Kenneth Chung: “I have only a little energy”

Kenneth Chung Wing ChunBy Paul Williams

I was fortunate to attend a Seminar by Master Kenneth Chung in Seattle Washington, recently. He is a short man with broad Herculean back (and shoulders) who leaves you with the impression that you stand among a giant. You know with certainty that you are in the presence of a real master of Wing Chun Kung Fu having dedicated his life to the art since the 1960’s. He states while unbalancing you effortlessly, as though all your martial training were just a single rain drop landing on an ocean of previous knowledge, “I use my knee. Power. I have no power. I have only a little energy; this is my contribution to Wing Chun.”

Everything about him is different. His tan sau descends and emerges in such a way that you watch ashamedly knowing that you have only been pretending to grasp even the most basic concepts of Chinese kung fu. (We are all mannequins or puppets pretending to be the real deal.) All I can say is that you know when you see something that is “real and tangible ” achieving perfection versus an imitation, you are instantaneously humbled with awe. ( I once had occasion to see Michael Jordan live in Toronto, Canada. He did not play that exhibition game because he was the most valuable basketball player in the world at the time. Using movements that seemed as pure relaxation, I saw him catch the ball, take one step and then jump about 20 feet dunking the ball behind his head. It was effortless! He had achieved something different through movement.)

The forearm and hand of Doctor Kenneth Chung’s tan sao awoke from the elbow as though emerging out of a “wormhole” both in time and space. It was not that solid wooden instrument that you see so many martial artists the so called “Youtube Wing Chun Monkeys,” as he refers to them, practice today. He is all in the knee and then elbow. Kenneth is not a doctor. It is the only way to describe what I was seeing. Does teaching Wing Chun at Stanford University count?

Watching him, I realize that we are all in our bodies and so full of ourselves thinking that we can do great and amazing things. I hear young men speaking their truth: “I practice with Jiu Jitsu, muay thai, karate and MMA guys; they can do nothing against my Wing Chun,” they tell Kenneth at the beginning of the workshop. He seems moderately impressed. In the room, there are people from Israel other US states, Sifus and students with over 12 years training or more. I am new with under five year of Wing Chun under my belt, still trying to grasp core concepts.

As we stand around him in a large looping circle, he approaches each person and quickly dismantles their movements, disrupting their balance, entering and making contact as he wishes. He is little and smaller than most of the students. But, he moves you back in such a way that my 6 feet 2 inches and 220 lbs felt useless even with martial training. He echoes, “I optimize myself! You don’t like it. You hate it! “ Someone says to him, “You are powerful.” He responds saying, “I am not powerful I have only a little energy; this is my contribution to Wing Chun. I optimize myself.”

He went on to say that “Wing Chun, if you accept that story, was a small woman. She could not rely on muscular strength to overcome a larger opponent.” In other words, he is saying that she needed to find a way to utilize all her vital energy as well as the opponent’s own mistakes — trying too hard, wanting to do something and extending too far– against that person.

Kenneth ChungHe walks us through the basic Wing Chun stance. Everyone knows this stance: toes in, knees bent, hips a little forward and head erect. But, there is something quite different when he adjusts you. It’s like you were standing there like a solid wooden block plugging a hole then he lowers your hips, tilts your pelvis forward, and then asks you to relax the chest, shoulders and back, and then adjusts each ingredient about two more times until you feel small and correct. I say to him, “I want to remember this feeling.” He says, “Don’t remember it. Try to achieve it.” His words let me know that it is possible to be great some day. He seems to be saying that all you need to know is that there is a right way. Try to find it.

As we hold this position, it begins to hurt a little. He says, “You must taste the bitterness! Enjoy it. Enjoy it,” he challenges us.

To be correct, the Wing Chun stance must have these five ingredients:

  • Kim Sut (鉗膝) knees in; lit. “squeeze/press knees”
  • Lok Ma (落馬) lower/settle down in the stance
  • Ting Yiu (挺腰) tuck the hips under and forward; lit. “straighten lower back”
  • Dung Tao (登頭) head erect
  • Mai Jarn (埋肘) elbows in; lit. “bury elbow”

Without these elements in place, Ken insists you are not practicing Wing Chun. Instead, you are just pretending to know it.

Kenneth’s concept of the Wing Chun stance may seem a little different to others, although perhaps it should not. He believes that the Wing Chun exists in the knees, and simply that. “I hit you with my knee,” he announces. “I form the connection with my knees.” The knees, which press inwards and downwards, are used for everything from connecting to the ground to forming a bridge or “connection” with the opponent. He believes that “if you stand in this lowered position and you do not feel something uncomfortable in the chest that you are not doing it right! I feel something now; but, I’m not sure if its the chain punch that I inquired about during the seminar. He backed away to avoid hurting me; but, it felt like thunder billowing in my insides.

The stance emphasizes the use of “settling.” I am not an expert in this way of using Wing Chun. There are others who understand it much better — Sifu Stephan Elaimy at Seattle Wing Chun. All I can say is that I think he was saying that each and “every” movement in Wing Chun is preceded by an attempt to settle the shoulders, hips, knees and elbows in place, in a sense relaxing them, before continuing on to the next movement.

This is why Siu Lim Tao is done slowly because it is attempting to teach you to form a relaxed connection among isolated parts, which others in the martial arts may call “being grounded” or “stillness within motion.” Being settled you lower down relaxing everything until it is in the right place. There is a connection between the elbows and knees.

During lunch that day, Kenneth told us a story about how he began to teach in California. Having trained under Leung Sheung for several years, Kenneth visited a student of Ip Man to continue his training. They agreed to meet privately at a fabric company. Kenneth said that he was respectful at first because the man is a student of Ip Man and a Sifu. But, he said that he kept feeling for that something and it was not there. After a few minutes of chi sao or rolling hands, he decided to advance. Each time he advanced, the man ended up across the room in fabric. Eventually, the man said “‘you are better than me. You should teach my class.” Kenneth became a Sifu that moment. He had not thought of teaching before. The two men have remained friends to this day. What a remarkable story! I believe that the story is true to the ideals of Yip Man’s Wing Chun because the best hands must speak for Wing Chun, otherwise, the art will die.

Kenneth is big on three concepts: position, position and placement. There is no mistake in this account. Position is everything. He is not so much interested in the striking function — though he can clearly demonstrate it with devastating effect. Instead, he wants new students to understand the importance of having the right position so that only minimal effort is required and then placing your weapon in the right location. When I say placement, he used words such as a “wet cloth” being placed on a forearm or chest. It is sticky and has some weight; but, it is not active and wiggling around.

I watched Kenneth’s tan sau repeatedly and feel comfortable saying that his Wing Chun has gone well beyond the physical. He is energy! The Tan sau is just a projection of his mind. It issues forth like light being emitted from an elbow. It is not a hand. It is light or wet light. I have seen this awareness of energy in the work of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Akido, though it is unfair to say that Wing Chun is Akido unless you embrace the concept of “energy frameworks” and realize that sunlight, gravity, your weight, water and a barking dog are all energy transformations — one and the same.

What I found particularly inspiring about his approach to Wing Chun is that he interprets the Wing Chun Stance through a concept of “knee energy” and then uses small and minimalist chum kiu turning to redirect or neutralize incoming force. Its really quite impossible to explain unless you touch hands (or attack) him. All I can say is what I told my mother about meeting him. (She’s usually quite curious about my martial pursuits since I’m more of an intellectual looking out at the world through five inch thick spectacles who happens to be reasonably good at martial strategy.)

“It’s like water flowing along a table that falls over the edge. You can’t stop it. It has to fall. He uses just a little energy to neutralize you,” I tell my mother. Kenneth says, “I have only a little energy.” I watched him used the exact same move on everyone. Of course, if you know Wing Chun, then you understand that billions of calculations are occurring in nanoseconds based on something referred to as “sensitivity” so each engagement was entirely different and unique.

What I found quite fascinating, if you can give me a couple more minutes of your time, is that he has rewritten the code of Wing Chun. All movements away from the opponent’s center he treats as a neutralization strategy. All movements toward the center he treats as a position, positioning and placement methodology. The hands move wide, not because we are chopping something out there; but because we are neutralizing or allowing force that wants to take that path to continue this way. Kenneth is not pulling you. He is redirecting or adding one once to your hidden or knowable desire.

The placement of hands in Siu Lim Tao are the same. You punch and he lets it fall downwards in such a way that you can not stop it. The skeptic, of course, will say that you let it happen because you want to believe. Trust me. Visit a master of any style — not just Wing Chun — and you will be humbled. The simplest smallest movement can be dismantling. I like Wing Chun because it is small, delicate, precise and powerful!

I was able to do a little chi sao with some of the senior students from this lineage. I found that they used the knee energy quite effectively. I was moved back a few times. I needed to use chum kiu to deal with it. But, I needed greater sensitivity than usual.

I had inquired of one student what he thinks Doctor Kenneth means by “knee energy.” The student allowed me to hold the chi sao position, which is much closer than in other lineages with the “wet cloth” fook sau and passive bong near the partner’s elbow. He showed me that if I used my knees it was possible to connect with his skeletal structure. He said to me that “the more I use my knee to become grounded, the more I can feel when you are not grounded.” He attacked at that moment. Perhaps, this is what Kenneth meant when he met one of Yip Man’s students and something did not feel right.

If you have an opportunity to invite Kenneth to your school despite your lineage, I encourage you to do so. He has a unique perspective on Wing Chun that is based on strong fundamentals. It is nice to see the impact of these fundamentals on others. I would like to think that Wing Chun is an exercise in “life long learning.” It is also a highly scientific martial art. The two must exist in balance.

I have tried to express what I learned honestly without holding back. But, everything can not be transmitted through words. It must be touched and felt to be fully understood and appreciated. This is my contribution to Wing Chun.

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