Tai Chi Form is an instantly recognisable aspect of Tai Chi, a continuous sequence of moving postures, sometimes expressed as a dance in harmony with the environment.
For a student, who wants to learn and progress, the problem arises as to which form, style or method is genuine or authentic. Even a cursory glance at the Internet, throws up a myriad of styles and methods. Add to that market forces and monetisation of platforms like YouTube and we have a veritable feeding frenzy around routines, methods and styles. What I would like to do in this essay, is to give a broad, simplified overview of forms – how and why forms are used and developed. So, we can start with the four basic patterns or styles of Tai Chi, though please be advised that I believe China officially recognises 12 or even more styles these days. These four styles have overtly different patterns of movement to separate them from each other. What is sometimes classed as the older style is Chen style and that’s characterised by fast and slow movements, twisting and coiling, with occasional stamping. Yang style is the next. It’s origins are believed to have come from Chen style. Yang style is performed with more upright, open movements, with relaxed, steady, even paced routines. The third style is Wu style, which was a development of the Yang style. The main characteristics are in a slight leaning and less kwa rotation but otherwise similar to the Yang style in all of the qualities. The fourth style is called Sun style, after the founder Sun Lu Tang, other spellings are available. It is a blend of a derivation of Wu style Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Hsing I, which are other internal systems. This method is characterised by shorter, upright stances. So, with the development of Tai Chi from Chen style, through to Sun style, we see a change and continuous development from style to style, each borrowing from each other. Even within those very distinct styles, teachers will then change and develop that format based on their experiences. So with human nature being what it is, we will naturally get lots of variations of Yang style.
Methods of teaching will also play a pivotal role in form practice. A skilled and knowledgeable teacher will give you the method of practice that is suitable for you at your level of expertise, so if you have learnt a basic form from a teacher, and you then leave that said teacher, you might only have the bare bones of that practice. To make up the shortfall, people start adding new things or from different practices, so we may get bits of Chi Kung being added, things taken away, new movements created or invented in some abstracted form.
It’s important to understand the full reasoning behind why movements are created as they are. In the Yang form we have three different frames: small, medium and large. The large frame developed by Yang Cheng Fu was taught to help lead the Chi to the periphery and he was responsible for rearranging the Yang form and developing Tai Chi as a health system. Before that, Tai Chi was always seen as a martial art, expressed through medium and small frames. The small frame is very much about concentrating your power and learning how to harness your power, whilst a medium frame is more about the application of the combat system.
Then we have the three practice levels attributed to the crane, the tiger and the snake. The Crane method is very upright, knees are comfortable and relaxed, with a very open posture to help circulate energy. The Tiger height is lower, so the hands are about knee height. The lower posture concentrates power in the legs. The Tiger starts to consolidate your energy. Finally, we have the Snake which is even lower. The Snake is directing the energy from the legs into the spine, so it’s more about focus and releasing power. Even with just these changes to heights and frame type, we can readily see there can be lots of variations, even within just one style.
Then we also have the multitude of forms that are taught within the Yang schools. We have the traditional Long Form, which is 108 postures. We have some form of Short Form. We can have the Fast form, the Two Person form, the Snake form (different to snake method) and various weapon forms, usually sword, sabre and spear. Each form, and even weapon forms, will add something to your overall practice. For instance, the sword will give you a very clear focus intent; the sabre has lively footwork, coiling and strong circular changes; the spear gives you a very strong sense of generating projection with power. So, when you start to analyse various forms, styles and methods, you can start to understand why there are a multitude of versions of just Yang style. Are these versions correct, genuine and authentic expressions of Tai Chi? Well, you have to say yes. As my master explained when I asked about correct form, he said, “It doesn’t matter what form you practice, as long as it adheres to the Tai Chi principles and concepts.” But that, of course, is a different article.