View Full Version : Forms Mastery

Kevin Barkman
06-24-2000, 07:05 AM
Greetings to my Online Sisters & Brothers!

I am wondering if I could ask you for your input to a question that has been on my mind for a while.

In traditional Kung Fu, we are told from the old masters that in the past, forms were taught one or two moves at a time - you mastered those movements, then learned a few more. After a while, if you demonstrated competency in the initial movements and application training, you would be taught sequences which took the forms of our modern day "patterns" or "forms". Now....time warp to the year 2000....

How long should a student spend studying a form until they progress to the next form in your curriculum? Should they completely master (or at least understand) all the applications and meaning in the form before moving on to the next level? In that case (as I assume it must be to preserve the integrity of the art), how long should that be in general (excepting individual adult learning patterns)?

Assume you are teaching a group - everyone progressing at the same level with a goal towards a "black sash" - IOW - you need a solid, consistent curriculum. I am speaking from a southern perspective, which is relatively the same across the board.

I am thinking it should be about two - three months hard training per form, in addition to constant review as you progress and your understanding deepens.

Any thoughts?

Cheers - Smashing Bridge Kevin

[This message has been edited by Kevin Barkman (edited 06-26-2000).]

06-25-2000, 12:49 AM
Hi Kevin:
We look at forms as essential to learning balance, coordination and agility. Having said that, we only spend about 5-10% of our class time on them, with the rest spent on fighting techniques (classes are 2.5 hours long). Forms enable one to learn to step and strike together, to perfect breathing control etc., but working with a partner allows one to perfect timing and execution of technique. We expect a student to have knowledge of one free (no weapon) form at three months; a free form and a weapon's form at six months; and to demonstrate that they know what they're doing and can do it fairly (not necessarily perfectly) well. We used to have a form a month for many years, both a free forma and a weapon's form. Students trained in all, but usually picked one or two they liked better -- either for body movement, type of weapon, etc., to become their personal form. I'm not sure if this answers your question, but when we test the students what we look for is improvement each time, and if a mistake is made - we look to see if the student will carry on and cover it and continue. In an actual fighting situation, you can't very well say -- "Hold it, guys. I goofed. Can you throw that kick again?"

06-25-2000, 12:53 AM
Maybe if I read first things would be easier.

My instructor's instructor - from China; told me he'd gotten one move a day for 360 days so by the end, he had 360 moves per form. We've cut our free forms to 26 moves today, so we normally give the first 11 moves; then two days later the next 5; then two days later 5; two days later the last 5 and then practice the whole from for two weeks. That way if someone is missing from class a day or so, they can easily catch up.
Anyone who wants to make a long form - 360 moves - can simply take the first 6 moves off of each new form, take off the final salute and then attach the rest of the form and continue.

06-25-2000, 02:33 AM
"Greetings to my Online ::Brothers::!"

Kevin, ::ahem:: (nudge nudge, wink wink)

Very tough question. I come from a teacher who pumps me full of so many forms it's hard to keep track. I would rather work on the obvious application each move at time to better undertand it. Then as I progress in the form, maybe a few moves at a time for continuity of combinations, I can study it deeper for my own education.

Time wise, I really think you can't leave out the difference in learning capacities of each individual. And class wise, I would think the teacher should be apt enough to work at different paces with different individuals. And as for style wise, I really think it varies.

What would you rush a form through for anyway? I guess that black sash would be the reason...

I have many forms under me. But I have been studying only one of them (the first form I learned in the system) for two months. I find so much I missed because I was rushed to learn it. Upon reflection, maybe three months is about right to physically execute the movements and to understand the obvious solutions. But I like the "original" way, you don't get your pudding if you don't eat your meat.

"Should they completely master (or at least understand) all the applications and meaning in the form before moving on to the next level?"

::ducking tomatoes::

06-25-2000, 10:20 AM
I think students should be learn prepared for a lifetime of simple practice, rather than acquisition of "rank" or whatever. So spending several mos. on a single form sounds good and then later obvious variations on the basic themes can be accelerated.

Knowing a quantity of forms isn't nearly as beneficial as knowing that you will always return to the first ones(especially in Southern Systems).

06-25-2000, 12:47 PM
forms are just tools for study. When you get a new point, a principle or whatever, you have to rework all the form you know so that you have a better understanding of your style.

That the reason you might work form for your lifetime.

So even if you know the highest form you have to work the first one which is the basis of the style.

But as forms are just tools, some schools has only 2 or 3 forms, some none. And it does not mean that they are not kung fu school.

Kung Lek
06-25-2000, 08:46 PM
Hi Kevin-

It is my opinion, that the forms of a system are the core and essence of that system.

It is also my opinion that if you let a student progress before they have a firm understanding of the essence (pattern/flow) of the given form and how to apply a good portion of it, then you are doing a disservice to that student and to the art.

The value of the art outways the impatience of the eager student.
Many times students will ask to learn new parts to forms before the even have rudimentary understanding of what they have already been taught, even after a few corrections.
They are generally denied progression until this is solved.

Often times this will frustrate the student and sometimes they will even leave the school perhaps discouraged but more often than not it is due to their personality and ego.

It is the same in any art, progression should not be in the picture until strong understanding is acheived in the prelimenary teachings.

I would not be happy with putting on a demonstration of forms using a student who did not reflect well one the art firstly and the school secondly.

A poor show of form lets the watcher percieve that the art is useless and the school is the same.

The art deserves to be learned patiently and in the time frame required by the student according to their learning style.


Kung Lek

Kevin Barkman
06-26-2000, 04:01 AM
Thanks Meltdawn - my sincere apologies!

Some traditional systems (such as Hung Sing Choy Lee Fut) try and preserve close to or more than a hundred hand sets, while others base their whole systems on three or four hand sets. At my old Kun Tao school in Calgary, it took about a year on one form before you would be taught the next. Of course, the expectation was that you would ingrain it for life! However, there were only eight sets.

I also learned a system with so many forms (literally uncountable), that learning the specific applications to each technique in the form are impossible. At the same time, we are taught that without all the "hidden" applications (eg. Chin na / cum na techniques, takedowns, point hitting, etc.), that the kung fu will always remain basic, and probably rely too much on punching and kicking.

Wing Chun has (I believe) 4 hand sets. Bak Mei has 3-4 "Core" sets, and a few others to round it out. Lung Ying has about 5 advanced and 8 basic sets (give or take a few). Hung Gar has their traditional 4 sets, but then, depending on the school, possibly 10 or more additional. Bak Sing Choy Lee Fut has about 5 sets, Hung Sing close to or more than 100! What about the other traditional schools out there? How many forms are in your curriculum, and how much time do you generally spend on each one, for technical competence, application, and a solid understanding of the principles of the form?

I have also heard the arguement that learning new forms should be a lifelong process to continuosly challenge and open up your body to different ways of moving. If you only specialize in 4 forms, your body will only be conditined to move in certain ingrained patterns.

I'm just throwing thoughts out here folks - sorry to babble on...


06-26-2000, 06:05 PM
"If you only specialize in 4 forms, your body will only be conditined to move in certain ingrained patterns."

This obviously was a comment from someone who taught or practised in a style with many forms.

Forms are never stagnant. Forms encompass a traditional mindset to practice, and in the hands of a competent teacher, are very worthwhile. They aid to engrain the movements in one's style.

Even though students might begin or learn a form at the beginning together, a consistent curriculum does not necessarily mean having to teach all at the same time. To me, that is more inconsistent with a competence/ability based curriculum.

Patterns are a learning tool, it should take as long as it takes for one to become adept, realizing that a pattern is incomplete without its entirety. To me, adept means when the student can perform the movement/technique well in a static posture. For one of the many lessons patterns impart is that of continuous movement.

If at the advanced level, all one can do are the patterns taught, I'd question how well the style has been learned..or taught.

Kung Lek
06-26-2000, 07:28 PM

in our school, the northern shaolin contains 12 forms,(2 preliminay sets and 10 core sets)
generally you could spend about 10 years learning the northern system with its augmentation practices) there aren't many weapons that go with this system in its overall essence but they are available.

The southern style we practice (Hak Fu Pai) contains Two major empty hand sets that are the core of the systems teachings as well there is a two man tiger/crane matching set and a good variety of weapons that covers most of the types of weapons IE: Blade, Pole, double blades and flexible weapons.

The sets tend to be long and physically demanding in the Shaolin Black Tiger system and the flavour is similar to that of Hung Ga or Fu Jow Pai due to the probability of shared roots in its development.
this system takes at least 5 years to learn but certainly can take longer, it really depends on the diligence and commitment of the practitioner.

in the other system available at our school (Ha Say Fu Hong Pai) there are of course 5 major core sets, those being the original five animals of Shaolin namely dragon, tiger, leopard, crane and snake as well there is augnmentation and a masters selection of weapons associated with this system.
The Ha Say fu Hong pai of our school comes through the toi San district of south china and also shares roots with Hung Ga, Hak Fu Pai, Fu Jow Pai and Southern Shaolin styles.

I would like to note that there are major flavour differences between southern and Northern styles and i personally feel that the southern styles of CMA are not so hard to get the essence of as the northern styles which contain quite a lot of aerial and acrobatic kicks and spinning kicks and a few unusual techniques. It is highly demanding and totally different than southern styles.

It is indeed an intersting way to study Kung fu because you really get a taste for the variety of martial arts by practicing these two juxtapposed systems.
Northern has taught me more about fluidity of movement and empty power where southern has taught me a lot about rooting and a driving physical power.

well gotta go...
yayyy, Winnipeg, and summer


Kung Lek

06-26-2000, 10:04 PM
Hi Kung Lek,

You doing the China Town gig, Canada Day?

You said, "Northern has taught me more about fluidity of movement and empty power where southern has taught me a lot about rooting and a driving physical power."

How does your kwoon put these aspects together in a martial sense away from pattern practise? You peform them in a pattern, how do you apply the Northern and Southern together?

Interestingly, as an aside, Northern Shaolin patterns instruct same leg forward, same hand forward strikes (such as a deep forward bow & arrow type stance), both of long and short arm variety. Do you apply your techniques this way? Karate also teaches this method of punching- not surprisinhly, considering Karate's origins.

Kung Lek
06-27-2000, 02:47 AM
Hi NoSpam-

Nope, not chinatown, I believe the ching Wu group will be at the cultural centre.
We have the gig at the Forks for 12:30 in the afternoon, should be fun, Lion dance and a bit of choreographed fighting and Chin Na.

Anyway, the way it gets put together is that Si Fu will teach you your first form and it will be from the southern shaolin black tiger system.
The form after that is also same system.
First form being Hak Fu Gung Lik Kuen which is long and demanding and has a flavour like Hung Gars Tit Sen Kuen but it is not entirely the same. Second form is Hak fu Da Kuen and it is a "fighting set" Also long and fairly demanding as speed and power application is increased in this one.

After those two first southern forms, the students will learn the preliminary form for North Shaolin which is as many of you know Lien Bo Chuan.
This form is more relaxed than the previous two and the power application theory behind it has a different starting point.
Fluidity is emphasized heavily in the Northern while the Southern is ok to do in a slightly segmented manner with some small pauses for "regathering" Chi (Gung Lik Kuen).

So the student suddenly has to change the way they execute form to meet the needs of the northern style. Meanwhile they still practice their southern forms which do not have the same flavour and this is how the two different flavours are instilled in the practitioners.
As time progresses, the student will continue to learn from both systems. Generally, the student will work through the entirety of the empty hand sets from the black tiger system and start working on accompanying weapons sets before they learn the next northern prelim set of Tan Tui and then more southern weapons and into the core sets of the North Shaolin system.

So the basics and foundations are laid primarily with the southern system before the student moves to Northern where the flavour changes and then, when the student is about one third to halfway through the 10 core sets of north shaolin they begin to learn the Ha Say fu Hong pai system which takes them into another flavour of southern styles that are both fluid and rooted.

I understand that Choy Lee Fut systems use both southern and northern sets in their curricullums and the development is likely fairly similar to using this 3 system method as opposed to wrapping it all up into one system. Either way, in the end, if the student stays commited, they will understand the principles, techniques and applications of those techniques found in both northern and southern styles of CMA and will be a well rounded martial artist.

As for the same arm/leg strikes, yes these are found a lot in North Shaolin but they are not the hard and fast rule of it.

There are also many incidences of opposite arm/leg strikes like "den choy" or "chum choy" and the likes.

I believe that one of the things about the same leg/arm technique is that it serves economy of motion depending upon your relative location to the target.

for instance, in Lien Bo, at about the ninth motion sequence, the practitioner turns and is facing in a cat stance with the arms and hands posiitoned in Fook Sao. the lead arm is the same as the lead leg naturally from the turn and as you step into the Bow stance out of the cat stance, the arm follows the lead leg and strikes.

This is also found once or twice in Tun Ta (quick strike) and often in Moi Fa, Bot Bo, Chum Sam and Mo I.

It is interesting, and I pesonally think it has to do with the influence of the Moslem Kung Fu on the North Shaolin styles.

Hsing I does this also, as does Tan Tui (both Moslem).

But there are plenty of examples of opposite arm/leg strikes in the system.
Like in Tun Ta, after the spear hand, then downward block, then circle both arms block up and strike forward movement. the striking hand is opposite to the lead leg before the trap and arm break that leads to the first jumping kick. (I hope you know where I am talking about in the set), also in Moi Fa, when the paths change they are precluded by opposite lead leg/arm strikes or blocks on the north and south motions but the are same arm, same leg on the east/west motions with a few small contrary varients.

Anyway, I'm getting lost and straying from the point, what was the question again?...

-kidding, i hope this made sense and if not, we can always try again!


Kung Lek

Kung Lek
06-27-2000, 03:04 AM
Sorry, i just re-read your post and it said "away from pattern practice how is it applied" (paraphrased)

well, through sparring of course! over time as skill is developed the students have the opportunity to participate in San Da and Ci Yao Da.
Younger students will do the Ci Yao Da and the more advanced students will do the San Da.
In San Da, you are free fighting and must use what you have learned to the best of your abilty.
Si Fu will coach us to an extent but at the San Da level their are expectations. And of course you must adapt to your opponent and use those techniques that are going to (A) keep you from getting hit, and (B) provide your sparring partner with strikes to defend against using what they know.
It comes natural to switch between north and south techniques after a while and I personally tend to float all over the place.
Take downs are allowed at advanced level sparring so Chin Na comes into effect as well as Shui Jaio, it can get really interesting to watch and especially to participate at these levels. of course we do not allow strikes to the throat, groin or eyes and we do our best to respect each other but I've had my taste of a few whacks upside my head as my brothers also have.

So it is through this type of methodology where the student will learn to apply what they have learned.

Of course, when faced on the street with an imminent threat, the application of technique will once again metamorphize into what is required at the moment.
I do not feel that street fights are valuable learning tools though but they are a really good acid test of what you have studied.

Sometimes, sparring can be to gentle and the lesson to be gained is forfeited because of lack of will or fear of being struck, on the other hand, if the sparring partners are aware of the lesson to be gained then they will be more diligent in their effort to apply untried techniques and applications.


Kung Lek

Constipated Wombat
06-29-2000, 06:40 AM
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by meltdawn:
I have many forms under me. But I have been studying only one of them (the first form I learned in the system) for two months. I find so much I missed because I was rushed to learn it. Upon reflection, maybe three months is about right to physically execute the movements and to understand the obvious solutions. But I like the "original" way, you don't get your pudding if you don't eat your meat.

"Should they completely master (or at least understand) all the applications and meaning in the form before moving on to the next level?"

::ducking tomatoes::[/quote]

No tomatoes here, "Dawn." I much prefer really working a form for all it's worth rather than accumulating a long list of forms. This is a big part of why I'm drawn to taijiquan. There are only a few forms which really lets you dig in and pull everything out of it that you can.

That being said, in some styles with many forms have a central base form from which all the others draw their concepts. Many of these additional forms help show alternative uses for the same movements, which is of great value.

My main thing with forms is that it doesn't matter how many you know as long as you really understand them.

grrrrrrrrrr. grrrrrrrr..
arrrrgggggggggghhhhhhh... grrrrrrrr <PLOP>