Whilst it is a commonly held view that Martial Arts can be divided into two categories – hard or soft – the reality is more complex. Each mode has unique strengths that create a powerful combination when you combine them.

In self defence, ‘soft’ techniques that flow and redirect are powerful tools. But likewise, ‘hard’ techniques that land heavy, decisive strikes are also important. Different situations will require adaptation or switching between these modes.

Hard techniques

In ‘hard’ kung fu, strikes are thrown with the aim to transfer maximum force into the target. This requires momentary “hardness” where the full body structure and muscular force combine to generate power.

Applying hard techniques. When there are no barriers to the attack, hard techniques can be used to overwhelm an opponent. Even though Wing Chun is considered a ‘soft’ style, practitioners with highly developed centreline strength can simply chain-punch their way through weak guards to win an encounter. This aggressive, overpowering approach is actually ‘hard’ in nature, despite how Wing Chun is categorised. Some situations simply don’t require the softness of Chi Sao training to come into play.

When hard techniques fail. Overpowering an opponent can often succeed, but what happens when you meet an opponent with a stronger guard and superior power? The stronger, heavier person with a minimum level of technical skill will not easily succumb to the ‘hard’ approach. Most likely the smaller person’s attacks will fail, their stance and balance will be lost and the stronger opponent will take control. This is where ‘soft’ techniques – if they have been trained – provide wider options.

Soft techniques

In ‘soft’ kung fu, being able to contact and feel what your opponent is doing enables yielding and repositioning techniques that are effective for deflecting and unbalancing stronger opponents.

Applying soft techniques. When faced with a larger, stronger opponent, tackling their forces head-on is a bad idea. All things being equal, the stronger person will win. Instead, learn to engage and redirect through footwork and supple hands. Each ‘soft’ style trains the hands to develop automatic responses by feel, through different ‘sensitivity’ training exercises:

  • Wing Chun’s Chi Sao – Emphasises centreline control and improving angles of attack
  • Tai Chi’s Tui Sao (push hands) – Emphasises unbalancing an opponent
  • Le He Ba Fa’s Yiu Shun – Emphasises gaining the central position

When soft techniques fail. These techniques must be backed up with highly-developed stance strength, mobility and structure, otherwise the hands will actually tense up and be ineffective. The other point of failure is when soft techniques are applied too soon, offering ‘hard’ techniques easy openings for attack. Soft techniques cannot be pressure-less all of the time.

Being adaptive (Summary)

Wing Chun and other so-called ‘soft’ styles include tools with the potential to be effective against larger opponents. These rely on being able to make contact, apply pressure, read the forces and adapt as needed. If the opponent has a weak guard, then it makes sense just to go hard along the centreline. If the opponent is strong, switch to a softer mode that maintains firm contact whilst outmanoeuvring them, redirecting attacks and preparing for counterattack from a superior position using a balanced stance.

By slowly building up Chi Sao strength and the ability to take pressure without tensing the arms, soft techniques can become strong. The arms can instantly read forces upon contact and act like a pressure valve, releasing when needed to yield and counterattack.

See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs. Created from Barry Pang’s seminars.
Main photo: Barry Pang demonstrating