Do You Train a System or a Style?

By: Grand Master Benny Meng


Current discussions and written treatises on martial arts training often treat the terms "Style" and "System" as interchangeable, yet they are not at all synonymous. A style is a form that is distinctive and identifiable as an artistic expression with characteristics particular to the artist. In contrast, a system is a combination of intricately related elements organized into a complex whole that produces results far greater than the mathematical sum of its individual parts. A style could also be a system, but most are not. They reflect some of the attributes of a system, but are not complete.

A complete system is one that at all times adheres to a consistent philosophy yielding practical combat applications, practical training methodologies, and a complete science with principles, concepts, strategies, and tactics that do not allow the outcome of an engagement to be determined by luck. Every aspect of a complete system must be consistent with every other part. A system's philosophy is what drives that consistency. Most martial arts studied today lack an overriding philosophy that guarantees consistency throughout training and application. They are best classified as styles rather than as systems.

Even modern day Wing Chun, which prides itself on its systematic attributes, may require closer scrutiny. As you are training it today, are you guided by an overriding philosophy that is consistent with every aspect of your training? Are your training methodologies completely consistent with your combat applications? For example, many "looping" exercises are employed to train muscle memory, but this looping would never be attempted or allowed in actual combat application. A consistent philosophy would dictate methodologies aligned directly with combat application, negating the need for deprogramming the looping from the practitioner's instinctive reactions before sending him off to battle. Does your training involve looping exercises? Are there so-called "transitional" movements in your forms that are not directly tied to combat applications? If so, your forms, philosophy, methodologies, and applications are not consistent with one another.

Shaolin Temple Wing Chun, as trained by today's Shaolin Wing Chun practitioners, is an example of a complete martial arts system. It has an overriding philosophy that keeps applications, methodologies, and employment of science consistent throughout training. Shaolin Wing Chun Martial Arts practitioners train every move at every level in exactly the same manner as they would use them on the battlefield. As a science, Wing Chun's logic flow is crucial to maintaining its integrity. The sequence of learning must follow this logic flow closely. The philosophy that guides this sequence is called "Saam Mouh Kiu" and it is deeply rooted in Shaolin tradition.

Within the Southern Shaolin Wing Chun Tong was a place used to train called the Saam Mouh Dei meaning "Three Connecting Grounds." There is a direct connection between this name and the three levels of reality practiced in Zen philosophy called Saam Mouh Kiu. These same three levels of Zen reality gave rise to Shaolin Wing Chun's way of viewing combat in the framework of three connecting bridges, also called Saam Mouh Kiu. The key to unlocking Shaolin Wing Chun as a combat system is the Wing Chun Formula, and the key to understanding the formula is the concept of time and space. The key to properly approaching the concept of time and space is embracing the philosophy of Saam Mouh Kiu.

When a Wing Chun fighter is in combat he goes through a progression of Ng Jun Chew Ming Joi Ying (5 Stages of combat). Within every stage of combat the fighter must recognize Saam Mouh Kiu at that particular moment in time. Saam Mouh Kiu as used in Wing Chun refers to three specific time frames. Sam Mouh Kiu is employed by a properly trained Wing Chun fighter to identify his opponent's knowledge of time and space, and from that determine which strategies and tactics to employ to ensure the enemy's self-destruction.

Saam Mouh Kiu is used in conjunction with the Wing Chun Formula and is supported by scientific principles and concepts. Together, they enable the Wing Chun fighter to completely understand both his and his opponent's strengths and weaknesses within the space and time of the confrontation. Saam Mouh Kiu as a Wing Chun concept posits that there are only three types of bridges, employing "time-frame" as the guide to which bridge is in play. This allows the Wing Chun practitioner to determine the time frame used in combat and to understand the true nature of that combat. Once the Wing Chun practitioner reaches a level of understanding Nature itself, this concept is no longer concerned with just techniques. It extends to his total interaction with the world around him. The Three connecting bridges of Saam Mouh Kiu are as follows:


  1. Fao Kiu - "Floating Bridge"
    Another frequently used expression of this same concept is "Hoi Fao" meaning "Illusion, cloudy, or unclear." Philosophically, the Fao Kiu stage is the stage of "Wandering." The level of one's existence is primarily at the basic subsistence level of Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs. There is no time for higher-level development or life. In terms of combat, Fao Kiu represents "Lucky Strike" time. At this stage the practitioner is violating the Wing Chun time frame. He possesses no realized comprehension of space or time. In a physical confrontation it would be the same as standing right in front of the guy and trading blows with him. This means the practitioner and his opponent can hit or kick each other as chance dictates. Fate will select the winner. Philosophically, they represent a stage where both combatants are unclear of their path or reason for existence. They exist in an illusion. As martial artists, they are unaware of the basics of time and space and have failed to recognize any higher level of knowledge.

  2. San Kiu - "Separate Bridge"
    This is also referred to as the "Awareness Stage." This stage represents partial nature and/or understanding of the "True Time Frame," but they have no concrete ability to identify and deal with the intricacies of the interactions between time and space. They cannot express both together in harmony. At any moment, they may be able express one or the other in their kung fu, but not both simultaneously. Philosophically, at this level practitioners are beyond the basic level of subsistence. They have the capacity and the time to engage in incomplete considerations of religion, and philosophy.


  1. Wing Kiu - "Everlasting Bridge"
    It is important to note the character for "Wing" is the exact same character employed in the original name of the Wing Chun System. It represents the everlasting nature of the real science upon which it is based. Wing Kiu is also referred to as the "Focus Stage." Another phrase used on the journey to this stage is "Hoi Gong" meaning "open light" or enlightenment. It is used in the Siu Nim Tau level of training to represent that the practitioner has been exposed to this idea (Nim) - he is aware of Saam Mouh Kiu, space and time, and the Wing Chun Formula and the relationships between each of them. Philosophically, the Wing Kiu stage reflects the practitioner's comprehension of the true reason for his own existence. He is approaching real enlightenment in terms of the universe surrounding him. His perceptions of his universe are in harmony with reality. In a physical confrontation, the practitioner's every motion is in harmony with space and time with no distortion of either. This is the highest level of combat skill. Harmony with reality replaces struggle. The opponent's own distortions defeat him while the practitioner maintains harmony with the realities of space and time.


As a martial artist are you training a "Style" or a "System"? Which bridge are you at now and where are you headed? Is your system complete enough to get you where you want to go? You will need to do some serious philosophical investigation to answer these questions. Shaolin's "Saam Mouh Kiu" gives you one framework for beginning that investigation.




 

THe three treasures of shaolin martial arts

By Grand Master Benny Meng

There are three characteristics that mark an art as belonging to the classification of Shaolin: Chan (Zen) philosophy, internal and external health development, and martial skill based on combat reality. We call these the three treasures of Shaolin.

The first treasure, Chan (Zen), is the heart of all Shaolin Kung Fu. Chan (Zen) places emphasis on instant awakening rooted in awareness of 'here and now'. Equally important is the Chan (Zen) mandate for practicality. This refers to Chan's (Zen) emphasis on understanding and relating to reality through the senses of the body and intuition in harmony rather than creating complex philosophical models of thought that are not directly tied to daily experience. Finally, Chan (Zen) insistence on 'completeness' refers to looking at issues or situations from all angles rather than one's personal, subjective, frame of reference.

The second treasure of Shaolin, internal and external health development, deals with keeping the body in good working order and living in harmony with the needs of the body. Medicinal and qigong practices are used to heal the body and maintain a proper internal functioning of the viscera in harmony with the muscles and bones. Forms achieve multiple aims from moving meditation to external strengthening of the body to internal conditioning of the viscera through static postures and rhythmic movements of the limbs.

The final treasure, martial skill, was also an important facet of Shaolin Chan (Zen). The body must be kept in balance and self-defense is necessary to keep the world in balance. Shaolin monks use the process of learning self-defense in addition to fighting scenarios to delve into their personal demons and attachments to root out the source of ignorance, fear and greed.

To consider a martial art to be original to Shaolin, it must contain Chan, health, and self-defense modalities. Further, these three components have to be united and consistent in terms of training methodologies, employment strategies, and philosophical focus.

FROM SHAOLIN TO WING CHUN

By: Grand Master Benny Meng and Matt Kwan

Ever since Wing Chun was introduced to the general public by Yip Man and was then later popularized by the international fame of Bruce Lee, Wing Chun has been spread around the world. Much of the history of Wing Chun is shrouded in myths of legendary characters that emerged some time after the burning of the Southern Shaolin temple in Southern China. One of the prime missions of the Ving Tsun Museum is to ferret out the myths and help the Wing Chun community as a whole find its historical roots. The process of determining history requires that we listen to many legends and cross-check them with all available documentation. The knowledge gained from this process is then widely shared through professional publications so that other scholars may dig even deeper until maximum accuracy is achieved.

This article is about another courageous Wing Chun family that has stepped forth to share its history and legends with the Ving Tsun Museum so that additional research and verification can be done by the scholars. The historical occurrences alleged represent radical departures from today’s commonly accepted legends. At best, they may lead to the real root of Wing Chun. At worst, they will generate a flurry of academic digging. Either result can only be beneficial to today’s practitioners of this amazingly scientific art form.

According to Hung Fa Yi Kuen traditions, the history of Wing Chun begins in the Shaolin temple with the culmination of hundreds of years of martial arts experience. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw a blossoming of Shaolin martial arts as never before. Almost all the residents of Shaolin took up Wushu and a powerful detachment of several hundred warrior-monks was organized. The Ming government treasured the warrior-monks, sending them on expeditions to border areas. After the Manchurians conquered China, the remnants of the Ming family encouraged export of the secret knowledge of Shaolin fighting arts to rebel troops to defend the Han nation and to try to restore the Ming regime. This time period was known as the Ching Dynasty.

The conquest of China by the Manchu in the 17th century and harsh actions created distrust among the people towards the Ching government. The Manchu, excellent warriors in their own right, kept the Ming dissidents under control, imposing on all the badge of subservience, the “queue” which symbolized for them a horse’s tail. Animosity and discontentment towards the Manchurians became more visible. Many boxers joined various secret societies hoping to return the Ming to power. Formation of underground movements were the precursory events that brought Wing Chun and many other Chinese martial art styles in existence. Thousands from the north retreated southward to both southern China and Taiwan, disseminating their martial arts skills as they went. Although unsuccessful in their aims, the boxers seeking a return of the Ming did achieve a result. They spread the Shaolin boxing doctrines to all corners of China.

The Hung Fa Yi Kuen ancestors claim there were two significant people who set the stage for Wing Chun and many other Chinese martial art styles to flourish. The first significant person was a Buddhist monk from Northern Shaolin temple, his name was Chiu Yuen. In Hung Fa Yi lore, he played the leading role in keeping the underground Anti-Manchurian activities alive. Unknown to the Manchurians, Chiu Yuen’s real identity was Chu Ming, one of the last surviving descendants of the Ming Dynasty Royal Chu family. It was his Anti-Manchurian activities, as well as his family ties to the old regime, that led to the eventual burning of the Shaolin temples by the Manchurian Soldiers.

The second person was known as Da Jung. Originally he was a Ming military officer from Northern China that was forced to flee south. Later he became a monk at the Southern Shaolin temple in Fukien. Da Jung’s real name is unknown, but in the history of Chinese martial arts he is considered “Joi Si” or First Leader because he was the first person to extend Chinese Kung Fu to Southern Shaolin. Until his arrival, Southern Shaolin was not known for its martial arts. He organized what was called the Buddhist Hung Moon organization. This was a secret society formed in the Shaolin to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. The Buddhist Hung Moon was the first Buddhist political organization that was loyal to the Ming regime. This event is known in Hung Fa Yi Kuen as a milestone in Chinese Kung Fu because not only did he bring martial arts to Southern Shaolin (according to their lore), but he also bridged the gap between Northern Shaolin and Southern Shaolin.

Also during this time, Cheng Sing Kung, one of the last surviving Ming generals, fled to the island of Formosa taking it over from the Dutch in 1662. It was then that he established the revolutionary society Tien Dei Wui {Heaven and Earth society} which was the counterpart of the Hung Fa Wui {Red Flower Society} on the mainland. The Hung Fa Wui was an underground Anti-Manchurian society based in Shaolin. In Shaolin, the Hung Fa Wui had a special gathering place called the Hung Fa Ting {Red Flower Court}. This was a great meeting hall where Ming loyalists gathered and discussed political strategies to overthrow the Manchurians and the fall of the Ching Dynasty.

Early in the 1700’s, during the reign of Emperor K’ang Hsi (1662-1723), the Manchurians became concerned about the Shaolin Temple’s rebellious activities as well as their advanced fighting abilities and continued development of their martial arts system. Under the decision to eliminate the threat of these rebels and their rebel leaders, the Manchurians sought to exterminate the Shaolin monks to prevent them from spreading their martial arts skills and rebellious activities. Eventually the Southern Shaolin Temple was burned and destroyed.

The Shaolin Temple was not only a repository of martial arts knowledge and rigorous training academy but, as important, a stimulus for other marital art styles. Many of the systems today were born out of Shaolin roots. Prior to the destruction of the Shaolin Temples, a comprehensive and high level martial art system was developed which was formulated through multiple generations of Shaolin knowledge and experience. The Hung Fa Yi Kuen lineage believes the ultimate goal was to create a new system which could be used to defeat the classical styles. In pursuit of that goal, the elders shared their most advanced principles and strategies and work began on the new style. This martial art system latter became known as Wing Chun, named after the Wing Chun Tong {Everlasting Spring Hall} in the Shaolin Temple. As with all high level Shaolin knowledge, this new art was conducted under secrecy, a “Silent Code”. In order to hide the new revolutionary fighting art’s identity and origin, a fictional person named Yim Wing Chun and story were created to cover up the original nature of the art.

After the destruction of the Shaolin Temple and its Wing Chun Tong, the character of Wing used for this new art was changed from “Wing” meaning “always, perpetual, or everlasting” to “Wing” meaning “to recite, sing, praise, or chant.” Chan Buddhism is based on oral communication to pass on its teachings. The character “Chun” meaning “spring, a time of new growth”, stayed the same. The Han nation was seen by many as the spring of Chinese culture. By changing the characters, the Ming loyalists were reminded to pass on the tradition and secrets orally while working to rebuild the Ming government. The Chinese word “Yim” means “to prohibit or secret”. By adding Yim to Wing Chun, the meaning was “to be discrete, secret, and pass on the revolutionary art orally”. To insure that the art was not abused or to fall into the wrong hands, it was never documented.

During that time it was strictly forbidden to teach or reveal the art to anyone that didn’t belong to the secret societies or were non-Han. Because of this reason, Wing Chun took on a mysterious persona. Many years later, a famous novel writer wrote a martial art fiction titled 10,000 Year Ching. In the novel, it talks about Ng Mui, Chee Sim, Hung Hei Goon, and Fung Sai Yuk. Many fairy tales and stories about Hung Kuen and Wing Chun were based on this novel. With each telling of the story from the novel, embellishments and exaggerations were added until the story reached the level of a fairy tale. Due to the nature of secret societies, these fictional stories and legends came to be the accepted truth as to the creation of Wing Chun.

After the destruction of Shaolin Temple, the connection between the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) and the Tien Dei Wui (Heaven and Earth Society) was opened up to the ordinary people in the involvement of overthrowing the Ching Dynasty. Their famous battle cry was, “Overthrow the Ching and Restore the Ming”. New secret societies emerged after the Hung Fu Ting was destroyed. The three major secret societies that surfaced and gained public attention were the Triads {Three Harmonies}, the Gua Lo Wui {Brotherhood}, and the Dai Doe Wui {Big Sword Society}.

Of those who survived the Manchurian massacres, two Shaolin disciples escaped and were able to keep the Wing Chun system alive. The senior, a monk, was the twenty-second generation Shaolin Grandmaster, Yat Chum Dai Si. The other, his disciple, was named Cheung Ng.

Not much is known about the history of Yat Chum Dai Si besides the knowledge that he was originally a high level monk from Northern Shaolin which later migrated to Southern Shaolin to join the efforts to help restore the Ming Dynasty. Cheung Ng, unsurpassed in literature, military skills, and dramatic opera, was originally a native of Hanbuck in Northern China. It was said that he had come from a family of generations of military men serving the Ming regime until the Manchurians killed his family. Seeking refuge and fleeing persecution, Cheung Ng fled to Northern Shaolin to become a monk. After spending some time in Northern Shaolin, he heard of the gatherings in Southern Shaolin in a place called the Hung Fa Ting and that their purpose was to restore the Ming regime. He then left Northern Shaolin to join the rebels in Southern Shaolin where he met the Shaolin Grandmaster Yat Chum Dai Si. It was there that he began his studies of the art that was to become Wing Chun. Before the Grandmaster’s death, Grandmaster Yat Chun Dai Si passed on his high level Wing Chun knowledge to Cheung Ng.

After the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple, Cheung Ng fled to Guangdong province. In order to keep his identity and Shaolin background from the Manchurian government, Cheung Ng founded the Red Boat Opera Troupe in Futsan. Known for its discipline and rules of conduct, the Red Boat Opera Troupe was an organization of talented stage performers who traveled in up and down the rivers of Southern China in red boats. This time period around the mid-to-late-1700s was known as the Red Boat Period.

During his travels with the Red Boat Opera Troupe, Cheung Ng soon became known as “Tan Sao Ng” from the Opera Troupe because of his skillful usage of the dispersing hand maneuver while he demonstrated his marital arts mastery to subdue opponents during challenges. (“Tan Sao” means “dispersing hand”.)

Although the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) was destroyed, Tan Sao Ng continued his mission to unite the people against the Manchurians to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. He established the Hung Fa Wui Goon troop {Red Flower Union} in memory of the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) and the Hung Fa Ting which was destroyed at Shaolin Temple. The Hung Fa Wui Goon outwardly appeared as a traveling opera troop, but was actually a collection of secret society members that organized underground activities throughout China. Tan Sao Ng was very selective before he allowed any initiates to become a member. The initiates must prove themselves to be loyal and trust-worthy then after they must take 36 oaths and the 21 moral codes as well as the Secret Society Ritual of drawing blood.

The Hung Fa Wui Goon troop members had the perfect disguise. As an Opera troop performer, Hung Fa Wui Goon members were able to travel from place to place unquestioned by the authorities. By day, they would perform operas and by night, they would gather with local underground organizations to coordinate antigovernment activities. These were very dangerous and turbulent times for anyone connected to Shaolin or any underground society. If discovered as a member of any underground movement, the Manchurians would immediately execute him so keeping anonymity was very important.

Only select members of the Hung Fa Wui Goon troop were taught by Tan Sao Ng which were the first generation disciples of Wing Chun from the opera. Of those select students, few disciples were significant in the contribution to Wing Chun’s history: Hung Gun Biu {Red Bandanna Biu}, Wong Wah Bo, Leung Yee Tei, and Dai Fa Min Kam {Painted Face Kam}. It is at this time that the art of Wing Chun continued to evolve, change, and adapt for several reasons. First of all, not all the disciples of Cheung Ng were members of the secret society. Due to the length of time spent with Cheung Ng and his need to keep the style hidden, not all his disciples shared the same experiences. Second, the Opera was a melting pot of both Northern and Southern Shaolin providing the performers access to a wide range of ideas, techniques, and training methods. This led some disciples to change and adapt according to their environment on the Red Boats and the influence of different martial art systems all present during that time.

Eventually the Manchurians suspected the Red Boat Opera Junks for supporting Anti-Manchurian activities. They began hunting for Anti-Manchurian collaborators. For Tan Sao Ng, it became very clear that it was time to change his identity once more and retreat into the security of the Secret Society underground.

Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai continued performing and were openly known for their Wing Chun skills. Dai Fa Min Kam left the opera troop some time later to teach Wing Chun privately. Hung Gun Biu, having been a distant relative of Tan Sao Ng, retreated with Tan Sao Ng into the underground. Hung Gun Biu continued being active in the Anti-Manchurian affairs as well as receiving the full knowledge of Wing Chun by Tan Sao Ng taught to him to its entirety and in full confidence. Hung Gun Biu’s lineage followed a tradition to pass down the complete system only to family members who took a traditional ceremonial Shaolin vow of secrecy.

This lineage became known as Hung Suen {Red Boat} Wing Chun to the public, but it was referred to as Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun to the secret society of the past. The name “Hung Fa Yi” was used in reverence, as was the name the “Hung Fa Wui Goon” chosen by Tan Sao Ng, to remind the Wing Chun descendants of the direct connection from the Hung Fa Ting and the Hung Fa Wui than was established in Southern Shaolin.

A generation later, many of the Hung Gun Biu’s Secret Society descendants banded together in secret to fight for their country against the eight foreign countries that had slowly exploited China during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British, Japanese, Russian, Germans, and the Americans. Many of Hung Gun Biu’s descendants fought and died with dignity for their country during the Boxer Rebellion.

Hung Gun Biu’s lineage continued during the early 1800’s through his relative Cheung Gung, who passed on his knowledge and experience to his great nephew, Wang Ting. Wang Ting taught his son, Dr. Wang Ming of Saiquan, China. Dr. Wang Ming taught the entire system with its original concepts to only four disciples. One of these disciples was Gee. Gee comes from a family of great martial artist reaching back to the Song Dynasty. At the age of 5, Gee started his martial art training under the tutelage of his father. While attaining mastery of the various styles in his Kung Fu family lineage, Gee demonstrated an affinity and flair for swordsmanship. He is an accomplished practitioner and instructor of traditional Kung Fu weapons styles. At age 13, Gee impressed Dr. Wang as they became acquainted while training daily in a park. Gee became the last of Dr. Wang’s four disciples who received full training in Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen. Gee has been teaching since his move to the US in 1975. Traditionally, Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen has been taught primarily from father to son and, until instruction of Gee by Dr. Ming Wang, was never taught outside the family. In order to preserve his art and to honor his Kung Fu lineage, Gee has decided to pass on his knowledge to students who have a dedicated interest in this Wing Chun style. This is the first time that Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen has been taught outside of China.

The Ving Tsun Museum would like to thank Gee for bravely sharing his family lore with the Wing Chun world so that academic work on the roots of Wing Chun can continue. He has done so with the hope that other Wing Chun families will share their lore as well. Combined, we should be able to give enough information to the scholars of today to piece together the real history of our roots and lay many legends to rest.