The Sword and The Pen
Traditional Forms v.s. Techniques Only
Recently I have been reading a web page that is a forum for Chinese Martial Art discussion, theory, and applications. This particular web site is neatly organized into separated discussional categories of Northern, Southern, Internal, Jeet Kun Do, Wing Chun and Street Fighting/Reality. My own subject of interest and study is Southern and Internal Kung Fu, but, when I have read all that interests me in these forums, I will delve into the other forums just to read different points of view. One of the more interesting points of view is found in the Street Fighting/Reality forum. They have their own ideas about training and applications but of all the opinions that surface in this forum, the one that I disagree the most with is that traditional martial arts forms are a waste of time. The proponents of this opinion feel that all the practitioners need to concentrate on are the application of a few combat proven techniques that will work well with the practitioner's body size and type. They feel that practice of techniques linked together in a set routine is a waste of time and energy. In this article, I will attempt to explain why I feel that this is false and what the study and practice of traditional forms provide to the student of a traditional Kung Fu system.
The same direction but different goals
Before I start to express my opinion on this subject, it is necessary to first explain how traditional Kung Fu forms are alike and how they are different from the practice of techniques alone.
In general, the traditional Kung Fu form serves many purposes. At its basic level, it is a library of techniques and applications taught in the system the student is learning. It is a method of learning the transitions from one technique to another, a method of increasing speed, timing, power and endurance, a method of transmitting the system's techniques and style from teacher to student, a method for learning the spirit of the style and a starting point for further research, variation and discovery of the system by the advanced student.
When a student learns a form, they are taught a series of techniques linked together by the transitions between the techniques. At the end of learning the whole form, the student should then break it down, learn the basic application of each technique, the correct transitions between the techniques and then rebuild it. This is learning the form with the body. The next step is for the student to practice the form while trying to visualize the opponent and all possible ways the techniques in the form can be applied. This is learning the form with the mind. If the student practices the form long enough, there will come a point where their emotions start to surface and the applications of the techniques become spontaneous. This is practicing with the spirit.
With the practice of the techniques alone, the Street Fighting/Realist will never really go beyond the learning of the body stage. They will learn to apply each of their techniques to only one possible attack per technique. They will know exactly what to do in one specific situation, but will not be able to adapt and change dynamically to all situations. This is one of the many benefits of practicing traditional forms.
Applications of one technique taught in multiple forms.
The Hung Gar system contains many forms and within the forms there exists techniques contained in many other forms. One might ask the question why we learn more than one form when we learn the same techniques in different forms? What is the difference? The answer is in the techniques just before, and/or just after the technique that both have in common. It is the combination of techniques and transitions that makes a difference. This teaches the student the multiple possible transitions into other techniques. The series of techniques in Figures 1 - 3 come from Gung Gee Fok Fu and the series of techniques in Figures 4-6 come from Lau Gar. Both forms are from the Hung Gar system. The technique that is common between both is shown in Figures 2 and 5. From these figures we can see the difference in the techniques and transitions just before and just after the common technique.
Variations on the applications of one technique taught
in one form.
The Baguazhang system is one continuous transition from technique to technique. Bagua specializes in the eight different palm changes transitioning in eight different ways. That is 64 different possible applications and transitions from just two techniques. The techniques can (and should) be interpreted and adapted by each student based on the students size and understanding. Figures 7 and 8 show the same technique applied with a slight variation because of the dissimilarity in body sizes.
Milestones on the path to the higher levels.
Practitioners on the highest level of Baguazhang can walk the circle and move from one palm change to the next spontaneously. Their changes are the result of what their mind is thinking and the expression of their spirit. I myself am not even close to anything like this in my practice of Baguazhang but I have seen the potential for this when I have been practicing Hung Gar. Some times when I am working on one of the Hung Gar forms, when my mind is really focused, I realize that I have gone into another form with out knowing it. I would be going along trying to visualize the opponent attacking me and then I realize that I am not in the same form that I started in. At first when this happened, I would get really mad at myself for my lack of concentration. This does not happen alot but when it did, I was really hard on myself. One day, after mentioning it to Sifu, he told me not to worry about it, that it was a natural progression along the path to really understanding the transitions, applications and techniques in the Hung Gar system. As I started to think about it, I realize that he is right. The fact that I was moving between the set forms without realizing it shows that my body, mind and spirit are all starting to understand.
The reader should not misunderstand me and think that I believe practicing techniques alone is worthless. This is not the case. The learning of techniques alone is better than nothing at all, especially in situations where the learning of a few techniques would be very valuable in a life or death situation. Examples would be self-defense classes for women and empty hand and small weapon techniques taught to the military. There is value in techniques alone, but the benefits derived from them are limited. It is like going to the library to research a subject and finding only one or two books on the shelf. The benefits derived from the practice of traditional form are limitless and can provide the student a vast library for research and discovery that will last for the rest of their life.