WONG SHUN LEUNG: Wing Chun Personified
Trained by the late grandmaster Yip Man, teacher to the great Bruce Lee, Wong Shun Leung is perhaps best-known as the wing chun man who routinely challenged anyone of any style and lived to tell about it.
by David Peterson
*** The following article was previously published within the pages of “Inside Kung-Fu” magazine (Vol.18/No.2) as ‘Wong Shun Leung: Wing Chun’s Living Legend’. It is reproduced here in its original form as a tribute to Sifu Wong, who passed away on January 28th 1997 - the Author. ***
Which ever way you want to look at it, there is no denying that Wong Shun Leung is possibly the greatest living representative of the dynamic Chinese fighting art of Wing Chun, the man who put Wing Chun on the map in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties in his well publicised challenge matches against representatives of all the major combat arts in Hong Kong. He is the man who can rightly claim to have been the late Bruce Lee’s teacher, and to have influenced the development of Lee’s personal art of combat, Jeet Kune Do. His ego is such, however, that Wong Shun Leung prefers to be known simply as a teacher, a sifu, and he refuses to accept accolades such as “master” or “grandmaster”, terms which he believes are worthless because they have been abused so readily in recent years.
Wong Sifu, in his own typical fashion, usually downplays his “deadly” image by stating that, “I can’t fight very well and my Kung Fu is not very good.” He decries the claims of other so-called “masters” by emphasising that it matters not whether one is the son of a grandmaster, or that one knows “every deadly move known to man.” In his opinion it is far more important that one must practise hard, to “become the master of the art, not its slave.” To Wong Sifu it makes no difference how senior you are, but how good you are. He considers that Wing Chun is a SKILL, not an ART, and he sees nothing wrong with using ones skills.
In comparing skills and art, Wong Sifu has been quoted as saying, “…if A and B have a fight and B gets knocked out, then everyone knows that A won. There’s a winner and a loser. However, in music, you can like someone’s guitar playing or not like it and it doesn’t matter. Because it’s an ART, you can’t PROVE that one painting or piece of music is better than another. However, in Kung Fu, you can prove your skill in such a way that there is no doubt! This is the difference….in other ARTS, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but in MARTIAL ART, the only judgement is whether or not it works!” Statements such as this one are characteristic of the very down-to-earth approach that Wong Sifu has to combat, and he certainly has the fighting record to back up such a beliefs.
Wong Shun Leung began his training in the martial arts while in his early teens. He tried his hand at several styles, including Western boxing, in which he developed a real interest, an interest which he still maintains today. Wong Sifu considers boxing to be very practical for the street because boxers learn to give and take punishment right from the word go, concentrating on attacking instead of “chasing the opponent’s hands” like many of the classical Kung Fu styles do. He probably would have still been boxing now if it hadn’t been for two particular incidents which changed his approach to combat once and for all.
Firstly, while sparring with his boxing coach one afternoon, Wong accidently landed a damaging blow to the face. In a rage, the coach began pounding Wong until, bleeding from nose and mouth, Wong managed to gain the upper hand, eventually knocking his coach out cold. After this event, Wong lost all respect for his boxing coach and never went back for another lesson. Wong’s father and grandfather had both been doctors of traditional Chinese medicine and were well acquainted with members of Hong Kong’s martial arts community so that from a very early age, Wong had heard hundreds of tales of the exploits of various local heroes. His grandfather had even been a good friend of Chan Wa Sun, the first of his future instructor Yip Man’s Wing Chun teachers, so Wong was aware of the fighting art of Chan the “money-changer” (Jau Chin Wa) from Fatsaan.
Wong recalled some of the stories he had been told about Chan Wa Sun, and of Chan’s teacher, the legendary Fatsaan Jan Sinsaang (Dr.Leung Jan, a noted herbalist in the nineteenth century, renowned for his unrivalled fighting skills) and he decided to seek out a Wing Chun teacher to see what the system had to offer him. As it turned out, friends of his older brother were learning Wing Chun so it was arranged that he would go to see them train. To cut a long story short, Wong ended up having a match with the man who was to become his teacher, the late grandmaster Yip Man, after initially having “held his own” with a couple of the junior students at the school, and was very soundly beaten. From that moment onwards, Wong Shun Leung became a devoted member of the Wing Chun clan and within a year had single-handedly elevated the Wing Chun system from the position of an obscure, virtually unknown, southern Chinese martial art, to that of a real force to be reckoned with.
Now 55 years old, Wong Shun Leung has been involved in Wing Chun for over 38 years, constantly working to develop and pass on the skills of the system to literally thousands of students. These days he spends at least three months of every year travelling to various places around the world, spreading his interpretation of Wing Chun in an honest, effective and realistic manner. Wong Sifu is a realist when it comes to combat, advising his audiences that martial artists are not invincible, and that sometimes the best solution when surrounded by villains is “…run away!” It is foolhardy, he suggests, to believe that training in the martial arts will enable a person to dispose of a group of attackers without raising as much as a sweat.
“If someone practises any martial art,” says Wong, “then that person must become stronger and more durable than someone who hasn’t practised. So if you are punched you are able to take a lot more punishment than a normal person. I have been hit many times, as have all of the great martial artists that I know of. So we are not supermen, but we can take a lot more. Any martial artist who says that he does not get hit is lying to himself!”
To him, fighting is like a game of chess; just as one cannot expect to win a game of chess without firstly sacrificing one or more pieces, so one cannot expect to be victorious in a fight without sustaining some kind of injury, even if only a few bruises. Several jagged scars on his knuckles, as well as scars from a knife on his arm and forehead attest to this belief. When it comes to combat experience, Wong Shun Leung could tell many tales, but with his usual modesty he tends to downplay this aspect of his career in martial arts.
It is a well-known fact in Hong Kong, however, that from around the time Wong Sifu was 18 until about the age of 24, he took part in countless challenge matches (referred to in Cantonese as bei mo) against fighters from virtually every style of martial art in the colony. Bruce Lee credited Wong with hundreds of victories, but conservative estimates suggest something along the lines of at least 50 to 60 such matches, with Wong always emerging as the winner. So successful was he that the local Hong Kong press picked up on his exploits and one enterprising reporter (now a resident in Australia) actually went out and arranged fights for him against non-Chinese as well, including a 250lb Russian boxer named Giko!
In the press reports Wong became known as Gong Sau Wong, meaning the “King of the Challenge Fight,” the sound wong meaning both “king” as well as being the same as his surname (although a different written character). The term gong sau was actually coined by Wong during an interview conducted at the time and means literally “talking with the hands,” a very apt description of exactly what he did. When pressed about these matches while being interviewed in Australia two years ago, Wong Sifu responded by saying, “I didn’t actually learn Wing Chun just to go out and fight. Kung Fu should really be used as a way of protecting yourself in circumstances where you are physically threatened.
“After I learnt the skills of Wing Chun from Yip Man I often had the opportunity to test them. By experimenting with my skills I could discover their limitations and how they compared with other disciplines and so improve myself. After a time of this experimentation I learnt that I needed to rely less on the fighting part to get that self-satisfaction and feeling of achievement.” It was also during this period of experimentation that Wong Shun Leung introduced Bruce Lee to the experience of the challenge fight. In the first of Lee’s matches, Wong coached him between rounds, encouraging Lee to continue when it seemed that he was about to give up.
The result was a victory that possibly changed the course of Lee’s life and certainly began the development of the martial arts superstar whom the world was later to discover. Grandmaster Yip Man, on hearing of the event, was said to have told Wong, “Fortunately you accompanied him to the venue and encouraged him to go on with the match. This trial of martial skill may be a decisive influence on him in the future. If someday Bruce Lee succeeds, the credit should rightfully go to you.” In discussing this period in Lee’s life, Jesse Glover wrote, “Wong was four years senior to Bruce in Yip Man’s clan and Bruce studied privately for a year and a half under both him and Yip Man” and that Wong was “…the man most responsible for the development of Bruce Lee.” Glover also wrote, “In ’59 Bruce told me that Wong was the greatest fighter in the Wing Chun style, and that he had successfully defeated all challengers.”
Wong Shun Leung is not just a gifted fighter and excellent teacher, he is also a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and a self-taught calligrapher whose writing is greatly prized by those who appreciate such talent. He enjoys reading classical Chinese poetry, eating fine food, sipping a glass of good brandy with friends and sharing amusing anecdotes and jokes with his students. Bey Logan, in his article ‘Bruce Lee’s Teacher’ wrote, “The first thing you notice is how normal he looks. He looks too short, too friendly to be the legendary Wong Shun Leung Sifu. It is only the way he moves, the way he watches, that reveals the nature of the discipline he has mastered.
“Next, you’re surprised by his keen sense of humour. Many Westerners seem to cling to the idea that a Sifu must be a very old, very solemn man. There is none of the stereotypical Master Po-figure about Wong Shun Leung. He is very funny.” But as well as being a very friendly, amusing and approachable man, Wong Sifu is first and foremost an exponent and teacher of combat with quite definite views on the purpose and function of Kung Fu. Being the one student of Yip Man to have taught for him rather than go out and open his own school, Wong was able to truly absorb all that his teacher had to offer, the result being that he, above all other pretenders to the throne, could rightfully claim to be the inheritor of the system. Instead, Wong simply gets on with the task of teaching, letting his skills and experiences speak for themselves.
On the subject of self-defence, Wong says, “If you learn Kung Fu, your purpose is to fight. If you can’t fight and win, how can you defend yourself? Therefore, if you want to defend yourself, you must train until you can overpower others.” In an article on him which appeared in ‘Black Belt’ magazine, Wong said, “Wing Chun Kung Fu is a very sophisticated weapon… nothing else. It is a science of combat, the intent of which is the total incapacitation of an opponent. It is straightforward, efficient and deadly. If you’re looking to learn self-defence, don’t study Wing Chun. It would be better for you to master the art of invisibility.”
Strong opinions indeed, but then Wong Shun Leung bases such opinions upon many years of experience in what could only be described as real combat. He views many of the practices of modern martial artists as little more than games. Although he realises that the days of the challenge fight are well and truly over, he looks upon their passing with an element of sadness, not because he is an advocate of violence, but because today’s generation of martial artists are missing out on realistic training, and he sees the kinds of sparring exercises common to most styles as being a poor substitute for the realities of street combat.
Wong Sifu is constantly warning his students against the dangers of blindly following an instructor, copying every move he or she makes and accepting everything that they say as gospel. “You must become the master of your system, not its slave” is his often repeated motto. Using art as an example yet again, Wong Sifu says, “…Kung Fu is like painting a picture. When you learn to paint from your teacher you cannot be exactly the same as he or she because there are differences in age and experience, and so there must be personal differences.
“A person’s nature and physique influences the way in which one does things. Besides, if you do things exactly the same way your teacher does them, you’re just copying, not expressing yourself and will therefore not improve yourself.” He is not suggesting by these words that the Wing Chun student should go out and invent his or her own way of doing things. On the contrary, Wong Sifu is a firm believer in passing on and practising the skills of Wing Chun exactly as he himself learnt them. However, he accepts the fact that all people are different, having different levels of ability and so on, and therefore adopts the more realistic approach of passing on the essence of Wing Chun in the form of its concepts and basic principles with which the students are then free to interpret and utilise in their own particular way.
Wong Sifu also enjoys dispelling the many myths that shroud the martial arts, myths that give martial arts a bad name and detract from their credibility. “Martial artists are not people who learn magical powers to become mystical monks like the movies portray them to be. A lot of Kung Fu styles have in the past lived off reputations of having some secret level that you can eventually attain and, unfortunately, some instructors have maintained these ridiculous ideas.” He cites an example from his younger days when he was involved in a fight that had erupted between a friend of his and another man.
He defeated the person in question and was about to leave the scene when the guy, still lying on the ground, called out, “Hey little fella, don’t go! I’ve already given you the dim mak (death touch). You’re doomed!” Wong then adds, “That was around thirty-five years ago and the dim mak hasn’t worked yet…” Once, when asked by a journalist for an Australian magazine about the existence or non-existence of dim mak techniques in Wing Chun, Wong Sifu jokingly replied, “You might kill yourself if you touch yourself,” and then in a slightly more serious tone, “Besides, if a person is moving very fast, it’s almost impossible to touch some small areas with such precision.”
Wong Shun Leung is indeed a rare breed of man. He doesn’t try to exploit his reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most formidable streetfighters, nor his influence on the career of the late Bruce Lee. He doesn’t go around telling everyone how good he is, nor does he run down other instructors and styles. Despite his obvious skill he is not a pretentious man and his school in Hong Kong is small and drab, containing none of the mod cons found in most Western schools, just an excellent teacher who embodies all the qualities one could ever hope for in an instructor.
He has dedicated his life to the advancement and understanding of Wing Chun, “spreading the word” everywhere from Melbourne to Munich, establishing schools wherever he goes, teaching anyone willing to listen to what he has to say regardless of race, colour or creed. Wong Sifu is the enemy of all who make false claims about Kung Fu and the friend to everyone searching for the truth about combat and themselves. He has been described as “… an appropriate example of a man who has become his art and vice-versa. He started as a gifted fighter, studied both the physical and mental aspects of Wing Chun, and finally became Wing Chun spiritually.
“He’s a man who can be either soft-spoken or out-spoken depending upon the situation at hand. He has learned to understand his own limitations and thereby the limitations of others. His demeanour is calm, relaxed, and his intent unwavering. He is philosophy without embellishment, like an old sword that doesn’t appear dangerous at first, until you’ve tasted its razor edge.” Wong Shun Leung Sifu is Wing Chun personified, a living example of what can be achieved by anyone willing to devote all their energy into the practice and understanding of their chosen field of endeavour. The fact that he refuses to accept such praise makes him all the more deserving of it. Why he has achieved the level of expertise that he has is due to a very simple philosophy:”My aim,” says Wong, “is to better myself with each day of training.”