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The Influence of The Snake On The Ving Tsun System

“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.” (Gen. 3:1 NKJV). Ving Tsun is thought to have originated from observing a fight between a snake and a crane. Here I will explore the influence of the snake in the Ving Tsun system and its fighting concepts. Abstract thinking breeds ingenuity, and being able to learn from everything and everyone around you is a trait of the wise (see Pirkei Avot 4:1). Many Chinese martial arts take inspiration from various animals, and there are also arts that pull wisdom from nature as a whole. Even learning from natural disasters, such as typhoons or avalanches, is evident in some Japanese martial arts. Learning from an animal like the snake would then seem very natural. Most everyone is familiar with the nature of snakes, as they can be found around the world, and on almost every continent. Some cultures will interpret these characteristics differently from others, whether they view these creatures as good or evil, for example. Keeping with only the species of snakes found in China would seem relevant to our topic, but their physiology remains relatively the same worldwide. With just a few differences in regard to color, venom or the lack thereof, temperament, and survival strategy, the differences in all the diverse snake species help them survive in their wide range of habitats that they live in. For our purposes, these differences between species could be interpreted to correlate to the near infinite possibilities found in the “habitat” of any random self-defense encounter. Subtle nuances and details make each encounter unique. What it might take to survive each encounter is equally as unique as there is diversity in the snake population around the world. Here I will focus on a few of the snake’s characteristics, namely, camouflage, a coiled striking position, venom, and the shedding of skin.

A snake uses camouflage for two reasons, to hide from would-be predators, and to ambush their unsuspecting prey. This quality alludes to the cunning, read deceptiveness, of the serpent. They blend into their surroundings, going unnoticed. They present a lie on the surface that covers up their true nature underneath. Much like how we want to seem unassuming on the surface, and would like to be underestimated by a would-be attacker. As the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, “The lowest form of war is siege warfare”. Where there is no threat perceived, the enemy has no reason to have his guard up. We want to avoid “playing the game” of a fight where the attacker could use fakes, timing, and a well guarded position, to make our defense/attack that much more difficult. We don’t dance around and play the in and out pace of a boxing sparring match. We give him no reason to hide away in his “fortress” behind his hands, but instead he comes out to us, open, and unprepared. It’s much easier to deal with him when he doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, that he’s past the point of no return. He’s already treading in our territory unaware, where we can “bite”, and he doesn’t even see it coming!

Camouflage can take many forms, but the main requirement is that it has to hide you, even when they’re looking right at you. Quoting Sun Tzu again, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. Knowledge is key, and you want to keep your enemy in the dark as much as possible. Thinking more abstractly about camouflage, Ving Tsun is not showy. It’s very direct and to the point. We don’t want to prolong a fight for many reasons, but not the least of which is giving them, and possibly other potential attackers (multiple opponents) a chance to see what your skill sets are. If the encounter with your attacker lasted less than three seconds, he really doesn’t have a chance to see and gather information about you and devise a plan to exploit your habits.

Closely related to the idea of camouflage, is the snake’s coiled striking position. Using its cunning again, this position is quite deceptive, because it hides its length, and makes it difficult to calculate how far the snake can actually strike out. Again quoting The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable… When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away…” If you think you’re safe being only four feet away, and the snake can actually strike up to a distance of six feet, you are living on borrowed time. From our Ving Tsun pre-fighting posture, we are the coiled snake. If the attacker wants to back off and leave, we’re fine with that and will go our own way. If, however, the attacker decides to come into our range, we strike with deadly accuracy. For the most part, snakes will leave you alone and choose to slither away and hide, rather than fight. If cornered and given no way out, you’ll find that they don’t chase you down, but wait for you to get in their range before even attempting to strike.

Snakes usually try to avoid confrontation, and slither away when they feel vibrations through the ground, and can sense footsteps coming towards them. However, there are exceptions. I have heard stories about black mambas being extremely territorial and will even go towards an oncoming vehicle, to attack it. A black mamba backs up its aggression with an extremely venomous bite that can be lethal to even an elephant, which brings us to the topic of venom.

There are many different types of venom. Some are paralytic, seizing up your muscles to the point where you can’t move. This can even stop your thoracic diaphragm from working, and cause breathing to become impossible. Others have a necrotic effect and destroy surrounding tissues. Still others attack the cardiovascular system, coagulating blood and damaging the heart. What we learn from snake venom is to have pinpoint, targeted strikes. Our attacks should have an immediate potency, and have a maximum effectiveness once applied. This is done through first, training our striking power, so we can hit hard. We also want to strike targets that immediately disable our opponent, such as the throat, neck, spine, eyes, groin, solar plexus, and under certain conditions, the joints can even be targeted with locks to render them useless, and thus neutralize the threat of the enemy. It doesn’t take much venom from certain snakes to drop much larger creatures, similarly none of these targets need much power to effectively destroy. Thus, having considerable striking power, and with it, targeting easy to damage points on the body that also disable our attacker, we have a potency that rivals the venom of even the most venomous snakes.

Going back to the aggression of the black mamba, there are times when waiting for the opponent to come to us simply isn’t an option. If one of our loved ones, or even just a random stranger that we happen across, is in danger from another human being intent on doing violence to them, we need to have the skill and potency to be able to step in. Having the efficacy to be the aggressor, when it’s not only needed, but necessary, is important. Having such a toxic venom that it doesn’t matter who the enemy is, nor how big they are, one bite and their threat has been neutralized. Of course, this isn’t something that needs to be taught to just anyone. To quote Grandmaster Leung Ting, “Before training the Biu-Tze, both martial ability and moral standard should have arrived at a certain state.” Otherwise, you’re just teaching someone that can become a problem for society, if they abuse these potentially lethal skill sets.

The paralytic venom also shows up as a quality in some of our techniques. The double Jut-Sau for example can root someone in place for a split second, allowing us to attack them while they are “stuck”. Another example is our stepping through them with our Chin-Bo, or Arrow Step, removing their foundation for power, by uprooting their stance, which “paralyzes” the enemy and cripples them while he is off balance. Here he cannot kick, sweep, punch, grapple, etc., and we are completely free to use all of our attacks to finish him off. Also, our use of Fan Sze Lek, or the Re-animating Force, causes temporary paralysis. Our opponent seizes up, for a moment, just long enough, for us to execute an attack on his vital points. These examples mirror how a snake will usually target its bite at a limb of an animal, since they are low to the ground and that’s what is closest to them when a predator gets in range. We, by contrast, mainly attack with our strikes to the opponent’s vital points, usually found on the center of his body. However, usually the limbs of the opponent are closer to us than his vital points, especially if he has his guard up. Hence we use the above listed techniques on the enemy’s limbs, to have the effect as if they were bitten by a venomous serpent.

The final characteristic I want to mention is the shedding of skin. Snakes shed when their bodies have grown larger than their skin. This leaves them bright and shiny, as if brand new, and can even help them shed off parasites, and keeps them healthy. Along with their venom’s potential in medicine, this act is one reason why snakes are often associated with health and longevity. Shedding their skin can symbolize change, growth, and renewal; these are all desirable qualities for a martial artist to embody. This idea of renewal, growth, and change is closely tied to the name Ving Tsun, which can be translated as “Singing Springtime”. Spring, itself being a time of renewal and growth after the death of winter, finds its symbolism in our system. The stillness of our pre-fighting posture at the start of a fight can be seen as the dead of winter. Then the explosion forward, once the enemy dares to get close enough, mirrors the explosion of life and growth of leaves on trees and flowers blooming in springtime. Our forward pressure being much like the new shoots of plants growing out from the ground, pushing up through the undergrowth, much like the snake, pressuring through and bursting out of his old skin, into his prime, and ready to hunt and find his next meal.

Thus we can see that the snake has given much to the Ving Tsun system! Its various attributes have been harmoniously synthesized into an extremely effective method of self preservation. The very same tactics and methods that have kept the snake from extinction for an untold amount of time, also work for us. All we need to do is recognize these survival skills and put them into practice. These creatures have many more methods that can also be learned from. There’s almost no limit to what you can learn from nature. All it takes is the ability to think abstractly and a keen eye to observe and see the vast wisdom available. When you can learn from anything and anyone, and embody that wisdom into action, that experiential knowledge, you have no ceiling cap on the skill you’re able to attain.


-Si-Fu Matt


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