A Very Brief History of the Wooden Dummy in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.
Wing Chun has a long and fruitful association with the wooden dummy, but this training tool is used throughout the southern Chinese martial arts. Southern Mantis and Hung Gar boxers occasionally use the dummy, as do Choy Li Fut practitioners. In fact, Choy Li Fut employs a great variety of somewhat more mechanical complex training tools.
Nor is the use of the dummy restricted to martial artists. Wooden training devices have been used by military forces from time immemorial. Sima Qian, the brilliant ancient historian, is the first individual to discuss the wooden dummy. In Records of the Grand Historian (written between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE) he mentions that Emperor Wu Yi of the Shang dynasty (circa 1200 BCE) made “Ou Ren” (a wooden human figure) that could be used for Shou Bo (bare handed fighting) practice.
Scholars debate how much weight to place on Sima Qian’s early histories, but for our purposes the details aren’t actually all that important. Whether their attested use stretches back 2100 or 3200 years, wooden dummies have long been used in traditional Chinese combat training.
Nor has this use been restricted to the military. In more recent centuries wooden dummies became a feature of southern Chinese popular culture. Stories of the southern Shaolin temple included its hall of diabolical mechanical dummies that a student had to defeat in order to “graduate” and leave the temple.
Much of this lore was conveyed through popular novels, stories, street performances and of course opera. Cantonese Opera troops attracted large crowds with feats of martial prowess and “military plays.” This made it essential that they have tools for training martial artists. Wooden dummies, very similar to the sort still used today, helped to train performers. The Cantonese Opera Museum in Foshan even displays an antique dummy along with the other artifacts of the industry’s 19th century past.
As a side note, I have always found it interesting that in translating their signage the museum refers to these training devices as “instruments” rather than “dummies.” Obviously there are lots of percussive instruments in traditional opera, and dummies make a very distinctive set of sounds when struck. In my lineage of Wing Chun we count a “movement” of the dummy form as being completed when the dummy makes a sound rather than when the martial artists move a limb. I don’t think it requires all that imagination to see the “instrumental” quality in all of this.
Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of examples of really old dummies. After all, these objects were made of wood and when planted in the ground they would eventually rot. This must have been an issue in a climate as humid and wet as southern China.
The Foshan Period
Dummies likely started to disappear from the local landscape around the turn of the 20th century. Opera was being displaced by other forms of entertainment and the martial arts were decidedly unpopular in the years following the boxer rebellion. Luckily these swings have a habit of reversing themselves.
By the 1920s there was increased popular interest in the martial arts. Part of this was the result of efforts by reformers (such as the Jingwu Association) to promote the traditional hand combat styles as a distinct form of unique Chinese physical culture. However, the growth of the economy and the transformation of the traditional teaching structures into market-based public schools also helped the martial arts to gain a following in middle class and urban areas where they had traditionally been frowned upon. As the southern Chinese martial arts grew more dummies were produced and put into place.
Most of these dummies were of a type now called Dai Jong (Ground Dummies, also sometimes referred to as “buried” or “dead” dummies). They were constructed from a log or tree trunk that was anywhere from eight to ten feet long. Generally speaking the lower three and half feet would be worked into a thick square and buried in a stone or cement lined pit in the ground.
The still round main-body of the dummy would sit about three inches above the ground. This was enough room to allow shredded rattan strips to be slipped into the spaces between the square base of the dummy and the side of the pit. Packing the area in this way supported the central pole in an upright position, but it also allowed for a little give and spring when the dummy was struck or pushed.
Occasionally I see accounts stating that small rocks are gravel were used to line the hole. I am not sure how widespread that practice was. It certainly could have been done, and it would have provided a much firmer body. Nevertheless, the resulting dummy would not have had much movement.
All of the surviving dummies of the pre-1940s era, including both the example at the Opera Museum and the Jingwu Hall in Foshan, are of this type. The picture of the example at Jingwu is quite interesting because it clearly shows how the main body is reduced to a square cut, and how that is positioned in a hole in the ground.
Dai Jongs are still commonly seen in a number of places. They are encountered in Guangdong province and appear to be fairly common in Vietnam, where at least some of them have been given a more exaggerated swinging motion. Given the construction of the traditional one story home in southern China they could be planted either indoors or in an outdoor training area.
The preceding series of pictures, taken by Leung Ting and published in his book Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, show Hak Min Nam (often called by his nickname Pan Nam, b. 1911- d. 1996) working a Dai Jong that has planted in his study. This is a good real life example of the sort of indoor dummy which Donny Yen is seen working in the first Ip Man movie. Master Kwok Fu, one of Ip Man’s original Foshan students, planted his dummy outdoors (presumably sometime after the Cultural Revolution) and was still teaching students on it in the 1990s.
This is the sort of dummy that Ip Man would have learned the form on. Obviously Chan Wah Shun and Ng Chung So would have used this sort of device, and it’s likely that Ip Man owned one as well. In general traditional buried dummies seem to be larger than the latter sort, both in terms of their height and diameter. This greater size might help them survive longer when buried in the ground and exposed to the elements. It seems that most telephone poles in the US are good for 10-15 years and it is likely that this is how long a Dai Jong could have lasted as well.
Interestingly all of the early dummies seem to have relatively thick offset arms (rather than the parallel arms that are more commonly associated with the Ip Man lineage today) and smaller legs. However, they seem to have roughly the same proportions as modern dummies. In both cases the top arm of the dummy sits at about the level of the user’s shoulder.
Hong Kong Period: Ip Man Invents the Modern Wing Chun Dummy
While Ip Man probably owned a dummy in Foshan, our story does not really begin to get interesting until we reach the 1950s. In 1949 Ip Man and a daughter fled to Macau and then Hong Kong in anticipation of the Communist conquest of Guangdong. After a number of years of KMT sponsored anti-Communist campaigns it was probably no longer safe for him given his prior employment as the leader of a local police unit. After spending a few months in Hong Kong Ip Man decided to take up the title of Sifu and become a professional martial arts teacher.
Of course there were a number of complications. To begin with, he did not have a dummy. More to the point he had yet to establish a local reputation, a pool of stable students or a location for a permanent school. Ip Man would spend the first few years of his teaching career addressing each of these problems.
Yet by the middle of the 1950s things were looking up. Ip was building a larger group of more advanced students and it was now time to consider installing a dummy so that their training could progress. In fact he was already showing some his students sections of the dummy form which they were practicing like any other set. In Wing Chun parlance this is called “using the air dummy.” While good for a quick review, it is no substitute for the geometric discipline of the real thing.
Life in Hong Kong was very different from Foshan. To begin with, people tended to live in tall apartment buildings, rather than in one story dwellings with flagstone floors. And outdoor space was extremely limited in the city, just as it is today.
Our best source of information on the development of modern dummies within the Wing Chun clan during the Hong Kong era is Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger’s (2004) volume Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. While this can be a difficult book to get a hold of, it has been a great help is assembling the following account. Sometime in the mid-1950s Ip Man approached a carpenter and friend named Fung Shek. He explained his basic problem and talked about what he wanted in a dummy. He then commissioned Fung to devise some means for constructing a mounting system for a portable dummy (Ip Man moved frequently during this period) that could be used indoors.
There are any number of ways to mount a dummy, but Fung’s idea was both simple and innovative. Rather than supporting the dummy at its base (the traditional method) he instead hung the jong on wooden slats that passed directly through the body. The thin slats acted as springs. By moving the supporting structure up the body, where most of the form was actually performed, the feel of the dummy was substantially changed.
Most Dai Jongs had a limited rocking motion, if they moved at all. The new Gua Jong (Live Dummy) was different. It all had to do with the placement and strength of the slats. When a student engaged the arms or leg of the dummy they were in effect loading a spring which would throw the dummy back forward in a more lifelike way the moment the pressure was released.
In effect a Gua Jong offers a degree of feedback on your movements that you simply could not get from a buried dummy. Given that this instrument is often used as a sort of “silent training partner” every ounce of feedback you can squeeze out of it is valuable. For instance, in Wing Chun students want to punch towards the opponent’s “center line.” If you do that with a dummy, from practically any forward facing angle, you will force the body back onto the slats and then the recoil will return the dummy to its initial position. But if your lines of attack are off and you are punching across the front of the dummy, or simply pushing at its arm, its body will slide along the rails, retreating from your incomplete strike. Again, this is critical because it provides instant feedback to the students on the sorts of subtle pressures that must be “felt” to be understood.
Together Ip Man and Fung Shek fine-tuned the new creation. The basic idea was sound but it took a bit of experimentation to work out exactly what sort of slats and mounting system yielded the best results. The final product was a truly custom, and innovative, dummy for the young Hong Kong Wing Chun clan.
Fung Shek delivered his prototype to Ip Man in 1956. While Ip Man worked with a number of different dummies over the years (as he moved from one school to the next) he always kept the Fung Shek creation with him. It was his preferred dummy to set up in a school, and eventually in his own home. In fact, this is the same dummy that used in the now famous series of photographs taken by Tang Sang in 1967. It was always his personal jong. It can now been seen on display in the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.
Some of Ip Man’s more senior students were starting to branch off and open their own schools in the second half of the 1950s. Fung Shek, with his new indoor mounting system, was the sole source for dummies in this early period. Unfortunately he does not seem to have been very prolific and we do not have many examples of his work.
In reality he was never actually produced that many jongs. Ip Ching estimates that he only produced 10-12 dummies between the late 1950s and the early 1960s when he stopped taking orders.
One possible example of his work might be seen in this well-known Bruce Lee photograph, taken sometime in early 1960. He was working at Ruby Chow’s restaurant and practiced Wing Chun in his spare time. In a letter to Hawkins Cheung (still in Hong Kong) dated May 1960 he mentions that he is having a dummy shipped to him. He probably placed the order sometime in 1959.
This is an interesting photo as it’s a very early example of the new Gua Jong type. Obviously the dummy is not mounted at the correct height. That can probably be forgiven as Bruce’s material circumstances were far from ideal and he didn’t really have much control of his physical environment at the time. But apart from that the dummy looks remarkably similar to Ip Man’s. The body may be a bit more svelte, and its “head” is shorter and more compact. One wonders if that was an intentional choice given the realities of transpacific shipping in the 1950s.
If this jong was made by Fung Shek (and that is an open question that needs more research) it would have been one of his last. The carpenter’s son was killed in a car accident. He interpreted this tragedy as retribution by the local gods for his involvement with the Wing Chun clan.
Many of the younger members of Ip Man’s school in the middle of the 1950s were basically angry young men who were frequently involved in neighborhood fights. In this context Fung came to see his own creation as a device that was used to aid bullies in better intimidating and hurting others. He vowed to never make another dummy and he stuck to that pledge.
While Ip Man had the dummy he needed, others were not so fortunate. The Wing Chun clan was expanding rapidly in the early 1960s and Fung’s retirement could not have come at a worse time.
From 1958-1962 Ip Man taught at the Shek Kep Mai school, and for some reason (either a lack of advanced students or a lack of space) he was never able to set his dummy up. In 1962 he moved his school to its Castle Peak Road location, and the dummy was brought out of storage and reinstalled by Ip Ching (who had recently been reunited with his father) and a group of other students.
Unfortunately this location did not last long. 1963 saw Ip Man looking for a new school piece of property. Luckily he ran into an old friend from Foshan named Ho Leun. Ho had always wanted to study Wing Chun but had never had the chance. In 1963 he owned the Tai Sang Restaurant which had a mostly empty warehouse above it. He offered the space to Ip Man who accepted it as a new location for his school.
Unexpectedly Fung Shek’s dummy had to go back into storage. It seems that Ho Leun was mechanically minded and something of a handy man. He had been thinking about his own dummy designs and when Ip Man arrived he found one already installed.
Ho wanted to add additional degrees of realism to the dummy, and so he included an element of mechanical movement. It was designed so that the arms could move in and out. After a period of experimentation it was determined that it was difficult for Wing Chun students to practice their “sticking energy” with this design. Ho Leun then went back to a more conventional, all wood dummy, but he continued to experiment with the mounting system.
Where Fung Shek had used wooden slats as springs, Ho favored metal car springs. These could actually be attached to the wall and adjusted to provide just the right amount of resistance. He later took his designs and went into production. He made dummies for the Wing Chun Community from 1969-1973 before emigrating to Canada.
Ip Man never seemed to settle in one place for long and in 1964 (about a year and half later) he moved into a small apartment on Tung Choi Street. The Fung Shek dummy was once again taken out of storage and installed by the front door where it was used by both him and his son Ip Ching. This was where Koo Sang was able to study the jong in some detail.
Koo Sang is an important individual in the history of the modern Wing Chun clan. While a few people had made small numbers of dummies it was never enough to cover the growing demand. Further, it is simply impossible to teach the Wing Chun system without access to a dummy.
Koo took careful measurements of Fung Shek’s original jong and he replicated these in his own work. While Fung and Ho had relatively short manufacturing careers Koo proved to be both much more successful and stable. Compared to his predecessors he produced a huge number of dummies over a period of decades. In fact, he didn’t retire form from the Wing Chun dummy business until the 1990s.
Not only did he make a lot of dummies, but he made them very well. In fact, in some Wing Chun circles today Koo Sang’s dummies are still the standard by which all others are judged.
Traditionally there were only two types of dummies available to Wing Chun students. Almost everyone (and by extension almost every school) favored the Gua Jong design. If you are were going to have a buried dummy you needed at least three things 1) suitable outdoor space 2) mad carpentry skills because no one was going to build one of those for you 3) a real obsession with historical “authenticity.”
Now there is another option. A number of firms are currently offering a “pillar and sleeve” freestanding dummy design. The bodies of these dummies are between five and six feet tall and they have a long rectangular opening carved out of their bottom which sits over a post mounted on some sort of platform. Alternatively the body of the dummy itself might be treated as the “post” and its set into a metal cup that acts as the sleeve. The entire thing can then be attached to the floor.
It is interesting to consider why these freestanding designs are appearing now. They have some obvious advantages. They take up less room, and individuals who rent might not be able to attach a Fung Shek style mounting system to the studs of walls that they do not own. One is also freer to move around these dummies as there are no slats (or walls) to get in the way. Lastly, many post and sleeve dummies are relatively portable compared to Fung Shek’s design (which itself was a big improvement over a buried dummy half the size of a telephone pole).
These are all compelling arguments. Yet I wonder if there isn’t something else going into this mix as well. The recent Ip Man movies presented a compelling view of the past. Some aspects of this vision are simply inaccurate. The real life Ip Man was an eccentric and humorous Kung Fu anti-hero. That has not stopped inventive script writers and movie producers from re-imagining him as a full blown superhero of Chinese nationalism.
Further, the real Ip Man vastly preferred his hanging dummy to anything else that he had worked with. Yet one of the single most compelling moments of the entire series of films happens in the introduction to the very first movie where Donny Yen is seen working a gorgeous replica of a Dai Jong planted right in the middle of a sumptuously decorated living room.
Wing Chun people spend a lot of time thinking about dummies, and that image was hypnotic. The idea of a stand-alone dummy that can be part of your life, rather than part of your garage, is likewise compelling. And thanks to low cost mechanical routing you can now get that same effect without having to explain to your significant other why there is a concrete lined hole in the living room floor.
In short, there are a lot of rational reasons to prefer a modern standalone dummy, particularly if you are on a budget. Yet I wonder to what degree our collective re-imagination of the past has worked its way into our subconscious preferences for dummy designs. Why bother being Ip Man circa 1955 when you can now imagine yourself as Ip Man circa 1925 instead?
Still, “authenticity” can be a slippery thing. Never having used a Dai Jong it is hard to say for certain, but I suspect that a properly weighted “pillar and sleeve” dummy would both look and feel a little more like a buried instrument. On the other hand, Wing Chun has always had a utilitarian streak to it, and it is hard to deny the benefits of the more active “living dummy.”
So here is something to think about. Almost all of the best dummies produced in the world today are modeled directly on jongs that Koo Sang built for leading Wing Chun students. These in turn are almost exact copies of the very first prototype that Fung Shek made. That means that Ip Man’s innovative indoor dummy design is the literal blueprint for almost every hanging jong in the world today. We can go even further than that. Ip Man and Fung Shek are the co-creators of the modern wooden dummy seen throughout the Southern Chinese martial arts.
This is not what Ip Man is ever remembered for. It never comes up in conversations about Wing Chun. It is simply an incidental aspect of his very fruitful career. It may also be an “authentic” element of the modern Wing Chun heritage that is worth making some sacrifices to hang on to.