The ancient principles of Wing Chun Kung Fu art work just like they did 200 years in the past. Following the principles makes difficult actions easy. Tetyana Kushniruk knows this, as she performs technically demanding piano pieces with the aid of the Chinese martial art.
Among all the other martial arts, Wing Chun Kung Fu is said to be a system like no other. As an art born in China before the age of written history, Wing Chun was kept hidden within lineages and inside Chinese families.
Training the basics of Traditional Wing Chun for three years myself, I was never handed secret scrolls or ancient manuscripts. More like a mystery, if you accept what is said in The Tao of Wing Chun, Wing Chun is not a sport or a style for fighting, nor is the art presented correctly in most movies or books that seek to represent it.
Even today, with Kung Fu styles spreading all over the world, there are many different lineages and ideas on what the art is about. In the Traditional style, I have met people who train many hours every day, make Wing Chun part of their lifestyle and develop the art even further. What makes these people tick in the beat of Wing Chun?
For Tetyana Kushniruk, my instructor of the art and a student of classical piano performance in Oulu University of Applied Sciences, Wing Chun is and has always been about her true calling, piano. What is more, Kushniruk says it is because of her teachers, like Wing Chun master Igor Tunik, that she can even call herself a pianist.
The coming semester is Kushniruk’s last studying in Oulu, and her drive is for performance. When I meet her, she has just played her latest concert in one of the city’s churches the previous day. I recall Kushniruk’s fingers dance on the keys, as I saw her once performing in a well-styled outfit.
Besides the studies with piano, Kushniruk has practiced a martial art regularly for over five years. First two years in Igor Tunik’s Wing Chun Academy in Ukraine created a drive that she did not leave behind when she moved to Finland three years ago.
Kushniruk agrees that there is more in the art that meets the eye. “Wing Chun is a very important part of my backstage work”, she tells me. “At this point I am especially working on how to cope with extreme situations. In my case, extreme situation is when my the heartbeat is too high.”
Knowing how to stay within the range of an adequate heartbeat is super-important for a pianist, Kushniruk tells me. The higher the heartbeat goes, the less responsive the body and the pianist’s fingers become. To be able to play demanding pieces well, she needs to stay as calm and relaxed as possible while performing on stage.
Her drive to be better on stage reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. The man is said to have gone from a certain downfall to glory with the aid of Wing Chun.
Kushniruk’s matter-of-fact attitude is not faltered, however, and she disagrees with me when I say her work sounds awesome. “Performing is scary sometimes”, she says, “but it’s very important to me. I want to be as good as possible. And I need to perform to learn how to perform.”
I recall there is nothing fancy in our Wing Chun practices, either. Even though Wing Chun has belt-like sashes and many practitioners wear special outfits, we didn’t have any. Before a session I put on sneakers and a t-shirt decorated with the school’s logo. We exchange bows when a session begins, and then you are on it. It makes no difference whether we are training in a big hall or at a small office.
What am I to say. The Wing Chun Academy in Ukraine, near the heart of Kiev, is 1700 km away from Oulu.
Even further away, in Columbia Maryland, a suburb just outside Washington D.C. in the USA, Shannon J. Moore, an entrepreneur and a master in Wing Chun begins his day. Like almost every day, Moore opens the doors of Columbia Martial Arts Center in Shaker Drive. At the center halls, he teaches and practices Wing Chun six days per week, from four to six hours a day. The students are coming.
Teaching wing chun as a dynamic application he calls Dynamic Wing Chun, Moore conducts workshops, summer camps, and seminars. Except for the few years of US economic downfall, Moore has drawn his main income from the school since 2004. That is when Moore left his work at a successful telecommunication company. Now he is following his dream.
“Teaching and cultivating martial artists, and building a business around that passion, that is who I am”, Moore says. “It is definitely not easy, but I never get sick of it, even when I am teaching all the classes.”
Getting serious with Judo when he was 13 years old, Moore has gained more than enough high levels and black belts in different martial arts, including Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin Tien Shan Pai, and Jeet Kune Do. In 1986 he started Wing Chun.
“I am now 50, so that is 37 years in martial arts total, 26 of that in Traditional Wing Chun. I’d say that’s pretty serious, or a really bad old joke”, Moore says and laughs.
As is common with many martial arts fighters, Moore’s drive for martial arts started with the well-known kick-ass actor Bruce Lee. Moore was ten years old at the time. “When I saw how Bruce Lee could use his feet like his hands, I was sold. Almost immediately, I signed up for Judo lessons. At the time, it didn’t matter which style. I didn’t know the difference.”
Bruce Lee is best known for his career in kung fu movies like Enter the Dragon. In smaller circles he was also known as the creator of Jeet Kune Do. When Moore found out that Wing Chun was the core in Bruce Lee’s art, he joined a school in Columbia.
Soon Moore became a student of William Cheung, the current grand master of Traditional Wing Chun. This was, he says, the ignition point for his passion for the art.
Amongst Internet’s martial arts circles, the name of William Cheung is well known and hotly debated. Cheung’s Traditional Wing Chun style is argued either to be the one true style in martial arts, or a false one. Discussions whether Cheung’s style is the legacy of Ip Man, the legendary master of Wing Chun, go on with ill-mannered comments.
Moore tells me the same happens in every other martial art, but it is especially visible with Wing Chun.
“This debate has caused an unnecessary division amongst practitioners and for a long time robbed them of great insight from outside expressions”, Moore says. “I believe the diversity of approaches is a good thing. It allows for depth and growth amongst all expressions of wing chun.”
Putting aside the origins question, in early 1970’s William Cheung had already set up a Traditional Wing Chun school in Melbourne, Australia, as is written in the school’s own website. From their headquarters in the Southern Australian metropolis, the school and its Global Association of Traditional Wing Chun have grown to include over 40 different schools worldwide.
Perth Wing Chun Academy is located on the west coast of Australia. After the holiday season, the school is getting ready for the first beginners’ course of the year.
The heat is on. It is summer, and students are training in the shade of trees. With the traffic of trainers, it is hard to believe the school started as one man’s dream only some fifteen years ago.
Nowadays the school is run by a new generation of wing chunists like Daniel King, a young master and instructor who reminds me of Bruce Lee. King has trained in the academy for ten years, and since last October, he started working as a full-time entrepreneur in the Academy of Perth.
“There is so much to learn!” King says, when talk moves onto business. “I would say I spend more time focusing on the business these days than I do teaching and training. Not to say I don’t train a lot. There isn’t a day when I’m not training, teaching students, thinking about Wing Chun, or visualizing the future of the Perth Wing Chun Academy.”
King mentions the word persistence many times over our talk. Most vividly he tells me about his first months training and his struggle to learn the basics of Wing Chun, especially the footwork.
“One of the kids in the class even laughed at me because I was that bad. I really had no idea what I was doing!” However, after years of practice and training, grandmaster William Cheung personally graded him to the master level. “It just goes to show that if you persist in training, you can achieve anything”, King tells me.
With this spirit, the young master is constantly improving himself as well as his business. Together with other instructors and students, King is quickly building the Academy of Perth to an Australia’s version of Shaolin temple.
When I ask what that means, King describes a large premise with areas of greens and trees, buildings of multiple training halls and live-in accommodation for both teachers and students. Exactly like the Shaolin temple, he says.
“I feel a lot of martial artists have lost the connection with the earth”, King says. “You see people training inside buildings, driving cars, living in houses. Not getting out into the real world. I want to bring back this connection.”
King has not chosen The Shaolin temple at random. The original monastery site in the mountains of Henan province, China, shares into 200 years of China’s history, culture and its martial styles.
Despite the mismatch of oral histories about the origin of wing chun, most of the sources point back to these temples of Zen Buddhism. Even today, monks are living there, routinely meditating and practicing their own form of shaolin kung fu.
Shannon Moore, who himself trained with the Shaolin monks, says history is an important way to understand Wing Chun’s conception and evolution. “The originators of Wing Chun were genius in my opinion”, Moore says. “They realized that creating just another style of martial arts was not enough.”
Moore describes how Wing Chun works as an operating system based on human biomechanics and principles of physics. Much like in a smartphone, the system in Wing Chun can continually evolve and still be the same simple platform.
“Our operating system is the Siu Lim Tao form”, Moore says. “It gives us our basic functions, shapes, energy and a platform to build and execute techniques.”
Siu Lim Tao is the first form taught to a Wing Chun student. In a standing stance, you execute basic moves and, doing so, learn about the basic wing chun principles like center line and the nature of human anatomy.
Tetyana Kushniruk agrees there is much wisdom incorporated within the Wing Chun system. “Even though the movements look like, well, you know how they look like”, she says and grins. “But when you learn to use it as a basic, underlying principle it inevitably becomes your lifestyle, and you become more relaxed in general.”
According to Kushniruk, there are things to learn from the form, even if you know just some basics of the system. “When you do the form, the form does you. You know how it works for you, when you do it yourself”, she says.
From the platform, the concepts in wing chun are best tested in its application. This is why partner exercises are essential to the system. You learn not to prepare for the exercise, because every situation is new and you always change how you apply what is in the form to a series of blocks, hits, and turns.
But, whatever the exercise, the inner part is what you get it, Kushniruk reminds me. “With partners you get to face your insecurities quite easily”, she says. Besides fear, she talks about naturalness: doing things that feel the most comfortable.
“Training this with Wing Chun makes you more relaxed in general because you start trusting your own feelings and you find your own naturalness”, Kushniruk says. “To put it simply: when you are not scared, when you are relaxed, you naturally do what fits you best.”
This sense of zen puzzles me, until Daniel King explains it further. Alongside his career in Perth Wing Chun Academy, he occasionally visits local schools to teach children about kung fu and meditation.
“I feel that kids and adults these days are way too overstimulated”, King says. ”We need time when we can sit down, relax, and rest. Meditation is the perfect way for teachers to calm down kids in school and help them focus more.”
For Daniel King, Wing Chun is a two-fold style, combining aspects of meditation and a system of fighting. According to him, most of the students come to learn a way to defend themselves. He came for the same reason himself, before learning more of the art.
“You have to be strong in body, strong in mind and strong in spirit”, King says. “Yin and Yang is a very important part of martial arts. Yin is meditation, Yang is movement. Balancing them is the key with everything in life.”
When I ask his opinion about teaching, King answers with the same persistence. “We have a really great grading system which encourages students to learn and question what they’ve been taught”, King says. “We also encourage experimentation, so that students take ownership of their own training.”
Shannon Moore is close to King’s ideas in his teaching. He calls Wing Chun the master key that can open any lock and help in sports, business and relationships.
“Principles supersede technique, and they allow you to create techniques on the spot. It allows you to be simple, direct and efficient and to get the most out of the least amount of energy. Wing Chun enhances everything else.”
I look towards my instructor for an understanding. Kushniruk talks about her experiences: “I think there are activities in life that come more naturally as the main activity for each of us. It comes, if you relax and listen to yourself and know how to interpret your own emotions and bodily sensations. There, Traditional Wing Chun can give a very deep guidance.”
I nod, and wonder what she is going to do next with Wing Chun. Kushniruk answers with a wide smile and a straightened back. She has a new concert already next week.