Unlocking the Form #3: Let's Sing a Refrain
Have you noticed that many sections of a form have a section that is repeated a number of times? Sometimes, when you learn even an advanced set, you might think , “Well, they must like this part because they want me to do it again.” If you are an information geek you might even feel, “This is a waste of time. They already covered this once.” In tightly constructed systems like Wing Chun with few key forms, you will find these crucial sections repeated not only inside the form but throughout the entire system.
We call these repeated groups of movements REFRAINS. Sometimes their presence is very significant. In the Yang Taiji set for instance variations on the same five moves of the basic refrain are repeated EIGHT TIMES! The total repeated moves add up to about 30% of the entire form. The first thing people do when they want to create a “short form” version is to eliminate these repetitions. But if you looked at a form as a PRACTICE SESSION rather than a DANCE you might see that repeating the most important movements of the style 8 times in 20 minutes is nothing exotic, just common sense.
These cultural and esthetic differences of style (not to mention philosophical considerations) require some negotiation when learning traditional martial arts. For another example, if we consider the identity of a form as an artistic COMPOSITION, we instantly see how necessary are refrains to a balanced and beautiful structure. People need repetition, they crave circularity and reiteration. The right kind of repetition creates what is known as a MOTIF, and that not only lies at the base of the form but explains its meaning.
All this, though important, is secondary. The true nature of refrains is cultural and structured into the Chinese consciousness at the level of the language itself. That doesn't mean you have to speak Chinese to understand it, just be aware of the thought process...
Chinese will often start with a single word that almost represents its meaning. The word for 'heart” for instance is a picture of the aorta. But standing alone, though an important word, it is incomplete. When this picture is set NEXT TO other words the compounds it forms are real extension of the words meaning.
The character “heart” can be COUPLED with other characters to create new words. In each of these the word is retained and set beside other words to create NEW meanings.
In fact, there is even a modified version of this four stroke character called a "standing heart" which is only three strokes (a 25% savings in Chinese) and fits more snuggly with other characters. The three stroke character buddies through a spectrum of meanings which covers many expressions of emotion associated with the heart-mind.
Counting the fact that Chinese has a transformational grammar (which surprisingly, makes it one of its closest language cousin to American English) we have the answer to the whole puzzle: propinquity. It is what the characters lies adjacent to which creates the meaning.
Back at the form we see everything clearly now. The real goal of martial arts is to actually teach very few moves but from many different attitudes. So you must, for instance, be able to do the same simultaneous cross strike ( a right punch with a left kick) for all sorts of positions. If you cut these different launch positions and follow up postures you will quickly see that there are NO exactly repeated movements.
The refrain is a way of not only showing you how to throw the Cross Strike from different attitudes but also that you should treat MOST combinations like that. If you think this is not minor try a little experiment. Take a form you know with a lot of refrains and SUBSTITUTE a simple but different series of moves. Then walk through the form and have fun watching your neurological system adapt. At first it will short circuit then, quite suddenly, all will be revealed.
After decades of teaching this art I can say only one thing: there's very little waste. In culinary circles Chinese adaptability is well known. "The Chinese can cook anything," gourmets say, "but chicken feathers." Little waste, there is, indeed. These refrains are the recurrent spine of your form.