An Interview, with Sifu Ken Harnish
CWC - I have dropped in to observe one of your class sessions and what you are doing is so very interesting. As I was watching I got the idea of asking you if I could do a short impromptu interview with you
and just ask a few of the obvious questions.
KH - Sure that's fine. However if you want to ask me questions which require in-depth answers then I should inform you that my answers will no doubt conflict with many of the popular conceptions [or misconceptions]
of Wing Chun, but then, all for very good reasons.
The currently popular politically correct platform is to be conciliatory and accept all of the different branches of Wing Chun. But, say there's five different ways of doing the art. Logic would dictate that one path would be more true and correct that the others. If you are taught what is correct and why, you'll see the right path. If you were never taught
the correct path then you'd still insist that it was open for debate. Not having reached the vantage point to see clearly, students would be left to follow their own concepts rather than the microscopically refined, harmonized
and perfected path of the true insight and wisdom.
I do feel that some things need to be said to get things back on track for Wing Chun. The art has slipped far enough down the slope already. If you want to learn then you've got to find the path. You've got to know who's on the path and who is off the path. Once you've really followed the path for a while then you will not be so easily fooled and mislead. But it's still
easy to fall from the path if you don't have an instructor to guide you. The path is very important because of course you will want the art that you will invest time, money and effort into to work well for you and to mature to its fullest potential and magical beauty. If some elements are missing and
some parts are wrong, then you just get a donkey for your efforts. Well, that said..., ask away.
CWC: To begin with what exactly is Wing Chun?
KH: Wing Chun is recognized as a Southern Chinese form of martial art. It goes back about 300 years. Early in its creation it was developed largely by a young woman named YIM WING CHUN, from whom it got
its name. Its design heavily favors practicality in lieu of flashy motions, and how to use an opponents own force against him. You can read more fully about it on many internet sites, I won't drag you through the whole history. It's important to recognize that some very brilliant mind power went into the conception and design of Wing Chun. Its directness, efficiency and effectiveness are a work of beauty. It's really a departure from other approaches
to fighting. The pieces work together like a fine Rolex watch. You can get this impression of it right away. Studying the art can make your head spin as you see the magnificence which is spawned from such simplicity. Like the infinitesimal matrix which the microscope has never been able to reach the full depths of. It's not about how strong you are. The bull is very powerful but it's the matador who will win, unless he makes a bad mistake. So it's a very good art for the meeker people or anyone who can learn to understand natural strengths and how to apply them to an opponent's inherent weakness. It's as though you learn to rob people's power, like the matador does
to the bull. It's more something to be experienced rather than to be just explained. The head may believe that it understands but unless the body is trained along with the mind the art won't really materialize. As with many things the temptation is to rush right past it and to miss the essentials. So the proper path is to prepare your self for deeper comprehension by first emptying and distilling your self. You must study the nature of
the art and your own nature. When you understand then the art will do the fighting for you. You must not get in the way. It's more like you direct it with intention and will power, like a dream. If someone attacks you they will
encounter the art. You train the art to respond to them. You make them fight the art.And now you know exactly what it is, right?
CWC: Ah yes, now I see it as clearly as the face on my nose. What got you interested in it and what is your history in Wing Chun?
KH: Well, as Charles Darwin proclaimed, we are in large part as a product of our environment. I grew up during the British Invasion. No not that grey wig, red coat invasion. The longhaired rock & roll
invasion. I was among that ripe bunch of teenagers that formed the vanguard of the longhaired movement. Initially it was specially tuned people, peaceful and freethinking who out grew their crew cuts. That early period was still
full of insecure drone meatheads. All you had to do was to look different and you were bound to have trouble. I really got the sense for how shallow minded many people are. I was slight of build but fleet of foot. That got me out
of the crosshairs a couple of times, but I saw martial art training as an appropriate option for myself.I was doing other martial arts for ten years before seriously taking up Wing Chun. I had second brown belts in two different arts: Okinawan Go Ju Ryu and Korean Hapkido. My studies expanded out to various arts, I attended seminars with many teachers.In appreciation of the intelligence and effectiveness of Wing Chun I decided that that would be the way to go. But the path, for me was very drawn out. I had four different teachers and each time I had to relearn everything. My first two teachers were here in Chicago but they didn't have the real art. At least it helped to prepare me a
little. For me that old saying [when the student is ready the teacher will appear] came true. The teacher was very far away, but that was the state of things at the time, there was no one any where near-by that could teach the
complete art in depth. So I had to commute long distanced across the country and out of the country to continue learning correctly. Now, my being here makes it possible for other people to learn the original root of Wing Chun without
all the extensive travel and expense that I had to endure. That is providing that they know enough to seek me out. Master Ho, the most knowledgeable man in Wing Chun, made the comment "...anyone in Chicago who wants to learn Wing
Chun, if they go someplace else [other than learn form Ken] then they are lost already. "Master Ho Kam Ming is in his 80's and he just retired now at the end of 2004. Master Ho, I believe has preserved the best of Wing Chun. He understood the theory and application of the art and would not accept any less form you
as a disciple. He expected you to recognize and fix any mistakes or shortfalls.There are reasons why Grandmaster Yip Man was not up to preserving the art for the future. He did not appoint a successor. But this is another story. Today the art is currently eroding more that being preserved.I feel that I'm in an awkward position. I've been fortunate to receive proper instruction in Wing Chun but I wish that my Sifu, having the notoriety of being a direct student of Grandmaster Yip Man, had been the one to speak out
publicly and let other practitioners know that they have not found the path. I know that he had the urge to but he only told us this privately.
CWC: Didn't Bruce Lee study this art?
KH: Well yes, because of Bruce Lee's movie celebrity, when he mentioned that he had studied Wing Chun in Hong Kong some people wanted to know what the style was. Bruce only did it one or two years as a teenager.
He didn't get very far and he never attained much understanding of the art.At that time the western world was pretty infantile in regard to the martial arts. We only had access to basic Judo and Karate. So any spry young fellow such as Bruce who'd come here with a little Wing Chun would have an advantage
over the limited primitive martial arts enthusiasts here in the West. He seemed to be full of fresh ideas but really he never created anything, these ideas were already centuries old. And they extended much deeper that Bruce was ever aware of.Wing Chun would have eventually found its own way out into recognition, on its own merits, without The Bruce.When he told one of his associates back in Hong Kong that he was teaching some students in America, he later revealed that his first thought was: "I feel sorry for his students, he doesn't have much to teach them. "It must have been an amusing laugh privately for Yip Man to see the West so infatuated by the yearling neophyte Bruce Lee.After his movie notoriety he had a sense that he had not learned enough so he went back and asked to train with Yip Man and although he offered Yip Man a large sum of money, Yip Man said no thank you, better you go someplace else. Another martial art master also refused to teach him.Bruce complained about martial arts being a "classical mess" but he led people in the wrong direction and now it's just an even bigger non-classical mess.Bruce had energy and determination but he still lacked a good training attitude. This made him hard to teach. Any good scientist, philosopher or teacher should be able to be lifted up to stand on the shoulders of his teacher. Bruce
was too cocky; as a result he was left to teach himself. He tried, I'll grant him that. But I wouldn't follow his path. I'd follow the teachers who are well schooled on the path of wisdom.Now maybe you prefer the magazine version. They have articles proclaiming Bruce as the greatest fighter ever. Well, see that's great for selling magazines. But I know better and I have lost respect for the magazines. I have lived
and learned for many more years than Bruce, so I know that he is not the path.Rather ironically Bruce is the "Finger pointing to the moon" [follow the movie star and you will miss the heavenly glory] Try to figure out what if anything his students really learned from him other than philosophic rhetoric or to go to other arts to garner their base of techniques. Bruce insisted that martial artists need not learn any forms. Practice fighting instead, he told them. Well I can assure you that in Wing Chun if you don't learn the forms you will miss out on astounding wisdom. It doesn't come
right away you must be patient and receive instruction. Bruce didn't get it. So he was left to try to create the wheel for himself. A tremendous waste of time, the wheel already existed, but no one could give it to him.But people eat it up, I know. Well, I can only help the ones who come to learn.
CWC: What was Yip Man all about, He seemed kind of frail, was he good at kung fu?
KH: My teacher, Ho Kam Ming, who had received private instruction daily from Yip Man for years told me that yes, his sifu did have "very beautiful skill." It is said that he didn't need muscles. That's what
Wing Chun is about. If someone is stronger you can learn to use position and timing to defeat them.Most of the pictures that are out there of him are from his older years. I'm told that in his youth he was more robust.Yip Man was a bit of an enigma. You have to do your homework to understand his approach to teaching. It was all business for him. He had special skills but he wasn't going to give you much unless you could pay him a fortune to
train privately with him and you'd have to be up to the task of understanding his instruction. This is what my sifu did. It really shed a lot of light on the reasons that the art seems so scattered and incomplete today, when Sifu
Ho explained to me that "in Yip Mans class, that was not the real art." Meaning that Yip Man was not taking the time and making the effort to teach the finer points and details of the art. It was just a general business representation.
Any questions asked of him were simply answered "yes, that's right." So the students couldn't receive adequate instruction. They were only taught a surface version of the art. Seeing only this side of the art some of them later
assumed they had learned enough to go out and teach. So began the decline of the art. Now there were the first half dozen students with whom Master Yip Man did spend more time instructing. But I gather that much was lost even there,
between Master Yip's attempts to explain things and the ability of the students to comprehend. After all it takes great effort by both parties, teacher and student, to get it. The number of people that learned an even partially
complete rendition of the art you could count on one hand. So Master Yip was the one who had the art but he was not a great springboard to preserve the full art for future generations.Now Yip Man's two sons have come out to teach, claiming grandmastership as if it was something that you could inherit. They didn't learn for their father they learned from friends later. When Master Yip moved to Hong Kong his sons
remained back in China. They eventually came later after Master Yip had already done most of his teaching. The sons then went off to college, and like many sons, they were not very interested in their fathers line of work. Their
interest peaked when they realized that they could make a lot of money teaching seminars and privately to people who don't know the situation. They did a seminar her in Chicago, maybe 1995. I wasn't interested in going to it.
It's because of the incomplete versions of the art that people feel the need to combine other arts and techniques with their Wing Chun. If they had more understanding of the complete art they would have no such need.I know to some people it must sound like I'm just p'd off at everybody. But I'm willing to risk appearing as such for the chance to guide those few people who are ready to seek out the truth and save them from a wasted journey.
CWC: Why is it that there are so many grandmasters and different branches of Wing Chun?
KH: Hmm in order to give you a full answer I'll answer your question in a round-about way. Starting way back in antiquity there were different approaches to creating and practicing combative skills. No one can bare witness to exactly what transpired centuries ago but my analytical mind pieces together the available information
along these lines. The further back in time you go the fewer professions and trades there were. You'd likely be a farmer, warrior, trader, clergy or teacher. It would be mainly the warrior class that was interested in advancing
the combative skills. The mainstream followed along this obvious line of development. But there came a juncture where place, time and events prompted an evolutionary departure. When tumultuous times and events presented themselves on the doorstep of spiritually inclined monks they realized that they must balance their spiritual pursuits along with defensive skills as a matter of survival and preservation
of their way of life. History tells us of the influx of political refugees who had come to stay at the Shaolin Temple of Southern China as the Ming Dynasty began to suffer defeat by the Manchurian invaders. Some generals and possibly royal family members
retreated to the temples. Taking up the common cause they colluded to prepare for their defense. The monks and disciples began learning about fighting from their visitors. To this point the soldiers main approach to combat was to apply as much power and
force as they could to his techniques. The higher monks observed this for a while. This is where the evolutionary leap likely occurred. This crude use of force would feel foreign and awkward to higher monks who had some understanding
of the power of harmony. Somebody had eventually recognized the benefit of starting over from the ground up and totally redesigning a fighting art that utilized the natural powers of balance, leverages and control, greatly improving the usability of combative
efforts. They knew that it would prove to be more effective to control a force by knowing how to harmonize with it rather that resisting and combating it. The founders didn't get the chance to complete their formulation at this time. For it was now time to run for your life and escape. As the temple was destroyed, most of the monks and disciples were killed. Probably not more than
a few people who were inculcated on the beginnings of this promising new system escaped.For the next two hundred years or so any training of the art was in secret and only with family or the closest of friends. There were governmental edicts at certain times prohibiting the teaching or training of martial arts, in effort to keep the people weak. There may have been a common ancestor before the temples destruction who learned the principle of using harmony and soft, timely deflection that went on to create Tai Chi. But Tai Chi, in my estimation has continually lost sight
of complete combat effectiveness in it's motions. They became more focused on the benefit of just learning to balance energies within themselves. But someone went on to create what was soon to be called Wing Chun, and remained true to the more effective use of the details. The art first made its appearance to the public when Chan Wah Sun taught about 16 students in Fat Shan China, in the very early 1900s. This is where Yip Man began learning the art.Master Yip later met Leung Bik, who was the son of his teacher's teacher [Leung Jan]. This presented an opportunity for Yip Man to receive deeper instruction in the finer points of the art. This is what made Master Yip's skills
something rare and special. He now had something different, more complete that his former classmates. Leung Bik explained to Yip that Chan Wah Sun had not learned the exact details of Wing Chun that were needed to utilize the full
impact of the art.My sifu told me that Leung Jan had only taught three persons. His two sons [Leung Bik, Leung Chun] and Chan Wah Sun. Chan Wah Sun was discovered spying in through the fence as Leung Jan was teaching his sons. Chan was accepted
as a student. I wonder if this was meant to keep him from retaliating by exposing Leung for teaching martial art. Early accounts have mentioned Chan Wah Sun as rather large, crude and not a well educated man, who applied too much
muscle force in his techniques.Note; I've read an article on the internet which claims that Leung Jan had taught others. I brought this up to my sifu, [Ho Kam Ming]. He adamantly denies this saying " they can SAY anything." But what Sifu Ho learned from Grandmaster
Yip is that Leung Jan taught only three persons. It is no stretch of the imagination that Yip Man would know this, all he'd have to do was ask his teacher, and he was known for asking questions. This coupled with the fact that
despite the plethora of information, examples, films and photos available I see little remaining trace of the genuine art, leads me to believe it most likely that Leung Jan did indeed teach only those three persons.
CWC - What is the state of Wing Chun today?
KH - Wing Chun is not as popular and as highly thought of as it was just a while back. There's been an explosion of various martial arts for people to choose from that are more appealing to their initial
expectations. There have been a multitude of con men to come out and teach Wing Chun without true knowledge or proficiency. People can be fooled because they are clueless as to what the art is supposed to be. I'm sorry for sounding
so unkind and condescending but I believe it best to say it as it is. Most of those con men don't intend to be. They don't realize that they too have been conned and in many cases their teachers as well. This is the explanation
for the different approaches to Wing Chun. The variations have not come about from innovations or advancements but are the result of incomplete knowledge of the system. So it has been watered down. My sifu describes it as "second
graders teaching first graders..., the original art is dying."It's true, from what I've seen, except for a few small pockets in the world, the real art is vanishing. You have supposed masters and grandmasters teaching a lot of rhetoric but the true essence and full understanding of the art
is absent.This is not meant to insist that it should all look exactly alike. In fact each student would be a little different and still be natural. But what must be exact is the foundation and theory of the art. You would want to build upon
the best design.I appear to sound like an elitist. It's not to suggest that I'm something special but what is special is that I eventually went to the most knowledgeable teacher. Spending a lot of time with someone who really has it is the only
way to get it.I'm not stupid but I was fooled, for the first four years, with my first and second teachers. I was not aware of how much was missing. I had to relearn Wing Chun four times with four different teachers. With luck I found the root
of the art. Once you learn that and then you look around and see that no one else is doing it. But now you won't be fooled any longer by imitations. The public has not been given the opportunity to witness the true capabilities
of Wing Chun.I find that most people do not know how to shop for martial art instruction. They eat up the fast-food variety because they don't know any better. This also factors into the deterioration of the deeper arts. If people don't support
the better teachers they will move on.I had to fly 3000 miles round trip to train with my third teacher and drive over 1000 miles to train with my fourth teacher. If I had waited I would have missed the boat. I've been lucky to train with Master Ho for nine years before
his recent retirement. So I have little empathy for people who call to make inquiries about my classes but they cannot make it across town to come and train.Occasionally I do some internet surfing and visit some Wing Chun web sites. I find it rather amusing to see people posting questions on chat forums regarding Wing Chun. They then receive answers from Joe blow-look what I know,
who feels inclined to insert his two cents of wisdom.They receive false information, yet people will do this rather that seek out an authentic master. This would be the first consideration for any serious student, unless you want to waste your time.In this current age we have he largest exchange of data ever. Yet with all this dissemination of info, wisdom is disappearing. People are learning from incomplete shallow mediums. They acquire extensive info but they're bereft
of wisdom. Technology is expanding but it is watering down the essence [the soul] of things.
CWC - Would you share some insights from your studies and training and tell me a little about your teaching methods?
KH - Animals and other living things are in tune with their nature. Wisdom will just come to them naturally they don't have to go to college. We humans, our brains are in a deeper transitory state of evolution.
As we busy our selves with the things that call our attention some inner feelings fall into the background. This is why we lose touch with our nature. We think we're so far above the animals but in some ways they're smarter. Take
a good clear look around and see whose heads are more full of foolish ideas.We humans need a study such as martial art training to help us to re-link with our nature.As a student begins to learn I explain to them that they are like a sorcerer's apprentice. They have marvelous natural powers but they never learned how to focus and utilize them. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, throughout her
ordeal she had the power at her feet [the ruby slippers] to go home any time she willed. But without the knowledge of how to use them they were of no use to her. Natural knowledge or wisdom is something that many people are unaccustomed to. It is necessary to empty their selves first and start anew. If they cannot do this then everything else will be a struggle for them. They will keep
getting in their own way unless they let their nature take over. They don't want to trust it at first. Very much like the Star Wars theme "let the force be with you," the Jedi Knight training.I see some people struggle much harder that they need to because if they cannot make this first step correctly then they have fallen from the path already. My job as teacher is to keep on saying "the path is not over there, it's
over here." I can only point out the path they have to walk it in their own shoes. Like walking the tightrope, one wrong step and you fall from the path.For this reason the beginning of Wing Chun training is very simple and cautious. But it must be correct. This is why the first form; Siu Lim Tao does not trust you yet to take a single step. They know that you would lose structure
power right away. In the second form Chum Kiu they will teach you how to move the body correctly. People are fooled by this level of simplicity, they are expecting more action and force after all this is supposed to be martial
art. They'll try to use their newly learned motions to fight with but it's too soon. They need only use these new motions to help them discover their inner balance, feeling and control at first. They will translate into the highest
fighting skills later.It's an elusive challenge. Bruce Lee didn't get it either. He needed something that he could use for fighting right away, so the core had already eluded him. He caught a wisp of it and that was enough to help his career.But it's about allowing you to discover that inner harmony. This is where you begin to build your skills and learn to combine power and usability.I find it interesting to see how different people are more adept at certain aspects of the art and have difficulties with other aspects. Each student's skills will begin to plateau at a different level. This plateau is reflective
of an inner roadblock in the student. The training becomes very therapeutic because the difficulties that you'll encounter in your training arise from something that is missing in your self. At this point you will be called upon
to concentrate more fully to get past this point. Many people give up at this juncture. You can fix what is lacking in your skill but to do so you must fix that gap that was in you. So you see the real enemy that you need to conquer
is of course your self. Some religions try this too. But in martial art training, with a good teacher, he can make it clearer as to the exact element that you must deal with. He can let you know the exact blow that you must use
to conquer your dilemma. Of course you discover that it's easier said than done. But that's what it's about on the higher levels. Travel this path and fighting won't be such a difficult thing for you. You'll also find that you
conquer things or people by out-harmonizing them.
CWC: That's interesting, any closing thoughts?
KH - Just that I hope that people are smart enough to find the right path. That's what makes it all worth it.