Thursday, September 8, 2011


This may sound obvious, but forms were created by people who knew what they are doing. What I mean is, a Xing-Yi spear form was created by someone that had 1) used a spear before, 2) understood how to use it best, and 3) knew the common errors/problems associated with using it wrong - lack of power, lack of balance, inability to transition through moves or move with the weapon smoothly, getting stuck, inaccuracy of targeting etc etc

Forms were invented as ways to solo practice and refine skills, and improve on and remove errors.
Great if you know what you are doing and have some 'raw material' to refine ... but what if you have no idea what spear fighting feels like? Have no idea how to visualize an opponent? Do forms help then?

It's really fairly easy to tell if someone doing a form has an idea of what they are doing and what it's for. A personal cringe for me is seeing sword work done by folks that have never used one or have confused how a stick moves with edged steel. Even then there are levels, there are those that have maybe practiced target cutting with live blades but have no context, or those that understand fight tactics but without bladed weapons. I am limited by never having had a sword fight where someone was actually wanting to kill me with a real weapon, or even a challenge match for first blood - and before you ask or volunteer, I'm absolutely OK with that :-) - so my movement will probably look different from someone that has had that experience.

Sonny believed that all preset patterns and forms have a soporific (hypnotic/feel good) effect on the body/mind, and because they begin and end, are inherently glitchy. He believed that patterns can override reactions, and like a song that gets stuck in your head, are hard to undo once ingrained. Which is why he stopped teaching them. On the other hand, he did practice alignment and accuracy a great deal, and used certain movement combinations to refine these, but never in a repetitive way, always using a basic idea and riffing off it.

Personally I love form work and get a great deal out of the practice (perhaps it's the soporific effect?), and think they are great for training full body integration and understanding wave and rhythm, but really they only start to make sense once you have felt the problem they were created to solve or the skill they were meant to refine. Practicing them without knowing the context, and I mean 'knowing' in an experiential sense, might be a head start for when you do .. but perhaps it's not ...?


Jake said...

I think one of the issues I've seen with forms is that while they were created by people who knew what they were doing, sometimes people who don't know what they are doing start tinkering with them. That seems (I'm largely hypothesizing here) to be what happened to a lot of the Japanese/Okinawan systems once they made it to the US. People start changing stuff based on an intellectual process, not experience.

I haven't done much form work in the last decade. Tony Blauer teaches a "Close Quarter Combat Form" that I practice, but that's about it. I remember them being fun, long ago in other systems, but I haven't played with them lately. The work that I did do, when I did it, didn't seem to translate much the first time I got into a ring and got punched in the face. Maybe that's a context thing though...

Mac said...

If I may disagree? I think forms were never a part of training for combat (check Vegetius' 'On Roman Military Matters') and arose in duelling schools as 2-person give-and-takes, as types of 'dance' designed to hide martial movements 'in plain sight' (example: the fraile of arnisadors) and, lastly, as ways to make a living (the scattering of the Shaolin monks after the destruction of the temple). Forms have a limited purpose but, to me, are mostly a type of martial mastur--------. (Please excuse the phrase).

Maija said...

Well yes, I guess first question would be what really constitutes a 'form'.
After all there are plenty drills that surely must have been done to teach people how to use a spear, say.
So is thrust, step + withdraw, thrust, step + withdraw really a 'form', or is it not 'big' enough?
I've not read Vegetius so cannot comment on his view, and honestly the history of Chinese martial arts and their origins is murky at best, so I really cannot comment either if forms were used in training for combat or not.
I do believe that Xing-Yi WAS taught to the military for empty hand and bayonet training around the beginning of the 20th century though, but again have no knowledge if forms were part of that training or not.
As to why forms arose in the first place .... I think my teacher would say that they were, and are, useful for integrating the power of the body, and for transitioning between moves that are common. They are also a very useful way of keeping a large group of students doing something together and not requiring constant individual attention.
Absolutely agree that dances were used to hide martial material, for instance the moro-moro during the Spanish colonial era, but dances were also used as ways to keep peace time soldiers fit (along with non lethal sport fighting like grappling/wrestling/throwing arts, and entertained too, no?
Thinking Cossacks here, and probably many of the male dance forms around the world.
As to being martial masturbation ... well, I'll give you that doing solo forms means you ARE playing with yourself and probably enjoying it too ... question is, does it improve your technique when you play with others? :-D

Scott said...

When I open up the refrigerator and reach for a beer, there is a martial application in that. But it might take a "trained" eye to see it.
Mac is on to something, not necessarily a dueling situation but, societies of honor, status, reputation, and prowess used the performance of forms to build alliances between men of force and power.
The two oldest forms I do, and love (call it a form of self-love if you must) are Northern Shaolin and Chen Tai Chi.
After deeply thinking about all the stuff I got from Rory Miller and then testing it, I'm convinced that the opening movements of the Shaolin forms are defense against kidnappers, for kids. Routines that can be done suddenly and explosively, that punch straight up and elbow to the groin, break holds, and kick off of walls. But there is also no doubt what so ever that these exact forms were taught to children as the basic training for jingju (Chinese Opera).
Chen Tai Chi is so full of mime/theater with movements like Lohan Pounds the Mortar, and Lazy About Tying Ones Coat, it's really only mass hypnosis that keeps people from seeing it. The opening movement is identical to the one used in Chinese theater to 'start the music,' yet there are a 100 examples of martial applications on youtube. Fantasy?
Chen Tai Chi is a classical art done in an exacting way, but it has so much space in it--it looks like I'm doing a form, but I assure you I'm improvising every bit, every time.
Pride and shame colored glasses.

Jake said...

Defining a form always seems to be a big point of contention. I've known forms practitioners who contend that shadowboxing is just like form work, which always seemed weak to me.

Can I turn the question around? Do you think the forms improve your performance when you play with others? Particularly with others who don't know the forms/play the same game?

Maija said...

So back in the day, solo forms could be thought of as a kind of a non-contact Monkey Dance to impress others?
Do you think they were also used by teachers to gauge the level of a student's understanding?

Having just spent a couple days thinking about the connection between calligraphy and swordplay, I can certainly see how one can practice, and see attributes, of one in the other ... but I still don't think it in itself translates into actual real time skill.

Knowing the context, as you say Scott, taking a beer out of the fridge can be 'practice', but with no context, with no living, breathing, scheming adversary as a counter point, all the body integration, smoothness and transitionsing means little. What's missing is understanding the chaos of you, the chaos of them and the chaos of the situation it seems ... and that's really the biggest part of it that everything else has to fit into ...
I think forms can be of benefit once one understands context, like being able to see the 'man in the bag' doing heavy bag training, otherwise it is perhaps most beneficial for health and meditation where no one else is involved ....?

Maija said...

Jake - Saw your comment after I wrote mine, but I think it got to your question anyways :-)

Jake said...


Yeah, you hit it. Interesting perspective.

Scott said...

Yes, the performance of forms could be used to establish a social ranking with in a group. To bond people together as a unit. To ward off night attacks of crops. To make alliances by showing you have skin in the game, the way having a hard drink is used to establish a relationship. Alliances were built on prowess (ling), Forms were a way to show that.
Forms can be storehouses of information, huge data mines. Most people don't use them that way and so most forms don't have that depth anymore, but mine do. They are absolutely brimming with information.
But ultimately forms must lead to great improvisation skills. Yes, one could teach improvisation with out the forms. But forms offer a big range of movement, a model of what the body can do at its outer limits. In my world people who skimp on forms are at risk of skimping on form itself.
Forms develop ling, it means the expression of aliveness, lively spontaneous power. That's the value of "training" forms once you already have technique and form.
And of course, working with the wildness of a living partners is an absolute necessity. None of it works with out that.

Hertao said...

"Forms were invented as ways to solo practice and refine skills, and improve on and remove errors.
Great if you know what you are doing and have some 'raw material' to refine ... but what if you have no idea what spear fighting feels like? Have no idea how to visualize an opponent? Do forms help then?"

My take is that if you have no idea what fighting feels like or how to visualize an opponent you'll get very little from forms, although possibly a bit in regards to ingraining/training certain movements. But I definitely can't see that helping much with real "fighting".

I do think forms can be good though, provided you do have (as the Dog Brother's call it) "the fighter's understanding". I think they can serve a few purposes:

1. A catalog of techniques/strategies
2. A way for people to train alone, especially those who lack the creativity to make up their own "drills"
3. A way to work speed, power generation through body mechanics, and ingrain responses if you're able to visualize

To me the key is to understand the limitations, where forms fit into your training, and to balance the downsides through other types of training.