Another Modest Proposal

art_formsproposal2Through my entire martial career I have been listening to everyone’s questions and problems with traditional forms. For most people, it all centers on practicality. For some people, the answer lies in detailed analysis of the forms and what self defense and fighting treasures are hidden therein. For still others, it’s a lost cause and the forms are considered great performances for the tournament circuit, little more. Whether traditional or contemporary, they are pretty much show items and therefore as variable as whim commands.

There is a long stretch of twilight zone between these two outposts.

For instance, some instructors say that forms do contain practical information, but only at the most basic level–punch and kick and such. Others say that the contents of forms are the secret stuff that will only burst into fire when you’ve spent enough time blowing on the embers.

And, of course, let us not forget those who would like to leave forms outside to be picked up on trash Thursday.

art_formsproposal4I’ve listened to this endless debate for years and I think I have a unique point of view. But I must clear one point before we go on.

I’m addressing this puzzle, none other. That forms are a cultural treasure, that they allow anyone in the village to participate in the art of the marital, that they record thoughts and triumphs of centuries pass, that they even help with a sense of beauty and continuity; I will offer these as already decided for the positive.

As far as the question at hand, I feel none of these reservations about forms and never have. Let me see if I can reprogram you a little. The application of your fighting movements is never going to be standardized, never. They are always going to vary with the situation. That means, and this is important, that a reliance on a formal execution EXCEPT AS A GENERIC PATTERN OF MOVEMENT is completely improper. Forms DO help groove in the most efficient, most fluid and, consequently, least workable version of each action. Forms concentrate on linkage, the ability to transform from one move to another. Perfectly executed trade offs of this move with that, this angle of adjustment, this trick of timing are the core value of the forms. They improve all elements of the art.art_formsproposal3

And, as far as transitions being easy or unimportant, ask a few of your top students to “make up a little form” and watch the stumbling begin. Efficient and functional transitions link the movements in an essential way and, as a bonus, introduce angular execution and defense. Played either slowly or very rapidly, they allow you to concentrate on immediate and explosive action.

But even with all these features I have always–as far as usage goes–considered forms to NOT be practical in the sense of direct application. Considering anything but generic asks for a rude surprise. Forms teach the general shapes with no deformations. They contribute variation without varying themselves.  It is not uncommon that the  universality of forms suggests all sorts of real-life solutions you would never get by always trying to acquire that killer punch.

art_formsproposal1Forms are a part of the warrior’s experience. Many cultures Arab, Norse, African and more all perform dances or rituals much like forms before battle. For centuries they have “called up the spirit” by practicing forms that raise the mind while reiterating the strokes.

It is far better to assume forms are for forms’ sake, than rely on their being incredibly functional. They aren’t strictly functional, that’s the way it is. By agreeing to that, we relieve them of a mis-assigned burden, and allow them to teach us what they are good at: defining the space where martial movement occurs.


3 Responses to “Another Modest Proposal”

  1. Jeff says:

    I think the questions you pose are at the heart of things. When people find out that I study martial arts, one of the first things they say is something along the lines of “I bet you could really kick somebody’s arse.” To which I reply, I don’t know. “Yeah, but I bet you could.” To which I reply, that’s not why I study martial arts.

    Old karate masters believed that “karate is kata.” For me, the art is the form. To truly understand the form, you must understand its meaning and its meaning is self-defense or fighting. But whether or not a form is practical “on the street,” as they say, is pointless, in my opinion. Sometimes it was not meant to be practical. Often its point is to free movement from thought.

    I think that’s why over the last two years I have gravitated almost exclusively to weapons training, because the practicality of a weapon technique does not enter the equation. I’m never going to cut someone with a sword or brain them with a bo. I can learn and understand what it was meant to do without having to worry whether or not it works in a real life situation because there will be no real life situation. I can enjoy the art for the art and not be belabored.

  2. James Huston Johnson says:

    I very much appreciate what both Sifu and Jeff have to say. Understanding the reasons why one practices are important, and will determine what one does. I am now 75 and retired from teaching last year. I also pretty much quit training. Now, as I start to reboot my forms I can feel the strength in my muscles, the limberness returning, in a way I did not before because I had always been an athlete. I was taught that forms are the core of kung fu-and that proficiency in them requires thousands of hours of reps. But the rewards are great. It is the way the masters asked us to train. Why invent something else? It is a bit of a leap of faith to make that commitment, but, as one, translation of a saying in the I Ching puts it, “The superior man stakes his life on his will.”

  3. Guillermo Bass says:

    Do a form, especially a heavy weapon form long enough, and your body will find the laziest (ie most efficient, correct) way to do that movement. I find forms to be a superb way to acquire and refine proper motion and body alignments. Too bad it took me over 30 years to realize this.

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