I had an interesting comment on my last post that made me think about the whole idea of making up your own forms (or Tao Lu) – in Tai Chi, Xing Yi, or whatever.
I’ve tried to do this over the course of several years and I’ve come to a few conclusions about it, which I’ll elaborate on here. Firstly, it’s hard. Making up new forms is not as easy as you think. But secondly, it depends what martial art you are making up a form in.
If your martial art has forms that are constructed like lego bricks that can be slotted together in any order and still seem to work then it’s pretty simple to concoct a new form. Xing Yi is a good example of a martial art that has this quality. I was always told never to call Xing Yi tao lu by the English name “forms” because the correct term was lian huan which means “linking sequence” for this very reason.
The idea, (in our Xing Yi at any rate), is that all the links you learn are just examples, and you need to be constantly moving towards being able to spontaneously vary them as required, and then ultimately spontaneously create them. This idea has become heretical in the modern Xing Yi world to a large extent because modern Xing Yi has lost a lot of this spontaneous feel it used to (I admit that’s a subjective point) have, and things have become set in stone – forms that were once supposed to be fluid and flexible have become fixed and rigid. Forms of famous masters from the past now tend to be fixed forever. When words like “orthodox” start appearing to describe something you know it’s already dead, or on the way to dying.
But of course, anybody can make up a form, but is it any good? That’s a different matter. And it usually depends on the person doing it, not the moves themselves. With Xing Yi animals you can also ask the question – can I see the character of the animal being used coming out through the moves?
With Tai Chi I find it a lot harder to make up a form. Tai Chi’s approach to a form is quite different to Xing Yi, or other Kung Fu styles. The Tai Chi form tends to be a highly crafted piece of work that has been honed to perfection over many years. It is fixed because you need to be able to forget about the moves and concentrate more on what’s inside. It helps to do that if you don’t have to worry about what’s coming next because you’ve done it so many times that you can let go of that part of your brain and let it be aware of other things.
Tai Chi forms tend to start and finish in the same place for this reason. Usually, anyway. While long forms don’t tend to be balanced on left and right, a lot of the more modern, shorter forms make more of an effort to balance left and right movements.
If you understand Tai Chi and how to ‘pull’ or direct the limbs from the dantien movement then, sure you can make up your own Tai Chi forms, however, there is almost zero history of doing this in Tai Chi circles and it’s not really encouraged. I think this is because Tai Chi has push hands, which can be used as a kind of free-form expression of Tai Chi, completely away from the form and in contact with a partner to give you something to respond to, which is the whole strategy of Tai Chi Chuan, at least according to the Tai Chi Classics it is. To ‘give up yourself and follow the other’ you have to be spontaneous. There’s no other choice!
So, to conclude. I think that’s it’s in its application where the spirit of improvisation and spontaneity can be found in Tai Chi, not in the forms. I don’t think Tai Chi is particularly concerned with creating endless variations of forms and patterns like Xing Yi is, at all. Xing Yi, having a weapons starting point, doesn’t use this hands-on feeling and sensitivity to get started with spontaneity. Instead, it likes to create patterns, then vary them endlessly. Of course, you work with a partner when required, but it’s a different approach. Which is all quite natural, as these are two different martial arts, created by entirely different groups of people in a different locations and time periods.
You might like our Heretics history of Tai Chi and Xing Yi for more on that.