Form and Function:

The Role of Prearranged Fighting Sets in Traditional East Asian Combat Arts by Peter Yates

Peter Yates movement form Taijiquan
Author Peter Yates demonstrating a movement from Taijiquan.

Common to all traditional East Asian combat systems are set practices which include various techniques of a particular style executed in a pre-determined pattern.

In the Okinawan and Japanese arts these set patterns are known as Kata, which can mean a type, a mold, a model, or a form.  In China, the traditional term is Quan (Chwan), roughly translated as fist set.  More recently, especially in competition, the term Taolu is used, translated as road.  The martial arts of other East Asian and Southeast Asian nations employ similar terms to describe these set patterns.

However, for ease of writing, the term “form” will be used in this article to describe these prearranged fighting sets. 

Peter Yates application of Taijiquan movement
Author Peter Yates demonstrating possible application of Taijiquan movement.   

The actual origin of forms is unclear.  Martial arts history, especially in China, is full of myth and legend and it is not an easy task to separate fact from fiction.  However, from over forty years of practice, study, investigation, and discussions with several prominent masters over the years, I have formed my own opinion.

Looking back in early history, I believe that military training focused on the use of weapons.  Much of training and practice would have entailed short groupings of two to four techniques drilled with a partner or against wooden training dummies.  Parrying, thrusting, hacking, etc., depending on the weapon being used would be honed to a high degree of skill.  The risk of losing or breaking a weapon in battle probably led to the development of empty hand applications to combat.  In fact even to this day, most Filipino martial systems begin training in weapons before empty hand techniques.

In China it was not uncommon for an ex-soldier, upon returning to his village, to teach rudimentary fighting skills to clan members, forming a local militia.  This militia would be called upon to protect the village from bandits, marauders, and rival clans.  In effect this was the beginning of so called ‘family styles’ and civil martial arts.

Weapons as such would be relatively scarce in rural communities so emphasis would have been on empty hand training along with readily available implements such as long carrying poles.

Combat training would still have focused on two to four techniques in sequence, drilled in pairs and based on sound principles of combat.  Survival depended upon a few well-honed techniques that could be readily and instinctively applied.

Over time two or more of these combat drills, which were actually basic forms in themselves, were linked together creating longer forms.  However, these too would still most probably have been relatively short.

My own feeling is that the longer forms were created by the masters of various combat styles as a catalogue of the fighting drills peculiar to each style.  These could be taught to advanced students who would then become a walking encyclopedia of a particular system.  A senior student moving to another area could now, with the master’s blessing, set up another branch of his system.  The student would then be able to break the forms down into basic, intermediate, and advanced combat drills.

Mention must be made of the fact that the majority of students were illiterate, therefore written descriptions of the system would be useless.  Contrary to popular belief kept alive by early 20th century martial art pulp novels and later the Chop Socky Kung Fu movies, secret fighting manuals were few and far between.  Therefore a student who had spent many years with a master and had internalized the system in fact became a living secret manual.

Moving on in time, practitioners of the civil martial arts (meaning those practiced by non-military persons) were often employed as bodyguards to protect the homes of the wealthy or to escort caravans of goods crossing hostile territory.  Obviously the level of fighting skill had to be high in order to fulfill these roles.  The very best in this field would also be employed to teach new recruits to the bodyguard agencies.

However, by the late 19th – early 20th centuries when firearms became more available in China, the demand for trained martial artists diminished.  Martial arts started to be taught to a wider audience, more as a means of recreation and for general health.  While some masters continued to teach the traditional way and many great fighters emerged at this time, for the majority of trainees these forms became merely a means of exercise.

Peter Yates Dragon Posture
Author Peter Yates demonstrating the Dragon Posture from Xing Yi Quan.  

Even the supreme fighting system of Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi), devastating when applied by an accomplished master, became better known as a means of health preservation practiced by the elderly and in more recent times the new agers.

In the latter half of the twentieth century until the present when competition started to dominate the world of martial arts, new and elaborate forms have been created (especially in systems such as modern Chinese wushu and Xtreme martial arts).  Even traditional forms have been changed to make them appear more flashy and appealing to spectators.  This state of affairs unfortunately diminishes any value these forms have as combat training aids.

Peter Yates Dragon Posture application.
Author Peter Yates demonstrating a possible application of the Dragon Posture.  

In modern times, there are those who claim that forms are outdated and serve no purpose in combat training.  What these people fail to realize is that anyone practicing a drill of two or more techniques alone or with a partner, until the drill is internalized and becomes second nature, is in effect practicing a form in its most rudimentary state.

On the other hand, there are those who refer to themselves as traditionalists who believe that forms are the very soul of martial arts and state emphatically that forms should be passed on from generation to generation unchanged. 

This is all well and good but shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the nature of forms.  Forms were never meant to be fixed entities but flexible training tools.  Changes have always occurred from generation to generation and from group to group as long as combat efficiency was preserved.  In fact, masters would often teach the same form to different students in slightly different ways to fit the student‘s body type, personality, and physical abilities.  During a lifetime of teaching, a master could teach the same form in a variety of ways.  Trying to fit all students into the same form is the same as having a rack full of suits and everyone, no matter what size or shape, trying to fit into them.  Forms, like suits, need to be tailor-made to the individual.  However this takes an accomplished teacher.

What should not change are the underlying principles and understanding of applications inherent in the form.  Therefore the outer shape may appear different but the inner workings should remain constant.

The role of family styles and civil martial arts is self-preservation and survival, not competition, sport, or exercise.  The forms, if taught and understood correctly, contain the means to survive violent assault and turn the tables on an attacker.  Unfortunately I have witnessed many instances where students were being taught applications from forms that to put it mildly were absurd, showing that the particular teacher had no true understanding of the forms being taught.  This is both an insult to those masters who put their lives on the line on a daily basis perfecting the principles of combat and giving a false sense of security to the students leaving them vulnerable to serious injury or worse.

Forms may also be seen as a code that a student is given the key to.  In actuality, the techniques in forms may not always be what they appear.  A certain move may be used as an interception, a strike, or a joint lock.  A movement backward in a form may in actual application be a move forward and to the side.  Also what cannot be seen is as important if not more so than what can.

In the early 1990’s, I was having dinner with Yonemoto Sensei, a highly skilled karate master.  Of course, our conversation turned to forms.  He likened forms to old style Chinese writing, explaining it in this way.  Old Chinese literature is written in such a way that it is often what is not written that will give it meaning.  The differing levels of education, cultivation, and understanding of the persons reading will yield different interpretations of the text.  This is one reason why ancient Chinese is so hard to translate even for Chinese scholars.  In a similar manner, forms will reveal different interpretations depending upon the level of instruction the students receive and how well the instruction has been internalized.

While visiting my hometown last year, I paid a call on the lads at Darwen Budo-Kai karate club.  One of my friends was actually having his first lesson that very night.  A senior student took him aside to explain some of the basic tenets of the system taught at the club.  I already knew my friend was in good hands but it was confirmed when I heard him told that every single movement in a form, from start to finish, has a self-defense application.

This point is so very true.  If a form is being taught as a means of personal protection there is no place for superfluous or flashy moves that have no practical application.

While early training in Asian martial arts was aimed at the military for warfare, civil and family systems were used primarily as methods of self-protection and survival in lawless times.  The forms of these systems reflect this aspect and while there is some carry-over to free sparring, many of the techniques in these forms cannot be readily applied in sparring as the purpose of these techniques is to cause damage, incapacitate, and control an aggressor.

Once learned, forms contain all the requirements for successful control of a threatening situation.  (In this article I have not touched on the obvious mental state for this to occur).  Interceptions, body evasion, strikes, controls, joint locks, and take downs are all ready to be explored over a lifetime of commitment to training.

©Form and Function: The Role of Prearranged Fighting Sets in Traditional East Asian Combat Arts by Peter Yates

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