Lineage Wars — A Wing Chun Crisis

There is a peculiar phenomenon found in Chinese Martial Arts.

There are often debates regarding the lineage of certain masters and practitioners. Some people who have modified Wing Chun over the years (to better suit their needs) have felt compelled to change the name of their system simply because the accusations that what they were teaching was not Wing Chun became too intense to bear.

It’s a strange thing. Why does lineage play any part in whether someone is a master or not? Shouldn’t it be up to the skill of the individual? And what gives someone the right to say, “that is not Wing Chun,” simply because there are differences in how they train? Do we see this in other arts? Boxing? BJJ? Not really. Why?


Either your Wing Chun is effective, or it isn’t.

You may have been Ip Man’s top disciple, but if you cannot fight your way out of a paper bag, you are not qualified to be called a Sifu. Similarly, you may have learned your Wing Chun from books (unlikely, I know), but if you can use it and teach it effectively, then you have earned the title.

And yet, we constantly see people having to justify or prove their lineage amongst accusations that they are not real Wing Chun masters. Isn’t their skill level all you need to determine this?

No, lineage is of little consequence. It may make people feel better to know they are 2nd or 3rd generation Ip Man students, but ultimately your Wing Chun should be judged by its effectiveness in combat and sparring.


We sure do see a lot of different versions and modifications in Wing Chun. Opinions on this are varied. Some claim they are all valid and part of our rich history; others claim these are fake systems taught to people who never learned our system correctly.

First of all, why the many variations? We do not see this in Boxing or BJJ, for instance. These arts being sports with governing bodies that determine what is and is not part of the discipline surely helps.

Sometimes you can get variations of the rules, but the art remains more or less the same. Judo, for instance, has had many rule changes over the years. Some have lamented that this has made Judo less effective as a Martial Art. Certainly, Judo 30 or 40 years ago had many techniques which are not allowed today. Yet, it is difficult to imagine masters of old looking at modern Judo and claiming it is a fake variation or simply not Judo at all.

The competing nature of these disciplines means that ultimately, they have to be effective if they are to be successful in competitions. Boxing, BJJ and Judo have this in common. They must remain competitive, and this limits the number of modifications and variations you can get.

You can only get one correct answer to a Mathematical question. If you end up with multiple solutions, some or all are incorrect.

Same in Martial Arts. You only have a limited number of effective variations. Too many variations and modifications, and you can be sure someone had veered off in the wrong direction. But who?

Is it the ones making the modifications or the traditionalists that insist on doing things exactly like Ip Man and Wong Shun Leung? Well, it is hard to say. We have no benchmark due to a lack of competition in Wing Chun.

If Wing Chun was a sport, two masters could duke it out and settle their differences very quickly. In time, only the most battle-tested techniques would remain, just like in Boxing.

We do not have governing-body sanctioned fights like in Boxing or BJJ, nor do we have duels to the death. What do we have that can conclusively demonstrate our level of competence? There are Chi-Sao tournaments — but one can hardly conclude anything from these.

It seems Wing Chun is destined to remain caught in no man’s land. Supposedly too deadly to use in sparring or competitions, and thus impossible to gage.

A BJJ or Judo black belt running a school has earned his stripes by competing for many years. They are proven warriors, and all things being equal, they should be able to dispatch a white belt novice with relative ease in combat and within the confines of their rules set.

Can the same be said for most Sifus? How many Sifus have competed, engaged in sparring, or fought to the death using Wing Chun?

When individuals have to defend their lineage, their Sifu, or the modifications they have implemented, it is a symptom of a bigger problem: we have no benchmark to demonstrate competence.

The good news is that we are seeing a movement towards full contact sparring in the Wing Chun world. Perhaps one day, we will have competitions the way BJJ, Judo, and wrestling do. We will standardise the art, for better or for worse.

I say for better. We will finally see an end to the armchair warrior syndrome and the petty quarrels between lineages. Wing Chun will be better for it. We will finally be one family under Wing Chun. Ω

By Javier Garcia

1 Comment

  • Very interesting subject, regards for putting up. “It is much easier to try one’s hand at many things than to concentrate one’s powers on one thing.” by Quintilian.

  • ScottDRad

    Debates around lineage are not limited to Chinese martial arts. In the age of mass comunication, authentic lineages are important as one success criteria for a quality instructor but the reality is there are other critical success criteria such as: martial capabilities of the instructor and senrior students, quality of instruction, character of the teacher and other students, the quality of the learning environment, are the students growing in their martial prowess, and are the students growing in their personal development. Lineage is but the first important stepping stone of many to support successful learning of a martial art.

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