"Putting The Chi Back Into Chi Sau"

By Si-Fu Scott Baker, Ph.D.


The sticky hands exercise is an intricate and essential part of any Wing Chun training. However, there are many who misunderstand this exercise and may be missing the true purpose of chi sau. The exercise of chi sau in Wing Chun is an evolving process where two practitioners learn to move with each other as if they were stuck together. At the most elementary level it appears that the exercise is designed to teach the student to stick to his partners arms, moving as they move.

However, the real purpose of chi sau becomes apparent in the more advanced stages, when the practitioners have learned to perform the exercise while extending chi into their limbs. While developing proficiency with the chi skills within the chi sau exercise one notices that their is an inherent sticky nature to chi. Perhaps the appearance of the exercise, and the inherent stickiness of energy, has produced the common interpretation that chi sau is "sticky hands", a simple exchange where the participants stick to each others arms. Although the appearance of the exercise may support this assumption, the experience of performing chi sau as a chi kung exercise does not.

The Chinese term chi ( ) is widely used and understood throughout Chinese kung fu circles. It is most frequently used to represent the idea of "life force" or "energy". It may refer to an individuals life energy or to the universal energy of life found throughout the world. Chi is also frequently used to mean air or breath. Among some Wing Chun circles the term chi sau is expressed using the character "chi" ( ). This character is uncommon and appears to be a constructed character that has been created to express the idea of "to stick or cling" while maintaining the "chi" pronunciation. The fact that this character was created to represent the chi sau exercise instead of the more common Chinese term for "stick" alludes to the probability that those who employed this character wanted to use a play on the pronunciation of these "chi" words to illustrate that the chi sau exercise has important connections to chi energy ( ). The underlying essence of the chi sau exercise can be better understood once we realize that the word Chi ( ) represents life energy, and the word Sau ( ) represents the forearms and hands. So our interpretation of "chi sau" would be more congruent with the true purpose of the exercise if we understand it to mean "energy arms" or "energy in the arms" rather than "sticky hands".

An unfortunate byproduct resulting from the common misunderstanding of Wing Chunís key exercise is that many practitioners of the art have not experienced the exercise of chi sau with the working of chi or energy as the main purpose. For most Western practitioners of Wing Chun the practice of chi sau has largely become an exercise in the physicality of movement, rather than the development and expression of chi. Although Wing Chun stands with the many kung fu systems that have survived to this century, it is not usually considered an internal or chi centered system. Tai Chi, Hsing I, and Pak Qua are the three kung fu styles generally considered as internal systems. Traditionally Wing Chun is not recognized with them as an internal system. Perhaps the greatest secret of the Wing Chun system is that it is fundamentally and essentially an internal kung fu style. Many may reject this idea. Especially those who have practiced Wing Chun for many years and have never been properly introduced into the energy side of the system.

It should be no surprise to western students of Wing Chun to realize that their kung fu lineage will always return to a Chinese root. Most of modern Wing Chun has come through Grandmaster Yip Manís line. Grandmaster Yip himself was somewhat reluctant to teach the chi side of the system to students who were less dedicated or gifted. But there are many stories of Grandmaster Yipís chi kung abilities. One that is common is that he would sometimes spend up to an hour to perform the Siu Num Tao form. It has been reported that he sometimes put a wet piece of paper on his shoulders and that after finishing the form the paper would be dry.

Grandmaster Yip Man would sometimes took up to an hour to perform the Siu Num Tao form.

Anybody familiar with chi kung training would recognize these as typical chi building practices. For some reason those who became skilled in the chi development that is an essential part of Wing Chun became somewhat reluctant to pass these skills on. Perhaps it was due to a cultural problem where Chinese teachers often chose not to teach chi to non Chinese students. Or perhaps it was due to a lack of a workable understanding of chi in the West that made it difficult for Chinese teachers to pass this knowledge on. Even today some teachers are reluctant to discuss chi openly or publicly with their students. In Western Wing Chun circles in general, the idea of chi is often thought of as more mythical than real. Those who know about it still follow the closed mouth tradition passed down to them from their Wing Chun parentage.

The typical pattern for teaching Wing Chun is a perfect example of how internal Wing Chun really is. First the student is traditionally taught the Siu Num Tao boxing form. In learning Siu Num Tao correctly the initial obstacle that most beginning students struggle with is the idea of performing the movements while staying very relaxed. Relaxed motion is a common component of soft internal chi development. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Wing Chunís first form is that it is performed in a stationary standing posture. There is no stepping to speak of. Once the stance is set up the student stands in that position until the form is completed.

The stationary stance (Yee Chi Kim Yeung Ma) of the Siu Num Tao form teaches the development of the "energy root". The first and most essential chi kung skill in Wing Chun. Here Si-Fu Baker shows a traditional Wing Chun test for the "root depth" in the charter two adduction stance.

The relaxed and stationary components of the first form are essential factors in many traditional chi development exercises. This relaxed stationary posture allows the student to learn to sink into the ground, relaxing and yielding his energy to the ever present force of gravity. In this way the student begins to develop the "root" fundamental to a strong expression of energy skill. The first form is essentially an energy building form that can take up to an hour to perform correctly. After sufficiently mastering Siu Num Tao the student then learns the Chum Ku form. Now the student learns to move his body from the root through correct leg work and postural expression. The second form teaches the student the essentials of moving or placing energy in the four limbs as a dynamic expression of the energy root.

Practitioner Tim Jeffcoat showing the placing of energy in the limbs in Wing Chunís Chum Ku form. The placing of energy in Chum Ku is a dynamic expression of the energy root developed in Siu Num Tao practice.

Third, the student is taught the Biu Tze form. Once considered secret the Biu Tze form is entirely an energy form. Each of the strikes map out specific points which when combined have a devastating effect on the recipients energy system. The movements are done with relaxed focus, resulting in a deep expression of chi skill as the practitioner releases chi in a dramatic display of power.

Wing Chunís once secret Biu Tze form displays the practitionerís energy skills through a dramatic exhibition of power. Si-Fu Baker releasing energy through the fingers during Biu Tze practice.

Biu Tze means thrusting fingers which signifies the releasing of energy through the bodies extremities. The student then is traditionally taught the wooden dummy form (Muk Yan Chong Fa). Now he learns to release his chi into the dummy. A skilled practitioner can see the depth of energy expressed in both the sound and movement of the dummy while it is being worked.

The Muk Yan chongís (Wooden Dummyís) movement and sound will teach the attentive student to improve the depth of his energy abilities. Photo A show practitioner Richard Kennerly focusing on the sound produced while practicing the Wooden Dummy set. Photo B shows practitioner Troy Sperry concentrating on the dummyís movement during practice.

Once the dummy is mastered the student learns the Wing Chun weapons, first the six and a half point pole (Luk Dim Boom Kwan) where he further polishes his energy abilities by learning to both stick with and release energy through the pole into whatever he strikes using the seven key motions of the pole form.

Si-Fu Baker releases internal energy through the eight foot long pole in the Biu Kwun movement, causing the pole to vibrate.

Finally he learns the eight slash sword form (Bart Cham Dao). Here he learns to express energy through the short metal blade of the swords in the eight specific slashing sequences.

Further refinement of the Wing Chun chi kung skills is obtained by working the energy within the Eight Slash Broadsword techniques (Bart Cham Dao). Si-Fu Baker performing the Kwun Dao and Man Dao techniques from the Bart Cham Dao form.

A quick glance of the six major stages of Wing Chun training shows us that each stage has a unique and specific energy purpose. Just as in Tai Chi and the other internal systems, Wing Chun is purposefully designed to produce progressive chi skills in its practitioners.

Another noted ability of a good Wing Chun practitioner is the one inch punch, which when done correctly doesnít merely push a person back several feet but explodes chi into them causing definite damage and pain unless the recipients chest is significantly padded. The inch punch is a deep expression of the Wing Chun practitioners ability to build, place and release his chi. If done correctly the inch punch should never be done on the bare chest of the recipient because serious damage will result. Also the thrusting palm and the sinking palm strikes are typical of the Wing Chun systems expression of percussive chi, or Far Jing( ), and are common to many of the other internal kung fu styles.

Woven throughout the entire Wing Chun journey we find the chi sau exercise. The very name of the exercise tells us that it is fundamentally an exercise in chi. As the practitioner learns to control and express his energy from the forms and drills in the system he also learns to recognize, read and control both his own and his partners' chi during the chi sau exercise. The key exercise for the development and expression of deep chi abilities within the dynamic relationship of combat is the single chi sau exercise.

The three step sequence of the single chi sau movements. These simple movements of the chi dan sau exercise hold the keys to the development and utilization of advanced chi kung skills in the more complex free chi sau exercises.

Often overlooked as simplistic, mundane or redundant the chi dan sau exercise is the hub from which all chi sau skill will flow. The simplicity of the synchronized movements allows the practitioner to concentrate his full attention to the subtlety of the exercise. In chi dan sau the Wing Chun practitioner acquires the ability to direct his chi by the gentile manipulation of both his attention and intention. It is in chi dan sau that the Yi ( ) or mind of the student is taught to read and direct chi through subtle adjustments of the will. Once mastered in this simple exercise the practitioner then attempts to build these abilities into the more difficult double chi sau exercise.

To succeed with chi expression in chi sau practice the practitioner must be willing to work patiently for many long hours in both the practice of chi sau and in the correct development of consciousness through meditation and breathing practices. The transition from the normal everyday state of consciousness that is often represented by the constant chattering of the mind, to the transcendental state of consciousness that enables a oneness with things often represented as the quiet stillness of the mind ( "Mushin" in Japanese) is an evolutionary process that requires patient diligence and quality instruction. This quiet "Mushin" consciousness is essential to the skilled expression of chi, and is fundamental to the exchange of chi that can and should occur between two skilled participants during chi sau practice.

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