Both Wing Chun and Chen Taijiquan include unique and profound partner training methods, designed to hone the techniques within the forms. These methods, just like the forms, may also outwardly appear disparate, but their essence and approach is surprisingly similar.
The partner training of each is ingenious as it allows the respective skill to develop to high levels with minimal chance of injury. Certain other martial arts tend to have higher instances of injury, especially to the joints and tendons, from superficial and temporary injuries to more serious and long-term or even permanent damage. Older and ex-practitioners can suffer excruciating back pain and arthritic joints and appear crippled and deformed as they hobble and shuffle about, all due to their “training”. The internal forms of Wing Chun and Chen Taijiquan, in developing Qi, not only develop and protect the internal and external body, but they also accelerate the healing process, so recovery from most injuries is mostly assured. The creators of these methods possessed a deep understanding of martial art together with some fundamental medical knowledge and a deep level of wisdom, compassion, and thought not commonly found today.
Chen Taijiquan’s partner work is called “Pushing Hands” (or Tuishou) and Wing Chun partner training is “Sticking Hands” (Chi Sau). The best at Sticking Hands adhere to the partner like glue or gum. Pushing Hands also requires adhering, connecting and joining to the opponent, neither letting go nor resisting/ opposing, but the term is somewhat misleading as the hands are not just pushing, and the skill does not involve the hands alone. Pushing Hands employs the entire body. In fact, any part of the body that comes into contact with the partner/ opponent’s body, including the shoulder, elbow, hips, knees, and feet can be used. Both Pushing Hands and Sticking Hands act as a bridge between the forms and application in preparation for actual combat, and result in the understanding of application of the skills. They are not actual fighting, but methods of learning. They are best treated as a game, which can be fun, and jovial, but with serious purpose, much like a tiger cub learning to kill while playing without actually using its claws. And, care should always be taken not to injure training brothers/ sisters. Forms are like the ingredients of a recipe, and the partner training is how they all combine together to create a very special meal. The partner work of both is essential in understanding which techniques work best in any given situation, and in which combinations, and how to apply them correctly, with the use of the right energy, while developing close distance coordination, positioning, mobility, timing, accuracy, and sensitivity.
Both Sticking Hands and Pushing Hands basics begin with single hand training. This is to understand the application of the hand shapes in Wing Chun and to understand the essential energies in Chen Taijiquan. Both then progress to double hands from fixed step position to stepping in fixed patterns to freestyle, which is closest to real fighting. Both provide a barometer of the student’s level of skill and understanding. Partner training exposes what is wrong within the solo form. So, when the student is defeated repeatedly with the same technique, the answer can be found by going back to the form and correcting the mistake within the posture, structure or the movement principle.
With both skills the partner training essentially develops sensitivity to an opponent’s energy. This is called “Listening Skill” (Ting Jing). The skin is our largest sensory organ, which many martial artists do not consider so fail to develop the sense of touch and tend to rely on vision awareness only. With good skill in either Taijiquan or Wing Chun, when there is contact with one hand (or both) we don’t really ever need sight to know exactly where the partner’s other hand and legs are and from whence they can strike. While some opponents do visually telegraph their strikes, a punch or kick can be too quick for the eyes to see or respond to in time, but through the sense of touch we can detect the slightest changes in their bodies as they prepare to strike and can respond before they can launch an attack. For example, before a punch is launched the friction or muscle contraction can be felt. Similarly, with a kick the shift of weight when the opponent picks up the leg can be felt internally, for the moment we touch hands with another (partner or opponent), we form an instant connection with him. If we remain relaxed and not tense, confident and not fearful, in the present moment and not anticipating, just “open” to receive what comes we blend and become one with the opponent. Then, whatever he does we will know. With a higher level of Listening Skill, we can even become sensitive to the opponent’s breathing! When an attack is launched, it is natural for the air is to be expelled. It really does not work any other way, and power would be diminished when expressed and accompanied by inhalation. So, we can “hear” when the opponent is breathing in and know when he is about to launch and can pre-emptively strike or know the precise moment to defend and counter attack. This is not possible if we are in the mindset of fighting against the opponent. In Chen Taijiquan there is a saying, “If my opponent is still, I don’t move. If he moves, I arrive first”. In reality, it is the same for Wing Chun, and this is only possible with this level of sensitivity, which is only possible with a perfectly still mind. Wing Chun training even includes blindfolded Sticking Hands which heightens this sense further. The stakes of this are raised when students take the next step and perform blindfolded on the top a table! Similarly, Push Hands also allows for the eyes to be closed, which helps us to begin trusting in this sense, and letting go of fear. However, in actual combat we do need all our senses employed.
The highest level of Wing Chun and Chen Taijiquan is using the least amount of force, strength, effort, or energy to overcome the opponent. The ability to be successful at this lies in deflecting or redirecting the opponent’s force to borrow it and use it against him. This is what makes both of these highly intelligent martial arts and sets them apart from most other martial arts and makes them similar to one another. In order to achieve this, there are two aspects. Firstly, sufficient internal strength must have been developed through dedicated and consistent training. This means the legs become strong enough to support the entire body frame so that the upper body can let go and relax and “trust” the support below, which in turn becomes light, aiding nimble footwork that allows us to better dissolve the force and avoid meeting it head on. Secondly, the ability to expend less energy comes from increasing experience with partner work, touching many different hands. The more partners the better, as there are so many different body types and minds to encounter, and we come to know them all. In letting go of the desire for victory and the fear of losing the more we can relax and use less energy.
It is not simply about winning, but in doing so with ease. In fact, this is attained by not fighting with or competing against the opponent, but in seeking the path of least resistance, which, in reality, comes from causing the opponent to lose all by himself, by allowing him to over commit and become unbalanced and find himself in a position (or rather led into such a position) from which it is difficult if not impossible to recover and defend. This situation happens in Wing Chun when the opponent gives up or loses his center line, and in Chen Taijiquan it occurs when the opponent loses his central equilibrium or Dantian, thereby losing his root and the ability to use strength and resist.
Beginner students of both skills naturally tend to use far too much energy and find themselves exhausted after only a few minutes against a training partner more experienced, in part because they do not know how to regulate breath and Qi and do not know when to use force appropriately, or how to deal with pressure and let go. An experienced practitioner can engage many opponents for extended periods of time and not suffer labored breathing or even break a sweat as he also knows how to exhaust his opponent. Using too much energy invariably will be turned back on us by more skillful training partners. Wing Chun beginner students are not unaccustomed to receiving an unexpected slap on the cheeks by one more senior, when they become too “feisty,’ or they may even rush headlong into a fist if too gung-ho in attack without considering defense. Taijiquan students, on the other hand, become used to the ground beneath them suddenly giving way and they can be in the air, upside down, or spinning wildly out of control or propelled into a wall, or locked into compliance. For senior students, it is a constant revelation to discover just how little energy is really required to accomplish certain tasks, and that we can always use less. This is one aspect that makes studying both skills so fascinating and the journey, like climbing a mountain and discovering the various levels, so fulfilling.
As Taijiquan emphasizes softness, like water, and Wing Chun was created by a woman, there is a common misunderstanding that strength or force should never be used at all. Actually, strength can and does need to be used, but only when there is no resistance. This means no energy is actually wasted as there is no effort involved. It is the struggle that is to be avoided. This, then, becomes “smart” strength, as opposed to using brute force, tussling and scuffling, which is considered exceedingly low-level skill. A martial artist that can end a fight instantly is not actually fighting at all! 17th generation Chen Taijiquan master, Chen Fa Ke, claimed a fight should last no longer than three seconds! Using the least energy takes time, in fact decades, of practice, critical thought, analysis, testing and re-evaluating, in order to understand and apply it. Using the least amount of force is how the Chen Taijiquan maxim, “Four ounces can overcome a thousand pounds” is achieved. In order to become truly proficient in either skill, it is necessary to lose in order to learn. “Invest in loss” is the familiar term, and another example of a Chinese paradoxical truism. We need to lose in order to learn how and why we lost, and to be on receiving end to know how much energy is required to execute a technique efficiently.
Chen Taijiquan is well known for its rooting power. A skilled practitioner, to one less skilled or unskilled, can feel like coming up against a solid wall or a giant rock, even if the individual is a lot lighter in weight. Even weightlifters and strong men cannot easily, if at all, push or lift a truly rooted Taijiquan exponent. An experienced student possessing trained strength (gongfu) will relax and sink his Qi, reinforcing his root connection to the ground, which can feel like deadweight, or attempting to lift a person who has fainted. Were he to become tense and rigid, the opposite effect will occur. Tension causes Qi to rise, and the root connection to the ground to be lost, making the individual become lighter to the person pushing or lifting. Not only does the exponent make himself extremely heavy, sunk and rooted to the ground, as soon as the “strongman” becomes too much to handle, the skillful practitioner can simply turn the waist almost imperceptibly to move or “hide” his center (Dantian) to dissolve the force, repeatedly making the one using brute force start all over trying to get a foothold. This drains the opponent’s energy and becomes very taxing, as the force becomes weaker with each consecutive attempt. This highlights the meaning of the phrase from Chen Wangting’s Martial Poem, where he states, “I alone know my opponent. My opponent does not know me”. And, this is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s At of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles”.
In a split second an exponent can change from feeling solid and immovable (Yang), to empty (Yin), like a shadow or a ghost. In fact, the essence of Taijiquan combat is the ability to change from Yin to Yang and vice versa faster than the opponent. When an opponent is attempting to push or uproot one more skilled, the exponent may offer some initial resistance to bait the opponent into using more effort and stiff strength which can be used against him. As he tries harder and meets resistance, the exponent effectively is holding him up like a supporting wall. When the exponent steps back and pulls downwards, or turns his body like an axle, the support is suddenly gone and as the less experienced over commits, and lacking internal awareness of what is occurring, and unable to stop it, will lose balance and fall forwards, only to be sent to the ground or flung through the air with ease, at the direction of the master’s choice. This is what is meant by the Taijiquan expression, “Lead The Opponent Into Emptiness”, and for sure the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Good Wing Chun requires a strong structure and rooting too. This is essentially developed through the first form, Siu Lim Tao, and this form can be trained with both legs on the ground or on one leg. It is not possible to train this form every day for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more, and possess weak legs. Many Wing Chun students neglect training the legs sufficiently and come to rely solely on the speed of the hands, which means internal strength and power is not attainable either. Rooting is required in order to remain upright and not be taken to the ground. This is especially necessary when lifting the leg to kick. Being on one leg, even for the briefest of moments, can leave an individual vulnerable, and susceptible to being pushed over, tripped, or swept. Reportedly, Grandmaster Ip Man could stand on one leg with a rope tied around his ankle and no-one could unbalance him when they attempted to pull the rope.
Both skills demand total unification of the internal body, but in different ways. Chen Taijiquan demands every part working together. “If one part moves every part moves” is a major principle, and so the body is connected, like a string of pearls, so when power is issued the coordinated effort becomes like a tidal wave. The internal body is connected to the external body, and so the Qi becomes smooth. However, while Yin/Yang must exist together they also must be separate and remain clear yet balanced in harmony, and constantly changing. For example, the classic Chen Taijiquan punch consists of one fist closed tight and firm (Yang), traveling forwards to the target, as the opposite hand is carried open, relaxed and loose (Yin) with the energy driven backwards, concentrated in the elbow. Driven from the ground by the sudden transference of weight, and the torqueing of the waist, up the back and outwards through the arms, they are connected though an equal and opposite force, so the same power that reaches the fist also culminates at the elbow, simultaneously creating a devastating elbow strike. The hands work in conjunction with one another.
Wing Chun’s approach is altogether different. While upper body and lower body must be connected, there is no transference of weight, typically with the weight remaining on the back leg for optimal safety. As a result, there is less power released in the strike, but this is why Wing Chun (famed for its “Chain Punching”) rarely strikes once, instead favoring multiple follow up strikes, with trapping and covering (so the opponent cannot hit back) until the task is complete. Though Wing Chun hands function together, for example one hand may pull the opponent’s arm while the other punches forward, maximizing the effect by pulling the opponent into the punch, during Rolling Arms (Poon Sau), the left and right hands can often function quite autonomously from one another, performing completely separate functions.
Whereas many martial arts just aim to hit and strike vulnerable targets through openings created, or block and counter, both Taijiquan and Wing Chun seek to unbalance the opponent and place him in a position from which he cannot adequately attack or defend. Both maintain a difference of opinion as to approach. Chen Zhaokui, 18th generation master, claimed that the priority (of Chen Taijiquan) must be to wipe out the enemy, with self- preservation as secondary. With Wing Chun a solid defense and self-protection is primary, and attack and defense are simultaneous. It should not be sacrificed.
Though it includes close range and also kicking range, Wing Chun tends to train mostly within hand range and specializes in controlling and trapping with striking. Taijiquan also includes all ranges, and striking with power, but training tends to work closer in grappling range, concentrating on throws, sweeps, and joint-locks (Qin Na). Even though Wing Chun follows the Straight-Line principle, circular techniques do exist, such as Sideways Stepping (Waahng Mah), which circles around the opponent, Circle Hand (Hyun Sau) used to open the opponent’s hands from an outside position as the force comes inwards, Pushing Up Hand (Tok Sau), used to lift up the opponent’s elbow as a control technique, circling from the outside inwards and upwards. Taijiquan’s principle is to follow the spiral, but does include straight stepping (as well as circular), and while the punch spirals, it travels straight, like a bullet’s path or an electric drill spinning.
Of the two skills, Wing Chun demands perhaps greater precision and accuracy, with its points of contact and intersecting lines. It is always direct, seeking the shortest distance to the target. My Tai Sigong, Grandmaster Ip Man, even named his sons Ip Chun (“Accurate”) and Ip Ching (“Correct”). Wing Chun is pure geometry. For example, the point of optimum contact with the opponent’s arm should be two finger widths below the wrist, and elbows should be carried two fist widths in front of the body, and with certain hand positions requiring the elbows inside to maintain center and level with the height of the opponent’s throat. Of course, Taijiquan demands correct posture and movement principles too, but as the body spirals and moves in circles upon point of contact, like a rotating ball, in order to neutralize force, in one sense it does not need to be as quite precise as Wing Chun. It is most important that Peng Jin (full and firm yet pliant roundness like an inflated tire) is maintained in both arms, crotch and legs, to be able to support the integrity of the structure and withstand force from every direction, and that the Dantian can rotate like a wheel through its infinite axes, in order to neutralize incoming force. Interestingly, in order to accomplish the right shape and maintain Peng Jin, the distance of the arms from the body ends up being two fist widths; the same as with Wing Chun. While Taijiquan does not operate on the same geometry, it does make use of the practical application of physics, principles of energy and body mechanics, with fulcrum and leverage.
Wing Chun may appeal more to the left-brain person that is mathematical, analytical, logical, with linear thinking, and sequencing, while Chen Taijiquan may appeal more to the right-brain person that tends to be more artistic, creative, imaginative expressive, intuitive, holistic, and rhythmic etc. This is why some will naturally gravitate to one skill over the other. However, it is best to be balanced, and to work on our weaknesses. When we concentrate on our stronger side solely the weaker side will diminish more, leading only to greater imbalance. Beginners, and those with no knowledge, will see only the obvious differences between these two arts, but with greater experience of both, students can’t help but begin to notice the similarities more.
Both of these arts are truly amazing because they provide practical self-preservation skills that do not depend entirely on speed, strength, and peak fitness, unlike other martial arts, which decline with age, and these actually improve throughout life. They both include philosophies that also nourish and enrich the lives of students, and the strategies of defense and attack can be applied to daily life, such as avoiding and handling verbal confrontations, and resolving conflict. So, the two really are also priceless Life and Character Skills. Perhaps, most important of all, the greatest benefit both provide is a real key to lasting health and longevity. For proof of this we need only look at the current Taijiquan grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, who, at the time of this writing, is still vital and immensely powerful at 75, and especially Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Chun who is 95 and still travels distances to oversee and teach classes and can still engage in Sticking Hands with students! I deeply appreciate the practice of both skills, as they give uniquely different experiences and different feeling internally from the solo practice, and the partner training is very different. But, if you were to study only one, and put your heart and soul into it, either one can become a profound, meaningful life skill for health/ longevity and self-protection, as well as a lifetime journey into self-knowledge and wisdom.
By Adam Wallace