What Is Bagua?

This article was originally posted by Steve Klausmeir. -R

 

I’ve invested more of myself into understanding Bagua Zhang than anything else in my life.  In my case, that may not be saying much.  But, for what it’s worth, I want to describe what I consider to be the essence of the style.

My Background

I cannot discuss Bagua without first acknowledging sources that continue to inform my practice.  My interest in the martial arts spans twenty-five years.  I visited too many dojo, read too many books, and wasted too many years looking for the secret “death touch” stuff.  In the end, most teachers seemed more interested in self-promotion and preserving their particular style than helping me become a better fighter.  But, I did manage to find two people I can trust.

Tim Cartmell is well-known among practitioners of the Chinese internal martial arts.  He contributed to the Pa Kua Chang Journal and is featured in the first chapter of Jess O’Brien’s book Nei Jia Quan. Tim lived in Taiwan for about ten years and is a lineage holder in the Gao style under Luo Dexiu.  He places great emphasis on practical fighting ability.  Since returning to the States, he earned a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

My formal training in Bagua came from Tim.  Beginning in 2001, I received approximately 30 hours of private instruction in the following:

  • The eight basic hand methods, or Ji Ben Shou Fa
  • The basic circle walk practice
  • The Single Palm Change
  • The first four Pre-Heaven changes
  • The first eight Post-Heaven straight line forms
  • Plus, various two-person drills and other self-defense

Bob is the other person I trust.  His teaching method gives me the best chance of actually being able to make the techniques work.  With an emphasis on modern sports science and corrective exercise, his programming of my workouts has me in the best shape of my life.  Skills are developed systematically through a variety of drills.  I particularly like his use of “asymmetrical games,” in which the two participants have different goals and operate within specific parameters to accomplish them.  We can begin to feel what it’s like to be under pressure and work against the opponent’s resistance without it becoming a free-for-all.  These kinds of methods help ensure everyone has a chance to succeed…not just the most physically gifted among us.

History

As far as I know, Professor Kang Gewu is the world’s foremost authority on Bagua history.  The influential martial historian wrote his master’s degree thesis on the origins of Bagua Zhang, conducting extensive research from 1980-82.  He concluded that Dong Haiquan (1813-1882) was the originator of the art.  Most likely, he combined fighting techniques he already knew with a circle walking meditation practiced by Daoist monks of the Quan Zhen sect.  The details of Dong’s life are not well known.  He probably got into some trouble and was hiding out in a monastery.  After his travels, he developed a reputation as a formidable fighter in Beijing and began teaching publicly around 1870.

Dong was from a poor family and probably illiterate.  It is doubtful that he was influenced by the Yijing, or book of changes.  He originally called his art Zhuan Zhang, or turning palm.  His students began referring to the art as Bagua Zhang toward the end of Dong’s life.  In Chinese culture, this would afford it a higher status through association with an ancient text.  The eight foundational trigrams of the Yijing are referred to as Bagua.  So, the art became known as eight-trigram palm.  Later generations of practitioners organized their forms into sets of eight and sixty-four.  But, the philosophical connections have nothing to do with fighting ability.

Dong’s students were already experienced martial artists.  He didn’t teach specific fighting techniques.  The circle walk practice was meant to instill the ability to move fluidly with a connected, whole-body power, known as yin rou jing.  Also, the basic patterns represented a primary strategy of flanking, or crossing the opponent.

Bagua forms consist of circular motions, which allow the conservation of rotational momentum.  In theory, this enables a fighter to strike and throw within the flow of a movement or change from one technique to another without losing power.  Dong taught three fundamental movements performed while walking the circle, generally referred to as “palm changes:”

  • The Single Palm Change consists of changing direction on the circle by turning inward and switching the lead hand. The rotation of the body generates horizontal momentum, which is expressed through the arms.
  • The Double Palm Change is basically the Single Palm Change with a couple of extra movements sandwiched in the middle. Compressing into one leg generates vertical momentum, which is expressed as a rearward pivot on the heel is performed.
  • The Smooth Body Palm consists of turning outward, expressing momentum obliquely, and continuing on the circle in the same direction.

In addition, Dong demonstrated how he entered into his techniques.  Students were expected to incorporate the principles of movement and strategy into their own unique fighting style.  That’s why sometimes people refer to Bagua as a “conceptual framework.”  No one can claim to know a more authentic version of Bagua, because there isn’t one.  The complex variations of these forms found in modern systems are all just different ways of manifesting the fundamental principles.

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