We had a great discussion on G+’s martial artist forums regarding the question posed above. On the kung fu side of things, first there was random and haphazard fighting. Eventually, people figured out (and more importantly, passed on) the idea that certain ways of moving and fighting were better for their purposes; folks moved from the typical “boxing” jabs and hooks to crystallized kung fu patterns like Black Tiger Steals Heart (a level punch to the chest at the Bow-Arrow stance) or Hang a Golden Star at Corner (a punch to the side of the temple at the Bow-Arrow stance) because of certain advantages (a protected groin, more agile footwork, and being able to use waist rotation to generate and send spiral force from the abdomen into the opponent to deal injury).
So in this case, it function was first (“Hey, when I stood in this way and punched in this fashion, I didn’t get counter-attacked so often) followed by a crystallized form over the course of several generations of martial artists.
There is a saying amongst both Buddhists and kung fu people, “From formlessness to form, from form to formlessness” (the Shaolin monastery, perhaps the biggest influence on kung fu, was a Buddhist monastery, so there is much cross-fertilization of aphorisms). At first, the student is untrained and inefficient (formlessness) and learns from their master the proper and orthodox way of doing things (form). Once a certain skill level has been reached, the student becomes so fast, agile, and powerful that even if their form is not 100% perfect, it can still defeat ordinary foes with ease; furthermore, the student, now rightly called an adept or master, knows when to discard the form for certain advantages (very common in Eight Drunken Immortals kung fu and Monkey kung fu). The practitioner at this level has reached the formless stage.
Continuing discussion with Matt Kovsky about the value of form practice and why they are not the end-goal, 2013 May 8:
+Matt Kovsky , you bring up an excellent point that many practitioners of traditional arts do not realize: the founders of great arts were all “battle-tested” themselves. Yang Lu Chan (grandfather of the man who developed Yang style Taijiquan) was himself already accomplished in some form of Shaolin kung fu before he learnt Chen family Taijiquan. Yang Lu Chan then proceeded to wander China and engaged in many duels and contests of martial skill before passing on his experiences and arts to his students.
Two of the great arts developed by the Marshall Yue Fei, Eagle Claw kung fu and Xingyiquan, are at the opposite ends of the spectrum regarding how to respond to an opponent. Eagle Claw was said to be developed for Yue Fei’s soldiers; it is very intricate and has a technique for every conceivable situation. The philosophy was “many elaborate techniques to defeat hordes of lesser opponents with simple techniques.” Xingyiquan, on the other hand, was taught to generals, people with greater experience and dedication, and is often regarded as a simplistic art; there are five basic hand movements (and in some schools, there are 8, 10, or 12 additional animal forms). Whereas Eagle Claw practitioners will respond differently to different situations, Xingyiquan practitioners, because of their limited techniques, learn to perform each technique with such precision, skill, speed, and force that they can use the same technique to meet hundreds of different situations.
Like you mentioned, however, these two extremes were being practiced by men who were actively engaged in combat (in their case, battlefield warfare). Getting students who (thankfully for them) have never had to stand on the field of violence to understand, appreciate, and integrate that idea of “working under pressure” or “dealing with threat” is actually a theme that my grandmaster’s school, Shaolin Wahnam, is directly addressing. This sort of thing is often summed up in a famous kung fu phrase, “First, guts; then force; finally, techniques.” Lacking “guts” (that is, the ability to perform under pressure) makes even the most amazing kung fu useless in a real situation.
Matt Kovsky made an excellent summary of the thread’s key points:
For the creator: form follows function.
For the student: function follows form
The challenge: to recreate how the creator learned without dying.