Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Monday, August 10, 2020

Wing Chun Master Ip Man's Wooden Dummy

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an article about the history and evolution of the famous wooden dummy used by Wing Chun; particularly the innovations of Ip Man.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Introduction: A Very Brief History of the Wooden Dummy in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

I have been shopping for a new wooden dummy (Mook Yan Jong).  Obviously Wing Chun has a long and fruitful association with the wooden dummy, but this training tool is used throughout the southern Chinese martial arts.  Southern Mantis and Hung Gar boxers occasionally use the dummy, as do Choy Li Fut practitioners.  In fact, Choy Li Fut employs a great variety of somewhat more mechanical complex training tools.

Nor is the use of the dummy restricted to martial artists.  Wooden training devices have been used by military forces from time immemorial.  Sima Qian, the brilliant ancient historian, is the first individual to discuss the wooden dummy.  In Records of the Grand Historian (written between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE) he mentions that Emperor Wu Yi of the Shang dynasty (circa 1200 BCE) made “Ou Ren” (a wooden human figure) that could be used for Shou Bo (bare handed fighting) practice.

Scholars debate how much weight to place on Sima Qian’s early histories, but for our purposes the details aren’t actually all that important.  Whether their attested use stretches back 2100 or 3200 years, wooden dummies have long been used in traditional Chinese combat training.

Nor has this use been restricted to the military.  In more recent centuries wooden dummies became a feature of southern Chinese popular culture.  Stories of the southern Shaolin temple included its hall of diabolical mechanical dummies that a student had to defeat in order to “graduate” and leave the temple.

Much of this lore was conveyed through popular novels, stories, street performances and of course opera.  Cantonese Opera troops attracted large crowds with feats of martial prowess and “military plays.”  This made it essential that they have tools for training martial artists.  Wooden dummies, very similar to the sort still used today, helped to train performers.  The Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan even displays an antique dummy along with the other artifacts of the industry’s 19th century past.

As a side note, I have always found it interesting that in translating their signage the museum refers to these training devices as “instruments” rather than “dummies.”  Obviously there are lots of percussive instruments in traditional opera, and dummies make a very distinctive set of sounds when struck.  In my lineage of Wing Chun we count a “movement” of the dummy form as being completed when the dummy makes a sound rather than when the martial artists move a limb. I don’t think it requires all that imagination to see the “instrumental” quality in all of this.

Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of examples of really old dummies.  After all, these objects were made of wood and when planted in the ground they would eventually rot.  This must have been an issue in a climate as humid and wet as southern China.

The Foshan Period
Dummies likely started to disappear from the local landscape around the turn of the 20th century.  

Opera was being displaced by other forms of entertainment and the martial arts were decidedly unpopular in the years following the boxer rebellion.  Luckily these swings have a habit of reversing themselves.

By the 1920s there was increased popular interest in the martial arts.  Part of this was the result of efforts by reformers (such as the Jingwu Association) to promote the traditional hand combat styles as a distinct form of unique Chinese physical culture.  However, the growth of the economy and the transformation of the traditional teaching structures into market-based public schools also helped the martial arts to gain a following in middle class and urban areas where they had traditionally been frowned upon.  As the southern Chinese martial arts grew more dummies were produced and put into place.

Most of these dummies were of a type now called Dai Jong (Ground Dummies, also sometimes referred to as “buried” or “dead” dummies).  They were constructed from a log or tree trunk that was anywhere from eight to ten feet long.  Generally speaking the lower three and half feet would be worked into a thick square and buried in a stone or cement lined pit in the ground.

The still round main-body of the dummy would sit about three inches above the ground.  This was enough room to allow shredded rattan strips to be slipped into the spaces between the square base of the dummy and the side of the pit.  Packing the area in this way supported the central pole in an upright position, but it also allowed for a little give and spring when the dummy was struck or pushed.

Occasionally I see accounts stating that small rocks are gravel were used to line the hole.  I am not sure how widespread that practice was.  It certainly could have been done, and it would have provided a much firmer body.  Nevertheless, the resulting dummy would not have had much movement.

All of the surviving dummies of the pre-1940s era, including both the example at the Opera Museum and the Jingwu Hall in Foshan, are of this type.  The picture of the example at Jingwu is quite interesting because it clearly shows how the main body is reduced to a square cut, and how that is positioned in a hole in the ground.

Dai Jongs are still commonly seen in a number of places.  They are encountered in Guangdong province and appear to be fairly common in Vietnam, where at least some of them have been given a more exaggerated swinging motion.   Given the construction of the traditional one story home in southern China they could be planted either indoors or in an outdoor training area.

The preceding series of pictures, taken by Leung Ting and published in his book Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, show Hak Min Nam (often called by his nickname Pan Nam, b. 1911- d. 1996) working a Dai Jong that has planted in his study.  This is a good real life example of the sort of indoor dummy which Donny Yen is seen working in the first Ip Man movie.  Master Kwok Fu, one of Ip Man’s original Foshan students, planted his dummy outdoors (presumably sometime after the Cultural Revolution) and was still teaching students on it in the 1990s.

This is the sort of dummy that Ip Man would have learned the form on.  Obviously Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would have used this sort of device, and it’s likely that Ip Man owned one as well.  

In general traditional buried dummies seem to be larger than the latter sort, both in terms of their height and diameter.  This greater size might help them survive longer when buried in the ground and exposed to the elements.  It seems that most telephone poles in the US are good for 10-15 years and it is likely that this is how long a Dai Jong could have lasted as well.

Interestingly all of the early dummies seem to have relatively thick offset arms (rather than the parallel arms that are more commonly associated with the Ip Man lineage today) and smaller legs.  However, they seem to have roughly the same proportions as modern dummies.  In both cases the top arm of the dummy sits at about the level of the user’s shoulder.

Hong Kong Period: Ip Man Invents the Modern Wing Chun Dummy

While Ip Man probably owned a dummy in Foshan, our story does not really begin to get interesting until we reach the 1950s.  In 1949 Ip Man and a daughter fled to Macau and then Hong Kong in anticipation of the Communist conquest of Guangdong.  After a number of years of KMT sponsored anti-Communist campaigns it was probably no longer safe for him given his prior employment as the leader of a local police unit.  After spending a few months in Hong Kong Ip Man decided to take up the title of Sifu and become a professional martial arts teacher.

Of course there were a number of complications.  To begin with, he did not have a dummy.  More to the point he had yet to establish a local reputation, a pool of stable students or a location for a permanent school.  Ip Man would spend the first few years of his teaching career addressing each of these problems.

Yet by the middle of the 1950s things were looking up.  Ip was building a larger group of more advanced students and it was now time to consider installing a dummy so that their training could progress.  In fact he was already showing some his students sections of the dummy form which they were practicing like any other set.  In Wing Chun parlance this is called “using the air dummy.”  

While good for a quick review, it is no substitute for the geometric discipline of the real thing.
Life in Hong Kong was very different from Foshan.  To begin with, people tended to live in tall apartment buildings, rather than in one story dwellings with flagstone floors.  And outdoor space was extremely limited in the city, just as it is today.

Our best source of information on the development of modern dummies within the Wing Chun clan during the Hong Kong era is Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger’s (2004) volume Mook Yan Jong Sum FatWhile this can be a difficult book to get a hold of, it has been a great help is assembling the following account.  Sometime in the mid-1950s Ip Man approached a carpenter and friend named Fung Shek.  He explained his basic problem and talked about what he wanted in a dummy.  He then commissioned Fung to devise some means for constructing a mounting system for a portable dummy (Ip Man moved frequently during this period) that could be used indoors.

There are any number of ways to mount a dummy, but Fung’s idea was both simple and innovative.  Rather than supporting the dummy at its base (the traditional method) he instead hung the jong on wooden slats that passed directly through the body.  The thin slats acted as springs.  By moving the supporting structure up the body, where most of the form was actually performed, the feel of the dummy was substantially changed.

Most Dai Jongs had a limited rocking motion, if they moved at all.  The new Gua Jong (Live Dummy) was different. It all had to do with the placement and strength of the slats.  When a student engaged the arms or leg of the dummy they were in effect loading a spring which would throw the dummy back forward in a more lifelike way the moment the pressure was released.

In effect a Gua Jong offers a degree of feedback on your movements that you simply could not get from a buried dummy.  Given that this instrument is often used as a sort of “silent training partner” every ounce of feedback you can squeeze out of it is valuable.  For instance, in Wing Chun students want to punch towards the opponent’s “center line.”  If you do that with a dummy, from practically any forward facing angle, you will force the body back onto the slats and then the recoil will return the dummy to its initial position.  But if your lines of attack are off and you are punching across the front of the dummy, or simply pushing at its arm, its body will slide along the rails, retreating from your incomplete strike.  Again, this is critical because it provides instant feedback to the students on the sorts of subtle pressures that must be “felt” to be understood.

Together Ip Man and Fung Shek fine-tuned the new creation.  The basic idea was sound but it took a bit of experimentation to work out exactly what sort of slats and mounting system yielded the best results.  The final product was a truly custom, and innovative, dummy for the young Hong Kong Wing Chun clan.

Fung Shek delivered his prototype to Ip Man in 1956.  While Ip Man worked with a number of different dummies over the years (as he moved from one school to the next) he always kept the Fung Shek creation with him.  It was his preferred dummy to set up in a school, and eventually in his own home.  In fact, this is the same dummy that used in the now famous series of photographs taken by Tang Sang in 1967.  It was always his personal jong.  It can now been seen on display in the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.

Some of Ip Man’s more senior students were starting to branch off and open their own schools in the second half of the 1950s.  Fung Shek, with his new indoor mounting system, was the sole source for dummies in this early period.  Unfortunately he does not seem to have been very prolific and we do not have many examples of his work.

In reality he was never actually produced that many jongs.  Ip Ching estimates that he only produced 10-12 dummies between the late 1950s and the early 1960s when he stopped taking orders.





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