Whilst not unique to the Wing Chun system, the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ or “wooden man pile” is an important component of this famous southern Chinese martial art. The construction of “wooden dummies” in other Chinese systems may vary in shape, number and length of arms, and a range of other aspects, but it is generally agreed that the idea of training upon such apparatus was first developed in the famed Shaolin Temple in Henan, China. According to legend, a Wooden Man Alley existed in the temple and part of the graduation process of the monks there consisted of them fighting their way through this sophisticated training area. Over the years, other systems came up with their own variations on this fascinating training device.
As far as the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ of the Wing Chun system is concerned, originally it was a piece of equipment that was sunk into the ground outside in the open, or in the floor inside the training hall or home (as portrayed in the recent ‘Ip Man’ movie). As such, the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ had little or no movement and was referred to as a “dead” dummy. After Ip Man came to Hong Kong, of course the students wanted to learn every aspect of Wing Chun, including the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, but as people mostly lived and trained in rented high-rise accommodation and moved house quite regularly, sinking a ‘Jong’ in the floor was not an option. Someone came up with the idea of mounting the ‘Jong’ on a removable wooden frame attached to the wall, and as a result, the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ became a “live” dummy, in that it now allowed some movement left and right, and could spring on the frame. Suddenly, a whole new dimension was added to the practice of the form by virtue of this new development.
Generally speaking, the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form of Wing Chun Kuen can best be appreciated by viewing it as consisting of two halves. According to the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung, the first 60 movements or so (ie: up to and including the ‘Po Paai Jeung’ section) of the form are largely concerned with the most typical situations that one might find themselves in, and contain the most practical of techniques and concepts to deal with these. By and large, these sections of the form make use of both techniques and concepts that are drawn directly from the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms, the first two “empty-hand” forms of the system.
It was Wong Sifu’s belief, based on what he was told by his own teacher, the late Grandmaster Ip Man, that the form went through a complete restructuring at the hands of Ip Man’s own teacher, the celebrated Chan Wa Sun (aka: Jaau Chin Wa – “Money-changer Wa”) who inherited the art from the legendary Leung Jaan (aka: Fatsaan Jaan Sinsaang – “Mr Jaan of Fatsaan”). Chan Wa Sun apparently decided that the form was in reverse, with the best and most practical (and therefore most important) techniques at the end, so he went about changing the order of the form.
His thinking was in fact – in terms of how one acquires new skills – very logical. When one learns any new skill, the actions that are first learnt are the ones that end up being practised the most, because every time we add new movements on, we repeat those that we’ve already done, over and over again. Thus, what made up the end of the original version of the form over 100 or more years ago, is now the first 60 movements of the modern form handed down to us by his last, but most outstanding student, Grandmaster Ip Man.
In addition to that, Ip Man himself, a martial arts genius in his own right, is widely considered to have made a number of modifications to the form in his own lifetime, particularly when he was placed in the position of being an instructor after his arrival in Hong Kong in 1949. Prior to that, it is said that he had pretty much “forgotten” the form, in the sense that he had been playing the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ very much as a “free-style” training exercise without paying too much attention to adhering to the original format. You could say that he had “become the style” and no longer had any need to train in a more formal way.
This should come as no real surprise because Ip Man had never had any intention of being an instructor, and had totally concentrated on his own personal development, thus he had become a very natural human expression of his accumulated knowledge and experiences. Once confronted with the task of teaching the form however, he had to reach deep down into his memory to attempt to reconstruct the form in his mind so as to pass it on to his students in a systematic and comprehensible format.
According to Wong Sifu, there was much trial and error involved in this process, and over the years, Ip Man changed his thinking on many aspects of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, altering sequences, techniques, angles and so on. He even changed his mind on how certain movements could be interpreted and applied in combat. This goes a long way towards explaining the existence of so many variations in the forms played by various instructors around the world. There is also the fact that the form is NOT something to be seen as purely “black & white” in terms of concepts and/or applications, but rather one that has many “shades of grey” and involves having a very active imagination in order to actually discover the full potential of what is contained within it.
As one of the very finest teachers and skilful exponents of Wing Chun, especially in terms of real life combat experience, Wong Sifu also made a number of subtle, …and not so subtle, …modifications to the form in order to make it even more functional and applicable to the modern world. In his version of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, the emphasis is on logic and practicality, with the basic concepts of SIMPLICITY, DIRECTNESS and EFFICIENCY present in every technique and/or concept presented. There are no superfluous movements, no unnecessary complexity in the actions or sequences, and the thinking behind his interpretation of the form is precise and functional.
It was Wong Sifu’s belief that the most important consideration is the need for the Wing Chun practitioner to appreciate the fact that there are certain things that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is NOT: it is NOT a conditioning tool; it is NOT a ‘Chi Sau’ training exercise; it is NOT meant to be interpreted as a set of rigid sequences to be applied in rote fashion in combat – to practise and/or attempt to apply it as such is a recipe for disaster. It presumes far too much knowledge of the opponent to think in that way and will lead to the Wing Chun practitioner getting him or herself into a situation that is extremely difficult to recover from or escape.
Herein lays the true nature of what the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is there to teach us. It is primarily a means to learn the basic skill of RECOVERY. No matter how much we think we know or how good we think our skills are, somewhere along the way, we all make mistakes. In combat, any mistake can lead to defeat, unless we have an effective means of RECOVERY. This is the purpose of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, to show us what the most typical mistakes are, and then go about programming into our neural systems, the best possible solutions and skills to deal with these.
Along the way, the form also reinforces and trains skills and concepts of the three basic forms (‘Siu Nim Tau’, ‘Cham Kiu’ and ‘Biu Ji’), as well as improving distance, timing, footwork, power generation, positioning and co-ordination, to name just a few of the attributes it can develop and enhance. As we progress through to the second half of the form, we are introduced to more “unusual” or specialised ideas which in many instances, are more along the lines of what is contained within the ‘Biu Ji’ form, though not exclusively so.
The ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form contains several variations of the basic kicking techniques of Wing Chun (only two basic kicks are introduced prior to this; ‘Dang Geuk’ (“ascending heel kick”) and ‘Waang Geuk’ (“horizontal/side kick”), in the ‘Cham Kiu’ form), thus expanding both the repertoire and the adaptability of the Wing Chun student with regard to the use of the legs for attack and defence. Interestingly, of these actions, all but one are considered to actually be ‘geuk’ or “kicks” with just one action referred to as ‘tui’ or “leg” – this is because the four ‘geuk’ actions are for attack, whilst the ‘tui’ is considered an emergency recovery action, not one that would normally be considered as a primary weapon of attack.
With regard to numbers, there has been much debate over the years as to how many techniques make up the form. Some insist that it is 108, others that it is 116, others even more, each camp having particular reasons for their assumption. Basically, the number of techniques is NOT really a matter for concern. As Wong Sifu was known to say many times, we should be concerned with learning combat skills, not mathematics. Hence, not only is the number not of any real consequence (if one actually counts every single movement as one action, the number is somewhere around 180!!!), ultimately even the order of the sequences is not really that important, so long as you try not to leave anything out of the form. In addition, subtle variations within the sequences or in the actual actions themselves are really not of any great concern, so long as the basic concepts of the system, as well as logic and reality are always adhered to.
As a final thought, it is extremely important that one never forget that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is a piece of training equipment, simple in construction (a trunk of wood with three “arms” on two levels, each representing both the left and right sides, and both the inside and outside, with the mid-level arm representing mid-level kicks as well, and a single “leg” protruding from the front), and mounted in such a way that it cannot move more than a few inches in any direction. As such, the Wing Chun practitioner has to move around the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ when, in reality, the opponent is able to move at will. Thus, when playing the form, many of the actions and the direction of movement, or the actual position of the hands will NOT be the way in which these actions may end up being applied in actual combat.
It is therefore very important that one has an active imagination and uses it during practice, visualising things that are not actually happening, such as arms moving or not being present, or one arm representing two arms, and a host of other possibilities. In this way, the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ truly comes “alive” as a training tool that goes way beyond its very simple construction. A key to getting the very most out of using this equipment is to make sure that one slows down, giving every movement equal importance and attention, checking every angle and technique for accuracy, and learning to apply the very best possible body structure so as to ensure the development of flexible, explosive power that can be applied without the need to over-exert the body. One needs to “feel” every movement and make sure that they develop a fluid and natural means of moving from start to finish.
The ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form, as taught to this writer, consists of eight sections, each with its own unique set of techniques and concepts to learn and develop. Each section needs to be fully understood and practised to the point where it can be performed smoothly and naturally. There is no rush to reach the end because there is something of use and relevance in every section, from the beginning right through to the end. It is important to note that some sections are practised on both sides, whilst others are done on only one; this is as it was taught by Sifu Wong Shun Leung and reflects his belief on how the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ can best be trained. Any single section of the form, …in fact any single technique in the form, …can and should be practised individually and as many times as one desires, so as to fully appreciate what it has to offer and to completely master its usage.
The good thing is that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ will never get tired or complain about the pain of the practice. It is in so many ways, the perfect Wing Chun training partner when a live training partner is not available, or for when one wants to practice things that could cause potential injury to a friend. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained by learning the form and practising it on a regular basis. Ideally, training on the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ should commence once a student has learnt and reached a good understanding of both the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms.
Wong Sifu would normally teach the first 60 movements of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ and then commence the teaching of the ‘Biu Ji’ form, after which he would complete the teaching of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’, but this is by no means a hard and fast rule. It does, however, make sense in that the latter half of the form is more closely related to concepts that are contained within the ‘Biu Ji’ form. This is also where his teaching method deviates from that of his teacher, as Ip Man would traditionally teach the first three “empty-hand” forms, then the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ techniques. As Wong Sifu seems to have even convinced his teacher to make changes within several of the forms over the years, there is no real doubt to question his logic on this point. His record speaks for itself.
As a means of summarising what the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is all about, I conclude with the following 8-point breakdown for the Wing Chun student/practitioner to consider when both learning and practising with the “Wooden Warrior”:
- The importance of relaxation, correct structure and stance, footwork, timing and the inter-relationship of all of the techniques and concepts of the three basic forms (‘Siu Nim Tau’, ‘Cham Kiu’ and ‘Biu Ji’)
- The importance of the use of relaxed power and of always attacking/chasing the centre of mass, NOT chasing the arms
- The importance of always having one hand on the mid-line whilst the other is either on the high or low-line – except for the TWO specific sequences in the form where this does NOT apply
- Understanding the concept of RECOVERY with regard to the most common errors that one is likely to make in combat and ensuring that this is the focus of training on the ‘Muk Yan Jong’
- Making sure that one gives every action/combination equal value (steady timing/rhythm) and ensures that there is always only ONE SOUND, no matter how many actions are involved
- Ensuring that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is NOT used as a conditioning tool or as a ‘Chi Sau’ exercise – it is neither of these
- Making sure that one remembers that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is NOT to be interpreted literally, as a “black & white” set of sequences, but that it contains many “shades of grey” and requires one to use imagination and to visualise possible situations in order to fully realise the full potential of what the form has to offer
- Remembering that the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is a training device that is fixed and cannot move, hence the practitioner has to move around it – in applying the techniques and concepts of the form, many actions will be performed in the opposite direction or with sometimes subtle, sometimes more significant modifications being required – by and large, it provides IDEAS and not set solutions/sequences
MUK YAN JONG (“wooden man pile”) – section by section breakdown
1st section – ‘Taan Da’ (left & right sides)
- Introduction of the basic concept of RECOVERY by virtue of “re-using” a missed attack as a controlling/redirecting action
- Introduction of footwork for attack/entering, in conjunction with ‘Taan Da’ (combining ‘Taan Sau’ with an attack) to demonstrate ‘Lin Siu Daai Da’ (“simultaneous attack & defence”) as well as the concept of always having one hand on the centre whilst the other attacks/defends high or low
- Introduction of ‘Gaan Sau’ (“splitting/dividing-hand) and ‘Kwan Sau’ (“rotating/binding-hand”) techniques
- Emphasis on generating power from the waist, stance and elbows, controlling the legs of the opponent (an introduction to ‘Chi Geuk’ (“sticking legs”) concepts) and the concept of ‘Chiu Ying’ (“facing”) at ALL times
2nd section – ‘Paak Sau’
- The use of ‘Juen Ma’ (“stance pivoting”) to deflect force and remain on the outside of linear attacks
- Introduction of the ‘Paak Sau’ (“slap-hand deflection”)technique to intercept and control centre
- Emphasis on always attacking the centre of mass, NOT chasing the arms
- Emphasis on attacking/controlling the mid-line, as opposed to always “head hunting”
3rd section – ‘Waang Geuk’
- Introduction of ‘Dai Bong Sau’ (“low-action” ‘Bong Sau’ ) to defend the lower gates
- Introduction of ‘Man Sau’ (“asking-hand”) to recover from mistaken use of ‘Paak Sau/Bong Sau’ etc
- Introduction of ‘Waang Geuk’ (“horizontal/side-action kick”) to recover from loss of “facing” and as a means of countering circular leg attacks
- Co-ordination of hand and leg techniques while drawing power from the stance
4th section – ‘Po Paai Jeung’ (left & right sides)
- Introduction of the use of ‘Jat Sau’ (“jerking/dragging/obstructing-hand”) to defend and control the Centreline
- Introduction of the ‘Po Paai Jeung’ (“in-line palms-push/strike”) technique
- Concept of ‘Jing Sau Po Paai’ (“correct-hand Po Paai”) and ‘Choh Sau Po Paai’ (“wrong-hand Po Paai”)
- Introduction of the first of only two “must do” sequences in the form – the ‘Seung Che Jeung/Seung Waang Jeung’ (“double slanting/descending palm-strike” to “double lying/horizontal palm-strike”) actions
5th section – ‘Soh Sau’
- Introduction of the second of only two “must do” sequences in the form – the ‘Soh Sau/Taan Sau’ (“pressing-palm deflection” to “spreading-hand deflection”) on the SAME hand
- Introduction of the low-action ‘Dang Geuk’ (“ascending/heel kick”)
- Emphasis on getting off the line of a charging opponent
- Emphasis on the correct placement of the striking foot when kicking low
6th section – ‘So Tui’
- Second use of the ‘Dai Bong Sau’ (“low-action” ‘Bong Sau’ ) technique
- Emphasis on slipping inside on a high attack and/or tall opponent with ‘Paak Sau/Che Jeung’ combination to capture centre of mass/balance
- Introduction of the ‘So Tui’ (“sweeping/swinging kick”) as a means of recovery from loss of correct footwork
7th section – ‘Bong Choh Sau’
- Introduction of ‘Biu Sau’ (“thrusting/spearing-hand”) as a means of recovering/clearing the Centreline
- Introduction of the ‘Wu Sau/Fak Sau’ (“guarding-hand/whisking-hand”) combination as a means of overcoming a ‘Bong Choh Sau’ (“wrong” ‘Bong Sau’ )
- Introduction of the ‘Waat Ngaan’ (“eye-gouge”) technique, an extension of a concept introduced in the ‘Cham Kiu’ form
8th section – ‘Gaan Sau/Dang Geuk’
- Variation of the ‘Gaan Sau’ technique for redirecting the opponent’s energy
- Introduction of the concept of creating space for kicking by using the ‘Dai Jeung/Wu Sau’ (“lifting-palm/guarding-hand”) combination
- Introduction of the use of ‘Bong Sau’ with footwork to overcome a trapped/dragged limb
- Introduction of the use of ‘Soh Sau’ to control kicks by controlling the arms (an extension of the concept introduced in ‘Cham Kiu’ form)
- Introduction of the use of ‘Dang Geuk’ (“ascending /heel kick”) to attack the mid-section/hips from off the Centrelin