Ermei: Wing Chun's Internal Roots
By Sifu Phillip Romero
Edited By: Bennett J. Lee
In this article, Sifu Phil Romero shares his perspective on the evolution of Wing Chun's internal roots from his time training with Sifu Hawkins Cheung to his recent training with GM Fu Wei Zhong.
"Is Wing Chun internal?"
"No. Of course not. Who told you that?!" Sifu replied.
It was decades later until he told me the truth.
I started out in Northern Shaolin and Tai Chi at the age of 14. Even at the beginning of my martial arts journey, I had practiced Qigong. When I returned to my hometown of Los Angeles, my focus was on fighting, but the Qigong was always in the back of my head.
My friends and I trained day in and day out in Sifu's school in Culver City. We were thrown into fighting head first. It was ruthless and would probably be illegal by today's standards. One day, Sifu brought in some drums. I was standing in the middle of the room.
Boom! He hit the drum once.
One of the other students entered. It was 1 vs. 1.
Ba-doom! Two beats this time.
This time two students entered. It was 2 vs. 1. This was going to be tough.
20 minutes later..
Ba-doom! Ba-doom! Ba-doom! Crap, 6 beats. I just have to survive!
The Little Idea
Along with our sparring, we trained hard in everything you could think of: calisthenics, horse stances, and form work. The form work was not what you would expect.
It's common amongst martial artists to practice their forms for medals in competition or as another step for promotion. For most fighters in the modern area, forms were considered useless. In our school, we painstakingly practiced our main form, Siu Lim Tau.
It didn't resemble a typical form such as a Karate Kata. Siu Lim Tau looks very odd to the beginner, but in it were secrets that we continue to unlock to this day. The beautiful part of the Siu Lim Tau are all of the little details. In Wing Chun today, Siu Lim Tau (1st Form) often takes a back seat to the Chum Kiu (2nd Form) or the Biu Jee (3rd Form). The other forms are treated as superior, implying a higher level of advancement. In truth, the numbers refer to the importance. Siu Lim Tau is the most important.
We trained for speed. Sifu knew timing and speed were everything in a fight. When we did our forms, it would be natural to practice them as fast as possible. This couldn't be further from the truth. We had to practice them slow. When I say slow, I mean painstakingly slow. I mean slow to the point where your hand moves itself. To do the Siu Lim Tau, it should take an hour.
This makes absolutely no sense at first glance, but it's what we learned and how we trained. It also worked. The slow form enabled us to observe all of the smallest details in each movement. It helped our body to relax and our minds settled. Mysteriously, we became healthier and stronger as well. Punches would almost magically get stronger. It usually only took one or two shots to end a fight.
Tai Chi and Wing Chun: Keep Them Separate
Ip Man taught this part of the form and Sifu Hawkins took it to heart. He also gained more experience into the internal side of martial arts by studying Combat Tai Chi. It was a quantum leap in improvement. My friends and I were young, athletic, and trained to fight, but Sifu Hawkins, as small as he was, could still handle us.
The correlation was obvious. The Siu Lim Tau had to be internal. Decades later, I confronted Sifu about it and he validated my hypothesis that it was true. He had a head start in his Tai Chi and his Tai Chi is superb. Wing Chun people today are attempting to mix Tai Chi with Wing Chun to bring the Qigong into it, but I've seen the challenges with doing it firsthand. This can be very dangerous.
In many ways, Qigong can be thought of as an engine so to speak. Some people can drop an engine to the car, but the engine must be compatible. For example, you wouldn't put a Ferrari Engine into a golf cart. The parts wouldn't match and the rest of the systems wouldn't even work. Even more, the body wouldn't be able to handle the raw power without falling apart. When reverse engineering a martial art, one must be very careful when doing this.
Tai Chi is only semi compatible. It is more associated with the word, "internal", than any other martial art; however, it is not pure Qigong and can not simply be mixed into Wing Chun. Sifu made it work to an extent, but as he got older he kept them separate.
The moral of the story is that Wing Chun has its own powerful qigong in the Siu Lim Tau if done correctly. When studying TCM theory, it begins to make sense and the form comes alive. It's the little idea of how to stand well and how to root yourself well.
The Ermei Connection
When I returned back to Albuquerque, I had taken a break from fighting (with a few cheat days of course). I devoted more time to researching questions that had been lingering in my mind for years. How does the Siu Lim Tau work? How does it yield the benefits that it does?
I got a hold of every book I could find on Qigong and talked to the best martial artists on the planet about their respective arts. I had to connect a lot of dots and the results spurred tremendous medical breakthroughs. Through a more guided training program, my students were getting healthier. One example was Monica Duran, a woman who had struggled with diabetes. She had lost her eyesight as a kid, but after the Wing Chun training, she actually received some of her sight back. UNM Hospital did a video on it that is available online. Monica would be the first of many people to benefit from this type of training. Another example was Marissa in San Diego, who was recovering from cancer. In between her stem cell treatments, I would work with her. Today, she has been cancer free for 7 years and in complete remission and living a full active life.
In the studies I had done on Wing Chun, this thing called Ermei would keep coming up, but I had no idea at the time what it was. It was a ghost that I had been chasing for over 25 years, always just out reach, but recent discoveries have me very excited about the future of the art. Over a process of time and training with specific people, I was led closer to a understanding of the Ermei connection to Wing Chun.
There were various sources outside of Wing Chun that had even referenced how Wing Chun was connected to Ermei. One of the biggest influencers was a conversation I had with Dr. Yang Jwing Ming of YMAA, who had also theorized that Wing Chun descended from Ermei. Peter Lorge, a professor at Vanderbilt University, who had authored "Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-first Century" had also pointed this out. Patrick McCarthy, who is famous for authoring Okinawan karate books, had also hinted this in his writings.
Everything changed when I collaborated with Sifu Jim Roselando in Boston, whose Gulao Pin Sun further filled in the gaps of what Wing Chun had previously looked like. Sifu Roselando, who also teaches Qigong at Harvard and MIT had been on the same research path as I was. Further, he had even tracked down the current Ermei Lineage Holder, Grandmaster Fu Wei Zhong. In 2014, Grandmaster Fu confirmed that Wing Chun descends from Ermei. Sifu Jim Roselando hosted the event, where GM Fu analyzed the Wing Chun form and Kuen Kits to compare them with those of Ermei. Ermei is the Qigong that brings Wing Chun together. This was the biggest breakthrough in Wing Chun history.
Ermei is a Qigong style that is thousands of years old. It's home is Ermei Mountain, one of the four holy mountains of China.
Ermei has one lineage holder per generation. This generation it is GM Fu Wei Zhong, who travels to the US once every two years. After connecting this to our art, GM Fu has allowed a few of us to train with him privately, learning aspects of the Ermei Qigong that he felt would help to complete the system. We just completed our third session with him this month and it has been a wonderful experience. This has been one of the most influential experiences of my life as a martial artist and I am excited for what this could bring to the Wing Chun community.
The Future of Wing Chun
The specific sets and other Ermei-specific training are not for sale or available to the general public and they never will be, but the training does bring a special perspective to Wing Chun. The training has elucidated how Siu Lim Tau works on an internal level. I hope to share some of these breakthroughs to a select group of the Wing Chun community regardless of lineage. It's an exciting time for Wing Chun and the next generation has a lot to look forward to!