The Wooden Dummy as the Teacher of Wing Chun Theory
My new Jong has really given me a lot to think about. Besides the immediate questions of engineering that go into making a piece of equipment like this functional, it is also forcing me to study and rethink aspects of the form that had gotten a little fuzzy in the last few years.
First one must learn (or review) the basic sequence of movements taught in every modern lineage of Wing Chun. Yet the actual “arguments” and “questions” advanced by the dummy form go well beyond realm of mere choreography. Of all of the forms in Wing Chun, I believe that the dummy’s is the most interactive and requires the highest level of thoughtful engagement by the student.
Wing Chun’s basic unarmed forms tend to be abstract. This is the easiest to see with Siu Lim Tao (the introductory set), but the same quality is also present in Chum Kiu and Biu Jee. Siu Lim Tao presents the students with a set of movements. Unlike in other Asian martial arts, these are not arranged into a mock battle or a “shadow boxing” routine. There is no enemy to visualize when you are doing the forms. Or if there is an “enemy” he would be incredibly erratic.
Instead these forms read like reference books on the basic structures used by the system. In Siu Lim Tao the new student is introduced to the fighting zones, the basic punch, and then all of the different ways that the arm can move as a variant of that one punch. As Ip Ching has observed, in the introductory form one movement comes after another, but there is no logical dependence of the second on the first. There is no tactical reason to expect that the second movement should always come next.
One way to think about Siu Lim Tao is as an organizational system to help the student think more systematically about the possibilities of human movement and how they might apply to fighting. It is not random. It has its own logic, but it’s the same sort of logic that one would encounter if you were to sit down and read the dictionary.
Siu Lim Tao presents the new student with a collection of basic movements that form the alphabet of Wing Chun. In the next two forms students are shown how to string those letters together into words and sentences. But the project remains somewhat abstract. And as an abstract conversation about the nature of human movement, it is also pretty universal.
All of this changes when a student approaches the dummy. Different chapters of the dummy form display some variety in their logic, but all of them have a tactical progression. In each case there is a very specific reason that one movement follows the next. In some instances the student reacts to an “attack” by the dummy, in others he strings together movements into simple combinations or complex patterns of entry and evasion. Whereas the early unarmed forms were about establishing a language of movement, the dummy asks its practitioner to begin to formulate these into more complex arguments about the nature of fighting.
This has a definite impact on the attitude that one must approach the dummy with. As Ip Ching and Heimberger have argued, this form requires a high degree of mindfulness (see Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004 for what remains one of the best discussions of the Wing Chun wooden dummy tradition). Rather than simply stringing the various movements together in a choreographed routine, students must strive to “react” instantly and naturally to the dummy’s actions. Only in this way can you begin to build the correct power and intent into the various sections of the form.
One of the areas where this becomes evident is in the footwork and movement of the dummy set. This form cannot be practiced from a static position. Instead different chapters require students to move into, or away from, the dummy at various angles. One must apply the lessons of Chum Kiu to move from one side of the dummy to the other while still projecting power forward, into its core, rather than just sliding across the arms. Vitally important is to learn how to coordinate the hips and subtle shifts necessary to give the movements their proper alignment, speed and power.
Of course all of these things should also be part of chi sao. Students should be used to starting from “unbridged” positions. They should be comfortable working on entry and kicking. Yet, for a variety of reasons, this often doesn’t happen. A lot of chi sao is somewhat static, focusing only a single range with limited structures. This is often the case when working with students who are still new to the system. The dummy forces the more advanced student to integrate and apply various aspects of the system in new ways.
Of course Wing Chun is not the only southern art to employ a wooden dummy. It is interesting to do a comparative study of various Jong designs and how they reflect/facilitate the training forms that have developed in conjunction with them. Choy Li Fut, which has its own more mechanically complicated dummies, employs a number of broad, sweeping, long distance punches. The length of its Jong’s arms and the strategic placement of ricebags allows for the forceful applications of these special techniques.
I don’t think it would be possible to approach a Wing Chun dummy in quite the same way. One of the points that Ip Ching has argued is that all of the movements in his father’s dummy form are essentially reactive. They all suppose that the dummy has done something, presenting the students with a question that he or she is then forced to respond to. This closely mirrors the classic Chi Sao strategy of establishing a solid structure and being sensitive to mistakes or openings in your opponent’s actions that can be safely exploited.
In short, much of the actual distinctive physical culture of Wing Chun, from specific combinations and defensive techniques, to broader questions of fundamental strategy, are encapsulated and taught through the dummy form. Again, none of this material should be totally new to the student. Each of these elements will have likely been introduced somewhere else. And students will spend a lot of time working the specific “lessons” or “applications” of this form. But the dummy is unique in its ability to bring all of these fundamental insights together in one place, while challenging students to build a more complete understanding of the various aspects of their art.
The Mook Yan Jong allows students to study, practice and contemplate aspects of the Wing Chun system in a way that is unique. It disciplines and amplifies the style’s approach to combat. In some senses, the dummy form is where we move beyond the more universal elements boxing and begin to contemplate Wing Chun’s specific answers to the question of interpersonal violence.
“Embodiment” has become an important topic in the academic study of the martial arts over the last ten years or so. These fighting systems do seem to have a remarkable capacity to generate and convey transformative understandings of the self from teacher to student. Ethnographers have noted that much of this instruction happens through non-verbal channels of physical culture, as individual postures, energies and motions are conveyed from one generation to the next.
Of course it is pretty much impossible to learn a meaningful version of the dummy form without a teacher. Still, I have always been struck by how large a percentage of Wing Chun’s theory is actually taught and reinforced by this one unique training tool. For advanced Wing Chun students it opens an avenue for solo exploration and experimentation that is somewhat unique for a “sensitivity” based art. Indeed, the image of the lone Wing Chun master, working with his dummy for hours on end, has recently come to dominate the popular imagination.
Nor is this image wholly inaccurate. Once one begins to “respond naturally” to the questions posed by the dummy, it is pretty easy to lose an hour on free flowing experimentation and improvisation.