The Origins of Ba Gua Zhang – Part 3

Written by Dan Miller, et al, Pa Kua Chang Journal Volume 3, Number 4, May – June 1993, Edited by Dr. Troy Schott D.C.

The following blog posts will be selected articles from the illustrious Pa Kua Chang Journal.  The Journal ran for about seven years, initially as the Pa Kua Chang Newsletter, it was a refreshing look into the actual current and historical state of baguazhang. Also, I have edited the article in many places for relevance and have left notes here and there. If I make any grievous mistake in the rewriting of this material, please let me know. – Troy Schott, D.C. grounddragonma.com

In the Pa Kua Chang Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, we began a serial article which explores the origins of the art of Ba Gua Zhang.  In the first installment, we reported that there are four main theories relating to Ba Gua’s origins.  These theories are as follows:

1)  Dong Hai Chuan developed Ba Gua Zhang after learning Yin Yang Ba Pan Zhang from Dong Meng Lin.  This version of Ba Gua’s origin was published in the 1937 text Yin Yang Ba Pan Zhang Fa written by Ren Zhi Cheng.

2)  The Unauthorized History of the Indigo Pavilion (published  in  1818)  talks  about  eight  direction stepping, Li Gua and Kan Gua as Ba Gua that was popular  prior  to  Dong Hai Chuan  (as  early  as 1813).  From the writing in this text, some have deduced that this Ba Gua was the predecessor to the Ba Gua Zhang taught by Dong.

3)  Dong Hai Chuan learned his art from Bi Cheng Xia on Jiu Hua (Nine Flower) Mountain.    A discussion  of  this  theory  would  also  include  any of  the  various  stories  about  Dong  learning  from a “Daoist in the mountains.”  When the Bi Cheng Xia  theory  is  examined  in  this  article,  we  will include  popular  theories  regarding  other  Daoists that Dong might have learned from.

4)    Dong Hai Chuan was the founder of Ba Gua Zhang.    The individuals who subscribe to this theory believe that Dong spent his youth learning other martial arts and invented Ba Gua Zhang based on his experience combined with a circle walking meditation practice he learned from a Daoist.

In the first part of this article, we examined the first two theories listed above and concluded that these two theories had no basis in fact.  The primary source of this information was taken from the work of Professor Kang Ge Wu of Beijing.  While working on his master’s degree in Chinese martial arts history in 1980-81, Professor Kang wrote his thesis on the “Origins of Ba Gua Zhang.”  When I visited with Kang last year in Beijing (November 1991), he gave me a copy of his findings and the translation of his report forms the foundation of this article.

Professor Kang’s research was extensive and involved close examination of over 650 documents from the Qing Palace history books and over 230 papers written on martial arts.    He  also  examined  the  situations  of 413  teachers  in  24  provinces  and  cities,  personally investigating in 16 cities and counties and 9 provinces.  Kang interviewed over 256 people resulting in over 274 documents.    Many of the people he interviewed were elderly boxers of the older generation who spoke openly about their martial arts.  While conducting his research, Kang was a motivating force in the effort to restore Dong Hai Chuan’s tomb and participated with 371 others in the unearthing and moving of the tomb.

In  the  first  part  of  this  article  I  reported  that, although  the  research  conducted  by  Kang Ge Wu  was fairly thorough, I thought there were some conclusions he made in his final analysis that I would not have been so quick to make.  In his summary, Kang concluded that it was Dong Hai Chuan alone who originated Ba Gua Zhang (theory 4 above).  I thought his reasons for discounting theory three above were weak in terms of western scholarly logic  and  stated  this  concern  in  the  first  part  of  this article.   

In  October  1992,  I  had  the  opportunity  to  meet with Professor Kang in Beijing and discuss some of the points  I  thought  were  missing  from  his  thesis.    During this meeting he provided me with additional information that was not printed in his thesis, particularly pertaining to  the  Ba Gua Zhang  of  Gao  Yi Sheng,  and  answered other  questions  I  had  concerning  his  thesis  work  and the life of Dong Hai Chuan.  After several meetings with Professor Kang, I must say, I have been convinced that his conclusion concerning Ba Gua Zhang’s origin is valid.  In the second part of this article (Vol. 3, No. 2 p. 14-22) we explored theory number three above.  We explored this theory in some detail and did not find any supporting evidence for this theory.  In this issue we will conclude this serial article by examining the fourth theory of Ba Gua Zhang’s origin.

Was Dong Hai Chuan the Originator of Ba Gua Zhang?

            To say that Professor Kang Ge Wu has been thorough in his investigation of the origins of Ba Gua Zhang is an understatement.  Kang, who will turn 45 this year (Ed. Note: Prof Kang will be turning 70 years old in 2018), has been a martial arts enthusiast since the age of eight when  he  started  studying  Emei  style  martial  arts  in his native Yunnan Province.  In 1964, at the age of 16, Kang began studying Ba Gua Zhang with the famous teacher Sha Guo Zheng.    When  Kang was  still  young and  studying  with  Sha  in  Kunming,  Yunnan  Province, he sat for hours and copied all of his teacher’s books by hand.  Almost thirty years have passed since that time and Kang still maintains the same interest and intensity.  He  has  literally  reviewed  thousands  of  documents  on Chinese  martial  arts,  most  of  which  are  inaccessible to the public.  He has interviewed hundreds of martial artists and traveled to dozens of cities all over China conducting research for the Chinese government.  He has authored or edited numerous books on Chinese martial arts in the ten years since he received his master’s degree in Chinese martial arts history.  Aside from his thesis on the origins of Ba Gua Zhang, his most notable works include a dictionary of Chinese martial arts which outlines  the  characteristics  of  hundreds  of  different Chinese martial arts styles, and a book on the history of  Cha  Quan  for  which  he  won  an  award.    Presently he is completing an extensive work on the history of Chinese martial arts.

3origins1.jpg

Professor Kang Ge Wu wrote his master’s degree thesis on the origins of Ba Gua Zhang

            In 1973, Kang Ge Wu passed the entrance exam and was admitted to the Beijing Sports Academy as a Chinese Martial Arts major.  In 1974 he toured the United States, Hong  Kong,  and  Mexico  as  the  captain  of  a  Chinese martial arts demonstration team.  He states that this was pre-contemporary Wushu, what his team demonstrated was traditional martial arts.  In 1976 he went back to Yunnan to coach the Yunnan martial arts team.  In 1978 he was accepted as a graduate student of martial arts history at Beijing College.  For two years (1980-81), Kang intensely  researched  the  origins  of  Ba Gua Zhang in order  to  prepare  his  master’s  degree thesis.    He  spent weeks with members of Dong Hai Chuan’s family, visited every mountain top Dong was reported to have crossed, read every martial arts book in every library in Beijing and even dug up Dong Hai Chuan’s body and meticulously measured and weighed each and every bone.  The man even kept one of Dong Hai Chuan’s teeth as a souvenir.  The result of his lifelong study and research concerning Ba Gua Zhang’s origins boils down to this:  Dong Hai Chuan was the sole originator of the Ba Gua Zhang system.

            Professor Kang is employed by the Chinese government to research Chinese martial arts on a full time basis, he is constantly uncovering new material and interviewing older generation martial arts practitioners all over China.  Since his thesis was published over ten years ago and he has obviously run across much more information on Ba Gua Zhang than was available to him when he was conducting  his  research,  I  asked  him  if  he  had  found any  solid  evidence  in  the  ten  years  since  his  thesis was published that would contradict the conclusion in his  thesis.    He said, “No.”    All of the evidence he has run across since his thesis was published supports his theory.  His story goes like this: Dong Hai Chuan’s ancestors were originally from Hun Dong County in Shanxi Province.  Close to the end of the Ming Dynasty the clan started moving north, first ending up in Gou Sheng County, Hebei Province.  From there the family split into two branches, one went to Kai Ke Village and the other went to Wen An (both in Hebei).  Several  generations  later  (around  1813),  young  Dong Hai Chuan  was  born  in  Zhu  Jia  Wu  township,  Wen An, Hebei.  Around the same time, another Dong, known as Dong Xian Zhou, was born in Kai Ke Village (he will become important later in the story).

3origins2.jpg

After leaving his home in Hebei, Dong was said to have traveled to Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and to the Da Ba mountain area somewhere along the border of Shaanxi and Sichuan

            In Zhu Jia Wu Township, there were two predominant families, the Dong’s and the Li’s.    The Li family was literary, a few of them passed examinations and became government officials.  The Dong family was poor, but that was all right with young Hai Chuan because he was only interested in practicing martial arts, not studying for scholarly examinations.  It is not known exactly which arts Dong studied when he was young, however, it was most likely some form of indigenous Northern Shaolin.  Systems that were known to have been practiced in Wen An around that time were: Ba Fan Quan, Hong Quan, Xing Men Quan, and Jin Gang Quan.  It is said that Dong practiced hard and gained a reputation as a skilled martial artist.

            For  some  unknown  reason,  the  Li’s  had  a  rivalry with  Dong Hai Chuan.    The  Li  family,  being  officials, had  friends  in  high  places  and  used  their  influence  to persecute  Dong.    Eventually he grew tired of the Li’s games and decided to leave Wen An in about 1853.  At this point in Tung’s life, the story becomes vague.  He most  likely  went  from  Wen  An  to  Kai Ke to  live  with his  relatives.    Remember Dong Xian Zhou?    It  turns out that he was also a martial arts enthusiast and had become  very  well  known  in  and  around  his  village  for his skill at Ba Fan Quan.  He was so well known that bandits in the area avoided his village so they would not have to confront him.  It is very possible that while in Kai Ke, Dong Hai Chuan studied Ba Fan Quan with his relative Dong Xian Zhou.    Professor Kang’s investigation of Ba Fan Quan revealed that many of the movements and techniques of this style can be found in Dong Hai Chuan’s Ba Gua Zhang.

            After leaving Kai Ke, Dong continued south.  Reports have him stopping in Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and at the  Da  Ba  mountain  area  somewhere  along  the  border of  Shaanxi  and  Sichuan.    Although  Kang was  unable to determine exactly where Dong went and what he did during his travels, the one pertinent piece of information that  Kang was  able  to  uncover  was  that  somewhere along the way Dong became a member of the Quan Zhen (Complete Truth) sect of Daoism.  This sect was part of the Long Men (Dragon Gate) school of Daoism which was originated by Zhou Zhang Chuan.  Interestingly enough, Zhou also invented a method of meditation whereby the practitioner  would  walk  in  a  circle  and,  wouldn’t  you know,  this  method  was  practiced  by  the  Quan Zhen sect.  Delving further into this Daoist connection, Kang was  able  to  find  a  section  in  the  Daoist  Canon  which reads:

A person’s heart and mind are in chaos.

Concentration on one thing makes the mind pure.

If one aspires to reach the Dao, one should practice walking in a circle.

            This bit of evidence inspired Kang to try and find out more about the circle walk meditation method practiced by the Quan Zhen Daoists.    What  he  discovered  was that this practice, which the Daoists called Zhuan Tian Cun (Rotating in Worship of Heaven) is very similar in principle  to  the  circle  walk  practice  of  Ba Gua Zhang.  Researching Wang Jun Bao’s book, Daoist Method of Walking the Circle, Kang found that while walking, the Daoists repeated one of two mantras.  The first of these mantras was used in the morning practice and translates to mean “When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything.”  The second mantra was used in the evening practice and translates to mean “When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the great void saves us from the hardship of existence.”  It was said that the practitioner should repeat the mantra with each movement in the circle walk practice so that “one replaces one’s myriad thoughts with a single thought in order to calm and ease one’s mind.”  The Daoists said that in walking the circle the body’s movements should be unified and the practitioner strives for stillness in motion.    This practice was described as a method of training the body while harnessing the spirit.          

            When instructing his students Dong was noted as saying, “Training martial arts ceaselessly is inferior to walking the circle.    In Ba Gua Zhang the circle walk practice is the font of all training.”    Ba Gua Zhang instructors instruct their students to walk the circle with the spirit, Qi, intent, and power concentrated on a single goal.  This is similar to the Taoist method whereby one clears the mind with a single thought.  Although Ba Gua Zhang’s circle walk practice trains fighting footwork, it also shares the Daoist’s goals of creating stillness in motion and developing the body internally.

3origins3

Method of changing directions in the Daoist circle walking practice of the Quan Zhen sect.

            The general requirements of the Daoist practice was to walk with the body natural and the movements comfortable.  The practitioner strived to achieve a feeling of balance while moving slowly.  The Daoist practitioners were to walk slowly and gently in such a manner that their robes were only slightly disturbed by the walking movement.    The Daoists started the practice on the Eastern side of the circle with their body facing north.  After three revolutions, they walked through the center  of  the  circle  to  the  other  side  following  an  “S” shaped pattern like that described by the Tai Ji diagram (see illustration).  They then reversed the direction and walked south to West.    There was no set circle size.  The size of the circle was determined by the practice area.    As most Ba Gua Zhang practitioners know, the Ba Gua Zhang circle walking practice is very similar.  The practitioner will usually start in the East and face north.  In  most  systems  the  beginning  practitioner  will  walk slowly,  increasing  speed  gradually.    The  requirements of  comfortable,  natural  movements  while  walking  in  a balanced, smooth manner with no bobbing and weaving are  the  same  as  in  the  Daoist  method.    While  the  Ba Gua Zhang practitioner employs numerous methods in changing  the  direction  of  the  circle  walk,  the  Tai Ji diagram pattern is one of the many changing patterns which  is  practiced  by  most  major  schools  of  Ba Gua Zhang today.


Morning Mantra:

3origins5

Lei Sheng Pu Hua Tian Cun

“When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything.”

Evening Mantra:

3origins4

Tai Yi Jiu Gu Tian Cun

“When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the great void saves us from the hardship of existence.”

Two of the Mantras used by the Quan Zhen Daoist sect while executing the circle walk meditation practice


            Convinced  that  Dong Hai Chuan had  learned  the Daoist  circle  walk  practice  as  a  member  of  the  Quan Zhen Daoist sect and had then integrated this practice with the martial arts he had learned in his youth to form Ba Gua Zhang, Kang Ge Wu began to research the arts that Tung was known to have practiced to see if he could detect similarities.  Since the Dong family was known for its Ba Fan Quan and thus Kang was fairly certain that Dong Hai Chuan had studied this art in his youth, Kang investigated the forms and postures of this art with the elderly practitioners of today.  Not only did he discover that Ba Fan Quan techniques rely heavily on the use of palm striking, he also found that many of the postures and movements of Ba Fan Quan are identical to Ba Gua Zhang.    Included  in  Kang’s  thesis  are  photographs  of Ba Fan Quan practitioners  postures  compared  to  Ba Gua Zhang postures found in Ba Gua Zhang books by Guo Gu Min,  Sun Lu Tang,  Sun Xi Kun, and Huang Bo Nian.  He concluded that many of the Ba Gua Zhang postures and movements are identical to those found in Ba Fan Quan, Hong Quan, Xing Men Quan, and Jin Gang Quan.

            Having found no solid evidence to prove otherwise, Kang concluded that Dong Hai Chuan was the originator of Ba Gua Zhang.    He  states  that  after  practicing  the circle  walk  practice  with  the  Daoists,  Dong recognized the utility of this footwork and body movement in martial arts.    Kang believes  that  Dong Hai Chuan’s  genius was  coming  up  with  a  system  of  martial  arts  whereby the  practitioner  could  deliver  powerful  strikes  while remaining in constant motion.  Due to Ba Gua Zhang’s combination of unique footwork and body mechanics, the Ba Gua Zhang stylist never has to stop moving.    The feet are in continuous motion even when applying a block or strike.  Kang said that Tung’s addition of the Kou (hooking) and Bai (swinging) footwork in directional changes was also an important addition.

            Through his intense research Kang has also discovered that Tung did not originally call his art Ba Gua Zhang.  His art was originally called Zhuan Zhang (Rotating Palm) and then later called Ba Gua Zhuan Zhang and finally Ba Gua Zhang.  While conducting his research and writing his thesis Kang relied heavily on the writings of Zeng Xing San.    Zeng was  a  Manchurian  scholar  (Zeng Xing San was  his  Han  name)  who  had  studied  Ba Gua Zhang with both Dong Hai Chuan and Yin Fu in the  Palace  of  Su.    When the Qing government was overthrown in 1911, Zeng was out of work and thus had a lot of spare time.  Since he had so much free time Zeng began to write down all that he had learned from Dong Hai Chuan and Yin Fu.  Zeng’s written work was never made public, however, Kang Ge Wu has Zeng’s original manuscript.  According to Zeng’s written work, Dong Hai Chuan did not relate his fighting art to the Ba Gua until late in his life.  It is possible that he was looking  for  a  way  to  explain  the  theory  of  his  fighting style  in  such  a  manner  that  his  descendants  could research and improve the art after he was gone.  Kang says that in Zeng’s writing he uses many references to the Yijing in explaining the principles of the Ba Gua Zhang fighting art.    The  first  published  work  which related  the  fighting  art  of  Ba Gua Zhang to  Ba Gua philosophy  was  the  book  published  by  Sun  Lu Tang in 1916.

            When Kang’s findings were published widely in 1984 many Ba Gua Zhang practitioners in China who had held onto one of the other three major theories regarding Ba Gua Zhang’s origins were upset.    Many  responded with magazine articles of their own, however, reviewing these  articles  one  will  find  that  no  one  has  presented any solid evidence to back up any of the other theories.  The best one can say is that no one can really know for sure what Dong Hai Chuan learned from the Daoists and what he came up with on his own.  Any recorded information from second or third generation practitioners, those  who  were  closest  to  Dong,  simply  states  that Dong learned  his  art  from  a  Daoist  in  the  mountains.  Evidentially this is the only clue Dong himself gave to the arts origins.    After years of research Professor Kang’s best guess is that Dong only learned the Daoist meditative circle walking practice from members of the Quan Zhen sect and the rest he created on his own.

Dong Haichuan

            Is Dong Hai Chuan the originator of the art we know of today as Ba Gua Zhang?  The evidence we are left with today leaves me to believe that he did indeed invent Ba Gua Zhang.  But it is still anyone’s guess, and I suppose it  will  always  be  a  topic  of  discussion  among  Ba Gua Zhang enthusiasts.

Special thanks to Professor Kang Ge Wu for his work in researching Ba Gua Zhang’s origins and for his time and patience in answering all of my questions.


One thought on “The Origins of Ba Gua Zhang – Part 3

Leave a Reply