Self-defence from the point of view of the communication sciences – Part 4

It is not only self-defence that is influenced posture and gestures – they also have an effect on what happens in class.

Posture and gestures

Everybody who is learning WingTsun knows the postures and gestures that are frowned upon in class. Many instructors only give brief answers when asked why this is by their students. The mental condition of a person can always be deduced from a certain body posture, and the usual explanation given is that it is impolite and disrespectful to adopt this posture. The following is a description of the relevant body language, so that everybody is able to appreciate the need:

Folding the arms

The hands and arms have an important protective function, and folding the arms in front of the body has probably developed from this. The folded arms prevent access to the front of the body, and the purpose of this posture is to protect the vulnerable centre of the body against attacks. Moreover, the hands are concealed and might be hiding weapons. Reducing the surface area of the body in this way also causes less heat to be given off, and this is a common way of combating the cold. In body language terms, folding the arms is therefore regarded as something of a defensive posture. It is a posture often adopted when somebody is criticised, the object of criticism withdrawing behind the protective wall created by the arms because he is not permitted to respond with aggression. Folding the arms is often combined with leaning backwards, which is often a sign of excessive self-assurance, haughtiness or arrogance. This posture erects a barrier and indicates an unwillingness to communicate, and therefore appears rather aggressive. It can also be used as a conversation-killer. However, arrogance and haughtiness are often only pretence to avoid showing uncertainty and losing face. The non-verbal signals are usually given off unconsciously, and are included in a person’s body language repertoire. In rare cases this posture can also be a sign of rapt attention. This makes it all the more clear why this posture is frowned upon, and is interpreted as a challenge in Asian countries.

Hands on hips

People adopt this posture to appear more imposing. All over the world, this gesture clearly signifies that the person in question is ready for decisive action. It is a gesture that occupies more space, and the pointed elbows are intended to discourage attackers from pushing past. The hands are  raised and indicate a preparedness to fight. Even one hand on the hip is enough to communicate this message. Such threatening gestures are very frequent in competitions, e.g. Sumo wrestling. They are usually associated with an attitude of rejection, e.g.
“I am not interested in what you have to say!“
It is therefore clear that this gesture is entirely out of place in a martial arts school. In line with Confucian teaching, the student should pay respect to the teacher and be attentive to the lesson. This posture makes it difficult to learn. Scientific research has shown that students who fold their arms in class also adopt a mental attitude of rejection, with a resulting decline in learning results. This effect is probably also the case with this gesture. It says unmistakably that it is not the will to learn, bur confrontation that has priority. A student who behaves in this way not only misses important learning content, but also disturbs the learning process of the other students. Apart from the fact that it is very impolite towards the teacher, an experienced teacher will not tolerate it and will be sure to nip it in the bud. A student who is not prepared to keep to the rules will either have to conform eventually, or leave the class. A teacher can only impart his knowledge if the student is willing to accept it. This is not possible with such an attitude of rejection.

Staring into space

People adopt this posture when their attention is directed elsewhere, which means that their attention is no longer on the lesson. This is not only impolite towards the teacher, but also signals that the teacher’s efforts to teach the student are in vain. This posture clearly indicates a lack of interest. The student’s participation in the lesson is not really due to his interest in its content, but to more base motives, otherwise his posture would reflect respect, confidence and attention. Incidentally, this also includes looking at other students when the teacher is teaching. The student’s use of language is also indicative, e.g.
"Yes, that’s right!", "Yes, I know", "Of course I have understood that!"
and other formulations. These forms of expression really all mean the same, i.e. “I do not want to hear or see what you are trying to tell or show me“. Every teacher knows that it can be difficult to put logical movements into practice. The correct response to being corrected or instructed would be a simple thank-you and the traditional, brief bow.

Waving the instructor over

It is not just that the Chinese wave others over with the palm facing downwards, which Europeans might construe as being sent away – only servants or people of lower rank are waved over. In a traditional student-teacher relationship it is therefore unacceptable for a student to wave his teacher over. It goes without saying that calling “Oi!“ or whistling him over are equally taboo.


At first sight a pat on the back is a well-intentioned gesture on the part of a student, but this is only half the truth. Anybody who knows its meaning will understand that the relative power or status of two individuals is being expressed. The origin of this gesture is the handshake using both hands. Even during a normal handshake one can see whether one party maintains the ”upper hand“, or offers his hand with the palm already turned downwards. This can be countered by a change of position. Another possibility is the ”two-hander“, where the left hand encloses the other person’s right and turns it to a vertical position. This form of handshake is also called the “politician’s“ handshake. The two-hander is a form of miniature embrace, with the left hand used to express feelings. As a rule of thumb, the higher the left hand is placed on the other person’s right arm, the stronger the feelings. The problem here is that the left hand enters the intimate zone of the other person, thereby limiting his self-defence capability. This is not a problem in the case of old friends, but the two-hander can lead to problems if this relationship of trust does not exist. Normally there is no such relationship between a Si-Fu and his student from the outset, as it needs to grow slowly. What it permitted to longstanding students, other instructors or private students who are very close to their Si-Fu is not a licence for any other student to do the same. A slight tap without the handshake has the same meaning, but is more a sign of praise. The problem here is that the student is praising the teacher for something whose value he is sometimes not yet able to assess. In fact the message may instead be:
“You did that well, but ...!“
This form of behaviour is likewise to be regarded as disrespectful. It is therefore recommended not to pat a teacher on the back or touch him without invitation.

Showing the soles of the feet

Many WingTsun students seem to be unaware of the meaning of showing the soles of the feet, for during large seminars I repeatedly see even instructors and teachers sitting on the floor and pointing their soles towards the teacher, master or even grandmaster. In terms of body language this says:
“You are worth as much to me as the dirt beneath my feet.“
It should be clear to everyone that this behaviour is not desirable. I well remember seminars 15 years ago, when instructors would encourage offenders to adopt the correct posture with a slight kick to the feet. These methods come from a time when WingTsun was still relatively unknown. Nowadays transgressions are not sanctioned as strictly as before, though respectful and polite behaviour must not be allowed to become unfashionable.
Let me mention at this point that the illustrations were posed by my students Kai Fölster and Jörg Spreu. I had to “persuade“ Jörg to demonstrate the gestures, as he normally behaves with exemplary respect. My thanks go to Kai and Jörg for their help with this article.

Sifu Thorsten de Vries,
3rd TG WingTsun