I heard a joke recently that went something like this: “How many Wing Chun practitioners does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is 100. 1 to change the light bulb, and 99 to tell them that they didn’t use Wing Chun to do it.” It’s funny, but sadly this is all too often the case with martial art practitioners that are heavily based in theory, but lack application. So, what is Wing Chun fighting?
It is changing the light bulb simple and direct, period.
But, how did you change the light bulb? Did you use a crane stance or did you squeeze the goat? Was your weight distribution 70/30, 60/40, or 50/50 on each leg? What was your elbow placement, in or out? Did you keep the light bulb on the centerline when you changed it? Was your heel up or down? If it was up, then it’s not Wing Chun! Silly, right? Well, maybe. Sadly, this is often the reality. Wing Chun fighting becomes less about application through fighting (changing the light bulb) and more a debate on theory (talking about changing the light bulb).
Wing Chun is a system of Kung Fu based on scientific theories and concepts. These theories and concepts form the basic framework upon which our techniques are derived. These theories include, for example, uses of the centerline, directness, simplicity, straight line attacking, triangle footwork, and others. For a variety of reasons, many practitioners never advance beyond a basic understanding of Wing Chun theory. I believe that some are so captivated by the tradition, philosophy, and science of Wing Chun that they feel no need to seek anything further.
Still others are so wrapped into fantasy, Bruce Lee’s legacy, and presentation of Wing Chun in the recent Ip Man movies that they have the illusion that they can mimic these characters. Other practitioners are never exposed to anything more than Wing Chun theory and concepts. Hence, they become keyboard warriors, desktop crusaders, and internet pugilists scouring blogs, message boards, and social media sites debating with others on the merits of their brand of Wing Chun.
Then there is the 1 in 100 of us who go beyond theory to application, who actually change the light bulb. But, how do we do this? How do we change the light bulb?
Based on my experiences within the Wing Chun Community, I would say I am in disagreement with 90% of what is taught out there in terms of the application of Wing Chun. Case in point, Tan Da is typically taught as a defense against an incoming hook punch or haymaker. In the classroom, Tan Da is typically performed by shooting your forearm forward fingers pointed up, palm facing toward your face. It is executed on your centerline as you also turn in your stance to a 45 degree angle to meet the incoming blow. Your upper arm performing the Tan is about parallel to the floor depending on the angle of the attack and your elbow is bent beyond a 90 degree angle. At the same time, your other hand punches.
Every brand of Wing Chun may perform it a bit differently, but those are pretty common elements. In many Wing Chun schools, Tan Da is practiced by one person throwing a variety of hooks from a neutral stance to his/her partner who response with Tan Da. This is often taught to beginners who are just learning to turn in their stance and have not learned to step into the movement yet. However, even when stepping in with Tan Da, in my humble opinion, the way it is understood and practiced in the classroom is unrealistic and ineffective on a variety of levels.
First, in a real fight, the punches are coming very fast and unlike the classroom, there are no agreed upon techniques to expect from your partner. Because anything can be thrown in a real fight, this delays your reaction time. Therefore, by the time you see your opponents shoulder move, process it, and identify it as a hook versus a jab or feint, then likely your Tan will be too late, not to mention your footwork. Your feet naturally move slower than your arms and hands. If you must step into a technique to make it effective, it will also require more time.
Second, if you successfully land the punch in Tan da, this may not stop your opponent. Because he only extended one hand from his body (the hook) and you extended two (the Tan and the punch simultaneously), his second hand is on its way to cracking you while both your hands are retracting. While it is possible to attack or defend immediately after you just extended both hands, it is much easier if you have one or both of your hands retracted back to your body and loaded ready to shoot forward.
Third, often this drill is not practiced as if the opponent has any training. Even most boxing and MMA novices will not throw a hook punch with their head straight up in the air for a counter. Most will duck or roll to the other side when throwing a haymaker or wide hook. Their head is moved off target making it very difficult to hit with a straight punch. Even if you hit them, you’ll likely hit the top of their head or forehead, the hardest part of the head and least likely to cause much damage.
So, are Tan Da and the corresponding drills completely useless? Not at all. The beginner drill is very good for developing reflexes and timing, but should not be taught as the gospel truth. It won’t work like that in a fight; it may, but not likely. Did you know you can still hit someone with Tan Da, even if they don’t throw a hook punch? I’m being sarcastic, but seriously, many of us rarely if ever practice Tan Da without a partner throwing a hook punch.
I believe Tan Da works best when thrown pre-emptively giving you more time for structure and footwork. Using the principles of covering and intercepting (yes, Wing Chun intercepts), I find Tan Da is best utilized with emphasis on the Da or the punch. The Tan is not the focus. The Tan is there to cover IF your opponent is throwing a hook punch. The point is not to wait to see the hook, then react hoping you have time to get into the proper structure, stance, footwork, and hand position for Tan Da. Execute the movement with intent to hit your opponent regardless if he throws a hook punch or not. Again, this goes back to my previous article on What Wing Chun Fighting is Not.
If you’re changing a light bulb, don’t wait until it becomes rusted and corroded inside, change it right away before it becomes impossible to unscrew. The purpose of fighting is to not fight, to end the confrontation as soon as possible, and get home safe.
I will probably upset some in the Wing Chun Community, but the bottom line is this: Wing Chun applications are not the drills you do in class. It seems most students think that performing the drills and attempting them in sparring is applying Wing Chun theory. It is not and sadly, many teachers teach this as well. When you first learn how to add, you learn 2+2=4 and 3+5=8, etc. Most Wing Chun schools excel at teaching their students to memorize 2+2=4, 3+5=8, and so on, but they never teach them how to add. It’s like spending countless hours writing down on a sheet of paper that 2+2=4 and 3+5=8. Then Sifu tells you to keep coming to class and maybe you’ll learn 7+8 and 6+5, but no matter how many problems and answers you memorize, you never learn how to add on your own.
You see, this is the difference between theory and application. You can memorize the answers, but never understand the problem. You can memorize the techniques of Tan Da, Pak Da, Lop Sao, and all the drills, but when the problem isn’t 2+2 or 3+5, can you apply the theories and concepts to solve the it? Sadly, most never learn. Learn how to add, learn how to apply Wing Chun theory and you’ll solve any problem, change any light bulb.
Wishing you peace and goodwill.
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