Why Bruce Lee Left Wing Chun

By Eric Oram
Inside Kung Fu Magazine

Prevented by Yip Man from learning the "entire" wing chun system, Bruce Lee was left to his own inventions. What he created was a style based on wing chun but devoid of many key principles.

Bruce Lee, pound for pound, was arguably the greatest fighter of our time. He is certainly the most popular. Twenty-four years after his death, he remains the standard by which all other fighters are measured. His passion, skill, charisma, philosophy, and innovative martial arts concepts brought him worldwide acclaim-- incredibly, all by the age of 32. In such a short span, Lee managed to accomplish more than most of us will ever achieve in our lives.

My first exposure to this extraordinary man was the film "Enter The Dragon." My father sat me down one night when I was 11 and showed me a video copy (minus a couple of scenes he said I wasn't old enough to see...) "Watch this," he said, with a strange, knowing grin on his face. "I think you are going to like it". What followed was an incredible display of total physical mastery. I was amazed, captivated. This experience exposed me to a world I was previously unaware of, but changed my life forever; the Chinese martial arts. A Lifetime of Study

I soon began studying martial arts at a branch of Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate in Las Vegas. Even though I studied kenpo formally, it was still Bruce Lee and his system of fighting called jeet kune do which truly intrigued me. I gobbled up all his films, many of the "Green Hornet" episodes and plunged myself into several books, including Bruce Lee's Fighting Method, and Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

I learned that Bruce Lee began his martial arts studies training in a system of kung-fu called wing chun. His master was a legendary martial artist named Yip Man, who was, at the time, the living grandmaster of this relatively obscure art form. For some reason, after leaving Hong Kong and relocating to the United States, Bruce began altering his wing chun kung-fu, until influences from boxing, fencing and various other systems left his original barely recognizable. He abandoned his classical training, and adopted "having no way as a way" as a philosophy, believing each practitioner should absorb what is useful from any source and discard what is not.

When I was 14, the kenpo school to which I belonged closed because of financial reasons. Through a series of wonderful "coincidences" (again, thanks to the efforts of my father) I began studying wing chun kung-fu with the system's present grandmaster, Cheung Chuk Hing (aka William Cheung).

A boyhood friend of Bruce's, Cheung was responsible for getting Bruce started at Yip Man's school and was one of Bruce's primary instructors (Yip Man rarely touched hands with beginners, leaving the bulk of his instruction to his senior students). In addition, Bruce looked upon Cheung as the man to beat, and considered Cheung to be the "ultimate fighter."

As a 14-year-old mega-fan of Bruce Lee's, the prospect of studying with the man who taught him and whom Bruce held in such high regard was nothing short of a dream come true. However, this did plant one giant question in my mind: If Bruce respected the abilities of William Cheung and Yip Man so much-- and their system of choice was wing chun kung-fu-- what compelled Bruce to leave wing chun and eventually develop the concept that became known as jeet kune do?

A closer examination of wing chun's origin provided me with the in a series of possible answers to my query. Before examining why Bruce left his core system, it is important to first explore which wing chun Bruce actually left. I learned that during wing chun's colorful history, a second, 'modified' version of the system had been created. It was this 'modified' system which Bruce Lee learned under the direct tutelage of both Yip Man and, to my surprise, William Cheung himself.

Wing Chun Begins

Wing chun originated at the Shaolin Temple in Hunan province, China almost 300 years ago. The five elders of the Temple had combined their collective combat knowledge to create a system more effective than anything that had ever come before it, and could be trained in one-third the time of the existing systems (ten years was a common length of time to master a given system up to this point).

This unprecedented collaboration was in response to the political turmoil which ripped through China at the time. Ninety-percent of the population, the conquered Hans, were being controlled by ten percent of the population, the victorious Manchus. Fearful of a revolt, the Manchus imposed many harsh laws to control the Hans. For example, the practice of binding women's feet at birth was introduced to literally cripple the women, thereby making them totally dependent upon their fathers, and later their husbands. If the men rebelled and left for war, the women would be essentially helpless.

Martial arts and the use of weapons were also outlawed with one significant exception: the Shaolin Temple. For whatever reason, the Manchus respected the Buddhist monastery and left it virtually untouched. The ancient tradition of martial arts mastery continued there as it had for thousands of years. As a result, the Temple became a hotbed of revolutionary activity.

The five elders wanted a superior system to that of the Manchus. Time was also of the essence. Students needed to be trained in a much shorter time; three-to-four years. The elders were almost successful. But before they could actually begin the training of their new 'supersystem,' the Manchus were tipped off and the Temple was raided and burned. Almost all of the monks were killed, including most of the elders.

One elder did survive, however; a nun named, Ng Mui. She would go on to actualize the concepts and principles created at the Temple, by teaching another woman, Yim Wing Chun. The system itself became known as wing chun kung-fu and Yim Wing Chun later taught it to her own husband, Leung Bok Cho. Leung then taught his nephew, Wong Wah Bo, who then taught his nephew, Leung Yee Tye. Leung Yee Tye taught his own son, Leung Jun.

As with the tradition before him, Leung Jun intended to keep his martial knowledge within the family by teaching only his two sons, Leung Cheun, and Leung Bik. But things were about to change; it is here, with Leung Jun, the origin of the second system begins.

In his day, Leung Jun was very well-known for his healing and martial abilities. In fact, he was practically a legend. Word spread all over China of the extraordinary talents of this doctor/kung-fu master. Enter Chan Wah Shuen, a moneychanger in the same village where Dr. Leung and his family resided. Chan, like many others, was well aware of Dr. Leung's martial skills. Unfortunately for Chan, he was also aware that Dr. Leung would never accept any outside students ' curbing Chan's deep desire to learn the combat secrets of the renowned master.

The Education

However, Chan Wah Shuen was not to be discouraged. Every problem must have a solution, he concluded. If Dr. Leung would not teach him, then Chan's solution would be to spy on Dr. Leung while he instructed his two sons. And this is precisely what he did. Chan would spy on the sessions and practice what he observed. This activity continued until Dr. Leung finally discovered his uninvited and unwelcomed guest. It seems Dr. Leung was fairly crafty as well. Initially, he did not let on he knew he was being watched. Instead, when he was aware of Chan's presence, Dr. Leung would alter or modify the instruction ' teaching his sons incorrectly. This was, at first, the punishment he chose for Chan Wah Shuen. Finally, Leung Jun could help himself no longer.

One day while instructing his sons, he exposed Chan and forced him to challenge the youngest of his two sons, Leung Shuen. Chan Wah Shuen was about six feet tall; very large for a Chinese man of that time. And he was strong; very strong. To Dr. Leung's surprise (and probably to Leung Shuen's!), Chan defeated Dr. Leung's number-two son. Chan's strength, combined with the information he had already learned, overpowered and overwhelmed Leung Shuen.

Perhaps because of his admiration for Chan's determination, Dr. Leung decided to accept Chan Wah Shuen as a student. But Dr. Leung was concerned that Chan might try to claim the grandmastership for himself after Dr. Leung's death. Therefore, he decided to teach him separate from his two sons, and continue teaching the altered/modified version of the system. It was during these private sessions this second version of wing chun kung-fu truly came to life.

Chan Wah Shuen did not receive the complete and mobile footwork of wing chun. He was taught to drag his feet to impair mobility, and to shift his center back or to the side to alter his balance. The concept of the central line (an area within which one can use both arms to attack and defend simultaneously) was eliminated, and only the centerline (an imaginary line that divides the body into two equal halves from top to bottom) remained. The defenses were lowered to expose the head, and their structural positioning was altered. Most of the emphasis was placed on the straight-ahead barrage of wing chun's chain punches to subdue an opponent.

Largely because of Chan's size and strength, he was able to take this modified approach and make it rather effective. Reportedly, Chan Wah Shuen evolved into a formidable martial artist (even a modified version of wing chun was able to rival the best of the classical systems!). In fact, he also became a sought-out instructor in his own right. But, he chose his students very carefully. In his lifetime, Chan Wah Shuen only had a total of 16. Ironically, it was his last student, an 11-year old boy named Yip Man, who would carry on the tradition of the Leung Jun version.

Enter Yip Man

Yip Man's family was very wealthy, and Chan Wah Shuen taught (modified) wing chun on the Yip family estate. In time, Yip Man grew to be an extremely well-respected martial artist. Before long, he became famous for his incredible success in numerous challenge matches. Perhaps it was fate that had led a young Yip Man from Fatshan to Hong Kong to challenge an old kung-fu master named Leung Bik.

Leung Bik was the youngest and only surviving son of Dr. Leung Jun. He was the true grandmaster of the original or traditional wing chun system. For the first time, Yip Man experienced defeat. Yip was so impressed with the old master, he literally begged the old man to accept him as a student. Eventually, Leung Bik did take on Yip and began a second wave of Yip Man's wing chun education by teaching him the first (traditional) version of the system.

This newfound master explained to Yip Man that he (Leung) was, in fact, the son of Yip's teacher's teacher, and that Leung's father taught Chan Wah Shuen incorrectly. Leung then proceeded to reteach the system to Yip Man for four years, beginning when Yip was 16.

Upon completing his studies with Leung Bik, Yip returned to Fatshan. He then challenged his seniors, and defeated them all. Yip Man, at 20, became the next grandmaster of wing chun kung-fu.

It was more than 30 years Yip Man accepted any students. And, for reasons known only to Yip Man, he decided to teach the Chan Wah Shuen (modified) version to only a handful of pupils. Among these original pupils was a young boy nicknamed 'Ah Hing' ' otherwise known as William Cheung.

Cheung and the other senior students (sihings) Leung Shun, Chui Shun Tin, Lot Yu, and Wong Shuen Leung, soon began teaching the juniors (si dis). Again, from here on out, Yip Man rarely touched hands with the beginners, even in 'private' lessons. This was true for everyone who began with Yip Man from this point forward ' including a student named Lee 'Shil Lung' (Jun Fan), whom we all know as Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee began his studies in wing chun early in 1954. He was introduced to Yip Man by his friend, William Cheung. And it was Cheung, along with the other seniors, who were primarily responsible for young Bruce's martial education. Yip Man taught the senior students the modified version, and in turn, the seniors taught the same system to the juniors ' including Bruce Lee.

Bruce was taught to drag his feet, maintain a low guard, and to lean on his support foot. He was also taught to direct all his movements on the centerline. This was the wing chun method Bruce studied. This was the art he used as a launching pad for Jun Fan gung-fu, and a genesis for the creation of jeet kun do. It was only a few months later, in 1954, when William Cheung began living with Yip Man at the wing chun kwoon. Cheung was in constant conflict with his father over the trouble caused by young William's challenge matches and streetfights. Cheung's father was the chief of police in Hong Kong, and 'Ah Hing's' street activities brought serious turmoil to the Cheung household. This eventually led a 14-year-old William Cheung to live, teach and train full time with Yip Man at the kwoon.

It was during this three-year period of living with grandmaster Yip that Yip Man decided to reveal to Cheung the existence of the Leung Jun/Leung Bik/ 'traditional' wing chun system.

'Now, Ah Hing, I'm going to teach you how to fight like a woman,' promised grandmaster Yip.

Paying A Price

But, this new information had its price: total secrecy. Not until Yip Man was dead would the system belong to William Cheung. Until then, Cheung could not relay this new, exciting information to anyone. Ah Hing could not even tell his good friend and student Lee Jun Fan.

After only six months of training, Lee was progressing rapidly. In fact, he was doing so well, he began to pose a threat to the egos of some of the less-motivated seniors. Eventually, tensions became so thick these seniors used the fact that Bruce was one-quarter German ' and not 100--percent Chinese ' to put pressure on Yip Man to kick Bruce out of the kwoon. Reluctantly, Yip Man consented and Bruce was asked to leave.

Fortunately for Bruce, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Yip Man liked Bruce very much. And so, discretely, Yip assigned William Cheung and the late Wong Shung Leung to continue Bruce's training in private. This arrangement lasted for about one year. After that, William Cheung became solely responsible for Bruce's training. It was at this point, Cheung decided to open Bruce's eyes about the weaknesses inherent to the modified system ' without ever telling Lee a thing.

Instead of words, Cheung simply structured the training to directly attack the holes in Bruce's movement. Hints were dropped to point out the frailties. This process forced Bruce to address the most basic elements of his fighting foundation. Cheung purposely shook this foundation. He frustrated Bruce so he would question the heart and soul of the 'wing chun' system.

This routine lasted until Lee and Cheung both left Hong Kong in 1959 to escape the violence of the city streets. In fact, the situation became so bad Cheung had to be smuggled out of Hong Kong en route to Australia, hoping to start a new life. Bruce returned to the city of his birth, San Francisco, taking with him $100 and just 60 percent of the modified wing chun system.

Shortly before his departure from Hong Kong, Bruce also garnered martial knowledge from another master, Sui Hong Sang. Under Sui's brief tutelage, Bruce gained knowledge of two northern styles, including praying mantis. This need for last-minute extra knowledge was a result of two factors: Bruce desired to teach 'gung-fu' in America, and was aware of his limited exposure to wing chun. He sought a few more fancy movements to help fill the gaps of knowledge for the sake of his would-be students. And, for the sake of his own credibility as an instructor.

Bruce lee set sail for San Francisco in April, 1959. His stay by the Bay was not a long one, however. After several months, Bruce's mother, Grace Lee, arranged for her 17-year-old son to stay with a family friend named Ruby Chow in Seattle, Wash. Ruby Chow owned and ran a Chinese restaurant in Seattle and was a tough, independent woman. During the time Bruce lived at Ruby Chow's, he earned his keep by working in the kitchen. Bruce didn't respond well to orders. The air was thick with constant friction.

Thanks to an impromptu gung-fu demonstration, Bruce attracted the attention of a handful of experienced fighters who were very interested in what he had to offer. Because they were trained martial artists, they could appreciate the wisdom and effectiveness of the young Chinaman's approach. Eager to sever his dependence on Ruby Chow, Bruce began teaching a small group of students, training anywhere he could find a space. Classes were sometimes held in parks and sometimes in the driveway of Ruby Chow's home. What Bruce taught this early group of students was basically the Chan Wah Shuen or 'modified' version of wing chun.

Consumed With Frustration.

Bruce was consumed with the frustrations he experienced while training with 'Ah Hing.' How could Cheung be so much better at wing chun than him, he wondered? What was Cheung doing? What did Cheung learn that Bruce had not? He knew Ah Hing was trying to tell him something. What was it? Cheung seemed to be doing the same thing he was, yet Cheung would be all over him. When he tried those same techniques on Cheung, his friend would shut him down instantly. Why? What was he doing wrong? Cheung would never say. He would only continue to exploit the weaknesses of the confused young Bruce.

Bruce's footwork and balance had been constantly under fire. Cheung moved fluidly and effortelessly. Bruce's movement, by comparison, seemed clumsy and awkward. Ah Hing, like a matador, would manage to somehow, at the last nanosecond, avoid his opponent's force and expose the commitment from his opponent's attack. Bruce, in contrast, would always manage to 'be in the path of the bull', overwhelmed by the immensity of the attack. And Lee was constantly being knocked off balance.

The effectiveness of Lee's defenses were also challenged. In wing chun, the footwork sets up the body. The body, in turn, sets up the blocks and the strikes. Bruce's foundation had been disrupted; as a result his defenses were effected because they were built on an improper foundation. He had felt slow and defenseless against Cheung's offensives.

Bruce Lee puzzled over how to take his wing chun training further. He was now on his own to try and fit together the pieces of a mysterious puzzle (the last one-third of the wing chun system he never learned). Out of respect for Yip Man, and the wing chun clan, Bruce decided to call 'his' version of wing chun, Jun Fan gung-fu.

These challenges William Cheung presented to Bruce haunted the young perfectionist. Lee had to know the answer. This search continued for Bruce Lee until a challenge match in 1964 would once again shake his foundation. The confrontation was fueled by Bruce's insistence on teaching non-Chinese, which was directly forbidden by the traditional kung-fu masters.

According to witnesses, the fight was not exactly a smooth display of martial arts mastery. After several sloppy encounters, Bruce hit his opponent in the back with a flurry of wing chun's straight punches. The scrap then ended up on the ground, where Bruce allegedly claimed victory.

Apparently, the triumph was bittersweet for Bruce. It took about three minutes for Bruce to beat his challenger. In Bruce's mind, it should have taken only a few seconds. He again felt the limitations of his arsenal. In addition, Bruce was completely winded after the match ' realizing his cardiovascular conditioning was no where near where it should be.

In his book, Bruce Lee Fighting Spirit ' A Biography, Bruce Thomas quotes Bruce Lee as he (Lee) recounted the fight to Dan Inosanto: 'I chased him, and like a fool, kept punching his head and back; my fists were already swelling from his hard head. Then, I did something I'd never done before: I just put my arm around his neck and knocked him on his (butt), I kept whacking him as he lay on the floor ' until he gave up. I was so tired, I could hardly punch him.'

Bruce Hated to Lose

This encounter would have a profound impact on Bruce Lee. Bruce hated to lose. Because he was not able to instantly shut down his foe, Bruce perceived this fight as a defeat. He now had to work much harder to train his endurance and expand the possibilities for his attacks. He was determined, now more than ever, to eliminate these weaknesses, intensely focusing on self-improvement.

Bruce immediately began much more cardiovascular training. He ran several miles each day and incorporated an exercise bike into his regimen. Bruce also began weightlifting to improve his strength and intensified his training on the heavy bag to further improve his endurance. Moreover, his sparring sessions were now constructed to be as realistic as possible ' padding up, and going as close as he could to 'all out.' Lee became obsessed with discovering the most economical and direct attacks possible.

The quest for economical attacks led Bruce to the concept of the stop/hit. In wing chun, the practitioner neutralizes an opponent's attack and counters simultaneously. This interception of the opponent's movement, Bruce believed, would still be the most effective approach. But, if one's punch, itself, could intercept an opponent's attack ' by blocking with the punching hand ' or, literally beat the opponent to the punch, this would be the ideal. Speed would be a crucial ingredient in this formula, along with relaxation to allow for the speed. This stripped-down philosophy of interception became known as jeet kun do or way of the intercepting fist.

o one particular martial art has all the answers, Lee concluded. Wing chun had been the most effective system he'd experienced yet, but he had his frustrations with it, too. Plus, he no longer had Yip Man or William Cheung breathing down his neck to correct his weaknesses. As a result, Bruce began incorporating various elements of several different fighting systems into his tool box.

In time, Bruce exchanged information with a number of reputable martial artists. He worked with 'Judo' Gene Lebell, the judo and wrestling champion, whom Bruce met on the set of the 'Green Hornet.' Bruce knew kali and escrima from his student, Dan Inosanto. Bruce also worked out with several karate champions of that era, including Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, and Bob Wall. As a result, Bruce's arsenal expanded to include high and spinning kicks, grappling and additional weaponry.

To deal with the problem of his footwork, Bruce turned to 'The Greatest', Muhammad Ali, for help in finding a solution. Bruce was extremely impressed with Ali's speed and mobility. As a direct rebellion against the cumbersome footwork of the Chan Wah Shuen version of wing chun, Bruce Lee decided to break free. He, too, wanted to 'float like a butterfly'' This added freedom in mobility and made Bruce much more evasive. It also increased his ability to rapidly spring forward into an attack, instantly exploiting an opponent's opening (in addition, Bruce was also heavily influenced by the speed of Ali's lead hand, which led to Bruce's right hand version of Ali's left-hand straight attack).

Wing chun (modified) was still the launching pad for jeet kun do, and several of its elements survived the transformation. The principle of economy, upon which wing chun is based (both versions), remained. The concept of the 'centerline,' and the importance of controlling it, were also left intact. Some of the blocks found their way as well, such as the lop sao, pak sao (palm block), gum sao (pinning block) and jut sao (jerking block). Lee also refused to part with wing chun's straight punch, palm strikes and fingerjabs, along with various sweeps and traps.

Missing Ingredients

The practice of chi sao, or 'sticky hands' also was carried over. Lee recognized the value in the contact reflexes which resulted from this exercise. This training allows the practitioner to be extremely sensitive to an opponent's force and allows the practitioner to interrupt his movement at any time. (Bruce gave direct homage to his wing chun origin in the film, Enter the Dragon, when during a tournament fight, he uses the 'cross-arm' version of chi sao to defeat Han's ruthless bodyguard, O'Hara).

At this point, it is important to discuss some of the elements of the Chan Wah Shuen (CWS) version Bruce left behind in relation to some key points Bruce was never taught. The absence of these very points was responsible for Bruce's frustrations with the 'modified' version of wing chun.

For example, the confining footwork (of the CWS version) from which Bruce departed does not work the same way in traditional wing chun (TWC). In TWC, the weight distribution between the feet is 50/50 (not 70/30), balancing the center directly between the feet. The width of the stance is wide, but not 'too wide.' The objective is to achieve the maximum stability combined with the maximum mobility possible. If the stance is too wide, this inhibits mobility, but if it's too narrow, this will jeopardize balance.

Unlike the CWS version, where the exponent drags and shifts the feet, the TWC practitioner ' always ' lifts the feet when stepping. To do otherwise will further jeopardize the exponent's mobility. It may also affect one's balance, in the event one is not training on a smooth, even surface, and trips on some obstacle provided by the terrain.

The CWS version was also limited strategically because of the lack of footwork. The use of the sidestep was eliminated, which then keeps the practitioner in the path of the oncoming attack. One is often forced to deal with both arms (or legs) at the same time. In TWC, the practitioner sidesteps the path of the force, redirects or releases the force, while simultaneously moving to the outside area of the opponent's lead arm (in TWC, called the 'blindside').

This positioning allows for the practitioner to only contend with one arm at a time. Furthermore, the lead elbow is pinned and rendered useless, and opponent's 'free' arm cannot reach across his body without crossing his own arms. This leaves the opponent's arms vulnerable to being trapped.

Remember, Leung Jun wanted to keep the complete wing chun system exclusively within his own family. The movements of the modified version of wing chun were intentionally created to limit and confuse Chan Wah Shuen. That was the sole purpose for its origin.

But Bruce Lee would not be limited or confined. He knew that there was something missing. Thanks to hints from his wing chun senior, William Cheung, and to Bruce's own combat insight, Bruce broke free of these limitations. He constantly sought 'universal' principles in combat, which transcended, in Bruce's mind, any one particular style of fighting.

The JKD Foundation

Bruce used the (modified) wing chun he was taught as a foundation for jeet kun do (JKD). But he rebelled against certain aspects of the system which did not agree with his keen martial arts common sense or his fierce personality. He continually added elements from other styles to satisfy his particular needs. In the end, this is what allowed Bruce to 'honestly express himself.'

Although JKD was definitely a wing chun based system, Bruce applied it in a form that was all his own. Yet, Bruce was vehement that JKD remain a philosophy. He did not want to see it crystallize into an actual style. In theory, every person should follow his own path, expressing himself through the martial arts in a way that is as unique as each individual.

Interestingly, many of the universal principles Bruce embraced in JKD are quite similar, in principle, to those of TWC. Bruce, of course, found a different path for himself when it came to physicalizing those principles.

A few weeks before his death in 1973, Bruce Lee made a phone call to his boyhood friend and teacher, William Cheung. During the conversation Bruce expressed his desire to reunite with Ah Hing in Austrailia after finishing a project called, Game of Death. He was anxious to show Cheung the results of his new philosophy, jeet kun do, and no doubt, see how his skills would now stand up to Cheung's wing chun expertise.

Yip Man died Dec. 2, 1972, of throat cancer. Yip's death marked Cheung's right of passage from master to grandmaster. And now that the system was his, he was able to do with it as he pleased. Martial arts history may have taken a very different turn had Bruce been able to visit his friend in Austrailia. Ah Hing would have finally revealed to Lee 'Shil Lung' the complete version of the wing chun system he'd always wanted to share with his friend, but could not until after Yip Man's death.

It is fascinating to speculate on how Bruce may have responded to this 'new' information. Would he still have had the need to liberate himself? With the confines of the CWS version gone, would Bruce have found all the necessary tools needed to express himself fully within the TWC system? Would this have been enough to a man who passionately refused to be contained?

Sadly, we will never know.

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