The Importance of Form

By David Peterson

In the last decade or two, there has been a big shift away from the practice of forms in the martial arts, with many believing that such traditional methods have little or no bearing on modern training. In some ways, this shift in attitude could be considered a legacy of Bruce Lee and the Jeet Kune Do philosophy that he brought to modern martial arts.

Lee famously said that his view of much of what was practised in the traditional Chinese martial arts systems amounted to little more than a “classical mess” and referred to it as “land swimming” and therefore, in his opinion, of no direct value in preparing for combat. Many people have embraced this attitude without really looking at the full implication of it.

What most fail to appreciate, including many die-hard Jeet Kune Do devotees, is that Lee was able to arrive at this position only after himself having trained extensively in traditional forms, namely the basic forms of the Wing Chun system. It is my view that what he was really trying to get across was NOT that forms were irrelevant per se, but that at a certain point in one’s personal development, forms became LESS important than perhaps other aspects of training.

Like the foundations and the framework of a building, the forms of Wing Chun provide the structures that support everything else that will come to make the complete “package” that is the Wing Chun fighter. If the forms are overlooked, not practised rigorously and understood completely, weaknesses will be present that will prevent the Wing Chun practitioner from fully reaching their potential in the system, possibly also leading to defeat under pressure.

Learning a physical skill such as martial art is very similar in nature to the way in which one learns a language. As far as Wing Chun is concerned, it is pretty much exactly the same process, only it is physical motion, rather than the spoken word, that is the method employed. However, the level of understanding required is comparable, and the amount of repetition required to “load” the skills into the neural system also amazingly similar, leading to “fluency” in the “language of combat.”

The ‘Siu Nim Tau’ (“young idea”) form can be likened to the alphabet, thus forming the basis of all that follows. Hence, the first form is the very foundation of every structure, concept, strategy and combat tool that makes up the full repertoire of Wing Chun Gung-fu. To ignore this form, or to rush through it in search of some more “advanced” aspect of training is a commonly seen error amongst Wing Chun practitioners and the main reason why many fail to achieve a standard the fully represents what the system has to offer.

Within the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form are the fundamental components of every major drill, including ‘Chi Sau’ (“sticking hands”), the ‘Muk Yan Jong’ (“wooden dummy”) and all the forms that follow. To not spend sufficient time on practising and understanding the form is a guarantee of NOT ever fully mastering the system. Unlike other martial art systems, ‘Siu Nim Tau’ is NOT just a basic form – in many ways it is the MOST advanced part of the entire Wing Chun system!

By virtue of how it is practised – slowly, with relaxation and an emphasis on perfect structure, without any attempt to add muscular tension, speed or power – the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form loads into the neural system of the practitioner, all the tools and reactions required to make the system a natural extension of the body. It allows for a variety of “natural” human responses to be over-written, such that the Wing Chun exponent instinctively responds in ways quite different from those of other disciplines.

Like the re-imaging of a computer, the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form provides a completely new template for human motions, “re-programing” the practitioner so that formerly “unnatural” actions become the norm, automatically activating on a sub-conscious level. The very normal “flinch reaction” is replaced with an aggressive and efficient simultaneous attack & defence reaction (‘Lin Siu Dai Da’) whereby the victim can become the victor in a split-second.

It is said that the late Ip Man would practise the ‘Siu Nim Tau’ form on a daily basis, right up to the time of his passing. Clearly, this on its own is a good indication of just how important this from is to the Wing Chun practitioner. While form practise may not be seen as necessary or important in other arts, in Wing Chun, it is the method by which we deepen our understanding, improve our structures and develop our ability to adapt and perform under pressure with near perfect technique. As such, it should never be underestimated.