Written by Tim Cartmell
AN INTRODUCTION TO BA GUA ZHANG
Ba Gua Zhang is recognized as one of the three orthodox “internal” styles of Chinese martial art (the other two being Xing Yi Quan and Tai Ji Quan). Ba Gua literally translates to eight trigrams. These trigrams are symbols which are used to represent all natural phenomena as described in the ancient Chinese text of divination, the Book of Changes (Yi Jing). Zhang means palm and designates Ba Gua Zhang as a style of martial art, which emphasizes the use of the open hand in preference to the closed fist. Ba Gua Zhang, as a martial art, is based on the theory of continuously changing in response to the situation at hand in order to overcome an opponent with skill rather than brute force.
Although there are several theories as to the Origins of Ba Gua Zhang, recent and exhaustive research by martial scholars in Mainland China conclude without reasonable doubt that the Art is the creation of a single individual, Dong Hai Chuan. Dong was born in Wen An County, Hebei Province about 1813. Dong practiced local martial arts (which reportedly relied heavily upon the use of open hand palm techniques) from his youth and gained some notoriety as a skilled fighter. At about 40 years of age, Dong left home and traveled southward. At some point during his travels, Dong became a member of the Chuan Zhen (Complete Truth) sect of Daoism. The Daoists of this sect practiced a method of walking in a circle white reciting certain mantras. The practice was designed to quiet the mind and focus the intent as a prelude to enlightenment. Dong later combined the circle walking mechanics with the martial arts he had mastered in his youth to create a new style based on mobility and the ability to apply techniques while in constant motion (heretofore unknown in the history of Chinese martial arts).
Dong Hai Chuan originally called his art “Zhuan Zhang” (Turning Palm). In his later years, Dong began to speak of the Art in conjunction with the Eight Trigrams (Ba Gua) theory espoused in the Book of Changes (Yi Jing). When Dong began teaching his Zhuan Zhang in Beijing, he accepted as student only those who were already accomplished practitioners of other martial arts. Dong’s teachings were limited to a few “palm changes” executed while walking the circle and his theory and techniques of combat. His students took Dong’s forms and theories and combined them with the martial arts they had studied previously. The result is that each of Dong’s students ended up with different interpretations of the Ba Gua Zhang art.
Most of the various styles of Ba Gua Zhang found today, can be traced back to one of several of Dong Hai Chuan’s original students. Among these students, three individuals were responsible for passing on the Art to the greatest number of practitioners. One of Dong’s most famous students was a man named Yin Fu. Yin studied with Dong longer than any other and was one of the most respected fighters in the country in his time (he was the personal bodyguard to the Dowager Empress, the highest prestige position of its kind in the entire country). Yin Fu was a master of Luo Han Quan, a Northern Chinese “external” style of boxing, before he began his long apprenticeship with Dong. Another top student of Dong’s was Chen Ting Hua, originally a master of Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling). Cheng taught a great number of students in his time and variations of his style are many. A third student of Dong’s who created his own Ba Gaa Zhang variant was Liang Zhen Pu. Liang was Dong’s youngest student and was greatly influenced by Dong’s other disciples. Although Ba Gua Zhang is a relatively new form of martial art, it became famous throughout China during its inventor’s lifetime, mainly because of its effectiveness in combat and the high prestige this afforded its practitioners.
The basis of the various styles of Ba Gua Zhang, and the practice all styles have in common, is the circle walk. The practitioner literally walks in a circle while holding various static postures with the upper body or while executing “palm changes” (short patterns of movement or “forms” which train the body mechanics and methods of generating power which form the basis of the styles’ fighting techniques).
All styles have a variation of a form known as the Single Palm Change. The Single Palm Change is the most basic form and is the nucleus of the remaining palm changes found in the Art. Besides the Single Palm Change, the other forms include the Double Palm Change and the Eight Palm Changes (also known variously as the Eight Mother Palms or the Old Eight Palms).
These forms make up the foundation of the art of Ba Gua Zhang. Ba Gua Zhang movements have a characteristic circular nature and there is a great deal of body spinning, turning, and rapid changes in direction. In addition to the Single, Double and Eight Palm Changes, most but not all styles of Ba Gua Zhang include some variation of the Sixty-Four Palms. The Sixty-Four Palms include forms which teach the mechanics and sequence of the specific fighting techniques included in the style. These forms take the general energies developed during the practice of the Palm Changes and focus them into more exact patterns of movement, which are applied directly to a specific combat technique. Ba Gua Zhang is an art based on evasive footwork and a kind of guerilla warfare strategy applied to personal combat. A Ba Gua fighter relies on strategy and skill, rather than the direct use of force against force or brute strength, in overcoming an opponent. The strategy employed is aggressive in nature and emphasizes constant change in response to the spontaneous and “live” quality of combat.
In addition to the above forms and methods, most styles of Ba Gua Zhang include various two-person forms and drills as intermediate steps between solo forms and the practice of combat techniques. Although the techniques of Ba Gua Zhang are many and various, they all adhere to the above mentioned principles of mobility and the skillful application of force. Many styles of Ba Gua Zhang also include the use of a variety of weapons, ranging from the more standard types (straight sword, broadsword, spear) to exotic weapons, used exclusively by practitioners of the Ba Gua Zhang arts.
Each of Dong Hai Chuan’s students developed their own style of Ba Gua Zhang based on their individual backgrounds and previous martial training. Each style has its own specific forms and techniques. In essence, all of the different styles adhere to the basic principles of Ba Gua Zhang while retaining an individual flavor of their own. Most of the styles in existence today can trace their roots to either the Yin Fu, Cheng Ting Hua, or Liang Zhen Pu variations.
Yin Fu styles include a large number of percussive techniques and fast striking combinations (Yin Fu was said to “fight like a tiger”, moving in and knocking his opponent to the ground swiftly like a tiger pouncing on its prey). The forms include many explosive movements and very quick and evasive footwork.
Cheng Ting Hua styles of Ba Gua Zhang include palm changes which are done in a smooth and flowing manner, with little display of overt power (Cheng Ting Hua’s movement was likened to that of a dragon soaring in the clouds, it is said each time he turned his body, his opponent would fly away.) Popular variations of this style include the Gao Yi Sheng system, Dragon Style Ba Gua Zhang, “Swimming Body” Ba Gua Zhang, the Nine Palace System, JiangRong Qiao’s style (probably the most common form practiced today) and the Sun Lu Tang style.
Liang Zhen Pu’s style can be viewed as a combination of the Yin Fu and Cheng Ting Hua styles. Liang’s student, Li Zi Ming, popularized this style.
The basic focus and function of all martial arts is fighting. Since there are only so many ways humans can move in a martial context (strike, kick, push, pull, etc.), what distinguishes one style of martial art from another? Collections of techniques do not make up a style, neither does mimicking the movements of an animal, bug, or even another person constitute a style of martial arts. In the last analysis, a style of martial art is distinct and recognizable as a coherent system because it adheres to a set of specific principles.
All styles are based upon a set of fundamental principles, and every movement, technique and strategy applied or created must be in alignment with the chosen principles of that particular style. These principles define and determine the nature of a style in two major areas, namely, body use (Ti) and application (Yung). The principles of a style will determine how things are to be done. For example, the principles of one style may dictate that the muscles must be tensed at impact when throwing a punch, while another style’s principles demand total relaxation throughout the blow. Practitioners of both styles are punching, but there is a qualitative difference in body use (i.e. different styles of punching).
Just as the principles of body use determine the physicality of the practitioner and the specific methods of moving and generating power, the principles of application determine the technique base as well as the fighting strategies of a particular style. The evolution of martial arts: styles have always come about this way: A student of one or more styles of martial art comes upon a new principle or organizes a set of principles in a unique way, based upon his background, experience and personal bias. The result is a new style of martial art. It is new not because the founder added a few techniques to his existing style, but rather because he changed all that he had done before to align with his newly understood principles of body use and application.
The founder of Ba Gua Zhang, Dong Hai Quan, was an expert in a Northern Chinese style of martial art akin to Long Fist, which emphasized the use of the open hand. Subsequently, Dong spent a number of years living with a group of Daoists who practiced a method of walking in a circular pattern while chanting. The practice was used as a means of reaching enlightenment. Dong later combined the circular footwork and body method learned from the Daoists with the martial arts he studied in his youth to create a new martial art, later to become known as Ba Gua Zhang. Please note that the Daoists taught Dong absolutely nothing of a martial nature; what Dong acquired from the Daoists were the principles of circular footwork and a certain method of body use. Dong modified the movements and techniques of his original form of martial art around these principles, thereby creating a new style of martial art. It is very important to understand that Ba Gua Zhang as a style of martial art is not simply a collection of forms and techniques, but rather an art based on a set of unifying principles.
Dong Hai Quan only taught established masters of the martial arts; he accepted no beginners. The training was designed to allow his students (already masters of other martial arts in their own right) to modify their original arts in accordance with the principles of Ba Gua Zhang. Because of the diverse backgrounds of Dong’s original students, their resultant styles of Ba Gua Zhang may differ greatly in terms of form and technique, but all are truly styles of Ba Gua Zhang as they adhere to the underlying principles of body use and application which define Ba Gua Zhang as a unique style. There will always be room for creativity within the Ba Gua Zhang arts. As long as a movement or technique adheres to the Fundamental principles of Ba Gua Zhang, it is Ba Gua Zhang.
What are the basic principles of Ba Gua Zhang? It is helpful to divide the analysis into two major categories: principles of body use (with the primary emphasis on the ability to generate power with the body as a coherent Unit) and principles of application.
The basic solo training in Ba Gua Zhang is designed to teach the practitioner how to control his or her momentum and timing in order to generate power with the entire body mass as a coherent unit. In the Chinese martial arts, this type of power is referred to as whole body power (Zheng Ti Jing). Whole body power enables the practitioner to issue force from any part of the body with the support of all other parts. Each part of the body coordinates with every other, generating the maximum amount of power available relative to the individual’s size and weight. Whole body power is applied in all categories of Ba Gua Zhang techniques, striking, kicking, grappling and throwing.
In order to create whole body power in the Ba Gua Zhang format, as well as to facilitate the agile and evasive footwork utilized in the Art, all styles of Ba Gua Zhang emphasize complete physical relaxation, correct skeletal alignment, natural movements which are in harmony with the body’s inborn reflexes and inherent design and that all movements are directed by the intent.
It is the fighting strategy of Ba Gua Zhang which most sets it apart from all other styles of martial art. Dong Hai Quan’s unique background and combat experience, combined with his talent, resulted in a strategy of personal combat that had remained undiscovered in the preceding millennia of martial development in China. Basically, Ba Gua Zhang fighting theory advocates the complete avoidance of opposing power with power and adopts a kind of guerilla warfare mentality. The Ba Gua Zhang fighter continuously seeks to avoid the apex of the opponent’s force and attacks or counterattacks from the opponent’s weak angles. By circling around and circumventing incoming force and resistance, the Ba Gua Zhang fighter applies his own whole body power from a position of superiority This strategy allows the smaller and weaker fighter to apply maximum force from an angle at which the larger and stronger opponent cannot resist, effectively making the weaker fighter more powerful at that moment (for example, I have 10 units of total strength and my opponent has 20. I attack with my full 10 units of strength at an angle at which my opponent is only able to use 5 units of his total strength. I am, at that moment, literally twice as strong as my opponent).
In order to obtain a superior position, the Ba Gua Zhang fighter applies the basic strategies trained in the solo forms’ practice that is, circling around the opponent or rotating the opponent around oneself. The result is the same in both cases. The Ba Gua Zhang fighter avoids a head to head confrontation with the opponent’s power and obtains a superior position from which to attack. Along the way, the opponent often becomes entangled in the Ba Gua Zhang fighter’s limbs and loses control of his center of balance (correctly applied momentum overcomes brute strength every time). This loss of balance causes a commensurate loss of power and further weakens the opponent, leaving him vulnerable to the Ba Gun Zhang fighter’s attack. Finally, the relaxed physical and mental state of the Ba Gua Zhang fighter makes it possible for him to change and adapt as the situation demands. His movements are spontaneous and difficult to predict. Fighters of all disciplines agree that the unpredictable fighter is the hardest to beat (especially when he circles behind you!).