Form without function

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Picture yourself at school for 12 years. Imagine being asked to repeat a long, complicated sentences of words that you did not understand...
No one ever explains what the words mean, in what context they are used, how and why you should use them. You can repeat the words to the best of your ability, but that is all.
Could you truly claim to understand those words? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Yet, this is precisely how most people learn tai chi...
Not being able to apply a form in combat is the tai chi equivalent of not being able to read (or even remotely understand what the words mean).


If you study qigong exercises, tai chi form and partner work without understanding any of the material... what do you really know? Nothing.
You have nothing but an empty shell. You have not been learning. You have just been copying.


Tai chi is a martial art. Martial arts are functional. They were designed to employ alignment, body mechanics, centre, balance, strategy, tactics, lines of force, angle of attack and physics.
Studying the art - whether for fitness or martially - must entail a high degree of deeper study.

Finding meaning

Every tai chi student in the world should understand:

The Tai Chi Classics (comprehended and implemented into your practice)
Combat applications for every single form movement
The biomechanical concerns of every movement
The tactics and strategies being applied
How each movement corresponds to the Taoist insights

Anything less than this is merely form without function; which by definition is meaningless and most likely misguided and incorrect.

8 stages

There are 8 stages to studying any form:

  1. The pattern

  2. Biomechanics

  3. Shen (fighting spirit/martial intent)

  4. Martial applications (7 per movement)

  5. Whole-body strength (neigong)

  6. Whole-body movement (form)

  7. Whole-body power (jing)

  8. Natural-feeling body use

With the advent of tai chi sport forms emanating from modern China, many modern practitioners never proceed past stage 1.
Indeed, few people even realise that there is more to form than the outward show. The sad part about this is that the pattern is essentially incorrect unless augmented by the other 7 stages.

Forms are templates that teach the principles and characteristics of continuous movement, power generation and technique. They are not the only component for daily practice, nor are they definitive expressions of the art; rather, they provide practitioners with tradition-derived insight into the possibilities and potential of the art.

(Darius Edler)

What works for you

Traditionally, a student had to discover their own applications for form movements.
These would be assessed by their teacher and accepted or rejected relative to effectiveness and adhesion to the 'internal' application principles.
Every application would be pressure tested rigorously to ensure that it actually worked. Why teach this way?


An instructor is capable of applying every form movement in countless ways, but can the student do the same? You cannot walk in another person's shoes.
A student is unlikely to be capable of applying the form in precisely the same way as the teacher. The gulf in experience, sensitivity and skill is just too great.

Find your own way

Instead, the student must find their own way. This ensures that the applications are understood, familiar and valued.
An understanding of Taoism, The Tai Chi Classics, The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings is advisable.

Form movements

Imagine that you develop a working, functional application for a given form movement. When you practice the form, you do so with a better feeling for the movement because of your application.
But is this correct? Not necessarily... Form movements are not techniques.

Many excessively bounce around learning the next 'new' form or movement set without ever extracting the real internal value from any of them.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Multiple applications

1 application per form movement is not enough. You need 7 or more. That way, you can ensure that the form movement can be used effectively (and differently) in a variety of scenarios.

Actual combat

There is a world of difference between recognising the tai chi movements within a form and actually being able to perform them skilfully in combat.
Spontaneous, appropriate and effective application against an earnest assailant requires another level of training altogether.


Your form should look and feel like tai chi combat. Your combat should look and feel like tai chi form. If this is not the case, what exactly are you training and why?

Everyday life

Although a tai chi for health student cannot possibly hope to apply their art in combat, a thorough understanding of the form is required. Correct perception will lead to accurate practice.
When the student sees how, why and when to use the skills of tai chi, they will find that these principles easily transfer into everyday life. Improved body usage results in improved fitness.

Yang style has something of the feeling of 'killer energy' about it; it is more martial in appearance.
A spectator can see the applications of the movements when they watch the form.

(Master Xu Shu Song)

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Page created 6 July 1998
Last updated 16 June 2023