and helping those who were themselves open and willing to listen. As he was more interested in quality than quantity, he has not left behind a large organisation, but his influence is noticeable, both directly and indirectly, in the teaching and accomplishments of countless individuals, well known or not, both Chinese and foreign. His legacy lives on in Hong Kong and many other parts of the world, in many of his students who, very much in their way their Sifu did, tend to keep a relatively low profile, but more importantly, look beyond the pointing finger to their own wisdom and, in turn, teach their own students honestly and with integrity, holding nothing back and desiring nothing better than to see their own students surpass them in competence.

Full marks to my good friend and teacher, David Peterson, for producing this fascinating and inspiring book. It is truly a guide to personal reflection. I respectfully ask all Wing Chun enthusiasts, irrespective of their lineage, to let go of any judgements and prejudices they may hold, and to look toward and reflect on the universal truths that Sifu is pointing to…if they can do that, they will be amazed at the insights that they will generate from themselves and for Wing Chun.

​From left to right:

David Peterson, Sifu Wong Shun Leung, Rolf Clausnitzer