Four Issues, or... Why do Martial Arts Forms look the way they do?

In the week following its posting on Facebook, this article was seen by over 600 people. I have therefore published here for those who may wish to review or reference it. - SH


4 issues came up Thursday night which I felt should be shared more widely. In a way they refer back to my last two articles on 'Forms or Fighting'. They go a fair ways to explaining why martial arts forms look the way they do.

"The principle illustrated is not the thing itself!" -- Peter Reist contributed this.

Principles have to be shown big in order to be visually understandable.

A good example is 'LU / Roll Back' in 'Grasp Bird's Tail'. It is graceful, stylized and dramatic. It constitutes an effort to get a particular idea across. But to really feel it we need to experiment with something like the dancing arm-in-arm posture. The problem is that dancing arm-in-arm does not give us the visual cues we need to learn the underlying principle. So the principle is presented in the Tai Chi form in a very big and stylized way, when what is actually implied is a much closer and more intimate form of contact.

The first of the "Four don'ts" is "Don't reach!" The formal LU / Roll Back verges on breaking this rule which is generally more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

"Martial Romanticism" -- a term coined by Randall Templeton.

The problem with many martial arts is that the initial point explained above is not adequately understood. So people expect that self-defence is going to look like one of the forms (or like a movie). The result is that they maintain conceptions of self-defence and martial movement which are stylized and very distinct from reality.

As Randall pointed out, this sometimes extends to thinking that you can just walk away from a fight, refuse to participate -- but you may not have that option. This is an almost universal misunderstanding. If you check out the Bartitsu video I inserted in my last "Forms or Fighting" blog article you can see a bunch of guys (and one or two women) pretending to be tough, and instead demonstrating the extent to which they are under the romantic delusion. Look at that poor teacher trying to throw the student! He has such difficulty because he is reaching way out beyond his zone. He has no centre and little power. It is to weep!

"Power through relaxation" -- I keep coming back to this because it is soooooo counter-intuitive. It is also an ancient concept which I feel is ably communicated by this photograph of the terracotta warrior from the First Sovereign Emperor's tomb at Xian. Revealed by the overhead lighting we can see the relaxation of his waist and how he sits slightly into his hips. He is indeed relaxed and ready for anything from any of the eight directions!

In application we connect with the other person and then, maintaining the connection and our centre, we find this place of comfort. When we do this, we do NOT push or pull or try to be strong by using major muscle groups. This is where major muscularity erodes our position. The issue is to be powerful, not crudely strong. This done, our enemy will be overthrown.

"Where is the range, the 'zone?'" This is a great final question from Paul Thorpe!

In the photo at right, assisted by Randall, I am executing a deflection. The technique was executed at speed, so the photograph shows the way in which my physical system occupies a certain space and is able to manifest some power.

The limit of the zone is the border beyond which what you are doing is no longer supported by your whole physical system. Even a long punch extended while standing on one foot (e.g. the ulna strike in Pao Chui / Cannon Fist or 'Seize the Hair Braid' in Old Yang) can be OK if well supported by structure. But a two hand push as in GBT may be way out of the zone if the structure is not there. This applies even though the weight is shared between the feet.

It is my view that forms are essential to acquiring the skills of internal Gong-fu. But forms must be understood for what they are. They present a certain stylized shape that represents an inner truth of dynamic force.

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