The Mechanics of Wing Chun Empty Hand Forms
Siu Nim Tao (“Little First Training” [小念頭]) – This is the basic, or fundamental, form on which all other forms in Wing Chun build. Not surprisingly, therefore, the focus in Siu Nim Tao (note that Tao is often written as Tau instead, just as any move, block, etc., whose name ends in –ao is as commonly written as –au)), which is also sometimes referred to as Siu Lim Tao, is on structure, posture and stance, the perhaps three most important aspects of WCKF and which rely on a knowledge of Rooting, as described above.
The stance is defensive, with the feet, slighlty pigeon-toed, barely far enough apart to prevent the WCKF fighter from falling over, with the legs very slighty bent, for the sake of elasticity, and the knees close together so as to protect the groin (the easiest way to come into this stance, called the horse stance, is to stand with the feet pressed against each other, then, with the weight on the heels and keeping the heels together, spread the feet at the toes to a 45 degree angle, then, shifting the weight to the balls of the feet, spread the heels until the position of the feet is very slightly pigeon-toed). The posture: the spine is held straight, the chin slightly lowered (to protect the throat), which has the effect of raising the crown of the head slightly, though some postures require the head to be held level. From this position, a number of hand moves, most involving only one hand at a time, will be performed, but keeping focus on the center line and the posture.
Siu Nim Tao does not involve turns, and thus one says that it does not involve footwork. It does, however, involve hand moves (both defensive and offensive) launched from the 4 “directions”: moving forward, moving backward, and with the opponent at a right angle to one’s own position, either on the right or on the left. Siu Nim Tao is divided into three stages, the first of which concentrates on performing the hand moves very slowly.
The first moves are naturally defensive, blocking moves involving one hand at a time – with power seated in the elbow and forearm only – but since the defensive and the offensive in Wing Chun are as intimately linked as the Yin and the Yang, every defensive move leads to a positioning where it can glide over into an attack with the other hand. Thus a typical block with the one hand is potentially followed up with a punch by the other hand, though in the first stage of Siu Nim Tao, the emphasis is on the defensive. Each of the moves are performed very slowly and deliberately, and with relaxed arms except for the slight tension in the relevant muscle (tricep or bicep), depending on whether the arm is being extended or retracted, and with focus on posture, structure and stance.
As the practitioner shifts his weight to the balls of the feet, the hips move slightly forward, and the reverse of this applies for a backward movement. This is a fundamental part of Rooting, and it helps to absorb strikes, meaning that it will reduce the chance that the practitioner will be knocked over or knocked down. For defensive purpoes, the practitioner should be aware of his inner gate (the area in between the arms) and outer gate (the area immediately outside the shoulders) at all times. The elbows are kept tucked close in to the sides, slightly in front, when the arms are not being extended or retracted.
In the second stage, both arms come into play, the tempo is increased, the hand moves of the first stage are repeated, but with greater precision, and new ones are added. This stage is a bit artificial in the sense that in a real-life, or sparring partner – or even Wooden Dummy – situation, only one arm would typically be used for a block; the point of performing them with both arms simultaneously is to demonstrate that the move can be performed with either arm, but, additionally, with the speed with which they are performed in the second stage, performing them with both arms gives a greater feeling of balance, and, should one ever be attacked by two assailants at the same time, one would know how to block two strikes simultaneously.
Sliding from the one move to the other, but remaining stationary, is a central part of the second stage practice, since, in actual fighting, sparring, etc., situations, the practitioner glides from one move to the other in response to constantly changing contingencies.
The third stage involves focusing on directing one’s movement along the center line. That is, the lessons learned from the previous two stages, once trained to a level of proficiency, are made subsidiary to (become second nature to) the attack or retreat along the center line. In this stage, the arms, when at “rest” are held upright in front of the torso, bent at the elbow and with the palms of the hands facing inward. The elbows are held close in to the body to protect against a strike to the abdomen.
Combination moves are practiced in the third stage. These can be high defensive blocks that shift to a low defensive block with the same arm, or it may be a defensive block with one arm followed up by an offensive block with the other arm, including “escape” moves where the practitioner strikes an opponent who grabs one’s wrist; the contingency here is never to try and wriggle the trapped arm free first, but to strike the assailant with the free hand, thus making it easier to retrieve the trapped wrist if the assailant hasn’t already, in a reflexive response to the punch, released one’s trapped wrist. Parries and other defensive moves are said to take place in the inner gate, while a punch or a kick is said to take place in the outer gate.
These three stages make up the entirety of the Siu Nim Tao form, which demonstrates yet again that Wing Chun is essentially a very simple martial art with a simple – but entirely adequate – repertoire of moves.