I first started formally learning taiji through a university setting. As such, the program was provided as a ‘physical education elective’ with a high emphasis on doing taiji for health. The class primarily focused on learning the forms. You learned the 24 form, then proceeded to the 48 form, eventually learning the 32 sword. Some times, I would stick around after class and ask the instructor about various applications and how they applied, and he would show some high level ones. Not too much formal training in applications but a little taste.
During this time, I would often head back to my hometown over summers to train with my wushu instructor. He tried to teach me taiji before, but I wouldn’t have it as I felt it was too boring compared to all the wushu stuff I was learning. But this summer, it was different as he knew I was training in taiji.
In between class, my wushu instructor saw I was working on the last section of the 48 form. He came over and said, “Not bad, now punch.” So I proceeded to punch him. Let me sidetrack a bit, in my wushu training, my instructor believed we would not truly learn to block unless we knew we could get hurt. So when he said punch, this really meant to punch. Of course, I don’t attack with 100% power but probably around 65% or so, enough that if you get hit, you’re gonna feel it. Ok.. so I punched and then he said, “attack, again, again”. Basically, he was telling me to just attack him with whatever I felt was good at the time, whether it be a kick, punch, backfist, whatever.
This went on for a bit until I realized he was doing the movements from the third section of the 48 form to counter my attacks! Since I knew the form, I tried to attack in such a way that it would be impossible for him to get off the next move, but for some reason, it didn’t work! I knew ‘snake creeps down’ was often done as a sweep under to someone kicks so I punched when I knew that move was next. He just stepped to the side and did a shoulder bump, still following the sequence of the movement! Later, during the formal taiji class, he had us work on various applications for part wild horses mane. He showed how it could be used as an arm bar, shoulder bump, striking attack, etc etc.
Fast forward a bit and I’m at a new school. This new school offered various styles of instruction (taiji, xingyi, bagua, liuhebafa, mantis, etc). After some time at the new school, I noticed one thing in common. After learning the choreography of the form, they would then break each form down and train the apps via 2-person drills! The taiji style had a whole separate class for push hands training and 2 person sanshou form.
For example, in the liuhebafa class, each student would learn the choreography to the 12 animals of liuhebafa. After that, each animal would then be trained with their applications. Perhaps a class spent on the application for each animal. We’d try to see how the application worked given the choreography of the form. This was quite an eye opener as it really demonstrated where various ‘sinking’ energies were required and the role of unified body movement came into play to effectively pull off the app. For example, in the Dragon form, there’s a downward sinking action done. If the application for this movement was attempted using isolated arm movement, it was almost impossible to pull off on a semi-resistant opponent. However, if the whole body sunk in conjunction with the ‘closing’ of the back, this was quite easy to do and required very little effort in terms of arm movement.
A similar thing was done in the Swimming Dragon Bagua class. After learning the form, each movement would be trained with their martial applications. We were exposed to all the qinna and throws found within the form. Again, quite eye opening and very enlightening.
Even to this day, when I practice the sets where I trained the apps, I notice a distinctly different ‘vibe’ while doing the form. We’ve often heard that when doing the form we should imagine and opponent, yet when fighting we should imagine we’re playing the form. How is this possible if a simple application is not shown for a particular movement?
Perhaps we should just ignore applications all together an just train the energies, right? I’ve been doing this method for a bit of time and I admit there are still some movements in the form that I have no idea what they are for. I just kinda do the movement thinking about my qi path. Is this building the correct intention?
For me, I happen to believe there’s something special about the forms. They were developed in a particular ordering and sequence for a reason. They are not just one-off applications here or there that just-so-happen to flow into this next move that may or may not having a ‘linking’ application.
This idea of linking applications is what really impressed me when I first saw form application clips provided by Chen Zhonghua. It impressed me enough that I tested it out and was able to successfully pull off the application with little to no effort (Experience with 6 Sealings 4 Closing Application)! I noticed a similar coverage of linking applications in my review of the Yang Long Form DVD. This coverage of linking applications within forms gives me hope and belief about the ‘genius’ of the set. Much thought went into the development of the set, not just from an aesthetic, beautiful choreography perspective but from a martial effectiveness mindset. After all, we’ve all read stories about how taiji was developed after observing a fight between a snake and a crane.
Another legend states that Zhang Sanfeng watched a crane fighting a snake. Even though the crane tried to spear the snake with its beak, the snake was so flexible that it could not be speared. From this, Zhang realized that softness and flexibility can overcome strength and created a martial art.
Also, in Hong Junsheng’s book, he notes Chen Fake telling him that all movements in the form serve a purpose and no movement is wasted. If we consider taiji to be a martial art, I would expect each movement to have a martial function and relevance. Is this asking for too much?