Introductory Essay on Wing Chun's First Form:
Sil Lum Tao.
Learning Wing Chun is like learning to write poetry. It takes a true genius to just jump into either and truly express himself. The majority of the famous poets spent years rewriting their poems, perfecting them before they were published. Modern poets spend years learning various forms of poetry and studying the classics before being able to express themselves in the form of modern poetry. In this comparison, learning Sil Lum Tao is like learning to write a haiku. Both seem simple and sometimes rather pointless, but each grows with wonder every time it is performed, and eventually one can express oneself in a truly simple manner, a little idea indeed.
Sil Lum Tao, although seemingly simple, is a form rich in both applications and theory. I have heard that traditionally, Sil Lum Tao was taught only to the most advanced students. It was taught as a sort of summary, or teachers’ manual, containing all the principles of Wing Chun. If this is true, then we as modern students are extremely privileged to be taught this form first. It allows us, with some hard work and thought, to grasp the entire system. If this is just legend, one can at least quite easily understand why this story originated. Sil Lum Tao is a form that runs deep, containing more than its surface simplicity.
Sil Lum Tao as I stated above, is rich in application and in theory. However it would be extremely tedious both for myself and the reader of this essay, if I were to go through Sil Lum Tao move by move and list applications and principles found in the form. I will be describing applications and principles from the first form, however, I will only describe applications that I think are either interesting or cannot be seen from the surface of the form. I will be discussing the principles and ideas that are found in the form that I believe to be imperative to Wing Chun.
I will first start with what I believe to be common knowledge amongst Wing Chun practitioners. Sil Lum Tao teaches basic hand movements and simple applications such as punches, palm strikes and basic blocks. It trains the stance and develops rooting. The first section of Sil Lum Tao teaches us how to move energy or chi along the arms, and gives the correct structure for the basic hand positions. The second section of Sil Lum Tao teaches us to use this energy just before, or rather at the moment of contact. The third section of Sil Lum Tao teaches basic hand and elbow positioning for the simple movements, and shows us how to string techniques together.
However in my opinion, Sil Lum Tao runs far deeper than this. Of course the entire above paragraph is true, but one needs to search deeper to truly understand and be able to apply Wing Chun.
The First Section.
The opening section of Sil Lum Tao is extremely important. Crossing the arms up and down not only defines the centreline, but it defines the centre of the practitioner. Many people forget that the centreline principle does not only contain the idea that one should strike or block along the centreline, but also that one should couple this with the idea that one should strike or block along ones own centre. Thus, the first punch of the form should not only strike out straight from my centre, but should also strike out straight along the centreline. Thus if a Wing Chun practitioner were facing at 90 degrees to his opponent, he should still punch straight out in front of him, as punching towards his opponent would be against Wing Chun principles. (Of course this is just theory and should never be applied in a real situation.)
In addition, crossing the arms defines the area in which the arms operate. The lowest the arms go is to ones groin, and the highest they go is the eyebrows. This movement also squeezes the air out of your lungs and closes them, teaching us to breathe from the abdomen, or to use abdominal breathing.
The first punch in the formis also an important movement. The centreline theory, and the principle of simplicity, or economy of motion and usage of energy can both be discovered from this movement. The straight punch also teaches us the first strike principle, since there is no block or parry that precedes it. The principle of simplicity is shown here by the fact that the punch travels a straight line, i.e. the shortest distance to the target. The on and off snap of power and tension of the arm at the end of the movement gives us a taste of the second section of Sil Lum Tao, teaching us to use energy at the last moment and to keep relaxed at all other times. The punch is not a punch until it actually contacts the target. The punch is the essence of Wing Chun, or the purest expression of the art. Simple, direct and effective
The first section of Sil Lum Tao is primarily concerned with structure. The tan sau, wu sau and fook sau are not specifically blocks, but rather, hand, arm and elbow positions. Each of these three positions can be used as blocks, but that is not their only purpose: These three hand positions teach us to control the centreline by occupying the centreline. Tan and fook sau teach us to keep the elbow in and teach us which line to follow when doing so. Wu sau teaches us the elbow out position, and the line that the elbow should follow when moving in this position. The structure of these hand positions is extremely important as they lend strength to the practitioner that he would otherwise not have.
The triangle is one of the strongest structures known to man. If one looks at the structure of any of the basic hand positions one will find that they are made up of triangles. For example, tan sau is a triangle with its base line running between ones shoulder and fingertips. The apex of the triangle is pointing directly at the floor. Alternatively the apex could be ones fingers. In addition, there is a triangle between ones body and the elbow of the tan hand. Since Wing Chun was meant to work for any person, strong or weak, young or old, this type of kung fu cannot rely on the muscles of the practitioner. Thus Wing Chun, being way ahead of its time, uses one of the most powerful structures known to man, the triangle, to give its practitioner strength. Because of the structure of a triangle, any force applied to it will merely slide off. The triangle is also a strong structure as each apex supports the other. This is the principle of structural strength, relying on tendons strength, bone alignment and geometric structure rather than muscles. This structure, if combined with a correct flow of chi in the arms can lead to tremendous power and force without the use of muscle. The first section of Sil Lum Tao teaches us this energy flow. I experienced this for the first time when doing the one hour Sil Lum Tao. I could feel a tremendous pressure pushing the elbow and wrist back or forwards in the first section of the form. The pressure is slow but extremely forceful. With practice, I believe that all Wing Chun movements should contain this power found only from structure and energy. The first section of Sil Lum Tao strives to teach us this.
To continue the idea of triangles, the first section of Sil Lum Tao shows us a huge number of triangles in Wing Chun structure. The basic yee jee kim jung ma stance has as far as I can make out at least 6 triangles within it. Here they are:
1. The toes are pointed in at 45 degrees. This creates a triangle in the stance, with the apexpointing directly in front of you. This gives you a wide base for support against a pressure from the front, both sides, both flanks, and behind. The yee jee kim jung ma stance gives one great stability and superb rooting, especially since it is such a high stance, and does not greatly lower ones centre of gravity as much for example se ping ma would.
2. Since in yee jee kim jung ma ones knees are pinched inwards there is a triangle rising up from the feet with its apex between the knees.
3. There is another triangle with its apex at the knees and its base at the hips.
4. Since the heels are wider than the hips, there is a triangle with its apex at the dan tien, and its base running between the heels.
5. There is a triangle with its apex at the dan tien, and its base running between The shoulders.
6. There is one large triangle with its base on the floor and its apex at your head
The first punch in the form also gives us two more highly confusing triangles to ponder over, both have their apex at the fist, however, one has its base running between the shoulders, (this would be seen from a birds eye view) and the other has its base running between the head and feet of the practitioner. (which would be seen from a horizontal viewpoint.)
The Second Section
The second section of Sil Lum Tao is primarily concerned with the usage of the energy built up in the first section, and the principle of economy of motion and the non-wastage of energy. Whereas the first section of Sil Lum Tao deals mainly with principles of Wing Chun, the second section shows us applications of theses principles, and introduces more principles, using applications thereof as a method of teaching them.
Personally I find the double lan sau to fan sau to lan sau movement the most interesting of all the movements in the second section of Sil Lum Tao. The double lan movement and position contains a huge number of applications, and a good few principles. I will be focusing on this movement as an example of the second section.
Double lan sau teaches us a principle similar to “what goes up must come down.” This principle teaches Wing Chun practitioners the concept of multiple strikes. If I hit my opponent with fan sau as I use lan sau to open his defence or turn his centreline away from me, I can then change the fan sau arm to a gum sau to trap his arm/s as my lan sau arm hits him with a palm strike, I can then continue hitting and re-trapping using this principle of back and forth until my opponent is down. Another example of this principle is where I push my forearm in the position of a lan sau against the opponent’s windpipe, and upwards against his chin, while simultaneously pulling another part of his body down and towards me. This will easily cause the opponent to fall over backwards. Lan sau thus also teaches us principles of body leverage.
Double lan sau teaches us to use more than just our fists to defeat an opponent. Lan sau can be an elbow strike, and when it opens to a fan sau, it can be a forearm strike. Fan sau can also be a finger sweep across the eyes, or an openhanded knife-edge palm strike. The rest of the second section follows this principle teaching shoulder, finger, wrist and forearm strikes.
Lan sau can also be used extensively in extremely close range fighting. Lan sau can be used as an L shaped double or single arm trap, pushing the opponents arms into him, jamming them down, or holding them upwards as one strikes low. It can be used as a jerking or pulling technique to turn the opponents centreline, or open him up for attack. Lan sau is also an extremely useful technique in terms of Chin Na and takedowns or throws. The double lan sau position can be used successfully to perform elbow locks and breaks, wrist locks and even chokes. A single arm in lan sau can be used as a choke, elbow lock and wrist lock. Combined with footwork, the single lan sau can be used to control the opponent’s head for setting up various takedowns and reaper throws.
The second section also teaches long arm bridging techniques. The last movement in the second section teaches the long bridging technique. These long bridging techniques teach us to use the wrist and shoulder as the “pistons” of our arms, instead of the usual elbow “piston.”
The second section teaches us to use force or energy at the last moment. All of the movements in the second section should contain an on and off snap of power at the very end of the movement. This principle is first explored in the initial punch in the first section and the snap of the wrist in the heun sau movement from fook sau to wu sau in the first section.
The Third Section
The third section of Sil Lum Tao teaches us to string techniques learnt in the previous two sections together, as well as introducing new hand techniques and positions. All the principles that are taught in the first and second section should be followed whilst performing the third section.
For the purposes of this essay I will be exploring various individual movements in the third section of Sil Lum Tao, describing them, some of their applications and the way in which they are done.
Kau sau is a catch up block. What I mean by this is that I would most likely use kau sau as a reflexive block to “catch up” with a punch I had not realised was coming, or to parry a punch or strike at the last moment. Kau sau is a parry in the true sense of the word, and does not have the jamming action that one may get from pak sau for example. When it is performed in the form it should be done with a slightly backwards movement, almost like the reverse of a lap sau in the lap sau drill. The movement from kau sau to the side palm contains firstly a movement to the centreline; this once again enforces the idea of centreline control and occupation.
The tan to gan to tan to lower palm strike is an important part of the third section of Sil Lum Tao. The first tan sau is performed in the same way as the tan sau in the first section of the form. However the second tan is flipped upwards from the gan sau. This teaches us a variation of how to get to the tan position, by using the wrist to flip the tan into position. This part of the third section focuses heavily on the wrist. One should be using the heun sau wrist motion to create power for the gan sau and the lower palm strike.
to tan sau
to upside down palm strike
teaches us an additional way to get into the tan position, i.e. by flipping the elbow downwards. By doing this one can either sink the elbow downwards into tan sau
position, thereby block
ing or parry
ing an incoming strike
with the elbow, or one can convert the tan position to become a downwards strike
with either the back of the hand or the forearm. The upside down palm strike
is a tricky question for me; I am not sure why it is not done with the fingers pointing downwards (to hit the groin for example). However it could be a strike
with the forearm. The bong sau
in this section teaches us to drill the bong forwards, not upwards. This idea of forward motion is important to Wing Chun
, as it is the basis for the idea of deflection and sliding leverage
as opposed to force on force blocks
. The immediate change from bong sau
to tan sau
teaches us not to hold bong sau
for too long when blocking a strike
. In other words, when one performs bong sau
against a strike
, one should immediately move to another technique, whereas in contrast, the fook sau
position for example can be held on the opponents arm to create a bridge. The bong to tan also teaches us how to roll in chi sau
The third section teaches us that tan sau is incredibly versatile. One should by this point also realise that tan sau is an incredibly important hand position in the Wing Chun system. Tan sau is performed four times in Sil Lum Tao as opposed to kau sau for example which is performed once.
The third section continues with the idea found in the second section that the fist is not the be all and end all of Wing Chun weapons. The tan sau strike, the upside down palm strike that could be considered a forearm strike, and the three palm strikes found in the third section confirms the idea that Wing Chun is primarily an open handed system that does not rely heavily on the fist. The third section continues the principles of centreline, relaxation, simplicity and directness contained in the first two sections of Sil Lum Tao.
Throughout Sil Lum Tao the heun sau is used extensively. The heun sau teaches circular motion. This circular motion can have many applications, from the simple idea of going around an obstacle, to joint locks and takedowns. Heun sau also strengthens the tendons in the wrist and forearm, thereby greatening Wing Chun’s famous “inch power” which is often generated from the wrist. The motion of opening the hand and then closing it into a fist using heun sau before retracting the arm also teaches the Wing Chun practitioner to grab and pull the opponent into him for added power. This is the same principle as one learns in the double lan sau described above.
The Closing Section
The final section of Sil Lum Tao teaches us to string together punches. The chain punches also teach us an important idea for actual combat; when attacking, one must continue attacking until the opponent is down and cannot get up. Another idea taught to us by the chain punches is the concept of disruption. If I can hit you with one punch the next punch will be more likely to hit and so on.
The last thing one does in Sil Lum Tao is sink ones chi to ones centre, and then merely stand still and upright. This is for the continued relaxation of the practitioner, and if taken philosophically one could say that the purpose of this movement is to teach us to maintain integrity and structure in our personal lives, throughout our learning of Wing Chun kung fu.