The Four Roads Eight Diagram Stepping form is a beginner set that teaches footwork and basic stances and transitions. However the form itself goes much deeper than the catalog of stepping methods used in martial arts training and although few people tend to dig into it to find more, being more excited to move on to more interesting forms, it contains a great deal of martial training on both the surface and in it’s depths.
The name of the form comes from the pattern it draws on the earth when it is done well. The eight lines are reminiscent of a Buddhist wheel of life or Taoist Bagua diagram with its eight sides. The Ma Family fighting diagram has this eight pointed star pattern in its centre and is the basis of the sets movement. The first road moves forward and backward (north and south), the second left and right (east and west), the third to the north east and north west lines of the diagram and finally the fourth road the rear angles of south east and south west respectively.
Road One starts with the salute, bringing the hands together and banging the HeGu (Li4) points together. This point is used not only for general pain and headaches but also toothache and stress relief. Its use at the forms beginning is to teach the player about it and its uses, location and bring the mind to the body itself rather than external stresses before practice. Next the rolling hands movement brings the shoulders through the movement of rolling the shoulders and opening the chest. This is to focus the player on the structure and posture of the chest and back to attain a good starting position for the torso during the forms practice.
Sinking into the legs the form is started with a rearward sweep working the method of developing power from the splitting of the hip (kua) and lower leg to create force. Turning and bringing the legs together should be done with a lot of intention on the inward or closing of the legs to train inward sweeping methods by closing the groin after which the second rearward sweep allows for the player to drop into a horse stance. The movement into the horse stance is training the knee sweep method from Ma family praying mantis where the power is directed to the knee while it turns into place. When placed against an opponents knee this can disrupt their balance and root as well as damage their knee joint if their foot is pinned form moving.
Now the first road begins in earnest. The standing up to Crane step is another chance to focus on inwards power in the groin to lift an opponents leg out of place. Of course the crane stance itself is useful for balance and control and when training the form in earnest (in part or whole) ideally one should spend a breath in each position to sink and settle into each position and study its methods and structure. The stepping forward from the crane steps are downward forward kicks meant for an opponents knee or shin bones as they retreat. This means that a player should be focusing on the springing leg type of power (Tan Tui) where the hip reaches through the foot and down to the floor as if stepping all the way through an opponents leg.
The second set of steps are Tiger stepping and are meant to be done straight forward with little to no bringing of the legs together. This trains power in the open kua (hips) position and allows for the “wind sweeps the cobblestones” step where the heel is reached through and is meant for attacking the ankle of the opponent. Once the heel is planted the player brings his/her weight forward forcefully through the knee into the bow stance. In application this is meant to drive the knee into the opponents leg. Should the heel step be able to pin the opponents foot to the ground this becomes a powerful leg attack and possible dislocation of the opponents knee joint.
The third steps are pulling inwards again to close the groin and while this yin or non obvious part of the movement is often overlooked it should be the focus of the beginning of the snake steps. Inwards pulling sweeps are difficult to train and require good root, balance and power in the legs. Each angular forward snake step should be performed as low side kicks aimed at an opponents lower leg or ankle and when moving from the snake stance to the forward bow stance the knee is the place of intent for the power. Its forward and sideways movement is another knee sweep method from mantis meant to pin the opponents foot and break their root, power, structure, balance and ideally their knee.
The turn around is performed after sweeping to a horse stance training the same sweeps as mentioned before both inward and outwards. The 180 degree leap should be done with the legs as high as possible and the knees moving towards the chest in order to train springing power in the legs, a method from monkey boxing. After repeating the entire sequence again and leaping and turning the opposite direction as before in order to train both sides equally a double sweep to horse is used to single the end of the first road.
One way of looking at the roads in the form is as training for the legs and stances, a deeper look begins to show all the limb and balance destruction of using the steps and stances not only as movement but as attacks, kicks, sweeps, trips, lifts and so on of the enemies legs. This is important to not only train until the legs are strong enough to perform the methods correctly but to be able to apply them with a partner. Once it becomes second nature the reason for the arms remaining at rest needs to be studied. On one level it is simply to remove them from the mind as a part of the form so the beginner can focus on the legs only. On a deeper level they are to maintain power and potential movement throughout the set, this leads to understanding that they are not only to be used with other techniques above the leg methods when in combat but that the form itself does contain methods and application for the arms without them being in motion themselves. Each turn and twist through the form allows for the arms in their position to be elbow strikes as the most obvious. The more advanced will see that the arms always gain their power from the legs and waist movements and as such they are being empowered in each movement. Each twist and turn throughout the set can be applied readily as well with the idea of holding the opponent in one or both of the hands. Some very powerful elbow dislocations are done with the opponents arm stretched across the players chest while the hips twist and turn quickly and forcefully.
Training the set should be done with intent, force and determination. It is not an easy thing to make the legs stronger and faster and expends a great deal of energy and will. But this is exactly what it means to “eat bitter before you can taste sweet” perseverance in the simplest, most ‘boring, forms brings about real benefits and bringing the mind to bear and dissect each movement allows for the training to deepen and broaden in any form. Just because something is taught to beginners or is called ‘basics’ does not mean it is not deep and powerful. In fact most foundation methods are the most important and profound ones we ever learn.
Road Two: withdraw and pull, stomp kick, mud step, pull to crane, side kick, heavy step, cross step behind to unicorn, turn to horse.
Road Three: shovel kick, squeeze the legs, side kick, heavy step, cross step to unicorn, turn to horse.
Road Four is a more complex one than the rest by far. It is the beginning of ghost stepping and stepping forward to go backwards. It requires deep analysis to really make sense of it. Suffice to say for now that once the choreography is learned it needs to be dissected and studied with some help from a teacher.
I hope this helps.