"Wing Chun: Skills or Drills?"

By Si-Fu Scott Baker Ph.D.


In today’s modern world there are as many different groups teaching Wing Chun as there are phone numbers in any large city’s phone book. Each will approach the way they present the art differently, some do a good job of personalizing the instruction while others do not. The intent of this article is not to poke holes in different teaching methods, or even to question the legitimacy of one instructional method over another. Such a discussion in my mind would be contentious and fruitless. Rather I would like to explore what Wing Chun really is… what makes it Wing Chun? What specifically does one learn when embarking on the journey to learn this particular style of kung fu? Are we learning movements, positions and structures that look like Wing Chun positions? Are we learning patterns and drills that allow us to play with some of these structures and positions? What really is the essence of Wing Chun Kung Fu?

In many modern schools, especially the larger professional schools that can be found throughout the world the curriculum is fairly close to the same, irrespective of lineage or location:

A new student will progress through the following:

1. Learning the positions, stance and structures
2. Learning to move by drilling these structures both alone and with a partner
3. Learn the sequences known as the boxing forms that further reflect correct structures.
4. Learn application with deeper and more complex 2 man drills including chi sau sequences.
5. Learn the more advanced forms and drills that reflect their application, including the wooden dummy.
6. Learn the weapons sets and application

Some systems take more than 20 years to progress through the above curriculum, while others take 5-6 years. The time it takes differs based upon the dedication and talent of the individual and the instructor. However, truly the Wing Chun system should not take longer than 10 years at most to complete. So why does it take some groups 20 plus years to get the whole system; what are they teaching during those years? The answer is simply the difference between learning drills, or learning skills.

Many modern Wing Chun students get lost on their journey to learn the art, they get lost in an ever expanding forest of drills. So many drills, every time they progress to another level, they have a whole new plethora of drills to master to complete the requirements for that level. The drills seem endless; what is the purpose of all these drills? Is Wing Chun simply an endlessly expanding collection of drills? Or is there more to it than this? What are these drills for anyway?

Drills a means to an end:

Drills are tools; it’s as simple as that. There is no collection of secret drills that comprise the system; in fact most sifus make up their own drills to suit themselves. So what’s the point? Originally drills were a crutch to help a novice learn a new skill, the drill itself is NOT the skill, but a tool to build that skill within the student. Once he has mastered that particular skill he can and should discard the drill, he no longer needs the crutch to support him. The problem is so many practice endless drills without ever knowing what skill that these drills are designed to teach? They get lost in the drill itself, and never discover the skill it was created to teach. Such students end up thinking the art itself is the drills… this is an incorrect understanding. The drill is like the wrapping around a valuable gift, the wrapping and the box house the gift for a time, but it is not the gift itself. One should unwrap the gift, discard the box and keep the valuable present found inside… this is the right way to view drills in Wing Chun. A wise student will ask, what is the skill inside this drill, what is the gift I must unwrap? If I simply collect the drill, it’s like collecting gifts that you never unwrap, you keep them in their packaging, and thus you never can use them or enjoy them. Fixation on drills is a common problem in modern Wing Chun. So many seem to collect drills thinking the more drills they learn the more Wing Chun they know, nothing could be further from the truth. The art is in the skill, not the drill!

Wing Chun is in the skills, NOT the drills!

So what do I mean by that? Having an endless supply of memorized drills and patterns of motion does nothing for ones fighting ability. We do not fight in patterns, fighting is motion, free and unlimited. Anything can happen in combat. To use an analogy I tell my students that learning Wing Chun is like learning a new language, except this is the language of motion rather than sound. Those who unlock the skill that make the art powerful will learn to move in free expression as a competent native speaker of a new language. When studying a foreign language we usually follow these steps:

1. Lean the words that represent objects and ideas
2. Lean the rules of the language, how to correctly sequence the words
3. Become familiar with variations in expression, slang, idioms, etc
4. Learn to think in the new language, and eventually dream in it.
5. Lean the advanced articulations and nuances of the language

When you compare these learning phases with Wing Chun we get the following:

1. Learn the structures/positions that reflect the art
2. Learn the rules that teach how these positions interact in motion (drills)
3. Learn to apply the rules of motion and interactions of structures in free expressions (apply the skill outside of the drill)
4. Learn to feel when motion and position are correct or incorrect instinctively
5. Learn when to change up the expression and become unpredictable in motion.

Clearly, if a student gets lost in drills, he will stay at the second phase of learning. Such will never unlock the real art, and will not be able to express the core skills of the art in real combat. He becomes like a language student who only has a set of say 100 memorized sentences in his new language. He can express these memorized sentences perfectly, but he cannot converse with a native speaker! Even if he memorizes 10,000 sentences, he cannot converse with a native speaker! Hence, he does not really know the language at all. So many in Wing Chun today fall into this category; they parrot memorized patterns of motions from their drills, but cannot apply their art outside of these patterns, hence they do not “know” Wing Chun at all!

Realize it is much easier to teach drills rather than skills, hence the appeal of keeping those who do not know what the art really is in the dark; they remain in the forest lost among a million drills! These students may think they are progressing, they feel they are learning more and more, because they are simply practicing additional drills. Unless they have compared their ability to move against someone who has mastered the language of motion, they may never realize their art is hollow! These drills do not compensate for real skill when the free exchange of motion occurs in real combat. Wing Chun is a fighting art, and is designed to impart real fighting skills, look for the art in the skills you learn, not in the drills you memorize. You might give someone with an injured leg a crutch to help them walk; once they can walk you take away that crutch because they no longer need it. The skill the crutch helps them learn is to maintain balance while in motion. Once they master that skill, the crutch is not necessary. Drills are a crutch to support learning a skill; focus on that skill, once you have it the drill is in the way. Learn how to use that skill in new and unpredictable ways, break out of the pattern and express the skill freely. Therein rests the essence of Wing Chun!

About the Author:

Dr. Scott Baker earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Brigham Young University in 1995. Born and raised in New Zealand, he began his training in Wing Chun there in 1972 under the direction of Master Tam Hung Fun. He is now a member of the Yuen Kay San line under Zopa Gyatso. Si-Fu Baker resides in New Zealand.




Questions or comments? Send them to: snaerskegg@mainewingchunkungfu.com