Bruce Lee's Wing Chun Hands Method Explained

Bruce Lee famously began his martial arts training in Wing Chun kung fu under the legendary Grandmaster Ip Man, but how far did his training in the system go before he began his own experimental journey toward developing Jeet Kune Do?

Bruce Lee Wing Chun
Bruce Lee famously began his martial arts training in Wing Chun kung fu under the legendary Grandmaster Ip Man.

JKD instructor and philosophy lecturer Ricardo Vargas explains how different — and effective — the JKD trapping method is compared to the Wing Chun chi-sao (sticky-hands drills) from which it came.

Bruce Lee was expressing his personal experience when he made the statement: “The truth in combat is different for each individual.”

Whenever he was talking about martial arts, philosophy or any other aspect of life, he was referring to his particular and personal experience on that topic. So, in order to avoid misunderstandings about the ideas discussed in this article, it is essential to emphasise that we are not referring directly to a particular style or martial arts system, but to the experience of Lee’s practising it. For instance, it is a big mistake and lacks respect to say that Lee modified or ‘evolved’ the traditional Wing Chun kung fu. Lee did not modify any martial arts system at all; what he really did was to modify his personal understanding and practice of it. So, when we talk of JKD, we are not talking about any system as such; instead, as a JKD instructor, I can only share my own experience of training in JKD principles based on the training experiences of my instructors (the first generation of Lee’s students), which were based on the training experiences of Lee himself. This is important to note, as Lee’s way was one of “no way”.

Foundations

Kung fu is based on the Taoist principle of the yin and the yang, a pair of complementary and interdependent forces that act continuously in this universe. The common mistake of most martial artists is to identify these two forces, yin and yang, as dualistic (soft style and firm style). But yin and yang coexist as one inseparable force, an unceasing interplay of movement. Firmness is concealed in softness and softness in firmness. Activity includes inactivity and inactivity includes activity. If yin and yang are viewed as two separate entities, realisation of the ultimate reality of kung fu won’t be achieved. This is the philosophical and technical principle behind chi-sao, the trapping training method of traditional Wing Chun kung fu.

Chi-sao is not a method of fighting, it is a method of developing sensitivity in the arms so you can feel your opponent’s intentions and moves. Chi-sao teaches correct elbow position, the right type of energy, feeling for an opponent’s ‘emptiness’, and defending with minimum motion by keeping within the nucleus of the four corners. Movement in chi-sao is like a flowing stream, never still. Flowing from one position to another, chi-sao avoids the attaching of oneself to a particular object. The smoother and more constant your flow, the more you can take advantage of the opponent's most minute openings. All serious and professional teachers agree that effective sensitivity is only developed by practising this sticky-hands drill with a competent and skilled partner.

Turning Points

Bruce Lee trained for only a few years in the art of Wing Chun at the Ip Man school in Hong Kong, so he developed a good foundation but he did not complete the whole system. At the age of 18, he moved to the United States to claim his citizenship status and began to share his passion for martial arts with his close friends. At the beginning, he was teaching what he knew of the Chinese martial arts methods he had practised back in Hong Kong. Then, based on his personal experience of practising, applying and teaching martial arts, Lee began to adjust the stances, angles and positions of his Wing Chun techniques, also adding longer range kicking and unconventional punching techniques from other different combat styles. He drew not only on Asian arts, but from all sources — if he could try it and/or research and experiment with it, he did so.

At Lee’s Oakland school, the second that he opened in the USA, Lee had to fight with Wong Yak Man, a well-known Chinese martial arts instructor, in order to get the approval of the Chinese community to teach Chinese kung fu to non-Chinese students. This event is considered the turning point that led Lee to develop his Jeet Kune Do. Until this episode, Lee had been content with improvising and expanding on his original Wing Chun, but after the altercation, Lee judged that his modified system had limited his performance. He concluded that a strict adherence to his version of Wing Chun was too confining for him, in part because it had very few long range kicks. He also deduced that he was wasting energy in his movement given that the fight had left him fatigued. And so he began to add new dimensions to his art. He searched for the best within himself but also studied other combat arts and from this research, he absorbed what was useful and rejected what was useless for him. Jeet Kune Do is substantially based on the individual. The individual person is the reference point and the ultimate criteria is to select what works and what does not.

By the time Lee went to Los Angeles, he had decided to scrap his modified Wing Chun (Jun Fan gung fu) and search out the roots of combat to find the universal principles fundamental to all effective styles and systems.

In this new stage of Lee’s quest, he emphasised his Wing Chun less and less because of its perceived limitations. For example, he found it difficult to practise chi-sao with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the seven-foot two basketball star), because the length of his arms made him difficult to hit. He also found that although the sensitivity in his arms developed by Wing Chun training allowed him good defences at close range, it did not completely eliminate the threat of being hit. He found, however, that staying outside the opponent’s effective range did eliminate that threat, and he could still hit the opponent because of his superior gap bridging skills.

Although basic energy drills and applications were taught in the Los Angeles Chinatown class, the higher levels of this training were reserved for a selected few at Lee’s house. Why did Lee teach this way? Firstly, energy or ‘tactile awareness’ training must be done with a skilled partner, one on one. This training does not lend itself to group classes. Secondly, the skills derived from this training are invaluable in combat. This training will help neutralise your opponent’s superior physical attributes.

Immobilising Hands

All of Bruce Lee’s original students describe trapping as control, pure and simple. Trapping occurs inside punching range, and the aim of trapping in JKD is controlling the limbs and breaking your opponent’s axis.

The terms ‘hand immobilisation attack’ or ‘trapping hands’ refer to an attacking action that momentarily immobilises either one or both of the opponent’s arms, allowing your final hit to score on an open line, or drawing a reaction that can be countered either with another trap or by shifting to another tactic such as punching, grappling, etc. Trapping allows you to manoeuvre your opponent’s arms where you want them and forces the opponent to give you a reaction that will be to their own detriment. JKD energy training helps us feel an opponent’s intentions.

We then learn how to flow or fit in with his force, effortlessly using his strength, speed and pressure against him. Usually happening in the punching range, it can be used not only against punches and wild haymakers, but also against locks, tackles, grappling and wrestling attacks. Energy training heightens awareness in all ranges of combat. First you rely on your opponent’s movements to redirect and control his force, but you eventually extend your awareness and energy (chi) such that, in a way, you free yourself of even having an opponent. The body, mind and spirit flow together without the distraction of acknowledging your opponent, and IT hits. This is the kind of physical liberation that Zen swordsmen, tai chi masters and Shaolin monks strive to achieve.

Energy skills

To develop great skills in hand immobilisation attacks, you need appreciation and understanding of energy. By ‘energy’ we mean the force emitted against any attacking motion by the opponent. This understanding enables you to feel what the opponent is attempting to do, and what direction his body force is going, using the sense of touch. With sensitivity and tactile awareness, you don’t even need to see where your hands are in relation to the opponent because you feel it. Using this awareness, you can take your opponent’s energy and dissolve it, redirect it, or bounce it away. Given the skill is entirely tactile, it must be noted that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to learn and develop trapping skills from a book or video — a skilled training partner is essential.

From Bruce Lee, such training started with what he called ‘energy drills’, which he took from Wing Chun chisao. He knew by experience that without the fundamental understanding of energy drills, trapping was merely a prearranged sequence and therefore useless. Once energy drills are second nature, every contact with the opponent, no matter the range, becomes a useful reference point.

The entry door to trapping is to gain an ‘attachment’ (touching one or both of the opponent’s arms with your own arms). This attachment may be gained either offensively or defensively. By understanding what trapping actions can be used from where your arms are at in relation to your opponent’s arms, as well as by feeling the type of energy the opponent reacts with (forwards, upwards, etc.), you can tie up one or both of the opponent’s arms and gain a split second’s advantage in which to strike.

JKD evolution

Jeet Kune Do training is contact oriented, utilising striking pads for practice and body armour for full-contact sparring. All techniques are geared toward realistic combat, so in this frame of mind, trapping is a byproduct of hitting. Unless you are trying to hit, trapping will not work because it is not necessary. If you can hit, just hit! No matter what combat range, your intercepting movement should be aggressive, not defensive. Before an opponent can hit, tackle or choke you, he has to get past your longer range kicks, strikes and punches. Next, he has to face your closer range elbows, hits, forearms smashes, shoulder strikes and headbutts. The closer your opponent gets to you, the better for you to apply your energy training. Now, this means that you have to resort to different tools, or different combat styles or systems, that are specialised in managing the variety of combat ranges, for striking, trapping, grappling, etc.

Do not put limitations on your individual journey when seeking your truth in combat. Follow the example of the first generation of Bruce Lee’s students such Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo; they continue exploring other arts, no matter the arts’ places of origin or whether they are classical or modern. JKD is a philosophy of training, even a lifestyle, that enables us to explore the multiple possibilities there are to develop our potential.


VIDEO: Basic Trapping Drill


VIDEO: Flow Drill


VIDEO: Advanced Energy Drill