by Rene Ritchie
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.
Wing 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.
Sets 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