Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, April 08, 2022

Multiple Attacker Defense in Yip Man's Wing Chun

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding the emphasis Yip Man put on his Wing Chun regarding multiple attackers and defense against an ambush attack. The full post may be read here

Introduction and Review

This is the second part of an extended article on Ip Man’s career in law enforcement, and the subsequent emphasis on “ambush” and “multiple attacker” scenarios that later developed in his lineage of Wing Chun.  See here for the first part of this post.  As always the best way to approach these multi-section posts would be to print them out and read them as a single extended article.

I also hope that this series of posts inspires readers to think more carefully about the nexus between the traditional Chinese martial arts and the government in Republican China.  The state was a major sponsor of the traditional martial arts.  This relationship was channeled through a variety of official organizations including the the Central Guoshu Institute, the educational system and numerous military and police academies.  While a valuable source of economic sponsorship these interaction also had an affect on the development and evolution of hand combat.  In some cases arts were applied to new and novel tactical problems, in others they were subjected to the regulation or corruption of the Nationalist party (GMD).  Students of Chinese martial studies should think carefully about the many ways that the state has impacted the martial arts.  Reviewing the development of Ip Man’s Wing Chun suggests one possible avenue for what that sort of interaction might look like.

Hand Combat as Conversation: Context, Nuance and Emphasis in the Chinese Martial Arts.

One way of looking at the various styles of hand combat that developed in China is to see them as part of a larger, ongoing conversation. Producing effective fighters was clearly important, but you do not really need a “martial art” to do that.  Militaries do it all the time.

No matter how tough you were when you were young, everyone grows old, and even martial artists suffer the ravages of time. Of course people continue to be interested in hand combat long after they are no longer 22 years old and in peak physical condition. But from that point forward studying principles and promoting a given fighting “style” takes on much more importance. It is this socially transmitted aspect that makes the “martial arts” distinct.  This makes them a community or a “social movement” in a way that Marine Corps “combatives” can never be.

Much of the meta-conversation that happens between the various martial styles is actually a disagreement about how you think a certain kind of fight is likely to unfold. Almost all styles, modern and traditional, have the same catalog of basic movements. There are strikes with the hands and feet, locks, throws and grappling. Weapons basically come in a limited number of sizes and configurations. At the end of the day there are really only so many ways in which the human body can move, and anyone who is in this business long enough will see all of them.

Any “complete martial art” has a variety of techniques to deal with each of these situations. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric. Taiji players can box, Wing Chun students can master long-range entry and even the most ardent jujitsu student knows how to throw a kick or two. It is not really the techniques that make these arts different so much as it is their basic assumptions about how they think a fight is likely to start, how they want to guide its progression, and what they believe will give them the best chances of winning. These are the fundamental questions that really differentiate the styles. It is differences of emphasis and opinion that give each art its unique visual aesthetic.

This is the actual reason why Wing Chun prefers to generate force through “leverage” whereas Taiji seems more interested in “angular momentum.”  Contrary to the assertions of many so-called experts that you find on the internet, it is not that one style is incapable of doing what the other does. Experienced Taiji players know all about leverage and can use it.  Advanced Wing Chun training shows you how to generate force with “angular momentum” in Biu Jee and the dummy. Where these arts actually differ is on what they believe the “entry” phase of a fight will look like, and the sorts of counter-attacks that will be needed.  This in turn dictates that both styles accentuate different ways of generating energy. What beginning students often take as statements of gospel truth (“Wing Chun is always…….”) are almost always matters of emphasis. When examined in broad social terms the Chinese martial arts are basically an ongoing conversation about hand-combat training.

One thing that the “Ip Man” branch of Wing Chun emphasizes is the possibility of multiple attackers scenarios. When modern teachers in this lineage discuss self-defense and the sorts of scenarios that concern them, an ambush by multiple attackers is always at the top of their list.  A great visual example of this can be found in the 2011 series Fight Quest.  In the second season of this show the hosts traveled to Hong Kong to shoot a documentary about modern Wing Chun training.

In an attempt to better explain and illustrate what Wing Chun was all about (and to create some good TV) one of the local instructors who served as their host for the crew staged a mock street ambush involving a dozen attackers trapping the star of the show in an alley.  His larger point was to demonstrate the sorts of tactical problems that are central to this style.  Much of modern Hong Kong style Wing Chun is actually built around these concerns, often in ways that are so subtle that they can easily be missed.

For instance, the art’s narrow footwork, backwards leaning stance and emphasis on maintaining a wide field of vision are all things that originate from its concern with the idea that one might have to face more than one attacker. Its strategy of quickly disabling opponents, dislike of submission holds and emphasis on staying off the ground (even when it would be to your immediate advantage to take a weaker opponent down) all revolve around a single fear. The worry is that while you hold an opponent, or grapple with them on the ground, it will be impossible to see their compatriots who are about to smack you upside the head with a bar-stool.

At first glance this all makes good sense. Pretty much the only time that you are actually assured that there will not be multiple attackers is when you are in a boxing ring, and that is not actually the same sort of thing as “self-defense.” The very concept of “self-defense” implies ambush and the idea that one will most likely be fighting at a tactical disadvantage.  Your attacker will be larger than you, better armed, or there will simply be more of them.  Anyone who is serious about doing you harm is not going to stage a “fair fight.”

It is also critical to realize that most fights do not happen between isolated individuals in dark alleys. Instead they tend to happen in public places. Why? Because that is where the people are. And when fights break out they often involve entire groups of people. While any trained martial artist should be comfortable defending himself against a drunken idiot, one drunken idiot and half a dozen of his friends in the middle of a parking lot is a less pleasant scenario to contemplate. And it is disturbingly common. When teaching I have never really encountered anyone who did not think that planning for multiple attackers was a bad idea when I brought this up.

Still, there is something a little odd about Wing Chun’s emphasis on this subject. To begin with all sorts of traditional fighting styles from southern China care about self-defense and are equally aware of this possibility.  They certainly warn their students about it. But in general they did not think it was necessary to fundamentally restructure their art to meet this threat.

A typical Hung Gar, or even western boxing stance, with head forward and hands high might cost you some visibility, but it is probably a safer stance if you are sure that you are only facing a single opponent. As a Wing Chun guy it pains me to admit it, but its true. Under certain circumstances what other arts prefer to do really is effective. These guys are aware of the possibility of multiple attackers, but they have decided it is probably foolish to assume that every fight will go down this way. In fact, even other branches of Wing Chun do not share Ip Man’s interest in multiple attacker scenarios.

In some respects Jee Shim Wing Chun seems to have a lot more in common with Guangdong’s various schools of “Village Hung Gar” than it does Ip Man’s Wing Chun (and I mean that as a compliment).  Of course there are some problems that occur when we try to make detailed comparisons between styles.  Ip Man’s approach to Wing Chun has become so widespread that it probably has had an inevitable impact on these other lineages.  Some schools seem to have borrowed at least a few of his innovations and philosophy, while others are clearly reacting against him in their quest to find a more “authentic” branch of Wing Chun.


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