Yang Style Short Form
I will limit myself to the physical function and purpose of the T'ai Chi form, and not the internal elements that create the form from within. The form essentially exists for a variety of reasons. The first being that it creates structure so that the internal elements that have been explained in previous chapters have some form or structure through which to move. The form is the vehicle or container which accommodates and transports these internal qualities, which in turn drive the physical form.
What comes first, the internal elements that create the form, or the form that gives structure so that these internal movements can exist? It's a bit like the chicken and the egg, which comes first? Before anything can happen in T'ai Chi some form of structure needs to be in place. Hence the reason for learning the T'ai Chi form. It is very much like the piping that transports water. Without the pipes in place the water has no containment or direction. For this reason I would have to say that the form or structure is first established followed by internal movement. You need the physical structure in place before anything else can happen. That's why the form is considered the infrastructure or framework of T'ai Chi.
This is why it takes years of training before one can do the T'ai Chi form at a basic level. One may learn and perform the movements of T'ai Chi almost straight away, however the form isn't T'ai Chi, but rather the shadow of T'ai Chi. In saying that, one needs the T'ai Chi structure while the internal movement strengthens and grows, eventually taking over the form from within (hence the saying that T'ai Chi is an internal art moving outward).
When one starts T'ai Chi there is the required effort to commit to memory the postures and their order of sequence, as well as rudimentary technique. Once this has been achieved you need to move to the next stage in building the form. One now needs to make sure the postures are correct, correct in the sense that it possesses the characteristics of that particular form whether it's a short or long form. These are such things as whether the palm at the end of single whip is in front of the chest or the left shoulder, and if the palm is facing out or turned in slightly. This also includes where certain areas of the body should be, and at what time they should be there; in other words the timing of the physical movements in relation to each other.
Every form has its own peculiarities, and in the big scheme of things it really doesn't matter whether your left palm at the end of single whip is in line with the crease of the left arm pit, or in line with the V of the neck. However taken as a whole they're important. This stage is sometimes referred to as learning the inches. In the old days there was much secrecy made of learning the inches. This is the level that you first learn learn. The inches are very important in the sense that you're creating the optimal physical environment to encourage and facilitate relaxation, sinking, and the free flow of weight and energy. What I mean by this is that when the left arm is at certain height and distance from the body in single whip (as dictated by the inches) it is in its best position alignment wise. If it was a little further out from the body you may need to use slightly more muscle, and this would affect your capacity to relax and sink.
As important as the inches are, they're only a means to a greater end. Some people slavishly follow the inches, mistakenly believing that if their form is perfect to the inch then their T'ai Chi will be similarly perfect. How I wish it were that simple.
The second and less important function of the form is the martial art component of T'ai Chi. What will also govern the look of the form or the structure of the form is the application of the movements in the form of self defence. Each movement of the T'ai Chi form has a martial art application. The application of T'ai Chi as a martial art is really a by-product of the internal movement of weight and energy, and the absorption of your opponent's energy. Most T'ai Chi practitioners who try and use T'ai Chi as a martial art usually end up only speeding the movements up, and inflict this on a co-operative victim. Is it no wonder that the reputation of T'ai Chi in the larger martial art community is that as a Martial Art, T'ai Chi is a great exercise routine for the elderly and no more.
The form is important in the sense that all mistakes can be traced back to the form. If you can't trace the mistake back to the form then the next step is to look for the mistake inside the form. If you're having problems in push hands, chances are the root of the mistake is in the form and can only be corrected in the form. Master Huang's favorite bit of advice to his students was “Everything you need is in the form”. The emphasis is on in the form. The implication of that statement is that everything you need happens from within the form. It is the same when it comes to applying T'ai Chi as a Martial Art. However there still needs to be a physical side to T'ai Chi and this is the form. You're still constrained by the physical requirements that are demanded by the practical application that Martial Arts demand.
When it comes to assessing whether a T'ai Chi form is correct you need to look at a few things. It's performed very much like a building inspection, it has to be structurally sound. Look at the form's alignment. Is there any leaning of the body? Does the front knee over extend? Do the knees collapse inward? Is the axis always vertical? If any of these faults are noted (except where the knee over extends) this could be the fault of the practitioner, and the form is not structurally sound.
However if it is structurally sound then look to see if it is energetically sound. Does the form encourage and cultivate the free flow of mind, energy and weight? What you are looking for here is the connecting points between the postures. Does the finishing of one movement allow room for the weight and energy to move smoothly into the next move (is the interplay of yin and yang between postures encouraged)? This is what first attracted me to the Cheng Man-Ching short form as taught by Master Huang's lineage. The fact that it is energetically sound as well as structurally sound. This form has been ingeniously devised. Especially the way the loosening exercises have been included to reinforce correct movement and alignment, and how each posture energetically flows to the next one. When a form flows energetically from one posture to the next it greatly reduces the chance of double weightedness.
When discerning if a T'ai Chi form is good or bad, try to look past the practitioner. I know it is hard but to be fair to the form you need to differentiate the form itself from the practitioners interpretation of the form. Don't look at the internal movement, you're judging the form not the practitioner. I've seen some quality T'ai Chi forms absolutely butchered by people. Also, when looking at a T'ai Chi form don't be influenced by its lineage. It is quite common to hear that this is the original form of Master such and such. Though you would like to think that any form that has been passed on by a reputable Master should be okay, unfortunately it relies heavily upon the student who carries on the lineage (a chain is only as strong as its weakest link). I would hate to think over the years how many great arts have been lost due to the laziness of their students.
It is really interesting that when you begin to look at the older and more traditional martial art forms, regardless of whether internal or external, you can see from just watching the form, how it moves, how it's put together, what the founder of the style was emphasising, and what they were hoping to achieve through the training of their form. Even though you may not train in that particular style, you can't help but appreciate its beauty and symmetry. You begin to understand why some forms are structured the way they are. I suspect this was what the violinist Menuhin was referring to when he said he had to know, as far as possible, “Each note in relation to the note that preceded it.” It wasn't enough to know that the works were great, but how they came to be created.