Kung Fu

I studied kung fu for about six years, though I couldn't describe myself accurately as the most diligent and dedicated of students. The style I learned was called Wing Chun.

Here's what I have to say about kung fu for the moment:

An article quickly telling you what Wing Chun is, and outlining the system, with its various "forms":
Wing Chun Summary ▼


Wing Chun has many spellings, including Ving Tsun. The name Wing Chun I have heard and read translated many times. Often it is supposedly the name of a woman, who legend has it was one of the first, or the first, user of Wing Chun. The words can mean beautiful springtime or hope for the future. The difference between kung fu and karate is easy to define: karate is Japanese, and kung fu is Chinese. The difference between Wing Chun and other kung fu styles is a bit harder to describe.

The stories of the origins of Wing Chun are many and varied, and some strike me as little more than fable. The most convincing are those which tell of how the system was designed by masters of a few other systems, who came together to develop a new fighting style. The motive for this was generally to defeat the oppressive rulers of the time, many of whom were expert kung fu fighters. These were using Shaolin styles of kung fu, of which there are very many indeed, and which were studied at such places as the famous Shaolin temple, which is still there today. Practitioners of Shaolin learned hundreds of moves, many of which were very difficult, very obscure, or required tremendous strength or flexibility of body.

Wing Chun was developed to defeat Shaolin style. What was wanted was a fighting system which could be taught quickly to people who were of ordinary physique. A Shaolin practitioner might take fifteen years to master his art. One of Wing Chun's great strengths is that five years of good training can give a man the ability to defeat a skilled opponent, and Wing Chun does not require the user to be built like a shit brick-house, nor even a brick shit-house. For this last reason, Wing Chun is often recommended to women.

One reason that Wing Chun is quite as well-known and widely taught as it is, is that a movie star, Bruce Lee, studied it.

There are very few forms in Wing Chun. The principal ones are:

  • Sil Lim Tao, or "little imagination" first form. This is practised standing still, on the spot, while the arms go through the basic strikes and parries. One section in particular is practised very slowly. Most training sessions will start with a run-through of this form (a karate man might use the word kata), which emphasises the build-up and discharge of force, and the accuracy of the most important arm positions.
  • Chum Kil, or "bridging the gap" second form. This form involves footwork, and deals with an important aspect of Wing Chun: getting to the correct fighting distance with an opponent. By and large, other styles have longer-ranged attacks, such as big leaping kicks of which Wing Chun has none, and so a Wing Chun fighter has to get close to an opponent in order to benefit from the short-range attacks in which Wing Chun specialises. The tricky bit is getting in close without getting hurt.
  • Bil Jee, or "flying fingers" third form. This form includes various thrusting finger attacks, and is sometimes thought of as the offensive form, but the real purpose of it is to teach the Wing Chun student what to do when things go pear-shaped, and how to get out of a fix by whatever desperate means. It is not taught to beginners.

The above are empty-hand forms. Also there are two weapon forms. In kung fu, only dedicated students get taught weapon forms. This contrasts with karate where students traditionally started with weapons training, and then moved on to empty hand techniques.

  • Pole form. Wing Chun includes the use of a long (usually nine foot) pole. Supposedly this was added to the style by one practitioner who used to pole along a barge for a troupe of travelling performers. There are many instances of cross-over between performance of gymnastics and theatre, and kung fu. This form is very simple indeed, and gives Wing Chun a long ranged attack.
  • Bart Jarm Dao, or "eight slash knife" form. This uses two very short swords, sometimes called "butterfly" swords, and uses much of the same footwork and arm moves from the empty hand forms. The user does not typically attack the foe's head or torso first, but aims early blows at the opponent's weapon and arms, later following up with attacks to the body, once having closed. The problem of getting close to an opponent with a longer range attack is similar to the situation of the second empty hand form.

While there are some other minor practice forms, some of which were developed very recently, such as the punch-bag form, the last of the major forms is:

  • The wooden dummy form. The dummy is a peculiar device, which very vaguely resembles a man. A thick cylinder of wood represents the line of a standing body, and from this stick forward one bent leg, and three short straight arms. The wooden dummy form is a chance for the student to practice the moves learned in the first three empty hand forms, against something solid. The footwork has to be correct, as the student steps around the forward leg of the dummy, and the blows from foot and hand connect with something harder than air.

I suppose that now might be a good time to mention the fabby video I have made: The Way of the Wooden Man.

"Sticking hands"

There is one major aspect of Wing Chun which I have not yet mentioned: Chi Sao, or "sticking hands". In training sessions with other students, a lot of time is spent practicing this technique in pairs. This is often the aspect of Wing Chun which impresses users of other martial art styles.

Sticking hand technique involves feeling what an opponent is doing, and reacting accordingly. When practicing, students will hold their arms out in front of them, touching the arms of their partner. From here, they make various movements, being careful to keep themselves defended. If either one feels a weakness in the defence of the other, he will thrust a hand forward into the gap, perhaps hitting his partner in the chest. After a while, a student might find that he can shut his eyes, and still defend himself against whatever his partner throws at him. In a real fight, this technique is very useful, since it means that the instant contact is made, a Wing Chun man can feel what his opponent is trying to do, and react that bit more quickly to that movement. It would also be pretty handy were he to be attacked in a pantry with the lights out.

Possibly of use to someone wanting to choose a martial art to study:
Pros and Cons of Wing Chun ▼

Wing Chun - pros and cons


  • Quick to learn - you should leave your first lesson with a simple move which you can use in a real fight.
  • Requires no great strength or suppleness - good for all builds of person.
  • Very fast - perhaps the fastest system in existence. With practice, a user can rain blows on an opponent.
  • Practical - there are no moves which one would never use in a real fight, like huge leaping kicks.
  • Flexible - instead of learning complicated sequences of moves, many of which are only of any use in very specific circumstances (such as five moves with daft names, which, when performed in order will defend you against another obscure sequence of moves known by three living people in the world), Wing Chun has a small vocabulary of simple moves, each of which works in isolation, and can be used in hundreds of situations. This means that a student can spend time perfecting them, and then be able to use them without hesitation, and with precision. This is better than knowing a thousand moves less well, most of which will never be used. Also, complicated moves, and sequences of moves, are prone to going wrong in the real world. If a simple move is used, it is less likely to go wrong, and even if it does go wrong, it can quickly be replaced by a different move.
  • Bullshit free - as kung fu systems go, this one is refreshingly free of the daft mysticism, showmanship and inner-brotherhood bollocks which plague other systems.


  • Not the best for fitness - if your motivation for learning a martial art is to become strong and supple, then try another style which goes in for leaps and stretches. Try Shaolin if you are particularly masochistic when it comes to stretching.
  • No competitions - although there are some "sticking hands" competitions, there are no sparring competitions in Wing Chun. The main reason for this is that there is no safe way of holding them. Wing Chun relies on precise hand positions, and so is disabled by boxing gloves, and it is very close-in and fast. In a fight, you step next to your opponent quickly, and then beat the living daylights out of him with a thousand lightning punches. There's no way to do this safely. Try Tai Kwondo if sparring in padded armour is what appeals to you.
  • No safe holds or locks - if you want a martial art for use as a bouncer at a night-club, where your priority is dealing with opponents without hurting them, then Wing Chun is not the best, though it will help. For that sort of use, you want a style with wrist locks and the like, so try something like Ju Jitsu.
  • No ground fighting techniques - a Wing Chun student is taught little about what to do when he falls over. Wing Chun knowledge will help him there, but this art does not specialise in this sort of thing. If you like rolling around on the floor, try Monkey Style Shaolin. Ju Jitsu and Ninjitsu have quite a lot of ground wrestling techniques in them.
  • Not the best for relaxation - Wing Chun is not a "hard" or "external" system, like karate, which uses hard stiff movements, nor is it a "soft" "internal" system, like Tai Chi, which uses a relaxed body and circular movements. Instead it is mid-way between the two.

A video I have made about kung fu:
Way of the Wooden Man Video ▼

The Way of the Wooden Man

This is the instructional video I have made, which deals in detail with the wooden dummy form. It shows the whole form, full speed and in slow-motion, and goes through the moves, showing how they are applied.

"Way of the Wooden Man" video sleeve

This video I made with Paul O'Neal, far and away the best Wing Chun teacher I ever had. His Wing Chun is about as authentic as it gets, since he studied for many years with the two sons of Yip Man, who (according to the people who teach Yip Man Wing Chun) at one point in history was the only man in the world who knew the entire system properly. There are other versions of Wing Chun that have claims on being more "authentic" (such as the Yuen Kay Shan, and Fung family lines), but these are not taught in Britain. Interesting enough, there are those who say that only the Yip Man line of Wing Chun uses the large butterfly knives, and that others use much smaller ones.

I was shown some of the Wing Chun videos already on the market, and they were dreadful. We wanted to do something a bit better. Because that's the sort of guy I am, I shot the whole thing as a sort of drama. The lessons are all taught in the form of flash-backs, while the hero, Wor Paul, practises on the wooden dummy, in preparation for a show-down with the villains in the Get Carter car park. This cinematically ugly building stands in Gateshead, and is often referred to in these parts as the Get Carter car park, as it served as the location for a scene in that film, with Michael Caine. We couldn't resist putting a line in from that film, but as it turned out, that single line of dialogue took many takes to shoot. It isn't easy to point, kick, walk, and speak, all in one shot.

Here is a clip from The Way of the Wooden Man, which I've stuck up on YouTube. You might like to go there and rate this video with five stars. It is about four minutes long, showing you just the intro and the main fight, with one or two slow-motion examples of moves at the very end.

How to spot a kung fu charlatan:
Kung Fu Codswallop ▼

Kung Fu Codswallop

One really irritating thing about kung fu, is the sad fact that many very skilled and impressive people feel it necessary to claim to be more amazing than they really are. Someone who has studied and trained hard at some martial art for years, is going to be strong, fast, and skilled. Some martial artists gain amazing control over their bodies. One I knew for instance could fart at will, which is limited in use, but a demonstration of control, none the less. Others can send a man flying with a small movement. Some can withstand being punched very hard in the throat. Some can grasp a vertical pole, and hold their whole body out straight, horizontally. For many, though, this is never enough. They have to claim to be super-human.

Here are some daft tricks to watch out for:

  1. Smashing burning things. The performer, for such he is, squirts lighter fuel onto the thing he is about to smash, and lights it. The audience gasps as the big bright yellow flames leap up. He puts on an expression of desperate concentration, and then punches through the flames with such speed that there is no chance in hell that he will ever get so much as singed. These flames are not very hot. Any fool can do this.
  2. Smashing tiles. For a host of reasons, this is not as difficult as it might seem. To make things easier, however, many performers bake the tiles to the point at which they become very easy to break. I have seen assistants break the tiles accidentally while placing them down, so fragile had the tiles become.
  3. Smashing solid wood. Crowds marvel at some performers' ability to smash solid lumps of pine. True, these men do indeed break solid timber, and this timber looks like pine. It is not, however, the pine with which the good folk of East Grinstead panel their kitchens, that which the Beatles sang about in Norwegian Wood, no, this is "monkey pine" or birana (not sure of the spelling) wood, which is far too weak for making furniture, but it's just the thing for smashing to bits in order to impress people.
  4. Smashing ice. If a human were to punch a thick slab of solid clear ice, then he would experience pain, perhaps swelling, but not the shattering of the ice. If, however, he took the trouble to smash some of the centre section of the ice up, in advance, with a hammer, then re-freeze this area together again, then he will probably find it within his capability to punch the slab apart, and to impress the impressionable.
  5. Smashing paving slabs. Stone and concrete is very resistant indeed to crushing. You can build a very tall wall of stone or concrete blocks, and those at the bottom will not get crushed despite the weight of all that which is above them. However, if force is applied some other way to these materials, they often fail. If you get a paving slab, hold it upright, so that one edge lies on the ground, then let it fall on to flat ground, you will probably find that this shatters it into several pieces. In terms of tensile strength, concrete is rubbish. If you place a paving slab on the front of the torso of a lying man, then that man can bend his body slightly, so that the ends of the slab are on him, but not the middle. Quite a large area can still be in contact with the man, to spread the impact. Hit the slab in the middle and hey presto! - one broken slab and one unharmed man. A miracle this isn't.
  6. Smashing stacks of tiles or slabs. Look at the stacks carefully. They never stack them so that there is no gap between the tiers. Instead, they always stack them with little spacers down the side edges, which keep the middles of the tiers apart. Breaking the top layer is as easy as daft trick #5 (above). The next tier down now has the two hard edges of the first tier pressing down on its middle, plus the weight of the first tier, plus the descending hand of the martial artist, all bearing down on it. I have seen tall stacks of concrete slabs broken down to about half-way down the stack, then, after a pause, the bottom layers have collapsed under the weight of all the broken layers above them - without any extra force from the man's being applied. Despite this flagrant charlatanism, the audience applauded.
  7. Lying on beds of nails. Amazingly or otherwise, after many years of kung fu training, the skin on the back of a kung fu master, remains very much like the skin on the back of anyone else. It is no tougher, no weaker. It is just skin. If a man were to put his whole body weight on a bed of nails, the nails of which were needle sharp, varying lengths, and placed six inches apart, then he would need steel skin to withstand bepuncturement. However, ordinary nails are not tremendously sharp, and some people even blunt them further with a little tap from a hammer. The beds of nails you see men lie on have tightly-spaced nails, all of the same length. If a man lies on such a bed, then as long as he gets on reasonably carefully, he will find that he can spread his weight across many nails, and that none will puncture him. Any fool can do this with a tiny amount of practice. What is required is not years of dedicated mystic training, but just a willingness to put up with discomfort and a few scratches.
  8. Smashing a stack of burning concrete slabs, on the chest of a man lying on a bed of nails. See numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7, above.
  9. Moving a man without touching him. I've seen this done many times. Get a volunteer from the audience, preferably with a gullible-looking face. A good subject would be someone who has been hypnotised a few times. Get him to stand where everyone can see him. Make him feel exposed and nervous. Tell him what you are going to do. Stand in front of him, and look menacing. Hold your fist right in front of his solar plexus. This works especially well if you have just publicly used that hand to smash something. Pick the guy who clapped most. Move very slightly towards him with your whole body, then away. Repeat this a few times. Near enough anyone will rock slightly away from you when you advance. People have a strong sense of personal space, and a strong instinct to back away from threats. He will then start to swing back towards the vertical. You retreat during this swing, causing him to over-correct, and he will lean forwards. If you have picked a good subject, then the fact that he has rocked once will amaze him, and further convince him that he is not in control, and he will swing more. Even if the hypnotic effect of this trick doesn't work, very few subjects will be brave enough to just stand there and look at you contemptuously. They will feel obliged to waver. Indeed, simply standing perfectly still, when you know that hundreds of people are looking to see how still you are standing, is difficult. Once you think hard about standing still, you'll find it a challenge.

There are many tricks. Beware of any martial artist who claims to have super-human powers. I would add now that no matter how skilled a man is at fighting, he is still vulnerable to being hit over the back of the head with a cricket bat, while he's reading the paper.

Back to top