Fusion of Chinese Martial Arts Philosophy and Western Counselling and Psychotherapy

Fusion of Chinese Martial Arts Philosophy and Western Counselling and Psychotherapy

Victoria BC

A Postmodern Worldview Towards Therapy

In an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic Canadian society, it makes sense that current and forth coming counsellors adhere to a postmodern paradigm of personal experience and worldview. The postmodern paradigm disregards an objective truth or reality and allows for the individual to create her own truth and reality. We are able to pick and choose our own experiences from a variety of unlimited sources. We can see this in examples of fusion cooking or in spiritual practices that incorporate more than one tradition. The post-modern era has allowed schools of psychotherapies and counselling to manifest and support the notion that people create their own experience and meaning in life. Narrative and Constructivist counseling therapies would fall into this category. People from a wide variety of cultural traditions, beliefs and worldviews can benefit from this approach in psychotherapy as the boundaries of an objective reality will not be able to restrict or contain one’s experience or means to deal with problems. They will be free to choose and co-create their solutions.

A Postmodern Bicultural Counselling Modality

In this article, I have put forth a new theory of counselling that integrates a specific Chinese martial art philosophy (Wing Chun Kung Fu) and a Western talk therapy context. My intent is to offer a postmodern therapy for counsellors that will meet the needs of an increasingly multicultural population; a fusion of Eastern ideas with Western process. Even in ancient Eastern philosophy, similarities to postmodern thinking can be found, or even traced, in Taoist poetry. As Bruce Lee quoted:

One and the same breeze passes
Over the pines on the mountain
And the oak trees in the valley;
And why do they give different notes

My interest in Wing Chun Kung Fu comes from my involvement in the training and teaching of this Chinese martial art for over 20 years. My passion for it comes from the unique philosophy within this system that I believe is transferable into a counselling and life philosophy context. I shall provide a brief description and history of Wing Chun Kung Fu before elaborating on some of the key philosophical beliefs within this art form.

Wing Chun Kung Fu

The Story of Wing Chun

There is no documented genesis of Wing Chun, but the various versions of its/her history all include the following information. The Wing Chun system evolved from Shaolin teachings. Wing Chun is the name of the female martial artist who made this style of kung fu famous. Approximately four hundred years ago, Wing Chun was sent to the temple by her family to learn Shaolin kung fu. Ng Mui, a nun, taught Wing Chun in the temple. Wing Chun was a beautiful young woman who attracted attention from the men in her village. Among the many admirers was a warlord, whose advances Wing Chun resisted. In a rage, the warlord provoked a fight with Wing Chun¡¯s father. Wing Chun intervened and both she and her father were seriously injured. Shocked that she had been defeated even though she was a highly trained Shaolin Kung Fu fighter, she realized that it had been her opponent¡¯s strength as well as his skill that had been the cause of her defeat. Determined to solve this problem, she entered a state of meditation for an extended period of time. One day, while walking in the fields, she came across a crane and snake fighting. While observing, she realized that focusing power with maximum speed could defeat an opponent regardless of his size and power. This was the seed of her new paradigm in kung fu. She developed, refined and trained this new type of kung fu and then sought out the warlord and challenged him to a fight. She soundly defeated the warlord (Tang, 1988).

Basic Theory of Wing Chun

Wing Chun kung fu is a result-oriented style of martial art that was designed with fundamental principles that take into account the limitation and capability of human movement. It has a depth and breadth of theory and philosophy, but it is renowned for its simplicity. I have synthesized Wing Chun theory into five philosophical/theoretical concepts that can be used as analogy or metaphor in a talk therapy context.

1. Economy of Movement/Efficiency

Wing Chun is a parsimonious style of kung fu. Using the least amount of exertion and movement necessary in order attain the desired result in a fighting situation is a basic rule. Traditional Chinese medicine dictates that energy or qi is something that should be preserved in order to maintain balance in the body and spirit (Cohen, 1996). In a fighting situation, it is disadvantageous to expend more energy than is necessary. In such a situation one doesn’t know how long a fight may endure or how much energy will be required to defeat your opponent. Further, large sweeping movements are not efficient and they open up breaches in your defense for your opponent to injure you. The analogy of a boa constrictor is appropriate to explain this concept. The snake stays compact and constricted, until its prey moves, and then further constricts.

2. Centerline Theory

The centerline theory of Wing Chun dictates that the centerline of the body is always protected. The centerline is defined in reference to self. It is the vertical midline of the body projected in front.  All blocking and attacking techniques are fought along the centerline relative to your opponent. To ensure that the centerline attack is effective, the centerline has to face the opponent in combat; a Wing Chun artist follows and faces his opponent as if he was the shadow of the person. Controlling the centerline is the ultimate theoretical goal in Wing Chun. If, through hand and leg techniques, you occupy and control the centerline, your opponent must move off or try to change the centerline in order to injure you. By doing this he must use circular or indirect moves away from the initial centerline, which then opens him to further attack as he has left a breach in his defense. As a result, all Wing Chun techniques are linear. This segues into the next principle.

3. Straight-line Theory

Since a Wing Chun artist fights on his centerline, emanating from the middle of his body in relation to his opponent, all his techniques, by necessity, are linear. The straight-line principle states that the shortest, and most economical and efficient distance between two points is along a straight-line. If all other things are equal, the fighter who occupies the centerline using linear techniques will hit his opponent first. This is what gives Wing Chun the illusion of being a brutally fast martial art. In fact, quickness has little to do with the results, when in fact it is superior position and technique that determine success. The moment that techniques become non-linear, they contradict the two previous principles of efficiency and centerline.

4. Sensitivity to Energy/Qi

In Wing Chun, great emphasis is placed on training to be sensitive to one’s own internal energy, but especially to that of one’s opponent. A training exercise, chi sau (sticky hands), is used to engage a training partner’s energy and begin to increase awareness of his energy and intent through the semi-structured hand/arm movements. In some ways it is a meditative exercise designed to focus intent on the sensing of energy. In a practical manner, becoming more energetically sensitive allows one to anticipate an opponent’s intent and actions from a much safer distance. Ideally, once sensitivity is trained to a heightened level, one can determine, with confidence, an opponent’s intention without any physical contact.

5. Coordination/Structure

As human beings, our bodies have physical limitations that are universal to us as a species and unique to us as individuals. Wing Chun stances, movements and techniques all occur within a construct of structure that maximizes the biomechanics of the human body. We can absorb and expend energy to and from our body in a martial arts application. Certain positions, stances and movements within this ideal structure maximize our ability to accomplish these tasks. One distinction of Wing Chun kung fu is that it was created not from copying animal movements as other Chinese Martial Arts do, but in capitalizing on the strengths and advantages of the human body. Training the body to move in new ways to find and maintain this structure is a key concept in Wing Chun. Once the structure is found, felt and maintained, body coordination is the next step. Learning to move the body as one connected and integrated entity, as opposed to a disconnected, disjointed series of independent body parts, is a key principle that makes Wing Chun work effectively. As this occurs, the practitioner is able to focus all her intent in a coordinated manner towards her opponent’s centerline. Even though the body may seem to be doing many things simultaneously or sequentially, in effect, it really is accomplishing one focused task. This seems similar to Buddhist philosophy in learning how to meditate and be completely aware of what one is doing in the moment with a singular intent; learning how to journey into the now.

Integration into a Counselling Context

Applying these theoretical concepts into a counselling context does present challenges. At face value, it may seem inappropriate and even unethical to blend theory from a potentially violent form of artistic expression into a helping context for counsellors with people who are in distress. The answer, like Wing Chun theory, is simple. Keeping in line with postmodern counselling, one strategy to solve this dilemma is to externalize and personify the client’s presenting problem. In explaining this concept in Narrative Therapy, Michael White states: “Externalizing is an approach to counselling that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, personify the problems that they experience as oppressive.”  He goes on to explain the benefits of this approach in that it assists to minimize unproductive conflict between persons; undermines a sense of failure that develops with people who have been unable to resolve their problems in the past despite repeated attempts; opens up ways for persons to cooperate with each other against the problem and minimizes the negative emotional affects that used to accompany the problem. It provides a means to view a problem that does not have a negative value judgment attached to the client. In “Wing Chun-oriented” counseling we can externalize and personify the problem into the “opponent”. Now that we have an opponent, we can use the Wing Chun principles within a counselling context, with a goal towards defeating him.

Role of the Counsellor/Therapist

In this context, the role of the counsellors would be that of a teacher, coach, and co-creator. The counsellors can introduce the theories of Wing Chun as a strategy of how the client can defeat the problem. Through teaching, practicing in therapy and assigning homework outside of therapy, the client can learn how to achieve her goal of defeating her “opponent”. I will elaborate on this process by reverting back to the five principles of Wing Chun Theory in a counselling context.

1. Centerline Theory

Centerline theory can be integrated into this context by thinking of the centerline as the main or underlying issue/pattern that the client brings into the counselling process. The counselors will want to explore with the client in order to ensure that the core/real issue(s) are being identified. The intent of both parties while combating the opponent is always on the centerline. Similar to existential philosophy, the client¡¯s presenting issues or problems are rarely the ultimate concerns that underlie human existence. This type of counselling approach wants to fight the opponent on the centerline to ensure maximum effectiveness and safety. While it may take varying amounts of time or different techniques to find and control the centerline, it is the primary goal before combat can begin. Once the opponent’s centerline has been tracked and controlled, one can expect the opponent to put up a defense. This could be understood as resistance. I will speak of techniques to defeat the opponent later, but I want to emphasize the necessity to track and maintain control of the real issue at all times during therapy; to be the shadow of the opponent; to maintain mindfulness as a habit.


2. Structure/Coordination

This principle translates into many concepts and practices within a counselling situation. The counsellors can help train the client in the area of structure; being able to maximize the client’s abilities and strengths within the realities and limitations of his situation. This could include using techniques such as a positive asset searching and internal somatic resourcing to assist the client in becoming confident about defeating the opponent before engaging in “battle”.

A positive asset search will help identify the weapons or techniques that the client already has available to battle the opponent with and that they are more likely to be successful if they are doing battle from a place of strength. Specifically, a client and counsellor could identify the realistic support structures that are available to the client such as family, friends, medical, social, educational, financial, spiritual and emotional resources. Another technique that would be analogous to structure would be identifying boundaries with the client. By determining how much stress and energy the client can withstand can help her understand her limits in dealing with the opponent. Then she can shift and deflect the opponent in a non-threatening way, instead of absorbing the energy or attack directly and becoming injured or defeated. Teaching the client coordination might involve some meditative techniques that will help her focus her intention to the immediate moment; to not get overly activated by the past or be full of anxiety about the future. Once the intention is brought into the present the counsellor and client could then come up with strategies that involve the client’s full commitment in defeating the opponent; acting as an integrated and whole energy that is not dissociated and disintegrated. The concepts of structure and coordination can be simply understood by the Wing Chun idiom: “When you should hit, hit. When you cannot, don’t”

3. Straight Line Theory

In a counselling context, straight-line theory refers to dealing with the opponent in a direct and linear manner. Linear techniques ensure that the centerline is maintained and controlled while attacking the opponent while simultaneously protecting the self from attack. Linear counselling techniques would include a direct and honest variety of challenging and confrontational skill use. Usually, these skills must be used appropriately and within a safe and sensitive counselling milieu if they are to be effective. Strong rapport and good timing enhance the success of these techniques, otherwise there are increased risks, such as resistance and deterioration in client trust. Since the client has externalized the problem and has been able to separate his life and relationship from it, he will be more amenable to use challenging and confrontation against the opponent instead of against himself.

In the example of dealing with addiction, the client would be able to honestly and directly examine how his addiction has negatively impacted his life and his relationships with little or no blame and shame attached to it. If a client were to use non-linear techniques in fighting the opponent, he would leave himself open to attack and actually lose control of the centerline once he had it. For example, if the client decided to focus his sole attention on his stress-creating relationship with his spouse, instead of the addiction, he would be distracting himself away from the real issue (centerline) and possibly put himself at risk for a relapse. While the spousal relationship may be a contributing factor associated with his drinking/using, it is not the most direct, effective and safe means to defeat his opponent.

4. Economy of Movement/Efficiency

In speaking of his strategy about war, Sun Tzu stated, “Thus, though we have heard of excessive haste in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged.” The same principle would apply in a counselling context using the Wing Chun principle of efficiency. In some respects then, this approach could be considered a brief-therapy in that the length of therapy would be relatively short and all the techniques would be directed towards the client’s main issue(s). This would be in contrast to a lengthy and in-depth process as typical of the psychoanalytic approach to therapy. It would attempt to deal with the issue in the shortest time and using the most direct techniques with the end goal of resolving the problem permanently or learning to cope with the process of reintegration over time. This type of counselling would not involve a beleaguered exploration and analysis of the issues, while possibly re-traumatizing the client. This is not to be confused that this approach to therapy would be a temporary “band-aid” response to the problem, but it would be the most effective and efficient response to the problem in its presenting context. It should also be mentioned that if all other Wing Chun principles were being utilized in therapy, efficiency and economy of movement would be a natural response. If the client is focusing on the main problem (centerline theory), using direct and immediate interventions towards the issue(s) (straight-line theory), is being aware of herself and the nature of her problem (sensitivity) and is dealing with the issue in a committed manner from a place of strength (structure and coordination), the emerging process will be efficient and economical.

5. Sensitivity to Energy/Qi

Of all the Wing Chun principles, sensitivity is the one that governs them all and permeates the entire expression of this martial art form. In the counselling context, learning sensitivity involves becoming more generally self-aware and insightful about the self, relations with others and the problem. On its deepest level it is about developing somatic intelligence; the sensate “felt-sense” experience as we explore the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of our lives. The counsellors can facilitate and teach the client to become more aware of herself; to shine light into the darkness; to bring the unconscious into the conscious; to live in the moment.  Counselling techniques that can further enhance this somatic intelligence include reflection of feelings, meaning making, cognitive restructuring, reframing, role-playing and writing in a journal. With this increased sensitivity, the client can then battle the opponent not only with the ability to be more discerning about her own state, but that of the externalized “opponent”.

With this knowledge the client can feel or even anticipate the opponent’s intent, with the goal of being able to redirect or neutralize and even transform the opponent’s strength and seek an opening for attack through the opponent’s weakness.  For example, the client with the “addiction” opponent could use this principle to notice that she feels more strong, confident and able when she rests, eats a healthy diet and uses her support systems. Further, she may also notice how she becomes irritable, fearful and full of anxiety when she is in an environment where other people are drinking/using and use this awareness to avoid those situations and a possible relapse. Through improved awareness, the client’s sensitivity may become so discerning that she may be able to identify and be aware of her triggers long before they become a serious threat to her health. An added benefit of becoming more sensitive to energy is that this increased focus and attention brings the client more into the present moment. Being in the present moment can free her from the regrets and pain from her past and the anxiety about the future. According to Buddhism, being anywhere other than the here and now is to not be fully alive. The Wing Chun principle of sensitivity can free the client from having to numb her pain and experiences with drugs/alcohol or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.


Because Wing Chun-oriented counselling is more of a philosophy of how to facilitate therapy, and not a prescribed set of techniques; it can be applied in most, if not all, of its theoretical constructs. Just like Existentialist Psychotherapy, Wing Chun Counselling is more of a philosophical lens in how to see problems and solutions and not a set of tools to fix the problem. Techniques from a wide variety of psychotherapies can be utilized in this approach. There is, however, one necessary process that has to occur for this type of therapy to be effective; the externalization of the problem. If this process is not accomplished, the client then becomes both the protagonist and the opponent. This can be a confusing, if not damaging context. If the problem remains internalized, the client, in effect, battles and defeats herself. As a result, the client may be resistant to therapy or worse, do more damage than good to his psyche and self-efficacy/esteem. The client does not need to beat himself up any further. Using the combat metaphor can have some limitations if interpreted incorrectly or too literally. For example, winning one battle does not necessarily translate into winning the war. In Wing Chun, the battle is fought to defeat the opponent, but what happens if the opponent returns? Ideally, in the counselling context, the application of all the Wing Chun principles will generalize into a way of life. Living life in the Wing Chun way can prevent and deter problems from returning. From my experience in training and living the principles of Wing Chun, as a fallible human being, I have noticed that I walk my path with a confidence that deters problems, and also with humility that does not provoke others into conflict. It is this fine balance that the client could access in a therapeutic context and generalize into her life outside of therapy.

A client also needs to be able to conceptualize and understand the basic theoretical constructs and principles within Wing Chun. As a result, this type of approach may not be suitable for cognitively disabled clients either due to organic or external causes. Further, this approach would likely not be successful with clients who experience severe psychiatric symptoms such as personality disorders or psychotic disorders. Due to their cognitive development, children would not be appropriate for use with this therapy approach. Having said this, however, the principles are relatively simple and as long as the therapist has a good understanding and the client is motivated and compliant, this approach could be facilitated through behaviorist techniques
exclusively. These latter techniques could even involve practice of some of the Wing Chun martial art forms/movements in order to enhance teaching and understanding of the principles; to help them embody the healing energies of the practice. These forms could also be used as a supportive technique to internalize and support the progress made in therapy.


Wing Chun-oriented counselling can help counsellors provide an inclusive theoretical framework to work with clients from a diverse and multicultural population. The principles are logical and do not conflict with most of the pan-cultural differences of collectivism/individualism, body language and communication styles and world-view. It is a post-modern approach that fuses Chinese philosophy with Western psychotherapy context and technique. It provides for a cognitive, emotional, behavioral, philosophical, somatic and spiritual learning context. A client can access the therapy on one or more of these levels. While the principles are simple and logical, it is in the combination and application of these principles that it becomes a unique artistic expression. Wing Chun does not provide the objective and universal truth, but gives the freedom to create our own truth and to live by it. The inclusive nature of this philosophy welcomes multiculturalism, diversity and change. As the immortal Bruce Lee stated, “Set patterns, incapable of adaptability, of pliability, only offer a better cage. Truth is outside of all patterns.

For more info. on Wing Chun Kung Fu and Self Defence www.victoriawingchun.com

Jim Kragtwyk M. Ed.

Registered Clinical Counsellor -RCC

Internationally Certified Addictions Counsellor – ICADC

Medicine moves Counselling, Consultation and Movement Psychotherapy Services

Victoria BC Counsellors

Category : Addictions &Counselling &Movement Psychotherapy Posted on January 13, 2011

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