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Chi Sau: Wing Chun's "Auto-Pilot"

By Sifu Paul Barrington

Every day the art of Wing Chun grows towards becoming a household name. Most martial artists know of Wing Chun's reputation as a simple, efficient and very effective martial art. But people ask me daily, "What makes it so effective?" After years of explaining the process of Sensitivity Training (known as Chi Sau or sticky hands training) I have developed an analogy that can be summed up in one phrase: Auto-Pilot. I hope this article will help my martial arts brothers and sisters to better understand Wing Chun's genius of Chi Sau through my analogy. First I will give a brief history of my experience so that you might better appreciate my insights.

Previous to my current Wing Chun training, I trained in Judo, Ju-Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, and Modified Wing Chun. In each of these I spent at least four years of study. In the last ten years of my twenty-four years of martial arts training, I have had the rare honor of helping to bring Yip Man's Wing Chun to our nation's capital. I belong to Sifu Dunn Wah's (English translation: Sunny Tang) Kung Fu family. Sifu Tang is a second generation student of the late grandmaster Yip Man, under Moy Yat of New York. Sifu Tang's headquarters in Toronto, as well as his Wing Chun studios across Canada, have a reputation for turning out world class Wing Chun students, as well as true martial arts brothers and sisters.

Watching Ottawa's martial arts community greet Wing Chun's arrival with such enthusiasm has been a very gratifying experience. Since the release of Bruce Lee's life story "The Dragon", in which Wing Chun is depicted as Bruce's first love and the basis for his development, the phone hasn't stopped ringing!

In my many talks with the public about the virtues of Wing Chun, two misconceptions seem to be common and I would like to address them before moving on. The first is, "If Wing Chun is so effective, why did Bruce Lee criticize it and work to improve upon it?" To this I would like to keep it very short and simple as not to offend the millions of his devotees. Simply, it is a known fact that Bruce Lee did not complete the Wing Chun system. How can anyone, no matter how gifted, make sound conclusions about anything without all the facts? Agreeing with this, we must then take Bruce's opinions as exactly that--opinions. I must add that I believe Bruce Lee to be one of the most gifted martial artists of past, present and future. Bruce brought martial arts to where it is today and for that we all owe him great respect. Upon further study one can conclude that the foundation of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do was in fact Wing Chun.

The second misconception about Wing Chun is that "when using Wing Chun, one cannot fight at long range." This statement is absolutely ridiculous! To physically fight, molecules MUST touch molecules, i.e. to hurt an attacker you MUST contact him. Thus there is only one range in the actual physical fight--the contact range. In Wing Chun we call this "bridged contact." Anything prior to bridged contact is merely a prelude. Whether it be assuming a ready stance (Chong Sau), shouting, threatening or dancing around with hands flailing. The only way these situations become a physical fight is if the gap is closed and contact is made!

Previous to my training with Sifu Tang, I believed that Wing Chun was weak at closing the gap. This couldn't be more untrue! In Wing Chun we spend a large amount of training time working on this concept, which is called "Mai San Jong" or "stepping attacks." This, combined with the endless footwork drills, develops gap-closing technique second to none.

Wing Chun practitioners believe this especially necessary for multiple opponent situations. The sooner you close the gap, the sooner your "Auto-Pilot" is turned on, thus disposing of the attacker.

Now you ask, "What is this 'Auto-Pilot', and how does it allow one to dispose of an attacker?" My answer follows: Wing Chun, like all martial arts, uses its forms (Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu, Biu Ji and the Muk Yan Jong/Wooden Dummy) to teach techniques, balance, efficiency of movement, awareness of one's body, power and speed. You must then be able to transfer these skills into fighting applications. This is where Wing Chun differs from all other martial arts I have been exposed to. Others use scenarios like "if a guy does this, you do that", etc. I refer to this as the "if, and, or but" style. Wing Chun teaches that you cannot effectively anticipate the movements of others and survive a life-threatening situation without leaving a lot to chance. Wing Chun chooses to opt for sensitivity training through Chi-Sau.

Chi Sau training is accomplished by two students joining their forearms (the bridge) and "rolling" through a preset series of movements. The preset movements are only the starting point to come back to after there is action, i.e. an attack, counter-attack, and so on. While rolling through this cycle the students are "feeling" the other students "bridge" in order that they can properly react to any weakness in the other's defense or an attack from the other. After time, the reactions become automatic and the techniques learned apply and adjust themselves as the heightened sensitivity dictates. Simply put, the hands automatically find the holes, thus the reaction literally becomes an "Auto-Pilot."

Another analogy is "water against a dam." Normally water has neutral pressure against a dam but, if a hole develops, the water rushes through with all its potential energy behind it. If the hole is blocked, the water becomes neutral again, until another hole develops.

After a few years of Chi Sau training, the sensitivity developed is absolutely incredible and hard to put into words. It needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated! After years of breaking down your Chi Sau sessions, one can appreciate that "if, and, or but" does not come into an actual exchange of techniques. Maybe I can make it clearer by explaining that if two students of equal skill are doing Chi Sau and one attacks, the other will stop the attack because of this extreme sensitivity developed through Chi Sau training. At this point Wing Chun starts to train the legs for the same purpose through "Sticky Leg" training or "Chi Gerk." As the Wing Chun idiom says, "Hands take care of hands, legs take care of legs."

Two other fundamentals are married to this "Auto-Pilot" to make Wing Chun so street effective. They are the center line theory and the technique of simultaneous block and attack (Lin Sil Die Dar). The center line theory dictates that no two objects can occupy the center without colliding with each other. Therefore, all Wing Chun techniques are initiated from and occupy the center, thus colliding with "incoming traffic." The result is excellent defense and, more importantly, the turning on of the "Auto-Pilot" system. During Chi Sau training, if a hole is found and control of the center line is gained, it is next to impossible for the opponent to regain control as the center is now being filled with a barrage of punches and traps. It is like a WAR. Once ground is gained, the Wing Chun practitioner never gives it back! Simultaneous block and attack speaks for itself. Why have an idle hand? To block with one hand while striking with the other follows the basic Wing Chun principles of simplicity, efficiency and practicality. Also using two hands together like antenna keeps contact established and the "Auto-Pilot" switched on.

To summarize, Wing Chun believes there is no fight without contact. Contact turns on the "Auto-Pilot" and sound principles based on the assets and limitations of the human body allow one to dispose of an attacker quickly, simply and effectively.

This craving for contact is the basis for the three main idioms of Wing Chun:

  1. He comes--I stay!
  2. He goes--I pursue!
  3. Break apart--Close the gap!

In closing I would like to say, as someone who believes in cross-training, Chi Sau training can be added to any martial art system. It is simply a training method to allow for realistic application of technique. I truly believe that Chi Sau training will become the wave of the future. Wing Chun is not the only effective martial art, but I do believe that Chi Sau training is the best way to develop the "Auto-Pilot" type of reaction needed to survive in the street!

Paul Barrington is an Ottawa, Canada based martial artist. He is a third generation student of Yip Man, under Sifu Sunny Tang (Dunn Wah).
Included on wingchun.org courtesy of Ottawa Wing Chun Kung Fu Studio