Wing Chun and the Principles and Philosophy of Design by Instructor Wilfred Chung

10/02/2011

Foreword

This essay was written by Level 1 Instructor and final-year architecture student, Wilfred Chung, for a Principles and Philosophy of Design course. In this essay, Wilfred draws on his experience in Wing Chun and architecture to draw interesting parallels between the traditional martial art of Wing Chun Kung Fu and design and art.

 

Essay

In reading Kollar's quotation, it is impossible to deny that he truly understood what it meant to be an artist and the traditional viewpoint of art. Coomaraswamy shuns the contemporary social distinction between art and the 'fine' arts. He further condemns this notion as being created by the cultural elite who "rejoice in the unintelligibility". He discusses how to Plato, 'music' is all culture, and 'gymnastics' is all physical health and wellbeing . In the traditional view of art, all aspects of life can be artful, and that art and life are inseparable.

Coomaraswamy describes art as "the making or arranging well of anything whatsoever that is needed to be made or arranged." By this definition, anything in life is art with the only conditions being that it is needed, and that it is done well. It is in the virtue of this that we understand what Kollar means by "I wish my life to be a work of art."

In discussing an artful life, Kollar is not simply referring to 'artworks', but instead a mindset. It is the artistic approach to life, where everything he does in life is done well and done to satisfy a human need. In reflection of this, I must now raise attention to one of my own areas of study where I too strive to apply such a mindset. Though also developing skills in sculpture, painting and music, in the spirit of Coomaraswamy's disdain for the notion of distinguishing 'fine' arts, this is not an audio or visual art, but one of the body; a martial art.

I have studied Wing Chun Kung Fu for the past seven years and become more fascinated by it every day. Although at an Instructor level, I realize that I am now more a student than ever before. As a system designed by a nun, it was created for those who do not have a muscular physique, instead relying on geometry and anatomical structure to develop power. It requires a meditatively relaxed state of mind and body to perform effectively, and those relying on brute strength or are those unable to focus will in fact find it more difficult. This is an art where the practitioners' ability will not deteriorate with age, but only be refined. Created 300 years ago, it is a relatively young martial art; derived from logic and scientific principles rather than imitation of animal behaviors as many other styles do. With the five principles, 'Simplicity', 'Directness', 'Practicality', 'Economy of movement' and 'Minimal use of brute strength', and achieving these principles through use of perfect geometry such as the circle and triangle, the beauty of the system lies in its logic. The logic of properly and efficiently using one's body. The intelligibility of such a system is undeniable, demonstrated by the proficiency of so many practitioners around the world despite its birthplace in the Shaolin Temple of China. It is the beautiful, underlying logic which Coomaraswamy is referring to when he says that "Art is an imitation of the nature of things, not of their appearances". In applying our bodies through this artful intelligibility, we can gain a glimpse at what Kollar refers to as the wonder of the world. That is, to gain the most efficient and effective movement through the logical application of principles and geometry to the body. Application of guiding principles and geometry with the physical condition allows us to recognise the connection from the Gross realm of existence to that of the Pure. In directing this application, practitioners need to have proficient command of 'intent' and 'direction' to direct the body. This understanding and command is a way for the artist to realize and explore the connection between the Gross the Subtle realms of existence.

The physiology of the human body has remained relatively unchanged for the past 50-200 000 years, a form which everybody shares. Geometries such as the sphere and circle are used best to deflect incoming forces, and the triangle serves as the strongest structure. With these as a basis, those willing to expose themselves to the art of Wing Chun will find it far from being exclusive or self-referential and impossible not to see the reasoning behind it. It is in exercising these principles through our bodies where our actions become the artwork. In the words of the Great Grandmaster Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee and my own Grandmaster, "A good Kung Fu system will not discriminate between large and small, male or female.".

A self-referential artwork, on the other hand, is one that cannot be appreciated by all. Coomaraswamy says phrases it perfectly when he says "The basic error in what we have called the illusion of culture is the assumption that art is something to be done by a special kind of man, and particularly that kind of man whom we call a genius."; instead, he claims that every man is a special kind of artist, and that art is simply the right way of making things. He suggests that the notion of 'fine arts', that is art which is exclusive and not intelligible by all, is a notion created by the cultural elite. Stephens suggests that this behaviour has been perpetuated further in both fine art and design communities to feed the ego, as understanding art and design becomes a symbol of status, beyond the grasp of the ordinary man.

Kollar seeks to inspire joy and wonder in those around himself, not of himself, but to reveal the beauty and logic behind nature and have it demonstrate its ability to gratify the human condition. This refers to a Maslow's hierarchy of human needs; being survival, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. A design must satisfy these human needs at all levels, not simply utilitarian. In addition, it must be true to its time in that it is recognizable to be from a time and place, but itself recognizes timeless ideas. It will also pay respect to the natural order of the world by clarifying the constraints under which it works. Returning to the example of my understandings in Wing Chun, we can see how a well designed system addresses these needs. At the most basic understanding of it, the self-defense purpose of the art satisfies our desire for security. However, as ones skills progress, combat becomes simply one possible application. The true crux of the system is to understand and master one's body, and to ultimately have nerve and joint control in order to move in the most effective way possible. Connected to these of course is the self-confidence associated with safety and achievement in exploring one's own body and abilities. In Cantonese, rankings in a martial arts school are associated to that of family, eg. the direct translation for 'Sifu' meaning Master, is Teacher-Father'. This is in the belief that one's training partners, those who share your development process in the art, are your brothers. Then of course is the associated sense of martial spirit, of honour, humility and respect for others. In its calm nature in developing power, one ultimately strives to abandon the ego, avoid conflict and gain a deeper understanding of self. In learning Kung Fu, a distinctly Confucian/Chinese culture will be observed, whilst simultaneously it will seek to apply the timeless notions of rotation, expansion and force distribution ingeniously to the human body.

The demands of the human condition are many, and as seen above, intertwined. Not only amongst its own inward needs, but in lieu of Kollar's quote on life. I have been asked many times by students about my own training routines. Since attending university does not permit me much time to dedicate to class, I reply with words a Sisuk (teacher-uncle) once told me. "How much footwork can you do in class? Instead, try to feel your footwork when you walk. Every step you take, you will be practicing your stepping. Every door you open you will be practicing a palm-strike. Learn to train outside of the training hall." My Sisuk was not demanding this of me. He simply invited me to truly live my art. A brute experiencing Wing Chun will see punches and kicks, but the true practitioner, an artist, will see an approach to life. It is an obsessive pursuit to constantly perform the art, to perfect ones abilities through every movement one makes through every day.

Coomaraswamy discusses the notion of a "job" and how this influence of profit on man has disconnected the alleged craftsman from the quality of his craft. Like many other instructors, I do not assist teaching at my academy for payment. As Kollar does, we, like our teachers before us, seek to reveal the joy and wonder of the world through the art of Wing Chun to others. It is through industry, he claims where art separates the man and the brute. When we are forced to choose between profit and integrity in our art, it is unfortunate that in this age, we often prioritize the former. Stephens points out that the notion of industry has now coerced many designers to regress to meet only the Survival need, rather than embracing and addressing the entire human condition.

In an age of instant gratification; where one can purchase groceries over the internet, on a computer installed into one's fridge; it is easy to see how our wonderful pursuit of knowledge can be transformed into a desire of profit, which further gratifies us, the patrons, in our superficial excesses. These excesses have blinded us to the needs of the whole complexity of the human condition. Furthermore, it has not only dampened our awareness of the our own natures and needs, ie. The Microcosm, but our lust for profits have resulted in irresponsible design. As the needs of the microcosm are neglected in a world of brutal industry, we have selfishly proceeded to also neglect the macrocosm. For decades now we have blatantly neglected the needs of our environment; the source of our understanding of beauty and logic. Kollar's description "wonder of the world" refers to the beautiful connection between clarity in logic and the patterns found in the perfect system that is our environment. Through natural selection, everything life currently in existence is exactly the way it needs in order to survive, in response to other life forms and the way physics has shaped our world.

The resurgence of designers aware of their impact has brought about the notion of sustainability; an apology for our betrayal to the planet from which our very understanding of beauty were learnt. The notion however is merely the beginning of a long repair process. The repair process is not to the environment itself, but to the mindset and approach of the artist and designer. Recognition of conservation and sustainability is but the first step in saving the mind of the artist from the force of profit-driven industry. To regain respect for the environment is to accept that ornamentation and aesthetics does not automatically equate to beauty, but it is the recognition of intelligible logic as found in the natural world.

Kollar's quote is one which every artist should consider. And in the traditional view of art, the artist is anybody. To be an artist is not to be a person of great talent in the fine arts, but it is a mindset. To be an artist is to approach all things in life with determination; pursuing improvement in ones' life and to do it well. To do things because they are necessary and meaningful , and to recognize that our innermost needs can be gratified by learning about the cosmos.

Wilfred Chung

 

Bibliography

  1. Coomarasamy, A.K. 1956, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, London: Dover
  2. Stephens, H., "Design for the Real Person" in Proc. DIA National Conference on Design Education 1996 ed Ron Newman & Cal Swan, Design Institute of Australia Hawthorn Victoria, pp. 42-47.
  3. Stephens, H., Lecture 3: Aim, Lecture given 3rd August 2010, University of New South Wales.
  4. Walsh, P., Lecture 7: Humankind in the World, Lecture given 31s August 2010, University of New South Wales.
  5. Walsh, P., Lecture 9: Spirit, Lecture given 21st September 2010, University of New South Wales.
  6. Stephens, H., Lecture 12: Form and Fit, Lecture given 12th October 2010, University of New South Wales.

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