Repertoires of Weapons: On the Use of Martial Arts Forms

By Adam J. Pearson


Photo: Donnie Yen in Ip Man (2008)

Martial arts forms like the Siu Lim Tau of Wing Chun Kung Fu or the various Kata of Karate are not mere sets of movements that must be learned to progress to the next belt. What is important is mastering every single movement in the form because it is these movements that come to be chained together intuitively in real fights. Those who rush through forms just to get the next belt end up being low class martial artists with shallow understandings of their traditions. By mastering the steps of the forms, one gains a repertoire of martial arts ‘tools’ that one can deploy in fight situations. Forms are repertoires of weapons.

Forms are the secret codes of a martial art; they collect and systematize techniques so that they can be learned in succession and practiced together. Unlocking these secrets is one of the goals of the martial arts student. For this reason, forms are incredibly important, but becoming rigidly attached to them is a big mistake.

The best way to use forms is not to try to apply their whole series of movements in order in a fight (we rarely even get the chance to do this because of the way the opponent moves). Instead, it is more helpful to to shift between individual movements of the form in order to adapt to what the opponent is doing, naturally, freely, and organically. In short, forms are collections of techniques to be organically rearranged in the act of a fight; they are not rigid patterns to be unnaturally imposed on the shifting fabric of combat.

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