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What is Chi Sao?


What Chi Sao is and isn't: Ramblings from the mind of a Wing Tsun heretic


    This is a very loaded title. As with anything in the system, there are no absolutes and no standards of operation or official rule book of Wing Tsun/Wing Chun/Ving Tsun recognized between the various branches and lineages, so no one can speak for the entire art as a whole or for all practitioners worldwide. So this is one of those times that I invoke the disclaimer at the bottom of the page; I'm speaking for myself, and not necessarily representing the opinions of my affiliates, Si-Fu, or organization.

    There are always statements of absolutes flying around about how you can't use Chi Sao in a real fight, or Wing Tsun can't be used on the ground. For starters, let me just make it clear that both of those statements are completely false. People often say what Chi Sao is or isn't in relation to their personal experience and interpretation of the system, and regurgitating information that they have been taught, and their answers are very personal and opinionated... and they vary widely. Some views are firmly rooted in common sense, while some are very esoteric. Here's mine...

    Chi Sao is a formless concept to be applied. It is an open ended platform that can be many things depending on what your intent is at that very moment. It can be a choreographed pattern drill to learn techniques with a compliant partner, it can be a stationary push/pull drill to focus on structure, it can be an exercise in control and flow without striking at all, it can be turn based technique testing, it can be a game of tag and reset, or it could be full blown full contact sparring, or even a competitive sport fight. It could start from Poon Sao, or Push Hands, or Jut Chuen/Laap Da, or even from no contact (Lat Sao). It can include kicks (Chi Gerk), joint manipulation (Chin Na), takedowns, or even ground grappling. The Chi Sao construct can be applied during sparring or fighting (San Da, Lat Sao, Kuo/Gwoh Sao) against a non compliant opponent, under real pressure and resistance, with or without rules. The practitioner sets the parameters of the exchange in the platform, not the other way around.

    But, but but... Chi Sao isn't sparring! Well why not? Because it generally starts from Poon Sao? Because you stand in one spot and push each other around? Because you choose not to kick, strike, or takedown during your exchange? Why can't it be sparring? Because you have imposed some artificial restriction limiting the engagement, that's why! All platforms of contact can be whatever you need it to be, be it Lat Sao, Chi Sao, Gwoh Sao, whatever. You can flow back and forth between Chi Sao and Jut Chuen. Chi Sao can start from Lat Sao and turn into Gwoh Sao seemlessly. You're just too busy dissecting the pieces of an organic and dynamic exchange and labeling them that you can't see the forest through the trees. Don't get hung up on semantics, and don't be the bird that doesn't realize it can fly away when the cage door is opened.

    Let's look at other systems: Boxers spar with punches. Kickboxers spar with punches and kicks. Muay Thai fighters add knees, elbows, and clinchwork into their kickboxing sparring. Wrestlers, Judokas, and BJJ practitioners spar with takedowns, submissions, throws, and ground grappling. MMA fighters spar with all of the above. Obviously the MMA fighter has the most inclusive sparring with all of the ranges of combat. But can you say that a boxer isn't really sparring because they are restricted to only punches? Can you say that what the MMA fighter is doing cannot be called sparring if he and his opponent agree to no head shots and no takedowns? Can you say that technically, boxers and MMA fighters don't really fight at all, because it's a sport and they have rules to follow? No, of course not... Just like you can't say that a Chunner can't spar because he is limited to Chi Sao, or because the engagement starts from a fixed position like Poon Sao, or the rules of his Chi Sao exchange have been limited. They all spar within the parameters of their system, and by the rules of engagement set forth by the practitioners to govern their exchange.

    Think of Chi Sao more as a verb than a noun. Chi Sao is a concept, an action to be applied during whatever type of sparring or fighting you are doing. It's just an idea, a skill set, a concept with a name that defines an action; Sticking Hands.  What you do with that concept is up to you. 

    By definition:

gerund or present participle: sparring
1. make the motions of boxing without landing heavy blows, as a form of training. "one contestant broke his nose while sparring"

Sparring is a form of training common to many combat sports. Although the precise form varies, it is essentially relatively 'free-form' fighting, with enough rules, customs, or agreements to minimize injuries.

    Since its inception, Wing Tsun has been streamlined to only the necessities and stripped away of all fluff. Every single movement in the system is carefully thought out and tested and is there for a reason. Even something as obscure as Poon Sao has direct combat application, as can be seen in the video below. Those that think Chi Sao doesn't apply in a real fight or can't be sparring have no understanding of what Chi Sao is in the first place, and are living inside of the lines of confinement that they themselves have drawn in the sand. They are limiting themselves and missing out on all that it has to offer.

"Chi Sao is backup for your punching" - Jesse Glover



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