The following is based solely on my subjective understanding and experience of CST’s Wing Chun and should not be taken as an attempt to invalidate anyone else experience or beliefs. If I have learned anything in my 20 years of training, it’s to keep an open mind and to be curious before passing judgement – you can never know what you don’t know. Also, for ease of reading I will be referring to Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin simply as CST.
The Wing Chun forms are kind of like musical scales/chords - a collection of fundamentals that, while not songs themselves, allow you to develop the necessary skills and understanding of the principles involved. Where other styles use forms/katas to rehearse fighting sequences (like a series of melodies that can be used in a call and response fashion – “when they do this, you do that”), Wing Chun instead focuses on developing a deep and unconscious understanding of the underlying principles, allowing the practitioner to improvise on the fly without any conscious intervention - much like a jazz musician (Chi Sau/Sticking Hands is where we “jam” together).
The reason we have 6 forms instead of very one long one is that they build on each other to form the complete Wing Chun system, starting with finding our centre of mass (stance), learning to initiate movement of the limbs from this point (Siu Nim Tao), learning to move the entire body in 3 dimensional space by stepping and pivoting (Chum Kiu), then learning to send your centre of mass into your limbs/opponent (Biu Jee) in order to generate huge amounts of force at close range. The Wooden Dummy (Muk Yan Jong) form is the culmination of the open hand forms and provides a static opponent to deliver force into.
Finally you learn how to send your mass into inanimate objects - the Butterfly Swords and 6 1/2 Point Pole.
The first form, Siu Nim Tao (SNT) which translates to “small thought” or “little idea”, is the most important form as it’s the foundation for everything that follows. Combined with the standing meditation, which is effectively the first “move” in SNT, we develop the correct posture (relaxation of the muscles and joints in order to balance the skeleton vertically) and learn to locate our centre of mass. This is where we learn to cultivate the correct state of mind and how to utilize this to hold the body and move your limbs without muscle in order to generate and absorb force.
While this may sound odd, it is very similar to the natural way we use our body throughout the day; when we walk, turn on a light switch or any other motor skill we move very efficiently (minimal and barely noticeable tension) while remaining perfectly balanced. Its only when we expect resistance (either a heavy object or an opponent) that we revert from using the body in this natural way and instead tend to try to move using a much more simplistic approach where we lock our joints in place, push against the ground and use our muscles more like a series of isolated pistons. Practicing SNT correctly allows us to retrain the mind to accept the idea of moving against resistance without bracing, leaning or relying on excessive tension. Much like a surfer balances the dynamic and powerful vertical forces coming through their legs (not by consciously tensing their muscles and joints, but by focusing on remaining perfectly balanced and delegating the rest to their unconscious) we use the same underlying phenomenon but also apply it to horizontal forces coming in via the arms, body or legs (achieved through lots of chi sau/sticking hands practice).
This is very simple but very difficult because we’re so accustomed to consciously operating our body like a basic machine and it seems to take us a long time just to accept that it’s is even possible. Even when I began feeling a different sensation and could move well in the dynamic and fast paced context of chi sau/sticking hands (explained here), as soon as I went to perform any movement at my Sifu’s request I would suddenly revert to the mechanical way because I just could not accept it was possible to move any other way. Like the standing meditation, only once I gave into the process did this other method emerge on its own and with it the feeling of my limbs floating out on their own.
(the closest approximation of what moving without muscle feels like in practice is if you stand with your hands by your side and grip your pants tightly while pulling sideways quite hard (or stand in a doorway and push outwards against the door frame) for 30 seconds. Once you let go you should notice your arms moving upwards seemingly of their own accord. While this is not how wing chun works the subjective experience is similar).
The second form, Chum Kiu (“Searching for the bridge”) is where we build on SNT and learn to apply this mindset and approach to operating our body whilst also moving our centre of mass/spine. By rotating the centre of mass/spine on its vertical axis (like a spinning top) or moving it along the horizontal plane (forward/back, side-to-side etc.) while remaining balanced and upright, we can access our entire coordinated mass and the force this generates. In the context of fighting, this relates to and bridging the gap between you and your opponent (positioning and footwork) and is therefore done in a balanced and structured way to avoid compromising or over extending yourself in the process. By learning to pivot and step from your centre of mass (instead of at the point of contact/resistance) you also make it difficult or impossible for your opponent to stop you from moving – like if I spun a merry-go-round and asked you to try and grab it (vs you grabbing it first and then me trying to spin it against your resistance) - once this structured mass has momentum it requires a huge amount of resistance to stop. This is another way that this approach enables us to generate force against larger and stronger opponents.
The third form, Biu Jee (“darting fingers”) is where we learn to develop even more power by introducing spiraling/whipping force by twisting each individual vertebra one after the other and counter rotating joints within the body. Compared to SNT and Chum Kiu where out centre of mass and source of power effectively remains in one place within our body (even though the body may be moving), Biu Jee teaches you to send your centre of mass within your body or limbs (hands, feet, knees, shoulders and so on), much like a whip delivers force into a target. The ability to put our mass into the target is not that dissimilar to how a great tennis player puts force into a tennis ball by coordinating their mass, limbs and racket to hit the ball at exactly the right moment during their swing. Viewed in the context of fighting, while SNT teaches us to develop our stance/structure and Chum Kiu allows us to move this structure around in three-dimensional space, Biu Jee enables us to use very small movements to direct our centre of mass at our opponent at very short range (zero inch punch) using almost any part of our body.
The Muk Yan Jong form (“wooden dummy”) is where the three open hand forms are brought together against a static heavy target. This form combines SNT’s stance, Chum Kiu’s stepping and pivoting along with Biu Jee’s force generation into a single application. As you progress through the 100+ different moves in the form you repeatedly transition back and forth between the three stages of fighting – 1. shaping up (stance), 2. bridging the gap (footwork/positioning) and 3. simultaneously attacking and defending. It also serves as an ideal feedback mechanism – when striking the wooden dummy you have no one else to blame if you bounce off or lose your balance. Similarly, as your overall skill level in wing chun increases you’ll notice the dummy becomes easier to handle and deliver force into, making it a great benchmarking tool.
The Butterfly Knives and Six and a half point Pole forms takes this process a step further. Where Biu Jee teaches us to move our centre of mass within the body (e.g. to the infer tips or elbows), these forms teach you to project your mass through/into inanimate objects (turning them into extensions of your body) - initially to the tips of the roughly 50cm Butterfly Swords and finally all the way to the tip of the 2.5m pole. This ability appears very similar to what CST appeared to be doing when demonstrating techniques on people that seemed so peculiar - instead of moving you like a separate object using kinetic energy, he could seemingly move your centre of mass without you feeling anything at the point of contact (like he was using an invisible rope attached to your centre of mass to pull you in whichever direction he wanted).
Taken as a whole these six forms represent the complete wing chun system as taught by Chu Shong Tin. However there is a very important distinction; the system is not just the aggregate of the movements within these forms. While the forms cover a broad range of techniques and fighting applications, like musical scales/chords their greater purpose is to develop the underlying skills allowing you to transcend them. As Sifu Mark Spence recounts, Chu Shong Tin tried to explain this when students would ask about the finer details of a specific move from one of the forms, in essence telling them that while they must move in this specific way, because he had sufficiently developed the ability to operate his body in the most efficient and powerful way possible, he was no longer limited by these restrictions.
Understandably, in their quest for an iron clad rule, some students would mistake this for obfuscation – “this is the rule, except when it isn’t”). Sifu Mark likes to use the following analogy - it was like CST was trying to explain the concept of balance and, without ever having experienced true balance themselves, his students became fixated on imitating balance by measuring all the correlating variables i.e. precisely how many degrees do you lean over when riding a bike around a corner?
Once you learn to truly balance, you can apply the principles in situations that previously seemed impossible.