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WingTsun master fighting to the finish
By Zhao Xu (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-04-27 10:39

Mention Bruce Lee and you are likely to get an animated reaction, maybe even a Lee-style sweep of the leg. Bring up the name Leung Ting, however, and chances are you will draw a complete blank.

Yet the two men share a common teacher - the enigmatic Ip Man who popularized the art of WingTsun (also known as Wing Chun) and whose life story was the toast of Chinese cinema late last year.

WingTsun master fighting to the finish
WingTsun master Leung Ting (right) during a demonstration at an overseas class. [China Daily]

While Lee may be the perfect catchline for a belated biopic of Ip, it is through a decidedly low-key Leung that the WingTsun master, who died 27 years ago, commands a presence in the lives of students of this martial arts today.

On entering Leung's class, held every Saturday night inside a nondescript building in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong, every one is required to bow toward a black-and-white portrait of Ip looming in the middle of the room.

They then make a 90-degree turn to pay respect to the picture of another man - a young and broad-chested Leung in white kungfu robe. That is, of course, if the master, who is in his 60s, is not present in person. For the students, the ritual has special meaning: Leung is the last closed-door student of Ip and thus, by the age-old tradition of Chinese kungfu, the direct descendent of a long and triumphant lineage.

"Usually, when a kungfu instructor closes his door, it means that he has retired from teaching," says Leung who, after practicing WingTsun for seven years, became Ip's student in 1968, when the late master was already 75 years old.

Looking back, Leung says: "He was always dressed in a long gown and a pair of hand-sewn Chinese shoes.

"If there was any air to him, it was certainly not the vainglorious kind, but rather, a bookish charm derived from his early immersion in traditional Chinese education."

Leung feels deeply indebted to his teacher for showing him the intricate yet often over-looked footwork of WingTsun, and teaching him all the 116 attack and defense moves performed on a wooden dummy.

On one occasion, an apparently bemused Ip, after seeing a picture of Leung in competition, pointed out that it would better for him to "wear trousers instead of shorts". These days, one can see no shorts in the classroom where Ip once presided.

However, it would be wrong to assume that a respectful Leung has been living happily in the shadow - and aura - of his late master. "Ip was the first person to each WingTsun openly. So for me, propagating this unique art is the way to follow in his footsteps," he says.

Before Ip, WingTsun was somewhat mysterious even if a much celebrated martial art. It has now grown into a global phenomenon, with more than 3,000 training centers scattered across the world under the banner, Leung Ting's International WingTsun Association.

The secret? "They trained disciples, I train instructors," says Leung, reflecting on the ancient tradition where a kungfu master trained and lived with his students and "kept them for their lifetime".

"The idea that a master must 'hold back' from even his dearest student in order not to be 'outdone' was entrenched. It caused immense frustration, grudge, even despair," says Leung. "If Chinese martial arts are to survive outside the projection room of the cinema halls, all this will have to change."

A typical Leung class is made up of hundreds of practitioners, all clad in specially-designed black T-shirts bearing the WingTsun logo, surrounding Leung in the center, dressed in white.

The sight is overwhelming, and reminiscent of days when an entire neighborhood in some southern Chinese town came out to launch kicks and deliver punches during a break from farm work. At a time when Chinese martial arts seems to be stepping into the sunset, Leung has aroused a new wave of kungfu fever.

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