A Step (…or stance) in the Right Direction


by David Peterson

Part One:

img-right-direction-1We all know how boring it is to practise, but there isn't a martial artist alive who could deny the importance of acquiring good footwork.  Regardless of how fast or powerful your punches and kicks might be, without a delivery system, no striking technique is of any use at all if it can't reach the target. Even more crucial is the need to be able to avoid an opponent's attack, while still remaining in an advantageous position, hence footwork, no matter how tedious, is a skill that needs to be drilled constantly, ...and properly!

Not only does footwork require constant drilling to perfect, it must be structurally sound and based on logical principles in order to be effective under real conditions.  While much of the footwork patterns practised in many martial arts may work within the relative safety of the kwoon, or in competition or pre-arranged demonstrations, when it comes to the "real thing", sadly many methods of footwork fail to deliver the goods.  The footwork of the wing chun gung fu system, stands up to the demands of real combat.

What makes this brand of footwork so effective?  In simple terms, it is the fact that it adheres to the three most basic principles of the wing chun system, namely that it is SIMPLE, DIRECT and EFFICIENT.  It is simple because wing chun footwork is based entirely on just one stance, yi ji kim yeung ma, generally referred to as the "goat stance", and variations to this stance are derived naturally as a result of the structure of this basic position.  It is direct because it advocates always utilising the shortest distance between defender and attacker(s) without superfluous motion or posturing.

Finally, it is efficient because it prescribes small changes in position so as to maintain close proximity to the assailant (the preferred wing chun fighting range, and the range most often encountered on the street), thus maximising the control one has over their opponent and reducing the time available to the opponent for attempting a counter measure.  It is also efficient because it provides a strong base from which maximum power can be generated with minimal effort, without compromising the balance or integrity of the stance, thus making sudden changes to the situation easier to respond to in a very natural way.

When categorising the various forms that footwork takes within the system, it can be said that all wing chun footwork, as stated earlier, is derived from the basic "goat stance", and that there are but five footwork options.  The best way to come to an understanding of how the footwork is actually applied in combat is to take each of these five options in order and break them down, defining their practice and usage.  To begin, we must firstly take a look at the "goat stance" so as to appreciate its structure and its underlying influence on wing chun footwork overall.

A step in the right direction - Wing chun malaysiaThe Cantonese name of the basic stance is yi ji kim yeung ma, which describes very accurately how the stance should look and, to a lesser extent, feel like when it is being employed.  It is the stance from which all three empty hand forms of the system are practised, most evident in the performance of the first form, siu nim tau ("young idea"), where the entire form is practised while in this one basic position.  If the name is broken down into two parts, it is easier to understand what it is telling us in terms of how the stance should appear.

The expression yi ji means "the character for the number two" and this describes the correct position of the feet.  With the toes turned inwards in the classic "pigeon-toed" position, a line drawn between the toes of both feet would represent the shorter, top stroke of the character, while a line drawn between the two heels would represent the longer, bottom stroke of the character.  The other half of the name, kim yeung ma, translates as "goat-gripping stance" and is meant to conjure up the image of a person bending their knees inwards and forwards so as to squeeze a goat (or sheep, etc) to prevent it from getting free.

When formed correctly, you have a stance that is balanced, favouring neither leg over the other, and a stance that is actually training both back legs (and both front legs as well!) of the 'triangular advancing stance' (saam gok ma) at the same time.  That is to say, the angle of both feet is the same as any one foot would be positioned if you were to move forwards or backwards in the left or right side stance.  The "goat stance" is also deliberately unstable, such that as soon as a force is applied to it, there is a natural tendency to collapse into a better position, hence the practitioner learns to not try to stand like a brick wall, meeting the opponent's force head on, but to use that energy to form a more favourable position, but more on that shortly.

Creating a stance for advancing and/or retreating can then be created by turning to the right or left, using the heels as the pivot-point.  Movement can now be achieved by stepping a few inches forward with the front foot (which should leave the ground, not slide), after which the body is propelled forwards by virtue of the angle of the hips (backside tucked in) which causes the back foot to drive the body in the same direction as the forward leg.  This action very much resembles the action of a rear-wheel drive car, whereby the front wheels steer while the back wheels provide the energy to drive the car.  The back foot should be (as much as is possible) in total contact with the ground throughout this action.  To step backwards, the process is done in reverse, with the rear foot stepping and the front foot sliding, however, the posture remains the same and the balance remains over the rear leg.

The method described above helps to understand the connection between the "goat stance" (yi ji kim yeung ma) and the 'triangular advancing stance' (or saam gok ma), but it does not represent the most practical way of applying it, only the best way of learning, training and absorbing it into the neural system. As far as combat application is concerned, it is important to be able to advance or retreat as directly as possible from a completely neutral position and this is achieved, in training, by firstly forming the basic stance and visualising a line running between the feet, dividing the stance down the centre.

a step in the right direction - wing chun malaysiaMoving in either the forward or backward direction is then done by moving (whichever is to be) the lead leg directly to that line (either to the front or rear), followed immediately by the other foot.  There should be no unnecessary motion associated with this, such as bringing the feet together first or making circular patterns, simply moving as directly and as naturally as possible to the central line as described.  This then represents the first two of the five options: (1) advancing forwards (seung ma), and (2) stepping backwards (hau ma), both possible from either a neutral or already committed stance. Seung ma is used for attack, close-range pursuit, and as the best means of intercepting a circular attack, whilst hau ma, whilst not the best choice in response to an in-coming attack, may be required as an initial response before a more effective option can be applied.

In accord with earlier remarks, it is important to now consider what, for the majority of situations, may well be the more likely requirement, which is the use of defensive footwork.  This is the area in which the wing chun method excels, and for want of a better term in English, it will be referred to here as the technique of "side-stepping" (the Cantonese term
being tui ma, or "pushed step", but more on that later).  At the basic level, "side-stepping" is mechanically exactly the same as the footwork previously described, that is, it is the "goat stance" modified to form the 'triangular advancing stance', but with the direction and angle of movement altered to meet the specific needs of the situation.

These are that:
(a) one must move in such a way as to avoid meeting the force of the attack head on, but;
(b) still be close enough to launch an effective counter-attack.  Not only that, but to be able to achieve this as a set of simultaneous motions, catching the attacker off-balance and totally committed to their own attack, hence at the mercy of the defender who is then able to reverse the situation with relative ease.

To understand and develop this skill, one must first imagine themselves as standing in the centre of a giant clock face, facing the twelve o'clock position.  The attacker is then visualised as moving from the twelve o'clock position towards the six o'clock position, taking you with them if you remain standing in the centre.  It must be remembered here that it does not matter what form of attack that the enemy may be launching (hands or feet, straight or round), the fact is that he or she is bound by the laws of nature, such that the central mass of their body must move in a straight line (only Peking Opera performers attack by running in winding lines!)  For this reason it is imperative that one always faces the line of the attack (ie. the body of the attacker) so as to maximise the effect of the counter strikes to be delivered.

Thus, turning side on to the attack, or turning away from the attack will only result in reducing the chances of seeing it coming, let alone dealing with it.  Obviously, moving back in a straight line only delays the inevitable (you will still get run down!), likewise jumping straight out to the left or the right is risky because the likelihood of still getting hit, at least partially, is still there, not to mention the fact that the opponent can realign his/her attack before you can due to the extended angle created by such lateral movement.

The wing chun response then?  Go with the attack, moving both backwards and slightly sideways, at either an angle of five o'clock or seven o'clock from the centre of the "clock", turning the hips and body back inwards towards the attacker.  A simple way to define what is involved is as follows: the right foot always moves to the right side (five o'clock); the left foot always moves to the left side (seven o'clock). This enables the defender to face the attacker so as to be able to control and attack with both hands simultaneously, quite literally drawing them into to the trap that has been set by the footwork, while all the while maintaining balance and integrity of stance.

(Continued next issue...)

Editors note: This article was originally published in Wing Chun Illustrated magazine, Issues 8 (2013)