By Eric Oram
Inside Kung Fu Magazine
Prevented by Yip Man from learning the “entire” wing chun system, Bruce Lee was left to his own inventions. What he created was a style based on wing chun but devoid of many key principles.
Bruce Lee, pound for pound, was arguably the greatest fighter of our time. He is certainly the most popular. Twenty-four years after his death, he remains the standard by which all other fighters are measured. His passion, skill, charisma, philosophy, and innovative martial arts concepts brought him worldwide acclaim– incredibly, all by the age of 32. In such a short span, Lee managed to accomplish more than most of us will ever achieve in our lives.
My first exposure to this extraordinary man was the film “Enter The Dragon.” My father sat me down one night when I was 11 and showed me a video copy (minus a couple of scenes he said I wasn’t old enough to see…) “Watch this,” he said, with a strange, knowing grin on his face. “I think you are going to like it”. What followed was an incredible display of total physical mastery. I was amazed, captivated. This experience exposed me to a world I was previously unaware of, but changed my life forever; the Chinese martial arts. A Lifetime of Study
I soon began studying martial arts at a branch of Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate in Las Vegas. Even though I studied kenpo formally, it was still Bruce Lee and his system of fighting called jeet kune do which truly intrigued me. I gobbled up all his films, many of the “Green Hornet” episodes and plunged myself into several books, including Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method, and Tao of Jeet Kune Do.
I learned that Bruce Lee began his martial arts studies training in a system of kung-fu called wing chun. His master was a legendary martial artist named Yip Man, who was, at the time, the living grandmaster of this relatively obscure art form. For some reason, after leaving Hong Kong and relocating to the United States, Bruce began altering his wing chun kung-fu, until influences from boxing, fencing and various other systems left his original barely recognizable. He abandoned his classical training, and adopted “having no way as a way” as a philosophy, believing each practitioner should absorb what is useful from any source and discard what is not.
When I was 14, the kenpo school to which I belonged closed because of financial reasons. Through a series of wonderful “coincidences” (again, thanks to the efforts of my father) I began studying wing chun kung-fu with the system’s present grandmaster, Cheung Chuk Hing (aka William Cheung).
A boyhood friend of Bruce’s, Cheung was responsible for getting Bruce started at Yip Man’s school and was one of Bruce’s primary instructors (Yip Man rarely touched hands with beginners, leaving the bulk of his instruction to his senior students). In addition, Bruce looked upon Cheung as the man to beat, and considered Cheung to be the “ultimate fighter.”
As a 14-year-old mega-fan of Bruce Lee’s, the prospect of studying with the man who taught him and whom Bruce held in such high regard was nothing short of a dream come true. However, this did plant one giant question in my mind: If Bruce respected the abilities of William Cheung and Yip Man so much– and their system of choice was wing chun kung-fu– what compelled Bruce to leave wing chun and eventually develop the concept that became known as jeet kune do?
A closer examination of wing chun’s origin provided me with the in a series of possible answers to my query. Before examining why Bruce left his core system, it is important to first explore which wing chun Bruce actually left. I learned that during wing chun’s colorful history, a second, ‘modified’ version of the system had been created. It was this ‘modified’ system which Bruce Lee learned under the direct tutelage of both Yip Man and, to my surprise, William Cheung himself.
Wing Chun Begins
Wing chun originated at the Shaolin Temple in Hunan province, China almost 300 years ago. The five elders of the Temple had combined their collective combat knowledge to create a system more effective than anything that had ever come before it, and could be trained in one-third the time of the existing systems (ten years was a common length of time to master a given system up to this point).
This unprecedented collaboration was in response to the political turmoil which ripped through China at the time. Ninety-percent of the population, the conquered Hans, were being controlled by ten percent of the population, the victorious Manchus. Fearful of a revolt, the Manchus imposed many harsh laws to control the Hans. For example, the practice of binding women’s feet at birth was introduced to literally cripple the women, thereby making them totally dependent upon their fathers, and later their husbands. If the men rebelled and left for war, the women would be essentially helpless.
Martial arts and the use of weapons were also outlawed with one significant exception: the Shaolin Temple. For whatever reason, the Manchus respected the Buddhist monastery and left it virtually untouched. The ancient tradition of martial arts mastery continued there as it had for thousands of years. As a result, the Temple became a hotbed of revolutionary activity.
The five elders wanted a superior system to that of the Manchus. Time was also of the essence. Students needed to be trained in a much shorter time; three-to-four years. The elders were almost successful. But before they could actually begin the training of their new ‘supersystem,’ the Manchus were tipped off and the Temple was raided and burned. Almost all of the monks were killed, including most of the elders.
One elder did survive, however; a nun named, Ng Mui. She would go on to actualize the concepts and principles created at the Temple, by teaching another woman, Yim Wing Chun. The system itself became known as wing chun kung-fu and Yim Wing Chun later taught it to her own husband, Leung Bok Cho. Leung then taught his nephew, Wong Wah Bo, who then taught his nephew, Leung Yee Tye. Leung Yee Tye taught his own son, Leung Jun.
As with the tradition before him, Leung Jun intended to keep his martial knowledge within the family by teaching only his two sons, Leung Cheun, and Leung Bik. But things were about to change; it is here, with Leung Jun, the origin of the second system begins.
In his day, Leung Jun was very well-known for his healing and martial abilities. In fact, he was practically a legend. Word spread all over China of the extraordinary talents of this doctor/kung-fu master. Enter Chan Wah Shuen, a moneychanger in the same village where Dr. Leung and his family resided. Chan, like many others, was well aware of Dr. Leung’s martial skills. Unfortunately for Chan, he was also aware that Dr. Leung would never accept any outside students ‘ curbing Chan’s deep desire to learn the combat secrets of the renowned master.
However, Chan Wah Shuen was not to be discouraged. Every problem must have a solution, he concluded. If Dr. Leung would not teach him, then Chan’s solution would be to spy on Dr. Leung while he instructed his two sons. And this is precisely what he did. Chan would spy on the sessions and practice what he observed. This activity continued until Dr. Leung finally discovered his uninvited and unwelcomed guest. It seems Dr. Leung was fairly crafty as well. Initially, he did not let on he knew he was being watched. Instead, when he was aware of Chan’s presence, Dr. Leung would alter or modify the instruction ‘ teaching his sons incorrectly. This was, at first, the punishment he chose for Chan Wah Shuen. Finally, Leung Jun could help himself no longer.
One day while instructing his sons, he exposed Chan and forced him to challenge the youngest of his two sons, Leung Shuen. Chan Wah Shuen was about six feet tall; very large for a Chinese man of that time. And he was strong; very strong. To Dr. Leung’s surprise (and probably to Leung Shuen’s!), Chan defeated Dr. Leung’s number-two son. Chan’s strength, combined with the information he had already learned, overpowered and overwhelmed Leung Shuen.
Perhaps because of his admiration for Chan’s determination, Dr. Leung decided to accept Chan Wah Shuen as a student. But Dr. Leung was concerned that Chan might try to claim the grandmastership for himself after Dr. Leung’s death. Therefore, he decided to teach him separate from his two sons, and continue teaching the altered/modified version of the system. It was during these private sessions this second version of wing chun kung-fu truly came to life.
Chan Wah Shuen did not receive the complete and mobile footwork of wing chun. He was taught to drag his feet to impair mobility, and to shift his center back or to the side to alter his balance. The concept of the central line (an area within which one can use both arms to attack and defend simultaneously) was eliminated, and only the centerline (an imaginary line that divides the body into two equal halves from top to bottom) remained. The defenses were lowered to expose the head, and their structural positioning was altered. Most of the emphasis was placed on the straight-ahead barrage of wing chun’s chain punches to subdue an opponent.
Largely because of Chan’s size and strength, he was able to take this modified approach and make it rather effective. Reportedly, Chan Wah Shuen evolved into a formidable martial artist (even a modified version of wing chun was able to rival the best of the classical systems!). In fact, he also became a sought-out instructor in his own right. But, he chose his students very carefully. In his lifetime, Chan Wah Shuen only had a total of 16. Ironically, it was his last student, an 11-year old boy named Yip Man, who would carry on the tradition of the Leung Jun version.
Enter Yip Man
Yip Man’s family was very wealthy, and Chan Wah Shuen taught (modified) wing chun on the Yip family estate. In time, Yip Man grew to be an extremely well-respected martial artist. Before long, he became famous for his incredible success in numerous challenge matches. Perhaps it was fate that had led a young Yip Man from Fatshan to Hong Kong to challenge an old kung-fu master named Leung Bik.
Leung Bik was the youngest and only surviving son of Dr. Leung Jun. He was the true grandmaster of the original or traditional wing chun system. For the first time, Yip Man experienced defeat. Yip was so impressed with the old master, he literally begged the old man to accept him as a student. Eventually, Leung Bik did take on Yip and began a second wave of Yip Man’s wing chun education by teaching him the first (traditional) version of the system.
This newfound master explained to Yip Man that he (Leung) was, in fact, the son of Yip’s teacher’s teacher, and that Leung’s father taught Chan Wah Shuen incorrectly. Leung then proceeded to reteach the system to Yip Man for four years, beginning when Yip was 16.
Upon completing his studies with Leung Bik, Yip returned to Fatshan. He then challenged his seniors, and defeated them all. Yip Man, at 20, became the next grandmaster of wing chun kung-fu.
It was more than 30 years Yip Man accepted any students. And, for reasons known only to Yip Man, he decided to teach the Chan Wah Shuen (modified) version to only a handful of pupils. Among these original pupils was a young boy nicknamed ‘Ah Hing’ ‘ otherwise known as William Cheung.
Cheung and the other senior students (sihings) Leung Shun, Chui Shun Tin, Lot Yu, and Wong Shuen Leung, soon began teaching the juniors (si dis). Again, from here on out, Yip Man rarely touched hands with the beginners, even in ‘private’ lessons. This was true for everyone who began with Yip Man from this point forward ‘ including a student named Lee ‘Shil Lung’ (Jun Fan), whom we all know as Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee began his studies in wing chun early in 1954. He was introduced to Yip Man by his friend, William Cheung. And it was Cheung, along with the other seniors, who were primarily responsible for young Bruce’s martial education. Yip Man taught the senior students the modified version, and in turn, the seniors taught the same system to the juniors ‘ including Bruce Lee.
Bruce was taught to drag his feet, maintain a low guard, and to lean on his support foot. He was also taught to direct all his movements on the centerline. This was the wing chun method Bruce studied. This was the art he used as a launching pad for Jun Fan gung-fu, and a genesis for the creation of jeet kun do. It was only a few months later, in 1954, when William Cheung began living with Yip Man at the wing chun kwoon. Cheung was in constant conflict with his father over the trouble caused by young William’s challenge matches and streetfights. Cheung’s father was the chief of police in Hong Kong, and ‘Ah Hing’s’ street activities brought serious turmoil to the Cheung household. This eventually led a 14-year-old William Cheung to live, teach and train full time with Yip Man at the kwoon.
It was during this three-year period of living with grandmaster Yip that Yip Man decided to reveal to Cheung the existence of the Leung Jun/Leung Bik/ ‘traditional’ wing chun system.
‘Now, Ah Hing, I’m going to teach you how to fight like a woman,’ promised grandmaster Yip.
Paying A Price
But, this new information had its price: total secrecy. Not until Yip Man was dead would the system belong to William Cheung. Until then, Cheung could not relay this new, exciting information to anyone. Ah Hing could not even tell his good friend and student Lee Jun Fan.
After only six months of training, Lee was progressing rapidly. In fact, he was doing so well, he began to pose a threat to the egos of some of the less-motivated seniors. Eventually, tensions became so thick these seniors used the fact that Bruce was one-quarter German ‘ and not 100–percent Chinese ‘ to put pressure on Yip Man to kick Bruce out of the kwoon. Reluctantly, Yip Man consented and Bruce was asked to leave.
Fortunately for Bruce, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Yip Man liked Bruce very much. And so, discretely, Yip assigned William Cheung and the late Wong Shung Leung to continue Bruce’s training in private. This arrangement lasted for about one year. After that, William Cheung became solely responsible for Bruce’s training. It was at this point, Cheung decided to open Bruce’s eyes about the weaknesses inherent to the modified system ‘ without ever telling Lee a thing.
Instead of words, Cheung simply structured the training to directly attack the holes in Bruce’s movement. Hints were dropped to