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Yuen Kay San Wing Chun with Kwok Wan Ping

I had been living in Xi’an for three months when I found out that I had to go to Hong Kong to extend my visa. At this point I was still training the Wing Chun I had learnt in the UK, and as Hong Kong is a Mecca of Wing Chun, I jumped on the opportunity to go there and do some training. After looking around online, I came into contact with a student of Kwok Wan Ping, and arranged a few days of training.

Kwok Wan Ping has a really interesting story. He was born in Indonesia, moved to Guangzhou at a young age and majored in PE at Wuhan University. During this time he practiced Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling), modern Wushu and bodybuilding. Later he made the aquaintance of Sum Neng, top student of grandmaster Yuen Kay San, as well as learning Fu Style Taiji and Bagua. Due to the cultural revolution, he relocated to Hong Kong, where he had to make a reputation for himself, fighting many of Ip Man’s well known students to win the right to open his own school.

Yuen Kay San Wing Chun

Yuen Kay San Wing Chun has some unique differences to Ip Man Wing Chun. The first thing many people notice is the forms are more complex; it is said this is an older and more complete version of Wing Chun, and that Ip Man simplified a lot of stuff when he taught in Hong Kong. My training in the early Foshan transmission of Wing Chun (via Lun Gai & Kwok Fu) confirms this. To learn more about this lineage I highly recommend reading Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun: History and Practice or Complete Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to Wing Chun’s History and Traditions (Complete Martial Arts).

I arrived at his apartment in the early evening and was greeted to a delicious meal cooked by his wife. Feeling ready to burst, Kwok then led me onto the rooftop to start training. As I was coming from an Ip Man lineage background (via Lun Gai & Kwok Fu), there didn’t seem much point learning forms, so Kwok decided to teach me the Sap Yee San Sik (12 free hands), and do a lot of Chi Sau with me.

Sap Yee San Sik

Sap Yee San Sik are twelve basic hand techniques which can be practiced solo, or as fixed drills with a partner. They teach the basic structures of Wing Chun, condition the forearms, and develop reflexes. Some of these are present in the Ip Man Wing Chun I had learnt, but some were totally new to me. Kwok had a very different feel too, he wasn’t soft and yielding, but hard, aggressive and applied constant forward pressure. Practicing even the basics with him was quite overwhelming, but I made huge progress, not only in my Wing Chun, but having him transmit his method of force to me has stayed with me and helped me in my Mantis training which I continue to now.

Chi Sau

Practicing Chi Sau with him was the most rewarding part of the training, and was something we spent a lot of time on. Unlike many people I have Chi Sau’ed with, Kwok didn’t move around or change angles a whole lot, instead he faced me square on, and whenever I made any move, he would send a huge shock-force right into me, knocking me right back. Even just while doing regular rolling, his arms were heavy and immovable, constantly pressing forwards. My arms and shoulders started burning after just several minutes of Chi Sau with him!

Training with Kwok taught me a lot, and it was definitely worth it. Sometimes you meet a master, and although you only spend a short time under their tutelage, you grow in leaps and bounds. This trip for me was exactly that, and the next year I went right back to train with him again.

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Lessons in Being Thrown Around with Master Shen Tie Gen

So I’ve been back in China about 2 months now. When I first came back I went around a few of the parks here in Shanghai looking for some decent teachers. Met some nice people, and some not so nice people, but nobody which tickled my fancy. Then by chance I got a call from my old friend Antony who asked me to come and meet Master Shen Tiegen with him.

Shen Tiegen teaches Wu Style Taiji as well as 10 Animal Xinyi. I have to admit I’m not overly interested in Taiji, unless it’s Chen Style, as I don’t have the patience for all the slow forms. However Master Shen is different. When I first saw the guy, he was so unassuming, big smile on his face, fairly short and skinny guy. After chatting for a while over coffee, Antony suggested we go to the park. We stretched a little, and then Master Shen went straight into showing us applications. It wasn’t really like he was teaching us, more like just showcasing what he has to offer. He would show us a move from the Taiji form, and then go off on all kinds of applications, strikes, locks, throws and kicks, all taken from one simply move. There was different footwork to move around the opponent, straight into his centre, or to feign a retreat and draw him in. He was constantly using exceptional leverage to manipulate you into all kinds of horrible positions, and when you are all tied up he will place his hand on your throat and say “this is very dangerous, now I can kill you!” Or he would get carried away and really just throw you straight onto the concrete.

As I mentioned earlier, I had no interest in Taiji, but he impressed me so much I asked to learn from him. I said I wanted to focus on Sanda and Shuai Jiao, and he happily agreed. So the next week we met again, along with another friend Jon, who practices Song Family Xingyi Quan. Master Shen started us on the first of the Taiji 13 palms, which are very different from what you think of as Taiji. Rather than soft flowing forms, they are single movements, done in a straight line. The emphasis is on simplicity. The first we learnt was Pi Zhang, or chopping palm. You literally just walked in a line lifting your arms up and down. Simple as that! However, the amount of content he could pull out of this was unreal.

Master Shen is definitely unique, and I am glad to be able to start training with him. I think long term I am more interested in his 10 Animal Xinyi though, but I will see how things progress. For now these Taiji 13 palms have really helped me understand my previous training in Mantis and opened up new doors for me…..

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Meeting a Master the First Time – What You Should Do

When coming to China to train Kung Fu, many people are unsure how to act when meeting a master. China is a heirarchical society, and if you are meeting a master for the first time there are certain things that should be considered. Don’t get too worked up over it, Chinese etiquette is incredibly complicated and even they realise that. This is one of those times when you can “pull the laowai card”, although if you follow these steps you will be sure to impress! For a glimpse into the relationship between master and student, I recommend Steal My Art: he Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master T.T. Liang.

Gift Giving

When meeting someone for the first time, it is common in China to give a gift. If you are meeting a master for the first time, it may be a good idea to bring a gift. Typically in China, common gifts will involve alcohol, cigarettes or tea. My personal suggestion will be to give tea, as while most Chinese over the age of 50 smoke and drink, some may not. Typically, Chinese like things in even numbers, so you should give either two or four jars of tea, rather than one or three. If you are tight on money, going to the market and buying some fruit is an acceptable alternative. How much you spend isn’t important, and nothing will be expected, but going the extra mile will show you understand Chinese culture, and are a person who is appreciative and respectful.

Refusing to Receive and Being Pushy to Give

Ok, this one is the most difficult for most people to get their head around. Generally speaking, if Chinese people offer you something, it is rude to accept it outright. You should make a scene by refusing several times and making them force it in your hand. Then you should make out that them giving you this thing (no matter how small or insignificant it is) was really a big deal to you and you are totally embarassed to take it. However, when somebody you don’t know very well invites to buy you dinner or have you come to their home for dinner, it would be over-stepping your boundary to accept. If on the secone or third meeting they still insist, then you can agree.

On the other hand, when you offer something to someone, be VERY pushy. Force it into their hand, shove it in their pocket, pretend to be angry that they haven’t accepted it. You may have seen Chinese people fighting to pay the bill in restaurants. The key here for both the giving and receiving is generosity is considered a virtue and greed a vice, so people want to appear as much the former and little of the latter as posible.

Train Hard and Dont Slack Off

If your first time meeting a master involves training, then you best train like you never have before! The first impression will really decide whether a master accepts you or not. It’s common that at first you will be taught by a senior student, not the master himself, and they may not pay much attention to you. Actually, they are! Just repeat whatever has been taught, drill it again and again. Don’t ask too many questions in the early stages, as you don’t wanna come across cocky. I say this not because I think questioning is wrong, but because I see many people ask questions in a way that appears to be challenging the authority of the teacher. It’s better to build a rapport first, as like I mentioned earlier, heirarchy is important in Chinese culture.

Don’t Brag

There’s nothing worse than when someone is meeting a master the first time, and they reel of their CV of previous martial arts training or masters they know. In China, being humble is considered an important virtue. In time, people will come to know more about you, there’s no need to tell them more than “I have trained before, so I’m familiar with the basics”. It’s possible you will be asked to show a form, or perhaps spar a senior student. In this case, perform at your best, but be humble. As there is a lot of inter-style rivalry, also be prepared to be told what you have done before is totally wrong. Take it with a pinch of salt, and show you are willing to learn and improve.

So these are just a few suggestions to make things go smoothly. As I stated, people will understand you are a foreigner, and so will make exceptions if you break etiquette. Don’t stress about it! Take it as part of the fun of living in another culture!

 

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What Are The Qualities of a Good Kung Fu Master

The next topic I feel I need to breach is “what are the qualities of a good kung fu master“. Of course this is highly subjective, but I’ve met a few in my time and I’ll try to find some commonalities in the ones I respect the most.

Flare

qualities of a good kung fu masterThe first thing I have seen, is that they have some kind of natural flare, big personalities which come across in the passion they have when teaching or when performing. When a good master does a form, you can see their personality come through in their performance. Likewise, when they are teaching applications you can see a kind of excitement as they throw you around, punch you, grab your hair and generally beat you up! I have found that the best masters are always kind of rough around the edges, not the monk-like characters stereotyped. They often smoke and drink, and most definitely fought a lot when they were young. At the same time, the master should be a kind person, who looks after his students. In Chinese culture the master-disciple relationship is a very strong bond, just like father-son. While Chinese culture emphasises filial piety, and respect to elders, there is a mutual relationship where the master will often take care of the disciple; taking an interest in and providing support in daily life. Putting themselves on a pedestal and demanding blind obedience are not qualities of a good kung fu master.

Experience

Now they may have spent their whole life only practicing one style, or they may have trained under qualities of a good kung fu mastermany great teachers in different styles, but regardless they should have experience. What do I mean by that? I mean that your body needs time to be “moulded into a martial arts body”, in Chinese this can be refered to as Shou (cooked/ripened). Just like a fine wine (or Pu Er Tea!), it takes time for the qualities of a style to become embedded in someone. The unique power or energy of someone who has trained for a lifetime is hard to describe in words. But once you have felt it, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen people teaching a certain style they only learnt a couple of years, but getting away with it because they are good as Sanda or something else. Well if you are going to learn their Sanda, then great, but if you want to learn that certain style, you aren’t gonna get the Real McCoy.

Experience here can also mean combat experience. This doesn’ve have to mean competitive experience, a lot of the elder generation grew up in an environment where street fighting was very common and problems were solved through violence. And don’t believe a teacher who told you they have never lost. If that is the case, they didn’t fight anyone worthy! My teacher has told me about his losses as proudly as his wins and so I suppose we could also say that humility and honesty are also important qualities of a good kung fu master.

Openness

Unfortunately there is a culture of secrecy in China, which I suppose is a remnant of the old society where martial arts was actually a weapon and people guarded certain techniques or skills in the way modern militaries guard certain technologies. However, times have changed, and peoples attitudes should change too. Now I’m not trying to say that you should be able to turn up at a teacher’s door and expect to teach you the most advanced part of their system from day one! Of course the right thing should be learnt at the right time, and a student does need to be checked out to make sure they are suitable to keep. What I am trying to say by openness is that a teacher should not be pulling the wool over your eyes. I’ve encountered people who are willing to take students money, or willing to keep students under them, but they try to give away as little material as they can, and deliberately withhold important information so the student will never really progress. A teacher who is like this tends to be the one who makes a lot of promises to you early on, and constantly tells you how lucky you are to learn from them and the like. Just because a teacher is good himself, doesn’t mean you will also get good under him.

These are just a few qualities I can think of, but at the end of the day, different teachers will suit different people. The important thing is finding somebody you can really click with. It’s often said the teacher is more important than the style. So get out there, visit different masters, try to get a feel for the similarities and differences, and hopefully you will be form your own ideas about what are the qualities of a good kung fu master.

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How is Kung Fu Actually Trained in China

So, how is Kung Fu actually trained in China? Is it like a typical class we might go to on a Friday night at the local community centre? Not really. In this article I explain a few typical scenarios that I have come across.

Public Parks

The most common setup is for people to train in the park. For the vast majority of urban Chinese, they live in apartment blocks and don’t have any kind of private garden, so most of their outdoor life takes place in public parks. These parks can be a wonderful place to wander, there is so much life to observe, from old ladies group dancing, to people practicing Taiji, to people playing cards or Mahjong. Occasionally though, in a quiet corner, you may spot somebody, or even a small group, engaged in serious martial arts training. Some even go so far as to make DIY gyms, wrapping carpets around trees to punch, or ingenious wooden dummy type devices. What I will say though is this, the quality of what these people are practicing can vary greatly, and its very probable they will reserve some more “secretive” training for behind closed doors. So its likely you will only get to observe part of what they practice.

For these groups, training is usually informal. You turn up and leave when you like, you warmup however you feel works best for you, and then you work on whatever you feel you need to. You can train as hard as you like, or as lazily as you like, but this will affect how the teacher teaches you. Sometimes the groups may practice for free, sometimes the teacher will collect a small fee or receive gifts from the students. In my opinion it is better to pay, as nothing in this world is free, and you don’t want to be in the palm of someone’s hand in China.

In Private

Some teachers are incredibly conservative, and they may only teach in private. Others may run a public gathering in the park, and invite the students they like to train more seriously with them. This kind of training is usually very specialised. Teachers I’ve met who teach in this way don’t have you do a whole workout with you, rather they expect you to do your training alone, and they may spend an entire session just going over one detail, or explaining a bunch of applications.

Shaolin Temple Schools

There are hundreds of schools around Shaolin Temple, and also in other parts of China now. These schools usually take in extremely poor kids from rural families who can’t look after them. The training is brutal and probably does them a lot of long term damage. They will train most of the day, six days a week, beginning with a run up the mountain, and maybe other grueling physical conditioning. They also spend a lot of time stretching, often being forced into full splits and other positions. The kids will spend most of their time learning and practicing forms, repeating, repeating, repeating, and will get damn good at them. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an emphasis on understanding what they are doing, more a case of learning a vast array of forms, both traditional and modern, from a wide range of systems. They may specialise in Sanda too, which will be more conditioning, padwork and sparring. Generally speaking, if these kids can stand out in their school, they have the chance to join a performance team, or go on to be an athlete, bodyguard or coach. A really good insight into what it is like training at Shaolin can be got from American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China.

These categories definitely aren’t the be all and end all, but from what I have seen in China, these are the common ways for people to practice Kung Fu in China, and I have had a taste of all three. If you are looking to make great progress in a short time, and have a full on experience, I think the last method is a good choice, but long term it is too damaging to your body. You may also find my article on Training Kung Fu in China useful if you are considering your options.