Ip Man wanted Wing Chun to be simple. Evidence of this is found in each of the sets. The art uses simple movements in space and time that intend to affect your training partner in ways that make them feel uncomfortable and less confident about doing something to you. Viewed simply, Wing Chun can be described as the letters A, B, or C.
I am trying to avoid the standard definition stating that Wing Chun is a close-range fighting system using hand-to-hand combat. This definition is ineffectual and almost meaningless to the beginner because to reach that end, if it ever occurs, is a long ways away. To be used effectively, Wing Chun uses a programmatic teaching method that aims to install the right set of thoughts, precision, accuracy and placement of tools in both time and space as well as patience.
My thinking about Wing Chun involves an evolutionary approach because it seems simple to me, and hopefully, you. I like the idea of the simple ant that makes a unique sound for each movement forwards, backwards, left, right, up and down. It does not think too much. It might not even have a concept of fear. The ant has a simple task — to get the sugar at the end of the picnic table and return the sugar to the colony. It does not need a complex plan. It simply walks forward tracing the steps of previous ants. If it is killed along the way, another ant will follow. Ants have existed for millions of years and predate dinosaurs.
Siu Lim Tao, Wing Chun’s first form, is similar to the ant because it teaches you to use basic movements to reach forward, backwards, upwards and down first on the left and then the right side of your body. Siu Lim Tao, like the ant has no plan. It has no purpose. It simply tries to reach the end of the movement and return. Siu Lim Tao, as designed by Ip Man, is simple. As you practice, your brain, which is greedy, will lie to you saying that you need to use more power and that this move is a punch to the jaw and that move is a chop to the neck. Siu Lim Tao intends, rather, to stretch your tendons and give you an idea about the placement of tools along the centerline in a precise way using angles that disrupt an opponent’s natural rhythm. Your greedy brain will tell you that you are developing advanced hand fighting techniques. I like to think that you are simply just training your legs, spine and elbow to target center.
The bee is a little bit more advanced than an ant because it can fly, land on a flower and find its way back to the nest by orientating its body using the sun. The bee can make complex movements that involve wings, legs, and its body ( head, thorax and abdomen) moving simultaneously. Similarly, Wing Chun’s second form, Chum Kiu, combines the simple (A, B, and C) movements of Siu Lim Tao coordinating legs and arms to emit new movements or sounds (up, down, left and right, arcs and straight lines) sometimes moving in unison and in opposite directions to teach your body to move both holistically and separately. As you practice this form, you may feel disassembled (like when you rip the legs off a grasshopper or spider as a child) and then reassembled. If you think in colours, you may think about Chum Kiu as using simple colours to create new experiences for yourself and an opponent. Chum Kiu is simple. Here is a chameleon mixing colours to change the experience for predators and prey.
Chi Sao (or rolling hands) is a way to talk to your training partner. It is also a way to talk to other arts because each martial art is simply a movement and shape in both time and space. All that a human being can do in the fighting context is move slower, faster, or stop, control and direct movement using two arms and two legs. The movements of chi sao, in this evolutionary scheme, reminds me of the songs of birds communicating that: food is present; danger is near; or that a potential mate is desired. Chi Sao helps you to communicate with your partner using the A, B, and C of Siu Lim Tao as well as the combined movements of Chum Kiu (AB, CA, AA, BC, CBA) to create unique and special words. But, often new martial artists say too much! They are in a hurry with their greedy minds to throw as many punches and strikes as possible. The experienced fighter is patient and observing movement as a good hunter. If you can change your concept about martial arts to see all movement and display as exemplifying martial arts, then you will realize that it is all around you: people adorn tattoos to look powerful and artistic; bikers wear black leather and move in groups and this may create an uneasy feeling inside you; and men and women may lift weights to look intimidating to others. As people talk in the office and at school, there may be discussions that rise to arguments. This is a type of Chi Sao. If you want to see fighting you will see it. I see it as two people talking and saying: “This is me. What can you do?”
Many people in the west view the Wooden Dummy as a punching bag. On first seeing it, they start punching and kicking it so it makes a loud sound. This is a type of communication. To us, it is primitive talk like an ape. The wooden dummy more accurately is a piano that can make large sounds and soft sounds. You learn to play it by moving your instrument around the device. Like good music, the goal is to have changes in rhythm and pace, tone and power so that the audience, your opponent, is overwhelmed. You must play the Wooden Dummy calmly to master it. The Dummy also teaches you to recover when dealing with a person who can speak better than you. In Wing Chun, cleverly, we plan for failure so you have a chance because nothing is guaranteed in life. If you stand on the soccer field against a child who is highly skilled, you will have a difficult time getting the ball from him or her. To win, you require movements that allow you to defend your position and acquire the ball. Fighting and the survival of a species is like this. The Wooden Dummy is a simple tool to help you move better gradually.
I would like to end this discussion with a little story told euphemistically about Wing Chun. In the house, there is a mouse and a cat. The mouse wants to get the cheese at the end of the hallway. The cat wants to eat the mouse. To survive the mouse must listen for the cat and move cautiously to the cheese. The cat has speed, sharp claws and teeth; but these attributes are useless against a mouse that moves at the right time and enters its tiny space in the wall before the cat gets there. The mouse does not need to say too much to win this discussion. It may even bite the cat from behind the wall. The cat can also win if it is patient and has a good position. This evolutionary fight has no victor because there seems to be a continuous supply of both cats and mice.