No reasonable application without understanding the principles of fighting

Because attack is not always the best defense.


The three principles of fighting of Wing Chun

The second form of Wing Chun – Chum Kiu – is not called searching arms or searching the bridge without a reason. We assume the forms are the teaching plan of Wing Chun, and because the second form is called searching arms the aspect of searching must be a part of the form. The form explains how the action of searching works in a fight and how to use it.

Because Wing Chun is defined as an effective close combat method of practical self defense, in which the opponents force shall be used against him it is only logical that as a first step contact to the opponent has to be established to actually use his force. This does not work without contact between attacker and defender.

Searching Arms

The search of the arms is a crucial part of self defense in Wing Chun theory. Making contact is the most difficult part of a fight because many factors playing a role in the conflict are not known before the attack, for example:

  • The opponent’s intention
    Is the opponent dangerous? How serious is an attack, is the opponent just messing around or does he want to seriously injure the defender?
  • The opponent’s potential aggression
    How is the opponent’s morale? Will he stop at the first sign of defense or will he fight on until he accomplishes his aims?
  • The opponents ability
    Does the attacker already have experience in street fights or might he be skilled in a martial art himself?
  • The first attack
    The first attack maybe diverse: punches toward head or body, with left of right, straight forward or from the side, choking with one or both hands, holding on to arm or wrist, clinging frontal or from behind, clinging to the upper body, pushing, pulling hair, kicks from all directions…
  • The opponents force
    How hard will the first attack be?
  • The opponents speed
    How sudden or unexpected will the attack be? Or will the defender see the attack coming? Is time remaining to prepare for the fight?

Searching the bridge

‘Searching the bridge’ means to make contact with a mostly unknown attacker in an unplannable situation.

The process of making contact should:

  • Be easy to execute
    In the face of all the unknown factors the first reaction to an unforeseen attack has to be quick and easy to execute.
  • Enable a successful defense
    Protection of the own body has to be achieved to not be hit by a punch or another attack and to be able to end the fight successfully.
  • Be systematic
    The own behavior should remain planned and controlled to enable the protection of the own body despite the short distance and short reaction time. If not, the defender may easily fall back to instinctive defense behavior which is uncontrolled: That would open possibilities for blocks, counterattacks and clinging for the opponent.

The art

However, the true art is to remain able to act in the case of an attack and to understand what could happen and how to react to avoid injury. The control over a fight is true payoff of extensive training. A good martial art should be able to explain what might happen in certain situations of a fight and how to react. Otherwise the student might spend years or decades at a school learning unreasonable movements or sections that do not work in an actual fight.

With the background of the factors playing a role in a fight described above, one has to assume that it is impossible to react to the first attack with a counterattack or to even preempt the attacker without taking the risk of being hit by punch or hurt in another way.

Such a strategy is taught by several schools in connection with so-called ritual fights and ‘proactive strategies’ (Meaning nothing other than attack is the best defense) despite the risk explained.

However, based on the three original principles of fighting one comes to the conclusion that the risk of such a strategy is too high. This will become even more obvious as the principles are explained in detail. They offer an explanation how fighting actions will go and why the simple saying ‘attack is the best defense’ (or ‘proactive strategy) is too unsafe, especially when your own life is threatened in a violent conflict!

It is obvious that, in such situations, a strategy offering the best possible protection and reducing the risk of being seriously injured or even killed is superior.

The principles of fighting are based on the theory of the central line

The theory of the central line explains what to do, and the 3 principles describe the own procedure in a threatening situation, in order to protect the central line and the vital areas it crosses. The highest priority is the successful protection and the ability to end a fight as quickly as possible!

They are to be applicable in every strategy; otherwise they were mere theory without any practical connection to the fight. And it would not be necessary to learn a method of self defense with principles that cannot be put into action. But to use them they have to be known.

One has to assume that a style of Kung Fu that claims to be 300 years old has principles that can be put into action, or else the style would not have survived that long.

These principles are contained in the first third of the Chum Kiu form and are to be found in the heritage of the Wing Chun system in the Kuen Kuit.

Kuen Kuit – The mnemonics of Wing Chun

‘Kuen Kuit’ are two Chinese words and mean ‘the sayings of a martial art’. On its own Kuen means fist or school, or, more widely, a whole Kung Fu style. Kuit means saying or song. Most Kuits are very short and written in rhymes to be easy to learn and remember.

Many Kung Fu styles use Kuen Kuit to briefly describe the basic ideas of their style. The use of mnemonics for martial arts also is recorded for European fencing schools.

For Ip Man, one of his students, Moy Yat (1938-2001), who also was an artist and sculptor, has engraved the Kuen Kuit into 51 small stelae of stone. It is said that Ip Man told Moy Yat to engrave them into stone as part of his heritage. May Yat is said to have taken 3 years to collect the stones, and another three years to engrave the Kuen Kuit into them. No stone is alike, and the engravements on every stone are of a different style.

Not a single aspect of the Wing Chun system is as controversial as the interpretation of the three principles of fighting.

Up to date there is not a single logical explanation how to understand and apply the principles in German literature. In this book they are explained in detail and in connection to the forms for the very first time.

The formula of the three principles according to Ip Man says:

  1. Principle: ‘Loy Lau’
    Loy means ‘to come’; Lau means ‘to stop’
    So the first principle means: ‘When a hand comes, stop it.’
  2. Principle: ‘Hui Sung’
    Hui means ‘to go’; Sung means ‘to follow’
    So the principle means: ‘When a hand leaves, follow it!’
  3. Principle: ’Lut Sao Jic Chung’
    Lut Sao means ‘hand lost’; Jic Chung means ‘thrust forwards’

    The third principle says: ‘When the contact to the opponent is lost, thrust forwards.’

Picture right: The first two principles on one of the 51 stelea on which Moy Yat engraved the Kuen Kuit. Pictures with friendly permission of Sifu Pete Pajil, vingtsun-usa.org/keun-kuit

Without further explanation of the three Kuen Kuit, the mnemonics the principles are difficult to make applicable for a self defense system.

The key to understanding

The key to understanding these principles lays within making a connection between the principles and the movements. Once the connection between the two is made one can see that their order is by no means random. They are infact following the order of their applications.

If successful one can explain how the principles work in practice and how to use them.

The three keywords of the principles of fighting are in their order:

  1. Stop
  2. Follow
  3. Thrust

When an attack takes place, this is supposed to be stopped, according to the first principle.The very first moment in which the path of the attacking hand crosses the path of the defending is what the name Chum Kiu means: Searching the bridge. It sure had its reason Bruce Lee called his Kung Fu style ‘Jeet Kune Do’: ‘The path of the stopping fist’. ‘Jeet’ means ‘to stop’ and has the same meaning as to halt something.

Thereafter, in line with the second principle, one shall ‘follow’ a hand.You can only follow a hand after contact has been made.

It is not possible any other way. Following a hand without knowing where it is (not having contact) is impossible. Therefore, the stopping has to be the defender’s first action as the attack takes place, the following is the second.

The third principle says you shall thrust forwards when having lost contact with a hand.Following, according to the second principle, means maintaining contact. Because any movement of the arm is either directed forwards to hit a target or backwards, to protect or simply to start another punch following will result in finding the correct moment to push forwards against the opponent.

So there is a good reason for the order of the principles resulting from the order in which they take place in a fight, beginning with making contact – ‘hand comes – stop it’ via ‘hand goes – follow it’ to the ending of the fight – ‘hand lost, thrust forwards’.

Conclusion: the principles of fighting explain an action in a fight from the moment of the attack via the defence to the counter punch with which the defender ends the fight.

The key to the principles

It was already explained above that the key to the principles is to make a connection between them and the movements.

This connection will be described in the following and is probably unique in Wing Chun literature.

Analysing the three movements of the Chum Kiu form one concludes that there are three main movements which are each connected to a principle.

If it is that the order of the principles: ‘stop, follow, thrust’ form a fixed sequence, then the sequence should be seen connected with an attack from the attacker on the defender. If the attacker wants to throw a punch, push, choke or cling he must move towards his victim. Therefore, he has to reduce his distance from long to short until he is able to execute his attack. The attacker has to move, has to make a step towards his victim.

He will ideally achieve his aim if the victim did not see the attack coming, was shocked and does not defend because of the feared second of shock or simply did not know any probate means to defend with his hand and feet.

For the attacker reducing the distance requires time. And this is exactly the time during which the defender has a chance to react to the attack.

And this is exactly the least Wing Chun wants to achieve: Knowing the path and the means to defend with hand and feet. Even the most skilled fighter is powerless against invisible attacks.

The second of shock may be compensated with training and fighting experience. The correct means however can be analyzed and trained!

To picture the principles, we find the following three movements: Man Sao, Tan Sao and Pak Sao. (see picture)

During further analysis one finds that these three movements have varying range. This is of great importance to the principles. The range of the Man Sao (Biu Sao) is the largest. In the Man Sao the arms are stretched up. Therefore, this movement has the greatest distance in which contact with the attacker can be made.

According to the Wing Chun theory attackers who are outside of this range are not posing any threat to the defender. They are simply too far away to punch or kick effectively. As soon as an attack, meaning an arm or a foot with which the attack is executed – not the attacker himself – is in range of the outstretched arm the fight begins.

This distance offers enough time to react to an attack. In this distance, there is only one task: protecting the own central line and making contact with the attacker to start orientating in the situation and to win time. This is the first principle: ‚When a hand comes, stop it.’ The stopping is always done by the Man Sao – the asking hand.

The first principle

The first principle: ‘Loy Lau – hand comes, stop it’

Is accordingly associated with the first long distance (fist thrust distance), because in the event of an attack the attacker moves towards the defender. The fight takes place from a longer distance to a shorter distance.

An attacker comes closer to the distance in which the defender’s arms are able to make contact with the first arm of the attacker. This first contact serves the purpose to protect the own central line against hits.

For this, one uses the asking hand, the Man Sao. Ideally it is the hand being closest to the attacker that makes the first contact, whether it is the right or the left one, and how the attacker attacks does not play a role.

Man Sao, the asking hand, or the searching hand is the hand movement to make contact with the opponent’s arm during the first attack. The hand is relaxed, the elbow remains slightly bent and the direction of the movement is always either forwards-upwards or backwards-downwards.

The Man Sao describes a diagonal line through the space in front of the upper body to eye-level and offers protection against all attacks aiming against the own body.

In the form the diagonal line of the Man Sao is not too obvious since it is made from the Lan Sao being executed before. This means the Chum Kiu is merely a concept and not a practical application.

The Man Sao makes the beginning in this place and defines the first distance with stretching the arms. But it also describes the first principle of fighting with forwards-upwards movements: Take what comes.

In Wing Chun one certain metaphor is often used to describe this moment. The space between attacker and defender is empty in the beginning. This equals a river flowing between the two fighters. The movement of the attacker for his attack forwards can be compared to one arm of a bridge being lowered from one side of the river. The defender’s reaction, searching the first contact, is the second arm of the brigde from the other riverside. The London Tower Bridge works like this principle.

Remaining with the picture of the Tower Bridge: An attack is the moment in which both arms of the bridge are closed to make contact. This is a very special task in a fight because one can neither foresee an attack nor its strength, speed, etc.

This is the meaning of the searching: Take what comes. Is contact made, the first principle is fulfilled. The contact forms the bridge. That is why Chum Kiu is called ‘searching the bridge’.

The second principle

The second principle: ‘Hui Sung – Hand goes, follow it’

After the Man Sao follows the Tan Sao, which is exactly the length of one hand shorter. The Tan Sao defines the second distance. Tan Sao is the example for the so-called ‚immobile elbow ‘. In this position the arm has the highest possible biomechanical stability.

In connection with the changed ranged compared to the Man Sao one can say that the techniques learnt in Wing Chun are only coming to action in the next shorter distance, after the Man Sao (in which the arm is almost completely stretched) has made contact with the opponent.

This phase is, in the picture, the crossing of the Tower Bridge. Attacker and defender meet in the middle of the bridge. The fight is still tied at this point. Within this brief phase in which both, the attacker and the defender could hit each other, all the defensive positions from the first form (Tan Sao, Bong Sao, Jut Sao, Jum Sao, etc…) are playing an important role because this is the phase in which the most energy is affects the own body. The Wing Chun user has to be able to feel the movements of the opponent and use them for himself to gain control of the opponent. Control is impossible without contact.

Grandmaster Ip Ching says about this:

„Control ist the skill of Wing Chun. Hitting the opponent is the goal, but it is the control of the opponents bridge (arms) which makes hitting possible.“

So it is about making contact with the opponent’s second arm to gain control of a possible attack and to gain a favourable position. The ability to control this brief phase of an attack is the speciality of Wing Chun. The medium distance may be called ‘control-distance’ and for that reason Wing Chun may be considered primarily a ‘hit-avoiding-program’.

This phase is the most difficult for Wing Chun users and the ability to control the opponent in the short distance is what mainly distinguishes Wing Chun from other martial arts. The ability of control makes the art of Wing Chun. To achieve this there are the ‘sticky hands’ – Chi Sao – the most important method of training in Wing Chun. In this second phase all reflexes and abilities gained through regular Chi Sao training are of importance, especially being able to sense movements of the opponent and to redirect kinetic energy of the attacker.

The ability of controlling the opponent’s movements is the component that enables practicing Wing Chun in the western world despite the legal parameters without facing legal problems.

The third principle

The third principle: ‘Luk Sao Jik Chung – hand lost, thrust forwards’

The three following Pak Sao on the arm are also the length of a hand shorter than the Tan Sao and equal the third distance, the so-called ‘elbow distance’.

One may only use the elbows if the distance to the attacker has been further reduced, because the range of the elbow is shorter than the range of a punch with the hand or fist. There is a connection between the distance and the task a certain movement has within an action in the fight.

The third principle is connected to the shortest of all distances, in which an attacker can not only punch but also hold, choke and cling, as well as execute elbow hits, knee kicks and other kicks. To be able to throw an effective punch in this phase of a fight one must be able to recognize the moment of release and to seize the moment to land one or multiple effective punches to end the fight before the attacker does.

The aim of the Wing Chun concept is to withstand a fight as unscathed as possible, even against physically superior opponents.

From the three hand movements, Man Sao, Tan Sao and Pak Sao one may derive the following:

To act effectively in self defense one must understand the meaning of the different distances in which a fight takes place, maybe in the blink of an eye from attack to successful end of the fight.

An attack always takes place in motion and the attacker must move to achieve his aim. Simultaneously, the defender is supposed to defend the attack by using the three principles (stop, follow, thrust). From the order of the three Kuen Kuit and the order of the movement sequences of the Chum Kiu one can observe that the form depicts the action of an attack in three positions. These three principles help enormously when learning Wing Chun because they make understandable what cannot be seen in motion. They enable the Wing Chun user to quickly use the learnt techniques correctly and effectively in the case of an attack.

The three distances in the Wing Chun system

Further analysing the movements of the three forms seen above: Man Sao, Tan Sao and Pak Sao we see the following:

All three hand movements have different ranges.

Following, we take the distances like in the picture:

  1. Long distance
  2. Medium distance
  3. Short distance

The three distances will be decisive to understand the three principles of fighting with Wing Chun.

We saw that the order of the principles is the following:

  1. Stop
  2. Follow
  3. Thrust

In the explanation, it is crucial to match the principles with the correct distance to get the explanation how Wing Chun works in practice.

Therefore, the Chum Kiu describes a certain concept rather than a practical application.