The Weapons of Wing Chun Kuen “image by JACKRATANA”
By Robert Chu & Rene Ritchie
(First published in Inside Kung-Fu, 99/07)
Ever mysterious, often misunderstood, the weapons of wing chun kuen have remained elusive over the generations for several reasons. It has been hard to find qualified instruction, and it has been even harder to find qualified instructors willing to give in depth instruction. Some instructors who did not themselves know the weapons, or did not wish to share them if they did, were careful to “protect the rice bowl” and keep them out of reach of students. Others, for the same reasons, chose to invent their own methods and/or forms, to pass along the weapons, but only superficially, to further “fill the rice bowl”. Still others knew the weapons were simple and could be given away easily, but required a firm foundation in wing chun boxing to be truly effective, thus were very careful in choosing to whom they would impart the knowledge.
For those who possess a high degree of skill in the empty hands, and obtain good instruction, the weapons can solidify the simple concepts and motions of the system and open a practitioner to the limitless applications of wing chun kuen.
The Wing Chun Weapons
The main weapons of wing chun consist of the long pole and the double knives (some branches retain other weapons as well, such as darts, straight sword, Kwan knife, etc. but these are not common and as such, will not be dealt with here). These weapons are by no means unique in the martial arts, but what makes them unique in wing chun are the same basic combat principles that make the boxing unique. These include joining with the weapons/bridges, cutting off the offense, destroying the balance/structure of the opponent, delivering attack(s), and sticking/staying to determine follow ups.
In application wing chun weapons strike the opponent to finish. If this is not possible, striking the attacking weapon and moving on to finish is favored. With weapons, due to the longer ranges possible, sometimes conditions may make achieving this difficult and there may have no choice but to defend first and then move in quickly to continue.
As stated before, wing chun weapons require a high level of skill in the empty hand methods. If someone is not proficient in wing chun boxing, it is readily apparent in the weapons. Even when skimming magazines and books or watching videos, many can be seen to be thrown off balance by the weight of the weaponry. This is because practitioners often have not yet mastered the use of body structure and mechanics using power from the ground up before they pick up the weapons and as such, must resort to swinging them about with the shoulders and arms. A key indication is simply viewing the use of the kua (pelvis). Movements should be completed with an emphasis on the body to transfer force to the weapon.
Some have said that the weapons of wing chun, that the weapons of all Chinese martial arts in fact, are archaic and “dead”. The truth is, weapons are as alive as the hand that holds them and the mind that directs them. Given good instruction and hard training, wing chun weapons can be very much alive.
Once properly developed, weapons training also serves to further refine empty handed skills, making a practitioner formidable even if he or she is not armed with a pole or double knives.
The Long Pole
Tiu GwunLegend holds that Fujian Siu Lam (Shaolin) abbot and Chan Buddhist teacher Jee Shim survived the destruction of his temple and sought shelter aboard the Red Junks of Guangdong. The Red Junks transported members of the Fine Jade (Opera) Union along the rivers, between towns such as Zhaoqing, Foshan, and Guangzhou. On the Junks, Jee Shim disguised himself as a cook. Eventually, Jee Shim’s true identity became known to the performers and they became his students. In order to hide his name and background, however, the boxing, dummy, and single-headed pole methods Jee Shim passed on became known as weng chun (always spring), in honor of the Always Spring Hall in Siu Lam. From Jee Shim, weng chun spread to performers like Wong Wah-Bo, Leung Yee-Tai, Painted Face Kam (New Kam), etc. They would all later teach the pole in the town of Foshan, where wing chun traces its modern roots.
Beyond legend, there have been many famous pole fighters in wing chun. The above-mentioned Wong, Leung, and Kam were all said to have been pole experts. Kam’s student, Fung Siu-Ching, active around the turn of the century, is still remembered for his pole skill. Fung’s students likewise achieved great results. Many of his early students, such as the Lo brothers, came to be known as the Kings of the Long Pole, due to their success in protecting local villages from bandits with the weapon. Fung’s later student, Yuen Kay-San, fought duels with the pole in the first half of the century and his victories gained mention in books and articles by the likes of Ngau Soy-Jee. Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai’s student, Leung Jan also had well known pole practitioners in his lineage. Chan Yiu-Min, the son of Leung Jan’s disciple, Chan Wah-Shun won the title “King of the Pole of Seven Provinces” in Foshan. In the 1950s, Lok Yiu, the student of Chan Yiu-Min’s classmate, Yip Man (himself well known for his pole skill), was given the moniker “King of the Pole” in Hong Kong.
The pole, as taught on the Red Junks, was comprised of six-and-a-half conceptual points (ideas), hence it was called “six-and-a-half-point pole”. The Siu Lam Weng Chun of Fung Siu-Ching included the points rise, obstruct, point, deflect, cut, and circle, and the half-point leak. While it is said the half-point is separated due to its predominantly defensive usage, all of these concepts can and should be applied defensively or offensively, as circumstances dictate. Others prefer to explain the six-and-a-half points in the terminology of wing chun boxing and offer up dart, disperse, wing, control, cultivate, circle and the half-point obstruct. In the Cho family (descended from Opera performer Yik Kam) and Yuen Kay-San systems, the spearing pole is considered the half-point since it is the core and can come from any other movement .
Lao Sui GwunMovements with the pole come from the concepts. Since it is a simple weapon, there are only a few major categories of movements. Obstructing moves the entire pole in one direction, typically upward and downward (sometimes referred to as canceling), and sideward (obstructing/barring proper). The next type is whipping, which moves only the tip of the pole while the other end remains relatively stationary or moves in the opposite direction. These moves are often practiced from up-to-down and side-to-side. Circling arcs the tip of the pole clockwise or counter-clockwise. Pointing, as the name implies, spears the tip of the pole, either straight out, upward, downward, or any direction.
Solo training with the pole involves repeating the basic points over and over until they become second nature. Most branches have a form to help remember the movements. In the Yuen Kay-San and Yip Man systems, this is a short set indexing only the core points and angles. In Siu Lam weng chun and some other systems, longer forms are used to help conditioning and to give ideas on combining the points. Equipment used to aid training includes suspending a small item (Chinese coin, ping pong ball, wood block, etc.) from a string and striking it with the spearing pole movement to develop accuracy. Small objects (in this case typically hard shelled nuts) can also be placed on the floor and crushed using a transitions from water dripping (wing) pole to hammering (point) pole. On the red junks, it was said performers used a dummy for pole practice that consisted of a wooden board with a half-dozen or so poles projecting from it. This dummy was then struck in a variety of ways by the pole user.
Partner training can begin with simple attack and counter drills, where each point is broken down and explored separately. When skill is achieved in this, combinations of points can be drilled and can progress until a freestyle exchange emerges. It is important not only to train pole vs. pole, but pole vs. knife as well so the practitioner can learn to cope with opponents with smaller weapons trying to get inside, past the functional range of the pole.
In application, it is said, “the pole does not make two sounds.” This highlights that a wing chun pole fighter should defend and counter in one motion. In other words, wound the opponent in the first move then apply a finishing movement if necessary. Due to the flexibility of wing chun training, skill achieved with the pole can be adapted to other classical weapons such as the spear, tiger fork, Kwan’s knife, etc. or to modern implements like the pool cue, gardening tools, or any relatively long, thin, single object.
The Double Knives
Gaun DoOne fable credits the transmission of the knives to Miu Tsui-Fa, daughter of Siu Lam elder Miu Hin and mother of the legendary Fung Sei-Yuk. In the story, Miu passed along her knife methods to Yim Wing-Chun, the student of Siu Lam elder Ng Mui. Most accounts, however, simply include the genesis of the wing chun knives along with that of the boxing skills, saying they evolved from the cooking cleavers (speculated to be the ancestor of this archetypal Southern weapon) or drummer’s butterfly knives used aboard the Red Junks. Since wing chun boxing and knives are almost inseparable, perhaps this makes sense. It has sometimes been wondered which came first, the wing chun boxing or knife methods, and thus which influenced the other. This is similar to the chicken and the egg, and we will likely never know for certain. It is possible that they influenced each other. In the hands of a skilled wing chun boxer the knives are easily assimilated and can be used with devastating results. Conversely, mastery of the knives can bring a frightening clarity to wing chun boxing methods.
Not much was recorded about the proficiency of the wing chun ancestors with the knives. Fok Bo-Chuen (student of Wong Wah-Bo and Painted Face Kam and teacher of Yuen Kay-San) was rumored to have been known by the nickname Double Knife Fok due to his skill with the weapon. Lao Dat-Sang, better known as Pao Fa Lien was said to have won several knife duels in Foshan, as was Yuen Kay-San’s elder brother and classmate Yuen Jai-Wan. Yuen Kay-San’s successor, Sum Nung, also made good use of the double knife methods with iron rods during the middle of the century. In modern times, students of Yip Man such as Hawkins Cheung have specialized in the weapon.
Kwun DoIn times past, the knives were often referred to by the more savage name of life-taking knives. Later, they were more often then not simply called double knives or parallel double knives (referring to the yin & yang nature of their changes). In modern times, the name given them by grandmaster Yip Man in Hong Kong, eight cutting knives, has become the most popular. It should be noted that some systems have maintained or re-incorporated Southern Siu Lam knives in their training. While some similarity exists, this article will focus on the Foshan wing chun knives proper.
Many of the boxing methods can be used with the knives, including dispersing, controlling, wing, protecting, obstructing, cultivating, and darting. Many of the more sophisticated movements are also possible, including stealing and leaking, cross shape, vertical shape, parallel shape, etc.
With the knife, the bottom of the blade and the unsharpened back are used for obstructing and intercepting. The hook of the handle can also be used, but only if traditional wing chun knives are employed (most knives will not have this type of handle). The upper part of the blade is used for slashing, while the tip is employed to stab.
Solo knife training also involves the individual perfection of each core knife point and the subsequent drilling of combinations. This can be done standing in place at first, but eventually includes movement forward and backward in all eight cardinal directions. While some branches have forms training for knives is believed this “separate technique” method of training was more application oriented and some systems like Leung Jan’s Gulao wing chun still make exclusive use of it. The Yuen Kay-San system of grandmaster Sum Nung also used this method at times to impart knife skills. It is known that grandmaster Yip Man had a core set of points used in flexible patterns which varied from student to student. This approach seems similar to the differences in the dummy set in Yip Man’s system. Although the core points of the knives were juxtaposed differently, all the forms appear to have virtually the same general points, disregarding some creative differences. As time went on, different knife form routines evolved from the separate techniques of his earliest students, to a relatively short set such as that of Tsui Sheung-Tin or Wang Kiu to a longer eight-section set seen from Wong Shun-Leung to Ho Kam-Ming’s time. Later, another eight-section set, with different choreography was passed to people ranging from Koo Sang to Leung Ting. Some also received a variation of this set which, for the first time, made use of flipping the knife backward along the forearm (previously unheard of in Foshan derived wing chun). Other branches, such as Pao Fa Lien, also made use of longer, more elaborate, knife sets. Some also made use of wooden, or even copper dummies to train the knife.
Bong DoRegardless of the training, loose or forms-based, long or short sets, the core points of the knife remain the same and need to be practiced and explored individually with a partner to achieve results. Again, similar to the pole, single movements can be used at first, increasing to combinations, and finally achieving a free flow as skill develops. In addition to knife vs. knife and knife vs. short staff, knife vs. pole training helps teach a practitioner how to bridge the gap against a long weapon.
Footwork is especially emphasized in the knives methods. An old Chinese martial arts saying of “shuang dao kan zou” (with double knives, observe the footwork) stresses the emphasis of footwork when working with the double knives. While some have claimed unique footwork in their wing chun lineages, when viewing the knife work of an advanced practitioner, it is apparent that most of the footwork of wing chun is emphasized in this training.
Knife application, as can be imagined, is very close to boxing but the blade of the weapon does change things considerably since very little contact is needed to inflict damage. “The knife does not have two methods” is a saying that refers to the lethality of the weapon. In an exchange, the wing chun knives practitioner immediately maims the hands of the attacker, and finishes him off in the same timing. Attacking and defending in one motion, blades in the hands of a skilled wing chun practitioner makes follow ups unnecessary. Training in the double knives can be adapted to other types of blades, rods, sticks, or other types of short objects, be they single or double, classical or modern.
We hope we have helped show that the weapons of wing chun are alive and well, having survived transmission from the Red Junks of the Cantonese Opera to the town of Foshan, through Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and other cities, to around the world. The only real secret is hard practice. The only true limitation is experience and imagination