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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

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Lei Sheng Pu Hua Tian Cun
“When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything.”
Evening Mantra:

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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.

Used with permission.

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3 thoughts on “The Origins of Ba Gua Zhang – Part 3

  1. First of all I want to congratulate you for the quality of the note, and the excellent material that you always publish. Just one observation: if you can correct them, the translations of the mantras are reversed: the first written in Chinese is Tai Yi Jiu Gu Tian Cun
    “When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything.” And the second is Lei Sheng Pu Hua Tian Cun “When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything.” But still, yours is the best that can be read on the internet.

    My regards and best regards.
    Gustavo Ravaschio

    1. Hello Gustavo,

      I appreciate your comment, thank you. I’m not the original author, this is a re-print with permission from the original author(s) and sought to keep as close to the original (with the exception of using Pinyin instead of Wade-Giles romanization) and thus do not to wish to change it. However, your comment will be here for those interested!

      Thanks again,

      Dr. Schott

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