“Get Out Of The Way, …And Make Them Pay”

The Street-Effective Footwork Of Wing Chun

by David Peterson

*** Published 'Fight Times' magazine (NZ), December/January (2001/2002)issue ***

Everyone knows how boring it is to practise footwork, but there isn’t a martial artist alive who could deny the importance of acquiring the skills involved. It doesn’t matter how fast or powerful your punches and kicks might be, without a delivery system, no striking technique, no matter how great it might be, is of any use at all if it can’t reach the target. Even more important is the need to be able to avoid an opponent’s attempts to attack, while still being in an advantageous position, hence footwork, no matter how tedious, is a skill that needs to be drilled constantly.

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 dojo, dojang and 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, as taught and practised by the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung of Hong Kong and his followers, this author included, stands up to the demands of real combat.

What is it that 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, yee 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), 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. Wing chun footwork is also efficient as it allows for simultaneous attack and defence (lin siu dai da), because the practitioner is always left in a position where he or she can reach the opponent with both hands and at least one leg for attack, defence and control.

While this article will try to touch on all aspects of the wing chun footwork concepts, it is likely that the reader will note an emphasis on the defensive aspects. This is due to the fact that in the majority of cases where one might expect to need to use these skills, it will be as a victim of an attack, rather than as the instigator of one. Having said that, one will soon realise, by virtue of the descriptions and illustrations provided, that where wing chun footwork concepts are concerned, attack and defence are closely entwined and one easily gives rise to the other. In other words, wing chun footwork is both flexible and adaptable.
It has been suggested that the footwork of the wing chun system was developed by people who spent much of their lives working on the water, plying the intricate river systems of the southern Chinese coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. This is a not an unrealistic assumption when one examines the basic shapes and principles involved, in particular the propensity to slide rather than step with the back foot when in forward motion (thus maintaining constant contact with the ground which assists in the maintenance of good balance), while the “goat stance” would provide a perfectly good way of maintaining good footing on the surface of a moving deck. If you doubt this, try it for yourself, and it needn’t be a boat; a moving train, tram or bus is just as good a proving ground.

This theory also helps bring us some way towards understanding what many people regard as the paradox of the wing chun system, that it makes use of upright, mobile stances typical of northern Chinese systems, yet exhibits a distinct preference for close-range application of both hand and foot techniques, more typical of the combat systems of southern China. Because of this preference for a more upright, less flamboyant stance than most other forms of gung fu, the wing chun method was ideally suited to the tight alleys, crowded streets and rooftops of Fatsaan and Hong Kong where its most famous exponents, Dr Leung Jan, his student Chan Wa Sun, the late grandmaster Yip Man and his student, Wong Shun Leung, brought the art to prominence.

When categorising the various forms that footwork takes within the system, it can be said that all wing chun footwork is derived from the basic “goat stance”, as stated earlier, and that from that stance 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 into concepts and applications. In order 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.

The Cantonese name of the basic stance is yee ji kim yeung ma, which describes very accurately how the stance should look and, to a lesser extent, feel when being practised. 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 yee 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) to prevent it from getting free, in much the same way as Australian sheep-shearers might keep control of a sheep as they remove its fleece. Another contemporary image that parallels this shape is the so-called “snow plough” position used by skiers to slow down when going down the ski slopes.

When viewed from the side, it is important that there is a straight line existing from the shoulders through to the hips and the knees. It is structurally unsound if the head and shoulders are too far back (indicating that the practitioner is leaning too far back), or if the hips are back (indicating that the back is arched), as both of these postures will result in poor balance and/or the inability too move smoothly and quickly from this stance to another. The knees should be in line with the feet, not turned inwards towards each other, but instead pointed forward towards a common central point in front of the body. When done correctly, the feeling is not unlike that felt when sitting in a chair. In other words, you will feel stable and comfortable with no sensation of being able to go any lower or fall down.

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 of the advancing stance (saam gok bo) 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.

To form the “goat stance”, the ideal method is to firstly bend the knees, while the feet are together, as far as they will naturally go, which isn’t all that far. From there, the toes are turned outwards (at approx. 45o ), the heels remaining fixed on the spot, then the heels are turned out with the toes acting as the pivot point. At this point the hips should be tucked in, allowing the weight to be taken up by the knees which are now bent in line with the inward-pointing feet. Determining how wide the stance should be (ie. the distance between the heels) becomes more obvious when one attempts to move from the stance (refer below) but as a rule of thumb, one’s own shoulder width is generally wide enough as a shallower or deeper stance effects balance and mobility.

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), afterwhich the body is propelled forwards by virtue of the angle of the hips (backside tucked in) which cause 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, the front wheels steering while the back wheels provide the energy to drive the car. The back foot should be 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 weight remains over the rear leg. Practitioners of wing chun will no doubt realise that this is the way that forward stepping is first introduced within the second and third sections of the cham kiu form, the second of the three basic training forms.

It is now, when stepping is attempted, that one can discover whether or not the distance between the feet is correct. If the distance between the heels remains the same, after stepping, as the original basic “goat stance”, then all is well. If, however, there is inconsistency (ie. when returning to the basic position one finds that the feet are too close or too far apart) it is important to determine whether it is that the original stance was wrong to begin with, or that the distance between the feet is being allowed to vary during stepping. Usually it is found to be a little of each, however by lessening or increasing the angle at which the toes are turned out when forming the basic “goat stance” can often fix the problem. By a process of trial and error, one can normally find the “happy medium” which is the right stance for themselves.

The method described above clearly 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, understanding and training it. As far as combat application is concerned, it is important to be able to advance or retreat as directly as possible from a 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. Moving in either the forward or backward direction is then done by moving which ever 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 as possible to the central line as described. This then represents the first two of the five options, (1) advancing forwards, and (2) stepping backwards, both possible from either a neutral or committed stance.

In attack, which is the favoured application (while stepping straight back may be an option, it is generally avoided at all costs by wing chun practitioners, with “side-stepping” (see below) being the preferred response), this concept of seung ma (“advancing/attacking steps”, literally: “getting on the horse”) can then be applied from any position or angle from the opponent, simply taking the shortest distance between oneself and the target as the line of attack, and stepping accordingly. Generally speaking, the closest side to the target will always become the lead leg as it reduces the time taken to achieve the movement, reduces the targets made available to the enemy, and maximises the chance of intercepting the opponent with most effect. If the situation calls for a more proactive response to a given threat (what some combat strategists, such as Britain’s Geoff Thompson, like to refer to as “pre-emptive strike scenario”), this type of footwork provides a very efficient means of delivering the first blow.

In accord with earlier remarks, it is important to now consider what, for the majority of situations, may well be the more likely requirement, 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 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 (1) one must move in such a way as to avoid meeting the force of the attack head on, but (2) 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 attack, hence at the mercy of the defender who is then able to reverse the situation with consummate 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 to 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 of the matter 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 reduce 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 it is next to impossible to land an effective counter strike while moving in the opposite direction to the target. 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”. 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.

It allows for a very powerful counter strike because the enemy literally falls into the oncoming hand techniques which are being supported by the strong base provided by the rear leg. The harder the attacker rushes in, the harder they get hit, contributing to their own downfall. The structure of the stance provides a natural line of power, being that all impact is being reflected back from the ground, not through the shoulders or waist of the defender, as is the case in the methods employed by other systems, hence body mass does not play the crucial role that it does in some methods and even a smaller person can generate sufficient strength to injure an opponent quite seriously. The sharpness of the angle also makes it extremely difficult for the attacker to respond in time, preventing them from re-positioning themselves for a continuance of their own attack.

There are basically two ways in which this “side-stepping” can be employed. The first is when initial contact is made, such as during an attack involving pushing or grabbing, or else when a clash of techniques has taken place. Under these conditions, the Cantonese term of tui ma (“pushed step”) makes perfectly good sense. When the opponent attempts to push the victim off balance, the structure of the basic position takes over and the stance collapses naturally towards the side most appropriate, with the closest leg to that side moving first (left leg to the left side, or right leg to the right-hand side). In other words, the attacker guides the defender into the appropriate response, what sifu Wong liked to describe as, “Allowing the attacker to show you how to hit him”.

The other possibility is, of course, when initial contact is not made and the attacker launches his or her attack from a distance. Should this take place, the response is exactly the same, except that the defender has to judge when to move from the visual clues offered by the attacker, but the method of shifting the body remains identical. Again, the attacker, by making the first move, sets himself up to be counter attacked, attack being the operative term as the Wong Shun Leung Method always advocates attacking the attack, not defending against it. There is also ample research available to support the notion that the reactive fighter is more likely to be successful than the proactive one, in much the same way that the gunfighter who draws first inevitably gets shot by the guy he has drawn on. This is scientifically provable, not just Hollywood hype.

Once the “side-step” has been applied and the first of the counter strikes initiated, the wing chun fighter is now in a commanding position and can take full advantage, driving forward with “advancing footwork” (as described earlier) towards an opponent who now finds themselves out of position, off balance and unable to continue their own fight plan as originally envisaged. They are not only then physically defeated, but also psychologically defeated as they find themselves at the mercy of the very person whom they had previously planned to injure. By driving the attack back towards the enemy while simultaneously controlling the upper and lower portions of their opponent’s body, the wing chun practitioner is able to get the “head and tail of the enemy moving in different directions”, thus fully controlling the situation.

The technique of “side-stepping”, as described above, not only works from a neutral posture such as the “goat stance”, but also from a position where one is already committed to a movement in either the forward or backward direction. For example, should the initial “side-step” be insufficient to slow down the forward rush of the opponent, or else the counter-attack not completely incapacitate them, the body can be easily shifted again by means of one of two methods, “shuffle stepping” or “long stepping”, both of which make use of the same structures already described, and both of which are natural follow ups which take their cues from the opponent’s actions. These actions are not limited to being applied after an initial defensive response, they also work just as efficiently as a response to an attempt to attack which has run into trouble, such as a clash of techniques which effect the balance or position of the wing chun exponent as they drive forwards.

To understand how these variations on the stepping work, let’s set up a situation and see what takes place. If, for example, the wing chun exponent already has the right foot forward after having moved towards or away from the opponent, and then wishes to retreat towards the left side, the “shuffle step” would be applied. In essence this is exactly the same as the basic “side-step”, whereby the closest foot to the desired destination, the left foot, steps in that direction, followed immediately by the right foot. The end result is a stance no different from that which would have been achieved had the step originated from the neutral “goat stance”. As with basic “side-stepping”, this technique can be applied from a contact or non-contact position, although it is particularly easy when it occurs as a direct result of the opponent’s attempts to crash through one’s defence.

Should the situation require movement in the opposite direction (ie. the right foot is forward and there is a need to retreat towards the right), the method employed is what is referred to as “long stepping”. In this case, unlike the “shuffle step” whereby the stance remains in the same configuration as the body shift takes place, in “long stepping” the stance changes completely, transferring the weight to the opposite leg. This means that the right leg, which begins as the front leg, ends up as the rear supporting leg. In both instances (“shuffle step” and “long step”), the direction of movement remains the same, being either five o’clock or seven o’clock from the original position in relation to the opponent’s line of attack. Should the opponent prove difficult to control due to great strength or the inability of the defender to land strong counter techniques, a short series of steps making use of all of the above variations can easily be applied to confuse and control the opponent until they can be effectively dealt with. This then represents the third option, (3) side-stepping, with all its practical variations.

This brings us to the fourth footwork option utilised by wing chun practitioners, (4) the “pivot” or “stance-turning” (juen ma). Of all the footwork methods utilised in the system, this is probably the one most misunderstood, most misused, and most underrated. It is also the most difficult to use well and, as such, requires a great deal of training. Juen ma is first introduced in the very first section of the cham kiu form where it is used in conjunction with the bong sau/lan sau technique combination to illustrate how force can be dissipated. While the “goat stance” may be the perfect position for practising techniques, it is the “half-pivoted stance” (dui gok ma or “diagonal/side-on stance”) which is the preferred pre-fighting posture. This is mainly because it is more mobile and less committed than a stance with either leg already forward, and less “rigid” than the “goat stance”.

To try to put “pivoting” into perspective so as to illustrate the difference between it and the “side-step”, consider the following statement: “When one side-steps, one allows the opponent to maintain their position and structure, and is forced to relinquish territory to the attacker, whereas when one uses the “pivot”, the opponent is the one forced to give up position, structure and territory.” In other words, if one is able to use “pivoting” rather than automatically retreating to the side, it will be the opponent, rather than the defender, who ends up off-balance and out of position because their line of attack has been suddenly and dramatically disrupted. For the attacker, recovering from such a position is extremely difficult indeed, whereas when a “side-step” is the response to their initial attack, there is always a chance to reposition the body and attack again if the defender has not counter-attacked with sufficient effect.

The question that should now be rushing to the mind is that, if the juen ma is such a dynamic technique which causes so much trouble to the opponent, why isn’t it used all of the time? The answer is, of course, quite obvious, …or at least should be. The use of the “pivot” is limited by virtue of one’s proximity to the opponent, and by virtue of the type and strength of the attack being dealt with. Under most circumstances, the “pivot” is employed only when initial contact has already been made, or else when there is little body motion accompanying the attack (ie. the opponent is remaining virtually motionless during the strike apart from moving the attacking limb), such as when one throws a jab punch from a stationary position with shoulder or hip movement, but little or no forward body movement.

The structure of the “pivot” is such that, if used incorrectly, where the opponent’s forward energy was misjudged or not anticipated, the position formed by “pivoting” will automatically collapse into the previously mentioned “side-stepping” positions. Which way that one moves will generally be determined by the actions of the enemy who will trigger reactions in the stance that are pre-determined by virtue of the underlying structure and concepts already discussed. This, of course, will only happen under pressure if the concept has been tested through drills, and more importantly, only if certain basic guidelines are adhered to by the practitioner.

The most basic of these is that the heels of the foot are always used as the pivoting point, not the balls of the feet or the centre of the feet. By pivoting on the heels, the body is able to remain on its original position, with the balance remaining unaffected. A common error made by practitioners of wing chun is to pivot on the balls of the feet because this method does not allow the body to remain on its central axis, nor does it maintain the balance. Instead, pivoting on the balls of the feet throws the body from one side of the central axis to the other, actually increasing the distance that the counter strike has to travel. It also provides an opportunity for the attacker to “steal the balance” of the defender because the rocking/swaying action caused by moving in this way leaves the defender easily overcome by the forward momentum of the attacker’s body.

Similarly, pivoting on the centre of the feet also creates a balance problem, particularly because the body in not able to remain on the same vertical axis. Again the result is the potential to over-balance, and this can lead to being unable to deal with the force of the opponent’s forward force without the need to take a full step, thus losing whatever advantage the pivot was meant to provide. In direct contrast to this, pivoting on the heels makes it possible to fall naturally into a side-step position while still maintaining the range required to nullify and counter the attack, because the structure of the stance at the moment of pivoting is such that too much force causes it to collapse in the same way as the basic “goat” stance already described above. This then completes the range of stepping to be found within the Wong Shun Leung Method, bringing the total number of options to five, this fifth one being a combination of two previously described methods, whereby (5) a “pivot” collapses into a “side-step”.

All of the methods mentioned above are easily tested and found to be valid, so long as the basic requirement, the underlying structure of the stance, is maintained at all times. In recent years there seems to have been a lot of unnecessary tampering with these methods of footwork, giving rise to additional, but impractical variations to the “repertoire” of techniques available. Some instructors have no doubt been influenced by the methods employed by other martial disciplines that they have been exposed to, or have “invented” variations that appear to work within the safe surrounds of the training hall, but have never been put to the test under realistic circumstances. On analysing such methods, they are generally found to be structurally unsound and not compatible with the basic techniques of the system. If nothing else, these “alternative” methods are usually too complicated, require too much thought, and demand almost psychic awareness of the adversary’s intentions in order to be applied safely and effectively. In short, …they just don’t work!

It is most important to keep in mind that the methods described in this article have been put to the test many dozens of times by one of the greatest fighters of this century, the late Wong Shun Leung, who used these skills with incredible effect in his illustrious and undefeated challenge fight career, where he earned the title of Gong Sau Wong, the “King of the Challengers”. If nothing else, these methods represent a natural extension of the basic principles of the wing chun system, are completely complimentary to the hand and leg techniques found within the system, and are easy to learn and put into practise, providing practitioners of wing chun with skills that work when it really counts. The reader, if already a devotee of wing chun, is encouraged to actively compare these methods with those currently being practised so as to possibly streamline and make more effective their current footwork techniques, which, as stated earlier, may include many techniques radically different from those described on these pages.

Objective analysis of such “additional” stances or complex footwork patterns will more than likely reveal them to be superfluous, impractical, inefficient and (potentially) downright dangerous if applied under realistic circumstances. For the non-wing chun practitioner, the wing chun footwork concepts outlined on these pages could easily be adapted in order to enhance the effectiveness of the methods currently being employed in your particular combat system. To that end, this writer hopes that the reader will give serious consideration to the footwork concepts and techniques of the Wong Shun Leung Method in order to make the motto “Get out of the way, …and make them pay!” more than just words on a page. Make it a practical reality!!!