Today marks four years that I have been learning wing chun. I still consider it to be the most effective street defence method available locally, but any of these arts are only as good as the student. When I was learning jujitsu, I overcame the limitations imposed by my illness by studying ancient forms of the art and related arts, when everyone else was goofing over Brazilian jiu jitsu and the UFC.
Did it work? Well, one of my reasons for leaving the class was that no one wanted to train with me any more; I'll leave their reasons for avoiding me to your imagination. Incidentally, when some Lithuanian sombo practitioners joined up, no one wanted to train with them either.
I don't know how to achieve the same thing in wing chun. Sometimes I think that a long fist style would add something to the close quarters nature of wing chun; at other times, I think that practising arnis is the perfect way to overcome my inherent deficiencies in strength, speed, coordination and mobility.
Edit: There are good reasons for wing chun and Filipino martial arts often being taught as a combination.
Recently, I suffered badly in a sparring encounter. Initially, I felt terrible about it. The instructor pointed out that I had taken too many hits, because my footwork was practically non-existent. After the class, he said that this form of panic was common amongst those who were not used to wearing head guards, and suggested that I do my solo practice at home wearing my head guard.
To be honest, I found myself outclassed. My opponent was someone with whom I train regularly, and his interest in other forms of Chinese martial arts has made him a well-rounded fighter. His time spent learning wing chun alone is about double my own. He trains outside of the class regularly, with one of the other well-rounded fighters in the class, who came to wing chun initially because his Muay Thai instructor recommended the art as a way to learn good defensive techniques.
I can accept all of the above excuses internally, because they make sense. What is harder to accept is that illness may mean I never reach the same proficiency in wing chun as my classmates. I have had more of a challenge dealing with my fellow wing chun students than I have with the students of any other art I have practised. The difference I have noticed is that most of them are not just good martial artists, but also competent fighters. If you ask me whether wing chun attracts good fighters or creates them, I really don't know. Maybe someone else could answer that.
Is my wing chun useless, given my physical limitations? Far from it! My time at a local eskrima club strengthened my faith in what I have learned, and surprised me. It is said that we are our own worst judge, and that was certainly true in my case. When they handed a padded stick to me, and told me to spar, I thought that their student, with years of experience in stick fighting, would make short work of me as an opponent. After a few minutes, they stopped the exchange.
I was told that I should stop thrusting the stick into the body of my opponent. Such a tactic, I was told, would cause serious injury, might constitute a foul in competition, and was generally a nasty thing to do. It was also noted that the short, hacking movements I favoured were indicative of a bladed style, rather than a stick-based art. I was puzzled by this, until I realised I had been applying the principles of wing chun to stick fighting, under pressure, without even thinking about it.
When the eskrima instructor went on holiday, he left his assistant in charge of the class. An uneven number of students had attended, so he decided that he would be my training partner and ended the class with a free sparring session, to "test" my wing chun. His history as a competitive taekwondo practitioner and student of Brazilian jiu jitsu meant that I had to maintain focus, because he was more than comfortable at sparring range. His intention to use me for target practice came unstuck, however, when he realised that every attempt to come forward and push an attack led to the attack being neutralised and a simultaneous shot being landed by his opponent. The exchange ended with him receiving a kick to the midsection, which winded him enough to put him on his knees.
Towards the end of my eskrima training, I put on some 16 ounce gloves, as did one of the other eskrima students. This was an attempt to teach the techniques of Filipino boxing, with which my training partner was already very familiar. It started well, and continued in such a way, until the instructor decided to ramp up the pressure by telling us to speed up. I honestly tried to stick rigidly to Filipino boxing. An upper cut came towards my midsection, or ribs. A jum sau and punch with the same arm proved effective against this attack. Again, he tried his attack. Again, a jum sau and punch checked the attack. Various combinations were met mostly with variations of pak sau and jum sau with a counter punch, much to my surprise. The "seed" hands of taan sau, bong sau and fook sau were nowhere to be seen.
Edit: As noted in the comments below, not seeing the seed hands was a momentary blindness to them, rather than their absence. They are called the seed hands because all other hand techniques in wing chun find their origins in those three shapes. These, in turn, are simply different ways of guarding ourselves by having a hand in front of us, but that's a whole other story.
In desperation, he ducked and rose again to aim a hook at the side of my head. The gap in his defence created by this made it easy for me to close the distance to one more comfortable for a wing chun fighter. Unfortunately, my trained reactions, in wing chun and other non-competition arts, led me to simultaneously aim a well-timed elbow at the biceps of the attacking arm. The fight was stopped, leaving me stunned by the speed of my entry to the range where I could execute an elbow strike. By this time, I had become somewhat disillusioned by the style of eskrima they taught, though I still have great respect for Filipino martial arts in general. When I found out that the club did not have insurance, my time there came to an end.
Everyone will have their own interpretation of what they learn: a pre-existing frame of reference through which each new piece of knowledge is filtered. For me, reading Tao of Jeet Kune Do many times over, and doing the same with books on the ancient principles of tai chi, permanently affected how I see combat. I subconsciously relate everything I have learned before or since in the martial arts to the underlying principles I learned through those books. I dare say my fellow wing chun students do a similar thing with their previous experience, whether they realise it or not. Maybe that is why everyone's way is so different.
Fighters with more experience, and perhaps similar experience, will probably get the better of me. I'm ill. I have to come to terms with that. So, what about the times I have been a worthy opponent, as in the eskrima class for example? The Japanese Zen masters call it "mushin" - the mind of having no mind. I would personally say it as the mind of unconscious action. Bruce Lee, in the aforementioned Tao of Jeet Kune Do, said that we should simply let our arms and legs work themselves, in accordance with the discipline in which they have been trained. Could it be that, in a wing chun class, I am trying to stick too rigidly to wing chun? Maybe the fighters of YouTube, trying to give a good impression of their art, are doing the same.
Yip Man is reported to have said that we should be masters of our kung fu, not slaves to it. I've heard wing chun instructors - most of them very highly respected - say that the principles of the art are far more important than any set movement. As usual, I think writing this stuff down has allowed me to see a way forward.