CombativeCorner contributing author Master William Kwok was interviewed over the holidays (Dec.11th & 18th, of 2016) on Radio Free Asia (a sister radio station to Voice of America). Since the interview was in Cantonese, Sifu Kwok enlisted the help of his student, Ji Chen so that we may benefit as well. The topic of the interview is on martial virtue and martial arts education.
[Presenter] But your footwork differs from the kicks of kickboxing or Muay Thai, doesn’t it? It’s a different type of kicking techniques, isn’t it? I have never seen it, or perhaps I haven’t noticed it. Of course I don’t know the first thing about martial arts, especially Wing Chun, so I’m not in a position to pass any comment. Judging by what I have seen, I haven’t noticed Wing Chun’s kicking techniques, at least it’s not like how a boxer moves even if you do have kicks. Am I right?
[Master Kwok] Obviously our kicking techniques are different from that of boxing. If you have been following the movie franchise of Ip Man, you may have noticed a lot of Wing Chun kicking techniques in Ip Man 3.
[Presenter] You mean there’s authentic Wing Chun kicking techniques, the real stuff, in that movie?
[Master Kwok] Yes indeed. Both Donnie Yen and Zhang Jin are good with their legs. That’s why they were able to put on display some good footwork and kicks in the movie. The Wing Chun kicking techniques, unlike the aggressive, offensive type you see with the likes of Muay Thai, involves a lot of clever, even cunning moves.
[Presenter] You said there’s a fixed set of techniques, but the Wing Chun system… how shall I put it… you know I am an outsider when it comes to Wing Chun, so you have to excuse me if I use the wrong terminology. I want to know how things come together, how the whole system works. When the student progresses from one level to the next, does he learn a few more techniques? Is it like when you teach the multiplication table, you ask the students to learn more and practice more, going from three times three to nine times nine, for example?
[Master Kwok] Earlier I was talking about combinations, like combinations of letters in the alphabet. At the end of the first form, you may not have mastered, as it were, all the 26 letters in the alphabet. You’ve covered part of it. But by mastering a partial alphabet, you can spell some of the words in the English vocabulary, can’t you? You then move on to the second form, Chum Kiu. When you’ve done that, you have more letters in your bag, which you can mix and match into more interesting combinations. When you’ve completed the third form, Biu Tze, you can say you’ve learned all the 26 letters in the English alphabet. After you have mastered all three forms, you must go on to learn change, that is, combinations to form different words and phrases. That takes accumulation through repeated practice over time. Another analogy we can draw between Wing Chun practice and English learning is that you can’t complete the learning process in one giant leap. It’s an incremental process whereby you stay engaged in it every day, with dedicated time slots. That’s how you slowly build up your knowledge and skills.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, what are the milestones in Wing Chun practice? How do you assess the readiness of a student to progress to the next level after he’s completed a certain level? Are there examinations? You know Taekwondo has colored belts to rank different levels. Does Wing Chun have similar incentives?
[Master Kwok] My school does have a system of progression. Take Siu Lim Tao for example. The first part of this form has a clearly defined program. A student who has completed this part is eligible to progress to the second part of the same form, called Level 2, which has another clearly defined program. Westerners are used to stepped learning…
[Presenter] Step by step, that’s true.
[Master Kwok] Yes, progressing step by step, so they know exactly what they are doing and what to expect at the next level. Westerners are not used to an unstructured system. This is one of the first things I learned after I started teaching in America, namely, I must have a very clear, well crafted curriculum to offer them, so they know roughly how much time they need to invest before they can reach a certain level.
[Presenter] In the real world, one person against 10 people – is there such kung fu at all? It doesn’t exist, does it?
[Master Kwok] One against 10… It depends on who those 10 people are and who this one person is.
[Presenter] (Giggles) Okay, I see.
[Master Kwok] (Laughs) I think we can treat it as a fun topic to talk about and laugh off. What is truly important is that the Ip Man movies at least introduce people…
[Presenter] They offer a chance, yes.
[Master Kwok] Yes, a chance. Also they convey some traditional martial arts ideology. There’s a pedagogical element in them. When people see a movie, they tend to focus on the action. Some movies carry a message and try to communicate that message to the audience, a positive message about martial arts. You were asking earlier about the truthfulness of the story in this movie franchise. But these are movies designed to entertain, not documentaries.
[Presenter] Yes, true.
[Master Kwok] So you don’t go, ‘But that’s not true. Ip Man did not do this at this time. This does not stand up to the facts.’ But I don’t think it’s reasonable to criticize a movie like this. What matters is what you take home after you’ve watched the movie. Other than being entertained by its visual impact, has the audience taken onboard the messages about martial arts that the movie is trying to convey? This is quite crucial. There are movies which flaunt gratuitous violence, there are also ones that promote chivalrous righteousness, like the Once Upon a Time in China series and Jet Li’s 2006 Fearless. The latter category not only tells martial arts stories, but also communicates messages and philosophy about the essence of martial arts. These movies are more welcome and also perform better at the box office. I believe many people subscribe to such moral imperatives deep down in their hearts. They feel inspired by those who step forward in the name of justice or those who may have erred in the past, but decide to mend their ways after practicing martial arts and enhancing their physical integrity and moral character. To me, these movies are commendable exactly for this reason.
[Presenter] You are saying that apart from the external stuff, the combat techniques, there is also a spiritual dimension that needs nurturing. Regarding the latter, in today’s society of fast food culture, fast-tracking and quick results, how should one go about it?
[Master Kwok] Each martial arts school has its own modus operandi. Mine is blessed with a group of great students. A pervasive atmosphere of traditional culture prevails in my school and sets boundaries with new students. For example, you may wonder why we greet each other with a hand salute? Why do my students address their teacher as sifu,sifu<’s wife as simo, their seniors as sihing or sije and their juniors as sidai or simui. There is a lot of respect for one another in my school. No one goes around and curtly picks a partner that they think is good to practice with. We are family and you don’t do that in a family. So this culture has this effect on them. Secondly, when I teach – nowadays, as you said, we are in an age of fast-food culture – I would explain why the punch is thrown this way and how a certain technique is executed, but I say to them, ‘You must practice.’ I ask them to practice. But coming from the culture that places a premium on quick results, students tend to assume that once they’ve learned something, they’ve mastered it, they’ve got it, just like that.
[Presenter] That’s true.
[Master Kwok] I ask them, ‘You got it?’ They say, ‘Yes, I got it.’ Then they move on to something new. ‘You want fast food? Here’s more. Tell me when you’ve had enough.’ Wing Chun does have a lot of different food to offer.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, if you keep feeding them new stuff, can they keep up? Do they ask you, ‘Why are you doing this? I’m full.’
[Master Kwok] That’s exactly my point. ‘Are you full up now? You wanted fast food, so I fed you till you had had enough.’ I let them experience it and realize that they have bitten off more than they can chew. They can’t keep up at all. Or they may come to see the light: ‘Oh my God, more is not necessarily better.’ My teacher has a mantra that he keeps repeating: ‘If your moves are good, you don’t need a large repertoire of them.’ You don’t need a glut of good stuff. A simple example is boxing. Once you’ve learned the footwork, you practice straights, hooks and uppercuts – three techniques. You practice the three techniques over and over again. Wing Chun gives you so many options. What do you do with them? If you have too much of it, if you can’t eat any more, you would stop and think, ‘Man, I do need to slow down, instead of asking for more and more.’
[Presenter] That’s why it’s called fast-food culture.
[Master Kwok] They want fast food, and fast food they will have. Having too much is as good as having nothing. If you want the essence, you don’t stuff yourself to the gills. If you only master one or two techniques, know how they work, and can apply them, you actually have a greater sense of achievement. This is an educational process. There’s a proverb in English: ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ You don’t have to dabble in too many things all at once. Develop one or two techniques to the expert level first. Through these two techniques, you can have a thorough understanding of the principles underlying the broader system, which would make it easier for you to pick up other techniques, because you have an in-depth knowledge of the culture.
[Presenter] Have you had students who really can’t get it? Those who find Wing Chun elusive no matter how they try? If so, they are free to go, are they not?
[Master Kwok] To begin with, you may come up to check it out and have a trial session. The trial session gives us an opportunity to get to know each other. I don’t rush them to sign up with us. I invite them to check it out and try it out first. I explain to them that learning kung fu is comparable to making friends. To become friends, people have to gel with each other. You take up something only when you are convinced that it’s the right thing for you. Let’s leave aside other styles of kung fu for the time being and take Wing Chun for example: You check out a few Wing Chun schools and decide to come to ours only if you think it suits you the best. I prefer not to have a student for a month only and then lose him because he doesn’t think it’s the right thing for him, which would have wasted me a month’s time as his teacher. I’d much rather teach a student who wants to invest six months or a longer time here. That would be better than having a student who practices for a month, then loses interest and leaves. That’s why the trial session is a good opportunity for both me and the prospective student, because he can find out, through first-hand experience, what it’s like to learn Wing Chun at this school.
[Presenter] When I first contacted you, I did tell you that I was also interested in learning Wing Chun, but the very first question you threw at me was ‘Why do you want to learn Wing Chun?’ I was very honest with you. I said, ‘As a lady, I don’t have too much of an ambition. I certainly don’t aim to become a kung fu actress. Through this, I want to renew my connection with the Chinese cultural heritage, in addition to keeping myself fit. If I had told you that I wanted to become a kung fu actress, to kick ass or to show off how awesome I am, would you have said to me point-blank, ‘Forget Wing Chun, don’t even bother – Wing Chun is not for you’?
[Master Kwok] I would not have told you Wing Chun is not for you. I would have said you are not cut out for martial arts, period. Every style of kung fu has its strengths. As we see it, kung fu is the art of hurting people, pure and simple. It’s different from swimming or playing basketball. Those sports are not designed to hurt people. But by learning kung fu, you can protect yourself. There are many ways of protecting yourself. You don’t have to resort to punches and kicks. This is the first thing I tell my students in my teaching. When the need does arise for you to protect yourself with punches and kicks, you should apply moral principles and assess the situation accordingly. You ask yourself if fighting it out is the only solution to the imminent confrontation. Is there an alternative? These are the questions you should ask yourself. In the process of training, especially in the context of Wing Chun, there are plenty of opportunities for sparring or paired practice. If you don’t know how to control your moves during such training, it’s very easy for you to hurt your partners. I teach my students not to focus on their striking skills only. The first thing they learn is respect for others. Then and only then do they earn the licence to access and acquire the quintessential part of kung fu. Some students come to my school with the dream to become the next Ip Man, taking on 10 opponents all at the same time. It all comes down to attitude at the end of the day. Some people strike me as having a propensity for violence.
[Presenter] I want to take us back to the fast-food culture. 2016 seems to have been a year of violence and volatility. In the absence of self-control, self-restraint or spiritual awareness, kung fu, from the perspective of testosterone-surging youth, is just something they can use to kick ass, to overpower others, is it not? Working on their inner self, the spiritual discipline that comes with kung fu is relegated to the backburner as far as they are concerned. Is that not the case?
[Master Kwok] It’s the duty of a master to teach that to the students. You need to build something into your teaching process to influence your students. People need educating. They may want to learn to hit people, but it’s up to you to educate them. That’s why as I said just now, you should observe them and establish if they do have a violent streak in them or it’s just a case of hot-blooded young men…
[Presenter] Trying to show off…
[Master Kwok] Yes, showing off. Having these impulses is not the problem. The question is if you know how to control yourself. Do you go up to people and provoke a fight? These are two different things. Typically, those who are into kung fu are prone to fighting. You encourage them to consider the consequences. Through training, they will develop this awareness over time. In my school, I ask them to consider if fighting is the only way out, so they learn to stop and think first. Otherwise they just turn into mindless brutes for whom the only solution to problems is violence. But that’s not true. The challenge here is to impart this culture to different people using different approaches.
[Presenter] Does it mean it’s very important to restore the traditional Chinese way of martial arts training guided by ethical principles?
[Master Kwok] Yes, indeed. Education in martial ethics is very important. As I said earlier, it’s a very slippery road if you teach kung fu without teaching martial ethics. Kung fu is an art of hurting people, as I said. You need judgment and ethical awareness to balance it. In a fight, you either hurt or get hurt. You can’t call that a good thing, whichever way you look at it. Consider the world we live in today, there are large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Let’s say you have them and you tell others: ‘I have more nukes than you. It only takes a push of a button to annihilate you.’ Only crazy people would do that. You arm yourself with a weapon, but do you have to use it? There are other ways to defuse the situation, like diplomatic means. People can talk. They can work together.
[Presenter] That’s right. You don’t get into a fight at the slightest provocation.
[Master Kwok] Correct. But does it mean it’s not necessary for countries to do R&D on armaments? No, the research can continue, but do you feel compelled to use these armaments just because you have them?
[Presenter] Is there a complete self-defense system for petite ladies? Is Wing Chun a good system for this purpose?
[Master Kwok] Yes it is. It is very suitable for people of small build, especially petite ladies. A lot of the training involves short-range drills, because Wing Chun is at its most effective in close combat. It at least trains you to react faster. Say you stand there and someone comes to attack you. If you react only when he’s already in the process of attacking you, it would be too late. Wing Chun is particularly suitable for petite ladies because you don’t just use your muscular power. Instead, you mobilise the power from your entire body structure. I have already said that structure matters the most.
[Presenter] Let’s picture this scenario: When I turn a corner, someone appears all of a sudden and grab me by the wrist. If I’ve learned Wing Chun, I wouldn’t try to wrest my hand from his hold clumsily with all my might. I would know a more clever way to free my hand, wouldn’t I?
[Master Kwok] Yes, that’s how it works.
[Presenter] No need to use brute force to free my hand and get away, I guess?
[Master Kwok] Yes, you may be able to get away before that person tightens his grip. When I teach my female disciples, I put a special emphasis on early reaction. You don’t wait for your attacker to get to you. I teach the ladies to become more vigilant. As you know, people tend to walk with a cellphone in hand…
[Presenter] And with their head down… yes.
[Master Kwok] Exactly, head down, punching away on their cellphone, oblivious to the goings-on around them. It is critical to be more vigilant. When you become aware that someone wants to mug you, assault you or otherwise take advantage of you, how do you deal with it? Do you go up to them and ask, ‘Why are you following me?’ There may be other ways, like walking into a crowd and shaking off whoever is on to you. This is the awareness that I ask my students to develop, so that they don’t go away and proclaim, ‘I am a Wing Chun master now. I can fight 10 people alone.’
[Presenter] Master Kwok, thank you for your time. It has been a great interview. My last question to you is: Having talked so much about the theory and how to apply it in real situation, what’s your take on the prospects of Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun in particular, and the practice and education of martial arts as a whole in North America?
[Master Kwok] My students liked my teaching methodology so much they encouraged me to create a non-profit association, Martial Arts Studies International. It was founded last year. It is through this vehicle that I introduce my educational approach to the public. Teaching kung fu and practicing or learning kung fu are two different skill sets. We need to find a good modernized approach to promote traditional Chinese culture using modern Western pedagogical models. This is where I am headed in the coming time.
[Presenter] Thank you, once again, Master Kwok.
[Master Kwok] You are welcome.
[End of main interview]
[Presenter] Dear audience, thank you for tuning in to the Sunday program of RFA. As a follow-up to our exclusive interview, aired last Sunday, with New York-based martial arts expert, Master Kwok, you’ll be hearing the final part of the interview, in which Master Kwok talks about the benefits of martial arts in terms of self-improvement, health, and character building for children. Does Wing Chun bring about significant health benefits?
[Master Kwok] Wing Chun’s health benefits are definitely there. When you are learning the first form, Siu Lim Tao, you start off by going into a horse stand. This position alone can strengthen your legs. Let’s leave kung fu aside for the time being and just look at something very basic – the ability to balance. This ability deteriorates when one gets older. Standing still in this sit-down position as part of your kung fu practice can improve that ability. Many of our drills, including San Sau – standalone techniques – and Chi Sau – sticky hands, force you to move about. You do that on a daily basis. Dancing is different, though. There’s a rhythmic pattern to any dance. But when you practice San Sau, Chi Sau or Gwo Sau with your partner, you are in constant motion, balancing and rebalancing yourself all the time. This improves your balance, very good for elderly people. In terms of health in a broader sense, again using Siu Lim Tao as an example, the form contains a lot of breathing exercises. I therefore think Wing Chun is suitable for all age groups. My eldest student is 80 years old.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, you said your eldest student is 80 years old, but how young is the youngest?
[Master Kwok] Recently, a six and a half year-old signed up. Normally, I prefer that my students are at least eight years old, when they are more receptive to discipline and knowledge, therefore easier to teach. The six and a half year-old is an exception, because he’s very smart, or so he thinks, and has a natural aptitude. He is likely to be a fast and more patient learner. There are no rigid rules regarding age. It’s up to the teacher to assess the student’s aptitude and knowledge to see if he’s ready.
[Presenter] If I look around today’s society, especially in Hong Kong, life is comfortable, people are affluent. Many children are used to being taken care of by their elder siblings and are not good at looking after themselves. Also, they are quite poor when it comes to emotional and behavioral management. Does learning kung fu help? Does it contribute to their self-improvement, at least in terms of discipline and self-restraint? I think it’s quite good for children, isn’t it?
[Master Kwok] There is no doubt about that. As I described earlier, within our school, there’s an atmosphere of mutual respect. There’s a saying in Chinese: When you enter someone’s house, you greet the host; when you enter a temple, you show your respect for the gods. When you come into our school, you should at least greet the teacher and the seniors. This is the most basic protocol for us. What you said is true. Some kids don’t greet people. They just sit down by themselves and play with their phones. In my school, I repeatedly remind my students that you lose nothing by greeting other people. You are showing them that you are a polite person. It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t greet me, but I would see you as a bit rude. I explain to them why they should greet each other in my school. It starts with self-respect. This is not the hardest part, though. The crux of the matter is parental support. If parents have not educated their children to behave with courtesy, their children are unlikely to show respect. They may do it only because I’ve told them to, but they remain unchanged deep down. I ask them if they would greet their friend’s parents when they visit their friend. They reply, ‘No, I don’t.’ I then ask them how they would feel on the receiving end. They say they would feel a lack of respect toward them. I say, ‘Exactly. Just think about it.’ I encourage them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. What really matter is parental support for our effort.
[Presenter] You do spend a lot of time giving your students individual attention, don’t you? You at least know their background, what motivates them to learn kung fu, and take it from there. You don’t teach hordes of students en masse and call it a day when they leave school. You really put your heart and soul into your teaching.
[Master Kwok] You do need to get to know them. Those who are genuinely interested would come to school as often as they can. I naturally have more communication with these students. With more communication…
[Presenter] It’s a two-way process, I see.
[Master Kwok] Yes, two-way. With more communication, I know more about them, about their personalities, which in turn allows me to fine-tune my teaching to cater to their character traits.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, when a student is accepted by a teacher as his closed-door disciple, the student calls the teacher sifu. But there’s another title, sifoo. What’s the difference?
[Master Kwok] The foo in Sifoo is a different character. Someone with that designation is someone who is highly skilled in a given craft. You call a good plumber sifoo, for example, or a chef who prepares food to a high standard. But sifu, with the second character meaning father, is different. When new student comes to the school, he calls the teacher sifoo, a kung fu expert. But the baisi (induction) ceremony, where the teacher formally takes him under his wings, changes the relationship. The teacher is now a father figure to the student, within the context of martial arts. But out there, these two terms are often mixed up.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, one last question: Do you teach your closed-door disciples certain special things that you don’t share with the rest of your following?
[Master Kwok] I can’t speak for other teachers. I only speak for myself. Why do people get the impression that closed-door disciples learn more stuff? When you take on closed-door disciples, they must have been with you for quite a long time, during which they have built up a foundation through their practice. That’s point one. Secondly, you only take someone under your wings as a closed-door disciple if you have a good relationship with that person. For example, you would have heart-to-heart chats when you see each other. Through such communication, verbal or otherwise, it’s only natural that they can find out more about Wing Chun. There are techniques that you get exposed to only after a long period of practice. Becoming a closed-door disciple is a commitment. They are with you for so long, they are in close contact with you so often, so it stands to reason that they will learn more. Or, shall I say, they have a better chance of learning more than other students. When my students asked me why I hadn’t taught them certain things, I would ask them how much time they had invested in it. It doesn’t mean I taught others, but not you. It’s because when I was teaching that, you were absent. But that’s a minority of students, who question why I am being selective. Why? Because you don’t come to school often enough!
[Presenter] Yup, as simple as that.
[Master Kwok] Exactly, can’t be simpler. Why do some students go through the levels so fast? Because they are committed! They come for training five times a week, but you only come once a week. And you want to compare? I encourage them not to benchmark against others, but to measure their own progress. Some students say to me, ‘I keep feeling that I’m not doing so well.’ I ask them, ‘Do you think you’ve progressed since six months ago?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘Could you do this move six months ago?’ ‘No, I couldn’t.’ ‘There you have it: you have made progress.’ I tell them that every day is different for kung fu practitioners. Sometimes you feel you are having a good day. Come tomorrow and you are crestfallen, because you can’t pull off certain techniques. I explain to them, ‘As long as you stay with one style of kung fu and keep working at it with commitment, and provided that your teacher is willing to continue teaching you, you’ll definitely make progress in the long run. You may feel down now and again while you practice kung fu, because of certain unhappy eventualities, like being laid off or something, but don’t just give up. As long as you practice with focus and with great interest, progress is guaranteed.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you for agreeing to this interview with RFA. Thank you very much.
[Master Kwok] Thank you.
We hope you enjoyed the interview!
For more information on Master William Kwok (click here)
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