Starting Wing Chun

Due to a series of fortuitous events, this week I ended up learning Wing Chun for a couple of hours from a teacher from Hong Kong in a cold, damp, lockup somewhere off the beaten track in an industrial estate. As we ran through the opening sequence of the “little idea” form, (Siu Lim Tao), the glare of the electric light bulb cast our stationary shadows out through the open door into the dark, rainy yard outside and I remember thinking that this really felt like the real thing. I could feel the magic of Kung Fu here.

We are learning from “Bear”, a nickname we have created from his family name (Xiong). Bear has long hair and glasses and has a kind of laid back vibe. He seems more interested in being friendly and making friends than fighting. He speaks very little English, but YaYa his girlfriend does and acts as his translator. I’d say about 60% of it gets through, the rest I can hopefully work out thanks to my previous martial training.

He’s built a bit like a bear too – he takes his top off so we can see his arms – his tendons and muscles are clearly very conditioned and big, yet his arms feel soft to the touch. He used to train “5 hours a day when I was reading”, which I think means when he was a student.

He doesn’t have an ego at all. He demonstrates his speed all the time, but without hitting us, just stopping short – but at the same time his instruction is incredibly precise and demanding. Parts of the body have to move and other parts must stay still. He touches my arm and says “Ooooh! Very sung”, which I’ll take as a compliment 🙂

The concrete floor is damp and slippy, but luckily we are not doing footwork yet. We have to bend our legs all the time, as if sitting on a stool and grip with our inner thighs as if riding a horse. The night air is cool and the breeze blows in through the open door as we go through the opening movements of Siu Lim Tao, over and over.

I’m used to bending my wrist back so the fingers are vertical to form “praying hand”, and sitting down into my stance as if riding a horse, thanks to years of training other styles, but my companions are not, so there is a lot of stretching out aching legs and talk about how to condition tendons so wrists can be bent back further.

The three of us have ended up here after a chance meeting, and a lot of mistranslation. I was initially told that my friend had met Bruce Lee’s nephew who was going to teach us Wing Chun. OK, I thought, it was unlikely but theoretically possible that he could be Bruce Lee’s nephew, but the “nephew” bit turned out to be a mistranslation based on the word “Sifu” meaning both father and teacher. So, he’s a “marital nephew”, but not a family nephew. But who cares, we are all here now learning together and we’re having a great time, so I’m going with it. You can learn from any good teacher, and the chance to learn a new martial art is always a great opportunity.

Bear pulls out a book, which looks like a hand-written training notes, and starts to tell us the story of the creation of Wing Chun, which YaYa translates. It was, we are told, created from “the observation of a snake and a goose fighting”. (I suspect he really means crane). The goose(!) uses its wings in a kind of sideways swiping action, like Wing Chun’s Bong Sau. The key feature of the snake, Bear emphasises, is that it doesn’t retreat to strike, it just strikes from where it’s at. Bear pulls out his phone and shows us this clip from ‘Enter the Dragon’ where Bruce fights O’Hara to demonstrate:

I’d thought of Wing Chun as being more based on lots of relaxed arm trapping, but Bear seems much more interested in striking as quickly and explosively as he can, with minimal movement, which I think he was trying to tell us was the point of training the “little idea” form, very much like Bruce in this clip. Not big movement – minimal movement. There seems to be a snap on the end of everything, too, and he says the words “fa jin”, which Tai Chi people should be familiar with, quite often.

Having read all these snake and crane origin stories for years, not to mention hearing stories of many of my own British teachers having to work out what their Chinese teacher was actually saying through the limitations of translation, I’m finding this experience of living the tradition quite magical.

Towards the end he starts showing us some kicks and these are fast, low and look very cool. He wants us to fix some tires on the wall to practice kicks on. He seems to pendulum his upper body backwards as his legs flash forward, as if avoiding a head strike and countering low. The impression I get is that whatever we are learning it’s not designed for a long protracted engagement. It’s quick, to the point and you get it over with then move on. I’m looking forward to learning more next week.

To be continued.

5 thoughts on “Starting Wing Chun

  1. It’s interesting that White 白 (Bái) is a very similar character to 日 (rì) Sun. Bear explained that the punch at the start of Siu Lim Tao is called a Sun Punch because your fist when clenched forms the rì character – the gaps between your fingers form three horizontal lines.


  2. Yeah, I’ve had a few experiences with geese myself.

    Hè, 鶴 (鹤) alone can any type of large wading fowl that have an upright stance, so a stork could be included. Báihè (白鹤), White Crane is the Red-crowned Crane. Similarly, Bái é (白鹅) is a Swan Goose, rather than some other type of goose.
    Stork can also be Guàn, 鸛 (鹳).

    We can lose a lot in translation. I’ve learned that it is important to at least look at what the Chinese is actually saying and how it was translated. Even if one does not speak Chinese fluently. Báihè or Bái é are used in taijiquan almost exclusively. Guàn would be an unusual occurrence.

    It is curious to me that the names are so specific referring to qualities of specific breeds in their imagery. The colors also convey certain meaning white, golden, red, azure, jade each convey certain messages. There are often deeper cultural meanings too. Not every connotation may apply, but I have found that most are relevant in some way.


  3. Richard, In our Tai Chi lineage we call it “Stork cools it’s wings”, so there’s another bird! We have plenty of wild geese in the UK, and I remember how savage they can be when we used to go and feed them old bread when I was little. They’re about the same size as a toddler so they were terrifying to me!


  4. I’ve always recommended to students seeking a teacher that they find the best teacher for them available to them, rather than seeking a specific martial art. The Internet has provided more opportunity to contact teachers of specific arts long-distance, and that’s a good thing. But, that doesn’t completely replace, hands-on instruction and immediate feedback with a top-notch teacher, IMO.

    LOL! Goose and Crane! But, don’t be too sure it is supposed to be crane.

    Goose, 鵝 (鹅), is pronounced É. A “white goose” is a Chinese Swan Goose. They were ubiquitous throughout northern Chinese villages acting as watch dogs, raising an alarm at the any sign of danger to their family and home. They attack savagely and will defend their home and family to the death. Thus, the goose is a symbol of loyalty and fierce devotion and love.

    Crane, 鶴 (鹤) is pronounced Hè, so with regional dialects and oral instruction, it would be easy to confuse the two. A “white crane” is a Red-crowned Crane. They are symbolic of longevity. They are patient, still and silent hunters of their prey (fish, frogs, and snakes). They mate for life and migrate to the same destinations yearly, so they are also symbols of faithfulness.

    Either would be a good symbol to use in a martial art. However, in Taijiquan, you can tell a lineage that was learned in the villages, because the movement is White Goose Spreads Its Wings. A goose is a farm animal. Only a country bumpkin, or a person of low social rank, would use a goose as a symbol. It would be like using a cow, a sheep, or a pig, truly bad brand marketing.

    Those forms that spent any time in sophisticated cities, like Beijing, or updated their names, called the movement, White Crane Spreads (Cools) its Wings. It is still an appropriate symbol. Whether this was done by students or teachers themselves is unknown, but the pattern is clear.


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