Forms or taolu in Chinese are series of predetermined movements combined so they can be practiced as one linear set of movements. Forms were originally intended to preserve the lineage of a particular style branch, and were often taught to advanced students who were selected to preserve the art's lineage. Forms were designed to contain both literal, representative and exercise-oriented forms of applicable techniques which would be extracted, tested and trained by students through sparring sessions.
Today, many consider forms to be one of the most important practices in Chinese martial arts. Traditionally, they played a smaller role in training combat application, and were eclipsed by sparring, drilling and conditioning. Forms gradually build up a practitioner's flexibility, internal and external strength, speed and stamina, and teach balance and coordination. Many styles contain forms using a wide range of weapons of various length and type, utilizing one or two hands. There are also styles which focus on a certain type of weapon. Forms are meant to be both practical, usable, and applicable as well as promoting flow, meditation, flexibility, balance and coordination. Teachers are often heard to say "train your form as if you were sparring and spar as if it were a form."
There are two general types of forms in Chinese martial arts. Most common are "solo forms" which are performed by a single student. There are also "sparring" forms, which are choreographed fighting sets performed by two or more people. Sparring forms were designed both to acquaint beginning fighters with basic measures and concepts of combat, and to serve as performance pieces for the school. Sparring forms which utilize weapons are especially useful for teaching students the extension, range and technique required to manage a weapon.
Forms in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts
The term “taolu (套路)” is a shorten version of “Tao Lu Yun Dong (套路运动)”; an expression that was introduced only recently with the popularity modern wushu. This expression refers to “exercise sets” and is used in the context of athletics or sport.
In contrast, in traditional Chinese martial arts alternative terminologies for the training (練) of 'sets or forms are:
lian quan tao (練拳套) – practicing sequence of fist;
lian quan jiao (練拳腳) – practicing fists and feet;
lian bing qi (練兵器) – practicing weapons;
dui da (對打) and dui lian (對練) – fighting sets.
Traditional "sparring" sets, called dui da, 對打 or, dui lian, 對練, were an important part of Chinese martial arts for centuries. Dui lian (對練), literally means, to train by a pair of combatants opposing each other (the character l練, means to practice; to train; to perfect one's skill; to drill). As well, often one of these terms are also included in the name of fighting sets: 雙演, shuang yan, 'paired practice'; 掙勝, zheng sheng, 'to struggle with strength for victory'; 敵, di, ' match – the character suggests to strike an enemy; and 破, po, 'to break'.
Generally there are 21, 18, 12, 9 or 5 drills or 'exchanges/groupings' of attacks and counter attacks, in each dui lian, 對 練 set. These drills were considered only generic patterns and never meant to be considered inflexible 'tricks'. Students practiced smaller parts/exchanges, individually with opponents switching sides in a continuous flow. Basically, dui lian were not only a sophisticated and effective methods of passing on the fighting knowledge of the older generation, they were important and effective training methods. The relationship between single sets and contact sets is quite complicated in that in many cases there are skills which simply can not be developed with single sets, and, conversely, with dui lian. Unfortunately, it appears that most traditional combat oriented dui lian and their training methodology have disappeared, especially those concerning weapons. There are a number of reasons for this. In modern Chinese martial arts most of the dui lian are recent inventions designed for light props resembling weapons, with safety and drama in mind. The role of this kind of training has degenerated to the point of being useless in a practical sense, and, at best, is just performance.
By the early Song period, sets were not so much "individual isolated technique strung together" but rather were composed of techniques and counter technique groupings. It is quite clear that "sets" and "fighting (2 person) sets" have been instrumental in TCM for many hundreds of years —even before the Song Dynasty. There are images of two person weapon training in Chinese stone painting going back at least to the Eastern Han Dynasty.
According to what has been passed on by the older generations, the approximate ratio of contact sets to single sets was approximately 1:3. In other words, about 30% of the sets practiced at Shaolin were contact sets, dui lian, 對 練, and two person drill training. This is, in part, evidenced by the Qing Dynasty mural at Shaolin.
Ancient literature from the Tang and Northern Song Dynasties suggests that some sets, including those which required two or more participants, became very elaborate, "flowery", and mainly concerned with aesthetics. During this time, some martial arts systems devolved to the point that they became popular forms of martial art storytelling entertainment shows. This created an entire new category of martial arts known as Hua Fa Wuyi, 花法武藝, or "fancy patterns for developing military skill". During the Northern Song period it was noted by historians that this phenomenon had a negative influence on training in the military.
For most of its history, Shaolin martial arts was largely weapon-focused: staves were used to defend the monastery, not bare hands. Even the more recent military exploits of Shaolin during the Ming and Qing Dynasties involved weapons. According to some traditions, monks first studied basics for one year and were then taught staff fighting so that they could protect the monastery. Although wrestling has been as sport in China for centuries, weapons have been the most important part of Chinese wushu since ancient times. If one wants to talk about recent or 'modern' developments in Chinese martial arts (including Shaolin for that matter), it is the over-emphasis on bare hand fighting. During the Northern Song Dynasty (976- 997 A.D) when platform fighting known as Da Laitai (Title Fights Challenge on Platform) first appeared, these fights were with only swords and staves. Although later, when bare hand fights appeared as well, it was the weapons events that became the most famous. These open-ring competitions had regulations and were organized by government organizations; some were also organized by the public. The government competitions resulted in appointments to military posts for winners and were held in the capital as well as in the prefectures.