“Do forms like the 37 short form from Cheng Man-ch’ing help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence? Robert Smith the martial arts writer who knew Cheng Man-ch’ing said that CMC was basically invincible in a combat situation. Was this true? It seems so counter to what we think of as fighting today (Western boxing, Jiu Jitsu and Judo, mma, and physics).” – Alex
Yes. Any tai chi form can help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence, in the same way that having a car and a road can help you to learn how to drive.
“Invincible” is relative term. Robert W. Smith was expressing a sentiment based on his experience. Cheng Man-ch’ing 郑曼青 (1902-1975) had classmates and teachers who were also called invincible. Being invincible can be fleeting. We age. We have bad days. We meet new people.
I regret that I never met Cheng Man-ch’ing. But I have met many of his students, and their skill is real. Cheng and his students have been known to mix it up with boxers, grapplers, fencers, etc. Many of them (and their students) have competed successfully and regularly crossed hands with other martial artists. Some are better fighters than others. Some don’t fight at all.
Some of Cheng’s students were already champion fighters before they started training with him. Others became champion fighters only after training with him.
The 37 short form is not that different from the traditional Yang style. I have practised it and some of its variations, and at least 8 different versions of the Yang style long form. I also practise other styles of tai chi and have learned dozens of other forms from various martial arts.
What I will say is that the form is not the art. It is the context within which you discover the art. Whether you become good at self defence will depend on many things. The form is an exercise which will eventually embody all of the other things that you learn. You will get out of it what you put into it. Any tai chi form can help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence, in the same way that having a car and a road can help you to learn how to drive.
In the beginning, the form is a way of imitating your teacher’s expression of the art. Over time, you discover the meaning of the movements and learn what your teacher is expressing. Eventually, you develop your own understanding and your own expression. The form you do will be an expression of what is important to you.
Sometimes, I can watch a form performed by several different people and guess that this person is a grappler, that one is a boxer, that one is a dancer, that one is an mma fighter etc. Your form will change as you do.
Self defence is about adaptation. Martial arts must also continually adapt. If you look at film of boxing matches in the early days of film, you might be astonished by what you see. They hardly look like professionals. Boxing changed at the time of Jack Dempsey, and continued to evolve to the present.
It was adaptation that led to their creation in the first place. The tradition ends when they stop evolving.
Thank you for your question