Bruce Lee’s Mother Art:

Wing Chun

By Hawkins Cheung, as told to Robert Chu, in “Inside Kung-Fu” January 1992

To understand Bruce and his martial art, you have to look at his mother art, wing chun. Wing chun in the 1950s was a popular fighting system because of its reputation in challenge fights with other gung-fu Systems. Wing chun was noted for its simple, direct, economical movement and non-classical style.

Many joined and wanted to learn how to fight. Because of the reputation of wing chun, Bruce and I joined. The thing about wing chun is once you start the first form, you feel frustrated. We questioned, “Why do we have to learn this? How can you fight like this?” Everyone wanted to learn the siu nim tao quickly, so they could move onto the sticking hands exercise. The dan chi sao (single sticking hand) exercise was no fun, so the younger students wanted to get through that even quicker. When you finally learned the double sticking hands exercise, we felt excited and thought, “I can fight now! I know wing chun now!” We liked to copy the seniors. If you could land a punch on your opponent, you felt very excited. “I can beat him now,” was our first thought. So everyone wanted to beat his partner first so he could be the top dog.

Everyone also tried to please the seniors so they would teach us more tricks to beat up the guy you didn’t like or competed with. So students grouped together and created competition with another group. Each group thought it could beat the other. In my opinion, this is how wing chun politics began. Being 100-105 pounds, I had a hard time against opponents bigger than me. During this time I also tried to collect as many new tricks to beat my opponents. Once the opponent knew that trick, you had to find new tricks. When your opponent knew all your tricks, being a small guy, you were in trouble. The old saying of the, “Same game, same way, the bigger guy always wins” applies to every physical sport.

Llater, tricks became useless. I always got pushed out because of my limited power when it came to advanced sticking hands practice. I was very frustrated because the opponents knew my tricks and they were stronger than me. If I threw a punch, it was nothing to them; they could take the blow and throw a punch right back. I learned that sticking hands was very different from distance fighting. In distance fighting a lightweight could move faster than a heavyweight. My dilemma was that I was learning wing chun, not a system that emphasized distance fighting.

Yip Man’s hands

I always got pushed out when I practiced chi sao with my bigger seniors. Everyone who learned wing chun always wanted to prove that they were better than the others. Most of the practitioners concentrated on the offensive side of sticking hands. They tried to learn how to first hit the Opponent. The practice became a sport fighting game. Whoever was stronger would win. Egos ran wild and every one wanted to be the best. There is a wing chun saying, “Don’t speak of who is senior or junior. The one who attains the skill first is the senior.” It meant that, “We don’t have seniors,” because we were better than the seniors. In wing chun we say we don’t have any seniors because we strove to become better than the seniors and even better than the founder. If you look at your art this way, you will certainly improve.

During that period, I had a hard time. I thought of quitting a few times, until I finally went to the old man (grandmaster Yip Man). He always told me, “Relax! Relax! Don’t get excited!” But whenever I practiced chi sao with someone, it was hard to relax, especially when I got hit. I became angry when struck. I wanted to kill my opponent. The sticking hands game became a fight, with both parties getting hurt. The question was who got hurt more. Because I was smaller, I was the one who usually hurt more.

When I saw Yip Man stick hands with others, he was very relaxed and talked to his partner. Sometimes he threw his partner out without having to hit him. When I stuck hands with Yip Man, I always felt my balance controlled by him when I attempted to strike. I was always off balance, with my toes or heels off the ground! I felt my hands rebound when I tried to strike him. It appeared as if Yip Man used my force to hit me. His movement was so slight, it seemed he didn’t do anything, not even extend his hand! When I was thrown back, it was very comfortable, not violent, yet I still could not see his techniques. When I asked him how he did it, he simply said’ “Like this!” as he demonstrated his extension of his hands, which was the same as practice. I saw Yip Man do this to other students, even the seniors. He never landed a blow on his students, but he would put a student in an awkward position and make the fellow students laugh at the sight. He was the funniest old man. I never once saw Yip Man take a step backward during chi sao.

I thought to myself, this old man was my size and weight, how could he control his students so easily? So every time he played chi sao with a student, I kept watching his perfect wing chun body structure. Whenever he took a step forward, his opponent was thrown back. No matter how big the student was, Yip Man never exhibited a killing attitude. The students would swing his hands, and Yip Man would smile and merely control the movements.

I really felt hopeless, so I asked sifu what should I do to further myself. He told me, “Why do you always want to be the same as the others? You know it won’t work, why don’t you change? Do the form more, don’t even play sticking hands for a while. Do the form slower.” I was confused; I wanted to learn wing chun to fight. I wanted new ways and new techniques. After all these years, Yip Man’s advice were these few words. I felt disappointed, yet I couldn’t argue with him. I had the choice to either drop out or do what he said. So I reviewed all the forms with him and he corrected them during private lessons. I did stick hands with him slowly. He just coached me and guided my hands like a baby sitter. In this manner, I learned the softer, defensive side of wing chun.

Who could know Yip Man’s high skill? Yip Man could neutralize his opponent’s force or interrupt his opponent’s motion so that it never landed. If you take an analogy of a big car facing a small car, you can see that the driver of the small car doesn’t have much of a chance. The small car driver has to shut off the engine or interrupt the shift to first gear of the big-car driver. obviously, the big car can just run over a small car and destroy it. The question is how big is your car, and compared with whom?

A larger opponent

When Yip Man faced a larger opponent, his skill was so high that he would shut off his opponent’s engine or never let it start. When you’re old, you have to adapt this way to survive. With my small size, I had to learn this method. I had to be faster than my opponent’s fist or elbow’s extension. I had to see my opponent’s telegraphic body move or see his mind’s intent. Whether in close-range or distance fighting. I have to interrupt my opponent’s engine start or guide his intention elsewhere. Bruce didn’t learn this high level of skill. By Hong Kong standards, he was a big car.

Everyone in wing chun has his opinion or politics. The politics arise when each speaks of the “best” method of entry or attack. The “best entry” or “best attack” is a product which a wing chun exponent chooses to buy. To a wing chun man, every attack is considered an “asking hand.” My fist is a question posed to you. If someone attacks and you solve the problem before it is initiated, how much politics are involved? Politics come from partiality, which is why I say that when wing chun is trained to a high level, there are no techniques. Who realized Yip Man’s skill? All my training brothers respected Yip Man because he never hurt them, nor were they skillful enough to hurt him. Yip Man’s skill in the 1950s was the epitome of sensitivity; he could immediately read his opponent’s intention.

Wing chun is a mental, rather than physical martial art. The system was founded by a lady, and as a result, the art requires mental strategy and physical skill and timing. Wing chun requires that the mental be ahead of the physical. It is a system to develop skill, not a style. I’m not the best, but I know where I stand in this art.

A good wing chun man should practice chi sao all the time. You can tell what sort of individuals you are dealing with, his character, his advantages or disadvantages. You can look at a fighter’s body and also determine if he is a boxer, kicker or wrestler through his muscle condition and by the characteristics of his movement. A fighter’s behavior also determines what sort of fighter you are facing. Of course, this is not 100 percent. When betting on a horse race, an experienced gambler will try to gather all the information he can get on a horse. He will look at a horse and check his statistics to make an intelligent decision. You learn to minimize your risk. This is what chi sao teaches you.

When you do chi sao, you should not attack first, but rather try to collect as much information as you can on your opponent. Many wing chun practitioners want to attack first without gathering information. Attacking first is to give your opponent information on yourself. Sun Tzu advised us, “Know yourself, know your opponent, in 100 battles, a 100 victories.” The forms of wing chun are for you to know yourself; chi sao is the way to knowing others.

Bruce changes

Bruce changed his methods when he came to the U.S. Time and experience caused change, but he had help from wing chun, which hinted which direction to go. Just like my training brothers who express wing chun in their way, Bruce founded a method of teaching his version of wing chun in the U.S. Bruce used the offensive side of wing chun. Bruce said that he supposedly saw the “limitations of wing chun,” but the truth is that there is nothing wrong with wing chun. Wing chun is not a style, but a system of preparation for combat. Wing chun gives you the information to be one step ahead of your opponent. Wing chun is not better than other Systems of martial arts, but it offers a practitioner some unique advantages. No matter what style or system of martial arts, to defeat your opponent you must land your tools. I can fight using wing chun tools. But I express my own Hawkins Cheung style based on my experience. As a martial artist, one must stand on his own credit, not his master’s.

When I teach wing chun tools to my students, I coach them to find which way best fits their character. Some students are very emotional, yet I can’t force them to relax. So I teach them the offensive way of wing chun. When the skill in offensive attacks becomes better and they feel they are not improving and become frustrated, they automatically come to me. They ask how to handle this guy or the others. To me, this means they really want to learn. I explain to them that they should relax and pay attention to the defensive side of wing chun.

Once the feeling in their hands and body is automatic, I let them go on their own to find a higher level. If the students continue asking questions, it means they haven’t yet developed the feeling of that movement. They want my help and I do all that I can to help them.

Wing chun is very simple to learn. The system contains only three forms, a dummy set, the 6 1/2-point staff and the double knives set. It is also very easy to teach. The question is if you have tested it out yourself. Can you use the skills in application? Have you forgotten how many fights or whom you have fought before? Each style of martial arts are defensive, so you use what is useful and reject what is useless for the particular stylist. You have to find what is useful for your style of fighting. It may be useless to other stylists, but you have to change the order of using your wing chun tools according to circumstances.

In my wing chun concept, I like the opponent to start first. I will initiate my timing from my opponent’s start. To my experience, this movement is a trap. When you approach me indirectly, you must have a reason why. I have to first discover your intentions. I just wait calmly. My mind becomes a “referee.” To wait is better than changing. l listen to your own music or rhythm. I pay no attention, and that means that my emotions are not involved in fighting. The big question is when to start. Of course, this takes time to develop.

You will see in the “Westerns,” when there is a gunfight, no one dares to start first. In Japanese samurai movies, during the sword fighting scenes, the opponents may wait for a long time. If you can’t wait, your mind has to find your opponent’s rhythm and starting point. From here you have to find your opponent’s intentions with an “asking hand.”

Wing chun started Bruce on his way. It was the wing chun concepts that he still retained to allow him to customize his personal system of martial arts that he referred to as “Jun Fan.” Wing chun was the gun that Yip Man gave us; the frustrating part was that you had to learn how to aim and shoot. The problem was your target always moved, you couldn’t get a fix on it. Wing chun is a problem solving art. You can say that Bruce and I were given a problem from the “old man” to solve. In fact, the “old man” didn’t explain things unless he saw you work for it.

Wing chun development

Every martial arts student has to solve the problem of applying the physical portion. All martial arts styles tend to be theoretical in application. Bruce may have abandoned some wing chun tools’ but he didn’t abandon wing chun development. He changed the art for himself, not for you or me. Bruce used the concept of intercepting and “modified the gun” for his own needs. I kept the traditional gun and made it work for me. Yip Man posed the question, it was up to us to solve the problems. Bruce and I sought for practical application combined with the conceptual. You can say there was a parallel development between us through the years.

In my wing chun concept, I will say that Bruce had weaknesses. If I faced him, I would try to read his intentions. I would allow Bruce to start his broken rhythm, making his rhythm his starting point. At that time, his feet were off the ground I would rush in with a surprise attack. Rushing in is faster than Bruce’s rhythm. With rushing in, I can break his mind’s rhythm, or blank out his mind in a second. I can then follow up with consecutive strikes. I would give him back a problem to solve. The question is whether your “rush-in” timing was quick enough.

There were some tricks we played all the time when we were teenagers looking for a fight. When we would find a “target, “we would just walk up and say, “Hey! I’m talking to you!” or we would go up and touch or pull him. We would make our victim pay attention. If the guy was hot-tempered, he would try to hit us or push our hand away. Once the guy started, we would initiate our timing from his move. If the guy got hurt, we would say, “What’s the matter with you? I was just talking to you, and you tried to hit me first Mr. Chan (fictitious name we made upon the spot)?” The target would say, “I’m not Mr. Chan!” To which we would reply, “We thought you were Mr. Chan and are very sorry we made a mistake!” If our target didn’t pay attention to us, we would curse his mother or sister. We tried to infuriate our unwilling adversary so we could resume the fight. We were real bad guys!

The objective was to force the opponent’s starting point – We would do or say anything to initiate the fight. Bruce even carried this trick in his movie, Return of the Dragon. In the fight scene with Chuck Norris, Bruce would speed up his footwork rhythm. Norris began to follow the same rhythm then Bruce would finish Norris in the end.

A flexible art

Many of Bruce’s students refer to what he taught as a “modified version of wing chun” But Bruce’s term, “modify is equivalent to wing chun’s “feeling” or “sensitivity.” Wing chun feeling is to allow modification, to change for the sake of survival. There is no such thing as modified wing chun; a good wing chun practitioner constantly modifies his art based on feeling. Wing chun is a flexible art that allows you to change based upon your feeling. When Bruce borrowed other tools, the way he displayed them made their essence different because Bruce couldn’t discard the reflexes he developed from wing chun. The essence he displayed almost always had retained a wing chun flavor. Bruce’s followers today don’t demonstrate the attributes Bruce displayed and developed over the years.

Bruce used the wing chun methods of start timing, spring energy, sensitivity (through the practice of chi sao) and ging (penetration power). Bruce couldn’t teach the feeling of his art. Just like Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis trying to teach someone how to get off the starting blocks faster, it was a matter of feeling, not mechanics or tools. Bruce’s speed was a result of the wing chun training he practiced for so long. In wing chun, there is a quality that we refer to as “start timing.” It is the ability to start quickly and differs from someone who has fast hands or feet. Start timing is what made him fast. It is not an emotional type of speed. It was Bruce’s use of start timing that made him so fast.

The secret to Bruce’s speed and power was that he combined both physical and mental power. Bruce was an expert in mental intimidation. Bruce demonstrated his emotional anger and hunger for wining character in every tool he delivered. When I asked him how he could get so fast, he explained that he would use his emotional content to speed up his techniques. This was a big departure from wing chun in that the wing chun mind is supposed to be centered and calm.

I remember when we practiced wing chun together as teenagers. Whenever Yip Man taught us new techniques, we would test it out. If it didn’t feel right, we would go back to sifu again, and ask him to show us the technique. One of us would watch his hands, the other would watch his body mechanics. We would then exchange what we observed and put it together. We would go around asking our seniors, too. Bruce and I did the same with them. One would watch the technique, the other the body mechanics. We would ask the seniors who was right or wrong, and how we could correct the movements. We got used to watching the detail in a person’s body mechanics rather than technique. Good or bad techniques were based on good or bad body mechanics or structure. This is the way Bruce and I stole other styles’ techniques, analyzed them and even did it better than the person showing us. Anyone who knew Bruce knew that he had this ability. Bruce would steal others’ techniques, yet because of his “gorilla” upper body and his forearm strength (in wing chun, we call this long bridge arm power, meaning that the power is issued from the forearm down instead of from the body), his punch would have two kinds of power: one from the long bridge force and the other from his body rotation power (body rotation power is what boxers use the most). That is why whatever style or technique that Bruce would steal, he could perform better than the original. His forearm power is what he developed from wing chun through years of training. This is why I say that his followers don’t have what he had.

Strong Arms

I recall when we would chi sao, Bruce’s arms were very strong. He would just extend his arms and you could feel his power. But I knew his lower body part was weak, and I would pull his arm while he extended, and would pull him off balance. He would have to stop his extension to save his balance. I usually used this method to stop his continuous attacks. That was Bruce’s weak point. In the wing chun system, whenever we want to attack, the legs have to step out before you extend your arm or punch, so you won’t lose your balance. If your arm gets interrupted by your opponent’s pressure or power, you can still continue your attack because you body equalizes the pressure placed on you. You can still continue to extend your arm or punch while being intercepted. This is how a good wing chun man can use the power twice in one motion, rather than having to reload the power. You reload by extending the punch.

Because of Bruce’s poor body structure, he was easy to throw off balance. It was also disadvantageous for him if he came up against a larger opponent that would jam him when Bruce punched or extended his arm during sticking hands. Maybe this is what made him give up the wing chun structure. No one could touch his hands while Bruce engaged in a long distance fight. His upper torso strength and body rotation method would create devastating power. It was smart for him to use these attributes to his advantage. In the U.S. Bruce would not fight against wing chun men, so no one knew his weak points!

Bruce’s thin legs put all his energy in his upper torso. This gave him an advantage of quickly moving his legs. It also made him a good dancer when we were younger. Bruce enhanced his leg techniques by learning two months of northern style kung-fu high kicks before he came to the U.S. Good kickers require the energy to be in the upper torso, so Bruce had natural advantages when it came to kicking fast and with timing. This was his advantage in kicking and his disadvantage in wing chun structure.

Wing chun at heart

Despite Bruce’s advanced level in the martial arts, he was still a wing chun man. He expounded the use of the centerline principle, as well as simple, direct, non-telegraphic and economical motions. And although he may have borrowed tools from other martial arts systems, he used the techniques to conform to the wing chun way. For example, when Bruce used the wing chun straight punch, he started from the middle, with his elbows down. Although he may have used a northern shaolin side kick, he still issued power with a stomp as a wing chin man. He would stomp into his opponent. His best techniques were his straight punch and side kick. His front and hook kick were fast, but they didn’t have the killing power of his straight punch or side kick. Consequently, he used those tools the most to express his JKD.

When Bruce demonstrated his skill with the kali sticks, you can still see his upright wing chun structure. As previously mentioned, Bruce had the skill to copy anyone’s hand techniques quicker and better than anyone.

When Bruce broke away from wing chun and his classical Jun Fan system, he pursued his own non-classical, personal style. Because Bruce studied wing chun so long, he made his tools into a wing chun product, which is why I say his students don’t have his tools and attributes. To wing chun people, we feel that Bruce is not complete. Wing chun stresses ambidexterity, where as in Bruce’s art, it favors the lead hand.

Bruce’s students are also approaching his art in the wrong manner. Jeet kune do was supposed to be non-classical, but now it has become classical. The practitioners fear to create and would rather obey the dictates of the style. Take the finger jab that Bruce taught. Bruce’s students don’t have the practical application. if it hasn’t been developed or used in application, it is useless. Wing chun backs up its practical application with its sticking hands exercise and uses the partner as a dummy. You have to test your application in practice. I feel that jeet kune do is stepping backward, because of the lack of feel in fighting.

Wing chun’s energy is on the legs more than the upper body. Because the wing chun hands are used to feel the opponent’s hands and read his intentions, the hands must be soft. It is analogous to a baseball catcher. You have to be soft to hold up and receive the incoming pressure. You must feel comfortable. The legs are used to throw the whole body forward, like a hammer striking a nail (a “nail” is your tool striking your opponent). This is what is called the wing chun structure power. If we use the analogy of a hammer and nail, the nail must be positioned in the center of the hammer, other wise your nail will be broken or bent crooked while the hammer hits It. In wing chun, this means the hand is jammed or has no power transference. A good wing chun man first aligns the nail to the target, while the target waits to move. The hammer then follows up. if you think of this, you will see that Bruce gave up the wing chun structure, but wing chun trained his arms to issue power.

Bruce’s advantages were in distance fighting, and he extended his advantage to a high level. When Bruce stated traditional martial arts are classical, it was because he was free from the classical. He had a hard time before he mastered the martial arts.

Without wing chun, he wouldn’t be able to find out his advantage or disadvantage. He didn’t have to create a style, he could express whatever he wanted. Bruce was like the fastest gunslinger, he could kill you in a second, or he could kill you in ten minutes. In the first nine minutes and 59 seconds, he could demonstrate as many fancy motions as he wanted, as long as no one knew his weak points. Sometimes in my classes’ I demonstrate Bruce’s teachings, too. It is fun.

Point to the moon

Jeet kune do was Bruce’s finger pointing to the moon. Jeet kune do was a goal for which to aspire. Even Bruce couldn’t express jeet kune do all the time. The term “jeet kune do” was created too early. He regretted the term “JKD” in the end, as he couldn’t express the intercepting fist every time. Jun Fan gung-fu was his wing chun. Any of his followers knew that when Bruce taught chi sao (sticking hands, a wing chun sensitivity exercise), he would put his right foot forward. I knew that he tried to cover up his chi sao weakness, which is why he placed his right foot in front. Bruce wouldn’t tell you his weakness, he would tell you something else to cover up his weakness. In distance fighting, Bruce did what we wing chun men do: we put our best side forward. Bruce meant for his chi sao to be right side leading for long-distance fighting. It means that Bruce’s chi sao is meaningless. He would expose his weakness on his left side, whereas his deadly weapon was his right side.

Being friends, I knew his character. Bruce wanted to be the best, and it was his personality that drove him to be the best and come up with his own method. Bruce and I were convinced that offense was the best defense. With my fighting experience and background, I could check and compare his standard. From knowing Bruce and training with him every day for years, I could just about read his mind. In the early 1960s, he was a young, ambitious Chinese gung-fu guy in America against the Japanese- or Korean-trained martial artists. Because of racial tension and being the only Chinese gung-fu guy around, he kept his beloved wing chun gung-fu and was hungry to learn more. He changed the wing chun fighting stance to look a bit more like the karate cat stance to deliver a front kick on am his opponent as part of a counterattack. The purpose of his changing the stance and structure was to handle the one-punch kill attitude. Bruce wanted to prove that gung-fu guys could fight, too. Because of Bruce’s limited knowledge of wing chun, he was forced to use other tools. He created his own classical system called Jun Fan. For his students to attain his level, they have to become free from Jun Fan. Bruce realized jeet kune do when he was finally free from Jun Fan and wing chun rules. He changed to fit into U.S. martial arts, not Asian martial arts. If we use the analogy that wing chun is a car, if you learn to drive in Hong Kong or in the U.S., the rules are different. You have to change and modify your experience to fit your environment. Bruce drove the wing chun car in the U.S. to suit the American way. His Jun Fan is a product of wing chun for America. Jun Fan is not jeet kune do, and Bruce’s followers have the classical Bruce Lee martial art Jun Fan, not jeet kune do. Jeet kune do is a goal for which to aspire. If any of Bruce’s followers intercept in every move, then they are expressing jeet kune do. Jeet kune do was Bruce’s gift to the world’s martial artists. Jeet kune do is just one of the concepts of wing chun. He experimented, did research and development for American martial arts. Just as Wong Shun Leung’s fighting experience is geared toward fighting against gung-fu guys, we all had to develop our own product. We all had to become free from wing chun to master it. If Wong were in the U.S., he too would have to change. Wing chun is frustrating to its practitioners because the system tells you to create your own product. There are no fighting forms in wing chun. The kata or forms of other styles are a product. How many products can one produce with wing chun? A product is partial. Each wing chun practitioner has to make his own product with his two hands, sticking, changing and coordinating. To create a new product, you go back to the center. Your mind must be centered to absorb a new product.

Although Bruce and his personal art are gone, Bruce managed to pass on his knowledge to the whole world, not just his followers. He never passed on his tools, but he passed on the concept. The tools were like a boat designed to cross a river; once you get to the other side, don’t carry the boat. Maybe there can be another “Bruce Lee” someday if they can follow the example he set in training, research and application. Bruce wanted the world to know that you should find out what fits.