Po Pai is the idea of pushing with two hands. In theory it is used when we have the opponent off balance and wish to push them into some obstacles such as tables and chairs or into other people or off an edge such as a cliff, building top or railway platform.
Most teachers will say po pai comes from the dummy training, the 5th and 6th sections of the dummy form. Interestingly, it is also said there is nothing new in the dummy form, that it is to develop material that has been introduced in the empty hand forms. I would add that the dummy work also involves developing some footwork that is introduced in the weapons training and that has use in the empty hand work for particular circumstances. However, the point is that if it is true that the dummy is to simply train stuff we are familiar with, how is it that something comes from the dummy form?
The dummy work is very deceptive. Much of it is not what it seems. My perspective is that without the corrective work of the air dummy (Hung Jong) form, some of the dummy training will be misleading and actually downgrade our Ving Tsun.
I believe this is what has happened with po pai.
Considering that we have been able to place an opponent in a vulnerable position from which we can push them, ie we have control of their facing and balance, what special need is there to be able to push someone from this position? We already know how the structure works through each hand, so it is a simple matter to express power through both hands. One of my students used such a move to throw someone across a room while this person threw a random punch. Sure, his opponent was drunk and unskilled, but the point is the push was extremely powerful and effective, yet the student wasn’t up to the dummy work yet and hadn’t been introduced to po pai. His reaction was just to get rid of the guy. In the circumstance it was a wise move, because while a punch would have started a fight, the push just resulted in the man’s friends picking him up and walking out. This was in a pub in a remote part of Australia and my student was with his family.. not a good place to start a fight. Point is, the actual push is something that doesn’t need training. It’s getting into the position and having the control of the opponent that is the tricky bit.
Now we come to another issue with po pai, the need to be able to have control of the opponent and put our two hands on them to push. Putting two hands on the opponent is considered breaking a golden rule in Ving Tsun. I believe it is a golden rule for a reason. When we have two hands forward for attack, the opponent need only move one of our hands to take both our weapons away. This can happen with a simple flailing action from the opponent, which is likely especially if we place one hand on their ribs to push. Their reaction will be instantaneous. If they are trained or experienced, it will not only be quick but effective. People don’t like to be off balance, they don’t like their ribs touched, and they don’t like to be thrown around.
All they need to do is turn and po pai is ruined. If they add an arm movement to the turn, we not only can’t push them but we are now in a vulnerable position for their counterattack.
Another issue with po pai is that of mass. If the opponent is substantially heavier than us, and is being non-compliant as they will be in a serious fight, we are simply not going to be able to throw them or push them much at all. Pushing people or throwing them up against the wall only works when the opponent is similar size to us or smaller. Ving Tsun is designed to work against larger opponents, tough and/or stronger opponents, more skilful opponents, even smarter and more experienced opponents.
If your opponent is bigger, heavier, stronger, tough and can handle themselves, and means business, po pai is not a good idea.
Therefore in my opinion it does not belong in the Ving Tsun system at all. If we are in a position to throw someone around, it means they are an easy opponent, and who needs to train for that!
Back to the dummy, and the 5th and 6th sections.. if not po pai, what is going on there? I like to look at it as a misunderstanding, perhaps from someone somewhere along the line observing people working on the dummy and taking it at face value, then reverse engineering the application from there. Once it’s in the system, it stays there, especially when for many reasons people are extremely reluctant to change what they have been shown.
My interpretation is that these movements in the 5th and 6th sections of the dummy are to develop the ideas of clearing as introduced in the Biu Ji form in the elbow striking section. Here in the Biu Ji we are introduced to 4 ways of clearing from a trapped elbow which is after all an extension of the bong sau action.. clearing level, clearing high, clearing low, and clearing with a hit. The main idea being reinforced is that we don’t leave our elbow in this position for any length of time.. it immediately flows into something else. Also, it is being stated in no uncertain terms that putting the elbow forward places it in a vulnerable position to attack, especially from an opponent with grappling skill. What applies to our elbow strikes also applies to bong sau. It is a vulnerable position to be in, hence we are taught not to bong except where absolutely necessary, and then to flow immediately into another action. This is why I don’t advocate using bong sau as a defence to lap da.. if someone has grabbed our wrist to pull the arm down and punch over our arm, it is very unlikely our elbow can come up high enough to catch their strike with bong sau, but more importantly we have placed our arm in a very vulnerable position, and if they change their attack from a punch to an arm break there will not be much we can do. In fact, I teach my students to flow to an arm break if someone manages to bong our lap da. It is very demoralising, and they don’t bong when their arm is grabbed again. Needless to say, we don’t do the lap sau drill with bong defence at all. It teaches to keep the bong sau up in place. When someone grabs our wrist and punches, we prefer to take the strike with our wu sau, let them have the arm they’ve pulled but we pronate the forearm to ruin their grip on our wrist, and we move slightly to the off side. This takes no energy, has no struggle involved, keeps us in a safe position and puts us in a great position to finish them.
We have also been introduced to clearing from an elbow forward position in the Chum Kiu form, again after the elbow striking section at the start of the form when we bring our elbow to centre and extend the forearm.
In the 5th and 6th sections of the dummy form, we have opportunity to practice these clearing actions from bong and wrong bong. The way we train it is the first one is a wrong bong, and we turn with the clearing action to turn and control the opponent’s centre so that they are facing away from us and we are facing them from the side. We have taken the position. We do not now relinquish this control to attempt to push them with two hands. If we did this, they can simply turn and ruin our action, placing us in the bad position. No, we keep the pressure on their arm, keep them turned while we hit them. Whether we clear high and hit low, or clear low and hit high, clear level or clear with a hit depends on the opponent’s relative height and/or what they are trying to achieve. We program these actions in during forms work, develop them on the dummy, train them with power and completeness in the air dummy form, and check them in applications training, as is the way.
One aspect of the dummy work is that it is all about recovery. It develops the idea that when we are out of position, when things have gone wrong or something isn’t working, we can not only recover but capitalise on the situation. This reinforces the dynamic that the more an opponent is able to put us in compromised positions, the harder they will be hit. This is one way the system has appropriate response built into it.
Our interpretation of these movements is that they are recovery from when our bong sau, either good bong or wrong bong, is failing to deflect the opponents’ strike. The clearing responses involve softness, giving way, which is a very wise approach if the opponent is strong and skilled enough to make a bong sau fail. This may be why it has been misunderstood as a simple push, which is a strength action. If one doesn’t understand softness, the movements on the dummy often won’t be recognised for what they really are. Note that I am not advocating training softly on the dummy, quite the contrary. We can certainly train softness yet be developing our structure by applying a lot of pressure on the dummy. It’s about where we give way and about positioning, and about the intent. As I said, not all is as it seems..
When we apply the clearing action on the dummy arm with the other arm striking the post, if we have the dummy arms set not too wide and we are taking a minimal angle, our arm that is attempting to clear and effectively move through the dummy arm does not get blocked and stopped but slides along the dummy arm and the hand hits the dummy post. So it looks like we are hitting the dummy with two hands while in reality one is clearing and the other hitting. They look the same on the dummy but not in the air dummy or in application. The intent is completely different. Clear and hit will work on anyone, pushing them or hitting with two hands most often won’t. All fighting is gambling. I like to stack the odds in my favour.
This way of understanding these movements in the dummy form makes sense to me, ties in with the rest of the system, flows very nicely and most importantly it works, regardless of the size, strength, intent and capability of the opponent.
Whether po pai was ever a misunderstanding or not, I have taken what was given, tested it, thought about the results, posed a hypothesis, tested that, thought about those results and made my decisions regarding rejection and refinement, practiced, tested and drawn a conclusion which will be my current practice until a better way presents, as is the WSL way, applying the scientific method.
If I am proved to be wrong, I will certainly have learned through my mistake.. it wouldn’t be the first time nor the last, I am not afraid to admit.