|Sifu Jack Leung trains on the wooden dummy
The Wooden Man is Born
Of all the solo training aids and equipment used in the many martial arts out there, one apparatus stands out as a must-have for training the system: Wing Chun’s mook yan jong or wooden dummy (wooden man). The modern wooden dummy varies in size, shape and functionality, and is utilised across many different styles for various purposes; however, traditionally its most recognisable home is within the multiple Wing Chun kung fu systems and families of the world.
One popular legend or version of its history suggests that around 300 years ago, the Shaolin Temple had a long hall with 108 individual wooden dummies (as replicated in Jackie Chan’s Shaolin Wooden Men, among other kung fu flicks) whereby the practitioner would train (over and over) a single technique on each until proficient.
After the burning of the temple by the marauding Manchu army, it’s believed the Buddhist nun Ng Mui (supposedly the originator of Wing Chun) helped redesign and build a single standing wooden dummy, traditionally made from tree trunks set in the ground with two upper protruding arms, one midsection arm and a lower, bent leg configuration, then combined all 108 techniques into a single form for greater efficiency and practicality.
Once the jong became a recognised part of Wing Chun’s curriculum, it inherited an aura of prestige. This saw a lot of dummies being created with the finest timber by gifted craftsmen for only the top echelon of Wing Chun practitioners, who would pass on their skills only to those deemed worthy.
Fast forward to today and you have a serious piece of equipment that has stood the test of time and is still regarded with reverence. There are still wooden dummies in circulation that have been owned, used and handed down by the late, great modern legends of kung fu and Wing Chun, from Yip Man to Bruce Lee.
Jong training for dummies
Here we’ll look at training on the wooden dummy as it’s done in Grandmaster Wan Kam Leung’s Practical Wing Chun kung fu — a branch of the Wing Chun lineage most commonly seen in the West today, that being Yip Man’s method, from Foshan, China via Hong Kong.
The official mook yan jong form itself is usually taught to a student once they have completed the three empty-hand forms of Wing Chun, so they can best understand and apply most of the combined techniques into the wooden dummy’s 108-movement sequence.
This should not, however, be the first time a student physically uses the jong, as it greatly enhances a beginner’s overall structure to use it for drilling basic techniques individually. With their teacher’s guidance and permission, students should be continually familiarised with the principles of using the jong right up to and beyond when they actually learn the full form itself.
Upon commencement and throughout training the jong form, particular attention must be paid to the positioning and distancing of your torso from the trunk. Your feet are to maintain a 50/50 weight distribution and your head, neck and spinal alignment should be straight and run parallel to the trunk. Also, your energy distribution throughout the form should be directed at the trunk, which represents the opponent’s primary centreline and should always be your main focus for control.
Those attributes will greatly improve your chances of getting the best results from your jong training.
Why Take On the Wooden Man?
There are many reasons the wooden dummy has become an integral part of the Wing Chun system across all lineages and incarnations. Let’s look at the positives of working on the jong here:
Depending on how well your wooden dummy is anchored or braced, you have a solo training apparatus into which you can safely deliver considerable power and bone-breaking kicks that can’t be practised on a live partner. You can place strike-padding on the jong to throw powerful, full-fisted hand strikes, elbows and low, mid-level and high kicks safely instead of breaking your knuckles, ankles and shins on a solid hardwood trunk.
You learn to continually apply correct body alignment, in particular with your spinal vertebrae. If you dip your head or hunch your back during application, you will suffer a loss of good power and balance.
The dummy form reinforces the alignment and interplay of the five centrelines of Practical Wing Chun. Our fourth (distance) centreline can be practised and understood using the jong from early on to greater enhance your distancing, timing and power, helping your Wing Chun to mature with good motor skills and proficiency. This also applies to other martial arts systems with their own centreline theories.
In harmony with your distance centreline, your individual techniques will improve in structure, angle and delivery. The jong’s trunk, arms and leg aren’t as pliable as a person’s, and this helps you learn to keep your shoulders relaxed and elbows in with forward, ‘sinking’ energy for speed and explosiveness.
Throughout the jong form, you learn to focus and channel soft, flowing power and energy through the trunk — not arms. This is part of Wing Chun’s principles and theory of simultaneous attack and defence utilising deflection and striking combinations — two equal and opposite forces in harmony (yin-yang). You will learn NOT to clash by using force-on-force blocking techniques, unless it’s for the sole benefit of forearm- and leg-conditioning, for which there are separate jong drills.
Often neglected palm-strikes and powerful palm-pushes (po-pai) are applied with great effectiveness on the jong, giving the practitioner greater confidence and a broader attacking arsenal for combat instead of just closed-fisted attacks.
When moving between techniques and sections of the jong form, you develop essential flexibility and fluidity in your torso that marries up with your interchanging footwork. This acts as a key ally when faced with the absorption and deflection of oncoming force, and the simultaneous generation and distribution of attacking power from your core or ‘centre’ (dan tien).
Over time, accurate, balanced and powerful kicking is developed on the jong, as its rigidity and inflexibility gives the student honest feedback regarding their positioning and balance when executing a kick. For example, on completion of a kicking technique, the student should feel the trunk move with the force and still maintain 50/50 balance to flow on to the next technique without feeling jarred or unbalanced.
You can train solo for an unlimited time (wooden dummies don’t get bored) and continuously improve your technique delivery and structure in view of pressure testing with a live training partner when available.
Though the jong form shouldn’t promote harsh clashing, it still inadvertently provides substantial physical conditioning of the arms and legs throughout the 108 moves and other drills, so you can comfortably withstand and manipulate a person’s bone structure during paired drills, sparring and actual combat.
Multiple styles and weapons can be utilised on the wooden dummy to great effect. For example, Wing Chun’s long pole and butterfly/eight-slash swords can be used to check your power and stability in wielding the weapons on the jong — if you can move and rattle the jong with a weapon, a human adversary is unlikely to stand a chance. Practitioners of other styles that can also benefit from using the jong include eskrima (stick-fighting), Hung Gar, for its infamous forearm conditioning and power drills, and Choy Lay Fut, which also has wooden dummy drills for fight conditioning.
(Note: Keep in mind that if using real sharp-edged weapons such as butterfly swords on the jong, you may want to sufficiently pad it out prior to slicing and dicing or have a second, cheaper and older wooden dummy handy, otherwise you’ll soon be up for an expensive replacement bill.)
10 Dummy ‘Don’ts’
Even though proper wooden-dummy training has undeniable and essential benefits, it can be, and often is, approached, taught and used in a way that’s missing the entire point of its true purpose. Popular mainstream media and a quick-dollar mentality tends to bring out less reputable and sometimes farcical teachings of the wooden-dummy method, so keep in mind the following points when training:
The wooden dummy is a static (inanimate) object, not a live opponent. You need to clear your mind of any notion that you will get a true sense of real combat engagement, no matter how vigorously you train on the ‘wooden warrior’.
Your training is based on your own chosen pace and rhythm rather than the unpredictable and broken rhythm of a live training partner. You are solely reliant on your imagination, which can promote unrealistic timing and response.
It’s very difficult to perform realistic arm-breaks, marn da, lap-sau or any basic, downward, manipulative movement, as the jong has barely any give in that direction. Some may argue that this is a positive for developing power; however, I would contest this because I’ve often seen this resistance lead students to overcompensate with brute strength and apply poor structure, which will ultimately make their techniques rigid and easy to manipulate.
Sticking with its rigidity, a student can incorrectly use the arms on the jong as weight leverage to assist their kicking techniques. A live person is too flexible and quick for this to be practical.
There are no reverse (behind your back) techniques performed in the jong form, so it’s not practical for training to deal with a sneaky king-hit, bear-hug or takedown from behind, etc.
If the wooden dummy is not height-adjustable, it can lead to very poor structure and delivery of techniques, depending on your own height.
The odd (amateur) manufacturer may make the arms or leg inappropriately spaced apart and at drastically different thicknesses, making life difficult if transitioning between schools with differently made dummies.
The wooden dummy cannot advance toward you, so footwork practice is limited to moving only forward or diagonally forward and pivoting. This training excludes any retreating footwork while attacking, which is essential to Wing Chun combat and bad news for advancing opponents.
There are several footwork movements in the jong form that are very impractical (too many steps and take too long) that would see you come unstuck very quickly against an experienced aggressor.
A very important warning: Using the dummy to show off is a big mistake. Displaying speed in imperfect technique for the sake of it and randomly hitting the arms and leg to make the loudest noise possible might look macho, but this is a very common error that causes the student to lose their structure and considerably decrease their power, and plateau in their skill level. These are all very bad outcomes for a real street encounter; remember, the aim should be to use no more than three techniques to end a violent exchange, not 300 (leave that to TV shows like Arrow!).
Note, the negatives I’ve outlined here are not to discourage anyone from using a wooden dummy, but to better understand its purpose in modern Wing Chun kung fu so that jong training is used for what it’s good for, not for what it isn’t, and thus it only enhances your skills.
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