By Robert Amacker
Before undertaking the study of the Taijiquan form, which, it should be clear from the outset, cannot be done by external mimicry, and must be learned from a teacher personally, it is helpful to know what elements of it are in fact inessential, and should not be the focus of too much effort and wasted time. The external aspect of it is so much simply a kind of vessel that can be a vehicle for correct internal practice that there is considerable latitude in the relative “shape” of that vessel, just as there are many shapes of bottles that can hold water. Of course, there are also even more “shapes” that cannot hold water, and just so within this latitude of forms certain external elements are essential to the transmission of important internal information and practice. This kind of discrimination can only be learned from a teacher, and not from photographs. The problem with photographs is that they convey too much information. The essential elements of form may be completely present, and the model may be a true master of the art, but this correct internal practice is effectively buried beneath a mass of external detail that is completely connected with style, historical evolution, and most importantly, personality.
One extremely inessential factor is the length of the form, something that many people unnecessarily fret about. This is connected to another relatively inessential factor, the sequence of the movements. It should be understood that the more signatory practice, in all schools, was the creation of “loops,” that is, sequences of movements that deserved particular study by their creators. Since one difference between Taijiquan and other martial arts is its continuity, any such practice emphasized that continuity by stringing movements together seamlessly. Many of these sequences have martial significance, that is, they show techniques that frequently appear sequentially in actual combat. Others are very weak in that regard, but at least create a seamless continuity of movement, if not of idea. The so-called “long form” is simply the form practiced primarily by the Yang school when it became a part of historical record through writing and photographs. It only became the “Long” form by contrast with the “Short” form of Cheng, Man-ch’ing, whose form achieved a certain popularity. It must be understood that Cheng was not doing anything unusual or radical in the slightest by “inventing” his new form; it was simply an adaptation to his needs, a completely common and encouraged practice. He would be the very last to say that the “shortness” of his form, or its rearrangement of its sequence, was of any significance whatsoever, in terms of anything that matters.
If one investigates the history of the long form, one immediately sees different versions of the sequence of movements. For example, the execution of the backfist in the first section of the form was not a feature of the latest example of its sequence, and is almost never found. I do it and have taught it because, after having found it in an earlier version of the form, I saw several good reasons to reintroduce it. Likewise, although it was present in the latest version of the Yang school form, one movement, the Single Lotus Kick, done towards the end of the third section, has almost universally evolved into simply another heel kick, as seen at the end of the second section. I have retained it in my own form and that of my students.
Because of its seamlessness, it is possible to differentiate the different movements from one another in a variety of ways, so the number of movements may differ, even when these different numbers describe exactly the same form. The Long Form is sometimes called the “One Hundred and Twenty-four Movement” form, this only because the original published sequence of photographs of Yang’s form was of that number. The same sequence of movements exactly can be renamed and renumbered to come out one hundred and eight, a nice Buddhist touch, and frequently done.
Also, do not be confused by the size of the movements, especially to the point of committing the fault of copying the minimal style done by aged masters. There is no “right” size for the movements, only a size appropriate to one’s practice at the time. Beware of theatrical performances, with excessively flowery movements, the so-called “fault of floating.” They are much more impressive to the eye than Taijiquan done correctly. Beware of teachers who talk endlessly about ch’i. As the Classics of the art say, put your mind on the movement, and not on the ch’i. The movement is intricate and subtle, but not ethereal, and its careful conveyance should be the main concern of any teacher. Thinking about ch’i, even visualizing it, will never develop it, but careful practice will.