Copyright © Stewart McFarlane 2002. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: This paper is an updated version of a paper first given in conjunction with a demonstration of Wing Chun Kung Fu at the conference, "The Body and Comparative Spirituality," University of Lancaster, 1987, and subsequently published in Religion (1989), volume 19, pages 241-253
Regarding translation, Wing Chun technical terminology is normally pronounced in Cantonese. Therefore terms specific to the Wing Chun system are transliterated from their Cantonese pronunciation. Other Chinese terms are transliterated according to the Wade-Giles system from their standard Mandarin pronunciation.
Wing Chun is a southern Chinese "soft" and "hard" fighting system, traditionally said to have been developed in the eighteenth century by Ng Mui, a Shao Lin trained nun who taught the system to a girl named Yim Wing Chun. Wing Chun used her skills in a fight against a local warlord to put an end to his unwelcome attentions, and she completely defeated him.
Wing Chun means "harmonious springtime." Most of the details and dates in the traditional accounts of the Wing Chun system cannot be reliably authenticated; even the existence of Yim Wing Chun has never been independently documented. The details of these accounts must therefore be treated as part of tradition rather than as historical certainties.
Wing Chun as a system is characterised by its simplicity, directness, and subtle use of economy of motion and effort. It avoids the use of sheer muscular strength. And to counter strong, forceful attacks, it uses subtle body shifting through footwork, along with deflecting and intercepting moves. Nearly all Wing Chun techniques involve the generation and focusing of power at the specific point and at the instant it is required, and then reverting immediately to a relaxed "soft" state.
Wing Chun is particularly noted for its cultivation of reflex sensitivity through the practise of Chi Sau (sticking hands). A high degree of sensitivity, concentration, and awareness is important in Wing Chun because it is primarily a close-quarter short-range system in which contact with an opponent is actually turned to one’s own advantage by feeling directly his intentions and moves. At normal, realistic, i.e., close, fighting range, the possibility of seeing an opponent’s attacks and moves is quite limited. The faster and more skilled an opponent, the less value sight-based anticipation has. Hence the need for skills based on contact and sensitivity to "feel" and anticipate attacks and counterattacks. What the Wing Chun trainee is developing in the Chi Sau exercise is non-discursive bodily awareness and sensitivity.
Five key essentials can be identified in the development of reflex sensitivity in Chi Sau and Wing Chun techniques.
A great deal of training in Chi Sau and Wing Chun techniques is about the efficient use of energy: conserving it, and using it only where and when it is needed. To keep the limbs in a tense state, and to use muscular strength constantly in executing blocks, punches, and kicks will quickly exhaust even the fittest athlete. In combat against opponents trained in systems such as Wing Chun, aikido, t’ai chi ch’uan, or jujutsu, any rigidity, tension, or muscular strength will be exploited and used against one. A hand or arm that is tensed to strike or block or deflect, and then held too long in that tense state, can be grabbed, pulled, or even broken by an opponent skilled in the soft, internal arts or in Wing Chun. So as soon as tension is employed it must be released again. Wing Chun uses the minimum amount of force and the minimum degree of movement to do the job. At a seminar I recently attended, Master Yip Chun said that in Wing Chun, the less you do, the more effective you become.
To anyone who has read the Tao Te Ching, many of these ideas will be familiar as general principles; here of course they are being applied specifically to the arts of combat. For example the conservation of energy and use of minimal effort are described in chapters 10 and 55. Doing less to achieve more is described in chapter 22, and the specific combat effectiveness of using minimal force and turning the violence of others against them are described in the strategic chapters 68 and 69.
Give them life and nurture them.
Give them life but do not lay claim to them.
Lead them but do not dominate them.
Be chief among them but do not dictate them.
This is called the mysterious power. (Chapter 10, own translation)
One who possesses great power is like a baby.
Poisonous insects do not sting him.
Wild beasts do not attack him.
Birds of prey will not swoop on him.
His bones are soft, his sinews weak: but his grip is strong.
He has not yet known sexual union but is complete, and is full of vital force.
He can scream all day without getting hoarse, because he is in perfect harmony.
Knowing harmony is called the constant.
Knowing the constant is called enlightenment.
Forcefully pursuing life is called ill-omened.
Forcing ch’i is called violence.
Beings that are forcefully vigorous simply age.
This is called going against the Tao.
To go against the Tao is to be destroyed. (Chapter 55, own translation)
Yield and you will become whole.
Bend and you will become straight.
Be hollow and you will become full.
Be worn and you will become new.
Have little and you will get more.
Have much and you will be perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the one.
And is an example to all under Heaven.
He does not show himself, and so is clearly apparent.
He does not define himself, and so is distinct.
He does not boast, and so has merit.
He is not proud of his attainments, and so they endure.
It is because he does not contend that no one under heaven can contend with him.
Hence the ancient saying, ‘Yield and you will become whole,’ is not empty words.
True wholeness is achieved by returning. (Chapter 22, own translation)
A good warrior is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
A good winner is not competitive.
A good employer of men is humble before them.
This is called the virtue of non-contention.
Or employing the strength of others.
This is called conforming with the ultimate, heaven. (Chapter 68, own
The strategists say,
‘I do not take the offensive but the defensive.
I do not advance an inch but retreat a foot.’
This is called marching without marching.
Rolling up one’s sleeve when there is no arm.
Attacking without an army.
Engaging without weapons.
There is no greater mistake than to take a military engagement lightly.
To do so almost destroys my treasure.
So when two armies oppose each other, the one with sympathy wins. (Chapter
69, own translation)
After ten days the King asked if it was ready.
‘Not yet, he is vain and fiery.’
Ten days later he asked again.
‘Not yet, he starts at shadows and echoes.’
Ten days later he asked again.
‘Not yet, he glowers fiercely and swells with rage.’
Ten days later he asked again.
‘Near enough. If another cock crows, there is no change in him. From
a distance he looks as if he is made of wood. His power is complete. Other
cocks would turn and run rather than face him.’ (Own translation)
Returning to some of the practical and psycho-physical implications of Wing Chun, the system does not use hard, exaggerated blocks in defending. Instead Wing Chun uses deflecting moves which disperse the energy of an attack rather than trying to stop the attack using an equally great opposing force. The deflecting move in Wing Chun, in combination with the footwork, will often seem to go with the momentum of the strike and then subtly redirect it, exploiting the attacker’s energy in the process. Such moves tend to be less obvious and more efficient than heavy blocks, but they have to be precise, as there is a very narrow margin for error: the difference between successfully deflecting a punch and being hit is a very fine one. Hence the emphasis is on precise positioning, balance, and footwork, as well as knowing the precise degree of tension to use. This precision and control is achieved through the repetition of the Wing Chun forms, so that eventually the correct positioning and conditioning of the limbs under pressure becomes automatic.
As I said earlier, Wing Chun is usually employed at such short range that one is in contact with the opponent. Despite this proximity, one has to remain mentally and physically relaxed. Fear and stress will quickly result in bodily tension and hence the loss of control and sensitivity; such emotional states must be overcome. Training in Chi Sau facilitates a state of relaxed, controlled, focused sensitivity. In that state, in the fraction of a second that it takes an opponent to initiate an attack, the Wing Chun practitioner is feeling the opponent’s energy, tension, and intended movements through his points of contact, and is so able to react before the attack gets through. Some observers, on seeing reflex sensitivity demonstrated at an advanced level by highly trained Wing Chun practitioners, have interpreted such skills as "reading the opponent’s mind." This is particularly impressive when one partner is blindfolded and is still effectively countering his sighted partner’s attack. The anticipation and reflexes and ability to counter all attacks are such that he seems to possess "telepathic powers." But such a skill is not a case of reading the mind – it is much more a case of reading the body, through control sensitivity and reflex training. And at this advanced level, the Wing Chun practitioner is reacting to his opponent’s moves and stealing his energy and power and using them against him.
On this notion of anticipation as a psycho-physical accomplishment, closely associated with concentration, I came across the following passage in Soto Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, written in the thirteenth century. [EN1]
Buddhism teaches that body and mind are one, substance [ji/shih] and form [ri/li] are not two different things. Be certain that this was taught both in India and China. Furthermore, in Buddhism both imperishability or perishability are not to be separated as body and mind, or substance and form. Where does the body perish and the mind abide? In Buddhism there is no Nirvana apart from the cycle of life and death. Moreover, if you mistakenly think that mind is eternal and consider it to be true Buddhist Wisdom that is beyond life and death, you should recognize that the very mind you are using is bound to the cycle of life and death: this is very futile. [EN4]
Shakyamuni Buddha once instructed a large assembly of monks, saying, ‘If you sit in the lotus position, you realize samadi in body and mind [shin jin]… We can actualize the king of all samadhis through the full lotus posture in this very body, in our skin, flesh, bones, and marrow.‘ [EN5]
More generally, there are a number of interesting discussions of Dogen in the light of modern phenomenological analysis. [EN7] Although this kind comparative analysis is still in its experimental stages, many of the emerging ideas and perspectives are compelling and suggestive. The wide-ranging work of Levin draws on phenomenological analysis, psychology, and psychotherapeutic methods, and also reflects an awareness of Buddhist, Kabbalist, and Christian sources. He attempts an integrated understanding of the nature of embodiment and the value of bodily felt awareness. [EN8] Again there is insufficient space here to adequately discuss the important themes and questions raised by Levin. A valuable part of his work is the attempt to apply his theoretical understanding of the nature of embodiment to practical policies and procedures for moral education to achieve personal and social change (chapters 3 and 4). He discusses Merleau-Ponty’s account of the possible correlation between psychological and postural rigidity, and goes on to ask: [EN9]
These questions eventually point, I think, towards the possibility of using procedures of relaxation and the teaching of free-style, self-expressive dancing as valuable ways of working therapeutically with personality-types suffering from psychological rigidity which seriously impairs their capacity to participate fully and with maturity in the moral dimension of life. Furthermore, they suggest the possibility – something it is surely worth exploring – of teaching our young children some of the moral postures, attitudes, and positions which constitute the underlying somatic basis of a moral ‘consciousness.’ In working directly with their relatively more compliant bodies, their images of the body, and their contactual bodily awareness, their bodily felt sense.
It is of course not surprising that correct training in dance and martial arts can offer the same possibilities. Historically, as well as structurally and mentally, there has been this relationship between dance and the traditional martial arts. For example, some Taoist rituals of exorcism incorporate dance and martial arts movements in their highly dramatic performances. [EN11] Also the Chinese lion dance is traditionally performed by Kung Fu societies and uses basic Kung Fu stances in the performance. The south Indian martial art of Kalaripayit is closely associated with the classical dance forms of that region, and the same is true of the martial arts and dance traditions of Okinawa and the Philippines.
Finally, since we are discussing questions of ethics, social responsibility, and moral education, the obvious question is what place does the practice of martial arts and their potentially dangerous techniques have in the context of such concerns? Further, does the suggestion of training children in traditional martial arts amount to the promotion of aggressive attitudes and the facilitating of violence and conflict? I shall argue that it does not. In Japan, over five million people practise the martial arts of judo and kendo. In addition, millions of high-school children have received some training in these arts as part of their physical education curriculum. Nonetheless, Japan’s crime statistics repeatedly reflect very low levels of interpersonal violence compared to those of other developed nations. All responsible martial arts instructors and associations observe rules that dangerous techniques are not to be used in combat except in case of extreme emergency when other means of prevention and escape have failed or are not possible.
On a technical level it should be pointed out that in Wing Chun and other martial arts almost all the techniques are defensive in nature and presuppose that an attacker is making an offensive move which is then countered. Furthermore, the cultivation of the five skills and qualities described above, as well as the social skills and attitudes of confidence, responsibility, respect, co-operation, and equilibrium, actually reduce the possibility of serious interpersonal conflict and violence arising. The reason, as we have seen, is that an essential element of Wing Chun training is the overcoming of stress, fear, and anger. Therefore the Wing Chun practitioner is less likely to over-react violently to provocation. Also, as an integral part of their training, serious practitioners of Wing Chun (or any martial art) should have overcome any pathological desire to prove themselves through violence. Finally, by exercising his/her awareness and sensitivity, the Wing Chun practitioner (and any serious martial artist) should be attuned to any danger-points where violence may threaten to erupt, and by exercising her/his control, equilibrium, and confidence, forestall or prevent the conflict or violence from occurring. Many martial artists are familiar with such instances where calmness and quick-thinking have defused situations that could have led to violence.
If self-defence does become necessary, as a last resort, then the trained
martial artist has more ability and control, and therefore is more likely
to know how much or how little force to use, and how much or how little
damage he/she is likely to cause. With correct training in Wing Chun and
other systems, it is possible to immobilise, control, and even disarm opponents
without causing them serious damage. It could be argued that such a course
of action is preferable to "turning the other cheek" and allowing a violent
attacker to harm oneself, others, and possibly himself. [EN12]
English law does, of course, allow for reasonable force to be used in defence
of oneself or others, as a last resort. It should be pointed out, however,
that the majority of martial artists are not going to be confronted with
interpersonal violence, and are free to regard their training as a mental,
physical, and spiritual discipline, which has immense value in itself.
Stewart McFarlane is Director of Asian Studies at Liverpool Hope University College. He specialises in Chinese Religions and Buddhist Studies. He is author of The Complete Book of Tai Chi (Dorling Kindersley, 1997; Barnes & Noble, 2001), and has contributed to many academic journals on the theme of Asian martial arts. Recent papers on the topic include:
EN1. Dogen Zenji, Shobogenzo, translated by K. Nishiyama and J. Stevens (Tokyo: Nakayama Shobo, 1975), vol. 1, 79. The buffalo occurs in an earlier chapter representing immovable concentration.
EN2. H.J. Kim, Dogen Kigen – Mystical Realist (University of Arizona, 1975), 128. See also K. Nishiyama and J. Stevens (trans.) Shobogenzo, vol. II, 72.
EN3. Ibid., vol. 1, 1.
EN4. Ibid., vol. 1, 156.
EN5. Ibid., vol. 1, 125.
EN6. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by C. Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 144-145.
EN7. See David E. Shaner, "The body mind experience in Dogen’s Shobogenzo: a phenomenological perspective," Philosophy East and West, 35:1 (January 1985), pp. 17-35; and a full-length study by Steven Heine, Existential and Ontological Dimensions of Time in Heidegger and Dogen (State University of New York Press, 1985). There is a fascinating account of Dogen’s use of acoustic language and immediate hearing and their implications for his non-dualism by David Appelbaum, "On turning a Zen ear," Philosophy East and West, 33:2 (April 1983), 115-122.
EN8. David Michael Levin, The Body’s Recollection of Being (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1985).
EN9. Ibid., 234-235.
EN10. Ibid., 252-253.
EN11. John Lagerwey, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History (New York: Macmillan, 1987), chapter 13.
EN12. For discussion of these and similar ethical dilemmas confronting Buddhism, and reference to some traditional Buddhist responses, see Stewart McFarlane, "Buddhism," in Linus Pauling (ed.), World Encyclopaedia of Peace (Oxford: Pergamon, 1986), vol. 1, 97-103. See also Allan Back and Daeshik Kim, "Pacifism and the Eastern martial arts," Philosophy East and West, 32:2 (April 1982), 177-186.
EN13. In response to an increasing number of assaults on clergy in some parts of Britain, television and press reports in February 2002 described self-defence classes offered to U.K. clergy of all religions. Unfortunately the martial arts chosen were athletic and high-kicking hard style systems which are not particularly appropriate to a member of the clergy requiring self-defence skills.