In defense of simplified forms

In traditional martial art training, in Northern China at least, children are usually taught basic Chang Quan (usually Tan Tui, Shao Lin) and Shuai Jiao first. This is not because they need to have basic mastery of external martial art first. But just to prepare them physically so they can do the very demanding physical movements in those internal martial art forms.

In the old days these forms are used as one of the primary tool for training by professionals. That whole process involved both training and selection. Today these arts are open to the general population, and since we no longer rely on empty hand martial art skills for real world fighting (war, police, home defense), the selection and training are much more lax.

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One problem with this is that a lot of people don’t have the prerequisite physical conditioning (strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, balance, reflex, and coordination) . If you can barely hold your leg up at chest level, how are you supposed to relax when doing the kicks in the Taiji form? If you cannot do single leg squats, how can you supposed to really shift all your weight to one leg?

So this leads to several problems:

  1. if the physical movements are too challenging, if you have to struggle and strain to just completing the gross physical movements, then neither the body nor the mind can relax. If you cannot relax, how can you really focus on the detailed mechanics of the skill? How can you concentrate on all those tiny details that are so crucial?
  2. You’re not doing the movements according to the standard (high, professional level) requirements. Correct movements leads to correct feeling, correct feeling leads to skill.
  3. In the beginning the movement have to be big so to make it easier to experience the correct feelings, many of which are very subtle. If you are weak, inflexible, and can only do all the movements in very limited range of motion, you may never get the correct feeling.
  4. Many of the skills, both basic (ex. basic thrust and circles in spear) and advanced, they require many hundreds, if not thousands of repetitions per workout initially to understand, and hundreds of thousands of repetitions overall to master. If you do not have the required endurance, and can only do a few reps per session, you will never master them.

Usually children are taught many different chang quan routines. They are mostly variations of the same things. This is because just like in today’s high level sports competition, high volume training since early childhood is one of the key factors of success. When you’re asking kids to do that much training, realistically you have to introduce some variety to make things interesting.

For these reasons, it may look like people are doing a lot of hard style training before they start internal martial art. But the truth is they are practicing the same conditioning basics shared by most empty hand styles.

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So what about adults who are introduced to Taiji Quan directly, who lack the high level of gongfu in basic conditioning to practice the form?  If they can’t do the form correctly, they will never get the correct feeling.  In essence they are not doing Taiji as an internal martial art, but as a set of difficult physical calisthenics.  This is one reason so many people can practice Taiji Quan for decades without really understanding it, and therefore benefit from it.

For this reason I think simplied, beginner forms are necessary.  Drop the degree of diffiulty from professional to amatuer level.  This way they can do the movement correctly, and as a result get something.  The level of mastery achieved will be more limited of course.  But at least they are doing Taiji.  And if they choose to do so, as their conditioning improve, they can move on to the more difficult, more varied full professional curriculum.


3 Responses to “In defense of simplified forms”

  1. 2009-07-29 at 9:03 AM

    Wow, great pics to really emphasize what you mean! My son is about 4.5 yrs old and I am thinking of getting him into the local wushu school. While I have been considering some TKD/Karate, I think wushu would do nicely with the body awareness. At least, I felt wushu helped me learn a lot more about bio-mechanics than the TKD I did 😉


  2. 2010-03-12 at 1:29 PM

    Very cool article. That girl looks familiar like from the Taiwan National team perhaps?


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