The Philosophy of Wing Chun
After a student learns Wing Chun’s movements, they should learn further and seek to appreciate the philosophy of the art. The movements and forms of Wing Chun are just the tip of the iceberg. Going deeper means understanding the concepts and principles of Wing Chun behind its movements. In other words, the reasons why Wing Chun moves, stands and reacts in the way the art teaches us. It means understanding the essence behind Wing Chun techniques.
In this article, we’ll describe the Wing Chun philosophy behind its approach to fighting, but also the origins of it.
The Philosophy Behind Wing Chun
What is the philosophy of Wing Chun? The art of Wing Chun brings several principles together to make it work. These underlying concepts all stem from the Chinese philosophies of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucian teachings. But more on that later.
Wing Chun philosophy is about simplicity, directness and efficiency. The art favors a distinct preference for practical over pretty. A “get to the point” attitude instead of fancy, flowery moves. And a dirty, down-to-earth no-nonsense approach over things overly complex, irrelevant and extra.
This means honesty… the kind of down-to-earth honesty which simplicity and practicality demands!
At its core, Wing Chun is designed for self-defense and self-improvement of the mind, body, and spirit. Physically, Wing Chun was designed in such a way to allow a smaller person to overcome a bigger, stronger person, which, of course, doesn’t mean it is only for smaller people, just that it was designed to give smaller people a chance to fight their Goliath opponents. Size does not matter when you know how to handle yourself. Size does matter when you think a smaller person can win over a bigger person through brute force alone.
To explain one of the main Wing Chun philosophies in just a few words: “Be like water.” Life is not consistent, and fighting that will only make you miserable. But why does something so simple seem so hard to grasp in actuality? The answer is the human factor. It is human to complicate things. Some may veil that complication as an “improvement,” and in some cases it may well be an improvement, but not everything needs to be complicated. Complication adds fluff, and that is not Wing Chun. Our style is direct, efficient, balanced, centered, and yet, it is also yielding when it has to be. To yield is to go with that flow.
When it comes to Wing Chun fighting philosophy, the same things apply: be centered, be balanced, be yielding, “Be like water, my friend.” Wing Chun has the capacity to appear like some sort of magic in some cases. The reality, however, is that there is none, just science.
Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch may have looked like something out of Dragon Ball Z, but in actuality, it was a real thing, with principles of anatomy and science to back it up. Anyone can perform the one-inch punch! All it takes is a little learning of what to do.
The Origins of Wing Chun Philosophy
As mentioned before, Wing Chun philosophy generally stems from Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian teachings. The origins of the Wing Chun philosophies are all part of integrated Chinese philosophy that stretch back thousands of years. If you have read any of what are dubbed “The Four Books and Five Classics”—Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius are the titles of the Four Books. Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, I Ching, and the Spring and Autumn Annals are the titles of the Five Classics—you have already read some Confucian philosophy. Most of Wing Chun’s Confucian teachings are on the codes of conduct (such as Ip Man’s code of conduct for his students,) and the moral code of the student, which can be seen as a parallel to the Confucian teachings of familial loyalty and piety.
For Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, the Art of War (although not explicitly Taoist, it makes use of the Taoist Way frequently in its teachings,) the Zhuangzi, and, of course, the concept of Yin and Yang, these are all part of Taoist teachings. You see Yin and Yang in application of Wing Chun—both on a concept basis and a physical basis. Yin and Yang are ever present in Wing Chun, and mastering that duality is a key part of the journey, as is attaining the simplicity in Wing Chun. Bruce Lee says it best: “Hack away at the unessential.” Simple, direct, at its core, this is the essence of the philosophy of Wing Chun.
The Buddhist canons including the Mahayana Sutras and the Buddhavacana, give a good idea of how Buddhism plays its part in Wing Chun philosophy for life. Buddhist philosophy in Wing Chun is all about the journey, the suffering and the sacrifice that comes with the training. Its that frustration and the times where you wonder if you can take any more. And the constant struggle to fight against your ego in order to honestly get better.
Wing Chun Symbols
There are a number of symbols we use in Wing Chun. Perhaps the most common ones are, of course, the Chinese characters for Wing Chun, and the symbol for Yin and Yang. However, let us take a look at another symbol that is probably not as widely used: the Confucian symbol.
In one of the passages in Analects, it reads “Heaven will instruct the master like a wooden-clapper bell (to awaken everyone to the Way)” Our own interpretation of this passage is that even the master is learning, and is unburdened by the ego. Heaven works in mysterious ways, and a master will learn from many different sources, some of which are seemingly unrelated to what the master has mastered. It is all about self-improvement.
One of our more prominent Wing Chun philosophies for life is the system of threes. To use one of our concepts as an example:
“One in, one out. One up, one down. Never two on one idly.”
What this means for a philosophy for life is to always be ready for something more, and never get complacent. Complacency is the enemy of progress, and when you grow complacent, you start to let the ego swell up. Ego will always be one of your worst enemies, and it will never rest at trying to deceive you, because that is what the ego does: it deceives you.
The name “Wing Chun” itself is something to ponder during your meditations. Translated, Wing Chun means “Song of Spring.” Spring is all about rejuvenation, life, birth, rebirth, a return to emptiness in order to refine and expand what you already know. It is always important to remember your roots, and one of the best ways to do so, is to return to emptiness.
What sort of life does a Wing Chun practitioner tend to lead?
The short answer is that they tend to lead an honest one. This is a martial art, and just like in any other physical activity, you cannot let yourself be allured by an echo chamber establishment. Feedback is all-important when it comes to training, and it is especially important that you get people willing to be honest with you, and tell you when you are doing something wrong.
If someone is willing to tell you that you are not doing something right, they respect you enough and care enough to want to see you grow. Anyone who is constantly praising you is merely inflating both their ego and yours. They do not care as to whether or not you are truly improving.
On the other side of that spectrum, it is important to remember just what sort of feedback is actually good feedback. If someone tells you something such as, “That was bad,” that is just someone with a superiority complex trying to stroke their own ego. If someone tells you something such as, “That was bad. Here’s how we can fix that,” that is some honest feedback.
“Truthful words are never beautiful. Beautiful words are never truthful.” ~Lao Tzu
Truthful words are blunt. Embrace them. You will be all the better for it, and you will know you are in good hands when you are at a school that is willing to be honest with you. Self-improvement starts only when you can be honest with yourself. At that point, the transformations can begin in earnest. You have to want self-improvement, otherwise your journey will either be a lot longer, or a lot shorter. Perseverance, Integrity, Education. No matter the physical activity you decide to do, have these three things, and you will always go far.
See also our Principles of Wing Chun Guide