(This is a slightly revised version of my essay for my Black Belt/Instructor level examination from the early 90’s in Traditional Northern Style Chinese Martial Arts. The original version of this essay was published in the WuGong: Journal of Chinese Martial Arts, July-August 1998, Vol. 3, #16.)
Originally, in the ancient war torn Asian lands, the martial life was the only life, if indeed you wished to live at all. Over the years and millennia, over the accrued experience of generations, after war after war, the Asian people started turning their combat training into something more.
Rudimentary fighting strategies and techniques evolved into complex individual, interpersonal combat systems. These systems contained the fighting experience and personal combat understanding of many great warriors and generals. Many of their life experiences were interwoven so closely into these systems, which in effect were made up of single and multiple person pre-arranged fighting sequences, or forms, that at some point they took on personalities of their own.
It approached and became a very beautiful and dynamic form of art.
Today, however, the popular trend is away from martial art and more towards what one could refer to as ‘martial craft’. Although this has probably always been the case, today’s trend is due in large part to modern martial art’s greatest marketing asset, Bruce Lee. One of the century’s biggest pop culture phenomena, Lee’s progression as a martial artist at one point reached the conclusion that form work had no practical value and was unnecessary to the curriculum of an evolving martial artist.
Modern Martial Craft was born.
According to the late martial artist and movie star, to become a proficient fighter one needed to practice techniques that worked and learn a little bit from everyone in order to become well-rounded. Although there is much credence in this philosophy, in following it too strictly one loses the ‘Art’ to the ‘Craft’.
Others have also said that forms have no practical street value and are, in essence, useless. This is always a controversial statement and continues to cause quite a bit of a stir in the martial arts community whenever it is broached. After all, if a proven fighter like Bill “the Superfoot” Wallace (a former Champion Kickboxer and Bruce Lee Contemporary) says that formwork is useless, there must be something to it.
It must be understood, however, that Wallace started out in Judo, a system of throwing and grappling that focuses entirely on repetition of individual techniques for a majority of the training. According to Arturo Calvo, a respected surgeon and former Panamanian Judo champion, form like two-man sets are not introduced until much later in the system, and are even now falling by the wayside. This loss of traditional practice is due mainly to the mind-set that once one has received a black belt (a highly subjective method of advancement and goal setting) that one has learned it all and forward progression is unnecessary.
Working techniques is important, especially the most basic ones, but this only leaves you really proficient in very basic techniques. Working basic techniques should be treated as a foundation; a solid one on which to build a multi-faceted fighter. Benson Lee, a master instructor of the dynamic Northern Eagle Claw System of Chinese GungFu (Ying Jow Pai Gung Fu), has remarked that only working the most practical and basic techniques leaves you only a practical and basic fighter – uninspired. Without the smooth transition and footwork from one technique to the next, and the continual progression from easy to difficult to intermediate that develops from form work, one never learns how to move properly, adapt quickly or think innovatively in a high pressure situation.
There is a system of fighting called Jeet Kune Do Concepts, inspired by Bruce Lee, that endorses the idea that you need to watch for techniques that work, no matter the system or style. When you see a technique that you like and works for you, you take it and then proceed to work it until it is yours. This is done with the idea that to be a fighter with no discernible form or style makes you more difficult to read. However, like painting or writing, to try and break the rules without first learning the rules leaves you unfocused, unfinished, unseen and unread. Keep in mind that Bruce Lee already had a pretty firm foundation in the Wing Chun style of Gung Fu before he began to broaden his horizons. A collage without an end in mind is simply a mess. Even a skillful mess is still a mess. To be without form and style means to understand form and style so well that it has come completely under your own control.
Art is the creation or recreation of something that implies a deeper symbolic meaning, which gives it an existence outside of itself. Craft, on the other hand, is the careful creation or recreation of something of practical value. Craft can at times approach and even become art, but only after a deeper symbolic meaning has become attached – such as by the death of the creator.
Many instructors of Chinese Martial Arts are firm in their belief that the forms contain the techniques and history of that particular style or system. The collective fighting experience of many great masters and practitioners make up the forms. Each technique, each movement represents varying levels of application or meaning. Meaning is already inherent in the traditional elements sought after in the correct training of Wu Shu (Martial Art).
Without the art of martial arts, this all would be training to hurt and control others, rather than a philosophy of living and a way to develop control over oneself. Forms (single, two-person, three person, weapons, and so on) are the artistic outlets for the modern and ancient fighter. With formwork, an individual is able to express himself or herself in a way that is impossible in the single-minded repetition of techniques. The way you move during a form, the way you express the intent, both inherent and implied, the commitment and seriousness of purpose, all these create art out of the martial.
In formwork, one’s personality adds a new dimension to the form that makes it a little different every time it is performed. Would ballet be such a compelling art form without the individual interpretation and the evolving symbolism that comes with it? And so it is with the execution of a form; one sees the blending of the present with the ancient, and from that gets a feeling for the individual.