What I Have Learnt Through "Beimo"
by Sifu Wong Shun Leung
The following article is a personal account of what the late Wing Chun master, sifu Wong Shun Leung felt were the main lessons he had learnt about combat through his experiences of “beimo” or skill comparison, a somewhat subtle way of naming the many full-on fights he had with practitioners of literally dozens of Chinese and other fighting systems during his forty plus years as a Wing Chun devotee. The “beimo” is a long established tradition in the Chinese martial arts and in the Hong Kong of the 1950′s and 1960′s, one name shone out like a beacon when “beimo” was the topic of discussion. That name was Wong Shun Leung, student of Wing Chun patriarch Yip Man, classmate and trainer of Bruce Lee, and the man who became known in martial art circles as “Gong Sau Wong”, the “King of Talking with the Hands”. During these celebrated “contests”, which took place on rooftops, in back alleys, behind closed doors, in the countryside and anywhere else that was found to be convenient, sifu Wong is said to have never lost a fight, and most witnesses claim that the majority of exchanges took no more than three techniques to determine his victory. Quite a few of these “contests” were arranged by a journalist who was keen to conduct these “tests of skill” so as to obtain exclusive articles for his newspaper, “The Star”. Unlike the tournaments of today, these were real fights where rules and protective clothing were unknown, where serious injuries could and, occasionally, did take place, and where there was absolutely no room for “martial magic”. The “beimo” sorted out the martial artists from the bullshit artists.
From these experiences, and with much discussion with his teacher, grandmaster Yip Man, sifu Wong developed his skills to what can only be described as an incredible level, and in doing so, brought the Wing Chun system to the attention of the Hong Kong martial arts community. He is even credited with modernising the way in which the system is taught, even to the point of convincing Yip Man himself to rethink some concepts or techniques and actually change them or delete them from the Wing Chun forms and drills. To put it simply, Wong Shun Leung helped revolutionise what was already a highly effective fighting form and raised it to an even higher level of efficiency. He has influenced many people over the years, the late Bruce Lee being an obvious example (his art of Jeet Kune Do utilising many of the concepts Wong put forward during the time that the two were training together and then later corresponding), and he continued to “spread the word” about his very practical approach to developing combat proficiency right up to the time of his recent death. This article first appeared in the February 1995 issue of ‘Inside Kung-fu’ magazine, and was translated from the original Chinese by his Australian student, David Peterson, a speaker of both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects, and a teacher of the “Wong Shun Leung Way” at the ‘Melbourne Chinese Martial Arts Club’ which he founded in 1983 following his “discovery” of sifu Wong’s method after more than 10 years of less efficient Wing Chun training.
The kind of fighting that I am referring to in this article is not that which one might see in the boxing ring because this kind of fight has been restricted by all kinds of rules and regulations, turning it into a game or sport which is far removed from real combat. What I am referring to here is the “real fight”, free of rules and restrictions whether it be as the result of a conflict, or by mutual agreement. Because fighting is relative, the opponents’ build and strength can and will directly affect the result of the conflict, therefore it is difficult to assume to know the outcome. The classic Chinese ‘Art of War’ by Sun Zi states, “In warfare, first lay plans which will ensure victory, and then lead your army to battle; if you will not begin with stratagem but rely on brute strength alone, victory will no longer be assured”. Each of these approaches can affect its counterpart in terms of cause and effect. Indeed, when it comes to the business of fighting, I fear that in an article of this size there is still much that cannot be adequately dealt with. But now I would like to discuss the most common mistakes made by Wing Chun practitioners in order that we can learn to avoid them.
1. CHI SAU
The Chi Sau (“sticky hands”) exercise is a reflex training drill that must be practised repeatedly in order to develop skilful, quick and alert responses so as to satisfy the basic, essential requirements of the Wing Chun system, ie. “Intercept what comes; pursue what departs; when the hands are freed of obstructions, attack instinctively”. These are basic but profound principles which, when properly understood and drilled through Chi Sau, prepare the Wing Chun practitioner both mentally as well as physically for what should take place when one engages with the enemy and so, one gets into the contact condition from the very start. If detailed explanations are not given to the novice student, he or she will tend to over indulge the skill of Chi Sau, inventing their own interpretations until they end up following a totally incorrect form of Chi Sau which leads them straying from the intended path. For example, too much emphasis on the idea of “sticking to the hands” will cause such bad habits as “chasing the hands” of the opponent and thus totally contradict one of Wing Chun’s most basic fighting principles.
At the beginning of the “Young Idea” (Siu Nim Tau) form, one is taught the concept of “Chiu Ying”, or facing the opponent square-on, to facilitate favourable positioning even before the fight has commenced, allowing punches to be thrown along the shortest possible line with the most direct attack being able to be made on the opponent prior to contact being made with each other. Never is one asked in the basic form to consider doing “sticky hands” with the enemy as the range of motion possible by the hands is so wide that if one goes about “chasing the hands” the result is like a children’s game; you go left because he makes a sudden turn left, then you go right as he does, and so on. The result is that you always allow your enemy to dictate your actions, ending up in a passive position and unable to attack your intended target. As shown in photos fig.1, fig.2 and fig.3, by chasing the hands of the opponent in this way, like the man who puts the cart in front of the horse, you will end up at the mercy of the opponent. So, when fighting, one should fix one’s eyes firmly on the target with only one idea in mind, that of attacking the enemy most simply and directly. It is only if your attack meets with an obstruction that you have to change to attain your goal and this is where “sticky hands” comes into play, as a means to an end, that end being the winning of the fight.
2. GIVING THE ENEMY THE OPPORTUNITY TO STRIKE FIRST
To win or lose a fight often depends on who watches for his chance to attack the enemy first when both sides are fighting. As Sun Zi said, “When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, it is best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack.” You will reap twice the result with half the effort if the attack is launched with such favourable timing as the opponent’s intention, developments and movements can all be readily determined. Should this strategy be applied, the opponent will find it especially difficult to co-ordinate his body, making advance or retreat virtually impossible and the loss of the fight by him inevitable. A common error made by inexperienced Wing Chun practitioners is to throw their punches from too far away, leaving a lot of distance between their opponent and themselves. As one can see from the pictures fig.7, fig.8 and fig.9, such a clumsy and rash move gives the enemy the opportunity to attack first.
Therefore, when engaged in combat with an opponent, never be impatient. Do not launch an attack until there’s a distance of one step between you and your enemy, then launch a sudden attack so as to force the enemy to be caught totally unprepared. Launching a sudden attack in this way, one gains the advantage of an extra step towards the enemy, making it extremely difficult for him to react in time, the result normally being a feeble attempt to move half a step to the right or left, or else retreat straight backwards. This makes it very easy to remain in contact with the enemy, maintaining control of the situation by affecting the enemy’s balance and positioning. You therefore avoid giving him the chance to attack first and take away his opportunity to manage the situation.
3. GIVE UP EXCESSIVE IDEALS
Having excessive ideals with regard to fighting will cause one to be far too nervous. Wing Chun theory is flawless indeed if one can accomplish it absolutely, but a theory is only just a theory, never can a person reach such a state of perfection, human beings are all apt to make mistakes at some time or another. In normal combat situations, most opponents are of more or less equal size and strength. Everyone has two hands and two feet, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Each is subject to the same conditions and so each has to fight hard. The most determining factor overall is the level of skill each fighter possesses.
If the possibility of your winning is 70%, there is still a 30% possibility of being attacked. If we look at World Championship boxing contests, even the winner of the match has to take many blows from his opponent in order to finalise the competition. Nowadays, however, many Wing Chun coaches make exaggerated boasts and purposely turn simple things into mysteries, misleading their students with “fairy tales”. They deceive others and themselves. This is the height of shame. It would be a far better idea to prepare the student both mentally and physically before fighting, informing them of the realities of fighting, especially that it is expected that one may have to in fact take one or more blows upon one’s own body in the course of the fight. Thus, when engaged in fighting, you will not be full of misgivings and be at a loss as to what to do.
4. AVOID HESITATION AT ALL COSTS
In order to fight, both parties must be within the distance whereby they can attack each other. Both have equal opportunity to attack, yet there is no time to think of the fight in terms of punches and kicks. The skills and experiences brought about by routine training will be brought into full play at this time. The question of victory or defeat is more or less an open one, to be determined by what one has within. No matter what happens, one must never hesitate once the engagement has begun. To do so will bring about many unnecessary troubles. The high kicks that one often sees in the movies that are performed continuously with consummate ease are, in reality, without foundation. If applied in a real fight, it is difficult, if not impossible, to land a second such kick should the first one be successful.
Whether the enemy falls down or not, he will be out of position for any follow up kicking technique to be effective. Perhaps, if the enemy is hit by a side kick and retreats backwards in a straight line, you may have the opportunity to kick continuously, but the Laws of Physics make such a situation highly unlikely. If the enemy is fearful of the fight, he will draw back quickly and your second kick will surely fail since your first kick would have also failed to find its mark, the timing rhythm being all wrong, just as in dance and music. Only those who hesitate will be punched. One must retreat or advance as the situation dictates, or else the chance to control the situation will disappear in the twinkle of an eye.
The above points will not teach you how to win, but will enable you to decrease your mistakes as much as possible. In fact, if you want to win, it will depend on whether or not you practise hard and persistently, your will to win the fight, perseverance, the development of physical power, confidence, and so on. As for the supreme state of “calm heart and refined breathing” (ie. the ability to fight calmly and with total control of mind & body), attaining that will be on the basis of all the above conditions.