Rather than delving into a deeply historical discussion, today’s post is intended to be a personal reflection on the role of Chi Sao, or sticky hands training, in the modern Ip Man lineage Wing Chun. That is not to imply that there will be no history. There will, but I will try to keep it topical.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice, Chi Sao is one member of a larger family of “sensitivity training” drills that are seen in some (though not all) Chinese martial arts. Probably the best known example of this sort of training would be “Push Hands” in Taijiquan. Yet even that simple equation exposes the first of two problems that must be dealt with before we can proceed.
While in some ways similar, Chi Sao is not Push Hands. Both exercises represent an abstraction away from free sparring and seek to educate their practitioners about the proper responses to certain types of contact and pressures. Yet they proceed with different assumptions and a logic of their own. There are a great many sensitivity games out there, and each one is unique. Worse than that, I suspect that even within the Wing Chun community there is sufficient variation in our understanding of what the goals of Chi Sao are, and how the game is most productively played, that it might actually be counterproductive to lump it all under a single label.
All of which is to say, it is difficult to speak in overly broad terms about Chi Sao. It is something that most Wing Chun practitioners spend a lot of time on, and so naturally everyone feels a sense of ownership over this distinctive training process. While the following reflections will try to be as general as possible, at the end of the day my remarks will inevitably reflect the lineage and philosophy that I have trained in. Your mileage may vary.
The second problem that arises when we attempt to speak of the place of Chi Sao in Wing Chun training is more historical in nature. I just said that this was going to be a personal reflection, but historical curiosity is an important part of who I am and how I approach my training. Simply put, while Chi Sao practice is at the heart of Wing Chun today (at least within my lineage and most of the schools that I am personally familiar with), this was not always the case.
A Social History of Chi Sao
What was traditional Wing Chun training like in the generation of Leung Jan? To be totally honest we have no idea, and I personally would be suspicious of anyone claiming hard and fast answers to that question. We have very few written sources from that period and most of the oral traditions that exist in the Wing Chun world today seem to have been massively overhauled in more recent decades.
But we can speak more reliably about the era of Chan Wah Shun. Accounts indicate that when individuals from Foshan (such as Jiu Wan as well as Ip Chun and Ip Ching) arrived in Hong Kong they were surprised by how Ip Man (Chan’s student) was presenting his art.
With all of the talk of “lost lineages” it is not uncommon to hear individuals questioning whether Ip Man “changed his art” in the Hong Kong period. Was he still teaching the sort of Wing Chun that he had learned earlier in the century? The various eye-witness accounts that we have from the 1950s and 1960s would seem to indicate that what he was doing was very clearly identifiable as Wing Chun. The biggest changes seemed to be in the process that he was using to present his art to a new generation of younger, urbanized and more modern students.
As many accounts indicate, Ip Man streamlined the presentation of material and adopted something like an informal curriculum. He jettisoned many of the cultural trappings of Wing Chun such as the rhymed couplets that had been used in Chinese martial arts training for hundreds of years, as well as traditional concepts including the eight trigrams and the five elements. And while Ip Man had some background in the traditional medical systems of his teachers, this does not appear to be something that he ever stressed in his Wing Chun training. Like many residents of Hong Kong at the time, he turned to western medicine when seriously ill.
Another change has less to do with what he taught than how he introduced material. As with other fighting systems, the sorts of Wing Chun instruction seen in Foshan during the 1920s seem to have featured long periods of stance and movement training prior to the introduction of more combative techniques. Realizing that his younger and highly mobile students in Hong Kong would not put up with this, Ip Man’s children have asserted that he introduced both single and double armed sticky hands training much earlier in his curriculum to help increase student retention.
This move makes sense on multiple levels. To begin with, sticky hands training can be a lot of fun. It is more of a game than a type of sparring, but it’s a game where someone can get smacked in the head quite hard if they aren’t paying attention to what is going on. While it teaches sensitivity, Chi Sao can also be a fast paced and competitive practice. Many schools today go to lengths to keep things calm, yet as more advanced techniques are brought into play, and more open (non-bridged) structures are introduced, what started out as a simple game can come to approach something that looks a lot more like sparring. It was hoped that these elements of Chi Sao would aid in students retention, and judging by the raw numbers, the plan worked.
Of course by introducing Chi Sao earlier Ip Man was also forced to teach basic offensive and defensive techniques right at the beginning of the instructional process. Gone were the weeks or months of stance training. Instead students could be equipped with a passable kit of self-defense skills in a few months.
A number of commentators (chief among them Leung Ting) have speculated that this change in the way that information was introduced was responsible for much of Wing Chun’s early success in Hong Kong’s marketplace. Relatively new students were given fighting techniques, a venue to hone these skills in a semi-competitive setting, and then plenty of chances to try them out in the unsanctioned rooftop matches that were so common in Hong Kong at that point in time. As they gained experience in both arenas they became noted as skilled fighters compared to other students of equal age. This reputation then attracted more athletic talent to Ip Man’s doorstep.
Thus the strong emphasis on Chi Sao training seen in much of Wing Chun today (certainly within the Hong Kong branch) appears to be an artifact of Ip Man’s desire to build a certain sort of school in a specific time and place. It might be too strong to say that Chi Sao made Wing Chun what it is, but it certainly gave it a push in that direction
In my (admittedly partial) reading of these events, Chi Sao probably functioned as an effective training tool for two reasons. After the first couple of years Ip Man’s efforts to build a school were pretty successful, so there were a large number of enthusiastic students to take up the practice. This is one of those activities where you definitely benefit from touching arms with a more diverse group of practitioners.
Secondly, a pretty high percentage of these students were actually involved in the bemio, or youth challenge fight, subculture that so vexed Hong Kong’s parents and civil authorities in the 1950s and 1960. Thus they had some actual fighting experience, and probably expected to receive more in the near future. I suspect that individuals with this sort of background might be better able to absorb the skills that Chi Sao is attempting to convey while not confusing the abstraction of the training exercise with the reality of a fight (at least as they experienced it).
So does that mean that Chi Sao always functions as an effective training tool? Probably not. As the previous discussion suggests, there are a number of factors at play.
Hong Kong in the post-WWII era was something of a special case for martial arts instruction. The sheer number of styles that were present in the city, the social tensions that resulted from the influx of refugees and other economic problems, and the area’s unique cultural history all helped to encourage the growth of a variety of martial arts traditions.
Yet this highly concentrated mode of development, in which we see many students flocking to established schools and styles, was not always the case in southern China. Consider once again the story of the Phoenix Village Boxing society, which I reviewed in a post earlier this year.
A Short Visit to Phoenix Village
An ethnographic account of Phoenix Village in Guangdong Province, completed during the 1920s, included a short but interesting discussion of the role of traditional boxing in the area’s social structure. What we saw in this case was an oscillation between two different modes of martial arts organization.
Most of the time, relatively few people seemed to be interested in boxing. Some of the aficionados likely found specialized employment as bouncers in the town’s two full-time gambling houses. The others were basically hobbyists who maintained a personal interest in some aspect of the martial arts, but lacked any larger collective institution or school to advance their practice.
Then, every so often, a social alignment would occur. One of the two clans that ran the village would decide, for whatever reason, to either tolerate or encourage the resurrection of the village Boxing Society. When this happened an outside instructor from a neighboring village was hired, regular classes were organized, and for a period of time a very large proportion of Phoenix Village’s young men would take up martial arts training.
Unfortunately the authors of this particular study were highly focused on the internal structure of this single village and so they did not have much to say on what might have sparked these developments. We know from other accounts that rumors or the actual appearance of bandits in the countryside could lead to calls for martial arts training. Periodic feuding with neighboring villages could also have the same effect. Both of these catalysts might negatively impact the wealth of major landlords, and this would probably explain their sudden enthusiasm for the martial arts. After all, one must protect your investments.
Then, after a period of time, the outside teacher would leave for a new job. His local students would continue on for a while, but inevitably disputes would break out. These were deemed to be socially disruptive to the village, and the entire Boxing Society would be disbanded and put into stasis until the next time that the local elites decided to support its rejuvenation. Anyone who maintained their interest in the martial arts did so as an individual with no institutional support within the village (though the authors hint at the possible importance of larger regional networks).
This account struck me as interesting as it showed two different modes of social organization that Phoenix Village’s boxers seemed to swing back and forth between with a fair degree of regularity. Most of the time they maintained their interests (and any studies) as either individuals or within very small groups. We will call this the “dispersed” model of social organization. In these cases personal efforts combined with some reference to wider (but relatively weak) social networks supported the existence of the martial arts.
At other times everything shifted. Suddenly the pool of potential martial artists expanded and became geographically concentrated in a single school or training ground. This all coincided with wider shifts in village priorities. The previously marginal interest in boxing now received the community’s full attention. We will call this the “concentrated” phase of social organization.
Two things struck me about this account. The first was the regularity of this change. The boxers of Phoenix Village could expect to live through multiple iterations of this cycle which was taken as the normal (if regrettable) state of affairs. Secondly, I noted how similar this was to accounts that I had previously pieced together of other martial arts associations in late 19th or early 20th century Guangdong.
When I was doing research for my recent book, I realized that a lot of the area’s martial arts organizations seemed to go through periods of intense activity followed by a prolonged hiatus. The account from Phoenix Village helped to make sense of this pattern and its underlying causes. While school and association lineage histories tend to tell a fairly consistent tale, the accounts given by outside observers have been, at times, markedly more cyclic.
It is interesting to think of what all of this might have meant for Chi Sao and its place in Wing Chun. Admittedly, what follows is purely speculative. Yet it may help to make sense of why Chi Sao played much less of a role in the practice of Chan Wah Shun’s students in Foshan than it did in Ip Man’s pupils in Hong Kong. Clearly the exercise was present and a part of the Wing Chun system in both places. Yet the martial arts were not particularly popular in Foshan between 1900-1910s.
We know, for instance, that Chan Wah Shun only taught about 16 students during his career. Further, when Ip Man returned from his time as a student in Hong Kong he discovered that very little Wing Chun was being practiced in his home town except in Ng Chung So’s school. And even this was a somewhat elite and small scale affair. With relatively few other people to practice with, the gains from devoting all of one’s time to Chi Sao would be limited. Thus more of an emphasis on forms practice, weapons training, the wooden dummy, basic strength, movement and conditioning drills might make a lot of sense. That is where one might reap the highest return in a relatively “dispersed” training environment.
Eventually things would change. Later in the 1920s, and during the first half of the 1930s, Wing Chun, like all of Foshan’s martial arts, seems to have grown in popularity. More students from a wide variety of backgrounds began to enter the style. This trend was accompanied by a more pronounced debate on the relative merits of different schools of Kung Fu.
All of this came to a head in Hong Kong during the early 1950s. After another period of “dispersed organization” between 1937-1945 (thanks to the Japanese), huge numbers of martial arts masters and students found themselves tightly packed into a new space, competing for recognition while at the same time looking for a better way to organize their schools in a new commercial environment. The geography of Kowloon alone probably made the shift to a “concentrated” mode of social organization inevitable. Ip Man’s increased emphasis on Chi Sao was not so much an invention, as it may simply have been a realization of the changing utility of different training strategies in this new environment.
Conclusion: The Situation Today
It is always a dangerous thing to take a model (even a “back of a napkin” exercise such as this) that was developed in one area and apply it to a totally different time and place. Nevertheless, I wonder if the idea of “dispersed” and “centralized” modes of organization might not have some value for us, at least as a metaphor. It might also suggest something important for how we think about the place of Chi Sao in Wing Chun today.
When I was first introduced to Wing Chun about a decade ago I had the good fortune to study at a large and thriving school in an urban environment. My teacher (Sifu Jon Nielson) approaches Wing Chun as a self-defense practice and introduces his students to movement, punching and defensive structures on literally the first day of class. Chi Sao was a big part of what I did and, if I may be permitted to say so, I got pretty good at it.
Like so many others before, I found the game to be addictive. I was a serious student and so I ended up practicing my Chi Sao (and other related skills) multiple hours a day, five (sometimes six) days a week. Better yet, there were a lot of advanced (and very tough) students at this school who were perfectly happy to hand out thrashings.
In my personal experience that is the key to becoming really good at Chi Sao. It is not magic. I don’t think it takes any special genetic predisposition. You simply spend lots of hours a week practicing these skills with a really large pool of people, some of whom are a great deal better than you and few of whom are actually kind of scary. Under those conditions, it is amazing how fast you pick this stuff up. But is being good at Chi Sao the same thing as being good at Wing Chun? Or even being a good martial artist?
Those are somewhat abstract questions, but they are ones that I have found myself forced to confront after moving from Salt Lake City to a small town in rural Western NY. Unsurprisingly, there are no large Wing Chun schools with the same combative approach to Chi Sao within driving distance of where I live.
This is not to say that it is impossible to do Wing Chun. Taking my years of experience I opened my own, much smaller school. While it is nothing on the scale of what my teacher has back in Salt Lake, I have been able to find a handful of people to work with, and that has allowed me to stay involved in Wing Chun community.
Yet Chi Sao is a problem. It is not that I no longer do it. I still spend some time on Chi Sao. Yet working with a very small number of people, all junior to you, is not the same. Whatever it is, Chi Sao is not like riding a bike. The sorts of skills taught in sensitivity drills absolutely can be forgotten and will go dormant very fast if not continually used.
Compared to a lot of former Wing Chun students in a similar position I am really lucky. Even in a rural environment I have been able to keep my hand in the game. But am I growing as a Wing Chun practitioner?
On some level I want to say yes, but doing so might require us to de-center Chi Sao from its traditional place in the Wing Chun universe. As I suggested above, I am starting to wonder whether the actual utility of certain skills is tied to the environment that they are practiced in. The situation in my Sifu’s school was just about ideal for developing varied and nuanced skills in Chi Sao. (Parenthetically I should note that we did practice a full range of other skills, from forms to free sparring to combative weapons as well).
My students in rural western New York can certainly still gain some critical insights from the Chi Sao that we do. But given the limited number of partners any of them will ever be able to touch arms with, one quickly comes up against the problem of diminishing marginal returns. At what point would an additional hour of Chi Sao be better replaced with an hour of ground work, the heavy bag or basic conditioning? What mix of skills will actually make me a better martial artist and student of Wing Chun where I am today?
I suspect that there may not be a single answer to this question. Instead the mix of things that work best in a densely concentrated training area might be different than those in a dispersed environment. Students studying in small groups or on their own may need to think creatively about how to interpret and apply Wing Chun in their situation, rather than just becoming discouraged that they cannot replicate the “ideal” seen in Hong Kong in the 1960s or the West in the 1990s.
For a variety of reasons, mostly social and economic in nature, I think that we are entering a period of dispersed social organization more generally (and not just in the martial arts). Certainly in large urban environments we will continue to see healthy schools, yet increasingly students of a wide variety of combat arts will find themselves in less connected places without a ready-made support system. In some senses we are better positioned to ride out this cyclic change than past generations. The internet provides the opportunities to construct new kinds of communities while recording and dispersing all sorts of training information. And certainly the organization of small local study groups, combined with the occasional workshop, can be very helpful.
Yet making the most of these new resources will require a careful reconsideration of our goals and even what it means to be a student of Wing Chun. This is one area where a more detailed understanding of our history can be particularly helpful. The southern Chinese martial arts have always been very flexible and they have survived many swings between concentrated and dispersed modes of social organization.
Nor has Chi Sao always enjoyed the pride of place that it is currently afforded within Wing Chun. I suspect that all of the traditional arts contain a variety of training tools precisely because they were practiced in a wide variety of environments. When properly understood, and combined with all of the information that we now have at our finger tips, there is no reason why our practices cannot continue to thrive under relatively dispersed models of social organizations.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Spiritual Kung Fu: Can Wing Chun be a Secular Religion?