Ving Tsun Lineage: Yip Man and Earlier

There are more origin stories for Ving Tsun than you can poke a pole at, but one thing that seems obvious to me is that the system has been designed and developed over a long period of time and by many practitioners. Some had Ving Tsun as their first martial art and others came to Ving Tsun after training in and sometimes mastering other arts.
One dynamic that is easily observed in Ving Tsun’s development is that each person training in the system develops their own understanding and interpretation, which leads to often very individual practices. It is easy to see how different lineages arise and how they look very different from each other, and even branches within the same lineage can have different understanding and training practices from each other.
There are many factors causing this variance. One is that teachers vary greatly with regard to teaching style and ability to achieve they objectives with regard to transmission of the system. Hand in hand with this factor is the ability of the student to listen to the teacher..  the empty cup comes to mind. Another is that Ving Tsun requires thought, and again, people vary greatly with regard to the ability to think and how much they apply thought to the process. Another factor is the time that students have spent with their teacher, how often they trained consecutively, and at what time during the teacher’s career they trained. Yet another critical factor is the actual relationship between the teacher and student, whether they have rapport, respect each other, are on the same wavelength, etc. One more factor I could mention is the amount of energy the student has committed to the training, which will determine what they get out of it.
Considering all these factors, it would be extraordinary if Ving Tsun stayed the same across the board!
Going back a couple of generations from Yip Man, we have Leung Jan, a famous fighter and Ving Tsun teacher. There’s tons of material on Leung Jan on the web, so no need to spell out his story here. Leung Jan taught differently in his old age to when he was young. Also, he didn’t teach many people, only a few during his career as a traditional medicine practitioner and again just a few after he retired.
One of his students who went on to teach, Chan Wah Shun, in his turn taught a few students in what was apparently a small space. Chan Wah Shun had trained in other martial arts previously and this prior understanding influenced his Ving Tsun development, as it does.
Yip Man learned from Chan Wah Shun and his senior students from his early to mid teens. By all accounts the young Yip Man was a genius, picking up the ideas as though he were familiar with them already. He was very highly motivated to learn, and worked at his art.
Yip Man moved to Hong Kong to study, and when he returned to his hometown in China his Ving Tsun was transformed, incorporating the use of softness and other ideas unfamiliar to his previous fellow students. Yip Man taught a few students over the years before he moved to Hong Kong at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In Hong Kong, Yip Man soon began to teach Ving Tsun and over the years built up a massive following, though he only taught a few students the complete system and in depth only a very few, as did his teacher before him, and his teacher..
One small thing to note is that Yip Man officially changed the spelling of the name of the system from Wing Chun to Ving Tsun, because other martial art schools in Hong Kong were ridiculing it as the toilet fist, crappy system, etc in reference to wc or water closet an abbreviation used in architecture. Although many teachers in the Yip Man lineage have reverted to the wc spelling, some of us deem it more respectful to continue to use the spelling Yip Man chose, and continue to use the vt spelling.
My lineage is through Wong Shun Leung, one of the students who trained with Yip Man from those early years in Hong Kong.
My understanding is that Yip Man only reluctantly turned to teaching, as it was considered below his station in life.. but it beat sweeping floors for a living! They were very hard times. Also, and these are only my current reflections, it seems to me it had been some time since Yip Man had been involved with Ving Tsun before he started teaching in Hong Kong. Wong Shun Leung and his fellow students would watch through a crack in the door Yip Man working out how the forms went while he didn’t know they were watching. In my opinion he did a very good job putting it all together!
Yip Man didn’t have a coaching methodology as we understand it. When we look for example at the dummy form he taught, it’s not just a matter of the students having a different understanding.. he taught a different dummy set to each student. Another clue is that Yip Man didn’t initially teach Wong Shun Leung the gan sau, because he thought WSL being short would only need jum sau. Also he initially didn’t teach WSL the VT kicking, because WSL was winning all his fights from the first 3 months of training just using his fists, so he thought it was unnecessary to teach him to kick.. until later when WSL began to teach in Yip Man’s school.
We can see that for Yip Man the transmission was not teaching a fixed set of ideas and practices that each would work on in the same way. The transmission from teacher to student was more like a conversation, guided as much by what the student brought to the table as by the teacher imparting the knowledge. Yip Man also was not one to spell it all out, and certainly not one to repeat information. He would give hints and clues, and in this way encourage the students to work it out for themselves, in groups or whatever way they could. Being young and competitive, sometimes individuals and little groups would hide information from the others. Yip Man also encouraged the students to fight and develop their Ving Tsun from experience. They truly had to make their Ving Tsun their own!
Again, we can easily see how the lineages under Yip Man are so divergent. This divergence is what it is, has always been that way, and I see it as a good thing. We each give of ourselves to Ving Tsun according to our nature. It’s this freedom which makes Ving Tsun a living system and allows us to make it our own. In the fight we are alone, no teacher to hold our hand and tell us the right way to do it.
It really is phenomenal to consider the huge number of schools and practitioners that have come out of the small number of students this one man taught.. and it’s a rapidly growing number!

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