In Search of Truth: An Interview with Robert Chu 2003 “image by JACKRATANA”
Interview done by Mark V. Wiley, Originally published in Inside Kung Fu, February 2007 and originally submitted to Martial Arts Combat Sports Magazine in 2003
Robert Chu is a name that cannot be separated from the world of wing
chun kuen. Not only is he a master teacher of this style, but one of its foremost researchers and educators. He has co-written with Rene Ritchie and Y. Wu Complete Wing Chun, which is to date the most comprehensive book on the various histories of the art, and has recently completed his opus on the physical analysis of the art, the soon-to-be-published The Essence of Wing Chun Kuen. He is a featured columnist in Martial Arts and Combat Sports, a frequent contributor on WWW.WingChunKuen.Com, and teaches his scientific version of the art to students around the world.
In this exclusive interview, Robert speaks directly to the wing chun
community to shape up their act, be more responsible with the
information they are perpetuating, and on the research that went into
his seminal books.
Mark Wiley: Robert, your background in martial arts in general and wing chun in particular is quite diverse. Would you share with us a little of your background?
Robert Chu: Sure. I have been involved in martial arts for 27 years. For the past 23 years I have been concentrating on wing chun. Prior to that, I studied hard styles like Shaolin and Hung gar. I have also studied Yang and Sun styles of Tai Ji, Xing Yi, Ba Gua, Lama and Bak Mei martial arts. I was also fortunate enough to study with Lui Yon Sang and inherited his teachings of the Fei Lung Fu Mun martial arts that specializes in the spear and pole.
MW: Regarding wing chun, I know that you have studied multi-lineages
of the art. Why did you feel the need to study various versions rather
than sticking to one?
Chu: I look at wing chun as one family, despite the lineages that all clamour as to be unique. If they all share the name “wing chun,” it means that one version has more in common with another than differences. To see what my martial arts cousins learn and how they express it does much to enrich my understanding of the art as a whole. In China, when you studied a martial art, especially at advanced levels, you went to visit other relatives in your system, visited with masters of other systems, discussed and shared different points of views, showed applications, and read classics of other martial arts. This is what also inspired what I try to convey in my “Wandering Knight” column. I think this is the only way to reach higher levels.
MW: What do you see as some of the more overt differences in the
practice and application of wing chun between the various lineages?
Chu: As I said before, all lineages have their strong points. Certainly everyone says they’re the most original, traditional, authentic, secret or whatever, but usually that is just hype and marketing. It makes people put on blinders and think what they have is the best. To me, “original” is what you start out with – you’re constantly refining and modifying your practice as your knowledge increases. You have to get beyond all the silly hype and look at a system as a vessel of knowledge taking you from ignorance to wisdom. In a way, I look at Wing Chun people passing down the art as they interpreted it and sometimes with that direct transmission, certain points may not be emphasized as they are in another branch. For example, the Jee Shim Wing Chun system has bigger motions in a core set called Sam Bai Fut, and their pole work is exceptional and in my opinion better developed than some other branches. The Gu Lao branch of Wing Chun that was taught to me by my sifu, Kwan Jong Yuen, has no forms and emphasizes formlessness, a quality that where you have form but are not bound by it. The Yuen Kay Shan system has a core of twelve basic concepts that applications are built around from. The Yip Man system is very simple, direct and practical and fits in with modern day society. The Cho Hung Choy system has a complete set of fist principles that tie it with the internal workings of the art. I could say more, but to sum it up, each branch of Wing Chun has a unique feature and way the knowledge is transmitted.
MW: Your book, Complete Wing Chun, offers the many histories of the
art as told by the varying groups that spread the art around the world. What prompted you to write such a book?
Chu: Complete Wing Chun came about when my good friend, Rene Ritchie
suggested that I work with him regarding a book on multi-lineages of the wing chun system. He got the idea from Y. Wu, a practitioner in
Singapore, who suggested he expand the material on his website into a
book on multi-lineages of the wing chun system and Rene invited me to
work with him on it. Since I was experienced in the Yip Man, Gu Lao, Pan Nam, Yuen Kay Shan, and familiar with other styles of wing chun, I guess Rene thought I could help round out the project. I’d be natural to co-author the book.
MW: With so many lineages in addition to the well-known Yip Man
school, who do you think created wing chun or has the most pure
representation of the original idea of the art?
Chu: Both before and since Complete Wing Chun’s publication, I have
given much thought to this question. There are several theories, but
nothing that can be considered fact. I think it’s obvious from the book that any serious scholar rejects the thought that Ng Mui and/or Yim Wing Chun did, as they were fictional characters, perhaps based on local heroes. I think they’re are fine fairy tales, but at the same time and these characters are probably more fictional than factual, based on the research I did. Also, while Tan Sao Ng might
have been the founder of Cantonese Opera, I think the time frame between him (1730s) and Wong Wah Bao (1850s)—about 150 years—is too great for him to have transmitted the art directly to the Opera people.
I think in all likelihood, wing chun developed along within the same way as other Cantonese/Fujian southern fist systems like Hung gar, Choy Lay Fut, Lee gar, etc., developed by people engaged in illegal activities of wanting to overthrow the Qing government. In my opinion, then, I think the only wing chun elder we can really document and verify is Wong Wah Bao. Most lineages mention him by name, and excluding contrary to those unique names unique to one particular lineage or another, his name comes up most often, almost across the whole art. If I were a gambling man, I’d say he was probably the central figure. Because of political reasons and a negative image, it was better not to promote an art with connections to a secret society (which is related to today’s underground triads), a conspiracy to overthrow governments, a failed rebellion, or even an assassin’s art.
MW: Myths and legends are rampant in the martial arts field. Why do
you suppose such stories of a woman and nun were attached to wing chun?
Chu: I believe the fairy tale story got attached to the formation of
wing chun. In Hong Kong and China during the late 1940s and early 1950s to give it a better image, as other systems did as well. This was a better approach than linking the art with the Triads or secret societies, which were associated with crime, drugs, prostitution, extortion and the like.
MW: Your articles and columns seem to focus on the teacher/student
relationship as opposed to fighting theory. Why?
Chu: When I first started wing chun, I had a teacher that taught in
secrecy, had a special high disciple fee, taught behind closed curtains, had secret oaths, secret gestures, and considered regular students as nothing, and always withheld the higher level information from the regular students. I didn’t like that feeling. When I learned anything in school, I thought martial arts should be like any other educational endeavor: the teacher should give the mind set, knowledge, and work for and want a student to be successful. When I saw that teachers would deliberately hold back their teachings, keep their students down, and not truly give what they said they were giving, and that people were getting something less than what they were expecting, I felt this wasn’t right. Since then, I’ve managed to overcome these roadblocks and I feel I owe it to those coming along the same path to share my experiences and hopefully help them avoid the same pitfall along the way. That’s why “The Wandering Knight” talks about the student and his seeking for higher knowledge—whether it be within one’s self or finding it in others.
MW: Some say there is a modified and original style of wing chun. What is your opinion?
Chu: You have to understand, some people make a living off teaching wing chun and like any commercial endeavor, they need marketing to support them, they need fancy stories and they need new students to think they’ve found “the best most authentic teacher and system” on the planet. Those of us who have been in the art for a while and are
familiar with its true breadth and scope smile at this—you can’t get
away with that type of material being passed off in Chinese, in Hong
Kong, and certainly not China, for example. Sometimes these people have strong personalities and they attract students who really want to feel they are unique or special or “the best, most authentic.” That’s really when you see arguments and problems arising. Teachers forget or start to believe their own hype and don’t properly discipline their students. You see that on all levels, of course. Personally, I think that is a marketing ploy. Some people just trying to differentiate themselves as being the most credible or closest to the source.
MW: What would really be “original” and “modified” wing chun then?
Chu: For me, I think its personal. You start out with “original” wing
chun, which is your innocent, naive, carbon copy version of wing chun.
As you get older and progress through the stages of development, I
outlined, you become wiser and can easily “modify” your wing chun
according to circumstances. Wing chun is expressed in your body and not from your mind. You do not fight from your memory, you have to fight from being in the moment.
MW: I heard a rumor regarding casting you as “King of Wing Chun.” How do you think such a name came about?
Chu: King of Wing Chun? That is a good joke! Sounds like a joke, right?
That’s what I thought when I heard it. I thought, I should be called the king of washing dirty dishes in my home! Anyway, I think some people have become erroneously concerned about this due to my involvement in exploring multiple lineages, thinking I was trying to bring them under one umbrella. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I think any reasonable person would realize that by definition, sharing information on many branches shows there can be no single “King of Wing Chun.”
Of course, there are people who are recognized heads of certain lineages or families in wing chun—I’m not referring to those. I don’t let things like that get to me, however. While they can be annoying and disappointing at times, in the end I’m content with what I have, and personally, I don’t have the time or energy care for fancy titles for nonsense like that. I’m only into teaching people with a sincere desire to learn and of good character. I am happy with my own family and group of students. Happy to teach only those people with a good character and a sincere desire to learn.
MW: So what is it about your version of wing chun that makes it
different than the many other systems?
Chu: What makes anyone’s wing chun different? People may talk about this famous version or that awesome method, but at the end of the day, all you really have is your own expression, and we’re all unique in that. If I had to pick one thing, though, for the sake of the interview, I’d have to say it’s not style, but rather my systematic approach to teaching. I try to be very systematic and well rooted in the real world. You see, to me, style is how you express your training. A lot of teachers can’t teach. That’s true in martial arts and in the world at large. Some teachers have good intentions, but just don’t manage to connect with a student; they are poor teachers. I like to make sure that I touch on as many different methods of teaching as possible so that, for example, those who are kinesthetically, auditory, or visually oriented, all find
something to relate to. If a person prefers to learn hands on, I let
make him feel it. If a student likes to see, I show him. One other
thing, of course, is that The other thing is I prefer to teach concepts, not techniques, and principles, not theories.
MW: So you’re saying that it is the method of imparting knowledge and the methods through which students absorb and train that knowledge that sets one system apart from another.
Chu: Right! I feel I have worked things out; theories have become
principles. To me a theory is an idea, a guess—some thing that might
work. Principle is a fact. You ca do it, prove it so to speak. So, in
essence, a student has to prove his martial arts training. On paper, you might think “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” but in reality, you have to understand the timing, positioning and mind set that really makes it so for such a thing. For me, techniques are just examples of concepts. If a teacher teaches you a technique, you still have to understand the context of a situation, otherwise it’s dead, just a single paint-by-numbers example. With a concept, you can create any techniques you need to fit the circumstances. For example, a wing chun technique, tan da, can be done in many, many ways. I teach at least 15 different ways to do this, which can be modified maybe 100 ways or more.. What’s easier to teach though, one concept or 100 techniques? What’s easier for
the student to remember? To use? In this way, rather than having a
student memorize the techniques, I have them understand the concept so
that they can make it up in a time of need. There are other things too, of course. For example, I am also different in that when I teach, from day one, I emphasize body methods and what I refer to as body structure.
MW: I have found your famous “structure tests” to be quite useful and insightful. What is the point of creating these?
Chu: I created these “tests” as a means for beginners to feel the force transfer from a person pushing on you so that you understand and
feel connection to the ground. Some call this bone structure alignment. So many students on their first day of in wing chun on day one are told to simply mimic the teacher, they don’t get to feel what should be happening to them. This goes on for many years and they find they can’t even do “test one” which is (a simple press on the sternum to see if you are rooted in the basic horse stance of wing chun). It’s a pity. I have seen practitioners with 10 – 20 plus years of practice unable to align their body to cancel out a vector force on their person. What does this say about the next generation of practitioners? This leads to a new generation of lousy practitioners. To me, body structure is the core essence of wing chun.
If you don’t have it, your art, no matter how many fancy hands, is
empty. If you have it, everything revolves around it, partner training,forms, wood dummy, weaponry, sticking hands. They are all extensions of that training. It’s what makes wing chun unique and how we generate power and issue force. I should also add, since some people seem confused by these “tests” that they are, as I said, simple things for beginners. Like everything in wing chun, there is a whole process that comes after them.
MW: Why do you think it is that few people actually teach this?
Chu: Well, in one sense, I think many people came to this country with
good intentions to share their wing chun but were not able . The problem is they may not be able to speak English and didn’t have knowledge of how motion and the other elements are explained in a western manner to properly and convey their ideas. Others, as I said earlier, might simply not have the knack to teach, or may even have preferred to teach the exact same way they were taught, regardless of circumstances.
Similarly, there can be a problems with students as well. As the system has spread, many students have perhaps been told they have the correct transmissions and have been encouraged teach too early.
They may not really understand yet what they’ve learned, and have not
adequately received tuition. Wing chun is not some art that you pose
with, the stance taught to you from day one is a means of conveying
power into your hand or leg movements. You need to know the system well, however, before you can teach it, you need the experience and
perspective the later elements give you in order to understand how the
early elements really integrate. As you may guess, I’m all in for
quality control in the art. I’m not sure how we’ll achieve it yet, but
I think we owe it to the art to make sure the In this way, we pass on
the correct teachings, regardless of personal interpretation, are
passed along to the next generation of wing chun practitioners.
MW: To backtrack for a moment, why do you emphasize body structure?
Chu: Because, to me, it’s important that the martial aspect of the arts are preserved. When I first learned wing chun, I was taught to open a stance and sit there, with a rigid stance, gripping toes on the floor, knees turned in and bent and pelvis forward. When I did the first form, I was shown to use the local muscles from my shoulder and forearm to do the motions of attack and defense. Throughout this early training, however, a little voice in the back of my head kept saying “you have to use the entire body”. In athletics and physical education, you people are taught to isolate the different parts of the body and then coordinate them—why would martial arts be an exception to this? It didn’t make sense.
Luckily, after meeting other teachers and doing a lot of personal
research, I later learned I’d been taught incorrectly. I met better instructors who showed me how to use my body and connect it to my movements and I did a lot of my own research so that I could understand this and explain it to others. From this, I was better able to understand how the body is aligned and how to maximize vector forces. When I began to teach, I felt this was more important and something that should be learned right away, from the first lesson on. You see, in learning martial arts, you have many roads.
You can be limp and empty inside, but this is dull and lifeless and
weak. Or can also you can also be rigid and overfull externally hard
and empty inside. In this case, you are still just as weak. You can
also be soft on the outside and internally strong, however, and this is where I start my students from. Finally, you can have no form, but are a conduit of energy, and this is the level of high level mastery. Teaching body structure to coordinate with your movements early on makes you more powerful from the onset. I should point out, of course, that these aren’t radical ideas. These, I believe, are the core of traditional Chinese martial arts and most physical activities that require the optimal use of the whole body. They may have been forgotten or overlooked at times, but they’ve always been there. I certainly didn’t invent the laws of physics or the anatomy of human beings, after all!
MW: How long do you think it should take a beginner to learn WCK?
Chu: Personally, I think it depends on the individual. Basically, they
can learn wing chun, which has a pretty short curriculum, in two to
three years. Now, of course, mastery is different. To master the art,
one should know all the forms, individual movements, terminology,
weaponry, applications, sensitivity training, body structure, changes,
principles and concepts of the system and be able to show and prove all of that. It is a stage of constant refinement. My opinion is that
martial artists go through three stages. The first is the “fixed stage.”
They really don’t know how to apply the art and essentially, the student is fixed in his knowledge. He’s robotic, even mechanical, in his movements and thought. Over time, he reaches the second stage, that is, the “moving stage.” With this, the practitioner becomes more fluid in his movement, and has a better understanding of his mechanics, but may not be able to adapt to changes yet. They are still mechanical, but better.
The third stage is what I refer to as the “changing stage” or
“alive stage”, the martial art is “alive” with the expression of the
practitioner, who can adapt the art to all circumstances. Regardless of style or system, I think all people go through these stages of
MW: Could you please elaborate on that third stage?
Chu: Yes, mastery is when you learn all aspects of the system. All of
the forms, drills, partner drills, weaponry, fist principles, internal
training and the like. They make this all alive, with personal
expression and the art is second nature to them. The art is natural, embodied in their nature. It is spontaneous in the moment with feeling and adapting to circumstance. It holds up under stress. This is the stage of the where the masters, past, present and future are at.
MW: I understand you specialize in the weaponry of WCK. Why?
Chu: For a long time, wing chun weaponry was considered a secret. Forms, concepts and applications were withheld by many masters and were often taught last. Since I was pretty much against secrecy, I wanted to promote this aspect of wing chun as best I can. I found that basically, to be good at weaponry, you have to practice with them all the time.
Weaponry also imparts many additional attributes to you, such as
strength training and issuing force through an object. It is a way to
develop wind and strength with an external apparatus. Also, over the
years I found I had a personal affinity to the weaponry. Wing chun’s
weaponry was adapted when ancient Chinese weaponry was phasing out and
modern weaponry began to be more important. I think the wing chun
ancestors saw the benefits of attributes training with the weaponry in
hopes that future generations can still enjoy the trained strength that weaponry develops. The pole teaches the use of the body with up, down, in and out motions. The knives serve to strengthen and unify the body structure and improve the gripping and striking. Also, knives will always be a common available tool for self defense.
MW: Is wing chun considered an internal or external art?
Chu: (Laughs) Oh, big debate. Really, I think these labels are pretty
silly. Wing chun developed in the south, independent of those
labels and terms like “neijia” (inner school) and “waijia” (outer school). In fact, as far as I know, Huang Bai Jia coined the term “neijia quan” to explain the difference of his wu tang style, to mark it as unique from and how it differs from other systems. Somehow, this has grown into the popular misconception that People still think the term incorrectly means tai ji, xing yi, or ba gua, liu he ba fa and other systems, none of which, of course, are not even actually related to this original Neijia Quan. Maybe the misnomer got applied in the Central Gou Shu Guan by Sun Lu Tang and others who tried to differentiate their styles from Shaolin.
To say that Shaolin is hard, and neijia is soft—well, I think people
seasoned in both would find that is also ridiculous. Personally, like
“original” and “modified,” I think the difference between neijia and
waijia is dependant upon the level of the practitioner. In high levels, wing chun practitioners should use their bodies skillfully and avoid using tension and localized muscles. In that sense, wing chun could be considered a “neijia.” (Of course, there are so many definitions of the terms neijia and waijia, it’s not worthwhile to really clarify them here.) Some say that Shaolin is waijia because it is Buddhist, a tradition that stems from outside China, but as I understand it, wing chun was not developed in Shaolin as some people say, so that really doesn’t apply either.
MW: What do you think is the goal of WCK training?
Chu: I value teaching wing chun as an art to understanding the
centerline. It is a recurrent theme in the system. One has to be
balanced spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, so I think that is the goal of wing chun training. Wing Chun started out late in the development of martial arts. In my opinion, the art took the refined essences of the different martial arts and stressed the functional, rather than the flowery. As time went on, the recurring essence was simplicity, directness and economy of movement. All systems contain wing chun in my view, when an artist practices Shaolin to a high level for example, they are expressing wing chun, that is, the simple, direct and economical manner of movement. If you have an art stress that along with transitional movement, what you have as a result is wing chun.