Tai chi Combat forms- my problem with them…

Sometimes I meet people who talk about or have learned Tai Chi combat forms. They often stress that they practice a special “combat form”, rather than a “health form”. Sometimes this is accompanied by an air of superiority, which I think is better characterised as delusion. This is broader than Tai Chi, and applies to many styles of martial arts, Chinese or otherwise. These combat forms are also sometimes called fast forms, sometimes they include “fajing”, and sometimes they have smaller movements.

It’s not that I don’t think there is such a thing as a “combat form”, rather the way they are presented (marketed?) is misleading.

In this quick article, I’ll cover my problem with “combat forms”, the false dichotomy between health and combat forms and offer what I consider a more helpful way to look at this.

Tai chi combat forms – the problem…

My problem with Tai Chi combat forms is they are often presented as being a way to learn combative skills. But you don’t learn combative skills from forms. How do I know this? Because people who only practice forms get beaten time and again by people who engage in live, resistant partner practice. This is easily observable, and for those who only practice forms, it is easily testable.

Forms, however “combative” they are presented as, lack key elements that people need to develop actual skill. They lack timing, distance management, context and a lot more. The best a combat form can heope to do is encode some useful techniques-concepts and develop some useful attributes. I’ll write about this next.

Attributes and the false dichotomy

One of the keys to understanding the value of forms is through the attributes that they can develop, as well as their mnemonic value – the ability to encode techniques. The attributes that health forms develop overlap with the attributes used for combat. Health is cultivated through good body alignment, which respects the joints and sets the body up to receive and apply force. Balance, calmness and proprioception are also developed in “health forms”. Longer (exaggerated) postures improve body connectedness and overall strength. If certain ideas-patterns are encoded this way the “health form” can easily be a “combat form” at the same time. I’ll give some examples of this in a bit.

Some people may argue that the smaller, faster movements of a combat form are more “realistic” than the health form. My counter is that the speed and size of a movement are context-dependent. Any movement needs to be adapted to the body and reactions of an opponent in actual combat. That opponent is missing in form practice.

In a broader syllabus a “combat form” can have some value. It can encode multiple short sequences of movements that logically run together with a logic of technique A has been countered, The most likely counter is X, when X happens technique B can be useful. Someone who already knows how to fight might be able to recognise and translate such information into live situations, but for the person with no fighting experience? Not happening, sorry.

To make this information combatively applicable requires practice with partners who will counter your techniques in unexpected as well as scripted ways. So partner “combat forms” don’t cut it here either. They just make some of the possible combative games you can play easier to extrapolate.

Health and combat in the same form?

Why not? Some of the Cheng Man Ching people do this. They have a minimalist 37 posture form, push hands and sword. The ones who are interested in combat use this as a springboard into combative practice. There’s a big advantage to this. I’ll explain.

I like forms, but probably the most formidable combatants in the world do not practice forms. They condition, they drill, they spar in various formats, they hit things and they fight. It’s time-consuming. If you have 400 forms you need to learn, remember and develop when will you have time for the actual partner work that develops applicable skill? Keep the forms to a minimum and you can benefit from them and still have time to play/drill/fight. Actual combative experience can then nourish the form.

More than one way to practice

If you have a smaller form syllabus you can adapt it. Often a student tries to make their form as consistent as possible. Often teachers sell extra forms like small/medium/large frames or slow and fast forms. But you can take the same form and practice it in different ways if you want. You don’t need a special Tai Chi combat forms.

That’s actually one of the good points of how many “internal” arts are really constructed. They do not simply mime technique, they have simple movements that can be applied in many ways/techniques. I talk about and demonstratethis here Bagua applications-circles you can really use. As such forms/exercises were meant to be practiced both fast and slow, smoothly as well as explosively, with different sizes of movements. The Chen Panling style of Taich I find especially good for this, along with Gao style. It’s normal for me to say this, because I know both systems. Still, if you practice an internal style it probably applies to what you do too.

Sure you can take this approach and deviate so far from the original ideas that you lose all benefits. But an honest teacher, honest classmates, resistant practice and regular reference to the core principles of the art can keep this in check. If you want some guidance, you know where to find me.

The wrap on Tai Chi combat forms

Don’t get caught in false dichotomies, don’t confound form skill (however the form has been sold) with fighting skill, extrapolate from forms, play around but go back to principles. That’s it really. Do this and your probably golden. Oh wait, it’s fine to not care about combative skills too.

If you’d like a free intro to the Chen Panling Taichi form follow this link. I promise it won’t make you a deadly killer fighter- guaranteed! But it’s pretty elegant and enjoyable.

If you want to sign up for a paid course – Bagua, or Xingyi you can. They won’t make you deadly killer either. Or immortal and enlightened. No course will. Only your engagement and practice will lead to change or understanding. Paying, clicking and watching doesn’t cut it.

Bagua Master Gao Yi Sheng

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One response to “Tai chi Combat forms- my problem with them…”

  1. Randy Baker avatar
    Randy Baker

    Bruce Lee said it well. Trying to learn how to fight without sparring is like trying to learn how to swim on dry land. A fast kick in a form is easy on a couple of levels. It is generally easier to execute than a slow controlled movement and it is easier to miss important body mechanics that you can integrate when done slowly. There is the old adage, “Practice large, execute small.” This creates proper structure and body mechanics.

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