My Way of Wing Chun

The Learning Curve

Wong Shun Leung – The Logic Behind Wing Chun

One of the top Wing Chun fighters at Yip Man‘s hong kong school, Sifu Leung taught Bruce Lee privately for one-and-a half-years and recalled “his Kung-Fu was not very good he couldn’t fight.” Leung’s own introduction to the Wing Chun system was less than stellar he challenged Yip Man to a trial by combat, convinced he could defeat him. When m a n easily won, Leung became a lifelong believer and disciple of the system that Bruce Lee would eventually turn into the most popular Kung-Fu style ever taught. Yip Man, seeing more in Lee than others, predicted to the incredulous Leung that, “this little kid will make Wing Chun famous.”

A dedicated and talented student, Leung went on to become Yip Man’s personal assistant and was put in charge of passing on the art to the school’s juniors. Leung, despite his initial misgivings about the wild and youthful Lee, eventually developed a personal relationship with “the little dragon” as they both matured. He refused, however, to appear in the game of death, Lee’s last unfinished project, because he felt that being defeated in a movie would reflect poorly on his true skill. His relationship with Bruce Lee would last until the end of the actor’s life.

Wong Shun Leung was a charismatic teacher and a dynamic leader, which is why Lee respected him. Leung’s deep knowledge of Wing Chun made him one of the most sought-after instructors of his era. Analytical, inquisitive, and perceptive, he was said by Yip Man to be “the logic behind Wing Chun”

Q: When did you start training under Yip Man?
A: My father had friends who practiced Wing Chun. One of them was a man named Chan Wan Sun. He would always tell me how good his teacher, Yip Man, was. I didn’t believe him, so I decided to go to Yip Man’s school and challenge him. He was around 50 years old and I was 17, strong, and in good shape. To make a long story short, he beat me up easily, which really surprised me. I just couldn’t believe this little old man was so good.

Q: You were considered one of Wing Chun’s best fighters, right?
A: That’s what they say, but I really don’t like to talk about it very much. Many people, when they get old, start talking about how great they were when they were young and sometimes they say a lot of thing that are not true. If you were really good, then people will know already—you don’t have to talk about it. If I tell stories about how I used to fight, it means that I can’t fight anymore. If I can still fight today, I don’t need to talk about my past. I don’t see any point in proving to people how tough you are. Being a good fighter depends on how hard you practice, and how much time you put into it. Fighting abilities are based on perseverance, confidence, and physical power not talk.

Q: Did you ever consider competing in combat sports?
A: I have always liked boxing—I like anything about fighting—but my kind of fighting is not the sport version—it is real fighting where there are no rule, no restrictions, and your life is hanging in the balance. If you put on gloves then it becomes a matter of winning points, which is not total fighting. Martial arts techniques can be adapted to be used with gloves, but is not the same. However, it is true that contact training and sparring can be a very revealing experience for the student. Fighting with martial arts skills is partly a branch of learning, and partly an art. Perhaps Chinese martial arts should, taking into account the realistic social environment, formulate a set of competition regulations that would allow what I call the “trial of skills” to be brought into full play.

Q: Why did you stop boxing?
A: I was sparring with my instructor and I hit him very hard. He got real mad and came at me very hard. I fought back with Wing Chun and he ended up bleeding. Boxing was over for me!

Q: Do you look at Wing Chun as a philosophy or an art?
A: For me, Wing Chun is a skill. If you describe it as an art, there is no way to determine if it is effective or not. For example, you might like Picasso’s work more than Monet’s paintings, but it is purely subjective and just a matter of preference. In combat, the fighter left standing is the winner. It Is not a matter of likes or dislikes—the skills can be proved. So I look at Wing Chun more as a skill than an art. Taken in that context, there nothing wrong with using your skills if you have to.

Q: You were one of Yip Man’s top assistants. Did you ever teach Bruce Lee?
A: I taught Bruce Lee privately and also watched him train under Yip Man at the school. William Cheung introduced Bruce Lee to the Wing Chun system. Bruce trained and studied Wing Chun from me for over one-anda-half years.

Q: Did you keep in touch with Bruce after he moved to the United States?
A: He used to write me telling me how he was doing and the direction his research was taking. Sometimes he would ask for clarification of a Wing Chun technique or principle. When he came back to Hong Hong to do movies, we would meet and talk about martial arts for hours. We had a very good relationship until the very end.

Q: Did he ever explain Jeet Kune Do to you?
A: Yes. Bruce was totally aware that Jeet Kune Do is very hard to do because it depends on the student’s capabilities. This can be really confusing for the students, especially if they lack a strong base and deep understanding. Jeet Kune Do was simply a personal format Bruce used to apply his knowledge and experiences. I told him most likely there was a missing link in his research and that he was trying to cover too much distance in too short a time. On other hand, there has been only one Bruce Lee and no one could play like him some of the old rules didn’t apply.

Q: How did you see the evolution of Bruce Lee from Wing Chun to Jeet Kune Do?
A: First of all, Bruce didn’t get to see the best part of Wing Chun during his early days of training under Yip Man. He then came back to Hong Kong, and truly learned the foundation of what would eventually become his own style. He was a very naughty boy at times but also very smart. So once in the United States, he filled in the blanks in order to make things work for him.

In the later days of his life Bruce said to me, “If I could take back Jeet Kune Do, I’d take it back.” He realized that he could make the movements work, but that was because his style was designed for his own specific talents. His students, however, had problems making the techniques work under real situations. While Jeet Kune Do was a significant art for Bruce, it has not been that way for other people who followed his method.

Bruce was a good fighter, but not as good as movies have portrayed him almost invincible. People used to see Bruce Lee and have Kung-Fu dreams. They wanted to do the same things he did and duplicate his methods. Unfortunately, it seems nobody wants to wake up.

Q: Have you made any changes to the Wing Chun system?
A: Basically I teach the same method I learned from Yip Man but I would say that I teach it in a more systematic way. At the same time, though, I’m still very intuitive in my teaching.

Q: Most people associate you with the principle of lut sao jik chung. Why?
A: Because it is probably the most important concept in the whole Wing Chun system, perhaps the only exception being the bart cham dao techniques. As soon as the opponent offers an opening, the hand should attack instantaneously.

Q: Is it true that Bruce offered you a part in one of his movies?
A: Yes, he did. It was for “Game of Death”, but I declined because I thought that the moves of Wing Chun style wouldn’t look good on film. I think the Wing Chun method is ugly for movies but very good and very logical for real fighting.

Q: Have you changed your overall view of the art since you were young?
A: Of course. When your are young you like to fight. As you grow, you look at fighting in a different way. You have a different point of view about physical confrontations. It is important to educate the students about this. Unfortunately, if a student wants to fight, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Q: Are you a traditionalist?
A: I firmly believe that Wing Chun is something very logical. As long as it stays logical it doesn’t matter what you call it or what you’re actually doing. If it is logical, if it works, use it! Make the art your slave, and never allow the art be your master.

Q: Why do you think Wing Chun is so popular around the world?
A: I think Bruce Lee contributed a lot to that! But if a martial art system is not logical, simple, and useful it will disappear. It’s just a matter of time. Think about the many countries or political systems that don’t exit anymore. If there is something lacking in meaning and purpose it will definitely fade away. Wing Chun is growing all over the world—so that should tell you something.

Q: When you teach in a different country, do you change your method?
A: I have to adapt my mentality to the country. Of course the Chinese customs are different from the American or European, but the Wing Chun system is taught the same. The approach can be different but the techniques are the same, and the philosophy as well. Anyone who learns martial arts must be combat-minded. If one learns martial arts’ skills, but does not pay attention to fighting, then they are neglecting the essence to pursue trifles since martial arts are not just physical exercises. To learn and to try skills are the two stages of martial arts training, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that. One should be encouraged to test the skills as long the purpose is to study and learn from others. But it is a pity that many people have distorted the meaning of the trials of skills, and take it as a way to show their power or even to bully people around!

Q: Do you feel that chi sao Is an important part of Wing Chun?
A: Chi sao is very important in Wing Chun, but too much emphasis is placed on the idea of “sticking” to the hands—this causes the student to end up chasing the hands instead of punching and trapping. This mistake totally contradicts the Wing Chun basic principles. Wing Chun theory is flawless if you can execute it perfectly. But a theory is just a theory. It means nothing if you can’t put it to work. You might have a better fighting theory behind you system, but if your skill level is lower than you opponent’s skill, you’ll be easily defeated. All the theory in the world can’t save you from losing.

Q: Are you happy with the way Wing Chun is being taught?
A: Well, I have seen some instructors turn simple things into big mysteries, misleading their students. They not only deceive themselves but other innocent people, too. They’d do better teaching the students how to not make mistakes in real fighting.

Q: Do you follow any particular diet?
A: If you have to fight in the street the kind of food you eat is not going to be that relevant so, I don’t. But if you are a professional fighter or are you planning fighting in the ring, then the food will affect your energy and performance.

Q: Do you have a martial arts philosophy?
A: There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “Courage first, strength second, and Kung-Fu third.” To secure victory in a face-to-face fight with fist and kicks, one must be courageous. The courage comes from one’s own self cultivation and is one of the purposes of trials of skills. The second is strength and vigor. The Kung-Fu you see in real combat is only a few actions. What
counts in real combat is determination, courage, and vigor, if you’re superior in this aspects, then you can often knock down you opponent with two or three simple techniques. The prolonged fighting seen in martial arts movies is artificial. Bruce Lee was a master of Kung-Fu in his own right, but the Kung-Fu he actually mastered should not be confused with what you see in the movies. There are Wing Chun disciples whose achievements in martial arts are not even second to those of Bruce Lee. But they never made movies and got famous so no one knows them. Movie fans only know Bruce Lee because his movies are shown all over the world.

Q: Do you think people respond well to your teaching methods?
A: I can only say that I try to share Wing Chun in an honest way. I teach in a logical manner because the art is very logical. I can’t talk about what other people may do or say. I’m only responsible for my own acts.

[1] Jose M. Fraguas, Kung-Fu Masters, pp. 169-177 (2002)

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