Chi Sao, known as “sticky hands” or “contact sensitivity”, is an essential part of Wing Chun and arguably combat in any style. You don’t have to know what it is to use and develop it. It’s just easier if you know it’s important and have a system to develop it.
As a Wing Chun practitioner/instructor for 20 years who’s trained in martial arts for 29 years, I haven’t seen everything and experienced every martial art and variation, but I have enough experience to back up strong opinions.
I have strong opinions about what is good, effective instructional style, what is and is not Wing Chun and the merits of various martial arts applied to reality. I don’t view everything through a Wing Chun lense as much as I view Wing Chun & other martial arts through a reality lense.
The Myths of Chi Sao
I’ve seen and heard many online and offline comments that present chi sao as ‘theoretical training’ that has nothing to do with fighting. I expect this sort of misunderstanding from people who don’t know anything about Wing Chun or do other martial arts. The worst myths are perpetuated by some Wing Chun schools that a) bore students to death and/or b) focus mainly on chi sao and forms as ends unto themselves. It gives us all a bad rep and completely misses the point of chi sao as a powerful combat tool.
Don’t tell me how good you are
I meet people socially who ask about kung fu all the time. I enjoy sharing what I know and find something positive to say about whatever art they train in. On rare occasion, I have a troubling conversation with someone who does a different style of Wing Chun. Even though they already know I’m a master instructor with 20 years in, they often tell me pretty basic things “it’s all about the centerline and contact feel!”, followed by a recitation of how great they and their Sifu are because they are part of the BEST lineage. I do my best not to roll my eyes, because it’s arrogant and pointless to go on about lineages. No offense, but your lineage doesn’t make you or your instructor any good at all. The painful part of the conversation is when someone asks to see how good I am. It always goes like this:
Them: “I’d like to see how good you are. Can you roll hands with me?”
Me: “I’m good. Rolling hands is just a drill. Fighting is the real thing. If you want to see how good I am, you’ll need to either come to my class or attack me.”
Them: “Well, we don’t do much in the way of combat yet. My Sifu says I can do more next year.”
I don’t want to (and I make it a rule not to) fight people at cocktail parties, but I really wonder how anyone expects to see how good I am from a drill? It would be like trying to see how good a comic was by watching them write jokes.
The Myths of chi sao:
- Wing Chun is just short distance energy feel & striking.
- Wing Chun is what Bruce Lee learned, so it’s about his dynamic, explosive style. It only works when you’re stronger to blast through the center.
- Wing Chun was invented by a woman. It’s too soft, all defense & no offense.
- Wing Chun can’t win against other martial arts. Look at video x as proof where some guy loses to some other guy.
- Wing Chun begins and ends with chi sao (energy feel). If you are great at chi sao, you can’t lose. This is the WORST myth.
The Truth of Chi Sao is better than the Myths
Truth 1. Real Combat Involves Physical Contact
The incredibly obvious is worth noting. You can’t learn to fight without physical contact. You can’t develop confidence to handle anything real without practising against attacks with power.
- One way to do that is learn a bit of skill and then full contact “spar”. Without sufficient skill, you are at risk of injuring others and getting injured. Lots of minor injuries will reduce training time and there’s the risk of serious injury before you develop real skill. You can learn to take a hit by getting knocked around, injured, heal up and then repeat many, many times.
- You could play it safe. Spar like a baby. Don’t actually touch, or have only light contact where there is no risk of anyone ever getting hurt.
- A better option is to develop a sense of control and contact sensitivity so that you can take a hit without getting injured. All the padding in the world is not as good as learning to flow.
Chi Sao is a fundamental skill that helps you feel, respond and handle energy. If you learn chi sao before going into sparring, you are less likely to lose control and more likely to absorb blows harmlessly when you make mistakes. You aren’t going to learn anything if you get injured.
Truth 2. Everything is Chi Sao, but Chi Sao isn’t everything. – Sifu Stewart
Chi Sao /Chi Sau is the application of contact sensitivity to combat. If an attacker doesn’t touch, he’s just mouthing off and posturing. Therefore, all fighting involves chi sao. All good fighters have an ability to feel intent, react and counter by feel. Instead of picking it up by accident, Wing Chun cultivates it specifically since it’s so important.
All grappling arts deal with feeling and manipulating energy. The problem I see is putting things in boxes. Grapplers started in wrestling clinches or on the ground and don’t apply contact sensitivity to stand up fighting (punching, kicking, elbows and knees). All forms of fighting involve aggressive contact, so one theory for how to deal with all forms of attack is better than using style A for this form of fighting and style B for something else and so on. All fighting involves aggressive energy (an attack) and a defender’s ability to detect, respond and manipulate that energy for a positive result (ie. the defender not getting hurt and neutralizing the attacker). Since all fighting comes down to energy transfer, learning contact sensitivity (chi sao) should be fundamental to any style you care to use.
Truth 3. Connect The Dots (Chi Sao ..> Combat ..> Chi Sao)
If you do chi sao drills as an abstraction and then combat as separate things, you may miss the point of chi sao. If you skip the combat application, you will miss the entire point of it. What I like to do is have students practice a chi sao drill, then apply it immediately afterward in combat practice.
What we want to avoid is the “kata problem”. In my youth, I trained in martials that had forms (kata). Then there was sparring which had no bearing at all on the kata. I have no use for tradition unless it is relevant to how I might use it, so I could never really get into “kata”. Chi sao can be the same thing. When I hear some Wing Chun people say they are so good at chi sao because of how they roll arms, I answer with this:
“Double arm is a good drill, but can you apply chi sao to someone trying to punch your head in, or grapple you to the ground? Can you roll with it if you get hit?” If all you’ve done is roll arms, you have skill of only theoretical value.
Constantly circling back from pure chi sao drills to combat applications is what makes chi sao relevant and important. At its best it can almost be a secret weapon because contact feel information is truth that translates into action without intervening conscious thought. What you see is misleading and slower to act on. As students progress, I have them apply it to ground defenses, kneeling, wall, weapons, everything and anything because Wing Chun’s principles make it an adaptive martial art that applies universally, not just to close contact open handed range. With highly advanced students, their chi sao gets pushed further with multiple attackers, floorcraft, defending from any angle or position. Chi sao does make everything better, but making a game out of chi sao drills suggests chi sao is an end unto itself. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end.
Chi Sao is good ONLY if it helps you in combat
The way I was taught and the way I have made it my own is in tune with the idea that ‘Wing Chun is about winning, nothing else‘. It’s a principle-based martial art. Any technique that follows the principles is good Wing Chun. Most agree on the following principles:
- Centerline – control your centerline where you are likely to be attacked. Deal effectively with the attacker’s centerline where most attacks originate.
- Forward Intention
- Economy of Motion
- Chi Sao (contact sensitivity)
How you interpret that leads to a broad spectrum of ‘What Chun Is’ vs ‘What Wing Chun Isn’t’. Many Wing Chun schools focus intently on Chi Sao as if it was an end in itself. The statement ‘if you need to test, just go spar with someone’ is dismissive and wrong. Combat IS an essential part of chi sao practice because it presents you with problems that chi sao helps you solve. Pure chi sao drills allow your mind to relax and develop control of yourself in contact with an attacker, but only if you know what you’re going to do with it & can methodically seek what you need and then test how well it works in combat.
Test it or accept that its no good
When outsiders look at Wing Chun and see a game of rolling arms, they often think Wing Chun isn’t relevant to real world fights. Sometimes they’re right. While chi sao drills are incredibly important, there are people who are great at chi sao but not prepared for free form anything-goes combat. I have the respect for how others teach, but I have my own solid view. I don’t keep Chi Sao in a box. When new students start, sometimes they ask when they can start chi sao. I show them a simple technique to handle a punch. When they deflect the punch, I tell them ‘There: Now you’re doing chi sao. Do you feel my punch trying to hit you? Did you feel yourself deflecting the power in the punch? If you felt it and deflected, you used chi sao. We’re going to cultivate it many different ways over months and years so it helps you calmly handle anything.’ The point isn’t that chi sao can be taught in 5 minutes, but that the questions “what is chi sao? why do I want to get good at it? what is the end point of it?” can be clarified early.
Contact feel information is truth that translates into action without intervening conscious thought. – Sifu Stewart
When you spend as much time on combat applications as pure chi sao drills, you unlock the meaning and point of chi sao. If you’re interested in defending any number of attackers using any martial art or weapons, you need more than abstract drills. Combat makes you seek better chi sao. By completing the circle, chi sao and Wing Chun itself can be part of a truly complete approach to combat.
While chi sao is essential to Wing Chun, we all need to be methodical at training in realistic combat to unlock the value of developing contact sensitivity.
Do you want to learn something real? Do you test it?
I didn’t start learning martial arts long ago because I was too bored to go to the gym. I didn’t start Wing Chun because I was bored with other martial arts. I wanted to master skills and build confidence in my ability to handle any form of real violence towards me or others. I wasn’t interested in playing games or lineages. Isn’t ‘xyz’ style great because Ip Man or Bruce Lee or Wong Fei Hung did it and it looks cool? My master is better than yours so my style must be better. I couldn’t care less unless I can make it work for me. Wing Chun works for me.
Peace, Sifu Bill