Close Range Combat

23/02/2009

Practicality of Wing Chun

One of the main distinguishing features of Wing Chun is its emphasis on practicality. When Yip Man started teaching in Hong Kong in 1949, he began a revolution in the kung fu world. Students of his who had been training for only a few years at the time were challenging and defeating masters from more traditional styles. In a phenomenon that Bruce Lee dubbed as 'the classical mess', many forms of kung fu had become bogged down in tradition and lost sight of one of the fundamental purposes of martial arts; realistic self-defence. My Sifu, Tsui Seung Tin, was a closed-door student of Yip Man. He established himself as one of the top fighters of the time by taking part in many challenge matches without ever being defeated. The longest time it took Sifu Tsui to defeat any of these challengers was seven seconds. These fights had virtually no rules, just as in a real self-defence situation. The fact that Sifu Tsui and other renowned fighters from Yip Man's clan had such resounding successes bears testimony to the eminently practical nature of Wing Chun.

The Advantages of Close Range Fighting

Whereas in a tournament the rules are such that one may move in and out of range scoring points to slowly wear down the opponent, a real fight will almost always come to close-range. The simple fact is that it is very hard to keep a determined and aggressive opponent at bay if there are no rules to limit the nature of his attack. A long-range style generally requires exceptional flexibility and a certain amount of strength. Any attacker is likely to be larger than their intended victim. To rely on having a longer range against an opponent is to ignore this fact. If we take the likely size advantage that almost all attackers will have it seems logical to make use of that factor by employing close combat techniques where the advantage may actually be with the smaller person.

Short range striking has very definite advantages in terms of leverage, balance, commitment and power. Why is an elbow strike generally much more powerful than a punch? The main reason is leverage; the striking point is closer to the main body mass. There are also less moving joints involved (no elbow or wrist), so the movement is simpler. There are not as many outlets where energy may be lost. Consider this, to hold a weight at arm length from ones body is much harder than holding it close. The reason for this is that when held close the weight is supported by the structure of one's body. To take this to a more obvious degree, imagine putting the weight across your shoulder. At arm length one must rely on the strength of the arm. This idea of using the body structure to transfer weight and generate power is one of the precepts of the Wing Chun system. The same principle of leverage can be applied when executing a deflection or block.

The One Inch Punch

Perhaps the best example of close-range striking in Wing Chun is the one-inch punch. After training for more than forty years I am able to send a person larger than myself flying backwards for a distance of two metres or more with a punch to their chest delivered from one inch away. There is no secret to this technique it is simply a demonstration of the close-range power that one can develop through correct training in Wing Chun. It is easy to see the usefulness of this power when used in close combat.

The punch is delivered with a vertical fist, the striking area being the bottom three knuckles. The wrist is locked so that the bones from the elbow through to the knuckles are in a straight line. This prevents the wrist buckling on impact, avoiding injury or loss of power. The entire body is relaxed. When a blow connects there is a certain amount of force that bounces back through the body of the person striking. If that energy meets resistance in the upper body, the person striking is thrown back to some degree. This bouncing off will limit the amount of power that a fighter can produce to his or her weight and strength. If a strike is thrown incorrectly, i.e. relying on strength, a person will feel as if they have been pushed directly backwards. They will be unbalanced and because they are essentially made lighter by this process, the power in their strike is greatly diminished. By eliminating unnecessary tension, particularly in the chest and shoulders, a Wing Chun exponent is able to transfer weight through his skeletal structure down to the ground. On impact a Wing Chun person will feel the weight of their strike pushing them down rather than back. This does not unbalance them; instead they are made heavier as they absorb the energy recoiling from the strike. Proof of this can be found in a demonstration that Tsui Seung Tin performed recently at the 25th anniversary of Master Jim Fung's International Wing Chun Academy. This slight man weighing only 62 kg and in his late sixties, had two larger men try to push him backwards while he stood on a set of scales. He effortlessly stood his ground as both men tried to push him backwards. The harder they pushed the higher the weight on the scales, evidence that the force was being transferred through Tsui's body down to the ground.

Weight and Energy Absorption

This quality of absorbing weight or energy can be seen throughout Wing Chun A large part of doing 'chi sau' (sticking hands) is learning to transfer weight in this manner. At very close range the forearms will be in contact with the opponent as strikes are blocked by your opponent or visa versa. This skill in absorbing energy enables a Wing Chun practitioner to keep his opponent continually off balance, opening him up for strikes and nullifying the power of incoming strikes. Rather than thinking of sticking hands as a set of possible moves in a fight, one should look at it as an exercise to develop the above qualities of weight transference while maintaining structural integrity as one moves seamlessly through the basic Wing Chun positions of tan sau, bong sau and fook sau.

To perform the hand trapping techniques that Wing Chun is famous for it is necessary to have developed this skill. If one has not done so, the trapping moves would require strength and may not work in a real situation. At close-range a fighter can take advantage of another quality that is developed through sticking hands, two-handedness. As one concentrates on maintaining forward force through both arms one becomes more ambidextrous. A Wing Chun person does not think in terms of leading strikes and follow-ups. The style uses simultaneous defence and counter attack. An example can be seen with the chit sau and counter punch shown here. An uppercut punch thrown from below my guard is deflected with a chit sau movement while I simultaneously counter with a palm strike. The chi sau is delivered with a fixed angle on the elbow. On contact with the opponent's arm this angle enables me to deflect the incoming force and if I wish, continue through with a strike from the same arm. In Wing Chun it is not necessary to differentiate between strikes and blocks. Each movement can be used for either purpose. This simplifies the process of fighting. Wing Chun defends by attacking.

Economy of Movement

Another important principle in Wing Chun is economy of movement. If two opponents strike towards each other starting at the same time and travelling at the same speed, a person taking the most direct path; generally a straight line, will get to his target before the other person simply because his strike has less distance to cover. A simple example would be the straight punch of Wing Chun where the strike is delivered with a vertical fist along the centre line (i.e. the shortest distance) between oneself and one's opponent, as compared to a wide roundhouse swing. Long-range striking by its very nature gives the person defending more time and space to react.

If when throwing a strike, a person leans forward to extend their range, problems may arise in terms of balance. An example of this may be found in the sequence depicted here (bong sau/palm strike versus roundhouse swing) where the attacker commits while striking to the extent that I am easily able to deflect his force, unbalancing him and opening him up for a counter strike. The opposite situation may be seen in the next sequence where after my kick is blocked I am able to maintain balance and flow into another strike. Because of the leverage factor this is much easier to do with a close-range technique.

Wing Chun is structured in such a way that during a fight the practitioner is able to hit an opponent with full power at any time with a direct and economical movement. The point of impact will ideally be where the maximum leverage can be applied. The Wing Chun fighter will always remain balanced. If a strike is countered the Wing Chun person requires a minimum amount of recovery time before flowing into the next move. Each technique is uncommitted.

Wing Chun's Real Life Effectiveness

Another factor that favours close range techniques is that most self-defence situations occur in confined spaces such as alleyways, bars, crowded public functions etc. While a long-range technique can only be applied where there is enough space, short-range techniques can be applied in any situation.

Wing Chun is popular with people who work in the public eye as the economical movements do not look nearly as aggressive as the large roundhouse strikes of some long range styles. With a short sharp movement a security guard can control an attacker effectively without appearing to use unnecessary force. Imagine the visual difference between a low heel kick to the knee (as done in Wing Chun), when compared to a roundhouse kick to the head. My State Manager has worked for many years as a bouncer in various bars and attests to the suitability of Wing Chun's close-range techniques in that type of situation. Many of the students participating in our full time study, government accredited certificate courses are planning on careers relating to security and do Wing Chun for the same reasons.

I do not wish to present this as a criticism of all long range styles. I believe that all styles of martial art have their individual merit and qualities that involve more than just self-defence. In this article I have only looked at Wing Chun in terms of real fighting, of course Wing Chun offers much more than this. Fitness, stress control and personal development are major attributes of this style and to many practitioners this may be of more interest.

Continuing the Tradition of the Shaolin Temple

Many of my kung fu brothers from around the world have expressed surprise when they hear of the Full Time courses that now occupy much of my time at the International Wing Chun Academy. The idea of students travelling from all over the world on study visa and Australian students receiving Austudy allowances to train in kung fu must seem strange to them.

To me these courses are a welcome echo from the days of The Shaolin Temple in China and evidence that Wing Chun is truly a vibrant, living art. My reasons for undertaking this demanding exercise in teaching students to become teachers themselves are thus:

In addition to teaching Wing Chun to as many people as possible, one of my strongest desires is to uphold its standards. I feel one of the most efficient ways of doing this is to teach students who are willing to dedicate their lives to learning Wing Chun full time.

This is following in the footsteps of my Sifu, Tsui Seung Tin who learnt full time and was what we term a 'closed door' student of the late Yip Man.

Grandmaster Jim Fung

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