Are set forms the death of creativity?

Xing Yi Eagle link

Tai Chi is just one of a number of Chinese martial arts that have extended forms practice as a key component of their training methods. An incredible amount of time in Tai Chi is dedicated to performing the form in just the right way. Of course, there are lots of martial arts that don’t have forms, but they tend to be more sportive and wrestling based, although striking arts like boxing don’t have set forms either. Exactly why so many Chinese martial arts have forms at all is another question – one that relates back to their cultural origin and use in entertainment and religious festivals, and has relatively little to do with martial efficiency. It’s a contentious point, so for now let’s just accept that most Chinese martial arts today do have forms, and if you’re going to practice a Chinese martial art in 2022, then you’ll be practicing forms too.

In my training I’ve been exposed to various Chinese martial arts, and they all had a number of “set in stone” forms to train, until that is, I was introduced to Xing Yi. Or rather, I should say, to my Xing Yi teacher. His method of teaching Xing Yi was entirely different to most modern teachers – he really didn’t like the idea of set forms. Beyond the 5 Element form (the basics of Xing Yi) he didn’t really believe that any form should be ‘set in stone’. In fact, he wouldn’t even let you call them “forms”. You had to metaphorically put a pound in the swear jar every time you said the word “form”. He preferred the term “linking sequence” (lian huan, in Chinese) because it implied that the postures were linked together and could just as easily be linked together in an entirely different way. This is not entirely true, either. Sometimes he would teach you a particular sequence that was the way one of his teachers did it, and we’d call it the “master xyz linking sequence”, on the basis that you had to start somewhere, but if you ever quizzed him too deeply about a particular movement sequence then the answers would soon start to turn into the “well you could do it this way, or you could do it this way…” territory. He really didn’t want to be pinned down into a specific way of doing anything.

Xing Yi Bear link

I think the reason he was like this is that he didn’t want to kill the natural creativity in his students, and he wanted to keep the practice vital and alive. It should be obvious that your goal in martial arts is to be a formless fighter – even a small amount of light sparring will reveal the universal truth to you that if you try and adopt fixed methods to a live situation, the results are never good. To deal with any kind of live situation you need to be able to respond and adapt freely to whatever is happening. I think he saw the popular “fixed forms” training method as being part of the reason that some Chinese martial arts were less than successful when applied for real. It was also the way he’d been taught Xing Yi, and he wanted to teach in the manner in which he’d been taught. Of course, this makes it a lot harder to teach – having a few set forms makes teaching much easier, and also transfers to large groups well. Being spontaneous requires much closer attention from a teacher and is almost impossible to expand to teaching larger groups of people. The best class size is always 1-1, and commercially that’s a hard thing to pull off. Luckily money was never part of the equation when we trained! I can’t say his method was universally successful in creating good students either – it’s definitely not. I’ve seen students of his who ended up being pretty delusional about their own abilities from following this method. It requires time (years) of prolonged contact so that you can absorb a martial art this way. If you get separated from the teacher too much then you can easily go off on the wrong track. It’s a bit like throwing mud at a wall – sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the mud decides it’s somebody who has nothing left to learn from other people, and develops delusions of grandeur while trying to maintain the illusion of being humble. But, c’est la vie.

Anyway, I’ve peppered some video of me throughout this post so you can see some examples of what I mean by linking sequences – these are little Xing Yi linking sequences I’ve create to fit the space I’m working in. I like this sort of practice where you create new links each time you practice. You can combine different animals and elements in an almost endless number of variations. You can even do the movements from one animal but in the style – the xing – of another. Each day you train is different and depends on how you feel and the environment you’re training in. In fact, letting your environment (preferably, nature) into your practice is part of the training.

Xing Yi Tiger link

Now contrast that to typical Tai Chi training – you practice the same form in the same way, every day, for the rest of your life. Sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it?

Well, perhaps not. While the sequence in a Tai Chi form never varies, you can introduce a tremendous amount of variation within that fixed frame. This was how my Tai Chi teacher taught me, years before I started Xing Yi. After you’d learned the form you’d do the form in different ways, depending on what you were working on. The size of the postures could vary, the height of the postures could vary, the speed could vary from very fast to very slow, or you could focus on the breathing, on separating empty and solid. Again, the list was almost endless. It worked better if you stuck to one particular ‘thing’ for a good few months though, before you moved on to the next. Again, close contact with a teacher is required, over years. 

Once the Communist ideology took over in China it infiltrated everything, including martial arts, and it’s influence is still there today. The Communist ideal is that everything looks the same, and is done in the same way. The individual identity is subsumed by the group identity. You can see this influence in the martial arts of the period and its effects echoing into modern times. Row upon row of silk pyjama-wearing Tai Chi people practicing exactly the same form in perfect unison. If you want to get good at martial arts, that’s the thing you want to avoid. And if you’re thinking right now that your practice doesn’t involve enough spontaneity or creativity, then perhaps some of the ideas contained in this post can help.

Xing Yi Chicken link

3 thoughts on “Are set forms the death of creativity?

  1. Graham makes some good observations, but since the article title is a question… In a word, “No, set forms (in and of themselves) are not the death of creativity,” but there is more to it than a simple answer.

    According to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (Revised, 2001), the general order of learning is…
    1. Remember
    2. Understand
    3. Apply
    4. Analyze
    5. Evaluate
    6. Create

    The value of the taxonomy is less about categorizing learning activities and more about how to move a student from one stage to the next. The first three are probably the principal purpose of martial art instruction. The final three are primarily achieved through experience after establishing a solid foundation. So, there are a lot of stages where creativity can get derailed.

    Since in martial arts we are talking mostly about kinesthetic and motor learning, Stage 1 would be learning essential movements and remembering them. Forms would be one among many viable methods, each with its own inherent advantages and disadvantages.

    If Graham had asked, “Is studying ONLY set forms the death of creativity?” Absolutely! and of understanding and progression and so on. If we excel at what we train; and we train only forms; we get good at forms only.

    A book seems to be set and immutable, but there are ways to make the pages, the ideas, come alive. Since, as Graham points out, forms are a reality in Chinese martial arts in 2022, I think a better question is how do we use forms to understand and apply our art and make it come alive?

    My teachers all recommended pulling out individual and series of movements from the forms, drilling them relentlessly, and exploring their nuances. Some systems have essential movement sets, jibengong, chansigong, and similar, which can assist understanding. Two-man sets, push hands, and light sparring are designed to help gain understanding of the art including its forms.

    One practice I’ve found crucial: In the midst of push hands, someone in the room randomly calls, “Stop!” One should be able to identify the movement from the form, or modification thereof, they are using at the moment. This is not to say that we need to be thinking the name of each movement as we go. We should never do that. However, if frozen in time, we should be able to be aware what we are and were doing, and sense that we were doing x-portion out of y-movement of the form. This identification also enhances our forms. This practice also extends to light sparring.

    If we do not learn to use movements from our forms, what is the point of forms, push hands, or light sparring? If we abandon the framework of our training, we are just using our innate fighting ability rather than developing “educated” fighting skills. If we just want to train our innate fighting ability, there are more efficient ways to do that.

    One requirement of traditional training is to do just what your teacher asks you to do. Apparently, this is difficult for our busy, modern minds. We want to extrapolate, interpret, relate, contrast, discuss, explain all in an effort to cognitively understand what we are learning. However, we are learning physical skills and art. Sometimes, trying too hard to understand cognitively can limit us from understanding in our neural pathways, proprioception, and motor centers, where we feel, perceive, and respond. The place where the core of our art must reside.

    Graham mentions “delusion.” I think this happens when one is unable to complete a stage of learning or move to the next stage. In order to try to progress, it is human nature to fill in the gaps with something, our own or others’ ideas, something we like, prefer or benefit from, even if it is imaginary.

    We’ve all seen people who learn a form, but don’t understand it, instead they fill the form with applications from other martial arts they previously, or subsequently, trained. Also, we’ve seen people who fail to evaluate their knowledge or system who become dogmatic, another form of delusion. There are probably forms of “delusion” that can develop at every stage of learning.

    As Graham also suggests, why forms are used is a worthy exploration. There are lots of helpful observations that can enhance our learning.

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  2. Great post. I’ve seen folks get too caught up in doing “the form” with such exact precision that they miss the organic dynamic of energy moving and responding. I do incorporate forms in my practice as vehicles for practicing various principles, or exploring different aspects of movement. But the form is not the internal art. I like the idea of mixing it up, moving to the left instead of right, seeing what other possibilities can flow from a particular posture.

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  3. Good post, Graham. I read something recently that made sense — that a form is a collection of techniques and principles, a way for people to compile and remember them back when illiteracy was widespread, and we should actually be separating techniques out of the form and training them. One of my favorite Xingyi workouts is to stand in front of my heavybag or Bob and throw creative and varying combinations of the fist postures. It gets the mind out of the form mentality and into a creative flow mentality, then allows me to use that variety in a sparring situation.

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