Why Does Chinese Kung Fu Practice Set Form Routine or 套路 (Tao Lu)???
Nowadays, western martial arts and modern combat systems do not do forms, they get started straight away with drilling the punches, kicks, grappling or sword strokes. They do physical conditioning and lots of sparring, but they just don't do forms. However, forms are almost indispensible nowadays in Chinese kung fu. They practice forms every training session, forms makes up a huge part, if not all of their training. Forms are so heavily looked upon by Chinese kung fu bodies that they even organize forms competitions. This makes almost no sense to the Western or Westernized martial art practitioners.
So why do Chinese martial artists do forms? We take a look at the history of China. In ancient China, from the Tang Dynasty(AD 618–907) and Han Dynasty(202 BC–AD 220) and before, there wasn't any forms, even if there were, it's practiced by a very small minority and hardly paid attention to. The warriors at the time practiced individual attack and defense and did physical conditioning, not much difference from the Europeans. Ancient manuals and military books record names of positions, and individual strokes and transitions to other positions.
For example(it's made up), 華山獨孤九劍：第六式，落劍勢，流星劍. Translated in English: Hua Shan Lonesome Nine Swords(1), the sixth skill(2), falling pierce(3), meteor shower stroke(4).
1) Name of the martial arts style 2) Number of the skill in the style 3) Name of the skill 4) The individual stroke in the skill
This were how martial arts techniques were classified and documented in the ancient days. Some martial arts still use this system, though most prefer to use forms to organize these techniques. In this system it can be seen that martial arts was practiced with a very step-by-step method, though they still have the sophistication which far exceeds Western martial arts. The books will record not only the instructions of each move and the drawings demonstration the move, they also have chapters on the philosophy and principles of the style, strengths and weakness of each move, the combination synergy between moves. They also have information on the author's personal experiences and various fighting strategies against other styles. So it can be seen that there is alot of thought put into these books and skills which were passed down through generations.
Even though the modern martial artist believe in discarding the old and evolving into the new, these ancient skills were definitely not thought out by prehistoric apes who have much lesser IQ than us. These fanciful modern self defense moves and kicking and punching methods were already practiced by our ancestors, just that many youngsters prefer to discard their priceless wisdom and adopt something modern and trendy. Don't be surprised that an ancient art may have techniques which can counter and defeat modern techniques.
Gradually as time passes by there were so many techniques and training methods. A person could not be proficient in all the techniques of any style, he has to specialize in some. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses and not all techniques could be highly useful to them. For example, a short student will not have much use for low punches to the head. Therefore there were many situations when the disciple could not pass on the full skill-set imparted by his teacher to the next generation, as he hardly practice the skills which he doesn't specialize in and forgot them.
So they invented an archiving system known as forms. The student will learn forms when the teacher sees that he has sufficient mastery of the techniques and foundation. From there the student will teach the next generation of students techniques from the form which he memorized, whether or not he has mastered these techniques. It can be said that forms are a form of physical documentation. In this way, the skills will not be lost through time. Forms are especially useful in styles which uses oral transmission to pass on to the next generation.
Despite the purpose of kung fu forms as a record, Chinese Kung Fu practitioners nowadays are moving towards the health and recreational purpose of practicing martial arts and thus forms are the most frequently practiced in Kung Fu. Most Chinese Kung Fu practitioners do not or hardly do physical conditioning, qigong, technical drills or sparring. These can take up a lot of time and modern city-dwellers hardly have the time to spare. In a way, forms Kung Fu have attracted another group of people, the peaceful people who does Kung Fu as a hobby and exercise, with no intention of improving their fighting skills. This group of people makes up more than 80% of all Chinese Kung Fu + Wushu practitioners. So it is not strange that outsiders view Kung Fu as a harmless martial art.
However, forms can also have great benefits to the practitioner. As they encompasses all the techniques, the student will have equal practice by going through the forms. Also, it trains the practitioner's hand and eye, upper body and lower body coordination, familiarizes the practitioner with the movement patterns. Especially footwork, Chinese kung fu are known to have the most comprehensive variety of footwork. In a sports science point of view, forms uses all parts of the body and is both an aerobic and anaerobic circuit workout. This is a wonderful set of exercises in one package. That is why wushu practitioners enjoy good health and motor skills. They enjoy the benefits even till old age, as their foundation is well established and they exercise control on their body.
There are many times forms warriors were put to the test and they ended up looking like mindless brawlers with no techniques and merely crashing their ego and aggression on their opponents in a desperate struggle. This is no different from modern martial art practitioners and people who don't even know martial arts. Thus the intent of the technique must be present during the practice of the forms, if not it will not serve its purpose in combat. (If a person is practicing Hung Gar's crane beak for example, he must picture himself really parrying his opponent's hand with his crane wing with a rotational motion and returning an immediate crane beak which stabs his opponent's temple or eye with his fingers.) That's why my fellow classmates and my students also practice forms with the intent of interacting with an imaginary opponent, this is to cultivate reaction and muscle memory when the actual fight happens.
I have a close friend who does only forms, and he is ripped and well built just by doing that for a few years. He is very tough and he can take a flying side kick to the chest! I once gave him a "muay thai style" roundhouse kick and he numbed my whole leg by parrying it. That despite me being rather well conditioned, able to "out-rough" many fellow kickboxers in sparring sessions. My leg joints still feel the ache even after 2 days. This accounts for the effectiveness of forms in health and fitness. So new age people, don't laugh at someone who is doing forms in the park, if you attack him he might hammer your skull in!