Wushuer and Steve, excellent posts! Please keep them coming.
I had a few additional thoughts on this issue I wanted to add. At the last saber seminar I attended, which was taught by Yang Jun, he discussed subtle distinctions between the qualities the saber form should have and those that the barehand form should have. Basically, he said that the saber form should be done with somewhat greater speed, more evident power, more flow, use of momentum, and generally longer steps.
From Yang Jun's words, I got several distinct impressions and have drawn several conclusions. What I am about to set forth here, however are my own impressions and conclusions, and not his words.
It seems that there are indeed certain things "lacking" from the barehand form and that this is a deliberate part of its current design. It seems to me that the Yangs' curriculum is somewhat progressive, by which I mean that certain characteristics of their total art are deliberately suppressed in certain practices for various reasons.
It seems, for instance, that momentum has been deliberately eliminated from almost all of the barehand form. To achieve this, certain compromises have been made with the stepping patterns that vary somewhat among Yang Chengfu’s students. I understand that the reason behind this practice is to force the student to focus on certain aspects of the art that are harder to discern if one mixes in momentum and speed.
As one begins to master these aspects of the art, the requirements are loosened as other practices are studied. Other requirements are tightened. In the saber form, we are supposed to show that we can use and control momentum, display some power, and know how to flow and circle through all our movements. To allow this, we no longer have to show total control over every instant of a step. We no longer have to “pause” at 100-0 and 0-100 points of balance, because we are assumed to have begun to internalize the concepts of “central equilibrium” (zhong ding) and distinguishing full and empty.
After beginning to understand the barehand form and know our own movement patterns, we begin to study fixed and moving step push hands to know the movement patterns of our opponents. We no longer focus on ourselves; we focus on our opponent. We begin to understand the primary or square energies (jin) of ward off, roll back, press, and push.
Although the primary energies are theoretically complete, they are dangerous and difficult to apply in pure form. (Yang Jun gave a brief explanation of this, showing how applying these energies can threaten our central equilibrium.) Accordingly, once we begin to understand them, we begin practice of the Da Lü to study the secondary or oblique energies: split/rend (lie), pluck, elbow, and bump/shoulder stroke (kao). We can now supplement the primary energies with these. We begin to fill out our circle of movement potential by exploring the corners. The techniques become more and more overtly martial and can begin to blend into sparring, as we change speeds and allow for separation with our opponent.
As we spar, we try to retain all the earlier principles, but completely cast aside any concept of “standard” positions. We focus more on what works than on what is theoretically pure. Choreography ceases.
Within the various gradations of practice, there are additional possible gradations. Each practice begins by learning some sort of standard movements; but once one masters these, they can be cast aside. At the same time that standardization loses importance, one never really graduates from even the simplest practices. For example, one continues to do slow even form. Single-hand fixed-step push hands is never abandoned.
Each of the practices is capable of being altered to resemble more advanced practices. Some of this seems to be encouraged, and some seems to be discouraged. I think ultimately, this is a matter of individual teaching and study methods, rather than a matter of clear teaching principles. For instance, one can alter form practice, by doing one-posture sparring, but this is of clear value only if one has experience with the principles normally practiced through form, push hands, and Da Lü. One can alter even the basic push hands patterns to allow for unambiguous strikes and kicks; but again, this substantially changes the nature of the exercise. Da Lü seems to be the practice that most lends itself to major variations in the level of engagement, without varying the nature of the exercise.
Keeping what I have said above in mind, the question of the proper role of relatively fast Yang forms is not easily answered. I think that the Yangs do not currently see a need for this within their curriculum, since similar content exists in their other practices (e.g., the saber form). On the other hand, I would guess that they would not object to others having a relatively fast form in their curriculum. The only thing that might be suspect would be neglecting to have a teaching vehicle for the content that is taught through the relatively slow even form.
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 11-17-2002).]