On the face of it the chum kui form is one of the strangest most abstract martial arts forms that there is. The first section all makes sense; it introduces the idea of pivoting around your own centre and adding a second or third rotation to power the movements of the arms, but thereafter it gets bizarre.
First the kick, not a straightforward front kick but one where you have first pivoted to your side. The angle impinges your hip and makes lifting the leg awkward unless you lean back. Then the step, not forward or back step but sideways like a crab! Strangest of all is the pivoting kick which you only practice with one leg; hardly appears to be a kick at all.
It would be an easy option to just trust your sifu and believe somehow practicing the form for thousands of hours will infuse new ability. Alternatively you could dismiss having to learn it as a necessary chore to pass a grading. The third option is THINK...
The straight kick is actually done from an awkward position on purpose, not because you would necessarily fight like that but because it makes you acutely aware of your balance, whether you are lifting or releasing your leg and whether you are leaning back. It is essentially giving as many tools as possible to assess your ability. Do it well from that position and from a more 'relaxed' position it will be a piece of cake.
Similarly the side step is teaching how to move your mass, there is a small rotation from your centre and you learn to move from there and not push with your legs. Once understood from the side you can use in any direction.
Finally the pivoting kick, this helps us work on pivoting on one foot, on intercepting a sideways attack and how to protect your centre. All done whilst maintaining your centre of balance. It even shows you how to release your mass when you lower your leg (a technique in itself).
These are all abstract ideas, not necessarily applications which you would find with an ordinary martial art.
I like to think of Chum Kui as a test of how well you have learned the lessons of Sil Lim Tao. If you cannot connect your arm movements to your centre of mass, then moving your body will only cause you more tension and impede your techniques. Silmilarily pivoting without relaxed hips will just mean you are pushing your body behind your arms (unstable).
Perhaps it was a genius who invented wing chun, or a mad person, I am not sure. It is easy to look for things that are not there but at the end of the day it is best to invest the time in looking rather than believe everything you are told. Then again, perhaps I have made all this up...
This is a question which most 'humble' martial artists ask before then rolling out the clichés that they are all equal, but it is how hard you train that counts. I am not convinced. How can a striking free art like judo be equal to boxing (no throwing). How can Olympic tai kwan do be equal to aikido when it has no hand work of any significance. If I invent my own martial art will it be equal to all others, or does it have to exist for a certain period of time first? Each art may be valid but the word equal does not really make sense in this context.
To break this down I think it is best to separate out the two key constituents. The 'Martial' and the 'Art':
Martial is about fighting (the word is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war), the core components consisting of punching, kicking, throwing, joint locks and not much else. Children will do all if these things instinctively and we as societies have refined them so we can do as much damage to someone in as quick a time as is possible. All martial arts will have started employing the 4 key tools but over time began to specialise to suit the characteristics of the practitioners. Punching is the method of choice for those with little training, it is quick effective, powerful and is the least risk method to your own balance. When I have watched sparring from most intermediate level martial artists, whatever art they do, they usually settle into the default method of side on punch and kick, as the more complicated techniques of any system become more difficult to pull off in real time confrontations.
This is where things start to unravel. In a straight fight we can tell who is best, but with the added aspect of an 'art' extra rules start to be added and reality takes a back seat. You can think of the art as the training method employed to get someone into a condition to fight. For a western boxer this is fitness conditioning, bag work, combinations and sparing. For a lot of Chinese and Japanese arts they employ kata (forms) and for the jui juitsu arts it is techniques for throwing and locking. Over time as each method has retreated to train within its own group, more elaborate techniques have developed to deal with its own speciality. Forms become longer, more flowery and have more to do with aesthetic beauty and flexibility than with effectivness. BJJ is a fantastic art, but cannot be used to deal with more than one opponent, especially where it is not safe to go to ground.
MMA has been a real eye open for most fighters, there has been a return to learning the basic 4 components as many arts have been unmasked as 'ineffective' when they enter it's crucible. However MMA still has a lot of baggage related to 'art' side. The rules favour grapplers; gloves are worn, there are no corners, the floor is soft and there is only one opponent. Also, crucially there is an agreement of both parties to enter into a fight; there is none of the surprise of an ambush or use of weapons which happens in the real world. In effect the training is undertaken in order to enter into a duel with an opponent of equal ability; where is the reality in that?
You are probably now thinking I am going to say that wing chun is the best. I am not... What is great about wing chun is that is pragmatic in its approach, my style of wing chun is about breaking an opponents balance quicky and hitting hard, ensuring you keep your own balance whilst at the same time being able to deal with more than one opponent. Just as important for me is does not damage your own health whilst training and you can continue to improve as you get older. However, I would not recommend it to a child or someone who needs a quick hit self defence course. For someone under 10 I would also say learn judo, it teaches good coordination and balance as well as discipline. For my daughters I would say TKD, they are very flexible and do not like confrontation. For an 18 yr old looking for confidence I would say boxing; go to for a bouncer would be kickboxing and BJJ, and for someone older or in poor health choose tai chi.
What we come down to is all arts have their place, some are more art than martial but as long as the practitioners recognise that there is no problem. When I got into my late 30s and now past 40 I see no need to have myself beaten up every week in training, the art for me is the internal puzzle of producing power without effort and figuring out how to land that on an opponent before they can do it to me. Being pragmatic means compromise. I could not match a 20 yr old MMA fighter in the ring, but in the pub I might have the edge. My skill and power will also keep increasing so in 20 years time I might be able to take on him and his mates, as by then they will be overweight and carrying debilitating injuries through hard training.
In Chinese martial arts they place the 4 most important aspects in fighting in the following order, 1. Fighting spirit (the will to win). 2. Power. 3 Speed. 4. Technique. When you choose an art for yourself you can also factor in real world outcomes other than fighting such as, health, fitness, flexibility and social interaction, and mix them together to get the art for you. The best art is out there, but it is only best for you and what you want to achieve.
Wing Chun has opened up a window for me I do not know existed. To learn about my body, using relaxation to produce power and speed with little effort and know that it works for fighting makes it the best fit for me. I do not try to make it fit all of our students, we can lead them to the water but it is up to them to decide if it is palatable. Which is the best car, a Ferrari, Bentley a Toyota Land Cruiser or an Audi 4x4? It all depends on the road in front of you.
Wherever wing chun came from it was a simplification of what came before; an evolution. If Ng Mui was the originator, she pruned the flowery movements of the shaolin kung fu she had learned. Later Leung Jan simplified it further, and it is common knowledge that when Ip Man started teaching in Hong Kong he removed a lot of what he considered superfluous movements. So what is left are three hand forms which define the system, and if you analyse those you can see most of the movements are contained within the first form.
So what makes Sil lim Tao (SLT) so special? In my lineage of wing chun it is held up on a pedestal, the main focus of our training and the source of our unique power. Ip Man had his students practice the form for 12 months before he taught them chi sau and Chu Shong Tin did the same with his students. My sifu reduced the term to 6 months, but that is a lot more than any school I have heard of in the UK.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that solely practicing SLT for 6 or 12 months can be a waste of time. If you are doing it wrong, if your teacher does not have the requisite body knowledge, all you will be doing is resisting gravity and building muscular stiffness into your body system. I can say this as it is what I did for a long period of my own training. What I learned was to very subtlety brace muscles so when force was applied to me I was able to resist it. I got better and better at it but once the force got too great my whole structure would collapse. This lesson was painfully given to me 5 years into my training when I first visited Hong Kong.
Since 2008 I have been re-engineering my body; to do this I have tried to follow the evidence*. Chu Shong Tin did not actually emphasis SLT over the last 10 years of his life, he emphasised gaining body awareness through standing practice. From this he taught the arms movement of wing chun connected to the proper body structure. Those arm movements are all in the SLT, but just doing the form and moving your arms does not in itself help deliver the power so many seek.
The more I teach the more I realise that without standing practice you have no way of starting the communication with your body needed for an internal art. But just as important in the need for the mind to understand how relaxation can be powerful; and for this you need the interaction with a teacher/partner who is more experienced. The real irony I now perceive is that for a beginner to a get a feel for this the joints need to be loosened and that only really works at first with bigger movements. In fact it helps if you move your body and open your shoulder joint to its maximum extent (use the chum kui or bil jee form), which can look nothing like SLT. As you get the idea of this and progress, the movement gets small and smaller until it is not perceivable to most people (it's internal). At this point the true SLT takes shape.
So what we have is this tiny compact form, the seed of wing chun. However for its movement to be useful as a fighting form you have to have had internalised the ideas to a very great extent and this takes time and hard work. Hence this is why most chi sau on display on YouTube looks nothing like the forms and the sparing looks nothing like the chi sau. Without internal focus the movements have to be bigger (if you cannot effectively use your mass properly you have to rely on acceleration or pushing) and so the wing chun principles go out the window.
Here is an idea. Perhaps we all have it wrong... I was told long ago that the forms progress along the following lines; SLT - we start with the hand along the centre line in the perfect position; Chum Kui - the hand is off the centre and we learn to pivot to regain it; Bil Jee - we start the movement in a poor position from where we attack the other person's centre. The actual reality or fighting is that if we are attacked we never have the perfect centre position. We are off-line and have to regain it. Therefore it is strange for us to start practicing the art from a perfect position if only a true master would ever be able to get there. It could be argued that the logical place to start is therefore the Bil Jee form?
Personally as time goes on I do not get hung up on forms, you can learn the movements and map them back to the form or learn the forms first and then try to understand them. None of it matters unless you can connect the movements to your centre of mass.
I do not claim any mastery of this, I am a student of the idea. However as a teacher I am now following the evidence further, in hand with our students, because when they get it right the results can be startling.
* I have borrowed the term 'follow the evidence' from Mark Ho, he is the Sherlock Holmes of wing chun investigation.
For some wing chun people reading this, you have probably had an extensive education in this already. In fact I will in all likelyhood be teaching you to suck eggs, so if that is the case just jog on and do something else. But if you really want to mess up your wing chun training, make the art look like a joke, here are some key tips to wreck your posture and give you irreparable spinal damage (enjoy):
1. Grip the floor, really tense up your feet like a bird perched on a branch in the wind. This will send tension straight through your body.
2. Clamp you thighs really tight, lock you pelvis muscles so if anyone pushes you then you will fall over.
3. Lean backwards, arch your spine and stick your crotch out. No need to worry about lower back pain for the rest of your life or exposing your groin to kicks. Also the beauty of this is if you bend backward when you punch your mass will be transmitting in the wrong direction.
4. Pull back those shoulders, really pull them back and wing your scapula like an eagle about to take off.
5. Relax, but not in an active way. Just slump like a teenager.
6. Practice your form in front of the tv, play computer games but at no point scan your body of tension or pay it any attention. The mind and body should be kept separate.
7. Let your head loll back so the weight of it can compress your spine.
8. Keep your standing and Sil Lim Tao practice to a minimum. It is just a chore to keep beginners busy whilst others get to show off by doing chi sau.
9. Above all, imagine yourself rooted to the centre of the earth, immovable and fixed.
Some sifus already teach this way, others will just lead by example. Whatever you do, do not question your sifu; people who you pay money always know best!
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