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DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the Moon

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by Jose M. Fraguas

img-ma6David Peterson began training in the Martial Arts back in 1973. He is a direct student of the late great Wing Chun master Wong Shun Leung, and a graduate of the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he majored in Chinese studies, and was a teacher of the Chinese language for over thirty years.

His accomplishments as a teacher and writer are equally well known. As the founder and head instructor of the 'Melbourne Chinese Martial Arts Club', Sifu Peterson spread the philosophy and teachings of Wong Shun Leung as a lasting tribute to his mentor for twenty-eight years.

He has written numerous articles on Wing Chun Kung Fu and Wong Shun Leung's methods and authored the book "Look Beyond the Pointing Finger: the Combat Philosophy of Wong Shun Leung."

Sifu Peterson is one of only two qualified instructors of Wong's system in Australia, authorized by Sifu Wong personally before his death, and a fully endorsed member of the worldwide 'Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Martial Arts Association' and the Hong Kong-based 'Ving Tsun Athletic Association.'

He relocated to Malaysia in early 2011, not too long after this interview was conducted, thus starting a new chapter in his life journey. There, he established 'WSL Ving Tsun Combat Science – Malaysia' and continues to spread the teachings of his late Sifu, Wong Shun Leung, in S.E. Asia and further afield.

In this (unabridged) interview for 'MASTERS' magazine, Sifu Peterson openly speaks about many of the important times of his career and the most relevant principles and philosophies of Wing Chun Kung Fu as taught by his Sifu, the great Wong Shun Leung.

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DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the Moon
How long have you been practicing the Martial Arts and who was your teacher?

I began studying the martial arts in 1973, learning Shaolin Ch'uanfa under Sifu Serge Martich-Ostermann. By the end of 1974, he had stopped coming regularly to Melbourne to conduct the classes (he was from Sydney), and the numbers had fallen drastically, as had the enthusiasm of those remaining at the school, myself included. At that time, I became acquainted with a guy claiming to be a student of Wing Chun great, Sifu Wong Shun Leung (as it turned out, this was to be a complete fabrication), and I eventually took up classes with him. That relationship lasted just on 10 years, with me running most of his schools/classes around Melbourne and generally being his "do-it-all" guy: I printed the T-shirts, answered the phone calls, stuck up the posters, ...you name it, I did it, ...all for virtually nothing in return apart from continuous excuses why he could not teach me more of the system. Truth be told, he hadn't even learnt it himself, so there was no way I was ever going to get very far at that school. After speaking to members of the local Chinese community, as well as doing quite a lot of research of my own, especially in Hong Kong Martial Arts magazines and the like, I soon realised that if I was going to really accomplish anything in Wing Chun, I would have to seek out Sifu Wong Shun Leung myself. So, towards the end of 1983, that's exactly what I did. The rest is, as they say in the classics, ...history.

How many styles (Kung Fu or other methods) have you trained in?

Over the years I have done quite a bit of training in Taijiquan (Chen & Yang systems), and also in the Hung Kuen system, as well as "dabbling" in Choi Lei Fat, some BJJ and Kali amongst other things. I am intrigued by all forms of the Martial Arts, but my true passion is of course the 'Wong Shun Leung Method' of Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) which I have now been involved in and dedicated to for some 28 years since that very first trip to Hong Kong. Whilst I thoroughly enjoy cross-training and the experience of being a new learner again and again, not to mention the extended knowledge that it brings to my experience, for me it is 'WSLVT' that answers all my questions and is what works best for me. I want to understand how all the other "engines" work, but I only drive the one car - 'WSLVT'.

What are the main principles intrinsic to the three Wing Chun forms?

DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the MoonThe Siu Nim Tau and Cham Kiu forms encompass all the most essential skills and concepts of the Wing Chun system. They are the basis of everything that we do in combat. Siu Nim Tau provides the "alphabet" of the system, whilst Cham Kiu teaches us the "grammar" and links it all together. Siu Nim Tau gives us the structures that form the foundation of all actions and concepts that we utilise; Cham Kiu combines these foundation skills into "short words and phrases" that assist us in understanding how the system works and how to enhance what we know. Through the many drills inherent in the system, such as Paak Sau, Laap Sau and of course Chi Sau (in its many variants), we then develop the means to "communicate" with our opponent in a language of combat that is SIMPLE, DIRECT and EFFICIENT. The Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy) form then provides us with ways of recovering from the kinds of typical errors that can occur in combat, as well as enhancing our ability to utilise the best distancing, timing and angles, whilst the Biu Ji form shows us ways of escaping relatively unharmed should all of the essential elements fail due to outstanding circumstances, such as being caught by surprise, overwhelmed by force and/or numbers, injured or otherwise unable to apply the more basic skills. The entire system is cleverly linked and there are no loose ends.

Would you tell us some interesting stories of your early days in Kung Fu and the training under the legendary Wong Shun Leung?

I have so many wonderful memories of training in with my Sifu over the years, but there are two that spring to mind immediately. The first took place in the early 80s, on the occasion of Sifu's first ever trip to Australia to teach at my school in Melbourne. He had arrived after a long flight from Hong Kong and was feeling quite tired. As we had arranged for him to attend the class that very night, we suggested that he lie down and try to get some sleep for a while before leaving for the lesson. As the time approached to head off, I innocently entered the room where he was sleeping and tapped him on the shoulder to wake him. In that moment, I quite literally saw my life flash before my eyes and experienced the biggest adrenalin dump of my life! Sifu had awakened, in unfamiliar surroundings and feeling the effects of jetlag, so his reactions had gone into autopilot - his eyes opened with a ferocity I had never seen before and locked on to me, his body primed like a cat ready to pounce. I was stunned and froze on the spot for what seemed like an eternity, before gathering myself long enough to say, "Sifu, ...it's me, ...David", at which time he had obviously managed to gather his thoughts and realise where he was at last. He just grinned as I quickly backed out of the room, later telling me that when he had been in his younger years and testing his skills regularly in beimo (challenge matches), his mother had resorted to waking him by throwing rolled-up socks from the doorway, following a similar such reaction where he almost struck her. I never did ever try to wake him with a tap on the shoulder again after that!

The second story took place in Hong Kong around Chinese New Year in the late 80s. We had all enjoyed a great, hard training session and a group of us had decided to take Sifu out to dinner in a nearby restaurant district. When we finally arrived at our destination and had sat down at a large round table, the conversation, food and wine flowed freely, with everyone really having a fun time talking about Martial Arts and the "good old days" when Sifu studied under Ip Man. Someone turned the topic of conversation to the so-called "tricks" of certain teachers, including the breaking of chopsticks on the throat. On hearing the comment, Sifu immediately picked up a pair of chopsticks and started breaking them on his throat, explaining to us how it was easily done - no special talent required. With that, he invited us all to try and soon the restaurant owner was begging us to stop breaking chopsticks! This was of course my Sifu's way of constantly trying to expose the charlatans and remove the B.S. in the Martial Arts.

Do you teach Westerners? How do you find the Westerners respond to traditional Chinese training?

DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the Moon
My classes have always involved both Western and Asian students, as did those of my Sifu. My attitude is quite naturally the same as his - so long as a student is prepared to train hard and brings honour to the system, we should train anyone who wishes to learn, no matter colour, creed or race. As far as the training goes, I always incorporate a combination of traditional and modern teaching methods, so that the students are comfortable with both methods. Each way has merit and each way gets good results. Most Westerners expect to line up and be given guided training with clear instruction and encouragement. The traditional Chinese way is to show them a simple skill and expect them to go off and practice, motivating themselves, or working one-on-one with more senior classmates with only limited interaction with the teacher. I believe a healthy blend of the two provides the best method, so I incorporate both guided drills, as well as what we like to call "Hong Kong-style" training. As time goes by and skill levels increase, one tends to find the students enjoying the "Hong Kong-style" training more and more.

Were you a "natural" at Kung Fu – did the movements come easily to you?

I have no special talents and had to work as hard as anybody to develop my skills. In fact, even after all these years, I am still working on them - the journey doesn't end until we die! What I did have that has held me in good stead over the years, is an extreme passion to learn and a keen eye, such that I could quickly grasp the essence of how something was done and then go away and work on it until it worked well. Another huge personal benefit was the fact that I was able to communicate with my Sifu in his mother tongue, with little or no need for any translation, thus I didn't miss out on the little details that someone without the language might fail to appreciate.

How has your personal Kung Fu changed/developed over the years?

I wouldn't say that my personal Kung Fu has changed over the years, but it has certainly developed in the sense that I am now finding more efficient ways to use the system. You could say that as I've gotten older, I have gotten a little wiser too. This is largely due to the fact that the body is not getting any younger, and that injuries have taken a toll that I've had to learn to compensate for, to "train smart" in order to overcome. As such, in many ways I think that I have reached an even better understanding of the system now than I ever had before, and that in many ways, I am a far better exponent of the system now than ever before. Teaching has certainly played a huge role in that regard because when you stand out the front and have to instruct, to answer the questions and provide individual solutions and coaching, your own level of understanding and expertise increases tremendously.

What are the most important points in your teaching methods?

The most important thing in both teaching and learning Wing Chun, in order for the student to become proficient, is the correct development of the foundations of the system. These are correct structure, correct footwork, the use of the elbow & waist, relaxation and the Centreline. Unless these foundation skills and concepts are understood and practised consistently, progress in Wing Chun is slow and the chances of reaching a high level of proficiency, unlikely. As a matter of fact, I consistently tell my students that the most "advanced" skills that they will ever learn are all covered in the very first lesson: the basic stance (Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma), the basic punch (Yat Ji Kuen), forward stepping (Saam Gok Bo), defensive stepping (Tui Ma) and the first section of the Siu Nim Tau form. These five things incorporate every single skill or concept that will ever be used or required in combat, no matter how simple or complex the situation, and are the keys to everything else that one will ever learn in Wing Chun.

With all the technical changes during the last 30 years, do you think there are still "pure" styles of Kung Fu and more specifically Wing Chun?

Yes, I do think that there are still "pure" styles of Kung Fu, including Wing Chun, so long as the core concepts of these systems has remained unchanged. Technical changes do not make a system "un-pure", they merely help to make a system more effective, both to train and to apply. Developments in sports science, particularly in strength & conditioning, diet and safer ways to exercise, has provided us with the means to enhance what we do, but has not forced anyone to abandon the "purity" of the arts. Some individuals have done so, but I personally feel that it is like throwing the baby out with the bath water if one does abandon the ways of the past. Modifying them, on the other hand, is not at all a bad thing, so long as the modifications are done to enhance the system, rather than just dress it up. My own teacher often had debates with his Sifu, the late Wing Chun patriarch Ip Man, and made changes to the system in order to make it more combat efficient. He did so without abandoning any of the core concepts and in many ways, proved that the core concepts are still valid in the modern era.

Do you think different "styles" are truly important in the art of Kung Fu?

DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the MoonFirst of all, I see Wing Chun as a system, rather than a style, because it is a complete, scientifically developed method of combat that utilises a complete programme of skills and concepts that are adaptable and interlocking - styles do not have the cohesion that a system has, generally because they are simply one individual's view or interpretation of combat, rather than a systematic method of developing flexible attributes. As such, styles often only suit certain individuals who have certain athletic talents, but do not provide the "common man" with methods that can easily be applied. Systems, on the other hand, have a basic set of structures and concepts that link together and can be adapted by anyone - Wing Chun is one such system. Styles exist in the Martial Arts because people have an innate desire to express their individuality. We see this in art, we see this in cooking, we see this in fashion, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we see this in the Martial Arts as well. Everyone needs to find their own niche and for some it is Wing Chun, and for others it is something else again. Remember that these days, the majority of people do not study Martial Arts because their survival depends upon it, so this is why many people choose to study forms of the Martial Arts (perhaps better termed Martial Sports?) that appeal to their need to engage in physical exercise, but not really have to engage in real combat training. Hence, many such styles have developed to cater for this shift in thinking. Wing Chun, at least as far as 'WSLVT' is concerned, has only one goal - to develop true personal combat skill - it is not a sporting, fitness, demonstration or meditative system.

What is opinion of Full Contact Kung Fu tournaments?

From what I see in such tournaments (and in the past I have myself competed in them, as have a number of my students), most of the fighters involved totally abandon what they have trained and the matches become a slug-fest that does not see systems expressed well. A lot of this has to do with the wearing of equipment and the need for rules to protect the fighters, but there are also a large number of people who do not know their chosen system well enough before they step into the ring. That's not to say that I expect to see "pure" skills being demonstrated - it's a fight, not a movie and I accept that - but you would hope to see at least an expression of the concepts of each system being displayed, rather than a brawl no better than two drunks on a Friday night can accomplish. Having said all that, I think that tournaments are an important test for any practitioner who wants to know how he or she will perform under real pressure, and it's a far safer option that the "good old days" in Hong Kong when they took their skills out into the streets and on rooftops to test their validity.

How different from other Kung Fu styles do you see the principles and concepts of Wing Chun?

The goal of any legitimate combat system is the incapacitation of the opponent, so overall it is fair to say that all good systems have that in common, even if the specific methods differ. However, on a specific concept level, Wing Chun is radically different in its approach compared to other fighting systems and I can summarise the differences in the following ways: in Wing Chun, we do not block the attack, we deflect it and simultaneously attack in one motion; we do not chase the limbs, but always attack the centre of mass, making sure that in every exchange, at least one of our limbs is attacking; we utilise a springy, flexible form of energy that enables us to read the opponent's energy once contact is made, thus allowing for rapid changes in attack and defence that is reflex driven, thus instantaneous and not requiring conscious thought; we "steal" the opponent's energy and return in through the effective use of a stance that channels strength up from the ground, rather than relying upon the upper body alone; and we always face the adversary front-on so as to reduce the available targets that we provide them, whilst enabling us to use two, sometime even three limbs, constantly for both attack and defence. Most importantly of all, in Wing Chun, we always attempt to attack an attack with aggressive, scientifically-based methods of counter-fighting - we do not fight defensively at any stage if it can be avoided.

Do you think that kung fu in the West has 'caught up' with the technical level in China/Hong Kong?

I cannot speak on behalf of all Kung Fu systems or styles, but I can say with a great deal of confidence that Wing Chun in the West has very much "caught up" with the technical level in China/Hong Kong in recent years. This is because in the West, the street-orientated aspects of Wing Chun have been very thoroughly explored and developed, whereas in Hong Kong, a lot of practitioners have gone into a "Sticky-hands Bubble" whereby they think that the practice of Chi Sau alone will be enough to enable them to deal with a violent street attack - sadly, they are very much mistaken on that score. Whilst they are extremely skilled in the practice of Chi Sau and can still show many Westerners a thing or two in that area, they are not well equipped to deal with anything outside of that arena of expertise. The recent Wing Chun episode of 'Fight Quest' that was shot in Hong Kong showed that weakness very clearly - even with just five days of training, the two TV show fighters from the States gave the local Hong Kong Wing Chun guys a real lesson in what it's like to get into a real fight. The trouble is that if you only ever train against a fellow Wing Chun exponent, and not "pressure-test" your Wing Chun, your Chi Sau skills alone are just not enough.

Do you feel that there are any fundamental differences in approach or physical capabilities of Chinese Kung Fu practitioner in comparison to European or American practitioners?

Overall, apart from the obvious difference in physical size between Western and Asian practitioners (and this is gradually changing due to diet and hygiene anyway), there is really little, if any, difference in the physical capabilities of either group. When you take into account the fact that Wing Chun, by and large, is concept-driven, as opposed to any specific physical attribute, the differences in physical ability are more or less non-existent. It really comes down to the skills of the individual and I have seen firsthand great exponents on both sides of the divide, both large and small, Asian and Western. My own teacher was barely five-foot seven-inches tall, and I witnessed him throwing six-foot nine-inch giants around like rag dolls! As for differences in approach, well my previous answer pretty much sums that up, except in addition I would say that the learning in the West is far more guided, even regimented in some schools, than it is in the East, where the "Hong Kong-style" of instruction tends to prevail. As I said earlier, both methods work and perhaps a blending of the two works the best.

Kung Fu is nowadays often referred to as a sport (Wushu)... would you agree with this definition?

The term Wushu in Mandarin Chinese does not mean "sport" - a direct translation is "martial skills" - however it is true to say that much of what is labelled Wushu these days (as a generic term for the organised practice of traditional Martial Arts in China) is indeed more sporting or demonstrative in nature, as opposed to being a true combat system. Having said that, it is also true that much of the Kung Fu (yet another generic term, more Cantonese in origin as a slang term for skill in ANY art and better represented in English as Gongfu) practised both in China and the West is very much NOT sporting in nature and retains its combat nature. People simply like to place things in baskets for ease of discussion, so Kung Fu and Wushu have become a victim of this trend to the extent that many people now believe that all Chinese Martial Arts are for sport and exercise, having no real combat merit - nothing could be further from the truth!

Do you feel that you still have further to go in your studies of the art of Wing Chun?

In a word, ...yes! I have until the end of my life to go in my study of Wing Chun. I haven't "mastered" the system and I truly never will - I don't think anyone ever does! We are all constantly striving to improve both our physical and our mental abilities and it is a life-long pursuit. The word "master" is one that is too easily bandied about in the modern era, largely because of a mistranslation of the Eastern terms for teachers of the Martial Arts. We are teachers, coaches if you will, with skills and knowledge that, at least initially, is greater than that of our students. We should be going out of our way to improve both them and ourselves, not worrying about labels, titles or thinking that we have suddenly "arrived" and are now "masters" and beyond improvement. I am very happy to be called a coach, a sifu if you like (although even now it doesn't seem quite right as I still see my own teacher as sifu or teacher), so whenever I am asked, "What should I call you?" my reply is always the same; "Just call me David." I just hope that I can continue to improve myself, but more importantly, continue to impart the knowledge such that my students exceed my standard. That is the real goal.

How do you see Wing Chun Kung Fu in the world at the present time?

This is a particularly good time for Wing Chun in the world, following the enormous interest in the system that has been generated by the recent 'Ip Man' movie franchise and other films and TV shows that have featured Wing Chun. As a result, more people have become aware of Wing Chun and many have taken up the practice of this system. Some schools that may have once struggled to get 10 students through the doors are now having to turn potential students away, such has been the effect of these films, and the Internet has also been a great source of information for people wanting to know more about Wing Chun. Many practitioners of quite different systems have been drawn to Wing Chun and have found that its direct approach and logical methods are very appealing, compared with what they have previously studied. Some estimates have suggested as many as 3-4 million people are now training in Wing Chun around the world today. That is an enormous figure when you stop to consider that when Ip Man first brought the system to Hong Kong in 1950, there were probably less than two dozen notable practitioners of Wing Chun over the previous 150 years!

Does the weaponry aspect of Wing Chun enhance the student's empty hands ability or are those two completely non-related skills?

The two weapons of the system, on the surface at least, would seem irrelevant in the modern world. After all, how often would one be carrying around a pole over nine feet long, or a pair of rather large meat cleavers? However, on further examination it is easy to see that there are definite benefits to the practice of both weapons, and a relevance that is far reaching. Most weapons fall into three main categories: long, short or flexible. In the case of Wing Chun, two of these, long and short, are dealt with in the system. The Luk Dim Boon Gwan ("six-and-a-half point pole") is an excellent way to develop and enhance the Wing Chun student's wrist, waist and stance strength. It also helps to improve the use of the elbow to generate power and improves the posture whilst at the same time teaching a realistic way to use any long weapon to attack and defend. Interestingly, in many respects, the long pole is even closer in nature to the concepts/actions of the empty-hand component of the system than the knife form is, which is one of the reasons why it is usually taught earlier than the knife form. The Baat Jaam Do ("eight-slash knives") not only teaches an effective means of utilising a short weapon, either singularly or a pair, but it is also able to enhance the strength of the wrists and stance in a similar way to the pole form. Being a pair of knives, it also confirms the concept of "facing" that the system advocates, as well as instilling a completely different approach to footwork so as to deal with an adversary who is armed with a longer weapon. It is this particular point that determines that the knives are usually taught much later because otherwise they can actually screw-up the student's progress and confuse their thinking.

How does the Wing Chun style differ from other Kung Fu methods when applying the techniques in a self-defence situation?

As I've already indicated earlier, in Wing Chun, the aim is always to counter an attack with an even more effective one, so the Wing Chun response is very offensive in nature. We do not follow the classical "first block, then counter attack" approach that is quite commonly used elsewhere in the Martial Arts, nor do we try to apply complicated routines and/or flamboyant actions. We do not employ high kicks and do not move about unnecessarily - Wing Chun is primarily a striking art and close-range combat is our true strength. Thus, we are very comfortable where most people are not, and can generate loads of power over very short distances, all while fighting with the aid of contact reflexes at the neural level, making our responses extremely fast and difficult to predict and counter. Our goal is the quick and total incapacitation of the enemy, reversing the roles of attacker and victim within the first one or two blows being thrown and making sure that we throw the majority of the rest, keeping the enemy off balance and under threat until they are unable to continue, or until a means of escape is found. It is simple, it is direct, it is intentionally brutal, but based on science, logic, geometry and physics all the way.

When teaching the art of Kung Fu, what is the most important element: self defence, health or tradition?

I would say that the most important element is reality. We must always strive to make the training reality-based and to ensure that we are honest about the way that we train. Health and exercise is not a priority (you do not need to be a super athlete to perform Wing Chun), nor is tradition, if what you mean by that to be bowing, fancy uniforms and rituals. We have a tradition to uphold, but it is one of training realistically and adhering to the core concepts, forms and drills of the system, as passed down to us from Sigung Ip Man and Sifu Wong Shun Leung. It would be more accurate to say that what we do is about personal protection concepts, or close-quarters combat, rather than the term self-defence which I personally do not like to use. We are not in the business of self-defence - it is an unrealistic expectation to think that one can merely defend oneself - we are in the business of learning to fight better than our opponent, so what we are doing is definitely not self-defence. Wing Chun is a combat skill designed for attack.

Forms and Chi Sau: what's the proper ratio in training?

There needs to be a balance in all aspects of training. Just practising forms or just doing Chi Sau or just sparring, ...none of those alone will make you a complete fighter. Each has a role to play in the overall development of the student, just as the other drills, wall-bag training, the Muk Yan Jong and weapons have a role to play. They are all like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle and we need them all to complete the picture. Many Wing Chun schools (and non-Wing Chun schools for that matter!) place too much emphasis on just one or two of these areas. As far as the forms are concerned, they need to be practiced regularly and not discarded early on in the training or rushed through occasionally. The Wing Chun forms are cleverly designed to teach both techniques and concepts, to strengthen attributes such as footwork and the use of the elbow, and to impart skills on a steadily increasing and overlapping level of complexity that ties in with other aspects of the learning curve. Whenever things are not working elsewhere in ones training, returning to the forms is generally the very best way to both identify and correct the problem. Like the forms, Chi Sau training imparts different levels of skill and allows for the development of both concepts and attributes that might otherwise go without improvement if not practiced in this way. Chi Sau provides a laboratory in which one can experiment on subtle skills and enhance reactions and reflexes that sparring or other combat-orientated drills cannot replicate. It is NOT a replacement for fighting, nor is it meant to be applied as practiced in actual combat. Instead, Chi Sau is again one of the many clever ways in which key attributes which MAY be required in a microsecond within the actual fight, can be loaded into the neural system and become a natural part of our arsenal of skills. Our aim is never to Chi Sau with our opponent, but should a situation occur where the limbs are trapped, jammed, grabbed, dragged or obstructed in any way, Chi Sau instils the necessary neural-arc reflexes and reactions to deal with these issues and allow us to continue to attack whilst keeping our enemy in check.

Do you have any general advice you would care to pass on to Martial Artists in general?

Be honest with yourself and with your training partners. Don't "cheat" in drills because this takes away whatever benefits that they are designed to bring you. Train with reality at the forefront at all times, taking care of your partner's improvement and safety at all times. If your partner improves, you will too, so it is in your own best interest to make sure that he or she is given every possible opportunity to develop. Take new ideas on board, train them, test them and only then question them if they fail to work. Chances are that you are using the system incorrectly, not that the system (or the individual skill) is faulty. Far too many Martial Arts practitioners blame the system that they are practicing for their failures, when what they should be doing is asking, "What did I do wrong?" If, after a reasonable amount of serious research and practice, you still cannot make something work, then consider modifying it so that it will work, or discarding it altogether for a method that does work for you. The first day I ever met my late Sifu, he (at the time, a living legend in the Martial Arts) said to me (a relative nobody in the Martial Arts), "If you can show me a better way to fight than I am doing now, I want to learn from YOU!" That is the attitude that you must take if you want to improve both as a person and a practitioner.

Some people think going to Hong Kong, China or Taiwan to train is highly necessary. Do you share this point of view?

As someone who DID travel to Hong Kong and China to explore the Martial Arts, I can honestly say that at the time that I began my training, that really was the only way to be sure of learning the "good oil" - good teachers in the West were rare and difficult to find. All that has changed now, and the standard of the Martial Arts in all its many forms has improved dramatically all over the world, so one may not have to venture beyond their own borders to find excellent instruction. However, there is something to be said for returning to the source as a means of inspiration, a kind of "completing of the circle" if you will. There is also the fact that things can get a little stale if training only with the same small circle of friends, so interacting with people with whom you are relatively unfamiliar, or whose training methods may deviate slightly from your own, brings out the adrenalin and opens the mind to new ideas that can definitely improve one's skills. This is why I always have, and always will, encourage my students to travel not only back to Hong Kong to seek training, but also to other countries around the world to meet up with other Wing Chun devotees and train with them. There is always more to be learnt and gained.

What do you consider to be the major changes in the art since you began training?

DAVID PETERSON: The Finger Pointing to the Moon
The most obvious major change is the fact that there are now so many more people training in Wing Chun. When I began my training in Hong Kong, there were only two or three non-Chinese guys training and it remained that way for the first few years. Now there are Wing Chun practitioners everywhere, including Hong Kong. The other thing that has changed is that in the early days, only one or two names were associated with Wing Chun, especially in the West where, I think it is fair to say, that some individuals created a myth that they were the most advanced guys, ...even the ONLY guy in one case! ...who had learnt the system from Ip Man. With the advent of the World Wide Web, these guys were gradually revealed as liars and those who really had been great students of Ip Man were eventually brought to the attention of the Martial Arts community. With that exposure, people came to realise that there was more than one approach to Wing Chun, and that some methods on offer were a pale representation of the full potential of the system. Thankfully, my late teacher, who was a very humble and self-effacing man despite his achievements and skills, started to gain the recognition for what he had contributed to Wing Chun and his very modern, scientific approach was revealed as an outstanding and extremely practical version of the system. I am proud to be able to help to carry on his legacy and share it with Wing Chun devotees around the world now that he has passed on.

Who would you like to have trained with that you have not (dead or alive)?

I would have loved to have been able to train with Sigung Ip Man and to have witnessed the beginnings of Wing Chun in Hong Kong in the middle of the last century. From all accounts he was a fascinating man whose skill level was extraordinary. One of his friends from Fatsaan (Foshan) in China and a great Wing Chun teacher and fighter in his own right, Yuen Kay San, is another person whom I would have loved to be able to meet and train under. Recent research suggests that he may well have been the real force behind the skills and methods of Ip Man, but because he remained in China, his prowess and expertise was never appreciated outside of the mainland. Some even suggest that without his guidance, Ip Man would never have become the fighter that he was, but everyone knows of Ip Man and his 'Hong Kong Wing Chun', while few have heard of 'Yuen Kay San Wing Chun'. Hopefully, more of his life and achievements will gradually be revealed. My wish list is longer, but these two gentlemen are right at the top of it.

What would you say to someone who is interested in starting to learn Wing Chun Kung Fu?

Seek out a good teacher, train hard and concentrate on learning the basic skills very well. No point being in a hurry because without great basics, you've got nothing good anyway. Be patient, train honestly and always follow a path that demands realism and efficiency. If you are not hitting something often, or working out with training partners often, then you are at the wrong school. Wing Chun is about interaction and about real combat skills - you don't get that from standing in the line throwing punches all the time or from ritualised sequences practised on a compliant opponent.

What is it that keeps you motivated after all these years?

I am simply very passionate about the system and love to share it and train it. It is so appealing to me because it is so logical and you cannot argue with the simplicity of its science. I also feel an enormous pride in having been accepted as a student by my late Sifu, and feel a strong need to honour him by continuing his legacy in any small way that I can. He shared with me something much more than just how to punch and kick - he taught me how to be a better person and to apply Wing Chun concepts in all aspects of my life. It is a privilege to be able to share his knowledge and experiences with others - that's what keeps me motivated, ...that and seeing the gleam in the eyes of a student when he or she finally grasps an idea or makes something work - that's cool!

Do you think it is necessary to engage in free-fighting to achieve good self-defence skills in the street?

I think that it is necessary to train with regularity and to drill skills under pressure as often as possible. I'm not so sure that sparring is the best way to go because it does tend to become a game of "tit-for-tat" if not monitored well. A real fight on the street takes seconds, not minutes, and the aim of the game should be to end it as quickly as possible. If it goes on for long, then the chances of getting badly injured are greatly increased. Free-fighting/sparring can tend to drag out and become more like a "game", obviously because of the protective equipment and any rules that may apply. I agree that it is a great way to raise the adrenalin level and learn to deal with both pressure and hits, but I personally think that more time should be spent on "pressure-testing" through what we like to call "open drills" whereby you have an opponent (who can wear protective equipment if desired) acting as the aggressor and the other person has mere split-seconds to deal with the attack in whatever form it may come. As "open drills" we can then change the level of pressure, aggression, style of attack, and so on, gradually reaching a point where anything goes, thus replicating more accurately what may occur on the street. Sparring in the ring cannot really do that as effectively.

What is your opinion about mixing Kung Fu styles? Does the practice of one nullify the effectiveness of the other or on the contrary, it can be beneficial to the student?

Styles or systems do not necessarily complement each other, with some being diametrically opposed to each other. Therefore, mixing styles is not guaranteed to produce better results - in fact, it may end up decreasing one's ability to fight well at all. I compare this to the idea of taking a few pieces from three or more jig-saw puzzles and expecting to produce a useful picture - it isn't going to happen! Systems have specific concepts or techniques that they use to attain their combat goals. If you try to combine such concepts or techniques with methods that are completely different, I cannot see much benefit being achieved. In fact, it is more likely to create confusion and cause a complete "log-jam" in the fighter such that he cannot use any of his skills well and just gets himself into a worse predicament. Training in another system so as to form an understanding of and an appreciation for its methods is quite another kettle of fish. There is a lot to be gained from getting into the head of one's enemy so as to know how he or she might think and react. Knowing how their "engine" works not only gives you a better knowledge of how to beat them, it may well give you a better appreciation of your own system. Mixing the two, however, is less likely to be a successful venture.

What is your philosophical basis for your Kung Fu training?

My philosophy with regards to my own training is simple - keep an open mind, always seek knowledge, and never assume that you know everything. If I do that, and always seek to improve what I am doing, then I believe that I will continue to grow as a person and as a Martial Artist and teacher.

Do you have a particularly memorable Kung Fu experience that has remained as an inspiration for your training?

Every single day that I spent with my late teacher was an inspiration and I cannot really pick out any one thing that inspired me more than any other. I guess the whole Wing Chun experience has been, and continues to be an inspiration in my training.

After all these years of training and experience, could you explain the meaning of the practice of Kung Fu?

For me personally, the meaning of the practice of Kung Fu is self-fulfilment. It has enabled me to improve who I am and to give something of value to others through teaching the system and writing about it. It has made me aware of myself and others, enabling me to remain healthy, alert and, hopefully, to leave something of value behind when I'm gone. I cannot imagine what sort of person I would be, or what direction my life might have taken, had I not become involved in Wing Chun.

How is the Chi Sau aspect of training related to the practical application of the Wing Chun techniques used in the three empty hands forms?

If Siu Nim Tau is the ABCs of Wing Chun, and Cham Kiu is the grammar and short phrases, what Chi Sau does is teach us to "converse" and to make use of this "language" in a very effective and individual way, rather than just being robots who repeat a pattern of sounds. Through Chi Sau we are taught how to "read" the opponent's intentions and to counter those intentions instantaneously with actions that control AND hit the opponent. In Chi Sau we are given an opportunity to explore the infinite number of ways in which not only the techniques, but also the concepts of Wing Chun can be applied under constant forward pressure. We learn how to operate at the worst possible distance (extreme close-range) and under the worst possible circumstances (already jammed-up, restrained or grabbed), so as to learn how to effectively deal with such circumstances and still be able to fight effectively and with powerful counter-fighting skills. If things get totally screwed up, then there is also the possibility of utilising concepts and strategies contained in the Biu Ji form to escape the predicament, whilst it goes without saying that the concepts in the Muk Yan Jong form can be explored as well, especially in terms of recovering from simple errors.

Is there anything lacking in the way Martial Arts are taught today compared to how they were in your beginnings?

I think that some instructors water-down the reality side of training in order to retain students and keep people happy. There is a perception in the public that one can miraculously defend oneself from real violence by simply taking a few classes here and there, gain a "black belt" and then you're safe for life. Most "black belts" that I meet haven't trained for years, or else they just do forms and break the occasional board, thinking that that somehow makes them great fighters. Sadly, in terms of real combat proficiency, they are deluding themselves. Either train your students in a fashion that prepares them for real combat, getting them to face the reality of what that entails, both physically AND emotionally, or be honest and tell them that you are merely practicing a sport which does NOT guarantee any real fighting ability. I cannot remember a single day when I did not come home from training without a cut lip, blood nose or bruises somewhere on my body, ...and I still don't! We are training combat, not paper-folding, so there has to be realism involved at all times. It's like saying that you'll teach someone to swim, but guarantee them that they won't get wet! That's what I feel is missing in many Martial Arts schools today.

Could I ask you what you consider to be the most important qualities of a successful Kung Fu practitioner?

I think that to be a successful Kung Fu practitioner, one needs to remain humble and not presume that they are better than anyone else. We should be training to improve ourselves, not to belittle or overpower others. Sure, the goal of the system is to hit the opponent's nearest target with our closest weapon, ...and hit them bloody hard! ...but not to go about thinking that we are something better than ourselves. Perseverance, hard-work, humility, a positive attitude towards others, ...these are all qualities that will take us far in our journey along the Martial Road. Most of all, the willingness to help your training partner to improve as much as possible because, ...and I firmly believe this, ...if we do our best to help them improve, the result will be a great training partner who helps us to improve.

What advice would you give to students on the question of supplementary training?

When I was younger I did a lot of running, especially long-distance running, and it kept me very fit and built up my stamina considerably. It especially helped me to learn how to breathe well, something that still comes in very handy when working out with the younger students. Unfortunately, I suffered knee damage and the running career came to an end for me, but I would still recommend it to anyone seeking all-round exercise and fitness. I have never really been into weight training and mostly stay fit by training my Wing Chun. A personal favourite method is to work through my forms as a circuit routine: start with Cham Kiu then Siu Nim Tau then Cham Kiu then Biu Ji then Cham Kiu then the Muk Yan Jong then Cham Kiu then reverse the sequence....you can mess with the pattern anyway that you like, but I like using Cham Kiu as the linking form as it keeps you moving through the most important combinations again and again. Other than that, it's just regular training, hitting the bags, and so on for me. I have no special diet as such, just a little of anything in moderation, and I don't drink or smoke. I think that I'm in pretty decent shape for my age. My only vice is chocolate....love my chocolate!

What do you see as the most important attributes of a student?

Enthusiasm, but not obsession; healthy scepticism, but not arrogance; trust, but not blind faith; the ability to push yourself hard, but knowing when to take a break. Loyalty, honesty and sincerity go a long way in earning the respect of one's teacher too, not to mention the respect of one's peers. Most of all, don't take yourself too seriously and enjoy your training - it's okay to have fun when you train - no need to act like you're on a mission.

Why is it, in your opinion, that a lot of students start falling away after two-three years of training?

It's the age in which we live, the generation of the quick fix. Nobody wants to work hard for anything, they want it all yesterday, at the cheapest price and without the effort. They want to be Bruce Lee, but don't appreciate that he worked hard for years to make it look so effortless. When I took up the Martial Arts, like most of my peers, I did it with the intention to make it my life's pursuit. These days trends come and go and it's a consumer society where we buy it and then throw it away for a newer, flashier one. Thus, people enter the school all fired up to be the next Bruce Lee, only to realise that it is going to take time and hard work to get there. Many simply don't have what it takes to stick it out. We also now lead even busier lives than ever before, with demands coming from every angle. It isn't easy to find the time to train once you get married, have a family, move into a demanding job, and so on. Most can't see any point in continuing to train when they are facing all that, plus many also think that once they've trained for a couple of years they already know all that they need to know. It is only a very rare breed of student that sticks it out for longer, but I'm happy to say that I have some guys who are still with me for 20+ years! I must be doing something right, although I suspect that it's the brilliance of Wing Chun theory that keeps them coming back rather than my jokes!

Have there been times when you felt fear in your kung fu training?

I can't recall ever consciously feeling fear in training, ...at least not knee-shaking, teeth-chattering fear, ...but I suppose there have been times when I've felt a surge of adrenalin because of a particular opponent or training partner, but you just deal with it and turn a negative into a positive. I think that one usually only feels the fear after the event, when you've had time to think about it. In the moment, there simply isn't time for that to be allowed to get in the way. Besides, fear is such a great motivating factor that if it happens, it can be a very good thing.

What are your thoughts on the future of the art?

I feel that the future of Wing Chun is looking very good, especially the 'WSLVT' branch of the tree to which I belong. People are becoming increasingly aware that there are different approaches to this system and that not all branches of the tree are the same. In recent years I have seen a number of Wing Chun practitioners with dozens of years of experience coming across to seek out our training methods, having found that what they were doing just doesn't match up in terms of efficiency and practicality. The general Martial Arts public are also learning more about Wing Chun, especially since the 'Ip Man' movies hit the screen, and they too are being drawn to the system, so things are definitely looking very good for the future of Wing Chun all over the world. It isn't to everyone's taste, and that is to be expected, but the person who appreciates logic and science is sure to find Wing Chun fascinating and may well be drawn to take up its practice. I will certainly continue to do what I can to preserve and disseminate 'WSLVT' legacy to future generations. That's the least that I can do to honour my amazing teacher.

 

Editors note: This article was originally published in two parts in 'Martial Arts Masters' magazine, Summer & Fall 2012 issues

 

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