SIU LIM TAU
BY CURT JAMES
The essentials of Wing Chun Kuen are preserved through its first training set known as Siu Lim Tau. Siu Lim Tau is best translated as "Small Idea." It signifies a humble beginning and is designed to guide one in the right direction from the outset of training. The introduction of the combat orientated exercise Sticky Hands (Chi Sau) and remaining hand sets--Searching for the Bridge (Chum Kiu) and Shooting Fingers (Biu Jee)--direct the Wing Chun student to advanced levels of proficiency. The mastery of Wooden Dummy techniques and Wing Chun Weapons represents completion.
Wing Chun's three hand sets describe a textbook for the complete system of Wing Chun Kuen. Some modern instructors may regard forms practice with suspicion, but these routines are beneficial in a many ways. A set or routine represents a time capsule for future generations. Since ancient times, special schools have maintained systems of movement to preserve and transmit important knowledge. Moving meditation and sacred postures or gymnastics are common to many disciplines of the Far East. Such exercises promote a complete and harmonious development in man. Martial arts also function in this capacity, especially those connected with Chinese religious and philosophical traditions.
As a beginning set, Siu Lim Tau demonstrates the initial training phase for a pupil by providing a vital infrastructure for Wing Chun boxing. Siu Lim Tau motions are designed primarily as fundamentals of techniques. However many of its movements are immediately useful and practical. It is understood all the Wing Chun "seed" concepts are discovered in the confines of this subtle routine. Through the mastery of Siu Lim Tau the remainder of Wing Chun skills will follow quickly and naturally. Without a solid, efficient base all subsequent forms and techniques will, by association, be established on hollow ground.
Like many concepts in Wing Chun Kuen, the meaning of Siu Lim Tau can be examined on various levels. A translation reveals that Siu means Small, Little or Humble. Lim (Nim) means to think or remember, also to read or recite aloud. This term is associated with many Buddhist phrases such as Prayer Beads (Lim Chu), Repeating Prayers (Lim Ching) and Reciting Amida (Lim Fut). Tau means Head, Top or Summit. When combined together, Lim Tau signifies a thought or idea--this indicates Mind. Siu Lim Tau therefore describes a simple intention, a humble thought, a small beginning or even a concise religious ideal.
It has been noted Siu Lim Tau set was once designated Siu Lien Tau or Little Training Set. There is evidence to support this opinion. Some say Yip Man's genius should be credited for renaming this training set Small Idea. If true, this would display Yip Man's grasp of the essence and deeper significance behind the martial arts. However, this is difficult to ascertain since other Wing Chun lineages, such as Pao Fa Lien Wing Chun, also identify their first training set as Little Idea. As a religious ideal, Siu Lim Tau is also anticipated in the phrase Saam Bai Fut (Three Bows to Buddha)--the name of the Shaolin training set from which Siu Lim Tau reportedly descends. These notions and others, if true, may demonstrate that Siu Lim Tau's ideology was established early and was a reflection of the Shaolin Buddhist tradition.
To appreciate Siu Lim Tau as a basic training set one might also consider the Small Idea in a philosophical context. It is often said that the end is determined by the beginning. The Tao-te Ching states, "Difficult things of the world can only be tackled when they are easy. Big things of the world can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings."1 According to Grandmaster Yip Man, Siu Lim Tau signifies the concept of Building up an Idea. This also points to simplicity recognized and nurtured within a complex world. Small Idea assists one in building an efficient martial foundation for later success. The pupil will comprehend the "amazing nature" of this fact only through constant practice.2
Wing Chun Kuen is said to be more than just a fighting style. According to legend, it descended from a Buddhist tradition that possessed great insight into all areas of human development. However, the primary aim presented in Wing Chun training, and Siu Lim Tau as well, is focused upon self-defense. Maxims of Siu Lim Tau state, "There are one hundred and eight moves, all practical and real. Thousands of variations can be used, Aiming for practical use and not beauty." It should be kept in mind that Wing Chun Kuen and its concice, practical training program is essentially combat orientated.
Siu Lim Tau training is the foundation upon which Wing Chun Kuen is based. Wing Chun masters regard the Siu Lim Tau set as analogous to an alphabet which allows for the construction of key fighting words and sentences. This allows one to compose combat orientated works in a free manner without a rigid system or even the ideas of others. Training in Siu Lim Tau points to mastery of "root" techniques. In this way, the fighter will have the means of expressing personal, complete ideas in combat application.
Tsui Sheung Tin wrote that Siu Lim Tau set consists of two parts: Force of Idea and Structure. The development and use of correct body structure is an important facet of training. Wing Chun's Basic Posture (Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma) develops stability and is designed to focus "energy" towards a specific target. It is through the natural contraction of the lower abdominal muscles that one's body and legs are encouraged to function as one unit. This unity permits the legs to maintain a ready state and allows for generation of the "Force of Idea." The basic hand movements--Taan Sau, Bong Sau and Fok Sau represent the finest structures created to utilize this force!3
"The Force of Idea," states master Tin, "is simply a concentration of one's mind so that every part of the body is filled up with internal strength... Siu-Nim-Tau is the guide to the full concentration of the mind. If practised properly, one can drive one's internal strength into any part of one's body at any time. One is said to have gained the Force of Idea from Siu-Nim-Tau if one can maintain concentration of one's mind even if there are rapid moves." Siu Lim Tau practice also develops other fine qualities such as spiritual clarity or Mind only. It is through the reduction of thoughts and feelings that a state of "emptiness" and detachment is achieved. It is said when the mind is calm, the body relaxes and the Ch'i (vital force) flows naturally. In this way the Force of Idea can be most effectively applied.
Siu Lim Tau directs the martial artist to a humble beginning and therefore an essential development. This includes physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of life. Regarding the latter, consistent practice of the Small Idea encourages the uncovering of the translucent through "Seeing into one's own nature." By directly pointing to the Mind and that which is real, one acquires Suchness or Awareness--a necessary quality for the realization of truth and reality. This essential renewal or purification of the Mind remains untouched by ordinary human beings. It is suggested that perhaps we are not simple enough.
Within Siu Lim Tau set, three parts introduce the basic techniques and skills utilized in later combinations and other Wing Chun forms. The hand techniques learned are used both offensively and defensively. Siu Lim Tau, because of its immobile nature, is not generally applicable. Siu Lim Tau skills must be combined with Wing Chun footwork and other qualities from advanced sets to be truly effective. The Basic Posture (Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma) is the source of all footwork. Here, in Siu Lim Tau, the Basic Posture finds its greatest expression. As first form and level in Wing Chun Kuen, Siu Lim Tau is considered preliminary. The first practical combat level begins with Wing Chun's second form Chum Kiu (Searching for the Bridge).
At first glance Siu Lim Tau set appears simplistic and even uninvolved. As indicated this training routine contains all the seed movements inherent in Wing Chun Kuen. Moreover, the basic Posture employed is based on a pyramid and represents the Wing Chun principle of fluidity of motion and "economy of energy." Hand skills and techniques are based on pyramid or triangular positions as well. These facts betray Wing Chun's advanced geometric design and clearly demonstrate many improvements and simplifications accomplished in relation to the original Shaolin methods.
When performing Siu Lim Tau, nearly the entire first section is practiced very slowly. Here a pupil concentrates on fundamental aspects of the set: building up a foundation, technique, patience, mental clarity, etc. Also, these slow motions allow one to enhance the function of the individual muscles separately. Without using muscular strength, one generates the correct, natural amount of tension in the arms and body--neither too tight nor loose. The practitioner isolates and develops Ch'i (vitality) through natural tension. This method serves to increase the potential energy of the individual; it then stores and circulates that energy in a natural, beneficial way. Thus, one learns to control his Ch'i and eventually to direct it to every part of his body.
Siu Lim Tau's first section introduces three Wing Chun family techniques: Taan Sau (Spreading Hand), Bong Sau (Tying Arm), and Fok Sau (Neutral Hand). Striking techniques such as the Fist and Palm are also introduced. Correct elbow positioning or movement is also acquired. The elbow serves a special function in Wing Chun Kuen. Like the knees and hips, the elbow assists in generating and directing power used in hand techniques. If the position of the elbow is incorrect, other positions are also affected. In most hand techniques, the elbow remains down and in--pushing and pulling. Correct elbow movement is vital for developing a powerful yet economical punch. It also assists in the maintenance of a better defensive line. Siu Lim Tau practice is instrumental in strengthening firm, structural techniques like the Wing Chun "immovable" elbow.
It might be added that Siu Lim Tau's slow section also allows a pupil to practice mental clarity and Emptiness as described above. The mind should be like a mirror, reflecting all images and yet not stirred to restlessness. This promotes psychological simplicity--an important trait in the handling of complex situations. Beyond this, the cultivation of Mind or Awareness is also an essential quality of Siu Lim Tau practice. Siu Lim Tau's first section is often performed up to an hour in length. What an excellent opportunity for the mastery of this quality.
The second and third parts of Siu Lim Tau are executed at regular, normal speed. It has been suggested Siu Lim Tau's second section is similar to the Muscle Change Classic (I-Chin Ching). The entire set could be viewed as a type of yogic practice. But Siu Lim Tau mainly introduces principles and techniques for self-defense. The fighter learns to release power at the completion of each motion. "Each movement must be clear and crisp." The techniques are sharp, direct, and designed to maintain control of the centerline. The fighter learns to move quickly and yet remain in a natural state of relaxation. This allows for a smooth, transitional flow from motion to motion.
After the introduction of the Siu Lim Tau set, this form may be performed with Wing Chun's Single-leg stance (Duk Lop Ma). This mode of practice further develops balance, strength and introduces correct structure and fundamentals for Wing Chun kicking. This type of training may be delayed until the Single-leg stance is introduced and mastered. Both of these methods, Regular and Single-leg Siu Lim Tau, have certain purposes unique to it. Practicing Siu Lim Tau set in either way develops a strong, balanced and potentially mobile stance.
The centerline principle is dominant throughout Wing Chun Kuen and is presented in each training set beginning with Siu Lim Tau. In one way, the centerline refers to the vertical plane which extends from the middle-front of the fighter. This imaginary line (or plane) originates from the "vertical axis-line" of the body. In a practical sense the centerline refers to the line or plane which exists between two fighters. This suggests the closest line for attack and defense. Obviously, this centerline is later distinguished from the "middle-front" or central line of the body.
In Siu Lim Tau, the centerline divides the body into left and right halves. At chest level, a horizontal line divides the upper body high and low. Since both hands are utilized in self-defense, the centerline concept assists the fighter in applying logical deflection or defense. Strikes approaching from the left are parried left; those from the right are deflected right. The centerline principle can also be applied high and low. This corresponds to the Wing Chun "four-gate theory," which permits a fighter to employ both hands equally to control and overcome an opponent.
According to Wing Chun theory, offense is the best defense. "The closest distance between two points is a straight line." Wing Chun's rapid-fire punches are based on this practical idea. As noted, understanding the centerline also teaches the fighter to regain and protect his position. The object of this approach is to form a "triangular zone" of defense around the centerline. This is clearly demonstrated in Wing Chun's main On-Guard fighting position (Jon Sau). Using this principle, one may easily deflect many kinds of strikes. Wing Chun triangles are also important for penetrating the defense of an opponent. Simply put, practice and alertness of the centerline assists in logical, effective martial tactics.
Siu Lim Tau is a fascinating form and each of its 108 movements reward the pupil with numerous concepts and techniques. Siu Lim Tau practice mainly represents the idea of complete simplicity. When applied, Siu Lim Tau movements should be direct and efficient. This principle is responsible for the economical and practical skills that permits a fighter to reach a high level of accomplishment. In accordance with the Shaolin tradition, Siu Lim Tau set also offers the disciple complete and balanced training. Siu Lim Tau prepares one for an arduous journey, one that is as difficult as it is to be simple!
Siu Lim Tau training promotes key fundamental principles in Wing Chun Kuen: It acquaints one with Wing Chun's structural foundation--the pyramid. This encourages centering and sinking skills. It introduces the centerline concept and demonstrates correct position and movement of the elbow. Siu Lim Tau set demands physical relaxation and mental clarity. Hence, a pupil is introduced to the concept of Awareness (Mind only). Siu Lim Tau also promotes Ch'i development through natural breathing, thus stimulating the circulation and function of various organs of the body. Siu Lim Tau is considered good, healthy exercise.
Siu Lim Tau set develops Wing Chun's three major family techniques known as Taan Sau, Bong Sau and Fok Sau. These skills serve as models for advanced hand techniques and exercises. As such, Siu Lim Tau preserves and introduces all the basic self-defense techniques used in this system. This implies that Siu Lim Tau set is prerequisite for training in Chum Kiu, Biu Jee and the Wooden Dummy because these skills are instrumental in the application of all Wing Chun techniques. Siu Lim Tau practice generates the foundation for all subsequent aspects of the fighting art.
Upon learning Wing Chun advanced sets, the fighter will automatically develop and refine Siu Lim Tau movements even more. Siu Lim Tau, Chum Kiu, and Biu Jee may even be practiced as one complete set, for Wing Chun's three hand forms are closely related. The result of this intrinsic, cyclic association is that Siu Lim Tau movements can be used to counter advanced skills such as circular techniques and Biu Jee emergency applications. Without a strong basis in Small Idea, it is difficult to advance to higher levels of Wing Chun training. This simple, practical form consolidates all the groundwork for the Wing Chun exponent. Truly, Siu Lim Tau is the right beginning.
1. Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu, Translated by Dr. John C. H. Wu,
Edited by Dr. Paul K. T. Sih, 63.