The Wing Chun forms – A brief overview

by David Peterson

As an instructor and communicator of the martial arts, specifically the ‘Wong Shun Leung Method’ of Wing Chun Gung-fu, it is very important to be able to explain the art and present its concepts in as succinct a way as possible. This is of course to ensure that each and every student can gain a deep and practical understanding of what the system offers them, and how best to use this “tool” for self-improvement and personal protection. Clearly, one can get into very detailed discussions on all aspects of the system, but sometimes this can cause more confusion and lead to greater misunderstanding than clarification. Especially for the less experienced students, too much detail can inhibit, rather than enhance their development.

This being the case, in recent years I have tried to find ways of simplifying the presentation of information, and providing simple summaries of various aspects of the system so that students find it easier to assimilate the information. This brief article takes that approach with reference to the three basic forms of Wing Chun and the “wooden dummy” form. Whilst my remarks are based directly on the ‘Wong Shun Leung Method’, hopefully the ideas presented here are also relevant to practitioners of other lineages and will provoke a different way of looking at the forms which will add to the readers knowledge of the system and enhance the development of their skills.

SIU NIM TAU (“young idea”)

I would define the three sections of the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form with just three words:

1st section – structure
2nd section – recovery
3rd section – coordination

The 1st section is primarily about ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ (“springy forward force” – that constant desire for the hands to attack when free of obstruction, the hallmark of effective Wing Chun combat), but there is much more than just that one concept being examined. It is the very STRUCTURES that are involved in that, AND in footwork, kicking, simultaneous attack & defence, power generation and a host of others, hence my definition – structure.

The 2nd section concerns the various ways in which we might understand the concepts/techniques/strategies required to overcome situations where we have lost control of the Centreline and are unable to face our adversary. In short, it provides ways of being able to face our opponent when placed in a compromised position such as arm-locks, bear hugs or grappling situations. Hence, my definition – recovery.

Finally, the 3rd section shows us various combinations of movements, applied with one hand, to emphasise the importance of realising that we are capable of using one hand for more than one motion at a time. In other words, just because I have just used my left hand to attack or defend does not presuppose that it cannot be used again immediately, rather than relying upon the other hand first in a typical “one-two” action. In addition, it helps us to add flow to our actions, to develop natural motions that move easily from point to point. It is important to note that at no time is this section suggesting that the combinations utilised MUST be done in exactly those sequences. They are merely linked together for ease of practise and improvement, NOT as set motions. Therefore, the main aim of the 3rd section is the development of one of the key attributes for combat success – coordination.

CHAM KIU (“bridge seeking”)

Probably the easiest way to view the ‘Cham Kiu’ form is via the three distinct applications/interpretations of the ‘Bong Sau’ (“upper-arm deflection”) action, each section emphasising a different idea:
1st section – ‘Yi Bong’ (“shifting Bong”) which teaches the concept of “borrowing the opponent’s energy” to disperse/redirect an attack. It implies that contact already exists and this contact is then manipulated by ‘Bong/Lan Sau’ and stance shifting/pivoting to reposition for further attack.

2nd section – ‘Paau Bong’ (“throwing Bong”) which teaches the concept of “making contact” when the hands are not already in a favourable position. In other words, it is a literal introduction to the concept of ‘Cham Kiu’ (“bridge seeking/finding”). It also teaches the concepts and skills associated with offensive footwork (and by reversing the action, defensive footwork, specifically as it needs to be applied with ‘Bong Sau’ which, by its nature, requires a specialised action quite distinct from other techniques), kicking (‘Dang Geuk’ – “ascending kick”) and the idea of always “chasing one’s kicks” so that the opponent is constantly kept under threat, and recovery in the form of regaining the centre (‘Chau Kuen’ – “whipping punch” ) and refacing the centre (‘Yi Ying Sau’ – “recover shape/form hand”).

3rd section – ‘Dai Bong’ (“low-action Bong”) which provides a “two-in-one” interpretation of the ‘Bong Sau’ for protecting the lower gates, one for when attacked on a lower line while the hands are down, the other for controlling the balance/stance when dragged out of position. This section also introduces the concept of controlling the legs by controlling the arms, a variation on the basic kicking action (‘Waang Geuk’ –“horizontal kick”), and yet another application of recovery whereby the ‘Dan Sau’ (“springing hand”) action of the Siu Nim Tau form is applied to the punch to complete the form.

To (briefly) elaborate on the 3rd section of the ‘Cham Kiu’ form (controlling the legs by controlling the arms), this is in reference to the final few movements where the ‘Soh Sau’ (“pressing palms”) action (originally found in the 2nd section of ‘Siu Nim Tau’) is combined with pivoting. This action is very ‘Chi Sau’ specific, but of course can be applied outside of the ‘Chi Sau’ environment. It involves applying pressure on the arms to disrupt the ability to raise the leg (this occurs because it changes the alignment of the hips such that it is extremely difficult to kick effectively). Visualise yourself rolling with a partner who attempts to launch a kick. To do so, he/she has to transfer the balance to one leg. On feeling this shift in the stance, the hand which is in the ‘Fook Sau’ (“prostrating/subduing hand”) position (high or low) presses downwards in conjunction with a pivot, suppressing and redirecting the attempted kick. The ‘Bong/Taan’ hand becomes a “half-Taan” action, monitoring the opposite hand and maintaining a perfect place from which to launch the first counter strike. Step out of ‘Chi Sau’ and the same controlling of the arm/elbow can be used against the opponent’s forward hand to suppress the ability to kick, or else can be used to actually deflect the kick by cutting across the knee/calf/shin/foot (dependant on range) to knock the opponent off balance either to the inside or outside. The same concept is explored within the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) form, incorporating one of only two sequences in the entire ‘MYJ’ form that MUST follow each other.

MUK YAN JONG (“wooden dummy”)

The simplest way to really appreciate the intention of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form is to consider the following statement: while we do not go out of our way to make mistakes, as human beings we are bound to at least occasionally get things wrong. The most basic and effective of CORRECTLY APPLIED Wing Chun science occurs in the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms. These two forms guide us through the techniques and principles that are most common and effective and they are shown to us in the best way possible. In the “dummy” form, however, we are shown techniques/concepts being done INCORRECTLY. This is because if we are to instinctively correct an error, we need to be aware of the error in the first place. Thus, much of what is contained in the “dummy” form amounts to the most ideal RECOVERY method from typical error situations. It was Sifu Wong Shun Leung’s view that the most useful and most likely to be used techniques/concepts are contained within the first 60 or so movements (up to and including the ‘Po Pai Jeung’ – “in-line palms” section), and these are very largely ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ based in nature. Beyond that, the techniques/concepts tend to be more ‘Biu Ji’ form in nature and in some ways cater for less likely errors and contain more in the way of kicking strategies as well.

BIU JI (“pointing fingers”)

The ‘Biu Ji’ form is a “pointing finger” and what it is pointing at is a series of examples of the kinds of problems which can occur in combat when things do not go as planned, and it offers some solutions to these situations. Humans being what humans are, we are all prone to make mistakes no matter how well we plan, or train for, a situation. ‘Biu Ji’ form takes us outside the Wing Chun system, outside the system as presented in the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms, that is, and asks the question “What if…..?”

Where the first two forms are each easily broken down into three distinct parts, each part with its own particular concepts and techniques, the ‘Biu Ji’ form is quite different. Instead, in ‘Biu Ji’ the breakdown takes the form of clusters of techniques which build into a repertoire of “emergency responses” designed to overcome an opponent who has overpowered, out-positioned, injured, surprised or, through some error on the part of the Wing Chun fighter, managed to gain the upper hand.

Sifu Wong Shun Leung referred to the contents of the form as being a collection of “emergency techniques”, and that unlike the first two forms, which were clearly structured, each with three defined sections, ‘Biu Ji’ was far less structured and had the potential to be added to at any time, should someone come up with yet another situation that gave rise to the need for a more specialised solution outside of the normal spectrum of Wing Chun concepts. As such, ‘Biu Ji’ is something of an “open-ended” training form, in keeping with its basic reason for existing in the first place.

If I may be so bold I would in fact suggest to the reader, as I have on numerous occasions to my own students, that the ‘Biu Ji’ form alone is about as deadly as a bowl of wet spaghetti! However, it should be pointed out that in the past the reluctance of the Wing Chun clan to expose the form to outsiders is understandable when one considers that the ‘Biu Ji’ form does in fact point out potential weaknesses in the system which could be exploited by an enemy with a knowledge of the form. Thus, it could be suggested that the form is “deadly” in the sense that it points to disadvantageous rather than advantageous aspects of Wing Chun combat.

My teacher always maintained that, contrary to a widely held belief, ‘Biu Ji’ was NOT the deadliest form because if that was the case, why would we spend so much time developing the other forms and ‘Chi Sau’ skills? Surely, he would suggest, if ‘Biu Ji’ contained such invincible techniques, we would only be training that one form. What ‘Biu Ji’ does is take us out of the box, to view combat from a perspective other than the basic concepts and techniques of the ideal method given to us in ‘Siu NimTau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’, making us consider what could go wrong and how, if possible, to “cut our losses” and at least survive the encounter. In ‘Biu Ji’ winning is NOT an option and definitely NOT a guarantee. What we are seeking are instinctive reactions that may allow for escape, or to neutralise the attack such that we can “ride out the storm”. As such, Wong Sifu always said that he hoped that we would never have to make use of the concepts/techniques of this form, because if we were in the position where this was necessary, we were already in a very bad situation from which we may not escape.