Inside Kung-Fu July 2004

ikf-july-2004Inside Kung-Fu

“Where are the Women of Wing Chun”

By Joseph Simonet

July 2004

Pg 44-48

Although sad to be created by a woman, the art of wing chun has become almost the exclusive domain of mail practitioners.

Wing chun gung-fu is named for Yim Wing Chun, a woman who lived in Yunnan province, China about 400 years ago. According to the history of the style, Yim Wing Chun was engaged to marry a man named Leung Bok Cho. Although Wing Chun was spoken for, a local gang leader took a liking to her and demanded that she break off the relationship with her fiancé and marry him instead. He backed up his demand with threats of violence against her and her family.

Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who had escaped the destruction of the original Shaolin Temple in Honan, heard of Wing Chun’s plight and offered to help. She suggested that the family send a letter to Wing Chun’s fiancé in Fukien province asking him to break off the engagement. While the family and the gang leader waited for word to come back from the fiancé, Ng Mui began training Wing Chun in Shaolin gung-fu, modifying its methods to suit the needs of a woman and to develop real fighting skill in the shortest possible time.

After a year of training, the response from Wing Chun’s fiancé arrived. But before Wing Chun consented to marry the gang leader, she made a final request. She explained that she had trained in gung-fu and could only marry a man who could defeat her in personal combat. The gang leader eagerly accepted the challenge, only to be soundly defeated by Wing Chun and her devastating new fighting method.

Having won her freedom from the gang leader, Wing Chun continued to study with Ng Mui and codified her teachings into a system of technique that ultimately bore her name. She then married Leung Bok Cho and taught the system to him.

Brief Encounter

Curiously, the passing of wing chun gung-fu from its founder to her husband not only established wing chun as a true martial tradition, it also marked the end of its brief history as a female-dominated style. From that point—and to the present day—wing chun has become more closely associated with male practitioners than its female founders. However, to truly understand the genius of this amazing art, as well as its potential as a modern self-defense system, we should take a hard look at its roots as a fighting art designed by and for females.

Although I am a firm believer in women’s rights, when it comes to physical competition, men have significant advantages over women. Some women’s rights advocates may take exception to this statement, but the fact that most amateur and professional sports in the world today mandate separate competition for men and women strongly supports this assertion. More importantly, if you actually ask most women self-defense students, they will readily admit that they do not consider themselves physical equals to men in a fight. With this in mind, the primary fighting concept of wing chun becomes extremely clear: To win against a larger, stronger opponent, you must fight smarter, not harder. Let’s take a look at how wing chun accomplishes this.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of wing chun is its approach to timing. Most traditional martial arts operate on two-step timing—when the opponent attacks, you block, and then you counter. Conversely, wing chun uses the concept of simultaneous block and attack to literally beat an opponent to the punch. As an opponent strikes, the wing chun practitioner typically deflects the attack with one arm while simultaneously striking with the opposite hand. Since the opponent is focused primarily on attacking and is usually anticipating a two-step counter (if any), he is typically totally unprepared to deal with the immediate counterstrike.

Comfortably Uncomfortable

Two other important characteristics of wing chun are its emphasis on centerline orientation and its commitment to fighting at close range. When combined with the concept of simultaneous block and attack, these tactics help the wing chun practitioner operate comfortably in the exact spot where most people are the least comfortable: right inside the body’s traditional defensive perimeter.

If you watch two people squaring off, you’ll notice they instinctively position themselves about two arm’s-lengths apart. From this comfortable distance, they close to a sing-arm’s length to actually deliver blows. Wing chun strives to eliminate this comfort factor by closing the distance and orienting on the opponent’s centerline. When an opponent strikes, rather than backing up, he holds his ground and pivots in place. This dissolves the power of the opponent’s strike, helps him “flank” the opponent’s centerline, and creates a force/counterforce dynamic that generates incredible striking power at close range. Collectively, this “in-your-face” fighting strategy helps wing chun players control distance and forces their opponents to fight on their terms.

One critically important aspect of wing chun that offers a tremendous advantage against larger opponents is its focus on superior anatomical structure. Rather than fighting muscle against, wing chun relies on techniques that place the skeletal structure of the body in the strongest possible alignment. For example, to properly perform wing chun’s bong sao (wing block), the hand is rotated inward until the little finger edge faces straight up. The elbow is raised until it is level with the shoulder and the hand is dropped slightly to angle the forearm both downward and inward. In this position, the bones of the forearm cross, bracing both the elbow and shoulder joints to create an extremely strong wedge-like structure. Once this alignment is achieved, the power of the body can be transmitted effectively to the arm through a quick, explosive rotation of the hips. When these elements are used in concert, the result is an incredibly powerful structure built upon skeletal alignment rather than muscular strength.

Sensing An Opening

Also setting wing chun apart from other arts is its emphasis on developing and using sensitivity ina fight. Through exercises such as chi sao and wing chun’s many trapping techniques, practitioners learn to “feel” an opponent’s intent before they see it. Once contact is made, the wing chun stylist uses hi/her arms like antennae, sensing an opponent’s movements through instantaneous physical perception. This is much faster and more efficient than visual perception and, once again, helps the wing chun player stay a step ahead.

These elements can be used individually to give a fighter an advantage in a fight. However, if we combine them into a synergistic system, the result is an extraordinary fighting science that is structurally and tactically superior to many conventional fighting arts. Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun created an art that allowed a woman with fewer physical attributes to easily defeat a larger and stronger man.

Since wing chun was developed by women and primarily for women, why has its lineage become so male-dominated? The answer is simple. Men also recognize a good then when they see it. And since men also fear attacks by larger, stronger opponents, wing chun has great relevance to their self-defense needs as well.

Functional For Women

Although there are far fewer female wing chun practitioners today than males, traditional wing chun remains a practical and effective women’s self-defense system. However, in the original spirit of the art—to establish a system that uses structural superiority to overcome greater size and strength—I have modified wing chun’s traditional form to make it even more functional and adaptable to women’s needs. The result is “Extreme Wing Chun.”

The fundamental difference between traditional wing chun technique and that of “Extreme Wing Chun” is the use of the wu (guarding hand) as an active support for both offensive and defensive movements. I borrowed this concept from the serah style of Indonesian pencak silat (as well as some movements of tai chi) to further enhance wing chun’s superior structure and give the practitioner an even better chance of “evening the odds” against a physically superior attacker.

For example, let’s contrast a traditional wing chun tan sao (palm-up block) with the “Exteme Wing Chun” version. Normally, the tan sao relies on the structure of one arm to block while the other hand either guards or strikes. Against a right hook, the wing chun player might pivot left to block with a tan sao while simultaneously striking with a right straight punch.

The “Extreme Wing Chun” tan sao takes this concept a step further. By bracing the wrist of the blocking hand with the palm of the opposite hand, the strength of the basic tan sao structure is easily doubled and allows even women of very slight stature to effectively block full-power hooks thrown by much larger and stronger male opponents. At first glace, you might think this tactic sacrifices the ability to simultaneously attack and defend. However, rather than striking with the right fist to the head or body, the strike is actually delivered with the right elbow to the nerve cluster in the shoulder. This simple technique not only stops an attacker’s punch cold, it combines the offensive and defensive function of the tan sao into a single integrated movement that can almost effortlessly destroy the attacker’s arm and his will to fight.

The supported movements of “Extreme Wing Chun” help martial artists further enhance the already-superior anatomical structures of traditional wing chun by adding the power of both arms to the technique without sacrificing the other advantages of the system. This approach works with all of wing chun’s core techniques, including the bong sao, tan sao, pak sao (slapping block), lop sao (pulling hand) and straight punch. Best of all, it continues the tradition of the art’s founder—developing and refining an art that offers the superior structure, timing, and training methods necessary to fight and win against larger and stronger opponents.

Like all martial arts, Yim Wing Chun’s fighting system transcended the traditional arts of her time to achieve specific self-defense needs. Although the result was another worthy martial tradition, her greats contribution was, in fact, her spirit of innovation and analysis. And that spirit is her true legacy—one that lives on in all women martial artists today and through the continues evolution of the arts such as “Extreme Wing Chun.”

Joseph Simonet can be reached at sifu@kifightingconcepts.com His videos are available at kifightingconcepts.com


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