Wing chun has one of the same problems that every martial art has. And if you’re only studying wing chun, or any other art, then this problem could cause you to be seriously hurt in a real self defense situation or fight. (I’m using wing chun as an example because I receive more questions about it than any other system.)
What It Is, and What It Isn’t
Wing chun has a specific style. It utilizes specific techniques, training methods, and concepts. Anyone with just a little knowledge of various martial arts would never confuse a wing chun practitioner’s movements with those of karate, tae kwan do, or boxing. Each of those styles, and many more, is specific and easily identifiable.
Wing chun is not karate, tae kwan do, boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, western wrestling, Thai boxing, kali, and so on. There is much, much more that wing chun is not than what it is. This is the nature of any specific style. It is necessarily limited by what it is. What it is defines its boundaries. What it is determines what it is not.
This is a serious problem.
In a self defense situation or fight there are no standards or rules. In a wing chun class your partner will only throw wing chun style punches at you. You’ll learn how to block wing chun style punches. But outside of a wing chun school, an attacker isn’t going to attack with a wing chun punch.
Theoretically, the same “lines of attack” or “angles of attack” apply. Theoretically, wing chun defense should be able to work against any punch. But in reality, if you haven’t trained against something, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to adapt to deal with it in time.
There was a story on NPR about a year ago that discussed studies demonstrating how professional baseball players did very poorly when attempting to hit a ball thrown by women using an underhand pitch. Although professional players can hit balls thrown at extremely high speeds, they become accustomed to exactly how the ball is thrown. And when it’s thrown just a bit differently, they can no longer hit it. Surprising as it may sound, their ability to hit an underhanded pitch is no greater than that of the average person. Their specific skill is not transferable to another pitching style.
The same goes for martial arts. If you only train in a wing chun school, in a relatively short period of time you’re going to become conditioned to defending against wing chun attacks. And, you will not be conditioned to defend against attacks thrown by the average person.
In addition to the stylistic elements of the techniques included in a system, there is the larger problem of techniques that are not included in a given system. Wing chun is primarily a close range system. The majority of training does not take place in the range that tae kwan do, judo, or Brazilian jiu jitsu takes place in. Practitioners do not learn to defend against techniques from tae kwan do, judo, or BJJ, because they don’t know how to do them in the first place. And, you cannot learn to defend against something that you cannot do well yourself.
A Fancy Mess
Bruce Lee used the phrase “a fancy mess” to describe what many traditional martial arts have become. It’s an accurate description. People who practice a single style like wing chun not only practice techniques in a certain stylized (unnatural) fashion and leave out techniques that are not part of their chosen style, but they also develop a fancy mess as a result. One practitioner uses a wing chun attack, another uses a wing chun defense, and the initial attacker develops a wing chun counter to the wing chun defense. Evolution happens, and you end up with a fancy collection or series of offensive and defensive techniques and training methods that look nothing whatsoever like an actual attack on the street!
There is a common training drill in wing chun called chi sao, which is a great example of this. Take a look at the following picture:
Have you ever seen anyone fight like this??? Of course not.
Now, I understand that chi sao is not a fight. I understand it’s a drill designed to train wing chun techniques, skills, and strategies. I practiced and taught it myself for many years. So I know first hand that although there are some valuable techniques and concepts in the exercise, there are also a host of problems with it. It has largely become what Bruce Lee declared, a fancy mess. It bears very little resemblance to a real fight or self defense situation. There are better ways to train the effective techniques and principles used in wing chun. But it’s natural that in a school that is limited to a particular style, a fancy mess of techniques and training methods will evolve.
Fixing the Problem
No single style is sufficient for self defense, because by definition every style has particular stylized movement, excludes what is not a part of the style, and over time evolves to become a fancy mess. But, many styles do have valuable techniques, training methods, and strategies.
The key is to do exactly what Bruce Lee, arguably the most famous wing chun practitioner ever, said: “Take what is useful, and discard what it useless.” Unfortunately the system he created, jeet kune do, which was supposed to be a system with no system, has become as much of a stylized fancy mess as any other style.
It is for this reason that I call what I teach “functional self defense”. It is not a system or a style. It is simply a collection of the most efficient and effective techniques, training methods, and strategies from wherever they may come. Some of them come from wing chun. Some come from boxing. And so on.
The key is to avoid practicing or creating a structured, limited style. Learn to use and defend against the most common attacks. This is what I call the “MMA Base”…boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling…the most natural and common techniques of fighting. Add modern weapons to the mix. Add the most efficient and effective techniques, training methods, and strategies.
It’s ok to study wing chun or any other specific martial art. But if you want to learn how to defend yourself, it’s not ok to limit yourself to any particular style or teacher. Keep an open mind. Explore different things. It’s the only way you’ll avoid limitations and fancy messes.
Very well written…neither fancy nor messy…
Excellent articles on how wing chun problems.
I really like your materials and real them regularly. BUT, I tried to find the article/s you mentioned (from NPR) regarding women baseball players pitching under handed against professional male players and found absolutely nothing.
Please send me ANYTHING you have on this as it relates to a major interest of mine and is a very significant discovery.
Thanks Mark. Ok…here it is: http://www.npr.org/2013/08/05/209160709/talent-or-skill-honing-in-on-the-elusive-sports-gene
This article makes a lot of sense because in order to defend yourself in the street context, you have to be ready for whatever training that your opponent (and who know that in advance) has under his belt. If you only know Wing Chun then you will only have a chance to dominate if the opponent is trained in Wing Chun and starts throwing blows characteristic of that style. I agree that the MMA training is well rounded and helps you with the tools you need for most styles and techniques that people in general will throw at you in the real world. I really like what Krav Maga is all about, yet it still is limiting in a fight if that is all you know.
Thanks for the great article!
There is already a “system”. It is “krav” practiced in Israel.
Hello Will. Krav Maga is one of the best commonly available self defense systems around, and I often recommend it to people who email asking what style they should practice. However, Krav Maga was created as a short term system for people with relatively little time to train, who need to learn something effective quickly. It is a great option for many people, but it lacks the depth you can find in longer term oriented styles. So while it is a good option, there are improvements that can be made to it, particularly in the empty hand vs. stick and knife material, the lack of solid stick and knife training, etc.
“I understand it’s a drill designed to train wing chun techniques, skills, and strategies”
This statement shows your misunderstanding about Chi Sao and therefore WC in general. Chi Sao has nothing to do with techniques, skill or strategies, but with the understanding of the use of Energy, your rooted power and sensitivity within a close quarters combat situation.
Bruce Lee did not even finish the complete system of Wing Chun, therefore his understanding was simply incomplete.
Hello Mark… By “techniques” I am referring to the unique energy of the WC techniques. Chi sao is good for that. But there are other methods that work better…methods that actually train the application of that energy and the techniques they support against realistic attacks. You CAN learn from chi sao. But there are more efficient and effective ways to learn. 🙂
Nice website you have!
You a absolutely right about training being a problem. I notice that allot on YouTube when looking at wing chun.
In my country sparring is common in wing chun schools. We use open gloves that allow better trapping than MMA gloves. My experience from all types of martial arts practitioners entering our school is that they are not prepaired for wing chun preassure and attacks (especially sport like hit and run kind of arts).
By the way wing chun likes trapping range, but has very effective elbow and clinch techniques. Only in the beginning fixed stances are used. They are not for fighting, only the structure behind them is.
All the best from the Netherlands.
Thank you Jeroen.
That’s great that you guys tend to do more sparring in WC.
I have also noticed that many people who train sport styles (individual styles) are not prepared for a WC style “blast”. However, many people who do MMA are accustomed to it in the form of the “boxing blast”. So they tend to be good at simply moving off-line (ducking, sidestepping, circling, etc.) and simultaneously counter-punching.
You are right, but the boxing blast is committed. Wing chun pressure and attack is not. So it follows the evation. That is the structure part I was talking about. (But of course attacking always makes your vulnerable if not timed well).
It is a shame wing chun was damaged by people entering competitions with it as a core style without understanding the system.
I like your view on karate. I totally agree and it support its rooting in white krane kung fu. Total body power like in most kung fu styles.
Good point Jeroen. I would say that a *skilled* fighter using the boxing blast wouldn’t be committed any more than a skilled WC practitioner using a WC blast…but in both cases people tend to get more committed than they should! And in any case, as you said, timing is everything.
The problem with any limited style in an MMA type competition, is the limited stylist won’t really have a chance. Any good MMA fighter will be able to at least survive in ANY range/area…for a bit. And, they’ll “flow” from range to range until they find an area where the single stylist has no skills or very little skills.
100+ years ago (or less!), when transportation and knowledge were extremely limited, knowing a single style that only focused on one or two aspects of fighting may have worked just fine. But these days…at least in a MMA style competition, just about anyone who has only trained one style isn’t going to have a chance.
That’s the difference between sport fighting and real fighting. It is all about time and dynamics. In a sport environment you can plan, analyse, adapt e.g.. In real fighting it is just over in a couple of seconds.
In the UK some people like Alan Orr adapted wing chun to MMA. Very effective, but not real self defence.
100+ years ago street fighting was more dangerouse than now a days (maim and kill kind of fighting). Even “sport” / challenge fighting was done on for instance a lei tai (3 meter high platform with no boundaries) and no protection. Imagin your teeth flying everywhere with the first blows and maiming (and death) where common.
Biggest problem now a days is the knowledge, training and the teaching not the systems. They survived the Darwinist battle.
The problem with keeping what is useful and disregarding the rest is problematic as a teacher. Let’s say you learn from two different teachers. One is tall and lanky, the other is short and stocky. The techniques that work for the tall and lanky will not inheirently work for the other instructor that is short and stocky. Actually the same technical premise may work but the technique will have to be adapted, or varied, or fit the person’s physique. Conversely the techniques that are taught but the short and stocky instructor will not inheirently wok for a tall and lanky student. So if you learn them both you can teach your own students what you have learned from both instructors. If you remember only what works for you, you may not be able to teach all different types of students.
Hello Don. By “useful” I mean techniques that actually work, and by “useless” I mean techniques that do not work for anyone. Unfortunately most martial arts are full of techniques that do not work for anyone, besides in the cooperative environment of the dojo.
The problem your trying to explain about wing chung and every other style comes down to knowledge and experience and the western approach to martial arts where profit is the main driving force not skill being passed on, most proclaimed sifu teaching wing chung have less than 5 years experience, due to pyramid selling of the system, where mass production rather than a bespoke system being passed on from master to student, yes in a short time you can obtain a very limited understanding of chi sau, and as you explained it’s a training exercise encompassing wing chung techniques, however it’s also teaches understanding of pressure and the direction it’s being applied, it’s only through the practise of gor sau can application be understood, this is a free flowing form of sparring which is based on continuation and predominantly not using wing chung techniques by the sifu so knowledge of how to use wing chung against other styles can be obtained, as for it being a close fighting range system, all martial arts are as striking your opponent can only be executed at the correct range, again this is missing from most western interpretation of wing chung, due to lack of knowledge and experience of the sifu passing on the system, as for grappling it’s hidden with in the forms, chi sau rolling contains anti grappling techniques with striking similarity to judo or ju juistsu randoria, the problem is teachers proclaiming to have mastery of the system, where in reality it takes a minimum of ten years to gain the basics and a lifetime to master the system, contained in the kuen kuit which is the theory and strategies of wing chung application, wing chung techniques are easy to learn but only a few will learn to master, so the problem is who teaching as if the root is not strong how can it grow to be a great idea, if a system mass produced it will look similar and carry out a similar outcome however a bespoke production will be stronger and have a high leavel of quality but will take a long time to produce, this is why Bruce Lee was looking to change the wing chung style as he only trained in Hong Kong for five years and did not completely understand wing chung he was finally schooled in the system by fook yeung whilst in USA, and his understanding of jeep kwon do is really biu ji and breaking the rules, which can only be done when you learnt the system, you see in China a master traditionally would only teach a few students a have one or two disciples to guarantee a high level being passed on, where in the west most masters have hundreds of supposed disciples and here the true problem with all styles, where profit rather than skill is the main reason for teaching martial arts, which means it’s the blind leading the blind
Hello Matthew. There are many issues with what you’ve written. It does not take 10 years to learn self defense, and any method that includes “hidden techniques” in forms, etc., are a waste of time. There are far more efficient and effective ways to learn. You cannot learn grappling for example by practicing hidden techniques in a solo form. You can only learn grappling by practicing grappling against a fully resisting opponent…someone skilled in grappling, for example. This idea about Asian martial arts taking a decade or more to learn to apply is a much greater financial scam than what you find in western schools. This idea perpetuates bad teaching and ineffective techniques. And by the time someone has practiced an ineffective style for 10 years, they are brainwashed regarding how effective it is.
I think you are confusing Self Defense and Martial Arts as being the same thing. Although the are linked These are two separate things all together. Its similar to knowing how to make a sword and knowing how to use it. It takes a couple of weeks to learn how to swing it but it takes years to understand how and why it works.
If u truly master a system u transend the mess. This requires a teacher who has done this and knows how to teach it. Rare, maybe 5% of the millions have this chance, which is why there are knives, the swords, guns, and drones.
Hello Peter. There is no point to having the mess in the system in the first place!
Hi, you have to understand where MA came from. In those days guns where not in play and hand to hand fighting with or without weapons was more common. All what we see in MMA nowadays and allot more was already present. There was a search for extra technics to give you an edge so you kept them hidden.
Regarding uselessness I think you should remember a Chinese saying: “If you cannot do it after a 1000 times do it 10000 times and so on”. That is what Kung Fu stands for; mastering things by practicing.
An other thing is about structure. Westerns tend to believe that rooting is about a strong stable stance, but it is about being very mobile while being stable in all directions (keeping in control of you centre of gravity). This is explainable from a self defence kind of thinking. You most likely fight some one stronger than you (else why would he pick you?) and / or multiple (hidden) opponnents.
Although MMA fighters are very good fighters their training and the way they utilise their reflexes is not designed for those scenario. In other words; what would happen if an MMA fighter fights in his normal way a stronger MMA fighter (like for instance a women has to do against a man) or multiple MMA fighters? He would be in big problem and that is the situations of especially south east Asia in the days systems like wing chun, choi lee fut (has everything that modern western boxing has plus more), muay boran, Silat end so where developed. They where designed for these kind of situations hence the focus on keeping on your feet or get as quickly on your feet again.
That’s the reason I trust my Wing Chun and Taichi (Chen) and test it twice a week sparring others for practice. I want the systems to be parts of my reflexes by mastering their principles.
(Maybe also a big difference is that in Europe sparring was already a integrated element of Wing Chun and other MAs in the 1980s and on).
I am doubtful that you understand something from chi sao. you are talking about a platform (poon sao, rolling hands) and some very limited attacks from there. Chi sao as a whole is a completely different game. As a matter of fact the best chi sao I do is with the non-wing chun people who offer me very unusual attacks. there I can see what can be done. And I know a lot of people who do the same.
I’m talking about real sparring, no chi sao. We see chi sao a a training tool to enhance sensitivity and awareness of body movement.
Real sparring of other MA’s (especially kickboxing and Thai boxing in our country) was an integral part of Wing Chun training in Europe from the 1980’s on. We use MMA like gloves, but with open handpalm and mouth guards. I write this because from YouTube I notice in the VS sparring is not so common in Wing Chun. Why? I don’t know with western boxing being so common in the VS. I would expect them to spar more to learn timing and ranges. Another tool to enhance your fighting.
Here you see allot of things I mean integrated: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8JybRSpdFJQ
Wow! This article has it all wrong. Martial Arts is just a training method. You’re not supposed to fight in the Wing Chun stance or pose. Once you’ve completed 5 years of serious training THEN you learn how to fight…apply the principle from your training. Its like learning English, in the beginning you sound like a robot “ Hello I am a person” and that eventually becomes “Yo wassup homie!!” The problem in America is the people pay money and they want learn how to fight yesterday. So the first day of class you learn a Jab Cross and a Hook without even knowing how properly make a fist. Wing Chun work and so does karate taekwon do and even Akido, you just have to know how to train properly
But you know what’s the efficient way? I guess you didnt , chi-sao is the most efficient way don’t you know it? Wing chun is practical, wing chun is made to counter all kinds and types of styles that’s why wing chun is the best when its learned from the real and right lineages and syllabus in short from a right sifu!