Wing Chun ("Spring Chant" [詠春]) is a type of Kung Fu Wushu (Wu Shu = "Martial Arts") which, reduced to its bare essentials, is based on the concept of know-how over brute strength (think of the iconic scene in the Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indy, facing a ferocious-looking Goliath type brandishing an over-sized scimitar, whips out a modest but high-tech, relatively speaking, weapon – a pistol – and plugs the brute, end of story, though the Wing Chun fighter does not necessarily have to resort to any weapon other than his bare hands... in addition, of course, to the momentum of the opponent, since the weight and speed of an assailant can be used against him), the key word here being "know-how", which we will elucidate in stages, or by means of more or less concentric circles (arcs?) of meaning, decreasing from large to small, as it were, eventually hopefully encircling the sought-after meaning. You ready? Here goes...
All Chinese martial arts originate from the principle of self-defense; they are not conceived as an offensive tactic, at least not in the initial stages, though after an attacker's onslaught (kicks, punches, etc.) is parried, the martial arts fighter then goes on the offensive, "neutralizing", if possible, the attacker.
It is here where Wing Chun differs from most other martial arts disciplines, combining adroitness and suppleness of movement (and suppleness of musculature) with self-control, well-rehearsed "internal" (wudang [武当]) martial arts and an insight into the superior leverage that can be achieved over the opponent, given one's own assets – size, shape, balance, adroitness, suppleness, momentum, etc. – in relation to the opponent's assets. Additionally, Wing Chun is tenaciously aggressive, but in a clever, probing manner, like the mongoose, Riki-Tiki-Tavi, pitted against the cobra in the Rudyard Kipling short story, The Jungle Book.
Thus, Wing Chun is as much about science as it is about art, though Wing Chun most certainly involves art, which art chiefly lies in being able to make a constant, ever-changing, or 'on one's feet', accurate assessment of one's own strengths at any given point in time (including tactical advantages/ disadvantages – i.e., openings – that reveal themselves) during the "struggle" relative to one's opponents' strengths, which of course means that one is in a better position to exploit one's opponent's openings and to avoid exposing oneself to one's opponent.
Most treatises on Wing Chun go to great lengths to specify what the discipline is not. Which is of course indirectly a statement of what it is. Some of the highlights of what Wing Chun is not about, followed by contrasting statements regarding what it is about, are the following observations, which are related to the core concepts of Wing Chun such as superior balance, suppleness (which fosters striking speed) and general adroitness:
Steroid-like musculature is a minus, while supple, flexible musclature is a plus; a rigid, squat, 'feet solidly planted', elbows akimbo (extended outward from the body) defensive stance is a minus, while a flexible, 'elastic feet', yet firmly rooted (to be explained below), high and narrow (elbows tight in to the body) defensive stance is a plus. The comparison is often to a bamboo plant that grows on the sheer sides of mountains where the wind blows relentlessly, and where the narrow, pliant bamboo is rarely uprooted, whereas strong winds can often easily uproot a monstrously large and rigid oak tree. Of particular concern in Wing Chun is muscle tension in attacking or fending off an attack.
While large, tensed biceps might be an advantage in delivering a very solid punch, this is never the goal in Wing Chun, which is more in the "sting like a bee" spirit of Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali than in the "slug it out" spirit of Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxing champion whose defeat by Cassius Clay made the elegant (and intelligent) boxer who would eventually change his name to Muhammad Ali a household name.
Since the muscles that control the limbs are paired (one for extending, the other for retracting the arm or the leg... though practically all of the muscles of the body are paired, whether in the neck or the lower back, etc.), an overly tight flexion muscle in the arm (i.e., an overly tight bicep) will hinder the rapid extension of the arm via the extension muscle (the tricep), with the result that, for example, a boxer with large, overly tensed biceps will fare poorly against an opponent with smaller, more relaxed biceps, since the latter boxer can parry the slower punches of the "muscle-bound" boxer and can then himself deliver punishing, rapid-fire punches which, over time, take their toll in terms of cumulative damage to the opponent.
But Wing Chun is not boxing, even though punching also belongs to the sport. Yet muscle flexibility plays a major role in Wing Chun in several ways, such as:
a limber muscle reduces fatigue and thus prolongs stamina,
a limber muscle in a limb deprives the opponent of a "handle" to latch onto, or a fulcrum, as it were, that might make it possible for one to be thrown, or for one's arms or legs to be trapped, or pinned (if an opponent is "rubbery", it is all but impossible to use that opponent's body against him!),
a limber muscle in a limb is more deceptive during probing attacks because it does not appear nearly as threatening as a tensed muscle, therefore the opponent can be fooled by what is unfolding, and might well be seriously disadvantaged by the time he realizes what is under way.
It might be helpful at this point to note that Wing Chun was developed by a female who – according to the legend – knew that she would be facing a male opponent (all due respect to female practitioners of Wing Chun notwithstanding, I will refer strictly to my own male gender in the following, but only in order to avoid the constant use of him/ her, his/ her and the like). Therefore this special martial arts discipline is born out of the need to exploit whatever advantages can be derived from a body that is slighter in build than the larger body of a typical male opponent, but naturally, the suppleness and adroitness principle applies generally, regardless of gender, as in the Sonny Liston – Cassius Clay boxing example above. Which brings us to the teacher-and-pupil legend of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun, which is interesting even if we might not believe in it, at least not literally...
Fig 1: Michelle Yeoh as Yim Wing Chun in the 1994 Hong Kong Wushu film, Wing Chun