Saturday, 2 January 2016

Taijiquan's Form Training – Storehouse for Combat Skills

I was inspired to write this post after listening to a podcast by Iain Abernethy of the World Combat Association. The subject of said podcast was the nature of Karate’s kata and the misunderstanding of many modern practitioners as to their role in traditional training. “Jumping off point” was the following quote from Gichin Funakoshi, founding father of Shotokan Karate:
“Like textbooks to a student or tactical exercises to a soldier, kata are the most important element of karate”.

Sensei Abernethy concluded that kata serve the dual functions of acting as a repository of knowledge passed down from past masters and as a tactical training exercise. While Taijiquan forms differ in many respects to Karate kata the above conclusion could also be applied. The quote contains two clear analogies pointing to the real nature of forms training within the various forms of traditional Asian martial arts. To liken forms to a textbook is to understand them as a bank of knowledge preserved in a way that can be passed on to future generations. Where a book may contain the perspective and knowledge of its author, Chen Taijiquan forms represent the accumulated and hard-won knowledge of many generations of adepts. Just as owning a text book gives no guarantee of success in an examination, forms must be brought to life by careful study, understanding and eventually application of its principles.
CTGB's Craig Watterson examining the Chen Taijiquan form
Form training is fighting training! 
A common misrepresentation in vogue among many current practitioners sees form training as one thing and fighting as something else altogether. Only in recent times have people taken to assessing an exponent’s level of skill by giving marks out of ten for a form performance. In the past a person was deemed skilful if they could apply the form in a real situation against a live opponent. In many, if not most cases, form competitions are more a demonstration of aesthetics than of functional capabilities. In his article Training for Sparring, Chen Zhaokui explicitly cautioned against mistaking the flamboyant for the effective: “The goal of training must be clearly defined.  We must not be like Beijing opera stars who present a spear dance.  Flashy displays like that are for show, but are useless in function”.  Looking back at the renowned practitioners through the generations it’s clear that they are remembered first and foremost for their real combat skills.  Even today, it is no coincidence that the Taijiquan practitioners with the best fighting skills invariably place great emphasis on strict and exact form training.

Chen Yu - Combat skills and strict exact form training - no coincidence!
Forms are not a series of fixed applications!
Another common misunderstanding of forms is to think of them as a series of fixed applications. To paraphrase Abernethy, “forms are not solo re-enactments of an imaginary confrontation! Instead, they represent a repository of knowledge that, when correctly approached, can be freely and flexibly applied in the ever-changing world of conflict”.  What Taijiquan’s forms do contain is the core syllabus of Taijiquan and clear examples of the combative principles and methods underpinning the application of that syllabus. Approached in the correct way they help to train the ability to be able to adapt and vary one’s actions according to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

Having emphasised the important role of form training, let’s be clear, merely possessing knowledge of the sequence of a form is useless in terms of practical application.  What is needed is more than just knowledge of the external form, but knowledge of how it should be applied.  Forms record methods of striking, locking, throwing, kicking, sweeping etc. At the heart of any study of the functional use of the Taijiquan form is the study of eight essential capabilities (or the “eight energies”): Peng (Ward Off); Lu (Divert); Ji (Squeeze); An (Press); Cai (Pluck); Lie (Split); Zhou (Elbow); and Kao (Bump). Every movement needs to be analysed and examined to understand the possibilities within.  Without intense single movement training a practitioner will develop little real gongfu.

Form training needs to be systematic!
GM Chen Xiaowang adjusting Davidine Sim's form
Form training, therefore, needs to be systematic if we are to get the maximum benefit from it.  I wrote an article some time ago about the distinct stages that one must go through. Other teachers or lineages may describe the process a little differently but essentially most traditional schools  go through something similar. The six stages are: xue jiazi (learning the frame); lien xi jiazi (practising the frame); nie jiazi (correcting the frame); shun jiazi (smoothening out the frame); pan jiazi (examining the frame) and cai jiazi (dismantling the frame).  Anyone interested in reading the whole article can find it at this link: Chen Taijiquan's Six Stages of Learning.  

At the end of the day, it is impossible to know the exact detail of a combat situation ahead of time.  Logically, the movements within the form can never be the same as a real confrontation. Disciplined form training, however, can help to build a set of skills based upon an intuitive and habitual understanding that makes a positive outcome more likely.