A Detective Story and the Origin of Forms

There is an ongoing debate about the place of forms in martial arts. What seems natural and logical to some people, especially in the context of certain cultural values, seems a low level form of insanity to others. Basics we all claim to understand and admire. Sparring is a no-brainer, especially if you are hit on the head enough. Qigong satisfies some people and irritates others but is a whole other subject. Even the origins of forms seem a mystery, though a wider perspective shows how universal is the practice; Mediterranean warriors had their sword dances and ancient Celts had their battle rituals. Choreographed martial movement is nothing new, nor is it exclusively Asian. Six Harmony MantisOver the years neither pro-form or anti-form arguments have made much sense to me. And, as I thought about the subject, I began to question even the explanations of those who admired forms and believed that the knowledge contained in them was practical. But I kept finding questions, like what had it been like before there were forms? How did they begin? First we must have had simple, single movements and, with these, simply created a sequence. There are a lot of forms at this level: a single movement followed by another movement. But many of these are new practice forms recently created as simplified catalogs of movement. One classic example was early Shaolin forms, especially of the Luo Han branch. There is even a saying for Shaolin structure that it consists of “one step and one strike.” At first blush, this seemed obvious. What would you create forms out of 1500 years ago but basics strung one after another? But this is inconclusive. Why would we string basics together except for teaching children? It is easy enough just to march the basics back and forth along the courtyard. Of course, basic “linked forms” could be created but I thought it too large a leap to evolve into the sophisticated routines of today. No, I was looking for something older, but also presenting a certain level of complexity. Six Harmony Praying MantisFor a long time I considered techniques, small linked groups of movements countering a specific attack. We see the remnants of this evolutionary step in Kenpo where an opponent’s right punch may elicit five linked counters in a specific sequence by you. Though techniques, more than simple actions, seem sophisticated enough to qualify as the germs of forms, there was a flaw in the idea: Chinese martial arts, in general, find techniques too “programmed,” too much long a series of if-thens. I still needed something more sophisticated than a single basic, yet more organic that a group of rehearsed counter attacks. Even though I had been in the Chinese martial arts for a long time by this point I had rarely bumped into a type of training that straddled the single basic action and the linked technique: these are called Mother-Son sequences in Chinese. A Mother-Son sequence is sort of a linked mini-form, say, ten movements in a row. Often the movements are like a form but definitely not a form; they lack the internal structure of a form refraining from smooth and easy transitions, not having the typical repeated “theme” moves, linking together somewhat odd and awkward actions. In other words, it’s as though someone had purposefully linked moves in a way to suggest a certain flexibility in the links themselves, a loose chain. LH79What makes Mother-Son sections unique is that they are meant to split like an information tree, taking you through all sorts of re-combinations and links to other movements, concentrating far more on the mechanics of power than the demands of art. Mother-Son combinations are more like DNA than RNA sequences (how oddly appropriate the Chinese term is) when they re-link with other actions of the style. This erects a step-bridge between hard, structured basics and creativity, yet all within the style. A good example is found in Liu He Tang Lang. Training starts with small sequences, maybe four or five movements repeated in a marching fashion on both side. Once these are learned they may be slightly varied, but generally not much. On the other hand, they are definitely more advanced than single step basics. Then come the Mother-Song sequences. These are sections of about ten movements with a decidedly odd feel. They are less thematic so you will see more movements that don’t quite interlock neatly. From the teacher and even the student may develop all sorts of important training variations on the one hand, without leaving the practice field on the other, allowing some challenging and instructive re-arranging. Six Harmony Praying MantisThen come forms, but by now the student is well-versed at searching out variations and changes. These forms, which grew out of this organic and somewhat folksy approach show, to my mind, that the farther you go when stretching back into the history of martial forms the closer you get to the obvious next stage of the Mother-Son development, namely long sequences of 30-60 movements constructed from sequences of the Mother-Son type linked together in the bigger and admittedly more esthetic unions called forms. This I believe is the idea: basics in small groups with little emphasis on just single actions, then Mother-Son sequences which challenge but also instruct, then forms. This last seems clear to me because, when you watch authentically old forms you can still see the phrasing of the original Mother-Son sequences. This phrasing seems to be disappearing in deference to a phrasing more attuned to audience appreciation. The story is still there in many forms but the phrasing, timing and subtler connections are fraying. If I am right this would give a real key to the place of forms in martial practice. Right now there tends to be (there are exceptions of course, your instructor may be one) a monotone because they are looked at from the basics angle. The change-ups are more for dramatic than structural reasons, applause and drama. But in my opinion forms are not, and have never been, for basics training, at least not if you think of basics as single actions. They are to demonstrate your unique and particular mastery of sequences and those within yet other sequences. Thus the learning stage of a form is nothing like the performance stage where we show our special mastery of the Mothers and Sons.  

All photos are of Sifu Linda Darrigo demonstrating Liu He Tang Lang. Thanks to her for her contribution of the Mother-Son information.


5 Responses to “A Detective Story and the Origin of Forms”

  1. Jeff says:

    Thought provoking.

    Have you also considered the pychological aspect of the ritualized form or formula? Over the years I have had many of the same questions, and perhaps the reason the martial ritual is so univeral is because we, as humans, need the ritual in order to learn. The purpose of the form is to train the mind, body and spirit. The structure of the form, however, is to provide a constant, unchanging method of training that the human psyche naturally accepts as authoritative and thus worthy of submission.

    In other words, imagine a martial training regimen in which nothing is repeated. Everything is different on every day. Ultimately, the randomness of the program would cause you, me, and everyone doing it would to question whether or not the person teaching it knew what they were doing at all. We would think – he’s just making things up for us to do. And the human mind rebels against that. And in martial training, rebellion against the training is the last thing you want.

    The forms, and especially the way you graduate from one form to the next form, from simpler form to more complex form, allows the student to see the nature and purpose of his progress and thus agree to participate in his own submission to the program.

    However, I think perhaps the easiest explanation is the best, and that is that the form, pattern, or kata is born from true martial training, which is to say, not dojo training, but battlefield training. When we first begin to learn martial arts, we do so as a group, moving together as a group. Patterns are simply the easiest way for one person to teach a large group of people to move in certain ways (thrust, cover, march) as a unified whole in order to present the best possible formation for defense and attack on the battlefield. Simple battlefield training, designed to unite the hundreds or thousands, transitioned to the school, retaining the method of unified movement, but applied to fewer students and thus allowing greater flexibility and innovation, due to the increase in space.

    I seem always to fall back on geography (social and physical) to explain why a martial art is the way it is.

  2. Stan Meador says:

    In reading your product descriptions I’ve seen Mother-Son terminology before. Can you list some resources that you offer that work through these stages? It might be helpful for your customers to know which DVD/VCDs contain this each of these “stages”.

  3. Patrick says:

    Wow. Pretty deep. Have to reread several times. Pretty similar ideas to Hawaiian traditional Hula.
    Also a way to preserve cultural beliefs and historical events without written records. Not just martial arts.
    Of course much more than my 2 cents

  4. Stan Meador says:

    Another thought hit me as I pondered this idea about forms. Do you see the same kind of progression in weapons forms, or have some of the developmental stages been lost over time. I mean, do you really run across any Mother-Son forms for the Pu Dao or other weapons?

  5. Andrew Shinn says:

    I think I agree with you on this, though I’ve never thought of it in exactly this language. For my practice and teaching, the forms teach the transitions between different movements (completed or in progress). You don’t learn this from marching basic movements down the path. Not do you learn it from the power training sequences. When my teacher taught me forms, before he would show me the next movement, he would ask me where my openings were. The next move should address those (with the possible exception of turn around at the ends of lines).

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