Wing Chun: Raw gums and half remembered science

He was missing his four front teeth. This seemed to make life more inconvenient. He infrequently slurped saliva back into his mouth, limiting the trail from dribbling down his beard. He was heavy, perhaps sixteen or seventeen stone. A slightly discoloured wife beater displayed his bulky physique and sprawling blue tattoos nicely. He wore a white sweatband, though this didn’t really seem to be doing the job, as he was dripping with sweat. Sometimes we don’t quite get the sparring partner we would like.

Sensitivity isn’t the first word that came to mind. When facing a spirited self defence it seldom is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it shouldn’t be. Wing Chun teaches the primacy of sensitivity. It is an art that seeks to respond to an opponent. It seeks to exploit shifts in balance and constantly probes an opponent’s defences. Wing Chun relies on sensitivity to such an extent that it can be executed blindfold and is practiced by the blind and partially sighted. This is the theory and it’s beautiful and it’s pure, but what stood in front of me was neither beautiful nor pure, it was ugly and pumped up on barely excised adrenalin.  

Theory can be pure while execution is inevitably a messier affair. Maintaining contact with an opponent gives a constant flow of feedback. A low pressure fed against an attacker’s arm allows you to read the slightest of imbalances in their stance. Punches and kicks become predictable as the opponent adjusts to strike. Years of training develop this connection until it becomes an instinctual reflex, as a practitioner unthinkingly adapts and adjusts to the slightest of motions.

Reacting to an opponent unthinkingly is the only way a practitioner’s reflex speed can be guaranteed. Reaction without analysis is not easily achieved. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes of the relationship between two modes of thought: System 1, which can be fast, instinctive and emotional, and System 2, which is slower, more deliberative and logical.

Kahneman states that it is possible for a master to move an analytic exercise, such as playing chess, from a System 2 mode of thought to a System 1. This can be achieved by dedicating hours to an activity within a defined framework. If this is done, it is possible to develop a reflex action that can instantly respond with the answer from System 1. He describes how a chess master can glance at a chess board and know the number of moves to achieve checkmate without the need of prolonged analysis.

Wing Chun has a system for developing this skill, it is called sticky hands or Chi Sau. Sticky hands limits movements to a formalised series of blocks and attacks, which are rolled between, as each seeks to gain an advantage over the other. In limiting the series of outcomes within a formalised framework, it encourages the development of System 1 learning in sensitivity.

I pressed at his sweat drenched arms, it was difficult to maintain controlled contact. Punches slid across the palm. Contact was possible and carefully applied applications of force could slip past his guard. The road to a System 1 response, it seems, will be hard fought.  

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