Today many martial artists seek to practice what they believe is a pure and therefore better style. But history tells us that masters of the 20th century had a far more flexible point of view.

Three legends of martial arts, including Ip Man, sought to evolve and improve their arts. They studied broadly to identify where improvements could be made. They also knew how to put it all together to elevate, rather than undermine, their kung fu. In doing so they set a standard that is difficult to find in the generations since.

Yang Chengfu rethinks Tai Chi  

After a 400-year history, Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫, 1883–1936) introduced major changes to Yang-style Tai Chi, creating what was to become the most popular method of Tai Chi practice in the world.

Yang Chengfu
Yang Chengfu

According to legend, Tai Chi can be traced back to early masters in the 12th century AD. The earliest verifiable dates that prove the existence of Tai Chi are from the 16th century, some 400 years ago. Yang-style Tai Chi was born in the early 1800s, founded by Yang Luchan (楊露禪, 1799–1872). He rose to prominence when at the age of 50 he was hired by the Chinese imperial family to teach their elite guards. He held this position until his death. The form he taught was 300-movements long. He passed the art to his three sons, including Yang Chien-hou (1839–1917). Chien-hou passed it onto his sons, most notably Yang Chengfu.

Yang Chengfu was given the responsibility to carry the style forward. He developed his own shortened “large frame” version of the long form, in order to make it easier for busy, modern students to learn. It was also practiced at a slower tempo than before, whereas other Tai Chi styles maintained a faster, more explosive pace. Now the most popular Tai Chi form in the world, the simplified Yang-style form retains the health and self-defense benefits of the original 300-movement sequence in only 150 movements. Yang Chengfu also introduced Tui Sao practice (push hands) into the style during this period. Adding this partner training was a significant step, as it introduced the concept of applied martial arts to the style, teaching practitioners how to transmit or redirect forces with opponents.

Lum Yiu Gwai streamlines Lung Ying

300 years after Lung Ying’s Shaolin Temple inception, Grandmaster Lam Yui Gwai (林耀桂, 1874-1965) re-engineered the system, making it simpler to teach.

Lam Yiu Gwai
Lam Yiu Gwai

Around the year 1900, the monk Tai Yuk began teaching Lam Yiu Gwai the art of Lung Ying kung fu at Mount Luofu monastery. Lam was already a grandmaster in his family’s style when he chose to grow and transform his martial arts practice. He left his home and spent many years mastering the six, highly complex forms of the style and the partner training routines. With his training complete, Tai Yuk sent him home to spread the art. 

Grandmaster Lam Yiu Gwai moved to Canton and was soon commissioned to train large-scale military academies in martial arts. Conducting mass drills was proving too unwieldy, so he worked on shaping Lung Ying as a more orderly program of learning. One of the key changes related to the Sup Luk Dun form, which became the basic set that all students must master. It was simplified, reducing the hand techniques from 16 to 6, making it better suited to mass drill training. The other forms were arranged in a sequence that best supported a progressive sequence of learning, concentrating on fundamentals first.

Ip Man reorganises Wing Chun 

First Developed 300 years ago, Wing Chun kung fu is now one of the most widely practiced Chinese martial arts in the world. Last century, the modern grandmaster Ip Man (1893-1972) reorganised the system to place an emphasis on the most important features.

Ip Man

As a young boy in Fatsan (Foshan), Ip Man first learnt Wing Chun from Chan Wah-shun (1849-1913). It was 1905 and Ip was to be Chan’s last student before retiring. When attending college in Hong Kong several years later in 1910, Ip met another Wing Chun expert, Leung Bik. The encounter helped Ip realise the gaps in his Wing Chun mastery and opened up a new phase of training. Leung was the son of Grandmaster Leung Jan, who had also taught Ip’s original teacher Chan Wah-shun. Ip Man returned to Fatsan in 1917 aged 24. As a police officer, he taught Wing Chun to several colleagues, but he did not formally run a martial arts school.

Grandmaster Ip Man arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, aged 56, at the time of the Chinese Communist Revolution. He had no intention of teaching martial arts and had forgotten the details of some of the forms. Learning these details was part of his early development and he had long since moved on from them. However, when the demand for teaching arrived, he worked hard to put a complete training program together. He took this as an opportunity to optimise the system. Ip Man’s modifications were often centred on reinforcing the most important elements of each form, placing them early in the sequences or repeating them more frequently. A key example is the Wooden Dummy Form (Muk Yan Jong 木人樁). The first section was not originally at the beginning, but was elevated to the start when Ip Man realised its importance.

The improvements to the system were not made in bulk. Across the next 20 years, Ip Man continued to adjust the details. This meant that depending on the era of the student, slightly different variations were taught. In the Sil Lum Tao form, some versions include a lower block, inspired by Wong Shun Leung’s experience in putting the system to the test in challenge matches. In the Chum Kil form, the two-handed thrust forward has one movement in some versions, two in others. Ip Man was clearly not taking a fixed-in-time approach to his martial arts. He also worked closely with Koo Sang to refine the design of Wing Chun’s wooden dummy. Their iterative collaboration led to what is now considered the gold standard in wooden dummy construction.

In the 21st century adaptations to martial arts tend to be awkward and counter-productive, mixing incompatible styles in order to add missing pieces. Like adding a grappling art in the hope of filling style deficit. What the Grandmasters have shown us is that carefully constructed evolution can drive an art forward, well beyond a point-in-time reading of a style.


See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs. Created from Barry Pang’s seminars.
Main photo: Lam Yiu Gwai, Yang Chengfu, Ip Man