The Three seeds of Wing Chun
The 'three seeds' or 'three families' of Wing Chun is something that is always discussed but never really explained. All Wing Chun practitioners know that the three hand positions Tan Sau, Bong Sau and Fook Sau are often referred to as 'seeds' or 'the three families' of Wing Chun but why?
Despite oblique references to the three families, there are not enough clear published explanations of their full meanings: why there are three, how they are related, and why they are important in martial activity. The questions are certainly important in Wing Chun, but some of the physiological implications may inform other martial arts as well. This article is designed to answer these questions.
When a Wing Chun practitioner is engaged in combat, they subconsciously use the sense of touch to help them fight. Being able to touch an opponent helps them understand changes in pressure, force, control, angle, structure, balance etc, which helps to find holes and develop openings in their opponents defence, thus being able to attack their opponent.
Therefore using touch enables you read your opponent, so a Wing Chun practitioner must first make contact with an opponent, to do this the Wing Chun practitioner first applies their guard.
The Wing Chun hand guard is very clever; it is made up of Mun Sau and Wu Sau hand positions. The part of the body or limb that touches your opponent is often referred to as the bridge, if this is your arm it is normally the first section of the arm i.e. the forearm that will touch the opponent and is very important in the art.
Depending on where your arm makes the bridge on your opponent depends on which position you may move in to or what gate you decide to take. This shows that all of the hand positions are interlinked.
The bridge is made by using one of the Wing Chun hand positions which uses the forearm physiologically, the first section of the forearm immediately after the wrist has less muscle than the section closer to the elbow. The first section of the arm is used extensively in many other styles.
The bridge performs many important functions. The bridge can be a crossing - guarding one's structure. When in contact with an opponent, the crossing or bridge has to be controlled.
Understanding that ALL Wing Chun arm positions and movements fall in to one of the three families helps students to understand that Wing Chun uses all three parts of the forearm to defend, control and attack.
As a Wing Chun practitioner attacks and defends simultaneously, you are also able to use your arms independently of one another, thus being able to control whilst attacking, the attacking arm may then control, or then move to defend depending on the scenario.
Like all martial arts, the reason why there are many different hand positions and motions within the Wing Chun System is to deal with different types of attack and other styles of martial arts. This prepares the practitioner for as many potential attacks as possible, however this is a basic point of view and these basic movements can be used in many different ways to deal with different situations. Therefore from all the hand positions are the basic uses, however they are then developed in to more advanced variations.
The 'bridge' or the part of the arm just after the wrist is somewhat of a flattened oval section with a middle section and an outside edge (radial) on the thumb side of the hand, and inside bony edge (ulna) on the little finger side of the hand. The bridge therefore can be seen as having three sides: the two edges and the middle.
These three sides provide the foundation of the three families of all Wing Chun hand motions namely the basic Tan Sau, Bong Sau and Fook Sau. The elbow is then used to link the three families together depending on what side of the bridge is being used based on the attack. This theory is demonstrated throughout the first form of Wing Chun - See Sil Lim Tao
The 'three families' are broken down in to the three fundamental arm positions:
The Tan family of hand motions all emphasizes the usage of the side of the bridge with the thumb at the end (Radial Bone).
The Bong family of motions all use the little finger side of the bridge (Ulna Bone)
The Fook family generally uses the middle of the bridge for energy, control, power delivery, initial contact (e.g. the basic punch).
The reason why these three motions or families are expressed as 'seeds' is because they are movements and positions that are learned and drilled from the very beginning i.e. the first section of Sil Lim Tao where Tan Sau and Fook Sau are used; they are the a core part of the Wing Chun system which after continuous practice matures. Tan Sau, Bong Sau and Fook Sau are the basic and predominantly the most common hand positions that are used within Wing Chun. They are the foundation of Chi Sau, and from these positions you can move in to any of the other positions either to defend or attack.
Wing Chun is genius; it understands the simplicity of the three sides of the bridge as the key to control with efficient movement of the practitioners hand motion. A slight turn of the elbow a practitioner can change from one family to another such as Bong Sau to Tan Sau. this may be to change from and inner gate to an outer gate position. The relationship of the elbow to each of the three families gives a complete repertoire of all possible usage of the arms in hand to hand combat, both empty handed and with weapons.
A training method for effective transitions, adjustments and control of the three sides of the bridge was introduced which is called Chi Sau; this is an exercise which is a foundation of the Wing Chun system. Transitions are done with sensitivity, control, efficient structural adjustment, coordination, fluidity and timing.
Chi Sau is a major laboratory in Wing Chun which enables both practitioners to improve their timing, power, adjustments and control, as both people are using Tan, Bong and Fook and their positions will improve if taught correctly and practised right.
There are differences between Chi Sau and sparring. Sparring is good for many things but Chi Sau is a much more comprehensive development method. Sparring can be a haphazard way of learning Wing Chun motions.
With the knowledge of the three families Chi Sau trains an understanding of the widest possible array of angles, lines, vectors and forces. Without the correct guidance, good teaching and practice Chi Sau can deteriorate in to a far less useful exercise with pushing, pulling and exchanges with little learning.
The synchronization of the three families with the three parts of the bridge, prepares the reflexes for the variations of the Tan, Bong, and Fook motions at various angles and levels.
The Biu Gee (shooting fingers) motion uses the ulna side of the arm and belongs to the Bong Sao family and therefore is in the Bong family of positions to attack or defend at many levels including the top of the upper gates.
Chi Sao automatically trains and prepares practitioners for explosive Bong Sao family's Biu Gee when needed. Similarly, the low Guan Sao can perform Bong Sao family work at the belt or below the belt levels, with minimal muscle tension and without having to lean forward or bending down. The same principles apply to the high, medium and low applications of the Tan and the Fook family of positions and motions.
Based on the fact that the explanations of the three seeds are very difficult to find and people have formed different opinions of this concept, another explanation may be that they Tan Sau is to develop contact and deflect using the outside of the wrist, i.e. radial bone, the Fook Sau is to develop contact and deflect using the inside of the wrist i.e. ulna bone and the Bong Sau is to develop contact and deflect using the bone in upper arm i.e. the humerus. Both Tan Sau and Fook Sau positions use the arm with the elbow in the "fixed elbow position" and the Bong Sau should only be applied when the arm is not in this position or you have no other choice.