Interview with Robert Chu Sifu by Alan Orr “image by JACKRATANA”
2006, Martial Arts Illustrated Magazine
It is a great honor for me to introduce my sifu, Robert Chu, in his first UK interview. They say even a single ray of light can cast away many shadows. For me, Robert Chu has been such a ray of light and I hope you find this interview equally illuminating.
Alan Orr: Allow me first to introduce Robert Chu. He has been involved in the martial arts since 1972, specializing in Wing Chun Kuen. Over the years, he has been fortunate to learn several versions of the art such as the Yip Man style from several prominent instructors, including his current teacher, Hawkins Cheung, and the Yuen Kay Shan and Gu Lao styles from his good friend and ,teacher Kwan Jong-Yeun.
Robert Chu is co-author, along with Rene Ritchie and Y.Wu of ‘Complete Wing Chun: The definitive
guide to Wing Chun’s history and traditions’ and author of numerous articles and columns on martial arts and Traditional Chinese medicine. He lives in California where he practices Chinese
Medicine and can be found on the web via www.chusaulei.com.
Robert Chu: Thank you, Alan.
AO: Sifu, could you begin by giving us some background on your book, ‘Complete Wing Chun’ ? What inspired you to put it together..
RC: The book ‘Complete Wing Chun’ – and I should mention we didn’t really want to call it that but.the publishers wanted to to fit it into their continuing ‘Complete’ series – was meant to embrace the historical traditions of Wing Chun (which was actually the original title of the book). The idea was to let people know that in the 150+ years of history of Wing Chun, many different variations had developed, not just that popularized by Yip Man and now spread over the world. We wanted to show that there are, in fact, many different branches and sub-branches of Wing Chun and that despite all the differences we’ re all of one martial arts family.
AO: One of the first things that drew me to you was the way you stressed structure in your writings, something which seems now to have spread quite a bit. When people talk about structure, though, are they all talking about the same thing?
RC: It has become a bit of a buzzword, hasn’t it? And words do all tend to sound the same, so people may not be quite sure what I mean by structure. When I first wrote an article about body structure, I wasn’t talking about the way a form looked per say but more its function. I have two sayings’ let application be your guide’ and ‘let function rule over form’. Lacking this, you can have the shape, but the movements would be dead.
For example, a lot of people begin Wing Chun and stay there and learn the first form and keep standing there, and standing…I think that people should not only develop their strong stances by sitting there but they need to know how to move it and make it practical as well. This is what I mean by proper structure. Its very common to have some sort of transitory structure but it is it emphasized. I put a strong emphasis on it. In my opinion, Wing Chun has five or six major areas that need development. Its not just hand techniques or individual techniques, but expression of the tools through the body structure. Body structure powers those tools. Then there is timing. Proper timing is what makes these tools come to life. Positioning can cut down on the timing. From there is also sensitivity, which tells how to feel and how to move accordingly. If you have sensitivity and a person gives you a certain energy, he is in essence telling you how he likes to be hit. His position is saying ‘this is the most favorable tool for the moment and occasion and you can use the proper timing to deliver it and have a proper body structure to power it and you will finish me.’ Lastly there’s experience. With experience you know what your options are and you know when to cut down your options you know how to limit your options. Then you’re not just all over the place. You focus on the job in hand you know this is the best option for the moment.
AO: Could you explain some of the methodology behind this? What approach do you take in teaching and training it?
RC: You know, Wing Chun is pretty much Wing Chun. The differences lie in the teaching approaches. Do people really understand the methodology of the system? What I try to do is teach my students a clear understanding of the methodology of the system and from there, let them use that to guide their own training, qand develop their own attributes. The methodology of a system is called “Faat Mun” in Chinese – For example, getting back to the ‘just standing there’ comments above, many people do Pak Sao (slapping hand) exercises and they only stand there and do a very fixed drill. In my approach, we emphasize a lot of walking and moving right from the start. Then I do a lot of isolation exercises as well.
AO: Isolation exercises?
RC: Yes, I take drills from the wooden dummy and I take drills from the forms and then I practice them singularly. In this way, people can develop better attributes, speed, power, sensitivity, so on and so forth.
AO: Okay. And this moves into Chi Sao (sticking hands) as well?
AO: I’ve noticed many people seem only to train Chi Sao in a mechanical, technical way, with not much exploration or experimentation. How do you prevent this from happening in your approach?
RC: Over the years, I’ve come up with conceptual methods to help get students passed the drill.
AO: Could you explain that a little more?
RC: Wing Chun already has a technical progression. Chi Sao, Luk Sao etc… but these are mechanical methods and they don’t really explain the strategies behind Chi Sao. What I like to do is say OK – you have lets say perhaps ten basic tools (Pak Da, Lap Da etc.) and you’re relatively good at them. How do we get you to vary them or change them so that you can really use them? You need to have different methods for that so what I did was break them down into fourteen distinct examples. The first is called Mun Fa or asking (also called Yin Fa, or enquiring method), which is to entice or lead. What I do is I give pressure to a point and then that gives rise to my method or tool. This way I check and ask what are you going to do. Once I do that and there is a response, I’m better able to adequately use that. For example, I might press an opponent and if he reacts a certain way then because of my feeling and sensitivity I can use the Tan Da concept. Lets say in another case where I’m being pressed heavily, I might need to run away from that pressure so this is called Jau Fa – the running method and I run away from your pressure and then it gives me a rise to a new tool – so that’s another way. For example, I run away from it then I come with Tan Da. See, it’s not just a technique-oriented way of doing it, it’s a conceptual guide to create the changes. Sometimes people attack very quickly and in the space of one beat you can be hit so what I do is I need to break the opponents speed and beat him to that punch. I need to intercept him so maybe he’s about to punch and hit me – I intercept him on the 3/4 beat or half beat. So this is Jeet Fa, a method of interception. Sometimes I see opportunities and I’m feeling them so I see the opponent hasn’t time to move so I might Tau or Lau, steal in or leak in, and hit him. I see and opportunity and I steal it of I passively come across and just take advantage of that situation at that moment. Another method is while I practice I like to see how would I move and just try the movement on it. So it might be from one movement to another – so that’s another one called Chum Fa, which is method of crossing or moving. Sim Fa is for when I need to know how to displace my body, to dodge or move my body., It could be a small evasion where I use my torso to evade or a large evasion where I use my step to evade. There might also be a method where I have to guide an opponent into walls or objects or different directions – this is called the Dai Fa. If You’re trying to hit me but I guide you off course, I redirect you or put you in another situation where it’s not your outcome. You meant to hit me but I control you. Sometimes you’re giving me a lot of power, so I borrow your power so this is another method – the method of borrowing. Your power comes to me, I borrow it, I simply absorb it into my structure and then I can use your power against you because my body’s like a big spring – you push me into the ground and then I come back and release it back into you. There are also methods of uprooting. By uprooting I don’t just mean body and stance – I’m trying to mentally uproot you. The reverse of that is called sinking – I have a method of collapsing you, making your structure collapse or making you stop looking for opportunities to try to hit me or take advantage. There are also ways of swallowing force or absorbing force and then ways of extending force and expelling force. My body again is like a spring, you push into me and I absorb it, when I let go I spring out and hit your – this is a natural method. There’s also a method of linking and de-linking the body. I call the Tuen fa. I extend my hand and I de-link my hand from my body. Now, of course, I don’t mean just take it off, what I’m saying is dropping and bending and folding the joints. I can break it or I can connect it at any time.
The idea behind all this is Wing Chun should have some sort of key words as a guiding light to help practitioners. This way a practitioner can say ‘all right I need to have sensitivity…’. For me, I need to have a vocabulary to explain my methods, otherwise it’s just always going to be random. These fourteen methods are not written in stone but these are fourteen good guidelines that I use.
AO: Since I’ve been using them in my own training, I’venoticed they dissolve into each other, so they’re not separate but they work together in conjunction with the whole system.
RC: That’s how it should be!
AO: I’ve heard you mention (Yi) intention. You said this improves the intention of your training?
RC: It certainly does because again, the universal formula for success is based on four factors: you have to have a goal in mind and then you have to make this goal time down and then you have to have a plan to reach this goal. In reaching this goal you have adjusted your plans accordingly.
Sometimes things don’t happen according to the right time frame or factors or anything you expected and then you make adjustments. As long as you have a goal in your Wing Chun then you can make it very successful this way. If your goal is to be a great Wing Chun fighter then you should learn it for fighting. If your goal is to be a great Wing Chun forms man then they should study what would make their form better and more appealing.
AO: Since we’re talking about forms, as a Chinese medical practitioner,you’ve explained a lot about Siu Nim Tao training and some of the pros and cons. You’ve said that if it’s done in an overly static manner, this will cause stagnation?
RC: The theory of Chinese medicine says that the Chi must flow normally – so if the Chi doesn’t flow then it’s impeded. The liver governs the chi flow through the body. We often see cases of liver Chi stagnation; when the body is very rigid and you’re using the shoulder,the GB 21 point has a tendency to be rigid. You also have the other gall bladder points in the area. People tend to be very rigid when their knees are locked and not moving. Therefore you’re causing stagnation of Chi and blood. In the theory of Chinese medicine, that is also not very helpful. The Chi must always move. If the Chi doesn’t move it get stagnated. If it gets stagnated then it can start causing the Yang rising. You see a lot of incidents in Wing Chun where people have the Yang rising. You can see signs and symptoms such as red eyes, bad temper, red face, they feel very uncomfortable or irritable, they have a tendency to shout and so on. I see a lot of Wing Chun people being very aggressive. I don’t think it’s just the normal fighting spirit, what’s happening is that their normal practice is causing them to be hyperactive in the Liver Yang or the Liver Chi.
AO: As a practitioner myself, it brings a picture to mind of the Liver and Gall Bladder channels, which are wood channels, so the difference might be vibrant Wing Chun as a young, fresh sappling and Wing Chun that’s not so vibrant and an old, dry branch?
RC: Wing Chun people can be very proud for a good reason – we are a very famous system throughout modern China. However I see a tendency for over aggressiveness in a lot of practitioners and I think that they’re not balancing out their training well enough. When we talk about vector forces we never talk about a punch as an entity by itself with the shoulder alone because that’s separate from the organism. The entire organism when it’s punching then every aspect from head to toe should be connected in that punch. The intention is that the body alignment is there, the hip placement is there, the foot gripping the ground is there for that split second. Many people will teach you that you have to grip the toes for example. If you do that then your Wing Chun is locked, relax the toes, there’s a certain point of gripping the toes – there’s never just gripping the toes all of the time. There’s a vector force you can say from kidney 1 to heel as the route and then linking up through the leg into the knee, into the hip, from the hip to the waist, from the waist to the rib cage and back to the shoulder, the shoulder connected to the elbow, the elbow connected to the ribs and then extending outwards. All these are within a line what we’re also doing is we are stressing the system. The stress causes hypertrophy of the bone because you’re extending the bones to fight against gravity. The muscles have to hold the bones in place causing hypertrophy of the bones, making the bones thicker, stronger. This is basic training. The idea is that you twist the motions so when you twist the motions, when you elongate the tendons, you cause again a stress on the bones, causing a minor force to act upon the bones, causing bones, muscular and tendon development. Internally train one breath of air; externally train the skin the muscles and the bones. Externally train these from the movement. We train the skin because its attached to the muscle – attached to the bone and the sinew.
Going back to the stance – the Wing Chun stance is obviously based around developing energy for fighting so there are pros and cons of the Wing Chun stance training.
The stance is not a physical stance. I think the early translators of martial arts had nothing to equate it to – perhaps they learnt it from fencing or boxing or they learnt it from different poses. No one just takes a stance and fights from a stance. A stance is always dynamic and changing. In Chinese we call it Ma Bo, Ma is horse and Bo is a step or we talk about Bo Fa, methods of stepping. We do not talk of a stance as a fixed entity – only in Chinese martial arts today has it become a fixed entity. Stance is not fixed it is never fixed. There’s an active phase to the stance or shall we say to the body structure because I tend to use an English translation but it is actually co-coordinated with the torso methods – what’s called in Chinese Sim Fa. Sim Fa and Bo Fa work together. Bo Fa is the stepping methods and so the active phase is when you are applying power the neutral phase is in-between and then there’s a passive phase where you are absorbing power. Each of these is how Wing Chun is used properly. Everything begins and originates from the footwork. Footwork transfers into the body and into the torso methods and produces more energy. We don’t lift up our feet too much – what we do is basically glide over to position and then relax sink and root. It’s never a point of just stopping and applying force from there. From there that differentiates and delineates the different methods of Wing Chun. Some schools believe one hundred percent that all the weight is in the back leg, zero percent is in the front leg, some may say ok graphically that 99 percent on the back leg and 1 percent on the front leg. Maybe those schools had to worry about leg sweeps and the like in the early days so they have a paranoia of protecting the lead leg with that. To me the functional aspect is always embodied 50-50. If you’re being active and you wanted to space someone – the weight has to go from the back leg into the front and then you displace them and then you can go back to your neutral position. If you choose to go 99/1percent distribution on the back leg. I have a tendency of doing 50/50 because I think that’s the most neutral on balance. Then if I need to go the other way from there I can easily shift all my weight to another angle. There’s a time and place for every weight distribution. Wing chun does not depend on a fixed format – so you can’t say OK I only do my form 50/50 and that’s the only way that will do – it depends on your relationship with your opponent –so that will cause the weight to be a certain way. When you do the first form you’re using your own timing and energy, however if you want to train all the time you always put more weight on one leg. You stand like a crane in Wing Chun. A crane always stands on one leg. If you stand on one leg – one leg is always doing the work so you always have a chance to train and develop. In our method some people might incorrectly say well you’re standing 50/50 oh you’re rooted – no people don’t understand what double rooted means from that point. Double rooted doesn’t mean you have weight on both legs 50/50 – it’s talking about a relationship between me and your opponent means that you can control the linkage and the relationship of having weight on your opponent from you so in other words If you have your opponents weight on you and you put your own weight on a leg then your double rooted. Then you’re stagnating again. If you receive his weight and you can control his weight you maneuver it accordingly – you are not double rooted.
From a Chinese medicine point of view Wing Chun stance has pros and cons. It helps more fire but it builds up too much fire if not understood correctly.
Ah yes the stagnation of Chi . Where the stance is locked and stiff. The pelvis is locked forward, the feet are turned inwards at a 45 degree angle and you sink your weight – you might be leaning back all of the shoulders are locked. In my opinion your locking up the Liver and Gall bladder channels that’s wood in the Chinese elements. Wood turns to fire when stagnated very easily. I think that’s why a lot of Wing Chun people are aggressive; this is a byproduct of improper training.
Wing Chun can you say something about that because that’s something that’s particular to your expression at the moment
Theory is something that is kind of half-baked. You have an idea that you can do it like this but you’ re not quite sure of what the outcome will be. So you have a theory you’ re theorizing about it. If you’ re talking about the actual teacher they should have the experience that ok I thought this would work but I know now that it doesn’t work so he should pass on principles to his students not theories. The same thing goes for concepts. Teachers need to teach concepts rather than techniques. Concepts are just like I am saying. Rather than him having to go through 2- 300 variations if he is given the concept then he can adapt to the circumstances it’s kind of like in herb logy when you see a person with an ailment you know that a certain group of herbs will benefit that ailment and if you see other signs and symptoms then you add additional herbs. That s a mark of a proficient herbalist.
From my point of view I felt that you’ ve made me teach myself by teaching me the concept I can see the technique myself. The cuts down the idea of chasing a thousand techniques.
Exactly. A lot of Wing Chun people are all-familiar with Tan Da rudimentary part of the system. It’ s a technique in itself, but you see their so many variations. How can you say there s only one variation of it, but if you give them the concept they can spring forth many different ideas that’s the idea behind Wing Chun. Wing Chun is supposed to be alive. Our art is called in praise of spring. Spring is like things are blooming and new. It has to be where the art is alive, it’ s changing and adapting to circumstances, you’ re able to use it in every circumstance and never worry about it.
This is going back to the idea that forms are not just sets of techniques they’ re actually expressions that accumulate to build up.
Forms are concepts in itself. They are an aide to help you memoriese many different things that you would otherwise forget. They help you with concepts of understanding of fundamental principles. E.g. Some of the principles are the center line we must keep our center line these are understanding of the gate the inside and the outside gate and understanding develop over your training, so a lot of these are considered isolation drills.
Well Sifu you know me, I could ask questions all day and night and you could answer them, but I think the magazine will have had enough of us for now. Let me thank you personally for sharing your insights on Wing Chun.
Robert Sifu please complete any last message.
You can check out Robert Chu’s web site via wingchunkeun.com. Chu Sau Lei Wing Chun.
Alan Orr is Disciple of Robert Chu Sifu and the UK representative of the Chu Sau Lei Wing Chun system