Kung Fu Behind Closed Doors

A version of this article was published in Blitz Martial Arts Magazine (June-July 2017).

It’s not uncommon in Wing Chun circles to hear that a certain Sifu was a closed door student of Yip Man’s or that someone learned certain “secrets” from the Grandmaster’s closed door disciples. But did Yip Man really have closed door students and what does the concept really mean?

When hearing the term, which in Cantonese is “gwaan muhn” or literally “closed door,” one imagines a select group of students being designated as the “chosen ones,” anointed by their master to learn Wing Chun’s hidden secrets to the exclusion of other students.

Although true to a certain point, the term has much deeper significance in traditional Chinese martial arts culture and history. In the old days in China, martial artists who were truly invincible were few and far between. But if a master developed a skill or technique that was uniquely effective or he had unusual ability, he would have to worry that spies from other schools would steal his skills. Such masters always also had to worry that in a real fight, their unique skills could be rendered ineffective because, once a fighting technique was known by others, an opponent could prepare to counter it, rendering any advantage ineffective.

While it was common in open door training environments to show off your skills, what you didn’t want to let others see were your training methods and how you got to your high level of martial arts. So in open door settings, the skill set shown to outsiders and students who had not yet proven their loyalty was often not a very high level or even “real” kung fu. Or in some cases a master would simply not openly teach the real application of a certain movement or technique.

All of this makes sense if we recognise that, in those days, having a competitive advantage in martial arts was an important means of survival. Being a good martial artist meant you could make a living, protect your family, and gain social status and respect, i.e., it had social and monetary value.

So when a master taught the real thing, it was usually only to a select group of students who were considered loyal and trustworthy. If you were lucky enough to be chosen, you were considered a closed door student. Those not invited were typically not senior enough or hadn’t earned the trust of the master. This system also tested a student’s dedication, commitment, and loyalty.

But “gwaan muhn” also had another important meaning in martial arts society and referred to a master who was no longer accepting new students. This is because he was getting ready to retire and was in the process of appointing and preparing an heir for his particular lineage and style. There was usually no public announcement of who the successor was, and training would be behind closed doors in order to pass on various “secrets,” which included:

1) herbal medicine and dit da (bone setting) skills: These were important because a master would not want his students visiting another master for medical treatment if he got injured or sick, so he needed to be able to treat and cure them himself.
2) Dim mak (vital acupuncture points that cause blackouts or internal injury): Being able to injure or kill an opponent required knowledge of the body’s vulnerable points.
3) Forms and training methods: Deeper knowledge of a martial art’s forms and training methods was passed on to only closed door students to enable them to reach higher levels or develop unusual abilities. This training usually did not encompass learning a whole new system but focused on essential points or the “essence” of certain forms.
4) Nei gung training: This refers to the cultivation of internal energy or force and involved training similar to tai chi. The idea was to pass on simple but effective techniques to build up the student’s nei gung to set him apart from other students.

In modern times, of course, all of this has lost its original meaning. For example, an injured student can simply visit a doctor or be sent to the hospital instead of being treated by his Sifu. In the old days, most masters had only a handful of students who would literally support their master’s life, financially and otherwise. All this had changed by the time Yip Man came on the scene. Firstly, Yip Man never appointed a successor (jeung muhn yahn in Cantonese), according to his son Yip Chun. He was also open to having many students. One of the benefits that we are all reaping now is that he produced a good many teachers who themselves, or their students, have branched out all over the world. While Yip Man didn’t necessarily pick those he wanted to go into teaching, he did encourage his students to do so.

Although Yip Man didn’t follow many of the traditions described above, he did take on private students. And it’s entirely possible that he passed on “secrets” or deeper elements of Wing Chun to them. Some say that his private students’ skills were better in some areas, e.g., greater dissection of the wooden dummy form or better hand placement. But the difference is that Yip Man likely did not select his private students but accepted them on the basis of financial remuneration. It may be noteworthy that Bruce Lee and Duncan Leung (Yip Man’s first private student in Hong Kong) took private lessons with Yip Man together.

Yip Man’s less traditional approach might also partly explain why his lineage has become so popular. Compared to other Wing Chun lineages that were confined to a closed and xenophobic China, and perhaps just to a small village, the location of Hong Kong as Yip Man’s new base offered the world a window into Chinese culture and martial arts. And the fact that many of his students and their disciples migrated overseas from Hong Kong is also an important factor in the spread of the lineage. And of course we cannot overlook Bruce Lee’s impact on the popularity of Yip Man’s Wing Chun throughout the world.

And while Yip Man’s lineage is probably the most popular, other lineages have played an important role in Wing Chun’s overall evolution. These include Pao Fa Lin Weng Chun, Snake Crane Wing Chun, Yuan Kay Shan Wing Chun, Chan Yui Min Wing Chun, Gulao Wing Chun, Fung Siu Ching Weng Chun, Ban Chung Wing Chun, Hung Suen Wing Chun, Jee Shin Wing Chun, Fujian Wing Chun, and others. Different lineages of Wing Chun started breaking out during the so-called “Red Boat” period in the 1850s. The resulting different branches of Wing Chun all had their influences — for example, from other kung fu styles or the introduction of chi gung (internal energy) — but almost all Wing Chun lineages have kept the same core of three hand forms, although the applications may differ. It’s only natural that different emphases and curriculums would emerge as knowledge and skills were passed down through the generations.

There is an interesting story about the evolution of Wing Chun’s side body stance involving Leung Jan, one of Wing Chun’s most famous fighters and Yip Man’s sigung (teacher’s teacher). After living in Foshan for many years, Leung Jan returned to his native Gulou village in Heshan County, Guangdong province, where he taught a very skinny student, Wong Wah Sam, who just couldn’t handle a more powerful opponent head on. But rather than teach him Wing Chun’s traditional front-facing form, Leung Jan introduced the side body or the “pin san” stance, which produces a more efficient angle and enables the use of soft power. The technique was simply the opposite side of the same coin, with the front-facing approach being more yang, while the side body stance was more yin. By slightly changing the essence of the Wing Chun stance and energy, Leung Jan really made the art complete and took Wing Chun to another level through the introduction of a spinning stance and the side body fighting approach.

According to the biographic history of Leung Jan carved on a stone tablet in the Leung Jan Cultural Park in Gulou village, however, these “pin san” skills were directly learnt from Yim Wing Chun who is thought to have learned the original Wing Chun system from Ng Mui, a Shaolin nun who created the Wing Chun system. At the time, Leung Jan’s Sifu, Wong Wah Bo, recommended that he meet Yim Wing Chun, after which he studied with her for three years to learn these skills. If this history is accurate, then the “pin san” skills were not Leung Jan’s own creation, but he nevertheless played a big role in passing them down to succeeding generations.

Although this closed-door system no longer exists in modern times, it’s only natural that any serious martial artist will want to learn the “secrets” of his particular martial art, especially any training methods for attaining higher levels of skill and fostering unusual abilities. However, the essence of martial arts sometimes boils down to very simple things, which if cursorily taught or not taught with care, can be devalued by students. This will then make those training methods lose their underlying value. To avoid this, a cloak of secrecy sometimes needs to be placed over these training methods in order to keep their value. The truth of the matter is that the road to producing unusual skills and abilities in martial arts is often a boring and time consuming one before results can be seen. Basic skills need to be practiced repeatedly over and over again until students can master them. If these essential elements are not taught, this can, in the end, hurt a martial art’s tradition.

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