WingTsun returns to China

Following a long but pleasant flight, our plane touched down at Hong Kong`s famous Kai Tak airport early in the morning on 8th January 1996. For our WT-delegation consisting of Sifu Giuseppe Schembri, Sifu Oliver König and Sifu Roland Liebscher-Bracht this was to be the start of a study trip to Asia which would no doubt be an unforgettable experience. We were quickly captivated by the hectic activity in this busy metropolis.
Everybody seemed to be particularly busy, with a hustle and bustle which reminded us of an enormous anthill. It was nice to be able to withdraw to our quiet hotel with its view of Victoria harbour. Deliberately ignoring our jetlag, we first wanted to pay a visit to our mother school and our Sigung, Grand Master Leung Ting.

The school in Nathan Road was only marked by a modest sign outside, and had typical WT-features such as wooden dummies, long poles, wallbags and of course the photographs of the late Grand Master Yip Man in addition to numerous photographs from the time of Yip Man.
We spent some time absorbing this historical atmosphere and countless banners and photographs with dedications bore witness that Grand Master Leung Ting enjoys friendly relations with many styles and masters.

Following the obligatory snapshots in the school - a must for Sifu Liebscher-Bracht, who was on his first visit to Hong Kong - we accompanied Sigung Leung Ting on visit after visit. Nonetheless we had enough time to do justice to the culinary and social customs of the country, particularly the wonderful creations of the Dim Sun restaurants.

As "European attractions in the flesh" we received several invitations and were introduced to members of the Ving Tsun Athletic Association as well as Master Chu, who is an important personality in both Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China.

We visited places and buildings of historical importance to WT, including the teahouse where Grand Master Yip Man was often to be found. Naturally we were keen to go there ourselves, so Grand Master Leung Ting and Sifu Siu Yuk Man, one of Grand Master Yip Man's original students, took us to Shantung Street.
Unfortunately the tea-house no longer exist today; it has been replaced by a seafood restaurant, however parts of the décor are still authentic. Finally, it was time to attend to our WT training, for our visit to China was still ahead of us. We were to have the honour of assisting Sigung Leung Ting during a training course. Our first week in Hong Kong absolutely flew by.

On the last day before our departure to China a Scandinavian TV crew was filming a report on WT. We were able to admire Sigung Leung Ting and Master Chu during their demonstrations, and were also given the opportunity to take part ourselves. Sigung demonstrated things which even we as highly-graduated WT instructors do not get to see every day. After the film session our thoughts were concentrated even more on the impending visit to Hunan, and our curiosity grew.

Several people in Hong Kong had already warned us that it was impossible to eat the food in this rural province, and that the climate was extremely cold at this time of year. So we bought extra pullovers and warm vests, which soon turned out to be a wise decision. Next Morning we started off. First we took a train to China, where we were able to experience the border crossing at first hand - it is comparable in every way to that between West Germany and the former East Germany.

On arriving at the airport we were already slightly nervous. The Hong Kong Chinese had warned us against taking a domestic flight in China, and our confidence in the technology of the Middle Kingdom was not all it might have been. We were in luck, however, for a new Airbus was waiting for us and the flight was without incident.

Arriving in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, we gratefully boarded the four-wheel drive vehicles with which the head of the Kung Fu school where we were to hold the course collected us. It was bitterly cold and rainy outside, and the town lay sad and grey before us. Nonetheless we were glad to have landed in a large town with all its facilities, however it was soon time to move on again.

An adventurous journey into the interior began. Completely impassable mountain regions gave way to the occasional village and were punctuated by paddyfields, paddyfields and more paddyfields. The Chinese seem to use every available square-centimetre for ricefields. These are separated by low earth walls and form their own pattern in the landscape. The road meandered right through this pattern and was lined with beautiful poplars.

A European finds it difficult to appreciate how people live here. They sell their goods on the street, or from small shops which resemble garages and have no heating or electricity. In the evening the doors are closed and the proprietor spends the night in his cage-like shop.
Some light a small fire to keep warm, as the temperature is around 0*C! Butcher's shops are merely small tables on which dead animals are laid. Fish are laid on the sparsely covered floor in heaps and sold. Despite the poverty and primitive conditions, many of the people seem to exude an inner sense of happiness.

After several hours of driving over bumpy roads, some of which would not even merit being called "tracks" at home, we arrived at our destination, the town of Loudi. Our hotel, which was probably the best in town, made a very comfortable impression. An attractive park with a pagoda on a hill lay before it. We therefore entered the inviting glass doors of the hotel in delicious anticipation of homely warmth and were astonished to find that it was at least as cold in the hotel as outside. Only our rooms were slightly heated, which seemed to be normal here.

Later we found that the hotel dining room and the local restaurants were also unheated. Instead there was a soup bowl on each table, heated by a small "campfire" which at least warmed the face and upper body. The training course was due to start the next day. We were not exactly sure when and where, through. At any rate we were to meet for breakfast at 7.30 and depart at 8.30. We three Europeans accordingly mat at 7.30 and spent an hour at the otherwise empty tables. We were beginning to wonder if we had missed the departure when the others gradually began to appear and breakfast commenced.

We finally left at 11.00. Everybody (except us) found this quite normal, and it seems to correspond to the Chinese mentality and their attitude to time. We were quickly out of town, passed through suburbs which became more and more shabby and travelled along roads which gradually turned worse until they become dirt-tracks that only our four-wheel drive vehicles could possibly manage. Where on earth were we heading? Apart from passing the occasional farmhouse we were in an absolutely deserted, hilly region. So we adopted the patience of the Chinese and waited to see where we would end up.

Then suddenly we saw the school behind the very last turning! We could hardly believe our eyes, for a mass of people, hundreds of Chinese Kung Fu students, lined the track on both sides and saluted us. They wore yellow Bruce Lee suits like the one he wore in his films, and this was the reception committee. Their ranks stretched right back to the school gates, and we were overcome by this amazing sight.
We were 2 hours late in arriving, and the students had stood there all this time in the rain, at 0*C! But that was only the beginning! We approached a larger entry porch. Chinese characters and symbols adorned the entire school, and there was a large training area in front of the main building in the inner courtyard. A long table with a red cloth had been positioned on one side specially for us and other important visitors as a grandstand.

While we left our vehicles and took our seats together with Sigung, Master Chu and Sifu Lili Wong and the other guests, the Kung Fu students steamed back to the training area and lined it on three sides. An unforgettable sight! Hundreds of students in Bruce Lee suits had taken position, and television and journalists were present too. Hand-painted banners proclaimed: "Welcome to our guests from Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland and Austria".
All three of us suddenly felt we had been transported onto the set of the Bruce Lee film: "Enter the Dragon" as if by magic. This strange feeling of being absolutely impressed by the honour being done to us on the one hand, but also of being surrounded by Hollywood scenery as part of a Bruce Lee Eastern on the other, was to remain with us throughout our stay in China.

After Sigung Leung Ting, Master Chu and a few others had made speeches which were filmed by Chinese television, the "International Gigantic Movie Star Bruce Lee Special Kung Fu School" gave a demonstration. We had meanwhile been told that this was the largest Kung Fu school in China, with more than 5000 members, and were of course eager to see what would happen.

The reporters, photographers and television crews now turned their attention to the large training area where our grandstand had been erected. One group of students after another left the formation and came into the centre of the square to perform its demonstration. The individual groups showed techniques, applications and forms. We could not believe what we were seeing. The film seemed to be continuing. To our amazement we found that we where not watching original Chinese Kung Fu but a mixture of boxing techniques, Judo throws, wrestling and various Korean and Japanese styles etc. Nunchaku techniques were also demonstrated.

Finally one student demonstrated a form which was more reminiscent of Chinese Kung Fu, however this looked so unreal and exotic that it could lay no claim to practical applicability. Naturally we applauded, however we were rather at a loss for words. What was going on here? Where was the thousand-year Kung Fu tradition of China? This spectacle was entirely in keeping with the Bruce Lee suits. It seems that the school seeks to pursue an ideal which is not based on Chinese tradition but on American Eastern movies. A press conference took place immediately after the demonstrations, in rooms which were apparently the pride and joy of the school.

Grand Master Leung Ting now gave a speech in front of the assembled journalists, in which he gave his frank opinion of what he had seen, described WT as a traditional and highly effective fighting system and condemned what had been demonstrated. The atmosphere in the room suddenly became very negative, and we gradually had a peculiar feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Obviously the Chinese were not willing to accept that their mixture of various styles was nothing like the original WT which had been practised in China before the Cultural Revolution. It seems that nobody had given them his opinion so clearly before.

We were to start instructing on the following day. The atmosphere was still tense and the students were clearly very sceptical. As we found out later they trained very hard, in all weather conditions and in primitive circumstances (poor sanitary facilities, food …) Usually there was not even an instructor present. They were therefore rather sure of themselves, and wanted to know whether there was any substance to Sigung Leung Ting's remarks. They also found it rather odd that three Europeans of all people should claim to be skilled in "Kung Fu", let alone teach it here, in the motherland of Kung Fu.

Having been introduced, we began to demonstrate Chi-Sao, Lat-Sao and their applications in different phases etc. in our usual robust manner. The numerous onlookers in their yellow Bruce Lee suits were obviously both shocked and enthusiastic. The atmosphere changed abruptly, and suddenly they were all keen to learn WT. Even a few spectators joined the ranks and followed Sigung's movements during the Siu-Nim-Tau. He then demonstrated footwork and basic techniques. We had the great honour of demonstrating and teaching the Lat-Sao training programme which Dai-Sifu Keiyh R. Kernspecht had introduced at the beginning of the 80s.

The Chinese students were full of enthusiasm. The training hall was a primitive affair, unheated and with numerous broken windows. It had meanwhile started to snow outside. The students were nevertheless motivated and absorbed every detail with enthusiasm. We were amazed to meet a Belgian amongst the students who had joined the famous Shaolin monastery in the hope of learning "100 percent authentic" Kung Fu. There he met the head of the Kung Fu school in Loudi, who was quickly able to convince him that he would learn far more there.
Having enrolled for a four-month period he was convinced that he had joined the best school in China, despite the hard living and training conditions with which he was confronted. Once we had acquainted him with WT he became so enthusiastic that he resolved to look around for a WT school as soon as he returned to Belgium, he also told us of his initial scepticism and subsequent disbelief when he found that Europeans were actually able to teach his Chinese instructors authentic Kung Fu.

The Chinese students, the head of the school and the instructors were fascinated! They were convinced not only by the effectiveness and rapid learnability of WT, but also by the teaching methods. As a token of appreciation we were presented with official certificates appointing us as advisers to the school.
When we departed on the last day we were seen off very warmly. Many did not want us to leave and were disappointed that they could not learn more WT. The initial reticence towards foreigners had disappeared, and we therefore contributed to a better understanding between peoples.
Only later did we begin to realise that, together with Sigung Leung Ting, we had brought the WingTsun system back to its homeland of China and experienced a unique adventure whose impressions we shall never forget.

Sifu König & Sifu Liebscher-Bracht