by David Peterson
By and large, most people tend to believe that the Wing Chun drill known as ‘Chi Sau’ (“sticking hands”) is a reflex drill, the purpose of which is to hone the reactions and responses of practitioners of the system to the point where they can defend themselves even when blindfolded. This belief has been enhanced over the years through many demonstrations of what seems to be, at least on the surface, the “ultimate shield” against close range hand attacks.
Many claim that by merely engaging in regular ‘Chi Sau’ training, one can learn to fight more or less instinctively in a relatively short period of time. In some schools, training is very much almost exclusively ‘Chi Sau’ based, whilst in others, the complete opposite is so, with ‘Chi Sau’ considered overrated and virtually absent from the training syllabus.
So what exactly is the purpose of the ‘Chi Sau’ drill and what role does it actually play in the development of the Wing Chun skill set? Is it the “perfect” trapping/controlling method, or is the aim of ‘Chi Sau’ training something totally different altogether? Most importantly, is it about “sticking” to the hands at all, or has this interpretation of the exercise been grossly in error?
The late, great Sifu Wong Shun Leung stated on a number of occasions that he felt that the difference between a good fighter and a great fighter in Wing Chun was all down to who really understood ‘Chi Sau’ best. He maintained that if you could train two perfectly identical people in the system over a given period of time, but NOT teach ‘Chi Sau’ to one of them, when it came to actual fighting, the one who had been taught ‘Chi Sau’ would ALWAYS be the better fighter.
However, he also repeated on numerous occasions that when we fight, we should not try to ‘Chi Sau’ with our opponent – we should be trying to hit him at every opportunity. “It is only when your attack meets with an obstruction,” he said, “…that you have to change to attain your goal and this is where ‘Chi Sau’ comes into play, as a means to an end, with the end being the winning of the fight.”
Regrettably, the idea of “sticking” seems to have been interpreted by so many in such a way as to mean that the majority are actually “chasing” hands instead, thus not training the drill in a way that would see Sifu Wong’s advice realised. Instead, they engage in countless complicated routines of “chasing hands”, trying to recover from situations and positions that are far removed from realistic combat. They get themselves into a ‘Chi Sau’ “bubble” and think that it is the answer to every problem. Unfortunately, …it is not!
The Chinese character represented by the spelling “chi” is a little known and little used word outside of classical Cantonese – in Modern Standard Chinese (Putonghua), better known as the Mandarin dialect, the character is virtually unknown and one must search in very old dictionaries to find any reference to it. In modern day Cantonese (Guangdonghua) it is commonly used in the slang expression ‘chi sien’ which means “crazy/out of your mind”, but the deeper meaning of the word concerns a unique type of glue, used in ancient times for book-binding.
How does that relate to the practice of ‘Chi Sau’ then? Well, not in the literal sense because we do NOT want to be sticking (ie: following/chasing) the hands all the time, as previously stated. Rather, it is referring to the idea of making the limbs able to feel the changes in pressure/angle of the opponent’s hands by virtue of keeping the muscles in the forearms as relaxed as possible. In this way, they become “sticky” in the sense that they can maintain contact and absorb energy, rather than sliding off or collapsing from fatigue or lack of strength.
Another way of understanding this is to think of the hands/forearms as “listening” to the intentions of the opponent because in being soft on the outside, with the real strength coming from the bones rather than the muscles, the arms are not susceptible to sliding about, instead “sticking” in such a way as to absorb incoming force and redirect it into the stance through the skeletal system. This is possible only when the basic structures utilised in ‘Chi Sau’ are able to maximise the amount of actual surface contact that they have with the limbs of the opponent.
Thus, the ‘Fook Sau’ should be brought low in angle to the partners ‘Taan Sau’ action, which in turn should also maintain a lower line, with both hands loaded with subtle, constant forward energy. For the ‘Fook Sau’ action, the fleshy (inside) part of the forearm should be facing the opponent and in contact with the opposing limb when the ‘Bong Sau’ action occurs, rather than allowing the sharper bony edge of the forearm to do so. This provides greater surface area to be in contact and, with the forearm muscles completely soft and relaxed, less chance of being collapsed by the opponent. It also enhances the ability to “hear” the forward intent due to the “stickiness” created.
Likewise, it is essential for the ‘Bong Sau’ action to be done with the same kind of “soft force” being applied, turning the forearm right over so that the inside forearm and the palm face back towards the opponent. So long as the elbow is able to remain aimed back at the opponent’s centre of mass, and the forearm kept relaxed, the same ability to absorb forward pressure is enabled and the result is a limb that can re-direct force easily as well as spring forward naturally if the opponent disengages or loses control of the centre – ‘Lat Sau Jik Chung’ (“constant springy forward force”) in action! Now, to what is likely to be seen as a controversial statement by many, once these ideas are in place, the TRUE reason for ‘Chi Sau’ begins to become apparent. Like virtually every other aspect of the Wing Chun system, this drill is NOT about defence and control at all – it is to teach us how to ATTACK!!! That’s right, …from the ‘Dan Chi Sau’ (“single-hand” ‘Chi Sau’) drill all the way through to the practice of ‘Gwoh Sau’ (“free-attack” ‘Chi Sau’), we are being shown how to ATTACK.
However, this is clearly missed by the great majority because they either play to many complicated ‘Chi Sau’ “games”, or else they use too much force, or go far too fast, or turn it into a game of “sniping” (or all of those together!), totally failing to achieve the goal of the drill which is to load a certain set of neural reflexes into the body such that the arms are fine-tuned to detect changes in pressure and angle so that they automatically seek the natural path around the obstacle and attack instinctively without the need for constant conscious thought.
In the process, ‘Chi Sau’ also teaches us to use the limbs with constant even pressure, to keep the body square-on, thus maximising the number of available weapons whilst minimising the number of targets. It also teaches us to remain calm under pressure, to get in close and stay there, and most of all, ‘Chi Sau’ teaches us to have both hands working independently towards a common goal – to hit and defeat the opponent in the shortest time possible. Thus, it enhances all previous training and provides the perfect “laboratory” for us to develop our most effective means of dealing with an adversary.
Editors note: This article was originally published in Wing Chun Illustrated magazine, Issues 2 (2011)