Why Forms Fail

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

Buy this issue now , or download it from Zinio

Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine - September + October 2016 The Chinese martial arts suffer from a time-honored dichotomy – form versus function.  Forms are the foundation of Chinese martial arts.  We have some of the most sophisticated, most complex and arguably, the most beautiful forms of any martial art in the world.  We also have the most forms of any other martial culture on the planet.  But so many forms make for a cumbersome curriculum, one that constantly begs the question – does it work?

Traditional martial arts, whether it be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, even some styles like Filipino, Thai and others, have their foundation in form practice.  However, nowadays few competitive fighters, particularly those in MMA, practice forms.  This has led many contemporary practitioners to dismiss forms as obsolete, but that’s a very narrow opinion.  Competitive fighters comprise only a small percentage of the martial practitioner population.  Such competition is limited by age and ability; for most, there is only a short window within which they can compete.  Few have the inclination or fortitude.  Form practice serves a far wider population and has a larger purpose, one outside the cage.

What’s more, forms practice is essential for weapons practice.  Practicing with real weapons can only be done with forms.  You just can’t spar with sharps safely; but at the same time, you can’t say you’ve mastered a blade without ever working with a live one.  Even though Chinese martial arts have moved away from real weapons, and most weapons are too medieval to carry on the street anymore, there is value in the perpetuation of weapons practice.  Many aspects of traditional culture have become obsolete, but to dismiss it entirely is foolish.

Forms have evolved over generations of practitioners and they continue to evolve today.  Another major criticism is aimed at the current generation who have focused on forms as performance.  And yet, showmanship has long been a part of traditional Chinese martial arts, from classic opera to military examinations in the dynastic periods to street buskers hawking dubious pills and liniments.  Nevertheless, performance is more prevalent now.  People still need self-defense, but more so by gun than by sword.  Technology has a greater impact elsewhere.  Today’s generation has access to video, to movies, and to YouTube, all mediums where forms can be showcased on an unprecedented level.  Back in feudal times, forms were hidden to conceal their most deadly techniques.  Today, they are more prevalent and visible than ever.  In days of old, Kung Fu practitioners were mocked for having flowery fists and embroidered legs (hua quan xiu tui 花拳繡腿), but nowadays, it sure makes for a great YouTube video.  Chinese forms are particularly showy, especially with the present trend towards nandu (difficulty movements 难度) in modern Wushu competition.

For the uninitiated, Chinese martial arts forms appear rather abstract.   The Chinese term for forms, taolu (套路) in Mandarin, has been translated in this magazine before.  Nevertheless, translating this term reveals the unique Chinese perspective on forms not shared by other traditional martial arts, so it bears repeating.  Taolu is a little tricky to translate.  Tao means “case, cover, envelope or wrapper.”  Lu is often translated as “road” in the martial arts, which isn’t the best choice but the most common because most streets in China are called lu.  A better translation might be “path” or “journey.”  The use of taolu is quite distinct when juxtaposed with the terms other styles use for forms.  Japanese forms are called kata.  This literally means “form.”  Japanese borrows many of its written characters from Chinese so when the character for kata is read in Chinese, it is xing (形), the same xing as in Xingyiquan (形意拳 form intention fist).  Taekwondo forms are called poomsae; While Korea’s written language is more distinct from Chinese than Japanese characters, the roots of this Korean character trace back to xing too.  So in the other two dominant martial cultures, forms are literally called forms.  But to the Chinese way of thinking, it alludes to something much greater, the encapsulation of an all-encompassing journey.  A taolu is more than something to be applied in the cage or shown off on a web video.  A taolu is a moving meditation for lifelong practice.

Subscribe to Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine The Two Problems of Forms
At 65, Master Xiao Jiaze (肖家泽) is more vibrant than a man half his age.  He moves with vitality, bristling with qi, with piercing eyes brimming with what the Chinese call jingqishen (essence, vital force, spirit 精氣神).  He comes to Kung Fu Tai Chi prepared.  Many masters are unaccustomed to being interviewed.  While there is some celebrity attached to being a Kung Fu master, it’s not like being a professional athlete or a movie star, so some masters are like deer in the headlights, not knowing how to present themselves before a camera or having any sense of which topics might be interesting for Kung Fu Tai Chi readers.  When Master Xiao came in, he had an armful of papers, each addressing different potential topics.  It’s all part of a project he has been working on, documenting his knowledge to pass it down to the next generation.

Master Xiao knows a lot of forms.  He has mastered the triumvirate of internal Kung Fu: Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang.  Hailing from the mystic martial mountain of Emei in Sichuan Province, Xiao is quite proficient in the regions indigenous system of Emei Pai (峨嵋派) and favors its Eagle Claw.  He also studied Wudang Kung Fu, another Chinese mystic martial mountain; he was a student of the renowned centenarian Grandmaster Lu Zijian (吕紫剑) from 1993 until he passed in 2012.  What's more, Master Xiao also studied Huaquan (華拳), Hongquan (紅拳) and a rare form of long fist known as Zhilimen (直隶门).  That's a lot of forms.

As Master Xiao sees it, there are two problems with forms practice today – the desire to make forms prettier and the lack of teacher understanding.  Both of these are common criticisms, but Xiao traces these issues back farther than most.  For the first problem, he attributes it to the chengyu (literally “fixed sayings” 成语).  Chengyu are the poetic and idiomatic phrases that are used in Kung Fu to both describe and label techniques, like when Bruce Lee says, “Movement 34 Dragon seeks path, Dragon whips his tail,” in Return of the Dragon (1972).  Xiao elaborates in Mandarin, “They wanted to make it prettier by adding chengyu.  Those lyrics are colorful.  It makes it feel more sophisticated.  ‘Ox looks at the moon (a Taijiquan movement – xi niu wang yue 犀牛望月),’ ‘Snake creeps down (another Taijiquan movement – she shen xia shi 蛇身下勢),’ these labels make it more elegant and shifted the emphasis.  Even Dong Haichuan (founder of Baguazhang 1797–1882 董海川) and Yang Luchan (founder of Yang Taijiquan 1799–1892 杨露禅) were experienced fighters.  Taijiquan and Baguazhang came from fighting.  These masters knew combat was in taolu.  Their students didn’t know.  They might not have ever fought.  Taolu had a performance element, but even with the beautiful names, there were combat methods in there.  Many just learn form and don’t get the combat.  Taolu adds linking movements to make it easier, plus training methods.  For example, look at raise leg (fen jiao 分腳) in Taijiquan.  By itself, it doesn't really have combat applications.  But it is a good training method for balance and kicking.”

The lack of teacher understanding is all too prevalent nowadays.  In America, strip mall paper tigers abound.  But again, Master Xiao sees this problem as originating from an older source.  “Often the teacher doesn't have experience and does not understand the content.  Taolu should go back to combat, but a lot of teachers have lost that.  Old teachers were conservative.  There’s a saying “jiao hui tu di, ir shi laoshi (教会徒弟,饿死师傅)."  This means 'teach it all and starve.'  Conservative masters only taught the real stuff to their private disciples.  They didn't share it with the junior students.  Take the movement, 'Tie back coat (lan zha yi 懒扎衣 – note that here, Xiao is referring to a Long Fist technique, not the more commonly attributed Taijiquan movement).’  The movement in the taolu is thought to be a gesture to pull back a robe, like the long robes that men wore in those days.  But the movement actually hides a knee strike.  In taolu, you usually see bigger moves, not tighter circles.  Only one disciple learned the truth and was told not to share.  But they need to practice it too.  So how could they practice it if they couldn’t share it with their classmates?  In folk styles of Kung Fu or minjian (民間), it is sometimes said that a particular student has juezhao (killing technique 绝招).  The top disciples may have been taught juezhao, but because it was hidden, kept in secret, they couldn’t practice it.  So it is lost.  For taolu, we must practice combat all the time, and cross over to other styles to double-check validity.

Forms and Fighting
It is important to note that Master Xiao is a fighter as well as a forms man.  He trained extensively in Kuai Shuai (literally “fast falls” 快摔), a throwing style from Baoding City in Hebei, akin to Judo or Shuai Jiao (摔角).  He is also involved with Sanda (散打) and has coached several Sanda champion fighters, as well as made a 6-DVD series on China’s modern free-sparring sport.  It’s also important to note that despite Xiao’s success in Sanda, he remains critical of it.  He’s critical for its lack of forms.  “Sanda athletes don’t know taolu.  You can’t call Sanda ‘Chinese martial arts.’  It’s just fighting.”

It’s a bold statement, but one that he backs with the history of Chinese martial arts competitions.  “At the 1927 Nanjing tournament, there were over six hundred competitors.  Each contestant competed first with taolu and then on the leitai (the elevated ring upon with sparring matches were fought 擂台).  Now it is separated, but back then taolu was the qualifying round.  The 1928 Hangzhou competition used a similar procedure.  In the minjian circles, sparring was called qiangshou (spear hand 枪手).  In the 1920s, there were lots of exchanges using qiangshou.  But in 1949, the People’s Republic of China separated taolu and Sanda.  Now many teachers only teach one or the other.  There were three different teaching modes: taolu, Sanda, and taolu and Sanda combined.  Now there is a fourth mode: wanquan (play fist 玩拳).  This just gives the movements.  These teachers never fought.  It’s pretty but useless, but it’s good for scholars.  And now, there’s even a fifth mode – dashou (hit hand 打手).  This is only fighting.

“In 1956, the People’s Republic of China began to recover martial arts with taolu competition.    In 1981, Sanda competitions started again.  Only the minjian practitioners kept fighting all along.  Today Sanda and taolu competitions and athletes are separated.  And now with nandu, taolu competitors are only required to be higher, faster and more flexible.  There’s no combat root and this hurts the body.  Professional nandu athletes are only active until age thirty at best.  There’s no long-lasting health benefits, not even in competitive Taijiquan.  There’s no internal philosophy.  
The Dao of Taijiquan is gone.

“The problem for Sanda is that the movements are limited by regulations.  Chinese martial arts should be ti da shuai na (kick, punch, throw and lock 踢打摔拿).  There's no na, so it’s incomplete.  In promoting these new sports, these need to be combined.  If Sanda fighters know taolu, their skills would be better.  The rules should be adjusted.

The Three Building Blocks of Kung Fu
As Master Xiao sees it, three building blocks are essential in order to define a martial practice as Kung Fu: taolu, gongfa (功法) and shizhan (实战).  The gong in gongfa is the same character as the Kung in Kung Fu; it means “achievement” or “merit.”  Fa means “law” or “rules.”  Combined, this refers to the method of training to achieve merit.  Xiao distinguishes this along two pairs of complimentary principles: internal or external and health or combat.  Shizhan means “real fighting” or “true battle.”

Master Xiao explains, “Why shizhan instead of boji (strike fight, an old term for combat fighting 搏击)?  Shizhan refers to ancient strategy like battlefield tactics, warfare with troops.  It’s village versus village and man versus man, particularly in the bingqi (soldier weaponry 兵器) period.  It began with man versus nature.  Those survival skills that worked were preserved through practice.  Then eventually, they were linked into taolu.  Diversity arose from geography.  Dimorphic differences between north and south China brought forth different characteristics.  Southern styles are closer; Northern styles are open and big.  There was little exchange between these different developing systems as they kept passing it down only within their own communities.

“In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Qi Jiguang (1529–1588 戚繼光) formalized and documented styles [Note: this refers to Qi’s seminal work New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu 纪效新书), which cataloged many styles of Chinese martial arts].  In the late Ming, there was Xinyi Liuhe (心意六合) by Ji Jike (attributed as the founder of Xingyiquan, 1588–1662 姬際可).  In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Dong Haichun offered his Bapanzhang (八盘掌).  These writings set the parameters.  They defined internal and external and made distinctions about forms.  The imitation styles, both animal and human behavior imitation like drunken style, all emerge around the late Ming and early Qing.  Until that time, all styles were strictly for combat.
“Take, for example, Xingyiquan.  I can’t say it’s the best, but it’s a good example.  In the late Ming, Ji Jike composed the taolu as practice for combat.  We say, ‘Your fist is your spear (tuo qiang wei quan 脱枪为拳),' which means your whole body is your spear.  Xingyi is not so pretty, but it's simple.  It's just fighting.  It has produced a lot of champions even today.  As we say, 'Half-step bengquan strikes all under heaven (bengquan or ‘splitting fist’ is a fundamental technique of Xingyiquan banbu beng quan da tianxia 半步崩拳打天下).

“When you are really fighting, you are not limited by style.  To be stuck in a frame in a fight is wrong and useless.  Fanzi (rotating 翻子), Praying Mantis, Choujiao (feet poking 戳腳), all these styles have some very effective techniques, but you must step outside the system and go beyond.  Some of the soft internal systems that focus on avoiding, these practitioners should learn something hard too.  Hard style practitioners should learn some soft.  No one system is best.  It depends on when you use it and your understanding.  Most of all, it depends on your opponent.  Taolu is different depending upon the individual practitioner, when it is learned and how it is used.

The Three Take Home Messages of Taolu
For Master Xiao, taolu is the cornerstone of authentic Kung Fu.  But it can be easily misconstrued unless three simple principles are observed.  “First, cut out the excess.  Just take the essence.  Take the real stuff.  Disregard the fake.  Nandu is like smoke.  It’s insubstantial.  Second, take everyone’s good part.  Keep the essence of your style, but absorb from others.  And third, you must use it for real.  Only when you actually use it do you know that it’s real.  Erzichan (two finger handstands 二指禪) is hard to use in combat.  Smashing stones is great, but smashing humans?  Humans don't stand still like a stone.”


  Discuss this article online
Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine September + October 2016

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2016 .

Buy this issue now , or download it from Zinio

About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh :

See videos of Master Xiao Jiaze demonstrating Bagua Dao and Xingyi Bagua Jian on the KungFuMagazine.com YouTube channel in September.  
For more, read Mixing Martial Arts: Kung Fu Style by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh in our November+December 2015 issue.  There are three additional videos of Master Xiao Jiaze from that 2015 article on the KungFuMagazine.com YouTube channel.

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article