Wooden Dummy History

A lot has been said and debated over about the origins of the modern day Wing Chun Wooden Dummy and without having documented historical proof it’s somewhat challenging to determine the genuine source or exact date of its invention. One thing is for certain though, it’s definitely Shaolin and it’s origins date back almost 1,500 years ago when wooden dummies were first used to train the monks within the the Shaolin Temple.

The first Shaolin Temple was created back in 477 A.D. by Emperor Wei. The temple was built on one of the peaks of Song Mountain in Teng Fon Hsien which is located in the  Henan Province. The mountain was filled with a forrest of Pine Tree’s which is where the temple got it’s name from. Today the name has become synonymous with Martial Arts. “The term Shaolin literally means “Young Pine Tree Forest”. Once the temple’s construction was completed, the Emperor decided to name it after it’s surroundings so he chose the name “Shaolin”. The temple was originally built for the first Buddha as a place where monks could focus on spiritual training and meditation. It took an additional 50 years before any type of Martial Training would take place within the temple.

In 1526 Ta Mo (a master of staff fighting, and a member of Kshatriya warrior class arrived at the temple. It was during this period when Martial Arts were introduced into the temple. As the monks abilities progressed within the confines of the Monestary, so did the level of training difficulty. In order to effectively develop their fighting ability several “training chambers” were developed. There were 36 chambers in total and each one developed a specific attribute that the Monk would need to possess in order to ultimately become a Shaolin Priest. One of these 36 chambers became known as “The Great Lohan Hall”. It was designed as one of three separate challenges that a Shaolin Monks had to pass through before being allowed to leave the Shaolin Temple and continuing his or her life in normal society outside of the Temple.
During this intense period of training the Monks spent an average of 10 years behind the closed doors of the Shaolin Temple where they focused on work, study, gong fu “kung fu” training, and meditation. This training often commenced at sunrise and continued until sunset. Once a Monk was ready to leave the temple they would be put through three separate tests. One of the three test was a lengthy written exam on their knowledge of Chinese History and culture, martial arts philosophy, and theory. The second test consisted of fighting in numerous “sparring” matches with several Kung Fu masters and the Abbot’s main body guard. And the final test consisted of making it through the dreaded and treacherous Lohan Hall. The Lohan hall consisted of 108 wooden dummies that were all mechanicalized by ropes, pullies, and pressure switches. Each of the wooden dummies in the hall created a unique challenge because they were all different and were armed with weapons like clubs, spears, and knifes that were triggered by the monks movements. If the Monk was successful in passing through the hall, he or she would then be faced with the final challenge of exiting the hall by going through a narrow passageway that was blocked by a huge metal urn filled with fiery red hot coals. The metal urn would glow with a fierce fiery red color due to the extreme heat that the coals produced. The monk would have to grab the urn with their bare forearms and slide it to the right in order to unblock the passage way that lead to the exit. The end result would cause each of the forearms to be branded. One forearm would have the Shaolin Dragon and the other would have the Shaolin Tiger. This was done as a right of passage and to permanently display that this individual was truly a Shaolin Master and that they had achieved the level of becoming Shaolin Priests. Unfortunately not all monks who entered the Lohan Hall were successful at completing it and many of them died while trying to graduate from the temple.

During the Mid 17th century, the Qing Dynisty came into power. By this point in time, the Shaolin fighting ability had already become legendary and the Qing Dynasty began to see them as a threat as they were unable to defeat the Shaolin in battle. In fact, the Shaolin helped the rebels by teaching them their unique styes of martial arts so that they could be victorious in battle. Guns had not been invented yet so martial ability was extremely important. Because of their fear of the Shaolin fighting ability, the Manchurians decided that the only way to eliminate the Shaolin was to eliminate the temple. And the best way to accomplish that would be under the cover of darkness where they devised a plan to set fire to the temple and then kill anyone who tried to escape. Their plan almost worked. All but five individuals perished either in the flames, or by the blades of swords and spears as they attempted to escape the fiery inferno. These five people who escaped became known as “The Five Elders”. All of them were masters of different Shaolin Systems. Their names were Ji Sin (Gee Sin), Bak Mei (Pei Mei), Fung Dou Dak, Miu Hin, & Ng Mui. Many Wing Chun practitioners will instantly recognize the name of Ng Mui. She was a Buddhist Nun, and was also a Master in Dragon Style, White Crain, Yuejiaquan, Wǔ Méi Pài, and later the inventor of Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Once the elders escaped the temple, they all split up and went their separate ways to avoid capture. Each of them set up secret societies and continued to teach their respective Martial Arts Styles to all those that wanted to learn and who would help to overthrow the government. An interesting note on this subject is the secret “hand-shake” or “gesture” that would identify people from the Shaolin Societies” as they crossed paths during their travels. The most famous of these gestures is the right hand being clenched with the left hand being placed on top of the fist with the left hand remaining straight. This simple gesture is performed amongst martial artists all over the world today as a sign of respect.

So where did the Wing Chun dummy come from? The reality is pretty simple, Ng Mui was already a master of several Shaolin Systems. And in an effort to arm the resistance with effective martial ability, she simply took the most effective techniques from various sources and combined them into one fighting method that could be taught and learned quickly. Unlike the other Animal Styles that took years and years to learn, Wing Chun could be learned in a relatively short amount of time and due to its reliance on ones physical structure, simplicity, and economy of motion, it could be taught to smaller people like the common villagers who would be up against much stronger Manchurian fighters. This is why a smaller person is able to be so effective with Wing Chun, it doesn’t require strength, it requires technique and proper body mechanics.

Since Ng Mui was from the Shaolin Temple, she was certainly familiar with the Great Lohan Hall. And it’s this authors opinion that she borrowed numerous movements/ techniques from the Lohan Hall and incorporated them into one dummy that could be used as an effective training tool to teach her newly created art Wing Chun. If you look at the various different types of wooden dummies being used in other Kung Fu systems, they all seem to be built to emphasize specific training attributes and to build on specific strengths. In the Great Lohan Hall each dummy was quite unique and they were all very different. There were literally 108 wooden dummies that were designed to test more than 108 techniques. In todays Muk Yan Jong form, you’ll notice that there are 108 or 116 movements or sequences “depending on the lineage”. Is this simply a coincidence? I seriously doubt it. I think that a different style of “Static” dummy was designed where all of the movements could be practiced on one dummy. Remember the 108 dummies in the Lohan Hall were all different and they were also “Dynamic” in that they moved or responded with a unique threat triggered by the practitioners movement. Obviously, the same amount of resources and space requirements to construct such a hall would not be available to villagers or small clans that were learning how to fight so the Wing Chun Dummy was born. Upon it’s inception, it was a pretty crude instrument. A long post or log was buried into the ground to support the dummy in a vertical upright position. Then holes were chiseled out for the arms and leg. The arms were made strong and smooth to hold up to the constant abuse of training and the leg was generally a tree branch that was curved and shaped to somewhat resemble a human leg. Once these pieces were combined, the dummy was complete and training could commence.

Obviously, a lot has changed since the 17th Century. Better materials are now being used with advanced carpentry techniques that produce a dummy that at times can look more like a fine piece of furniture rather than a training instrument. The wooden dummy was and still is an essential tool for the study of Wing Chun because it served as a both a tool for reference to ensure that the hand positions and the footwork of the system were/are being executed properly. It also serves as a training partner because one does not need a sparing partner to practice on as long as they have a wooden dummy / Muk Yan Jong. Today, the wooden dummy has become a symbol of various styles of Kung Fu. It shows up in various Movies and even to this day, there is a certain mystique associated with the Wooden Man Post – Written By Eric Hall of Shaolin House.

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