Forms vs. Fighting

By  | 

Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training

 “You can practice forms all you want, but if I ask you what it is used for, then you don’t know…that’s why I tell Taiji athletes, ‘If you are training for competition, make the form look as beautiful as you can.  But if you are training for fighting, take only the ideas of what you can use out of the form, and adapt it for fighting.’”— Coach Christopher Pei of the US Wushu Academy.

The whole “fighting vs. forms”, or “form vs. function” argument is the longstanding, eternal question, not only in Wushu, but in all of the martial arts, traditional or modern: Does it work?  Is it for real?  Can you really fight with this?

Before I begin to formulate a thesis on this subject, I will first explain where my perspective, and thus where my original argument for Wushu will be coming from.  Nearly three years ago, I wrote an editorial in an attempt to defend modern Wushu as a sport and contemporary form of Chinese martial arts, as well as critique its then-current state at the same time, entitled “A Statement about Wushu.”  While my views from then and now have changed somewhat, my main conclusion and statement overall remains the same; Contemporary Wushu is a facet, an interpretation of traditional Chinese martial arts.  It is NOT traditional “gongfu”, but should still retain the depth of its traditional counterpart.  The singular, yet major change in my point of view is that it has now shifted from a demonstrative and competitive standpoint, to a more complete view of real martial arts forms as they are structured.  I no longer look at the term “Wushu” to just mean its sport form, but rather as it should be interpreted literally and historically, an encompassing umbrella of all the Chinese martial arts (武; wǔ, martial, military, and 術; shù, art, method).  As such, the purpose of this particular essay will be to critique Chinese Wushu as an actual system of martial arts in its entirety in the face of the “fighting vs. forms” debate.

The first and foremost statement that must be made clear in this debate is that forms and fighting is not necessarily the same thing.  The standardization of Chinese Wushu for sport and competition today is the most primary example.  Professor and traditional Wushu master Cai Longyun, one of the forefathers of modern Wushu’s standardization, elaborates.  “…when you execute a straight punch in taolu [forms], you must also have a good bow stance. But in combat, you cannot wait to get into a good bow stance and then punch. You must just punch. You have no time to set up perfect footwork.”  Even the greatest Wushu masters recognize the difference between forms work and fighting.  In training, there is a clear difference between the two skill sets.  However, this does not mean there isn’t, and should not be, a connection between the two.

For modern Wushu, standardized martial art training is divided into two disciplines; taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), the practice of choreographed routines and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known to the local Chinese population as sport Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).


Modern Wushu has been criticized by Chinese traditionalists as having created a complete dichotomy between forms work and fighting applications.  Athletes that typically train in the sport either specialize in one event or the other, with taolu athletes training forms for exhibition and Wushu competition, and Sanda athletes training for full-contact sparring.  Wushu Grandmaster Qian Yuanze, who also sees Wushu as an umbrella of all Chinese martial arts, explains, “In the past, wushu emphasized the combination of taolu and combat applications.  Now these two are separated.  For competition and performing, there’s taolu and for applications, there’s sanda.  Taolu contains attack and defense but that’s not the main purpose.  If you want the combat applications, then go to sanda.”  Indeed, the selective training of only one aspect has severely limited the potential of Wushu martial artists.  Exceptions to this rule are Hebei Wushu Team member Li Yanlong, who was both an all-around Wushu champion and Sanda champion in his competitive career, and Jason Yee, a US Wushu Team member who has earned medals in both taolu and Sanda at the World Wushu Championships.

Zhao Changjun, one of the most accomplished modern Wushu champions, but a stronger supporter of traditional Chinese martial arts, stresses that Wushu must be seen as a whole, rather than two separate disciplines as they are introduced in the sport today.  “‘…Sanshou and Taolu are in different sections in Wushu competition, but actually they both are part of Wushu. If you want to be a real Wushu expert, you shall practice both, that’s the way to be a good Wushu practitioner. It is not good if you only practice Taolu and do know anything about the other method, other application or other practice. That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.'”

For traditional Wushu, or traditional “gongfu”, the method of training is similarly divided, albeit with an emphasized connection.  Forms training is still forms, but applications and fighting ideas are extracted from specific techniques, bridged through sensitivity training and drills (examples include push hands in Taiji and sticking hands in Wing Chun) and applied in sparring training.  Despite the critical analysis that modern Wushu has separated a once unified system of martial arts training, many professional Chinese martial arts schools, such as those of Taijiquan, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, and even Tanglangquan actually employ some method of Sanshou.  In reality, the term Sanshou existed long before its modern sport form.  Sanshou is nothing special; it’s simply the idea of specifically applying Chinese martial arts ideas and theories in a free fighting and sparring environment, regardless of style or method.  Ideally, one must bridge the gap of forms and fighting by way of training, specifically sparring.

This is ultimately eschewed in Bruce Lee’s philosophy of martial arts and fighting, Jeet Kune Do (截拳道;jiéquándào, the way of the intercepting fist), of going out of routine and learning to adapt to fighting situations.  Bruce Lee was a martial artist first and an actor second.  But in concerns to martial arts development in relation to fighting, Lee was years ahead of today’s generations of athletes and fighters.  He was the first to introduce the idea of full-contact sparring in the US at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships, an appearance that consequently landed him his first acting role in the West.  While Bruce Lee had a very strong foundation in his gongfu training, he was by no means a traditional martial artist; he was very much a modern and economical one.  In his experience, Lee criticized the limitations that traditional styles put on martial artists as fighters, attributed to esoteric forms training, which was like “dry land swimming”, a feeble idea in his opinion.  Instead, he supported the development of “alive” sparring to simulate authentic combat, which was unpredictable, and thus would force all fighters to either adapt themselves to the situation or fail.  Similarly, Donnie Yen, who was raised in Wushu, criticized modern Wushu training at the time of his youth for its lack of martial content that Bruce himself was seeking, in an attempt to find the most authentic type of martial arts combat.  In the spirit of Bruce’s philosophy, Yen himself cites the most authentic form of combat as MMA (mixed martial arts).  Even Zhao Changjun, himself a staunch proponent of traditional Wushu, also supports the idea of MMA because of the potential of exchange and further development in martial arts today, mainly through sparring and good sportsmanship.

In retrospect, the historical development of Chinese martial arts today has sadly and unfortunately slowed in terms of being practical today.  In comparison to many other systems in the past century, Chinese martial arts theories have been said to be the most in-depth and advanced in philosophy and application.  Yet ironically, their training methods have been seen as inferior to those of Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Filipino methods.  When evaluating how practical a method of martial arts is, the most objective, and therefore the best way, is to analyze how well the fighting skills are applied in freestyle fighting environments—in other words, sparring.

Many martial artists, especially Chinese traditionalists, discount Taekwondo and Karate as incomplete, mostly attributed to their limited and restricted sparring method.  But hey, at least they had sparring, as opposed to Wushu in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution, where any method of sparring and fight training was completely outlawed.  As opposed to other martial arts styles that actually had some form of fight training, Wushu systems were practically the laughingstock of real world martial arts training, simply because they didn’t have any proven method of testing one’s fighting skills at the time.  The major exception to this is the Taiwanese Kuoshu system of Lei Tai (擂台;lèitái, traditional Chinese full-contact fighting), in the preservation of traditional Chinese martial arts culture.

This observation works both ways, and applies to boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, jujutsu, BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu), and even the advent of sport MMA (mixed martial arts).  As fighters, martial artists from these respective systems knew for a fact what they could and could not do with their specialized skill sets.  Why?  One simple answer: because they sparred, or at least had some form of sparring exercise and training—they applied themselves in a free fighting environment, which is the ultimate test for any martial artist to cross into the world of fighting.

On the completely opposite position of this argumentative spectrum, most modern martial artists completely ignored Chinese martial arts as a whole to be completely impractical.  Even if people didn’t necessarily believe the Japanese and Korean styles to be effective, at least an argument could be made for their training methods, namely in the ideas they applied in sparring.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that there was any rate of success for sparring and free fighting to reemerge from mainland China, in the form of Sanshou that we see in modern Wushu today.  Wushu professor Zhu Ruiqi can attest to that; he was one of the few Wushu masters to actually push for a standardized program of full-contact sparring in mainland China, resulting in sport Sanda, and making a modern Wushu a more complete system.  In the representation of Wushu’s image, this was unanimously beneficial to all Wushu practitioners.  Grandmaster Qian Yuanze observes of the creation of Sanda and the dichotomy resultant, “After the government allowed sanda competition again, the critics that said taolu athletes had no combat ability have quieted down.  There is definitely a connection between taolu and sanda but they are not equivalent. Taolu has its structure and frame and artistic interpretation.  Sanda is strictly for applications; it’s figuring out how to most efficiently strike a point within a given set of rules.”

In the separation of traditional and modern methods of martial arts, many MMA athletes discount traditional martial arts as being outdated and obsolete; that’s only because they don’t see the real value.  First of all, techniques in sport and in street combat are all debatable.  In combat effectiveness, they all work in different ways, in different situations, be they in sport and professional fights with trained athletes, or on the street where there are no rules or regulations.  You can’t compare or argue with them.  In history, BJJ, a style dominant in MMA, cites various sources that date back Japanese Jujutsu, and by extension, its ancestor, traditional Chinese martial arts, specifically the systems of ancient qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) and Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiāo; quick throw.)  Sanshou today embraces these qualities from traditional Wushu.  So it can’t necessarily be said that traditional martial arts have no value. They may be old, but they are foundation and must be remembered for the modern development of fighting techniques.

However, due to the overall stunted development of Chinese martial arts in the past fifty years, Chinese martial artists have been discredited by those who don’t know any better.  The standardization of modern Wushu has in a way helped somewhat, but in terms of fighting, we Chinese Wushu artists still have a lot of catching up to do—even Sanda fighters.  The reintroduction of full-contact sparring is a big step for the development of Chinese Wushu, but it still has a long way to go.  Now that sparring training is alive, it has to be well and strong now; quality sparring has to be stressed, no matter what style is being done.  This is what makes good fighters in the world period, not just martial artists from a particular style.

In the case of Chinese Sanda athletes, training is simple and direct, yet very flawed and not as scientific as that of kickboxing or MMA training.  Sanshou training is divided into four general elements of fighting, as covered in Chinese martial arts training: kicking (踢;tī), punching (打;dǎ), takedowns (摔;shuāi), and grappling (拿;ná)。  However, only three of these four aspects are emphasized in sport Sanda, with grappling prohibited for safety issues, and even then the skill sets are not evenly trained.  The emphasis on takedowns being the biggest point gainers has turned most Chinese Sanda athletes into sloppy wrestlers with added gloves, flicking kicks and wild haymakers.  Without being well-rounded in the various dimensions of fighting like MMA athletes, Sanda fighters have little hope of matching up to other martial arts stylists.  This means they need to brush up on their stand-up fighting skills.  They need to study boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling properly, something that the average Chinese Sanda athlete lacks.  We won’t always have a Liu Hailong or Aotegen Bateer to defend the name of Sanda, and by extension, Chinese Wushu.  Cung Le, former Strikeforce MMA Champion and World Wushu Championship Sanda medalist, is the golden exception to this.  Coming from a Taekwondo background, Cung Le was already well versed in striking, and was also national collegiate wrestling champion in his adolescence.  Because of this, Cung Le was well-rounded as a fighter, and more than prepared in his entry into the competitive Sanshou circuit, and in turn to sport MMA.  Despite not being a Chinese martial artist, Cung is an example for many that hail from such respective styles, because of his ultimate quality as a Sanshou fighter.


Thus, the situation is clearly explained in relation to Chinese martial arts, but is true for all martial arts systems: if you’re going to learn a method completely, then by all means, learn the forms, and understand the applications and techniques, but more importantly how to apply the ideas behind them in fighting situations.  And if you want to apply yourself in the most authentic way possible, then spar, and spar to the highest level possible to gain experience and awareness and in all aspects of fighting.  In true sparring and authentic free fighting, there is no such thing as learning a new way or method, only learning to apply yourself in that type of situation, regardless of what kind of martial arts foundation or skills you have.  Qian Yuanze acknowledges the connection between Wushu and Sanda, albeit with more of an emphasis towards Sanda.  “You may absorb traditional kung fu training in sanda, but basically, if you choose sanda, then just train all the techniques for sanda…Sanda is beyond system.”

This idea goes back to the philosophy of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.  Dan Inosanto, Lee’s good friend and student, quotes Lee’s central principle of martial arts application: “Know the principle, follow the principle, and dissolve the principle.”  In parallel to Wushu training in forms and fighting, learning the ideas behind the movements and techniques is one thing.  Applying them, namely in the Sanshou environment, is much more relevant and important in practical fighting.  And finally, being able to go out of the forms and styles and adapt, while still being able to apply the fighting ideas at the same time, is a sign of true skill and ability in martial arts.  This is an ideal that all traditional Chinese martial artists extol above all other things in training, which establishes its importance, even in Chinese Wushu.  In learning to adapt and apply oneself in fighting, just as Bruce Lee himself is quoted as saying, one must always be formless, shapeless, like water, the pinnacle of martial arts fighting.