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The Wing Chun forms - a brief overview

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by David Peterson

As an instructor and communicator of the martial arts, specifically the ‘Wong Shun Leung Method’ of Wing Chun Gung-fu, it is very important to be able to explain the art and present its concepts in as succinct a way as possible. This is of course to ensure that each and every student can gain a deep and practical understanding of what the system offers them, and how best to use this “tool” for self-improvement and personal protection. Clearly, one can get into very detailed discussions on all aspects of the system, but sometimes this can cause more confusion and lead to greater misunderstanding than clarification. Especially for the less experienced students, too much detail can inhibit, rather than enhance their development.

 

This being the case, in recent years I have tried to find ways of simplifying the presentation of information, and providing simple summaries of various aspects of the system so that students find it easier to assimilate the information. This brief article takes that approach with reference to the three basic forms of Wing Chun and the “wooden dummy” form. Whilst my remarks are based directly on the ‘Wong Shun Leung Method’, hopefully the ideas presented here are also relevant to practitioners of other lineages and will provoke a different way of looking at the forms which will add to the readers knowledge of the system and enhance the development of their skills.

 

SIU NIM TAU (“young idea”)

Probably the easiest way to view the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form is to sum it up with just one word for each of the three sections:

1st section - structure
2nd section - recovery
3rd section - coordination

The 1st section is primarily about the development of 'Lat Sau Jik Chung' (“springy forward force” – that constant ability for the hands to automatically attack when free of obstruction - the hallmark of effective Wing Chun combat), but there is much more than just that one concept being presented. It introduces the very STRUCTURES that are involved in that, and the bulk of the other aspects of the system, including footwork, kicking, simultaneous attack & defence, power generation and a host of others, …all without moving out of the basic ‘Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma’ (“character two goat-gripping stance”)! The 1st section is practised extremely slowly to ensure that absolute precision, relaxation and correct structure are the focus at all times. With only few exceptions, the techniques in this section involve actions which move directly forward of the body, or back towards the body along the same pathway, underlying the principles of ‘Chiu Ying’ (“facing”) and ‘Jung Sam Sin’ (“Centreline”) which are perhaps the key ideas behind the Wing Chun combat method. As a direct extension of these concepts, two of the basic “seeds” of the system, the ‘Taan Sau’ (“spreading hand”) and ‘Fook Sau’ (“subduing hand”) are introduced. This is significant for two very important reasons; firstly, these two hand actions are perfect in cultivating the ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ concept to the point where it becomes an applicable reality. Secondly, ‘Taan Sau’ and ‘Fook Sau’ represent the two most common means of developing power when either inside or outside the opponent’s hands, as well as being the foundation of virtually all other hand actions. ‘Fook Sau’ in particular is responsible for probably 90% or more of the most commonly used and effective techniques for personal combat that this system has to offer. As such, it is practised three times on each hand, with only the ‘Huen Sau’ (“circling hand”) and ‘Wu Sau’ (“guarding hand”) occurring more often within the form. This section introduces the ‘Jing Jeung’ (“standing/vertical palm-strike”) as the first “weapon” of the system.


The 2nd section concerns the various ways in which we might understand the concepts, techniques and strategies required to overcome situations where one has lost control of the “Centreline” and are unable to face the adversary. In short, it provides ways of being able to re-face our opponent when placed in a compromised position such as arm-locks, bear hugs or grappling situations – in other words, RECOVERY. What is often not understood about this section is that, despite no change of stance or position actually taking place during the form, these methods (or at least the concepts that provide these methods of recovery) teach the means by which one can break free of serious loss of position (and/or leverage) by utilising simple actions that again, as in the 1st section, are generated by relaxed actions originating in the elbows. The most prominent technique in this section is the ‘Soh Sau’ (“pressing palm”) technique which is presented in three distinct applications – to the side, the rear and the front of the body. Two more “weapons” are introduced in this section; the ‘Fak Sau’ (“whisking/whipping hand” – a knife-edge or chopping technique) and the ‘Biu Sau’ (“thrusting/spearing hand”), as well as the introduction of the defensive concepts of ‘Lan Sau’ (“barrier arm”), ‘Jam Sau’ (“sinking arm”) and Jat Sau’ (“jerking/dragging arm”). Of particular importance are the last two actions of this section, the Naat Sau’ (“pressing-down hand”) and ‘Daan Sau’ (“rebounding hand”), which present the basis of techniques that are found in both the ‘Cham Kiu’ (“bridge-seeking”) and ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) forms.

Finally, the 3rd section shows us various combinations of movements, applied with one hand, to emphasise the importance of realising that we are capable of using one hand for more than one motion at a time. In other words, just because one has just used one’s left hand to attack or defend does not presuppose that it cannot be used again immediately, rather than relying upon the other hand first in a typical, but less efficient and less effective "one-two" action. In addition, this section of the form helps us to add flow to our actions, to develop natural motions that move easily from point to point with accuracy and power. It is important to note that at no time is this section suggesting that the combinations utilised MUST be done in exactly those sequences. They are merely linked together for ease of practise and improvement, NOT as set motions. Therefore, the main aim of the 3rd section is the development of one of the key attributes for combat success – COORDINATION. In this section, we are introduced to several more of the basic Wing Chun “weapons”: the ‘Waang Jeung’ (“horizontal palm-strike”), ‘Che Jeung’ (“descending palm-strike”), and at the very end of the form, the ‘Lin Wan Jik Kuen’ (“vertical chain punch”), Wing Chun’s most basic attacking technique, re-emphasising the importance of the “Centreline” and continuous, aggressive attack. Also in this section, the third of the “seeds” is introduced in the form of the ‘Bong Sau’ (“upper-arm deflection”) which is of course an integral part of the ‘Chi Sau’ (“sticking hands”) drill that is a unique part of the Wing Chun training method. ‘Bong Sau’ only occurs once, in its most basic interpretation in this form, so as to provide sufficient techniques for the learning of ‘Dan Chi Sau’ (“single-hand sticking hands”). The important relationship between ‘Bong Sau’ and ‘Taan Sau’ is emphasised, but it’s full potential as a concept/technique is not encountered until one moves on to the ‘Cham Kiu’ (“bridge-seeking”) form. In addition, this section includes a second version/application of the ‘Jam Sau’ (“sinking-arm”), the ‘Gaan Sau’ (“splitting-hand deflection”), ‘Dai Jeung’ (“under/lifting-palm deflection”) and ‘Senk Sau’ (“scraping hand”).

 

CHAM KIU (“bridge seeking”)

If the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form is considered as the ABC of Wing Chun, then the ‘Cham Kiu’ form can be likened to a collection of simple phrases and sentences that help us to learn how to “communicate” with our opponent. The easiest way to appreciate the relevance of the ‘Cham Kiu’ form is to consider the three distinct applications/interpretations of the 'Bong Sau' (“upper-arm deflection”) action, with each section emphasising a different idea/application of the basic action:

1st section - 'Yi Bong' ("shifting Bong") which teaches the concept of "borrowing the opponent's energy" to disperse/redirect an attack. It implies that contact already exists and that this contact is then manipulated by 'Bong/Lan Sau' and stance shifting/pivoting to reposition for further attack. Basically, this section of the ‘Cham Kiu’ form is very similar to the first section of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form in that it contains the bulk of the theoretical and structural information that this form has to offer. Like the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form, there is an emphasis on moving slowly so that absolute precision is attained, and relaxation is emphasised throughout as this is the key to being able to “read” the opponent’s intentions and “borrow their energy”. This section is also crucial to understanding the concept of hitting a moving target by utilising the elbow to find the centre. If ‘Siu Nim Tau’ can be compared to shooting at a stationary target whilst stationary, then ‘Cham Kiu’ is all about shooting at a moving target whilst in motion oneself.

2nd section - 'Paau Bong' ("throwing Bong") which teaches the concept of "making/forcing contact" when the hands are not already in a favourable position. In other words, it is a literal introduction to the concept of 'Cham Kiu' ("bridge seeking/finding"). It also teaches the concepts and skills associated with offensive footwork (and by reversing the action, defensive footwork, specifically as it needs to be applied with 'Bong Sau' which, by its nature, requires a specialised action quite distinct from other techniques), as well as introducing kicking ('Dang Geuk' – “ascending kick”) and the idea of always "chasing one's kicks" so that the opponent is constantly kept under threat. In addition to the above, it also teaches recovery of position/centre in the form of the 'Chau Kuen' ( “whipping punch” ) and re-facing the centre using 'Yi Ying Sau' (“recover shape/form hand”), which is in itself a variation on the ‘Daan Sau’ (“rebounding hand”) action introduced in the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form.

3rd section - 'Dai Bong' ("low-action Bong") which provides a "two-in-one" interpretation of the 'Bong Sau' for protecting the lower gates; one for when attacked on a lower line while the hands are down, the other for controlling the balance/stance when dragged out of position, thus forming the basis of the ‘Kwan Sau’ (“rotating hands”) technique that is later taught in the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) form. This section also introduces the concept of controlling the legs by controlling the arms (a ‘Chi Sau’ specific variation on the ‘Soh Sau’ (“pressing hand”) action in the first form), a variation on the basic kicking action ('Waang Geuk' –“horizontal kick”), and yet another application of recovery of the centre/facing whereby the 'Daan Sau' (“rebounding hand”) action is applied to the basic punch to complete the form.

 

To (briefly) elaborate on a point raised above, regarding the notion of controlling the legs by controlling the arms, this idea revolves around the final few actions in the form where the ‘Soh Sau’ (“pressing palms”) action (originally introduced in the 2nd section of ‘Siu Nim Tau’) is combined with pivoting. Whilst this action (as presented in the form) is very much ‘Chi Sau’ specific in nature, it can of course be applied outside of the ‘Chi Sau’ environment. It involves applying pressure on the arms to disrupt the ability to raise the legs (this is because it changes the alignment of the hips such that it is extremely difficult to kick effectively).

 

Visualise yourself rolling arms with a partner during ‘Chi Sau’ practice, at which time they attempt to launch a kick. To do so, he/she has to transfer the balance to one leg, something that will be easily detectable if genuine pressure and intensity are being applied. On feeling the shift in the stance/balance, the hand which is in ‘Fook Sau’ (“prostrating/subduing hand”) position, whether high or low, presses downwards in conjunction with a pivot on the same side, thus suppressing and redirecting the attempted kick. The ‘Bong/Taan’ hand becomes a “half –Taan” action, monitoring the opposite hand and maintaining a perfect place from which to launch the first counter strike.

 

Step out of ‘Chi Sau’ and the same controlling of the arm/elbow can be used against the opponent’s forward hand to suppress the ability to kick, or else can be used to actually deflect the kick itself by cutting across the knee/calf/shin/foot (dependant on range) to knock the opponent off balance either to the inside or outside. Note that “force on force” is NOT applied – it is a deflecting motion combined with a change of stance/angle that defeats the leg attack. The exact same concept is explored within the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) form, incorporating one of only two sequences in the entire “dummy” form that MUST follow each other exactly as practised.

 

Quite a significant number of the actions practised in the ‘Cham Kiu’ form, such as the one just described above, are directly linked to ‘Chi Sau’ training as traditionally, one would be expected to be doing a lot of ‘Chi Sau’ practice around the stage in training where this form was taught. As such, it serves as the perfect place to insert and develop such techniques and concepts, just as the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form provides the tools and concepts required to learn and develop the ‘Dan Chi Sau’ (“single-arm ‘Chi Sau’ ) drill. Examples of these ‘Chi Sau’ specific actions are the aforementioned ‘Soh Sau’ action, the ‘Bong/Lan Sau’ actions, the ‘Pei Jaang’ (“hacking elbows”) action, the ‘Paau Bong’ and associated footwork/angles, and so on.

 

MUK YAN JONG (“wooden dummy”)

The simplest way to really appreciate the intention of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form is to consider the following statement: whilst we do not go out of our way to make mistakes, as human beings we are bound to at least occasionally get things wrong. The most basic and effective of CORRECTLY APPLIED Wing Chun combat science occurs in the 'Siu Nim Tau' and 'Cham Kiu' forms. These two forms guide us through the techniques and principles that are most commonly used and most effective, and they are introduced to us in these forms in the most practical, logical and correct way possible. In the “dummy” form, however, we are shown techniques/concepts being done INCORRECTLY. This is because if we are to instinctively correct an error, we need to be aware of the error in the first place!

 

Thus, much of what is contained in the “dummy” form amounts to the most practical methods of recovering advantage, timing and position from typical error situations. It was Sifu Wong Shun Leung’s view that the most useful and most likely to be used techniques/concepts are contained within the first 60 or so movements (up to and including the 'Po Pai Jeung’ – “in-line palms” section), and these are very largely 'Siu Nim Tau' and 'Cham Kiu' based in nature. Beyond that, the techniques/concepts tend to be more 'Biu Ji' form in nature and in some ways cater for less likely errors, and contain more in the way of kicking strategies as well.

 

The ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form is misunderstood on many levels by most practitioners of the system. Too many people view the form in “black & white” when, in fact, it is made up of hundreds of “shades of grey.” What this means is that instead of seeing the full potential of what the form offers, most only see the “obvious” techniques. The problem with this is that the “obvious” isn’t always right, and what seems to be in front of you is not necessarily correct. In the case of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, the correct way IS right in front of you – most just don’t know how to see it! For a start, the structure of the physical “dummy” is deceptive. The right arm is NOT just the right arm – in some circumstances, it represents the left arm; likewise, the inside of either arm is NOT necessarily the inside – sometimes it represents the outside of the arm. The arms can represent straight lines and round lines; the centre arm can represent an arm, but also a leg. At times they can represent a wrist, a forearm, an elbow, even an upper arm or shoulder. There are even moments within the sequence of actions in the form where an arm is there, …but it ISN’T!!!

 

This is not in any way an attempt to add mystique or mystery to the form, or to suggest that I possess some “secret knowledge” withheld from others in the system. Simply, it is my intention to point out that there is far more to the “dummy” than what meets the eye and an active (but logical, …not fanciful) imagination is the key to extracting all that the form has to offer. The key is to appreciate that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is quite simply a piece of wood, an apparatus upon which we can train ideas and techniques in a way that working with a “live” training partner cannot always provide. The “dummy” is fixed and cannot move, so we have to move around it; the “dummy” cannot actually attack us, so we have to visualise the attacks in order to train the method of dealing with them. Most importantly, the “dummy” is NOT either a conditioning tool or a device for training ‘Chi Sau’ skills. Its purpose is to provide a three-dimensional platform upon which we can bridge the gap between solo training and partner training, to apply the concepts and techniques of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms in more realistic combinations with a view to correcting structure, developing timing and distance control, and enhancing our ability to generate and disperse energy against an “opponent” who gives us excellent feedback when we get it right, …and when we get it wrong.

 

Finally, what the “dummy” form does is to show us, with clear and practical examples, the kind of typical errors that can occur in combat, from which there is an effective means to recover and regain control of the fight. Thus, if we were to summarise the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form in a single word, that word would be RECOVERY. And if that sounds similar to the 2nd section of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form, then you’ll be pleased to know that the reason for that is that the “dummy’ form, just like the corresponding section of ‘Siu Nim Tau’, is designed to show you how to recover instinctively from the very same kind of conditions. The difference is that now, in the “dummy” form, you have the additional aspect of movement, thus adding a real third-dimension to the training conditions.

 

BIU JI (“pointing fingers”)


The 'Biu Ji' form is a "pointing finger" and what it is pointing at is a series of examples of the kinds of problems which can occur in combat when things do not go as planned, and it offers some solutions to these situations. Humans being what humans are, we are all prone to make mistakes, be surprised or get drawn into bad situations no matter how well we plan, or train for, the Pavement Arena. The 'Biu Ji' form takes us outside the Wing Chun system, …outside the system as presented in the 'Siu Nim Tau' and 'Cham Kiu' forms, that is, …and asks the question "What if…..?"

 

Where the first two forms are each easily broken down into three distinct parts, each part with its own particular concepts and techniques, the 'Biu Ji' form is quite different. Instead, in 'Biu Ji' the breakdown takes the form of clusters of techniques which build into a repertoire of "emergency responses" designed to overcome an opponent who has overpowered, out-positioned, injured, surprised or, through some error on the part of the Wing Chun fighter, managed to gain the upper hand. Unlike the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, which shows us how to correct “simple” errors with a view to ultimately winning the fight, ‘Biu Ji’ presents us with conditions in which winning is NOT necessarily the option at all. As such, it is a very different set of techniques and concepts that are contained within this form, techniques and concepts that are definitely NOT those that offer unbeatable solutions or some ill-conceived “secret” or “deadly” level of ability.

 

Sifu Wong Shun Leung referred to the contents of the form as being a collection of "emergency techniques", and that unlike the first two forms, which were clearly structured, each with three defined sections, 'Biu Ji' was far less structured and had the potential to be added to at any time, should someone come up with yet another situation that gave rise to the need for a more specialised solution outside of the normal spectrum of Wing Chun concepts. As such, 'Biu Ji' is something of an "open-ended" training form, in keeping with its basic reason for existing in the first place.

 

Contrary to a commonly held belief, the ‘Biu Ji’ form is NOT the deadliest or most secret collection of techniques and strategies in the Wing Chun system. If I may be so bold, I would in fact suggest to the reader (as I have on numerous occasions to my own students and in previous articles) that the 'Biu Ji' form on its own is about as deadly as a bowl of wet spaghetti! However, it should be pointed out that in the past the reluctance of the Wing Chun clan to expose the form to outsiders is understandable when one considers that the 'Biu Ji' form does in fact point out potential weaknesses in the system which could be exploited by an enemy with knowledge of the form. Thus, it could be suggested that the form is "deadly" in the sense that it points to disadvantageous rather than advantageous aspects of Wing Chun combat.

 

My teacher always maintained that ‘Biu Ji’ could not possibly be the deadliest form because if that was the case, why would we spend so much time developing the other forms and ‘Chi Sau’ skills? Surely, he would suggest, if ‘Biu Ji’ contained such invincible techniques, we would only be training that one form and not waste our time with the rest. Not only that, but why would his own teacher have conned everyone in such a dishonest and misleading way? What ‘Biu Ji’ does in fact do is to take us “out of the box,” to invite us to view combat from a perspective other than the basic concepts and techniques of what is the “ideal” method that is given to us in the ‘Siu NimTau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms, causing us to pause and consider what could go wrong and how, if possible, to “cut our losses” so as to at least survive the encounter.

 

In ‘Biu Ji’ winning is NOT an option and definitely NOT a guaranteed outcome of learning or training this form. What we are seeking to develop from training ‘Biu Ji’ are instinctive reactions that may allow for escape from a very bad situation, or to at least neutralise the attack such that we can “ride out the storm”. Because of this fact, Wong Sifu always said that he hoped that we would never have to make use of the concepts/techniques of this form, because if we were in the position where this was necessary, we were already in a very bad situation from which we may in fact not escape without sustaining serious, potentially life-threatening injuries, …if we could escape at all.

 

In summary, through the practise of the ‘Biu Ji’ form, we are firstly breaking just about all the so-called “rules” that have been laid out for us in the earlier stages of training in Wing Chun. In order to do so, we must firstly know exactly what those “rules” are, and we do this by deliberately putting ourselves in the worst possible positions or under the worst pressure so as to fully appreciate how to extract ourselves from such a predicament. Unless you know what is “broken” how can you fix it? Thus, ‘Biu Ji’ shows us potential solutions by starting with the error, in this way (hopefully) providing us with the required skill and knowledge to not only escape such situations, but more importantly, making us sufficiently aware so as not to get ourselves in such situations in the first place!

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