“Chi Sao is very important in Wing Chun, but too much emphasis is placed on the idea of ‘sticking’ to the hands – this causes the student to end up chasing the hands instead of punching and trapping. This mistake totally contradicts the Wing Chun basic principles (emphasis mine).”
Wong Shun Leung
If I flew to China and found a basketball court with a friendly group of Chinese players, I would be able to play a game of pickup with them, because the rules for basketball (more or less) are the same everywhere. I could go to Nigeria, Corpus Christie, or New Dheli and still be able to play with the residents of these places who liked basketball.
Wing Chun Chi Sao, however, is not only not a game, its practices and “rules” vary widely even between Wing Chun classes from the same lineage.
I’ve “rolled” with students from many different schools (including three of the four schools in which I trained). They were all very different. In one, there was no competition at all – the goal was only to drill. In another, the goal was a sort of slow and gentle contest in which we were trying to lock the opponent out and get our hand in.
I rolled with students from other schools at social gatherings and found we had to have a discussion about what we were trying to do. Many people get into martial arts to find a place to blow off aggression and many Wing Chun students try to turn Chi Sao into fighting.
In fact, in my opinion, competitiveness is the biggest hindrances to students who are trying to progress in Wing Chun.
To properly learn from the drills within Chi Sau, you need at all times to cooperate (and communicate) with your training partner. Any competent Wing Chun practitioner can tighten their movements, bring in their elbows, make their forward energy fluid and tight, and essentially lock the other person out, completely frustrating their training partner’s attempts to find weaknesses or gaps in their lok sau (rolling bong to tan, bong to fook). The only option in this scenario is for the locked out party to start amping up the violence, using explosive Pak Sau and Lap to clear the way.
This is unhelpful for either party.
In order to have a useful practice session, we must be slightly sloppy to help our partner learn. We need to allow slight gaps and openings, so that our partner can find them, feel them, and learn to practice their defensive and offensive movements. So their hands can fall forward through the gaps in what is called Loi Lau Hoi Sung (upon loss of contact, rush in).
If I violently Kwan Sao every time my partner tries to train a a Jut (cover) and hit, then I’m just being a dick! And no one will want to train with me!
But, you say, then I am training in a sloppy way and you fight like you train! You think you will be Chi Sao-ing in a real fight? You think you will be given two bridges?
To properly use Chi Sao as the training tool that it is, my partner and I have to slowly raise the bar of resistance, adding in speed and timing and the other attributes of proper Wing Chun actions. But we have to agree to every change we make. Chi Sao is an exercise in which we agree on the parameters and agree every step of the way as we change them. Will I feed you or will you feed me? Can I respond to your attacks with full speed and timing?
As we step up the amount of responsiveness and timing, we edge into Gwoh Sao and eventually, at some point we are practically fighting, except we don’t take that final step forward (we don’t “take position”).
So what are “Chi Sao competitions?”
I’ve seen it on Youtube and I’ve seen it in person many times in class and once in a public competition.
I remember one guy in a class – he used to whip his hand out from a slow roll and slap you in the head then reconnect with the roll. Was this useful? Was he learning how to use Wing Chun in a fight? No – he was playing outside the rules.
The rules are there to get us to train correctly. Chase center. Cover and hit. Pak and hit. Tan and hit. Even Bong and hit. Clear the path, maintaining forward energy toward the center, then hit when the path is clear. This is the goal of the “game.”
These other approaches to Chi Sao are a form of playing tag.
I got you!
The fact is this game is not helping you fight if you are playing at trying to get a hand in and touch the “opponent” on the chest. Being good at this trick doesn’t make you a good fighter, especially if you train it to the exclusion of everything else. A real fight does not begin with two bridges handed to you. The most difficult aspect of real fighting (especially against fighters who specialize in distance, such as Boxers or Muay Thai) is handling that no man’s land between outside of fighting distance and the Wing Chun (bent arm) range. Trying to move past kicking distance, into punching distance, and trying to keep from being pulled into grappling distance, these are tough skills to learn and maintain.
I understand the urge to compete. You want to gauge how good you are against other Wing Chun students. But Wing Chun is not about rolling or trapping — its about hitting!
Any Wing Chun contest must determine who can hit their opponent in the head with decisive force and accuracy and who can use their body to maintain control as they strike their opponent in the head repeatedly. To paraphrase my Sifu, Wing Chun is about delivering Blunt Force Trauma to the other person’s head.
Much of the time, in real fights, you never get (or need) to do trapping or other Chi Sao movements. You step in on their uncovered angle and you slam them in the head with punches backed by proper body mechanics. If you run into resistance, that is where Chi Sao movements (Cover, Kwan, Bong, Pak) appear to clear the way so you can get back to hitting. This is why the connection is called a bridge – you pass over it on the way to your goal.
You don’t get on a bridge and stay there! Bridges are a means to an end — they allow you to cross over a difficult terrain (like a moat or the space between outside and inside).
But in the Chi Sao contests I’ve seen, the “opponents” are “chasing hands” endlessly. No one is hitting. Or you see short furtive taps or lose flicks into the empty space. I flicked your chest! I win! Even if you are having a rule of hitting to the chest, I don’t see anyone hitting with structure or stepping in. So the whole thing seems to me to teach bad habits.
In real fighting, the trick is to find or make the space (and the time) to line up on the target and strike it with as much force as possible. This is not the Bruce Lee flicking (that I practiced so much in my Twenties!). That sort of thing might work as a feint to the eyes or a distraction (a low shot to get them to drop the guard) but you can’t do any real damage. You can’t knock anyone out with a flick of the fingers (unless you have some crazy Chi power!).
You need to get an arm in there long enough to line up and hit, and then you need to be able to get your whole body in there, not just a flicking backhand. You need to set up the opponent for a chained attack to the head, in other words. You need to find or create that moment.
The best use of Chi Sao is to allow the practitioners to creep toward the danger zone of fighting, starting very slow and putting in hundreds of repetitions, adding timing and other dangerous actions (kicking, tripping, pulling, pushing, grappling, learning to find opportunities and flow from one thing to another) a little bit at a time, frequently pulling back into a safer, more controlled exchange. Whenever the actions become sloppy or the players get into a tangle, they should back off and use a more structured drill.
Your most valuable asset is a good-natured training partner who will come to training regularly for long enough for both of you to progress. You both need to get over your ego and forget about “winning.” There is no winning against an opponent in Chi Sao! Who wins when a boxer is jumping rope for endurance? Who wins when a boxer trains with a coach on pad drills? The trainee wins!
The biggest problem I see in Wing Chun “sparring” matches with other styles is the WC person being bad at sparring and awkwardly trying to get into “Chi Sao” range so they can attempt to control the arms of their opponent with what they think of as Chi Sao skills.
Your job is to step in and hit the opponent, not play with their arms.
You will use some fractional movement of a Chi Sao chain (a lap, a pak, a ding and a pull) and then you will hopefully have cleared your way and gotten back to hitting. Wing Chun is a striking style, not a standing grappling style. We do have Chin Na standing grappling and its techniques are used in the same way as the more standard repertoire of actions, as a change or a timing action or a diversion on the road back to hitting.
Note in the following video of David Peterson and Sifu Wong how often they reset.
The only purpose of Chi Sao is to teach you how to clear the path and get back to doing your job – hitting the head, backed up by the ground and your moving body weight.