Wing Chun was created, in the some not precisely defined time period ,couple of hundred years ago. Besides a bunch of legends nothing is known about the creators of the art. What can be said with a great certainty is that creators of the art were extremely intelligent fighters who created a perfect fighting system for the specific purpose and usage. Not a style or and art but a system, originally constructed to be used on the boats of Guandong opera tropes. For this purpose ,Wing Chun is definitely perfect way of fighting, but the principles used as a foundation of the system allows it to grow, adapt, change, to evolve according to the situation and personal needs of the practitioner. The idea that is so popular today , idea called “Krav Maga” , “Systema”, “Sijal” ect was already invented long time ago and it is called Wing Chun.
Living in turbulent times of the end of the Ching dynasty in a country ravaged by constant famine , natural disasters , absolute social , economical and political system ,under constant threat of foreign forces ,weak government control , internal political struggle, high rate of criminal activities members of the Guandong opera were forced to invent a system of fighting suitable for their line of work and life and they came up with the conceptual system easy to learn and easy to be adapted for any situation. Members of the opera most of their time spent on overcrowded boats . Non of them was a professional fighter nor they could afford to pay some so they were force to defend them self. Being actors , prop masters , cooks , or boat handlers they didn’t have much time to practice martial arts . On the other hand, having at least some fighting skills was a matter of survival so opera members invented Wing Chun , a short, easy to learn , knife fighting system perfect to be used on the boats (where they spent more than 90% of their time) . Long pole was of course the logical addition to the system because they were used on daily basis to maneuver the boats in shallow waters of Pearl river delta. System made for fighting on the boats worked perfectly on the boats .
At some point system left the boats and started to be practiced on dry land . Out of the boats ,Wing Chun was not such a great system. How do we know that ? Simply , only handful of people practiced the system , it was almost unknown until Bruce Lee made it famous , not more than 50 people practiced it the entire time before 1950’s and that was not because of some secrecy but because people choose systems for fighting in a condition they find them self at that particular period of time , and they tried to choose the best they could find.
Wing Chun is often popularized as the most effective, most direct, most efficient fighting system, yet we have no proof ,historical nor from present time that those claims are true. Some other systems proved them self as practical and useful in almost any situation, for sport or self defense like western boxing ,wrestling, Thai boxing , Kyokusin karate …So , what happened with the “perfect system of fighting” ?
For any given skill in order to grow and advance it is necessary to be tested in practice. While there are a lot of stories about almost constant fighting of Wing Chun ancestors in reality there is not proof they had even one fight. There is no better proof than the fact that wing chun is today as it was 150 years ago still perfect for fighting on the boats or narrow confined spaces , but not of much anywhere else. Wing Chun was passed down pretty much in unchanged form from red boats till today. Many people are happy with that , but vast majority of Wing Chun practitioners never fought and never even does sparring , because if they do , Wing Chun would look much different. Stories about 300 fights are just nonsense , if Leung Jan had 300 fights he would make better suited system for competition fighting , boxing is a sport , made for competition it works perfectly as well as Thai boxing , wrestling …
Wing Chun principles are almost perfect , they allow the art to be developed and adjusted to any situation or purpose , the only required ingredient is experience .
There is one simple truth valid in any point of history , higher social class , rich people do not fight , not for fun , nor money , nor they have time for such activities .People may believe differently , but that is the truth , rich people pay poor people to fight , that is how things are working since the beginning of civilization. Kung fu in the middle of the 19th century became a status symbol , something like an expensive car today , people practiced kung fu because they could afford it , not for fighting . The question anyone should ask, what someone could gain by fighting ? Money ? Leung Jan , his students as well as some less known masters form that time already had it enough . Fame? Leung Jan was already famous locally as a doctor and a rich person, as well as most of his students who were rich businessman. What they could lose by fighting? Well, everything . They could lose life or health? Why would anyone who already had a good life risk to lose anything? They could lose wealth and their possessions if caught breaking the law (fighting, especially with weapons which was forbidden for Han people) . So why they would fight ? They already had everything they could possibly want and if engage in fighting , they could lose everything.
There are stories about Fung Siu Ching and Fok Bo Cheun , famous bounty hunters with great skills who had a lot fights with dangerous opponents .But , like in everything else connected to Wing Chun history there is a catch to these claims . First , there is no evidence these people ever existed . I know this is a blasphemy for some people but that is the truth. But let’s presume for the moment these people really existed , were they such a tremendous fighters ? Were they fought daily on their line of work? Of course they did , they would chase dangerous criminals and bare handed they would jump into the gang layer and fought of from 20 to 30 gangsters , some armed with guns. Every single day , just like in American B production movies. They could also fly and shoot lightning bolts from their fingers. Joke aside , the truth is they would probably have to fight sometimes but opponents were not well armed , well trained criminals with great fighting experience and with well organized gang behind them ,these people were often too much even for government forces . They would chase people who fail to pay their debts or owe taxes , common people with no fighting skills , or petty criminals who were not much of a danger .
Lack of fighting is more than obvious in Wing Chun (as well as in most of “traditional” kung fu styles). Style didn’t change nor adapt for fighting since the time of red boats. Styles that don’t change become absolute and completely ineffective. Wing Chun did evolve and change but in a direction completely opposite from fighting, it grew in complexity, number of techniques and drills , it became total opposite to its self, Wing Chun training today brakes its own basic principles.
Wing Chun is in hands of famous doctor from Foshan. Like many other kung styles , Wing Chun became a status symbol of wealthy people from upper social class. Kung fu was never practiced on massive level before 20th century. For the most part of its history , martial arts in China were exclusively reserved for military. During Ching dynasty besides the army a few new professions emerged which had the need for martial training like police , caravan guards , bodyguards … still martial arts were rare , during the last period of Ching dynasty less than one percent of people practiced kung fu. Before Ching dynasty only the military officers had complete martial training , common soldiers just had infantry training not much different from any other army n te word of that period. Kung fu schools before Ching dynasty didn’t exist , only after Taiping rebellion kung fu schools emerged for the first time . These schools were very different from modern kung fu schools. It was not possible, like today to just walk into the schools, watch the training and join the class. For outsiders it was impossible to enter school. In order to be accepted as a student someone must be teacher’s relative or to have someone who would be a guarantee for his character and behavior. Being a member of kung fu school was not only extremely expensive but it was also a great honor. Criteria for nonfamily members to be accepted as students were extremely high.
Leung Jan had several students. Most of them were his relatives and also rich as much as he was , actually only three of his students were not his relatives. All of his students were members of his social class, all except one. Man known as Au Tzu was from the lower social class. He could not afford extremely high tuition fees but he had great desire to learn and practice kung fu. He finally found a job in Leung Jan’s clinic and worked as some sort of assistant. After some time , seeing how big was Au Tzu’s desire to practice Wing Chun , Leung Jan made an exception and accepted him as a student. Au Tzu was a good student, he practiced passionately and reached high level of proficiency. However , as much as he was good and serious practitioner he could not fit with other students . The social and cultural gap was to deep and eventually Au Tzu started to show open hate toward other students . His practical jokes at some point reached such a level that Leung Jan was forced to expel him from school. At that time , member of the school was equal to a family member and someone must do something seriously wrong to be expelled . This case was just an example of what will Wing Chun become some 100 years later, when Wing Chun becomes available to anyone and everyone.
In early 50s in Hong Kong , running away from communists who just took over China, arrived Yip Man. He lost everything and the only way to support himself financially was to open a Wing Chun school. While there is no doubt he was very knowledgeable and he made some significant changes in the art which made it more acceptable for wider population he was also responsible for further degradation of the art.
Yip Man wrote his version of “History” of the art .The most significant part of that is about his supposed last teacher, Leung Bik. Whether or not Leung Bik existed is not important, it is a custom in Chinese martial arts to choose legendary ancestor , real or mythological . It is also not important whether Leung Bik (who ever that person might have been) really taught Yip Man or not. What is important is a message sent through that short part of the story. Yip Man was the only representative of his lineage in Hong Kong, he could and did, unchallenged to write any version of the style’s history. He basically sent a message that through Leung Bik he got better, more original, more sophisticated version of the art compared to all other people from his lineage. In essence he said that his first teacher, Chan Wah Shun ,was not smart enough to comprehend and learn the complete system. From that point on the linage wars started, from which Yip Man’s style suffered more than any other, and spread like a wild fire all around Wing Chun world . This was a marketing approach which purpose was to gain as much students as possible. I am sure Yip Man didn’t want to case all these nonsense that happened after he died it happened never the less.
Second thing that degraded the art was the fact that only a few of his students actually learned a complete art , or at least what was complete in Yip Man’s system . Maybe 4 or 5 , all the rest had incomplete training . Yip Man didn’t issue rank level certificates and after his death ,everyone who even walked besides his school became a “Grandmaster”. Yip Man worked for money and payed the most attention to those who payed the most , he less fortunate people with less money got what they payed , incomplete system . There is nothing is what Yip Man did , people are now days coming and going from schools all the time , but at least there is some kind of control .
Yip Man started a new era in teaching Wing Chun, and that brought some good but also some very bad things. He opened the door for lies , fake histories , senseless struggle for as much students as possible and all means are allowed. This struggle brings the worst in people and we have very ugly things done today in the name of the art.
After Bruce Lee died , Wing Chun became planetary popular . Poor Bruce didn’t even cooled down in his grave when a whole bunch of teachers packed their bags and went all over the world to teach people “bruce lee’s” art.
All these “teachers” , coming in touch with different cultures and way of thinking found themslef in a problem because they didn’t have adequate way to transmit the knowledge . Cultural gap was enormous and old rules of student selection simply were forgotten , everyone could learn , the only important thing was and still is , money. Having in mind that Wing Chn is a sophisticated art and requires certain level of education and intelligence to be properly understood , not everyone was able to learn the complete art. What Yip Man started his students continued , the art was further simplified. To overcome the cultural and language gap “teachers” started to focus only on technical part of the art , on things they can show , that are obvious and they don’t have to explain in depth . Wing Chun became strictly formalized with great numbers of drills, “sections” and “techniques” which looked like a techniques from old Kung fu movies. In order to spread the art quickly and cover as much territory as possible , “grandmasters” produced a large numbers of local “masters “. Wing Chun , from conceptual art based on reflexes and free fight turned in highly formalized system with enormous number of obligatory exercises which require enormous amount of time to master , yet have no value in real combat . All these things were taught in the most simple way there is nothing behind these movements , it is what is was shown , wing chun became a collection of “if He attack like this you do this and this and this”. Even the people who claim they do things differently , they actually do not , maybe they have some “deeper “ explanations , but in essence their training is no different from others .
Again , what Yip Man started in Hong Kong reached a pandemic level on the west . Lineage and styles wars started almost immediately and they are lasting for decades. Many people who do not deserve to practice the art became “masters” bringing their own values , ethics and morality or to be precise complete lack of them . Everything is allowed in order to earn more money and gain more followers.
New generation of students emerged on the west . In the time of internet and fast exchanging of information they are exposed to many things from other arts , especially form so called “internal” ones . They felt something is missing in their arts and they rushed back on the East to learn the missing pieces , but they couldn’t find it because these pieces simply didn’t exist , either Yip Man didn’t teach them or his students didn’t understand them. Having a desire to make their arts “complete’ thy turned to other arts like Tai Chi , Ba Gua , White Crane and started mixing stuff , reinventing the system and claiming they found something long lost and now exclusively found by them. To support their claims they also rewrited history pusing the origin of the art further back in the past falsely beliving (under the influence of Wu Xisa that older is better , more original).This pushed the art further down because not only it is not Wing Chun any more but with complete misunderstanding of the term “internal” they made the art even more unsuitable for fight . Furthermore they mix qigong and claim it is a neigong which are two completely separate things. This mish-mash of different arts, approaches , traditions , way of training made a Frankenstein monster , but not a large and strong one (like MMA) small ,weak and funny one .