Yut ngee sahm, no.2

Drinking from a firehose.

So I went to a seminar taught by Sifu Francis Fong, head of the Francis Fong International Association (of which my school is a member). Sifu Fong teaches Sifu Raja, and he’s been teaching Sigong Al since the eighties. Not only was it a good opportunity to learn from a respected teacher, it was a glimpse into where my teachers have come from.

Sifu Fong is a good speaker—he’s engaging, funny, and humble. One of the things I appreciate most about the school I attend is the lack of ego; everyone wants to help everyone else learn. That’s an attitude that comes straight from the tap. There were about thirty attendees with a wide range of skill levels, and Sifu Fong spent a lot of time and attention on everyone, with no judgment and no condescension.

Sifu Fong broke down his concern into three broad areas: structure, position, and technique.

What follows is my own synthesis of what Sifu Fong taught us. It’s become a cliche to say working with him is like drinking from a firehose, but it’s also true. There is so much information presented that you have to grab hold of what you can. Any mistakes or assumptions made below are mine and mine alone.

Structure

We spent the better part of thirty minutes focusing just on structure: your stance, where your weight is balanced, how you hold yourself. Since wing chun is predicated on the use of body weight over muscular exertion, structure is the foundation of the entire art.

Structure is your body’s relationship to the earth. We often talk in class about rooting or sinking. Both are pretty clear images, but rooting is about settling your body weight on your stance to anchor your attacks and defenses, whereas sinking is often used to describe focusing your body weight into a limb at a moment of contact.

If you have a good root, you are hard to move, and your strikes are powered not by your own musculature but by the leverage your whole body generates pushing against the ground. Structure is about the application of force, both in generating it and dissipating it.

There’s so much nuance in attaining a strong root. Your feet have to be positioned correctly, with (for one stance as an example) the toes of the forward foot pointing at your opponent’s center, and the toes of the rear foot pointed about forty-five degrees off that line. Your knee should be bent in such a manner that the patella is in a straight line over the ball of the foot. Your pelvis should tilt forward. Your stomach should be tight. Your gluten should be squeezed. The muscles up and down the spine should be taut but not clenched. Your focus needs to remain about two inches above your navel, and about two inches back.

You have to be aware of so many parts of yourself that you normally don’t have to consider. But the goal isn’t to be consumed by that proprioception; it’s to adjust to root as the new normal. Think about it a whole lot at first, and then you won’t have to think about it later.

Position

Position is your body’s relationship to your opponent. Position builds on structure because while you are only briefly in contact with your opponent, you are always in contact with the earth.

Your opponent is who you apply force to, and who is applying force to you. Thus, you have to be properly structured before you can even begin to consider whether you’re properly positioned.

Sigong Al makes it a point to emphasize that drills aren’t about hitting your partner, or any kind of fighting, really. They’re about feeling a position, “a tick of time” as he always puts it, and when he comes to you to help your partner he’ll say “Let me have your position” as you slide out of the way.

One of the core precepts of wing chun is the “immovable elbow”: elbow in the center, a two-fist distance away from your sternum, your forearm pointing directly down your center line to your opponent’s center. The dissipating hand, tahn sao, uses the immovable elbow and a twist of the forearm to slide incoming strikes away from your center toward the sides of your body. (A way to visualize tahn sao is to look in the mirror, then put your hand out, palm flat and facing up, and grab your elbow with your other hand and drag it in front of you until your forearm is a straight line pointing at your reflection’s breastbone.)

If you’re alone, you won’t know if you’ve perfectly executed your tahn sao because you’re alone. The motion, where your hand ends up, none of that is actually tahn sao because there’s nothing to dissipate. Your intent matters. You can only gauge the quality of your execution by execution: using it against an opponent.

Structure allows you to dispose force. Position is disposing force. If you have a sound structure, but you haven’t executed the position, you’re going to get hit.

Technique

If structure is your relationship to the earth, and position your relationship to your opponent, then technique is your relationship to the corpus. Technique is how you decide to move from position to position, and how you choose those positions.

Sifu Fong was not much impressed by technique.

For one thing, there are several wing chun precepts that advocate how unimportant technique can be. There’s “be like water,” or the principle of shapelessness. Water flows to match its container. Technique can be considered a refusal to understand how to achieve shapelessness.

There’s also the more directly stated maxim that “The best technique is no technique.” You can’t plan an altercation ahead of time, you can’t anticipate. Allowing yourself to cultivate a technique, or a familiar pattern, is attempting to impose order on something functionally orderless. The better option is to engage the opponent and allow your perception of each force, in each moment, to decide what position to use.


I’m really glad I got to go. It was an incredibly helpful experience, and by forcing myself to participate outside of the usual classmates, I was also forced to deal with any anxiety I might have about my own education in wing chun. I didn’t embarrass myself or the school. Besides, no one who was there was looking to embarrass anyone else—like me, they all just wanted to learn.

The first class after the seminar, Sigong Al gave me an appraising look and said, “You did learn something on Saturday. I’m proud of you.”

I’m proud of myself, too.



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