Wing Chun, occasionally romanized as Ving Tsun or “Wing Tsun” (literally “spring chant” or “forever spring”, or substituted with the character for “eternal springtime”) is a Chinese martial art that specializes in aggressive close-range combat.
The characters (永春) “forever spring” are also associated with some other southern Chinese martial arts, including Jee Shim Weng Chun (Yong Chun) and White Crane Weng Chun (Yong Chun).
Wing Chun, was originally passed down from teacher to student orally rather than through written documentation, making it difficult to confirm or clarify the differing accounts of its creation. Some have sought to apply the methods of higher criticism to the oral histories of Wing Chun and other Chinese martial arts. Others have attempted to discern the origins of Wing Chun by determining the specific purpose of its techniques. Mentions of the art start to appear in independent third-party documentation during the era of the Wing Chun master Leung Jan, making its subsequent history and divergence into various branches more amenable to documentary verification.
The common legend involves the young woman Yim Wing Chun (Wing Chun literally means beautiful springtime or everlasting spring). After she rebuffs the local warlord’s marriage offer, he says he’ll rescind his proposal if she can beat him in a fight. She asks a local Buddhist nun, Ng Mui, to teach her boxing, and the style they develop enables Yim Wing Chun to defeat the warlord. She thereafter marries her sweetheart and teaches him the style, which he names after her.
It should be noted that the system was developed during the Shaolin and Ming resistance movement against the Qing Dynasty, and thus many legends about the creator of Wing Chun were spread to confuse the enemy, including the story of Yim Wing Chun. This perhaps explains why no one has been able to accurately determine the creator or creators of Wing Chun.
Southern martial art
Wing Chun, together with Hung Gar and Choi Lei Fut, is named as one of “The Three Great Martial Art Schools of the South”, which originated and became popular in Southern China.
Forms and san sik
Forms are meditative, solitary exercises which develop self-awareness, balance, relaxation and sensitivity. Forms also train the practitioner in the fundamental movement and the correct force generation of Wing Chun.
San Sik (translated as Separate Forms) are compact in structure. They can be loosely grouped into three broad categories: 1) focus on building body structure through basic punching, standing, turning, and stepping drills; 2) fundamental arm cycles and changes, firmly ingraining the cardinal tools for interception and adaptation; and 3) sensitivity training and combination techniques.
It is from the forms and san sik that all Wing Chun techniques are derived. Depending on lineage, the focus, content and intent of each form can have distinct differences which can therefore have far reaching implications. This also means that there are a few different ideas concerning what constitutes progression in the curriculum from form to form, so only a general description of overlap between different schools of thought is possible here.
The most commonly seen Wing Chun generally comprises six forms: three empty hand forms, one “wooden dummy” form, and two weapons forms.
Chi Sao (Chinese 黐手, Cantonese chi1 sau², Mandarin chǐshǒu) or “sticking hands”. Term for the principle, and drills used for the development of automatic reflexes upon contact and the idea of “sticking” to the opponent. In Wing Chun this is practiced through two practitioners maintaining contact with each other’s forearms while executing techniques, thereby training each other to sense changes in body mechanics, pressure, momentum and “feel”. This increased sensitivity gained from this drill helps a practitioner attack and counter an opponent’s movements precisely, quickly and with the appropriate technique.
Chi Sao is similar to the hubud-lubad drills of Eskrima. It looks somewhat like the push hands training of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Chi Sao is also taught in the Jeet Kune Do traditions, and uses modified versions of some of the component techniques such as the bong sao and jut sao.
Chi Sao additionally refers to the Luk Sao (methods of rolling hands) drills. Luk Sao participants push and “roll” their forearms against each other in a single circle while trying to remain relaxed. The aim is to feel forces, test resistances and find defensive gaps. Other branches do a version of this where each of the arms roll in small separate circles. Luk Sao is most notably taught within the Pan Nam branches where both the larger rolling drills and the method where each of the arms roll in small separate circles are taught.
In some branches (most notably the Yip Man and Jiu Wan branches) Chi Sao drills begin with one-armed sets (Dan Chi Sao) which help the novice student to get the feel of the exercise, each practitioner uses one hand from the same side as they face each other. Chi Sao is a sensitivity drill to obtain specific responses, it should not be confused with sparring/fighting, though it can be practised or expressed in a combat form for example, in MMA in the clinch Chi Sao can be expressed as well as used in other arts.
“Chi gerk” (黐腳, sticking legs) comprises predefined leg sensitivity drills which are performed in a manner similar to Chi sao. Some lineages, notably (some sub-branches of) Yip Man, Pan Nam, and Jiu Wan, practice this exercise, but there is no general agreement as to its relevance in the system.
Some Wing Chun schools use wing chun kuen kuit (詠春拳訣 lit. Wing Chun Fist Formula mnemonic) in teaching the art. These are short, often sing-song, sayings or rhymes that encapsulate principles, strategies or combat responses. Their meanings are often derived from local slang. Some sayings may appear simple but gain greater lucidity and meaning during training.
Wing Chun techniques emphasize practicality and efficiency to maintain its ideals on effectiveness. Strikes are intended to injure or disrupt the target. Efficiency in Wing Chun is based on the concept that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Likewise its primary targets all lie along the “centerline” of one’s opponent.
Wing Chun believes in using the least amount of required force in any fighting situation. It believes properly timed positioning and movements can and should be used to defeat an opponent. This is achieved through balance, body structure and relaxation. The Chinese saying “4 taels to move 1000 catties” (referring to an old Chinese measurement system) is appropriate here in describing how a small amount of force, correctly applied, can deflect a powerful attack.
Wing Chun uses deflection and counter-attack in the same motion or will intercept the opponent to nulify an attack, rather than blocking then attacking in two separate motions. Further on interception the punch can act as a block as a consequence of the structure and the position of the arm travelling along its triangular “power-line” pathway to the opponent’s “Core”. This means that the opponent’s attack is automatically deflected by the arm-structure of the Wing Chun practitioner as the counter-punch is delivered.
The “structure” permits this deflection to occur is controlled through the correct focus of energy from the “core” to the “elbow”. If the structure is not in place, the counter-attack/interception is likely to break down losing the “forwarding” power which may result in the deflection failing and allowing the attacking punch to make its target.
In addition to efficiency being understood as the “shortest distance to the opponent’s core” (which relates specifically to the speed of attack/counter-attack), it is also important to understand the importance of energy efficiency within Wing Chun. A person using Wing Chun is said to be able to defeat a stronger person because they are able to use their structure effectively. Given this, it is essential in ensuring that the Wing Chun practitioner has a full understanding of structure which enables them to use the correct use of energy required – any deviation from their “structure” resulting in using muscles in the shoulders will cause injury to the practitioner and also result in fatigue very quickly. This deviation removes the Wing Chun practitioners advantage since their “structure” will no longer support the defence/attack and vice versa. So the conclusion of the fight between two Wing Chun practitioners will be determined by the opponent with the stronger arms, shoulders and chin. However, certain techniques can allow a weaker person to win even if the said person is at a big disadvantage. Strikes that are surprising (for example: a variation in high and low attacks) can throw the stronger opponent off-balance and expose gaps in defense.
Economy of movement
Most Wing Chun attacks take the straightest possible path to the target (usually a straight line) to break the opponent’s structure. Wing Chun theory focuses on the opponent’s centerline, an imaginary vertical line bisecting the opponent’s vitals (throat, heart, stomach, groin). The Wing Chun punch, for example, is delivered centrally from the practitioner’s chest rather than diagonally from the shoulders in the first two forms. This helps teach the centerline concept. In the later forms, the punch is delivered diagonally from the shoulder to the centerline. This is because the distance is shorter than bringing the hand from the shoulder, to the center of the chest, and then down the centerline at the opponent.
Balance, structure and stance
Wing Chun practitioners believe that the person with better body structure will win. A correct Wing Chun stance is like a piece of bamboo, firm but flexible, rooted but yielding. This structure is used to either deflect external forces or redirect them into the ground.
Balance is related to structure because a well-balanced body recovers quicker from stalled attacks and structure is maintained. Wing Chun trains the awareness of one’s own body movement derived from muscular, tendon, and articular sources. Performing Wing Chun’s forms such as Chum Kiu or the Wooden Dummy form greatly increase proprioception. Wing Chun favours a high, narrow stance with the elbows kept close to the body. Within the stance, arms are positioned across the vitals of the centerline. Shifting or turning within a stance is carried out variantly on the heels, balls, or middle (K1 or Kidney 1 point) of the foot depending on lineage. All attacks and counter-attacks are initiated from this firm, stable base. Wing Chun rarely compromises structure for more powerful attacks because this is believed to create defensive openings which may be exploited.
Structure is viewed as important, not only for reasons of defense, but also for attack. When the practitioner is effectively ‘rooted’, or aligned so as to be braced against the ground, the force of the hit is believed to be far more devastating. Additionally, the practice of ‘settling’ one’s opponent to brace them more effectively against the ground aids in delivering as much force as possible to them.
Softness (via relaxation) and performing techniques in a relaxed manner, is fundamental to Wing Chun.
- Tension reduces punching speed and power. Muscles act in pairs in opposition to each other (e.g. biceps and triceps). If the arm is tensed, maximum punching speed cannot be achieved as the biceps will be opposing the extension of the arm. In Wing Chun, the arm should be relaxed before beginning the punching motion.
- Unnecessary muscle tension wastes energy and causes fatigue.
- Tense, stiff arms are less fluid and sensitive during trapping and chi sao.
- A tense, stiff limb provides an easy handle for an opponent to push or pull with, whereas a relaxed limb provides an opponent less to work with.
- A relaxed, but focused limb, affords the ability to feel “holes” or weaknesses in the opponents structure (See Sensitivity section). With the correct forwarding these “holes” grant a path into attacking the opponent.
- Muscular struggle reduces a fight to who is stronger. Minimum brute strength in all movement becomes an equalizer in uneven strength confrontations. This is very much in the spirit of the tale of Ng Mui.
While the existence of a “central axis” concept is unified in Wing Chun, the interpretation of the centerline concept itself is not. Many variations exist, with some lineages defining anywhere from a single “centerline” to multiple lines of interaction and definition. The most commonly seen interpretation emphasizes attack and defense along an imaginary vertical line drawn from the center of the practitioner’s chest to the center of the enemy’s chest. The human body’s prime striking targets are considered to be on or near this line, including eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus and groin.
Wing Chun techniques are generally “closed”, with the limbs drawn in to protect the central area and also to maintain balance. In most circumstances, the hands do not move beyond the vertical circle that is described by swinging the arms in front, with the hands crossed at the wrists. To reach outside this area, footwork is used. A large emphasis and time investment in training Chi Sao exercise emphasises positioning to dominate this centerline. The stance and guard all point at or through the center to concentrate physical and mental intent of the entire body to the one target.
Wing Chun practitioners attack within this central area to transmit force more effectively, since it targets the “core center” (or “mother line”, another center defined in some lineages and referring to the vertical axis of the human body where the center of gravity lies). For example, striking an opponent’s shoulder will twist the body, dispelling some of the force and weakening the strike. Striking closer to the center transmits more force directly into the body.
Because of the emphasis on the center line, the vertical fist straight punch is the most common strike in Wing Chun. However, the principle of simultaneous attack and defence suggests that all movements in the Siu Nim Tau with a forward execution flow into a strike if no effective resistance is met, without need for recomposure. Other explicit examples of punches can be found in the Chum Kiu and Bil Jee forms, articulating an uppercut and hook punch respectively.
The vertical punch is the most basic and fundamental in Wing Chun and is usually thrown with the elbow down and in front of the body. Depending on the lineage, the fist is held anywhere from vertical to horizontal (palm side up). The contact points also vary from the top two knuckles, to the middle two knuckles, to the bottom three knuckles. In some lineages of Wing Chun, the fist is swivelled at the wrist on point of impact so that the bottom three knuckles are thrust forward adding power to the punch while it is at maximum extension.
The punches may be thrown in quick succession in a ‘straight blast’ or ‘chain punching’. When executed correctly, it can be used as a disorienting finisher but is often criticised for encouraging weaker punches that don’t utilise the whole body. Wing Chun favours the vertical punch for several reasons:
- Directness. The punch is not “loaded” by pulling the elbow behind the body. The punch travels straight towards the target from the guard position (hands are held in front of the chest).
- Protection. The elbow is kept low to cover the front midsection of the body. It is more difficult for an opponent to execute an elbow lock/break when the elbow occupies this position. This aids in generating power by use of the entire body structure rather than only the arm to strike. Also with the elbow down, it offers less opening for the body to attacked while the forearm and punch intercept space towards the head and upper body.
- Strength and Impact. Wing Chun practitioners believe that because the elbow is behind the fist during the strike, it is thereby supported by the strength of the entire body rather than just a swinging fist, and therefore has more impact. A common analogy is a baseball bat being swung at someone’s head (a round-house punch), as opposed to the butt end of the bat being thrust forward into the opponent’s face (wing chun punch), which would cause far more damage than a glancing hit and isn’t as easy to evade. Many skilled practitioners pride themselves on being able to generate “short power” or large amount of power in a short space. A common demonstration of this is the “one-inch punch,” a punch that starts only an inch away from the target yet delivers an explosive amount of force.
- Alignment & Structure. Because of Wing Chun’s usage of stance, the vertical punch is thus more suitable. The limb directly in front of the chest, elbow down, vertical nature of the punch allows a practitioner to absorb the rebound of the punch by directing it through the elbows and into the stance. This is a desirable trait to a Wing Chun practitioner, where in contrast the rebound of a horizontal, elbow-out punch promotes torque in the puncher’s body. This is because the limb and elbow are now directing rebound force outwards instead of inwards due to the positioning of the hinge-structured elbow. This aids in generating power by promoting use of the entire body structure rather than only the arm to strike. This can be easily demonstrated; hold your fist vertically, in front of you, your elbow pointing down, one foot behind the other. Make sure your elbow is in your centerline. Then ask a friend to push into your fist while you attempt to resist. You will feel the push pressuring your legs and stance. Repeat with a horizontal fist, elbow at shoulder height and to the side. You will feel the incoming push twisting you sideways.
Kicks can be explicitly found in the Chum Kiu and Mook Jong forms, though some have made interpretations of small leg movements in the Siu Nim Tau and Bil Jee to contain information on kicking as well. Depending on lineage, a beginner is often introduced to basic kicking before learning the appropriate form. Traditionally, kicks are kept below the waist.This is characteristic of southern martial arts, in contrast to northern systems which utilise many high kicks.
Variations on a front kick are performed striking with the heel. The body may be square and the knee and foot are vertical on contact (Chum Kiu), or a pivot may be involved with the foot and knee on a plane at an angle (Mook Jong). At short distances this can become a knee. A roundhouse kick is performed striking with the shin in a similar manner to the Muay Thai version with most of the power coming from the body pivot. This kick is usually used as a finisher at closer range, targeting anywhere between the ribs and the back of the knee, this kick can also become a knee at close range. Other kicks include a stamping kick (Mook Jong) for very close range and a sweep performed with the heel in a circular fashion (Bil Jee).
Every kick is both an attack and defence, with legs being used to check incoming kicks or to take the initiative in striking through before a more circular kick can land. Kicks are delivered in one movement directly from the stance without chambering/cocking.
Wing Chun techniques are uncommitted. This means that if the technique fails to connect, the practitioner’s position or balance is less affected. If the attack fails, the practitioner is able to “flow” easily into a follow-up attack. All Wing Chun techniques permit this. Any punches or kicks can be strung together to form a “chain” of attacks. Chained vertical punches are a Wing Chun trademark.
Trapping skills and sensitivity
The Wing Chun practitioner uses reflexes and sticking hands to probe for holes (openings) in the opponent’s defense through touching. The practitioner controls an opponent by contacting through a block or a strike and maintaining contact or “sticking” to the opponent. If the opponent attempts to withdraw or redirect the hand, the practitioner follows, often using the motion to facilitate a trap or a strike. A common Wing Chun saying is “greet what arrives, escort what leaves and rush upon loss of contact”, regarding the importance of trapping incoming force and advancing quickly when an opening is sensed.
Wing Chun teaches practitioners to advance quickly and strike at close range. While the Wing Chun forward kick can be considered a long range technique, many Wing Chun practitioners practice “entry techniques” – getting past an opponent’s kicks and punches to bring him within range of Wing Chun’s close range repertoire. This means that theoretically, if the correct techniques are applied, a shorter person with a shorter range can defeat a larger person by getting inside their range and attacking them close to their body.