What is Wing Tsun - Really?

What is wing tsun? There are two kinds of answers to this question. One is the typical one where some wing tsun instructor tries to communicate to you on one web page the history, purpose, and some of the basic aspects of wing tsun training. That is okay at one level, but the question also bears answering on a much more fundamental level.

Yes, wing tsun is the original "style of no style", etc., etc., but what does that really mean - and is it still actually taught and practiced that way?

To me, when I see a good MMA or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fight on the ground, that is "wing tsun". When I see someone walking down the street and simply sidestep an obstacle that suddenly appears in front of him like a car pulling out of a driveway or a thug trying to ram him with his shoulder as he passes, that is "wing tsun".

When I tell another wing tsun instructor that two BJJ guys rolling on the ground are doing "great wing tsun", they scoff at me. "What are you talking about? That's not wing tsun!!"


BJJ guys always face each other. They don't like to turn their side or their back to an opponent. They easily and freely flow from one attack or defensive move into another (what they call "transitioning"). They seek closeness to their opponent rather than distance. They like to control, jam, stuff, or simply neutralize their opponent's attacks. They go by feel, by contact, rather than pure hand-eye coordination. They go inside immediately and, once there, they fight like banshees or simply ride their opponent out when that's what is called for.

I don't know about you, but to me, that's great wing tsun.

Most BJJ or MMA guys probably wouldn't agree with that assessment. They think of what they do as "BJJ" or "MMA", and they think that wing tsun, like all other kung fu "sucks" and that wing tsun people "can't fight".


In some cases, they are probably right about that last part - but so what? Am I practicing and teaching wing tsun because I want to be a living testimony to its superiority?

No. Why would I want to do that? My reasons for practicing it are completely different.

I see huge, indeed unlimited potential in the principles that underpin whatever it is that we call think we know and recognize as "wing tsun". It lets me become aware of my body, my thinking, and how those two interact like nothing else I have ever done before. It lets me experiment with the movements I learn and investigate whether those movements really conform to the principles that are supposed to underpin them, or whether there may be a better way of carrying them out.

When I practice one or more of the three forms of wing tsun, I can do either form all the way through, isolate certain parts of it and repeat or emphasize that part, or I can rearrange it altogether or combine its movements with those of one of the other forms if that happens to make sense to me according to the underlying principles and "mottoes" of wing tsun.

I haven't even learned the entire system yet (even though I have been practicing it for thirty years now), but I already know that the learning, the development, the self-discovery, the finding of new ways to use an "old" technique, never stops in wing tsun.

I'll give you an example. I have a wooden dummy on my porch. I've had it there since over a year ago, now. I have yet to actually learn a single move of the dummy form from my own instructor, but I sneaked a peak at the wooden dummy book, looked at some videos (especially the one of GGM Yip Man doing the form), and started learning the form "dry", i.e., without a dummy because I had to wait so long to get mine (one of my students, a master carpenter, made it for me, and it took a while.

When I finally had the dummy, I had to re-learn all of the movements all over again because it's totally different when you have a live dummy in front of you. Now I got the form down and I started experimenting with certain exercises on the dummy. What did I find? The dummy actually "teaches" me wing tsun. That thing is constructed so ingeniously that it forces me to rethink all of my movements and do my stance turns and steps correctly, or it simply doesn't work.

It's the same thing with a live opponent. Reality usually hurts, and it's always different from what you expect. Opponents are real. They hit you. They kick you. They grapple with you and get you down on the ground. Each situation has its own challenges. If you always practice only with compliant students, or with fellow students or fellow instructors who implicitly "agree" with you that certain things should be done a certain way "just because", then you are cheating yourself and your development in wing tsun.

Wing tsun is not a "style". It's not even a "system". It doesn't even have "techniques" in the ordinary sense of that word. All it is is a way to get yourself out of trouble when it really counts. It's a set of ideas that eventually lead you to doing certain movements in certain ways when you think about them hard and long enough - and if you TEST them properly.

To me, "wing tsun" is nothing but an ongoing investigation. You could wax philosophical and call it a "path to enlightenment", but to me, that sounds rather pretentious and it doesn't really convey any meaning, any actual information. But it certainly is a way to see (i.e., think about) yourself, others, and the world around you more clearly, more accurately, more correctly, and in the end, it's just plain fun to practice it. The fun in wing tsun never stops. That's how it got its name.

The "wing" in wing tsun doesn't really just mean "beautiful", as in "beautiful springtime", which is what wing tsun is usually translated to mean. It also means "never ending" or "eternal". The fun, the learning, the development, the growing and "greening" in wing tsun really never stops.

At rock-bottom, wing tsun is nothing more than the idea of never-ending investigation: of yourself, your physiology, your mind-body interactions, your strengths, your weaknesses, of ways to turn your weaknesses into strengths and ways to keep others from turning your strengths into your weaknesses, your training partner, your teacher, your student, and especially actual attackers.

That's why, to me, the most quintessentially "wing tsun" type of "technique" or position/movement is the "man sau" movement, also known as the "asking arm".

Man Sao & Wu Sao, courtesy of

The Man Sao concept has to be the foundation of all wing tsun. Man sao, the "asking arm", when pushed forward toward an attacker, will sooner or later contact or be contacted by something. That "something" could be your attacker's arm, his face, or his neck, or even a leg in his attempt to kick you or knee you.

By simply contacting that arm or leg (or neck or face), you get "information". That information either tells you that the arm being contacted is moving towards you, or that it is still, or that it is moving sideways. If the first contact is with a face or neck, man sao turns into either an open hand strike or a fist when it lands, or it simply lands on the attacker's head and controls it.

In either case, the "question" asked by the asking arm is always answered, one way or another. Either man sao contacts an arm, leg, or other body part, or it doesn't. When it doesn't, that either means the way to the target is free - or that the target has disappeared.

If there is an oncoming arm, the man sao asks "hey, what should I do?" and the oncoming attack "tells" it that it needs to bend and form itself into one of the different "techniques" or functions that are most commonly labeled either "bong sao", or "tan sao", or jum sao", or kao sao", or whatever, depending on the direction of the oncoming force and on from where it contacts your man sao (indoor are, outdooor area, from above or below, etc.)

The whole point of your ing tsun training is to train your arms and legs to allow this oncoming force to form them into different deflecting movements and/or to let our arms and legs spring out and forward if and when the force recedes or disappears.

That's it. That's the essence of wing tsun kung fu. The same thing can happen on the ground. It's a good way to fight, because it is asking for the reality of the situation: what, if anything, is coming, and in which direction (if in any at all) is it pushing my arms, legs, and body in the process, and how do I best respond to that in a way that keeps me safe and my attacker on the defensive?

Reality always has to be dealt with, one way or the other. If you don't, it deals with you - also one way or the other. The whole purpose of "wing tsun", in my mind, is to enable you to stay in the drivers seat in this process - and you do that by always "asking", always pushing your awareness outward until it comes into contact with whatever the reality around you happens to be.

That's a good way of being. It's also a good way of fighting. It's also a good way of growing and developing. It follows the scientific principle: always test everything. never take anything for granted, as a "given", as the "end-all, be-all".

If you send out your "man sao" and seek your answers from reality, then you are doing "good wing tsun". If you don't, if you simply follow your teacher and turn wing tsun into a "religion" of sorts, then you are doing something else. Then you are not investigating reality, but you are trying to support and defend what will probably turn out to be an illusion, a myth - and that's bad wing tsun!

So, what is "wing tsun, then"? It's a way to engage reality and, hopefully, if you train correctly and hard enough, to come out on top in the end.

Everything else is just a name for a set of movements. Anyone who claims that this set of movements is the "end-all, be-all" of martial arts is deluding themselves.

If you allow those movements to solidify into an overly rigid 'answer" to everything in your mind, you have missed the boat entirely and you will end up in the water. Only if your idea of wing tsun is to learn to ask better and better "questions" in a fight (or in life), and to keep "asking questions" until something that obstructs you gives way, until your riddle is solved, only then will you be on the right "path": the wing tsun path to reality.

So, in the end, whenever you are sincerely and earnestly asking yourself the question in the title of this essay, you are already practicing good "wing tsun". How is that for an answer?

Alex Wallenwein
Houston's 'Backyard' Wing Tsun

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