Young Ideas...Not Small Thoughts


by David Peterson

Sifu David and his student Sifu Morten Ibsen presenting Siu Nim Tau conceptTraditionally, Wing Chun training commences with the practice of the Siu Nim Tau form. Being the first of the Wing Chun forms, many mistakenly think that, as in other systems, this means that it is a "basic" form which only contains simple techniques & concepts that will be superseded with more "advanced" forms down the track. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Part of the reason for this misconception is the usual translation of the name of the form into English. It is generally referred to as either the "Little Idea" or the "Small Thoughts" form, thus giving an impression that it is a less significant part of the system than it really is. However, a far better and more accurate translation would be "Young Idea", which was the one preferred by the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung.

His thinking went something along these lines: Siu Nim Tau is to Wing Chun, what nurturing a plant or a child is to life. If well taken care of, watered, fed, protected (and in the case of a child) clothed, loved and educated correctly, both have the chance to grow into something magnificent – the plant can become a mighty tree towering majestically in the forest, whilst the child can grow to become an intelligent and positive member of the society, perhaps leaving a great legacy of his or her own.

Thus, the Siu Nim Tau form, if properly learned, practiced, understood and eventually applied, can enable us to reach amazing levels of skill in our own Wing Chun, as well as being able to pass on even more to the next generation. Wong Sifu also likened the form to the alphabet, in that it contained all the letters of the "language" of Wing Chun, from which we could eventually "speak" (ie: use) the system. For him, Siu Nim Tau provided the letters and simple grammar, Cham Kiu simple words and phrases, and through the practice of Chi Sau and other drills, we learnt how to "talk", to "communicate" with our opponent.

Following this line of thinking then, the Muk Yan Jong shows us ways to correct our misuse of the language, whilst Biu Ji provides us with the skills of "clear thinking", such that we can see beyond the restraints of the system. In other words, it shows us how to "look beyond the pointing finger" and see how to express ourselves more freely and spontaneously under great pressure. As a former language teacher, this way of thinking continues to echo and inspire me in my own practice of the system.

Thus, if we begin to see the Siu Nim Tau form as a "Young Idea" rather than just a "small thought", we can begin to appreciate that it is in fact potentially the MOST IMPORTANT part of the system, without which we would have no chance of developing ANY of what comes after it. Personally, rather than seeing the form as the "novice/white-belt level" of the system, I consider the Siu Nim Tau form as the "black-belt level" of Wing Chun!

Sifu David - Taan SauLooking at the form in the order that it is learnt, we begin with the opening of the basic training stance, Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma ("character-for-two goat gripping stance"), which just happens to be the origin of EVERY footwork action that can be found in Wing Chun, ...including kicking! Thus, every time we go through the form, we are being forced to do the very best and most balanced training stance in preparation for all other footwork that we will ever learn or use. It is perfectly balanced, does not favour one side of the body over the other, allows us to find the most favourable posture and structure, and provides a firm yet collapsible platform from which to move in ANY direction.

Immediately after forming the basic stance, we then define two especially important concepts: the vertical Centreline (which we seek to protect at all times), and the horizontal Centreline, which represents the shortest line towards the opponent and thus, the preferred line of attack. At the same time, we are introduced to the Huen Sau ("wrist circling") action that recurs again and again within Wing Chun, its purpose threefold: to strengthen the wrists and forearms in preparation for dealing with impact; to develop the wrist so that power can be derived more easily at close range; to learn how to use circular actions in order to re-direct force and move from the inside to the outside (and vice-versa) of a poor position.

What then follows is the first section (of three sections) in this form, commonly referred to as the "slow" section. In my opinion, this is the most important of all the sections of the form, as it lays down the foundation of all the concepts that are essential to the effectiveness of Wing Chun. As such, I choose to refer to it as the "STRUCTURE" section. Why so? Because it provides us with the most effective biomechanical structures so as to naturally and effectively develop the concept of Lat Sau Jik Chung (commonly referred to as "forward springy force").

This expression comes of course from the Wing Chun Kuen Kuit (or maxim) of, Loi Lau, Hoi Song; Lat Sau Jik Chung – "intercept what comes, follow what attempts to leave; attack without hesitation when freed of obstruction" – no other phrase summarises Wing Chun as effectively as this one does, and no other section of ANY of the forms prepares us more efficiently for the development of this concept into a practical reality.

Thus, regular and slow practice of this section of the form is essential for every Wing Chun exponent, no matter how advanced, if they wish to develop their structures in the most perfect way to perform at the optimum level. It doesn't matter how long you've been training in Wing Chun, you can still gain from regular, correct practice of the Siu Nim Tau form. As an indication of this, it is reported that the late Sigong Ip Man himself regularly practised Siu Nim Tau on a daily basis right up until his death. That should be enough to convince any devotee of the system of its importance.

In addition to correct biomechanical structures, the first section of the form also points out what are essentially the most important and useful concepts and techniques in the system – Taan Sau ("spreading hand"), Fook Sau ("subduing hand") and Wu Sau ("guarding hand"). The mere fact that there are three Fook Sau and only one Taan Sau on each side is in itself already an extremely important idea that, when fully appreciated, can greatly enhance one's understanding and application of the system.

The interaction of these three movements forms the basis of virtually every other action in the system, with regard to the hands. The Taan Sau essentially teaches us how to protect the outside line, whilst Fook Sau shows us how to protect the inside line; Wu Sau provides an introduction to the concept of absorbing incoming force, and of Jie Lik (or "stealing power"), and so is integral in the development of other hand AND footwork concepts. All three teach us to use the stance in order to derive strength and absorb force.

Sifu David applying basic tools from Siu Nim Tau formHowever, the one thing that is overwhelmingly more important than anything else in this section, is the fact that it is done SLOWLY and with a conscious attempt to RELAX – far too many practitioners go through the form too quickly, and with too much emphasis on power and tension – this is totally wrong! The whole point of the form (this section of it in particular), is to re-assess our ideas about combat and to "re-program" our minds and bodies accordingly. Thus, we are encouraged to RELAX as many muscles and muscle groups as possible, to "sit down" in the stance so as to lower the centre of gravity, and to learn how to use "softness" to overcome incoming force.

As we then move through the form, the second section provides ideas concerned with regaining control of the Centreline, and of Chiu Ying (or "facing"), so that we can not only protect our own Centreline, but also regain a pathway to our opponent's centre of mass. Thus, I refer to this section of the form as the "RECOVERY" section, whereby we are shown simple ways to recover the most favourable position when we have lost structure due to typical situations involving grabbing, pinning, attempted arm-locks, bear-hugs, and so on.

However, many don't really see the true nature of what this section has to offer, because as with the entire form, there is no body movement, only actions involving the arms. This is totally deliberate, so as to firstly develop the concept of Chiu Ying ("facing") so that the practitioner is able to maintain "squareness" of stance under all conditions, and through simultaneous movement, the even use of both sides of the body. Once Siu Nim Tau is understood, these same concepts are then developed further through the Cham Kiu form, where movement of the body does take place and where the concept of Jui Ying (or "chasing") is then taught.

Sifu David - Fook SauFinally, the third section of the form takes ideas and movements presented earlier (and introduces a few new ones, such as the Bong Sau and Gaan Sau actions), and attempts to develop the ability to make one hand/arm perform multiple tasks. Hence, I refer to this section as the "CO-ORDINATION" section for the reason that it requires far more control of the limbs than either of the other two sections. In this section, we find variations on the concepts found in the first section, in particular in the application of both the "Taan Sau concept" and the "Fook Sau concept" such that we can start to see how they adapt to actual situations and lines of attack.

With the introduction of the second type of Jam Sau ("sinking-arm") and Bong Sau ("upper-arm deflection") actions in this section, we are then provided with the last keys to practising Dan Chi Sau ("single-hand" Chi Sau), with all the other "pieces of the puzzle" having been introduced in the beginning of the form. We are also, at the very end of the form, introduced to the primary attacking tool in Wing Chun, the Yat Ji Jik Kuen ("sun-character straightline punch") in its natural, free-flowing action.

Whilst by no means an exhaustive break-down of the form, I hope that it is now possible for the reader to appreciate that there is much more to the Siu Nim Tau than what first meets the eye. Good luck in nurturing and developing your "Young Idea" into something quite magnificent! 


Editors note: This article was originally published in Wing Chun Illustrated magazine, Issue 6 (2012)