The true origins of Wing Chun are not very clear. It is said Yip Man altered the Wing Chun he originally learnt before passing it on to the world. What did it look like before? The author gives us a possible answer.
1989 was the year I returned to Mauritius (an island west of the Indian Ocean) to visit my parents and relatives. I was prepared for a relaxing and lazy holiday lounging on the golden beach of this tropical island paradise and unexpectedly all of this went out of the window. One afternoon when I visited my father’s shop, I noticed an advert in the Chinese newspaper that a certain person was recruiting students for a Wing Chun class. This came as a total surprise that Wing Chun had even infiltrated this remote part of the world. When my father read out the name of the instructor (Leung Tong Sing), I immediately realized that I had met him previously. A few years ago, as a Wu Shu instructor who recently came from China, not knowing then that he also knew the Wing Chun also. The only thing I knew about him was through my father-in-law who is a committee member of a Cantonese speaking organization which sponsored Mr. Leung from Fatshan, China, to teach Chinese Wu Shu on the island. Mr. Leung, a Wu Shu champion in the Fatshan area of the Guangzhou province of China, came highly recommended by the Chinese Wu Shu organization. A coincidence of passing interest, Port Louis, the capital of the island is twinned with Fatshan in China, the home of Wing Chun. When I first met him several years before, he was teaching Wu Shu which incorporated the monkey, drunkard and other styles. These were the jumping and flowery stuff which I was not very keen on.
Upon hearing of the advert, I immediately arranged a meeting with Mr. Leung to find out what he knew about Wing Chun. When I met him, I was totally surprised to see that the Wing Chun he practiced was not the same as the one I knew and was more surprised to learn that he had heard of Yip Man’s style of Wing Chun but he had never seen it. So mutual curiosity took the better of us and that was the beginning of lengthy and interesting conversations and training sessions. I had to kiss good-bye to the long hours I planned to lounge on the golden beach; given the chance, my wife might have had a few words to say about that.
Mr Leung’s Wing Chun teacher was Pang Lam [Pan Nam], an old master, still living in Fatshan, the legendary home of Wing Chun. This style of Wing Chun has had a separate development from that of Yip Man’s. In fact Pang Lam’s Wing Chun carried on its development in Fatshan and never left the area and it has retained many old characteristics which are similar to Shaolin Kung Fu confirming once again the Shaolin ancestry of the style. This style of Wing Chun is also known as “Shaolin Wing Chun” for its obvious ancestral connections. Yip Man, uprooted from Fatshan, continued his development in Hong Kong from where it spread to the rest of the world with a large contribution to the populanty of the style from the film star Bruce Lee, himself a former student of Yip Man.
Both Yip Man and Pang Lam shared the same lineage up to Chan Wah Shun’s generation. Yip Man, as a young man, first studied under Chan Wah Shun, then under Ng Chung So, a senior student of Chan, after the latter’s death. He later completed his studies with Leung Bik, the son of Leung Jan. Pang Lam also had three teachers but took a somewhat different root. His first teacher was Chui Chau who was a student of Chan Yu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun. His second teacher was Lai Yip Chi another student of Chan Wah Shun and classmate to both Ng Chung So (the second teacher of Yip Man) and Yip Man himself. His third teacher was Dai Fa Min Kam, a very old man by then, who belonged to a generation previous to Leung Jan’s and was classmate to Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tei. If all this sounds complicated, just imagine that you have to trace back your ancestors for the previous two centuries without much written records; it won’t be easy.
The question is therefore, why trace back the history of Wing Chun? There is a Chinese saying which goes, “Always remember the source of where you drink the water from”. Indeed you may know when you might want to drink from it again. Tracing back is not just a sentimental or academic exercise, we can still learn from the past, not only to understand the present but also to build for the future. Indeed we have a unique opportunity to look as to how Wing Chun could have looked like in the past from what Pang Lam has preserved. The style is different and sometimes off putting to those who have trained for many years in Yip Man’s method. I personally have been practicing Yip Man’s Wing Chun for about fifteen years and Pan Lam’s Wing Chun for four years; I can appreciate how the two complement each other. One is fast and dynamic, the other is slow, well focused and subtle. It might not be a good idea for a beginner to learn both, this will only create confusion. To the advanced students of Yip Man’s style, if they put aside their ego’s and vested interest and look deeper into Pang Lam’s style they will gain a deeper understanding and go into the heart of the Wing Chun system. To learn something which is opposite to our beliefs is very difficult and the only way to progress is to keep an open mind as this little story illustrates:
In olden China a well renowned scholar went to a master asking to the educated in spiritual matters. The master poured tea into the scholar’s cup and kept pouring even though the cup was overflowing. The scholar was taken aback and told the master that the cup was overflowing. The master replied, “Your mind is like this cup, full and overflowing with vour own ideas and if I teach you now, that’s what will happen (pointing to the overflowing tea). So if you want to study with me, then empty your cup (mind) so that it can receive what is being poured”.
The lesson here is to keep an open mind, don’t be judgemental until you have learnt enough to enable you to assess what you have or have not gained. Discovering Pang Lam’s Wing Chun for me was like finding a long lost love which mades me feel whole again. I feel I have merged the past with the present and can confidently look to the future because of my better understanding which filled many gaps and cleared the many unanswered questions I had about the system.
How do the two systems differ? This will be the first question that a Wing Chun practitioner is likely to ask and I can probably answer this question better by looking at the similarities first. If someone looks at Pang Lam’s forms, they obviously look different to Yip Man’s. But when you look deeper, the similarities with Yip Man’s forms are self-evident; thc ovements, techniques and emphasis may, differ visually but the principles and concepts are similar. It’s like two pilgrims setting off on different roads to reach the same destination. The basic techniques like Tan Sau, Bong Sau, Jum Sau. Kan Sau etc. are the same. Pang Lam’s Wing Chun like that of Yip Man’s have three hands forms: Sui Nim Tao, Chum Ku and Bui Chee. There is also the wooden dummy, the pole and butterfly knives techniques.
The movements in Pang Lam’s forms are more rounded, flowing, subtle, more internally focused and less ’snappy’ than those of Yip Man’s. The forms are performed at a relatively slow pace, more like Taiji but marginally quicker and stronger and this is probably why Pang Lam’s forms seem to be longer. Pang Lam’s emphasis is more on the physiological and Qi development in contrast to Yip Man’s emphasis on speed and simplicity of movements. Pang Lam has also retained the “artistic” aspects more than Yip Man who emphasized on the practicality of the movements for fighting. If we may venture into the realm of speculation, it may be possible that to better fit his character. Yip Man has removed certain movements which he felt superfluous. Maybe Pang Lam’s style is closer to the originator of the system? Who knows?
On the technical level, here are sonic examples how Shaolin Wing Chun differs to that of Yip Man’s. In Siu Nim Tao, the Horse Stance, instead of being ‘pigeon toe’ the feet are parallel like in Shaolin Kung Fu. The Bong Sau, the angle between the forearm and the upper arm is closed and the elbow is ninety degrees to the centreline which makes it resemble an elbow strike. The fists are kept to the sides ~’itli the knuckles in a vertical line. The Gum Sau is performed to the front as well as to the sides. In Chum Kiu. the moving stances are wide and deep and the manner in which the stepping is done is completely different to Yip Man’s sliding stance. In Bui Chee, the pressing down elbow movement (Kup Jam) is performed by bending the torso forward. The upward chop to the side (Man Sau) is replaced by finger jabs to the sides. The wooden dummy form includes grabbing techniques, finger and claw strikes to the nerve points. The wooden dummy arms are not fixed to the main body but can slide in and out for arm pulling/pushing techniques. The six and I half point pole techniques are performed with the arms fullv stretched with short snappy movements reminiscent of the one inch punch; whereas Yip Man’s pole techniques usually comprise of larger circles. The butterfly knife techniques comprise of slashing in four directions against multiple opponents, simultaneous slashing in two different directions, left and right, front and back, are very common. Whereas Yip Man’s techniques are usually in one direction at a time. These are by no means the only visual differences but only a few examples.
As far as auxiliary exercises are concerned, more emphasis is placed on grabbing techniques, stance stability, rooting training, waist and leg strengthening. The Chi Sau resembles more the pushing hands of Taiji Quan and the grabbing techniques (if Chin-Na than Yip Man’s dvnamic Poon Sau. In addition to arm and leg sensitivity training, Pang Lam has additional drills to develop body sensitivity, to deal with an opponent’s force when there is body to body contact.
For me, the simplicity and dynamism of Yip Man’s Wing Chun mixed with the strong, subtle and artistic aspects of Pang Lam’s Wing Chun are complementary to each other, like the left hand helping the right. Which method is better you may ask? My answer is, it does not matter whether your left hand is stronger or right hand is stronger, its making them work together which is more important.