What Is Wing Chun?

A 19th century painting of martial arts practice in Guangdong, China.

A 19th century painting of martial arts practice in Guangdong, China.

by Master Jon Nielson
Originally published here.

A Method, Not a Style
Wing Chun is not a fighting style; it is a method of teaching and learning how to fight. A style is characterized by a distinctive feature while performing a given activity. Ideally, there should be no such features when a graduate of the Wing Chun school is fighting. While it is true that most graduates typically fight in a backward sloping stance and punch with their elbows down, our graduates are not the only people who do that, i.e., bare-knuckle boxers, and that is not the only way we stand or punch. It’s hard to pin down any universal characteristics of Wing Chun because our main goal is not to tell them what they must or must not do to fit in with the group, but rather to show people how to use their bodies to simultaneously maximize power and minimize risk. Hence Wing Chun is not about how one fights, but rather about how one learns to fight.

Maximizing Power and Minimizing Risk
Wing Chun seeks to maximize power, and when fighting there are two major powers with which we are concerned: the power to attack and the power to defend. We define “power” as “The ability to bring about a desired change or effect.” In self-defense, what you desire is to hit your attacker and keep him from hitting, kicking or grabbing you. Now, if you’re designing a punch and you find a way to increase power, but you do so at the expense of your ability to defend, you end up with a net decrease in overall power. The converse is also true; if you design a defense at the expense of your ability to throw an attack, you also end up with a net decrease in overall power. So what you want is an attack that not only does the kind of fight-stopping damage you need in a self-defense situation, but also keeps you safe from any attacks that might be aimed at you. Wing Chun provides such a set of attacks by utilizing kinesiology and spatial geometry. There are many ways in which Wing Chun does this, but the most basic way is through setting up a punch that moves on planes that connect you to the ground. At the same time, the lines of the punch create geometric shapes that cover the space between you and your attacker, making it more difficult for him to enter the space, much like a fencing attack.

Considering Situations
People tend to think of fighting in terms of what they’ve seen in the entertainment media, but such has little to do with actual self-defense. Combatants are rarely evenly matched, rarely have time to set up for the fight, rarely fight in a “user-friendly” environment, and rarely face an equal number of combatants. Faced with these realities, it becomes clear that while certain fighting styles might be appropriate for sporting events, they are wholly inadequate for self-defense. In self-defense, the twin values of speed of execution and mobility govern all other considerations. Anything that ties you up or slows you down should be avoided. On the other hand, you may find yourself in a less-than-optimal situation that calls for an alternative mode of defense. The modes of defense and their order of emphasis are as follows: Primary, Boxing; Secondary, Kicking; Tertiary, Grappling. Wing Chun is a complete approach to self-defense that places the appropriate emphasis on these different modes of defense.

A Principled Approach
There are a two ways to approach a system of self-defense. The most common approach is to come up with all of the self-defense situations you could possibly think of and then come up with a plan, tailor-made for that situation. The problem with this approach is that you can’t possibly come up with all possible situations, and even if you could, it would take far too much time practicing until you could perfectly execute your plans for all possible scenarios. I’ll bet you have other things to do with your time. The approach that Wing Chun takes is to define a set of principles that apply to all possible scenarios, develop a set of skills based on these principles, and work to perfect this finite set of skills. My disclaimer here is that if you stop practicing your skills lose their edge, but at least the time it takes to practice these skills is manageable.
The Divisions of TrainingThe Wing Chun training system follows a well-developed plan to move students from the very basics to advanced self-defense in just six steps.

Step 1
The first, “Fundamental Concepts,” focuses on basic ways of increasing and applying power according to your own body mechanics and the body’s relation to simple machines, such as planes, inclined planes, levers and arcs. The set places emphasis on posture, core strength, shoulder strength and flexibility, and general health. Wing Chun is counter-offensive, so the first set shows how each movement can be both offensive and defensive. Every move doubles as attack and defense. However, since the first set is fundamental, or in other words, foundational, there is little emphasis on stance movement, but rather on stance stability. Consequently, there is very little exposure to stance movement. Instead, the emphasis is on punching, or more precisely, arm strikes, i.e., fingertips, fist, palm, forearm, elbow, and shoulder strikes. Most movements are primarily offensive. There are no completely defensive movements in Wing Chun. Those that are primarily defensive either cause pain or set up a follow-up strike. In summary the Fundamental Concepts set works on setting up a solid stance and delivering solid strikes. Siu Lim Tao training lasts about seven and a half months, including the introductory course.

Step 2
The second unarmed set, “Establishing Bridges,” is a much more aggressive set, and constitutes the basis of the system’s fighting skills. Establishing Bridges focuses on adding footwork and coordinating the hands and feet.
This set, for the most part, works inside the boxing range, so the footwork is made up of quick, angular motions with only a little exposure to distance work. The main thrust of Establishing Bridges is to apply the skills of punching from Fundamental Concepts while moving stance, and to add power to your punches through stance movement.
Another aspect of footwork in the second set is Wing Chun’s kicking system. Instead of providing a set number of kicks, Wing Chun gives you a virtually limitless number of kicks by providing a set of types of kicks that can be mixed and matched, so that the footwork in Wing Chun is almost as versatile as the handwork. The short, powerful, low kicks of Wing Chun are designed to destroy stance, and include strikes with the toe, heel, shin, knee, thigh and hip.

Besides coordinating hands and feet, Establishing Bridges has a wide variety of two-man drills that build two-hand coordination and sensitivity. This coordination and sensitivity allows you to quickly create and avoid traps, joint locks, throws and other grappling techniques. There is also some introduction to working against multiple attackers. Establishing Bridges training takes about one year.

Step 3
The third set is called, “Explosive Extremities,” and, in addition to increasing power in arm and leg strikes, teaches how to deal with extreme situations.

The first extreme situation is fighting closer than punching range. For this there are several grappling techniques, such as joint locks, small joint manipulation, and even some submission holds. This set is where students learn to recover from mistakes, apply power in very small movements, strike when they have no stance, and recover stance. In addition, the third set teaches elbow strikes and pressure point attacks, along with several emergency moves including eye gouging, rip loose body parts, dislocating joints, etc. Many of these strategies are against the rules of most competitions, but they are very useful in a self-defense situation.

The second extreme situation is fighting farther than punching range. In this set, there is more distance footwork, and more work with multiple attackers. Further, there are more long distance strikes and entry techniques.
Training in Explosive Extremities lasts nine months.

Step 4
The fourth set, and first apparatus set, is called, “The Wooden Man.” Wing Chun uses the Wooden Man for conditioning and power. There are several exercises on the wooden man throughout the training, but there is also a wooden man set the combines all of the concepts learned from Fundamental Concepts through Explosive Extremities.
The various appendages on the Wooden Man, called “arms and legs” actually represent lines of attack that can be thrown. These lines help to correct a student’s lines of attack and defense from the floor to the fist. In addition, striking the Wooden Man’s appendages toughens the bones and skin of the hands, forearms, shins and feet.
The Wooden Man also allows students to practice quick changes of footwork against a real object against which they can apply maximum force, and, since the Wooden Man is mounted on a spring stance, it gives force back to them. This situation allows students to work with different types of force, and to apply force from a very short distance. In addition, because the Wooden Man gives force and affords something to really grab and hit, students can learn to use an attacker’s force against him.

The Wooden Man reviews the concepts taught from Fundamental Concepts through Explosive Extremities including applying force, maintaining defensive lines, coordinating hand strikes to trap and avoid traps, set up clean strikes and clean kicks, defend against kicks, damage appendages and fight against multiples.
For every technique learned on the Wooden Man, there is also a two-man drill that allows students to work the same techniques with an unpredictable and sometimes uncooperative human being. Training on the Wooden Man takes one year.

Step 5
The fifth set and first weapon set uses a “Nine Foot Pole.” The Pole is the simplest of all the sets and takes only five months to learn. There are only seven concepts in the Pole set, but they represent concepts used to fight any long-range weapon. Students are challenged to expand these concepts into multiple situations. As with all of the other sets, there are several two-man drills for the Pole which help to correct lines and footwork. In addition, the Pole teaches concepts of leverage that can be applied to unarmed fighting, and training with the Pole serves as a transition to training with double blades.

Step 6
The final set and second weapons set in Wing Chun is the Blades form. Unlike the weapons forms of many arts, the Wing Chun Blades form is an integral part of the training.

The lines of attack and defense are the same as those used for unarmed fighting. Aside from those introduced in the Blades form, the techniques used for attack and defense are analogous to those used throughout the system. Because these lines are easier to see and more critical to execute properly, training with blades significantly improves unarmed fighting.

The Blades form also rounds off Wing Chun footwork by completing the distance training, timing, and controlled retreating. Furthermore, students learn to use the blade footwork to enter and trap by learning to change direction efficiently while moving forward and backward and to keep their lines of defense covered in all directions.
Unlike foil or saber, the Wing Chun Blades are used to both stab and slash, furthermore, Wing Chun uses two blades at once, so the blades can be used to protect and attack at the same time, just like the hands and feet in unarmed training.

Finally, the Blades set has a strong emphasis on fighting multiple attackers, including executing and defending against flanking attacks and blind attacks from the rear and defensive techniques for when one is entirely surrounded. Training in the final set takes one year.

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