The Faces of Forms

With forms, there are only three key words: repetition, repetition, repetition.

In some styles, particularly those claiming a solid tradition, forms are treated almost with reverence. There is nothing wrong with this because they are often the heirlooms of a style. But as martial arts spread through the pragmatic modern era, people have trouble seeing applications for the moves.

One of the reasons for this gap may be that so many people believe that all forms are created equal, and are also equally obscure when it comes to fighting. This is a misunderstanding, because many forms are not even meant for specific combat technique. In reality, forms range from light, temporary training ideas to master sets that contain most of an entire system. You should treat each of these appropriately and, in doing so, you might just find that your practice blossoms. Let’s visit the menagerie:

Basic Forms: While some people say that all forms are composed of basics, there are certain forms that show only basics, both sides and with little concern for artistry. Some even include push ups, and other stretching and strength building actions.

Choy Lai Fut Kung Fu

CLF Stance Form

Stance Forms: The Stance Form is a type of structure form that concentrates only on the lower half of the body. Choy Lai Fut, for example, has forms entirely for stance shifting that, at a later date, have the hand motions added.  

Wing Chun Kung Fu

Wing Chun Hand Form

Hand Forms: Most people reading this will immediately think of Wing Chun’s famous Sil Lim Dao where the feet never move and the arms do all the work. There are a number of styles with forms, or sections of forms, dedicated entirely to arm work. The Tiger Crane, for instance, opens with a long and key section simply composed of hand moves.  

Lost Track Kung Fu

Lost Track              “structure” form

Structure Forms: A structure form is a series of postures, often the key ones to a particular system. Unlike the Linking Form the Structure doesn’t pride itself on nice transitions, but stable postures that give the “feel” of a style.

Linking Forms: These forms are most often for beginning to intermediate level students. The purpose of a linking form is just that: to create a sequence of movements showing their transitions and combinations. These rarely have much artistic value and, because their job is to introduce transition between movements, rarely repeat moves. Not pretty, but good for combining moves. One interesting side note: linked forms are the privilege of an instructor. In days past people did not just make up forms when they felt like it. Keeping the original forms was a sacred tradition and, like writing a new version of the Bible, not seen as something you just pop off. But when an instructor wanted to create an intermediate “linking form,” that was considered perfectly acceptable. If they were good forms and served their purpose, they might continue past the instructor’s lifetime.

Mother-Son Practice: This may be the original inspiration for ALL of the forms we see today. In the old days students were shown marching patterns of movements called “Mother” lines. There might be only four to six for a style, something like the famous Tan Tui boxing.  If the student gained skill he might progress to “Son” lines that showed variations of the Mother line. Mother/Son sequences like these first introduced key movements with mutations on the basic maternal moves. This method of “embryo” and variation should be more common in CMA. It is an excellent training  method that staves off the tendency to be robotic and repetitious without wandering too far afield.

Hung Gar Kung Fu

Hung Gar  Single Side   Partner Staff

Double Sided Partner Forms: Partner forms range from the performance style to the very realistic. Many of these are two person forms where each partner learns both sides of the form. This is not always the case.

Single Sided Partner Forms: In some cases, partner forms are so complete on each side of the form that the partners never exchange sides because there is no need to. Each person’s role is as fixed as having a part in a play.

Praying Mantis Kung Fu

The Mantis Zhai Yao

Compendium Forms: Most styles have a basic form or two, plus a number of additional forms which, added together, pretty much cover the total knowledge of the style. But there are special forms, too, which pretty much cover all the major movements of the system within one form. Eagle Claw has such a form. For some, Zhai Yao is such a form for the Praying Mantis system.

Theme Forms: Some sets have a specific theme. These can range from joint locking to counters against weapons attacks. Some theme forms have strength training or the development of specialized energies such as whipping actions.

Story Forms: I used to practice a form entitled “Book Set” which was believed to be a ritualized presentation of a martial artist’s journey. It started with simple movements and developed into more complex actions only to return to simple and basic actions. Story forms can record an event in the history of the style, or set the use of strategies and tactics within the boundaries of a story.


White Crane Kung Fu

White Crane & co.

Technique Forms: A technique is a sequence of movements, a pre-programmed reaction to a self defense or fighting situation. Each technique might be a burst of four or five movements. Strung together this creates a technique form 

Movement Forms: If done properly, movements that seem very general and hardly even martial can be of great importance. They are so general they actually solve a number of problems, all at the same time. A form constructed of these might not even resemble a normal martial set and yet be of great help at a certain point in your martial development.

There are probably some methods or presentations I have forgotten, but this should give you an idea that forms are a tremendously vital and adaptable means of practice.

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