"Before I trained on the Wooden Dummy, it was just a strange-looking, upright wooden (in every sense of the word) contraption with three funny-looking, "stick-man" half-arms and a single clumsy-looking leg whose sole purpose seemed to be to trip me up. After I had trained for some time on the Wooden Dummy, I began to appreciate that it was more than just a strange-looking, upright wooden contraption with funny, "stick-man" half-arms and a clumsy-looking leg that was always in my way; it was a strangely dynamic sparring partner, the more so given that it was built as a more or less static "dummy".
After I had trained long enough on the Wooden Dummy to understand its true purpose, I realized that the Wooden Dummy was not just a strangely dynamic sparring partner; it was a uniquely dynamic sparring partner that was constructed by a Wing Chun genius who seemed to know that if I had gotten this far in my training, I would begin to receive feedback from the Wooden Dummy in ways that made of it an extension of Yip Man, an extension of Chan Wah Soon, Leung Bik, Leung Jan, Wong Wah Bo, and even an extension of Ng Mui, Wing Chun's tutor and mentor, who built into the Wooden Dummy of today the combined essences of the 108 Wooden Dummies, each with its separate specialty, that lined the legendary tunnel of Southern Shaolin Temple before the temple was destroyed."
– Anonymous Wing Chun master
The Wooden Dummy, aka Muk Yan Jong, or simply Muk Jong (muren zhuang [木人樁], literally "guide stake"), is a log-sized (i.e., having the diameter of a telephone pole, roughly) piece of upright hardwood from which protrudes three short sections of rod-shaped hardwood near the top, and to which is attached a wooden leg of sorts, also of hardwood and bent at the "knee", near the base. The "limbs" of the Wooden Dummy are not rigidly fixed, but move slightly when struck (and when they move, they make click-clack sounds), while the entire contraption itself can move; some models more so than others (some stand on a convex base (i.e., are freestanding... think of a Christmas tree support – these Wooden Dummies can move the most), while another model, sometimes referred to as the Hong Kong model, is attached to a wall – but at a distance, and with the help of upright beams and horizontal slats – and accordingly offers less movement).
Generally speaking, a Wooden Dummy that moves quite a bit, such as the convex base model, is to be preferred, since its movement better simulates that of a real sparring partner. Wing Chun schools and clubs, however, tend to offer the Hong Kong model, since it can't fall and break, or fall on and break something on the human : ). Note also that the literal Chinese name for the Wooden Dummy, "guide stake", actually captures the essence of the contraption much better than does the more common name. Below is an image of what a typical Hong Kong model Wooden Dummy looks like (note that the sheeting wrapped around the dummy in the two places in question is purely optional and is apparently there to prevent neophytes from hurting their tender hands):
But, as the anonymous quote in the introduction above indicates, the Wooden Dummy is much more than just an inert collection of bits of wood cobbled together with nails and screws; once one understands how to use it, it becomes almost a living thing, a living guide, a tutor, or sparring partner.
But of course, the Wooden Dummy is not a real, living sparring partner, and therein lies its superiority as regards the Wing Chun practitioner, for attempting to perfect the Empty Hand Forms on a moving target is considerably more daunting, if not impossible, than attempting it on a relatively stationary target, which is what the Wooden Dummy in essence amounts to. (Note that while a more advanced Wing Chun practitioner might rightly be called a Wing Chun Kung Fu fighter, here we will use the more modest designation, "practitioner", since we assume that we are speaking of those who have not yet mastered the Empty Hand Forms on the Wooden Dummy (if you haven't yet read the main Wing Chun article, go here and read it through before returning to this article), and note additionally that in the following I will refer to the Wing Chun practitioner with the male pronoun only, for simplicity's sake only, no offense intended to female Wing Chun practitioners nor to the memory of Ng Mui and her first pupil, Wing Chun, also a female!)
It is said that while one learns the three Empty Hand Forms as part of one's initial Wing Chun training, one must relearn them on the Wooden Dummy before one can say that one has become proficient in them. It is of course true that only through practice can proficiency be achieved, but all the practice in the world of grammar-book English is not sufficient to make one an English speaker. For that, one needs practice speaking the language in a conversational setting with English speakers. Similarly, to become truly proficient in Wing Chun, one eventually requires practice with a sparring partner.
Enter, therefore, the Wooden Dummy, which is an intermediate step between the unassisted, solo repetition of the Wing Chun Empty Hand Forms and the complex Wing Chun routines that can be perfected with the help of a sparring partner. Moreover, an argument can be made for the superiority of the Wooden Dummy as a surrogate sparring partner, since one can strike it with a force that one would never be permitted to strike a sparring partner – not even a sparring partner kitted out with the proper sparring pads. But for certain, proficiency on the Wooden Dummy is prerequisite to exacting the optimal profit from sparring exercises with a human.
The Integration of Chi Kung Into Wooden Dummy Training
The first thing to keep in mind when using the Wooden Dummy as a tool to perfecting Wing Chun is that the Wooden Dummy is not comparable to a punching bag – it is not simply a device to punch and kick, experimentally, in lieu of punching and kicking a sparring partner kitted out with protective pads; the Wooden Dummy is a unqiue tool, which, when combined with the principles of Chi Kung (including Rooting, posture and stances – please read the main Wing Chun article (see the link 3 paragraphs above if you missed it) for a brief explanation of these concepts, and read up on Chi Kung/ Qigong here) and with a high degree of skill in the Empty Hand Forms, will enable the Wing Chun practitioner to strike the Wooden Dummy with all the force of chi, yet without causing pain to the practitioner, in much the same way that a karate master can break a stack of bricks with the edge of his hand without experiencing pain. The difference, like most things truly worth learning, is subtle, but it makes all the difference.
Thus, before even contemplating training on the Wooden Dummy, the Wing Chun practitioner must have acquired the ability to harness (tap into) his chi, since work on the Wooden Dummy is essentially about how the Wing Chun practitioner releases chi into the Wooden Dummy. This means that to profit from Wooden Dummy training, the aspiring practitioner must first have learned to "unlock" the meditative powers of Chi Kung, for Wooden Dummy training without the benefit of the power of Chi Kung only renders the Wooden Dummy an inert "dummy", a lifeless punching bag. Moreover, the power of chi cannot be harnessed, much less released, without a proper understanding of the role of Rooting and posture, as well as an understanding of the stances appropriate to a given punching or kicking routine.
The second prerequisite, as it were, to profiting from Wooden Dummy training is that the practitioner be proficient in the elementary mechanics of the Empty Hand Forms, the Siu Nim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee Forms.
In summary, the aspiring Wing Chun practitioner hoping to profit from Wooden Dummy training must have already learned, by rote, all of the component parts of these three Empty Hand Forms, meaning that the aspiring practitioner must be able to perform the various punching and kicking routines – the latter where relevant – of the Siu Nim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee Forms, mechanically, before imbuing them with the added dimension of Chi Kung that can only be acquired by means of intensive training on the Wooden Dummy, and which, of course, requires that the aspiring practitioner be able to harness his chi at will – while maintaining one's root, posture and stance – since, as indicated, training on the Wooden Dummy is essentially about unleashing the power of chi, through the three Empty Hand Forms, into the Wooden Dummy.
The Five Stages Of Wooden Dummy Training
The beauty of practicing Wing Chun on the Wooden Dummy is that, through practice – and there is no more willing an accomplice than the Wooden Dummy – the aspiring practitioner can perfect his Wing Chun skills methodically, progressing through the five phases, or stages, of Wooden Dummy training, receiving confirmation from the Wooden Dummy that one has mastered a given sequence before moving on the the next. The five stages of Wooden Dummy training are deliberately designed to aid the aspiring practitioner to bring together all of the elements of the Empty Hand Forms such that the routines can be performed seamlessly, where the aspirant, toward the end of the sequence of stages, can write new scripts for the duel, as it were, with the adversary (represented by the Wooden Dummy), and thus can, both mentally and physically, prepare himself for a myriad of unscripted scenarios that the aspiring practitioner will most likely meet when sparring, when taking part in a competition, or when, God forbid, he should be compelled to use it in an actual self-defense situation.
Stage I – The first stage of Wing Chun practice on the Wooden Dummy is a thorough review of all of the routines of the Siu Nim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee Empty Hand Forms. The goal here is to perform these routines until they can be done without having to think about their sequence, or until they can be done blindfolded, as it were. The emphasis here is not on the perfection of the movements themselves, but simply on being able to piece it all together, relatively fluidly.
However, the aspiring practitioner takes care to maintain a proper structure (including Rooting), posture and stance throughout the exercises, including the maintenance of proper Rooting, so as to avoid incorporating bad habits into the routines during the difficult beginner phase, where there might otherwise be a tendency to focus on performing the routines fluidly at the expense of maintaining structure, posture and stance (in fact, they cannot be performed fluidly with poor structure, posture and stance!).
A key element in the Wooden Dummy exercise routine is to constantly reposition one's body so as to avoid having to strike across one's body, in other words, so that one can strike in a forward manner at all times. 'Across the body' strikes must be avoided for several reasons: firstly, at a minimum, they expose one's body unnecessarily; secondly, if one fails to connect, one could very well lose one's balance; and thirdly, even if one does connect, it puts torque on the WCKF practitioner's body, causing the very kind of tensing – and destruction of rooting (i.e., uprooting) – that one wishes to avoid in Wing Chun.
In the final analysis, when the aspiring practitioner has completed all four plus one (the fifth stage, as we will see, is in fact optional) stages of Wooden Dummy training, he will appreciate that maintaining proper structure, posture and stance throughout all of the Wooden Dummy training stages while repositioning his body as necessary in order to strike in a forward manner – albeit, always obliquely, never frontally! – was the major factor in his having perfected the various Empty Hand Wing Chun routines on the Wooden Dummy.
Stage II – Not surprisingly, the second stage involves greater attention to detail, where difficult parts of the routines during the first stage may have posed coordination difficulties. These movements are disaggregated into their component parts so that the practitioner can appreciate how they fit together. Once any clumsiness is ironed out, the routines are then gradually sped up, until one can again perform all of the Siu Nim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee hand and leg moves seamlessly and fluidly – i.e., with the proper speed and timing – and in the knowledge that no corners were cut, that all of the difficult parts of the routines requiring careful coordination have been perfected while maintaining structure, posture and stance. Only then is the aspiring practitioner ready to move on to the next stage.
Stage III – The first two stages of the Wood Dummy training represent a review of the routines of the Empty Hand Forms, additionally with an eye to performing them with the proper speed and timing while maintaining one's structure, posture and stance throughout the exercises. This level of proficiency is necessary in order to meet the challenge of the third stage of Wood Dummy training, which concentrates on performing the same routines of the Empty Hand Forms but where the punches, kicks and gouges are imbued with chi.
This will necessarily involve movement of the limbs of the Wooden Dummy as well as some movement of the entire Wooden Dummy, depending on which model of Wooden Dummy one is working with – a relatively stable and therefore relatively static Hong Kong style Wooden Dummy, or a free-standing Wooden Dummy that will move significantly more with ones's punches and kicks.
When performed properly, forearm movements that strike the arms of the Wooden Dummy, irrespective of the model of the dummy, will produce a sound, and the sound produced reveals, to the experienced ear, whether the strike has been performed properly and with chi, or not. It is said that a blindfolded master can tell if an aspirant is striking the Wooden Dummy properly from the click-clack sounds produced by the strikes upon the limbs of the dummy.
With the help of a more experienced practitioner (or ideally, with the help of a tutor who is a Wing Chun master, or Sifu), the aspirant can learn the difference in the sound produced by a proper chi-amplified strike (called Fa Jin – see the main article) and one that isn't. Such feedback is invaluable, if not priceless, for when the aspirant has learned to distinguish the sound of Fa Jin, as it were, it will thereafter be much easier for him to reproduce it on his own, and note that the sound can only be properly reproduced when the unleashing of one's chi occurs at the precisely correct moment. Therefore, learning to reproduce 'the sound of Fa Jin' is the same as learning how to deliver a perfectly timed chi-amplified strike.
In stage three, the aspirant practices turns especially, since it is here where the routines can run into a rough patch. Indeed, if one's footwork does not match the "work" of one's hands, then the desired effect of the strikes will be absent; one simply cannot perform even a simple strike properly, much less a Fa Jin strike, if the footwork doesn't play its supporting role, i.e., an awkwardly poised body cannot possibly deliver the Wing Chun strike or kick properly. Much if not most of the work of stage three involves close-up routines using the forearms against the arms of the dummy, with occasional punches and gouges and the occasional "dodge" (Stepping and/or "false retreat") routine which ends in a kick (see the main article – in particular Figure 4 and the discussion immediately above and below it – for how to perform a Stepping and a "false retreat" (Repulse Monkey) routine).
Thus, in stage three, the aspirant learns to harness and unleash his chi into the Wooden Wummy, producing sounds that signal whether the strike was properly chi-amplified or not, while learning to coordinate his footwork so as to make turns and repositionings seamlessly and naturally, without which not even a simple strike can be performed properly. Having attained proficiency at this level, the aspirant begins to experience the Wooden Dummy more as a living sparring partner – especially if the Wooden Dummy is a freestanding model – than as an inert collection of pieces of wood cobbled together with nails and screws. This new dimension of the Wooden Dummy, which does wonders for one's self-confidence, will only deepen throughout the remaining stages of one's Wooden Dummy training.
Stage IV – The main focus in the fourth stage of training with the Wooden Dummy is the perfection of typical "battle" sequences consisting of relevant combinations of Siu Nim Tao and Chum Kiu hand and leg moves – and a limited number of Biu Jee hand and leg moves as well. Whereas the earlier stages of Wooden Dummy training dwelt on the perfection of the individual moves, or on short sequences of moves, the fourth stage of Wooden Dummy training envisions a complete chess match, as it were, where the aspirant practices longer sequences that correspond to unfolding contingencies that represent alternative battle courses, or directions, depending on the alternative paths taken. The goal is to become confident with a multitude of alternative sequences, leading down various alternative paths and branch paths, such that one is prepared to counter any given contingency with the appropriate series of combined moves that meet the threats as they unfold. Stage IV of Wooden Dummy training is highly dynamic.
The fourth stage is in essence the culmination of Wooden Dummy training, for the fifth stage is not integral to basic Wooden Dummy training, it represents an added dimension which not every Wing Chun practitioner might feel comfortable with, since it concerns how best to deal deadly blows, principally the deadly blows of the Biu Jee hand and leg moves as they pertain to Dim Mak (see Stage V below).
Because of the construction of the Wooden Dummy, where the individual parts as well as the entire dummy can move slightly (and can store up energy before releasing it) – some models more than others – the proper strikes to the Wooden Dummy can cause the dummy to respond in ways that mimic to some degree an actual, living opponent. This is especially the case for a freestanding Wooden Dummy, where the proper strikes, and in the right sequence, gives the uncanny impression that the Wooden Dummy is a quasi-living sparring partner. The key to performing such a series of strikes, besides a proper appreciation of the force of chi, is good footwork. (This of course subsumes that the aspiring Wing Chun practitioner has so thoroughly integrated proper structure (including Rooting), posture and stance in the earlier Wooden Dummy stages that they have become second nature.)
Thus another element of the fouth stage of Wooden Dummy training is the patient practice of good footwork, where the guiding principle is the oblique attack, never the frontal attack. This points up another important aspect of Wooden Dummy training, namely, that to execute Wing Chun Kung Fu properly requires a certain rhythm and fluidity. This, in turn, requires sufficient Wooden Dummy training in order to harden the muscles, especially the muscles of the arms and legs (the forearms and shins, respectively) where contact is made with the Wooden Dummy.
A well-conditioned student of the Wooden Dummy can strike the dummy with a force that would have caused him excruciating pain (leaving a bruise) in the initital stages of his training. As suggested above, it is said that a WCKF sifu (master) can determine the proficiency level of the aspirant simply by hearing the "feedback sounds" produced by the aspirant's work on (strikes to) the Wooden Dummy; when the aspirant has become adept on the Wooden Dummy, the dummy can be "played" almost as if it were a musical instrument! The key to proper Wooden Dummy training is to learn to strike the dummy with precisely the right degree of force (the "honey spot") – i.e., neither too hard nor too soft. This naturally requires extensive training as well as the aid of an experienced guide, or tutor, so that the aspirant learns to recognize the "honey spot".
Another aspect of the fourth stage of Wooden Dummy training is what is called eye power. There is nothing supernatural about this, the odd wording notwithstanding. All it means is that the WCKF practitioner trains to keep his vision as open and flexible and as non-prejudiced as possible. There is a tendency in a combat situation for a practitioner to tense his body, maintaining a certain amount of rigidity in the head and neck. A stiff head and neck leads to something akin to tunnel vision, where the practitioner has a tendency to focus on the opponent's eyes. Western boxers train to avoid rigid (hypnotic) eye contact for this very reason, for much information can be gleaned about the opponent's intended next move by simply observing the movement of his feet, since these tend to telegraph a move even before it occurs (if you chance upon a stray cat that is uncertain about your intentions, notice how it focuses precisely upon your feet!). Similarly, the WCKF practitioner trains to keep his vision loose and free and roving at all times, such that the tiniest details, which may provide clues to an intended move, can be registered.
Another facet of this might be called "seeing without prejudice", that is, one trains oneself to see what one actually sees – what is actually unfolding – rather than "seeing" that which one "believes" is happening, or expects to happen. The difference is somewhat subtle, but is crucial. Direct witnesses to a crime often report seeing different accounts of the same event, as if they were not witnessing the same event at all! This is because one tends to see selectively, or with what one calls a jaundiced eye (one sees what one wishes to believe one is seeing) instead of seeing what is actually taking place (there is a futuristic novel by the American author, Kurt Vonnegut, that broached this very subject, where there were a number of individuals in society who had been trained in the art and science of seeing without bias... like volunteer first-aid responders (eg., folk who can provide on the spot heart massage), their duty was to serve as 100% unbiased witnesses to any crime or social disturbance that might take place where they happened to be... the difference between their totally neutral, unprejudiced testimony and that of ordinary folk was striking!).
Therefore, in Wing Chun, the aspirant strives to divest himself of seeing "with a jaundiced eye", for only by observing one's opponent's moves accurately does the WCKF practitioner stand a realistic chance of responding appropriately.
Lastly trapping moves form an integral part of the fourth stage of Wooden Dummy training.
Stage V – The fifth and final stage of Wooden Dummy training (Stage V/ the Dim Mak stage being an add-on, or optional phase; in fact, Dim Mak is not integral to Wing Chun at all and therefore is not taught by many Wing Chun masters (sifu)) is an understanding of how to apply meridian-point, or pressure-point, strikes that allegedly can instantaneously incapacitate an opponent – even kill, sometimes with a delay.*(1) That is, the fifth stage of Wooden Dummy training concerns itself with the theory, techniques and practice of Dim Mak (dian mai [點脈], literally, "to press an artery", alternatively, dian xue [點穴], literally, "to strike a pressure point", sometimes called the "touch of death" but generally referred to as "pressure point strikes").
*(1) Meridian points, or pressure points, refer to specific points on the pathways along which one's chi, or life force, is believed to traverse. There is naturally much dispute, especially in the West, concerning the empirical evidence that purports to back up the claim that death can be brought on simply by striking, by applying pressure to or by manipulating by other means such key points of the body. However, what is generally and widely accepted is that there do indeed exist such sensitive points of the body where even slight pressure is sufficient to produce considerable pain, and in some cases, serious injury. As the reader can divine, the theory, techniques and practice of Dim Mak belong to the same stable of esotericist notions to which belongs acupuncture.
Some Wing Chun masters insist that everything that is sought achieved by Dim Mak can also be achieved with the help of normal Wing Chun Empty Hand techniques such as judicious strikes to the neck with the edge of a hand ( a chop) or punches to the solar plexus and other key stress points. Indeed, these sifu claim that normal, but judiciously placed Wing Chun strikes can get the job done faster and with considerably less risk to the WCKF practitioner, especially considering that to get close enough to latch onto the opponent at the pressure points envisioned, if the Dim Mak fails to do its job, then the attacker has exposed himself to near-lethal elbow and knee jabs from the opponent. In fact, Dim Mak, they would argue, flies in the face of everything that Wing Chun, which, by its very nature, is supremely defensive, stands for.
The use of the Wooden Dummy, as we have seen in the above, is a valuable helper in perfecting the Empty Hand Forms of Wing Chun. Indeed, it is an indispensible aid to truly learning Wing Chun on a practical level. It is also the ideal tool for learning to imbue the three Empty Hand Forms of Wing Chun with Chi Kung (alternatively, qigong), such that the force of the Siu Nim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Jee strikes, punches and kicks, as the case may be, is significantly amplified. Lastly, the Wooden Dummy can be used to learn the controversial fifth-stage deadly training called Dim Mak, which is aimed at striking meridian points – or key pressure points, including mainly points on arteries – which strikes, it is claimed, can quickly incapacitate an opponent.