by David Peterson
*** The following article was first written in 1989 and was previously published within the pages of ‘Combat’ magazine (Vol.15/No.5) in the April 1989 issue as ‘BIU JI: Wing Chun’s Misunderstood Form’. It is reproduced here in an updated and expanded format – the Author ***
Of the three ving tsun “empty-hand” forms, the third one, ‘Biu Ji’, is the most misunderstood. It has been touted as a “deadly” form with which one can become invincible in combat. It has been said to have been so treasured by the ving tsun clan that it was rarely seen and never taught to “outsiders.” The ‘Biu Ji’ form has also been said to contain the secrets of dim mak, the so-called “delayed death touch” with which one can dispose of their enemy with one touch, depending, of course, on the time of day, and so on.
Sadly, all of the above claims are missing the point of the ‘Biu Ji’ form altogether. The name of the form is a contraction of an expression from the Buddhist sutras which in Cantonese reads as ‘Biu Yuet Ji’, a “finger pointing to the moon” and this best sums up what the ‘Biu Ji’ form is all about. Just as Bruce Lee said in the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’ when he, too, quoted this sutra, “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”
The ‘Biu Ji’ form is a “pointing finger” and what it is pointing at is a series of examples of the kinds of problems which can occur in combat when things do not go as planned, and it offers some solutions to these situations. Humans being what humans are, we are all prone to make mistakes no matter how well we plan, or train for, a situation. ‘Biu Ji’ form takes us outside the ving tsun system, outside the system as presented in the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms, that is, and asks the question “What if…..?”
This writer’s instructor, the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung always suggested that effective ving tsun could be likened to a “sphere” or “bubble”, within which the concepts and techniques of ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ existed. For the bulk of the situations that we might ever find ourselves in, the contents of that “bubble” would be more than enough to take care of things, but what ‘Biu Ji’ does is to take us out of the “bubble” and encourage us to look back at it from a distance and consider what could go wrong. It encourages us to seek logical methods for dealing with conditions for which the contents of the “bubble” are not able to provide us with a workable solution. It tells us that while theories of combat may well be perfect, people who apply them are not and errors will occur, and more importantly, that “rules were meant to be (or at least, sometimes have to be) broken”.
Where the first two forms are each easily broken down into three distinct parts, each part with its own particular concepts and techniques, the ‘Biu Ji’ form is quite different. Instead, in ‘Biu Ji’ the breakdown takes the form of clusters of techniques which build into a repertoire of “emergency responses” designed to overcome an opponent who has overpowered, out-positioned, injured, surprised or, through some error on the part of the ving tsun fighter, managed to gain the upper hand.
Sifu Wong Shun Leung referred to the contents of the form as being a collection of “emergency techniques”, and that unlike the first two forms, which were clearly structured, each with three defined sections, ‘Biu Ji’ was far less structured and had the potential to be added to at any time, should someone come up with yet another situation that gave rise to the need for a more specialised solution outside of the normal spectrum of ving tsun concepts. As such, ‘Biu Ji’ is something of an “open-ended” training form, in keeping with its basic reason for existing in the first place.
To claim that the ‘Biu Ji’ form is the superior technique of the ving tsun system is to imply that Grandmaster Yip Man was holding out on all his students by making them waste years and years training the first two forms while they could have been spending their time developing ‘Biu Ji’! Of course, this is an absurd notion, one which the late sifu Wong Shun Leung enjoyed making a point of in his enormously popular seminars around the world during the 80s and 90s. “Besides,” he would add with a smile in these discussions, “You might kill yourself with a touch!” On its own, ‘Biu Ji’ is in fact virtually useless in that it is teaching responses to so-called “errors” which a person who has not studied the earlier aspects of the ving tsun system would be totally ignorant of.
If I may be so bold I would in fact suggest to the reader, as I have on numerous occasions to my own students, that the ‘Biu Ji’ form alone is about as deadly as a bowl of wet spaghetti! However, it should be pointed out that in the past the reluctance of the ving tsun clan to expose the form to outsiders is understandable when one considers that the ‘Biu Ji’ form does in fact point out potential weaknesses in the system which could be exploited by an enemy with a knowledge of the form. Thus, it could be suggested that the form is “deadly” in the sense that it points to disadvantageous rather than advantageous aspects of ving tsun combat.
To take this notion further, sifu Wong Shun Leung always ended his discussion of the ‘Biu Ji’ form by stating that he hoped that his students would never need the techniques from the form. His reasoning for this was quite simple when it becomes clear that the only time that one would need to use these movements is in a situation where one is either injured or overwhelmed by the opponent(s) and close to defeat! In other words, it is good to know ‘Biu Ji’ but it is even better if that knowledge is never put to use.
As stated earlier, ‘Biu Ji’ is not a better technique and to use ‘Biu Ji’ when one ought to use ‘Siu Nim Tau’ or ‘Cham Kiu’ doesn’t guarantee success. ‘Biu Ji’ is comparable to the approach that one would take in an impending business crisis. When there is a certainty of sustaining losses what person wouldn’t do his or her best to attempt to cut those losses? To quote sifu Wong Shun Leung again, “We don’t go out to make mistakes, but if we do we must know how to recover from these mistakes in order to minimise our chances of injury.”
A perfect example of this philosophy is contained in the middle of the form where there are several clusters of techniques, each cluster containing a “key” movement. As each cluster or set of movements is done, one begins to see how the form is indicating how to rectify the situation when the preceding “key” movement is mistakenly applied. If these “solutions” are linked together we get an easy to remember cycle.
The series begins with gaan sau which is used when bong sau is wrongly applied; if the gaan sau is incorrectly applied, huen sau is used; should the huen sau be misused, jat sau is then applied. ‘Biu Ji’ also frees the ving tsun practitioner from the constraints of the first two forms, enabling one to “become a master of the system rather than its slave.”
By this I mean that it points out quite clearly that rules sometimes need to be broken, that it is not always possible, or for that matter even advantageous, to always operate within the concepts and movements taught in the earlier stages of the system. For example, there are many “rules” established in the first two forms and in chi sau training, such as “never allow your arms to be crossed” or “it is not a good idea to use grabbing” and “never use force against force” to quote just a few. In the ‘Biu Ji’ form all of the above “rules” (and several others) are challenged.
It is for these very reasons that ‘Biu Ji’ is best not introduced to a student too early, because the way in which it contradicts all the basic concepts makes it terribly confusing for the novice student to appreciate. Perhaps it is also for this reason that this form was, in the past, so closely guarded and rarely taught outside of a tight circle of trusted students. As stated earlier, ‘Biu Ji’ isn’t “deadly” because it contains secret, lethal techniques; its “danger” lies in the fact that it exposes situations or conditions whereby a ving tsun fighter’s potential “weaknesses” could be exploited by an opponent, should that knowledge be widely known.
Rather than attempting to break down and analyse the entire ‘Biu Ji’ form, a task that would take up far too much space than is available here, the remainder of this discussion will concentrate on just three aspects of the form and the implications of these to the combat situation. The first of these is the technique of jaang dai biu sau (“spearing/thrusting hand from beneath the elbow”), a technique which occurs many times at the beginning of the form.
Under normal circumstances practitioners of the ving tsun system avoid crossing the hands at all times. Allowing the arms to cross while in a close-range situation (or during chi sau practise) immediately invites the opponent to trap the hands by pressing one down on top of the other, yet in the ‘Biu Ji’ form not only are the hands allowed to cross, the technique of jaang dai biu sau actually begins by deliberately placing one hand in a most unfavourable position below the opposite elbow!
Why, after so much practise at not doing such an obviously dangerous move, does the ‘Biu Ji’ form encourage us to do the exact opposite? The answer to this puzzle becomes easier to obtain if we step “outside” the system for a moment and ask ourselves, “What could we do if we were pinned up against a wall with our arms trapped?” In such a situation we are starting from a bad position, not a good one, just like in the form, but there is one very important advantage which cannot be overlooked.
In being pushed up against the wall, our opponent is no longer fighting us; he is now fighting the wall! The wall provides us with a stable base from which it is very easy indeed to deflect the trapping arm(s) of the enemy by using the biu sau technique which involves thrusting the hand forward and, at the same time, outwards in the direction of the shoulder. Muscular exertion is not required as the required “strength” is provided by the wall which absorbs the opponent’s force. As a result, using this action causes the opponent to lose his or her balance and it becomes impossible for them to maintain the trapping technique.
The second of the movements to be considered is a fairly harmless looking technique called man sau (“inquiring/asking hand”). This technique also occurs in the third section of the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) form, as do a very large proportion of the techniques from the ‘Biu Ji’ form (more will be said on this shortly). The man sau technique provides the ving tsun fighter with an efficient way of escaping from a misused paak sau technique.
Normally the paak sau (“slapping hand”) technique is applied to the outside of the opponent’s attacking arm so as to deflect it away from the defender. This effectively prevents the opponent from following on with the opposite hand as the body is turned so as to make it virtually impossible for the other hand to reach. Should the paak sau be used “wrongly” whereby it blocks the inside of the attacking arm rather than the outside, the opponent will not be deflected or turned off balance, but will instead be in a very good position to immediately strike with the other arm.
This is where the man sau technique comes into play, the effect of which depending very much on the opponent’s reaction to the initial paak sau movement. Having used the paak sau technique on the inside, the same arm is immediately used to form the man sau action, cutting upwards and backwards towards the opponent’s centre of mass WITHOUT firstly turning the body back in his or her direction. In doing so, no time is lost, no ground given up, and instead of “chasing” the next attack, the ving tsun fighter is attacking before the opponent’s second attack can be effective.
It is here that the opponent determines the extent of the damage caused by the blow. Should he or she remain virtually unmoved from the position where the initial attack originated, the resulting strike is likely to cause minor damage, but of course it will set up the opponent for the inevitable follow-up. However, should the opponent be rushing in as the man sau is applied, the effect of the strike, which will likely hit the throat or jaw, is likely to be magnified, perhaps even fatal.
The final action of the ‘Biu Ji’ form, in the words of the late sifu Wong Shun Leung, “Illustrates the ‘essence’ of the form,” in that it appears to be totally removed from everything already seen in the system. We can’t afford to take anything at face value, however, and like the other techniques previously described, in the ‘Biu Ji’ form, looks can definitely be deceiving.
The sap dai seung (“lifting from below to above”) action involves bending the body forwards from the waist with the hands hanging down as if reaching for something on the ground. From here the ving tsun practitioner throws the arms up above the head as the body is returned to an upright position. This is usually repeated twice, after which the form comes to a close. It is certainly a strange looking movement but one done for very good reason.
The normal reaction for a person pushed up against a wall or getting up from a semi-prone position, is to push off the wall or floor with one or both hands. There is nothing wrong with that if no one is behind you waiting to attack you with a stick or bottle, but if this is the case, and the reason for being against the wall or on the floor is the fact that the enemy has forced you there, relying on natural movements could get you killed!
The sap dai seung movement probably won’t stop you getting injured, especially if a weapon of any kind is involved, but it could prevent you from sustaining a life-threatening injury. In other words, this technique will allow you to “cut your losses,” after all a cut on the arm is a lot less damaging than a bottle over the head. Instead of using both arms to push off from the wall or floor, ‘Biu Ji’ trains the ving tsun practitioner to bring one hand up before bringing the head up so as to deflect that which cannot be seen, reducing the severity of the likely injury.
On realising the dangerous position one would have to be in so as to require the use of this sap dai seung movement, it is easy to see why sifu Wong Shun Leung told his students, “If you know ‘Biu Ji’, it’s a blessing if you never have to use it!” Far from being the “deadliest” of the ving tsun forms, what the form is trying to teach us is that there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong technique, but that technique is always dictated by circumstance (as well as affected by choice or chance). In other words, it teaches us to apply our techniques more naturally instead of being bound by what we have previously learned.
As mentioned earlier, many of the concepts and techniques of the ‘Biu Ji’ form are also contained in the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ form. In fact, after the first three sections (approximately 60 movements) of the “dummy” form, the majority of the ‘Jong’ techniques are ‘Biu Ji’ form techniques, coupled with the many variations of the two basic kicks (deng geuk and waang geuk) found in the ‘Cham Kiu’ form. One reason for this is that the structure of the ‘Jong’ permits the ‘Biu Ji’ techniques to be practised in a fairly natural way which helps to reinforce them in the mind and body of the practitioner.
Another reason is that some of the movements, such as the man sau technique described earlier, as well as such things as groin and knee strikes, are very difficult to practise on a live partner without fear of causing an injury. Therefore the perfect place to train such hand and leg techniques is on a wooden partner who doesn’t feel the pain. Like ‘Biu Ji’, the primary reason for training on the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ is to learn how to recover from or avoid mistakes, rather than, as some people mistakenly believe, to condition the arms or practise attacking combinations.
Generally speaking, when a student is fully conversant with the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ and ‘Cham Kiu’ forms, and has engaged in lots of chi sau practise, etc, they should be performing their techniques naturally and correctly. Once this is the case, on reaching the stage of learning the ‘Biu Ji’ form, sifu Wong Shun Leung believed that it should be possible for them to use it when necessary simply by practising the set. This is, of course, because the nature of the ving tsun system is such that its practitioners develop instinctive reactions at a neural level and the techniques of the ‘Biu Ji’ form automatically become a part of their combat “vocabulary.”
In summing up, I hope that I have provided some insight into the true nature of this most misunderstood of ving tsun training methods, and that some of the myths surrounding the ‘Biu Ji’ form have now been cast aside forever. Although this article has not exposed all the “secrets” of the form, I would hope that the reader has been “put on the right track” and will be able to gain more insight into their own training, be it in the ving tsun method or some other martial art. The real lesson to be learned is that everyone needs to “step outside” their particular style occasionally, to look beyond the outward appearance of their forms and techniques. In this way we can all aspire to be the master of our chosen art instead of its slave, to look beyond the pointing finger and see the moon.