Lessons from Kenneth Chung - January 1993
By Ray Van Raamsdonk
I first heard about Kenneth Chung in 1982 when I visited Eddie Chong's school in San Francisco. I was told that you could hear the air whip from his punch and that every kind of kick that Eddie threw at him was easily handled with just the PoPai movement from Wing Chun. That's all I knew.
In 1992 I decided to take a holiday in San Francisco and managed to locate one of Ken's students through whom I eventually connected with Ken. I explained we were not maniacs and sincerely wanted to improve our art. So Ken agreed to meet me. I phoned John Adams, one of Ken's students and asked, "What was good about Ken, anyway?" John told me he was very very soft and he could cut through you like a hot knife cuts through butter. I had already read an article about Ken in Inside Kung Fu and had a good impression already. But I wanted to pin down why he was good. Our club already stressed a good stance, accurate angles, suppleness in the touch, stickiness and proper training during the Chi sau and not just wild fighting. From our experience, some of us were not that bad. So I wondered how could Ken's stuff be really different?
I was to find out that Ken was a master of the soft approach. He was what I had in mind for the ideal master. Many martial artists can totally demolish their opponent's, but the master in my mind can do so with perfect control, with relaxation, without the need to intimidate or hurt the student in any way. Is this an unrealistic movie master image? I didn't think so because we do this to beginner students all the time. So naturally a good master should be able to do the same to us. More important to us though was not the master's fighting prowess but the master's ability to improve our skill so that we could also reach mastery level. Kenneth Chung was humble in my opinion. He felt he was good, he didn't claim to be the best and he said, "Just call me Ken."
Ken suggested a two hour private lesson in order for him to explain his Wing Chun method to me. The first thing he said was, "I want to feel your touch." You can talk all you want but you can't hide your lack of skill when you are in contact with an expert. The first thing Ken did was to uproot me effortlessly. No one had done that to me in a lot of years. I already learned the value of a good stance from Karate in 1968, from Hung style Kung Fu in 1969, from Tai Chi in 1975 and from Wing Chun after that. Apparently my stance was still not good enough. Next he asked me to do something. I thought I would be able to do something because if there is an arm sticking out then I can always apply Pak sau or Lap sau. Anything stiff I could jerk. To my surprise I had nothing to work with. Ken offered me no resistance whatsoever. He was totally relaxed the whole time. Never did he stiffen a muscle even for an instant. My success rate was zero percent. In our club we practiced pretty fast hands but as soon as I would even think of starting something with Ken, I was already countered. A flurry of movements could never even start. Ken said, "You guys have very flowery hands." We keep our attacks simple but Ken's were even simpler. When Ken moved there were no signals, nothing moved. He hit powerfully and effortlessly. He did not intimidate me, he handled me with masterful skill. Ken was always one step ahead. Ken showed me many many things but when I was leaving he said, "Really, the only important thing to work on is the stance." Where have I heard that before? Ken did not teach me any specific techniques, nor did he show me any drills. He also didn't hold anything back. There just were no secret moves. Yet my Wing Chun improved significantly in just two hours. When I got back to the club I had no new moves to show but my way of doing the actions I knew before had changed for the better. Having hands on practice with an expert and having the right mental concept is what made the difference. Whatever I told the club, they all decided that we should get Ken to Victoria for a seminar. So in January of 1993 Ken agreed to visit us. I found that Ken could talk Wing Chun nonstop for almost 24 hours of the day. He was like an ocean of knowledge. If we could absorb it, he was happy to give it. He didn't believe in the concept that you have to hide things in Wing Chun. Ken thought only if your Wing Chun was limited, would you have to hide that fact. Nothing replaces a real seminar but here are just a few tips that Ken passed on to our club members. Maybe these will also help someone else, then again maybe we are the only one's with imperfect technique. What I found most beneficial about Ken's teaching was that he tried to improve our skill. He didn't just introduce "more new things" but he tried to improve the way we did our Wing Chun. I would say that the junior members of the club did not quite appreciate Ken but the senior members were convinced it was the way to go. Ken's knowledge was at a very high level but his movements were so simple. So here are a few tips from Ken. Hopefully I got most of the points noted down correctly. Any errors are mine.
- Don't be greedy with the hits. Often people are already hit without realizing it.
- You don't always have to strike high.This exposes you to low hits.
- Many people have no rooting. The stance is weak, not sunken. The knees should be in. You should feel like you are melting into the ground. You can practice for a lifetime but if your stance is poor you will have wasted all of your effort. If you meet the right Wing Chun guy, you will be in big trouble.
- Don't act before you know what is going on. You must feel what is happening first. People act before they feel. Random flurries won't work. You can't just rely on speed.
- The head should not be forward. Keep the head back or it will get hit and it also brings the whole posture down to stiffen up the hands. Keep the head up and rely on your touch.
- Many students use too much force. Remember, Wing Chun is a ladies style and therefore brutal energy or brute strength should not be used. We are all getting older, some day you can no longer rely on your muscular strength. The speed and power approach is limited. You can only take that approach so far. I have yet to see a limit in the soft approach.
- It is important to connect the hands with the feet. Many people get shoved back instead of being able to neutralize the force by absorbing it or by turning the stance. Stance training, such as stepping and turning is very important.
- When the opponent retreats, don't just stand there. You must come forward. If you stand there you will get kicked.
- Most people's hitting is too tense and relies too much on muscle power. Yip Man was 120 pounds and five feet four inches tall. He had a very heavy but relaxed hitting power. When you feel my force you will feel it is very soft but yet it is very substantial. It has a bite which you cannot ignore. The force doesn't come from tensing, it doesn't come from speed.
- The shoulders should not come forward. They should stay back. Practice the first set slowly in the mirror and watch that the shoulders stay back.
- Face the opponent square and hit down the centerline. Face the opponent properly first before you hit.
- Don't chase the opponent's hands. Just hit the central axis of the opponent.
- Flowery movements are not good in Wing Chun. Simple connected movements will do.
- Sore shoulders come fom trying to fight against energy. You should not lift the Bong sau, it should spiral forward with minimal shoulder use.
- Try to use the concept of neutralizing force along the tangent of a circle. The circle can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal.
- Many people apply their energy at the wrong moment. Try to feel when is the best time to apply your energy. Try to feel when the opponent's energy starts up.
- Don't push the force away. When nearly all students apply the Pak sau, the Bong sau, the Fook sau, the PoPai, they are pushing the force away. They are scared of the force, they want to get rid of that force. Instead you should accept that force, welcome that force. The principle in Wing Chun is "Receive what comes." Receive means to really accept it, don't push it away.
- When you are studying Wing Chun, don't think about weight lifting, about tournament competition, about self defense, about the other styles. This is going off the Wing Chun path. Your training will take much longer if you do. First pack in the proper Wing Chun concepts. Get the Wing Chun skill, then think about self defence.
- Most people's fighting is too fast for them to realize what is going on. They should feel what is going on first. Don't just move in random ways. Every action in Wing Chun should produce a result. Don't just play with hands (Note: Wong Shun Leung also told us: don't just play with hands).
- Most students (in our club) are too tense. You have to constantly remind yourself to relax. The tense way cannot work. You will get tired and it will fail against strength.
- It will take ½ of a year to change from your old habits to new habits. Changing habits starts with having the proper concept in your mind.
- The sets or forms should be performed slower and softer. The first set should take 20 minutes to perform. More is of no benefit. When the Tan sau comes out, you should not see it visibly move. Similarly when the Fook sau goes back, you should not see it visibly move.
- Use "wet noodle" energy, not brutal energy.
- Proper standing and turning will develop muscles which you have not so far developed. These are around the knee area. Without these muscles, your stance will be weak. The slow first set Tan sau, Fook sau sequence also develops muscles around the elbow area which you cannot see. The Wing Chun power is hidden from view. We do not want large bicep muscles. Repetition is the the key.
- Try to relax, slow down, be soft. Find out what is going on.
- Position comes first by training the form accurately. Without proper position your hitting accuracy will be off and your power transfer will be reduced. Without proper position, you cannot neutralize force. Without proper position, you will be off balanced. Proper position comes from performing the first set accurately in front of a mirror. Sensitivity to force comes next. This comes over a long period of time from slow sticking hands practice. Timing comes next. Power comes last. Speed comes before power.
- In fighting, don't trade punches with your opponent, worry about your defense first.
- Always travel the shortest distance which is the straight center line. The opponent can start first but we get there sooner.
- With age your body deteriorates. You cannot rely on muscle power. You must rely on position and sensitivity. Every opponent has weak points. You must find the weak points. A larger opponent does not have the advantage with position and sensitivity.
- With protection, the larger opponent will win. Brute force methods have the advantage in this case. For Wing Chun, it is more fair on the street with no protection. The smaller person cannot have a good chance against a larger opponent with protection. Wing Chun is sneaky. It uses the surprise element.
- You cannot just rush into a kick. If he can kick you, you can kick him. If he can punch you, you can punch him. When he lifts the leg to kick, you can lift the leg to kick his supporting leg or groin or shin area. Then step in.
- You should hit through the person's body, not aim for the surface. It is where the energy is applied that makes the difference. A chop to the shoulder is different than a palm hit to the front of the body. It takes 20 pounds of force to smash a nose. A small person cannot play around but must hit seriously.
- If you are lazy, you won't learn much. If you are too greedy and want too much, you will also stop your progress.
- If the attack is not committed, then don't react. With a commited punch or kick, you can react and win because the opponent cannot recover. The centerline path will get you there before him.
- Don't look at your hands. Feel what is going on. Don't look down.
- In Wing Chun we do not talk in terms of Chi or internal energy or in terms of isotonic or isometric exercise.
- It doesn't matter who learned from who in the Wing Chun world. What matters is how much training you have put in. How good is your skill?
- With the external method of training Wing Chun, you will reach your limit very fast. You can train for ten years, then all of a sudden, someone with one years training can match your skill. You will wonder what happened to those nine years?
- I learned from Leung Sheung from 1962 to 1967, for 5 years. Then again from 1968 to 1972 for another 5 years. Leung Sheung always pushed the soft way. At first many of us did not appreciate his words. It takes a long time to realize the proper way. Words cannot adequately describe the way. You have to feel it before you can understand. (Note: Ken does pure Wing Chun but has had experience with some of the top people in Chen style Tai Chi. This experience convinced him even more that he is on the right track.)
- Remember Wing Chun stresses the soft touch. It is a woman's style. Yip Man was a small man but none could touch him. Leung Sheung was a large man so why should he learn from a small man? Wing Chun is not an externally powerful style. Don't think power, speed and beautiful form. We don't want the pumping iron kind of energy. We acquire energy through the soft touch. In Wing Chun you cannot see the muscles that are developed. Bicep muscle build up is not required.
- In Wing Chun we are always ready to fight. We do not need to warm up, take off our glasses and get into a strong fighting pose.
- Whether you can defend yourself depends on who your opponent is. First pack in your Wing Chun skill, then worry about defence.
- Ken said he still has to repeat the same advice to his students even after ten years. The students get pressured by outside forces (martial arts, movies, articles) to drift away from the Wing Chun path. They have to be constantly reminded of the same thing over and over again like a broken record. Ken said the soft touch works. Plant this seed in your head.
- It is very difficult to break down an existing structure. If you come to Wing Chun from another martial art, it is very difficult to change you. It is easier to build a structure from the ground up (someone who knows nothing) than to break down your old habits, your old prejudices. It takes at least two years to build a proper foundation. It takes six months of effort to break a two year habit.
- Ken said the first set of Wing Chun looks stupid to others but it is very good martial art. After 15 minutes of proper first set training, you should feel very warm.
The above is only a small sampling of some of the kinds of things that Kenneth Chung said. Each point you have probably heard before. Every point you may think is common sense, but when students apply their Wing Chun, all this common sense goes out the window in the heat of battle. Ken could apply what he said. It is only when I felt how Ken performed his Wing Chun that I started to appreciate many of the things I had heard before. Even videos do not do the job. One of our students had seen Ken in a video and didn't think that much of it. He said, "I don't really go for the soft stuff. You need a balance, too much Yin is bad." When this student met Ken, the student was totally shocked at how good Ken really was and how little he himself knew about Wing Chun. The student used to think he was good. Now he was embarassed at how little he knew.
From my analysis of Ken Chung, I would say his Wing Chun is a feeling art. Often, when two people do Wing Chun drills, the position, the feeling, and the timing will interact in the wrong way. However both people will be having a good time but are really learning nothing. In Ken's mind the most important training at the start is correct positioning. Correct positioning starts with the correct stance. Without the stance being correct the hands and feet will not be able to coordinate in the proper way. The drills will turn into disconnected hand exercises which make the practitioners think they are learning something but they are not. They are feeding their ego by thinking, "Oh, my hands are getting pretty good!"
When the position is correct it means the stance, the arm angles, and the centerline are accurate, then you are ready to work on the second step which is to apply the feeling to tell you when and how to change your structure to match your opponent's structure. We must feel what is happening first, then change our structure to the best one to match the opponent's structure. This part of the training is difficult to get without one on one practice with someone who has got it. For this reason Ken wanted us to feel him, to probe and experiment with him so that we could feel how he is reacting and changing according to the input we give him. When we try to push him, pull him, disengage from him, turn our stance on him, how does he react? What does he change to? What movements change to what other movements and why? This feeling part must be practiced very slowly over a long period of time before the proper angle and pressures are applied.
When the position is correct, the proper feeling can be applied. When the position and relaxation levels are good, then the timing can be applied. Timing means: during what part of the opponent's energy cycle do you apply your energy? When working with Ken he will let you feel the peaks and valleys of his energy and guide you when to apply your movement. He will point out, if you are using too much strength or too little strength, or you are leaning forward, or your stance is not sunk or your head is not back, or your hip is not straight. He can make you feel the difference. It is the feeling element which is very important. A two person drill without concern for these proper elements will not lead to a good level of skill. Ken knew we did many drills but the proper position, the feeling and the timing were not correct. Therefore he wanted us to feel these things on him first so that we could be convinced that we must change to improve.
Ken was trying to tell us the proper concept: first intellectually, second by having us feel it, and third by telling us his personal experience. From his experience, people can practice very hard for years and years without getting anywhere because they have the wrong concept. I think in Ken's mind, just doing drills, leads to an unconnected art. Instead, all positions, feelings and concepts should be linked together within the framework of sticking hands. This should be practiced very slowly at first.
Note: Without having had the proper foundation taught to me in the first place, I would have had a difficult time to appreciate the art which Ken displayed. Sometimes different people have to tell you the same thing before it starts to sink in.