Sil Lum Tao is critical to Wing Chun practice as it builds the correct foundations. It provides the strength, conditioning and techniques that are essential before learning anything else.
Ip Man organised the Wing Chun system to ensure that the most important things were taught first. Therefore the four open-hand forms must be learnt in this order:
- Sil Lum Tao, 小念頭 (Little idea) – The fundamentals of Wing Chun
- Chum Kil, 尋橋 (Finding the bridge) – Stepping, coordination and making contact
- Bil Jee, 鏢指 (Thrusting fingers) – Finger strikes, rescuing hands, regaining position
- Muk Yan Jong, 木人樁 (Wooden dummy) – Techniques applied with resistance
The layered learning approach continues within each form. The first section is always key. So the first section of the first form is the basis for everything that follows. Sil Lum Tao is practiced slowly and without moving the feet. As a result, most people seeing it for the first time tend to question its purpose. It looks strange compared to fast-moving forms with clear attack and defend motions. They might even conclude that the form is useless. Here we explain why the form is essential and why it is practiced slowly from a stationary position. The video features Anne Pang, Australasian Kung Fu Champion, who has been training her precision techniques since the 1970s.
Watch the video
Benefits of Sil Lum Tao
Build a strong stance
In the very first movements you learn to sink the weight and then hold this position for long periods of time. This strain and pain strengthens the legs and forms the habit of lowering the stance. Without a firm base, you cannot fully translate power into the hands. Note that the toes must be inward, rather than being parallel. Both legs being bent and inward is done for efficiency – it conditions both legs at the same time for the Wing Chun back stance. The final note here is that the hips must be tucked forward and the largest muscles in the body, through the hips and upper legs, held tight. This solid base and spine structure ensures that maximum potential power can be delivered through the hands.
Through sustained, slow practice of this form, ankle ligaments are stretched, building up the strength required for later work.
Master the basic punch
The one technique you must master in Wing Chun is the basic punch and the Sil Lum Tao form ensures the correct technique is developed. This is done through slow and precise practice. By going slow, the technique can be corrected and perfected. Furthermore, it promotes relaxation in the arms, which is a key to developing Wing Chun’s renowned hand speed.
Sil Lum Tao teaches you that the punch starts and ends along the centreline, with the elbow following. At the end of each punch, the slow wrist-circling loosens the joints, which over time gives you greater mobility and faster, more relaxed techniques. It can also give you the ability to break wrist locks, as demonstrated in the video (Editor’s note: Having felt this, I can guarantee that Scott Peterson is grabbing Barry’s wrist with a vice-like grip). Following on from the punches at the beginning of the form, there are a series of slow Tan Sao and Fuk Sao movements, which continue to train the punching action in the Second Section of the form.
In the Third Section of the form, the final section, the punch is practiced at full speed. After a long session of Sil Lum Tao, consider transitioning into sustained punching drills in which the arms and shoulders remain relaxed and the centreline technique is perfect.
Joint strength and conditioning
Sil Lum Tao strengthens the joints, from the ground up. The ankle ligaments are stretched and strengthened. The knees and hips are strengthened. Wrist ligaments are stretched and strengthened for faster punches, better open hand chops and the ability to break wrist locks.
Do it slowly, do it correctly and spend the time. When advancing further in the Wing Chun system, the Sil Lum Tao form provides you with stance strength, a strong centreline and supple fast hands. You cannot learn and apply Chi Sao effectively without these. If you rush through with flaws, these flaws will be magnified within the later forms. Even though it might seem painful and slow, taking the time to get the foundations right is easier than having to go back and correct any ingrained habits later.
Article: Written by R Zandbergs. Created from Barry Pang’s seminars.
Main photo: Anne Pang demonstrating Sil Lum Tao, 2021