Wing Chun

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A Little Idea

Siu Lim Tao or “The Little Idea” or “Small Thoughts” form provides a way for students to hone essential skills required for mastery of Wing Chun. Yip Man tells us that that the martial art was designed by a Buddhist nun named Ng Moi who after observing a conflict between a snake and a crane realized that each animal relied on its position to generate a comprehensive, unexpected method of attack and defense or “fighting.” From its position on the ground, the snake could use rising spiraling energies to launch swift attacks against the crane and realize naturally occurring sinking energies to defend itself; while the crane from its elevated position could use sinking spiraling energies to attack, and rising spiraling energies to defend itself.

Having no plan, each animal moved to its preferred position allowing an instinctual and necessary desire to survive to mitigate any false expectations. Envisioning Wing Chun, Ng Moi must have pondered introspectively at the mechanisms necessary to combine the rising and sinking energies with horizontal attacks (or “bow and arrow” power) while placing oneself at the exhilarating center of fear in combat realizing that all that one has is himself or herself absent time, space and reason to make critical decisions toward self-preservation. 

After Siu Lim Tao, Wing Chun attempts to realize this calming and cataclysmic paradox through Chi Sao or an animated sparring exercise expressing vital reflex responses relying on position, sensitivity, continuous adjustments or a “theory of change,” having a relaxed desire to connect with the other and to find her or his center.  While your instinct should naturally compel you to escape such episodic violence, Wing Chun conditions you to feel comfortable there in this miniaturized “Game of Death,” as Bruce Lee aptly named his movie, practicing with an opponent.

I am reminded of an initial sparring match between a young Bruce Lee and his first student in the United States, an African American man named, Jesse Glover. Although his presence in history has largely between displaced by Dan Inosanto and Taki Kimura, who seem perhaps more culturally and aesthetically appropriate for a discussion on Asian martial arts, we know from Jesse’s own writings in Bruce Lee Between Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do that Jesse felt comfortable handling any of Bruce’s later students.  He describes his first exposure to Wing Chun during a brief sparring match with Bruce Lee as follows:

Bruce demonstrated the effectiveness of his style by having me throw punches at him from any and all angles. He said, “Hit me any way that you can.” I threw jabs, hooks, and haymakers as fast as I could, but none of them made contact. Each punch was blocked and I always ended up staring at the wrong end of Bruce’s fist. Once he had shown me that he could stop all of my punches from long range, he demonstrated that I was completely helpless at close range.

Every time that his hands made contact with mine, I was unable to do anything. His hands controlled mine with a kind of friction that stopped any kind of foreword movement. Whenever I tried to nullify this friction by changing my angle of attack, Bruce would also change his angle of defense and my hands were still unable to move forward.

I figured that if I wasn’t able to get in, I would at least be able to get away, but when I tried to withdraw my hands I found that I wasn’t able to pull them back without getting hit. Next, I attempted to disengage and go around his hands, but this strategy was met with direct strikes to my chest.

Before Bruce finished his demonstration of Wing Chun hand entrapment techniques, I was convinced that he could both hit and control me at will. Once he was positive that he had convinced me of the effectiveness of his style, Bruce went back to the beginning and showed me the basis for Wing Chun.

Returning to “The Little Idea” form, after stripping away all the false narratives and platitudes of other martial arts, and factors such as your muscles, strength and speed, you might realize that you are quite defenseless. It is you walking down a dark corridor that leads to a dead-end pursued by an angry mob. All that one has at that moment is oneself and the ability to use logic and the most basic of primordial instincts to rise above it all – to live.  You have only your bones and your wits (or intent or “attention”) to protect you. From this starting point, Ng Moi built a great martial art that teaches you how to move hardened bones wrapped in soft gel-like flesh into positions that give you an advantage relative to an opponent. Using bidirectional forces occurring on both sides of your body, and through contact with another, Chi Sao forces your opponent to face the natural and inevitable moral imperative of trying to extinguish flames or threats occurring simultaneosly beneath, above, on both sides of oneself, all pursuing his or her center. While this happens, an internal “flee or fight response” occurs mixed with a desire to save oneself or help other parts of the body by crossing one’s own hands.

Siu Lim Tao asks a simple question, “given the little energy that you have, how can you unify, connect and place your bones into a position, that makes the other uncomfortable, leaving him or her no time or space to move, while creating greater, expansive opportunities for oneself based on sensation?” Siu Lim Tao, unlike other arts, departs from trivial emotions such as anger, rage, or desire because they are not necessary. Instead, it operates on a mechanistic model moving as a crane, and in-action feels like a spiraling tornado wrapped about a wooden tree spiraling forward to its target while lashing out with hardened pointed branches, rebounding as bamboo, neither having a concern or worry. Always, you the great governor gauge your activity deciding when to stop. 

Bruce, though believed by many to be a great exponent of Wing Chun, did nothing of the sort. Instead, he brilliantly retrofitted and inversely expounded ideas realized by Ng Moi and Ip Man to create a “Big Idea form or Jeet Kun Do.  The one inch punch though heralded by many as a sign of martial prowess is quite the opposite of what a proponent of Wing Chun wants to achieve – to be closer and nearer to our opponent.  Why would you send a person who intends to harm you thirty feet back so he can come at you again with more weapons or people? Wing Chun attacks the center of an opponent so that even the time between breaths feels as though a thousand minutes. Once taken seriously, you can see that the movements of Chu Shong Tin and Leung Sheung, both students of  Ip Man, and his two sons, Ip Chung and Ip Ching, vary markedly from Bruce Lee. His now famous demonstration at Long Beach California of Jun Fan (or his style), provides and outward expression of sinking and rising energies. One has only to examine the height, depth, and width of movement, which is nearly impossible on a flat dimensional device, to realize that Bruce drops his entire body, rises and then spirals forward to create explosive power.

Contrast his actions with the internal and almost non-visible and explosive force of well-trained practitioners of Wing Chun  and you may realize that Bruce as quite the opposite, though and outward and expansive expression of Wing Chun expressing his own self, neither threatening nor demeaning the legacy of the giants who preceded him.

In Siu Lim Tao, Tao Sao rises from an imperfect position to breach the surface realizing a perfected curiosity.

Paul Anthony Williams, MA., MSc