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The Elusive Art of Ba Gua Zhang

By Daniel Farber

China is a vast, diverse country with a long history of martial arts, primarily kung fu. In fact, it can be said that kung fu is an integral part of China’s history. Hundreds of styles were developed over the centuries as the need arose for people to defend themselves, and many of these styles are still practiced today. Only a few kung fu styles have achieved any degree of popularity in the West, the most popular being taiji quan. Other traditional styles such as hsing-i quan, praying mantis, choy li fut, and hung gar are less common, but quality instructors can be found in several places outside of China, including Vancouver, San Francisco, Toronto, New York, London, and Sydney.

Perhaps the most talked about, inaccessible and least understood kung fu style in the world is ba gua zhang. Similar to other kung fu styles, the origin of ba gua is shrouded in mystery. Practitioners are likely to claim their instructor and style descended from revered Taoist monks or mythical generals, regardless of historical facts. Although ba gua zhang did not become known until the end of the CHing Dynasty (around 1900), the first practitioner to be identified with the style--Tung Hai Quan (1796-1880)---claimed to have learned the art from Taoist monks who had practiced it for centuries. The sophisticated techniques of ba gua indicate, however, the fairly recent formulation of the art. As with other kung fu styles, the founder distilled the knowledge and experience gained from mastering several kung fu styles to create the ba gua system.

The mystery surrounding ba gua can be attributed to three factors: the dearth of qualified instructors, the propagation of numerous misconceptions by unqualified instructors, and the inherent difficulty of the style. Tung passed this art on to very few students, but those he taught were worthy followers. Among his disciples were yin Fu and Cheng Ting Hua, both of whom accepted few students.

The third generation of ba gua practitioners is also scant.Yin Yu Zhang, son of Yin Fu, and Cheng Yu Lung, son of Cheng Ting Hua, were able to master their fathers’ art, and a few others, including Gong Bao Tien (a student of Yin Fu), also became respected for their ba gua.

Although the third generation of ba gua practitioners taught many students, few received complete instruction or had the ability to finish the training. In subsequent generations, the quality and authenticity of the ba gua system was compromised by unqualified instructors who went on to teach their incomplete versions of the art. One of the few select students of Gong Bao Tien who received complete instruction was Liu Yun Chiao. He was recognized as the leading contemporary exponent of this style, and taught Sifu Adam Hsu.

When people describe ba gua, they frequently mention the flowing, dance-like movements performed while the practitioner walks in a circle. The names of the movements--such as “wild goose leaves the flock” or “white snake wrapping its body”--also lend an exotic flavor to the style. Another commonly expressed notion is the relationship of ba gua to the “eight trigrams of the I Ching system of divination. Ba gua zhang means literally “eight trigram palm,” but that hardly describes the martial art accurately.

Practitioners tend to attach philosophical significance to the name, maintaining that the major ba gua form, ba zhang, has eight “mother” forms (eight short sequences of movements performed while walking in a circle) and eight palm formations that are related directly to the I Ching trigrams. Some practitioners believe the eight changes form the basis for 64 techniques, which correspond to the 64 changes that make up the I Ching.

This concept of corresponding the movements and hand formations to the trigrams forces ba gua into the mold of the I Ching philosophy, emphasizing philosophical and mystical concepts rather than the martial arts for which it was developed. Those practitioners and instructors who substitute a superfluous knowledge of Chinese philosophy for genuine knowledge of kung fu have obscured the real art of ba gua zhang.

According to Sifu Hsu, ba gua is based on martial art principles. The number of ‘changes’ is an arbitrary figure. Having eight palm changes merely fits the components of the style into a superimposed structure that is not directly related to martial arts. Actually, there can be more or less than eight changes. A more appropriate translation of ba gua might be ‘eight directions,’ referring to the eight primary angles of attack rather than stressing the relationship to the I Ching.

The important idea is any ba gua “change” or technique (or any other kung fu style) has underlying principles that can be described in terms of naturalistic Chinese philosophy. The basis of the I Ching is change and flexibility, not rigidity. The yin and yang lines that make up the eight trigrams are in constant transformation. Yin and yang represent complementary opposites—day and night, male and female, hard and soft, life and death—that continuously interact. For example, day (yang) is always changing into night (yin), and night is always changing into day. Not only do yin and yang interact continuously, but yin always contains some yang, and yang some yin. Understanding this concept is essential to learning ba gua.

While the yin/yang theory can help to explain ba gua, one might ask how it is manifest in the techniques and usage. One of the major characteristics of ba gua is its unique circular, twisting method of moving. In some ba gua forms, the practitioner walks in a circle, moving like an eagle circling in the sky. In performing the techniques, the body is twisting and turning, similar to the way a snake wraps itself around its victim, not committed to any fixed pattern of movement. The entire body is coordinated in such a way that any part of the body can be used to damage the opponent. Moving in a circular fashion and constantly turning and change the angle can easily confuse an opponent and redirect his force.

This kind of complex, multiple-attack usage requires an ability to change quickly and fluidly. One must be aware of several parts of the body simultaneously. In effect, yin and yang are continually changing in the circular, twisting movements, similar to the flow of water, adjusting spontaneously to the demands of the situation.

Ba Gua Principles

As in other traditional kung fu styles, the techniques of ba gua are interwoven in a special way to issue power. This method is known as chan si jin (silk reeling), so named because its application resembles the movement of a silk thread as it is pulled from a cocoon. Using chan si jin involves an intrinsic corkscrewing action in which all the body’s joints—beginning with the foot and progressing to any point on the body from which contact is made with an opponent—work together as a single unit, creating a force much greater than that which relies on speed and strength only. Developing this type of high-level martial skill requires not only a flexible, strong body, but also a flexible mentality and intuitive -- not textbook -- understanding of the theory of yin and yang. Ba gua reflects the subtle, complex character of the Chinese people and culture.

Walking in a circle and encircling one’s own body may seem like a strange way to learn how to fight. The traditional method of “walking the circle” in ba gua training looks deceptively simple, but is quite unique and not at all like normal walking. It develops step training, which is essential to applying ba gua techniques. This kind of step is called tan ni pu (treading mud step). The legs must feel heavy, as if they were buried in mud below the knees, and the upper body relaxed. The practitioner is constantly moving around the circle. The legs move like scissors, and the feet are relatively flat, at first testing the ground and then firmly gripping it. This training helps make the legs stronger, improves balance, assists in absorbing qi (internal energy) and develops correct usage of the legs and step.

Sifu Hsu stresses using the arms to make contact with an opponent and “open the door,” but the step is also crucial. Using the correct step can position the body advantageously in relation to the target. Two fundamental steps are emphasized in ba gua circle walking: ko pu (toeing in) and pai pu (toeing out). These steps follow the natural way of walking on a curved line. In general, ba gua techniques place greater emphasis on approaching the “side” door — applying the concept of the circle — rather than confronting an opponent directly. Ko pu and pai pu can be used to control the opponent’s leg and create an advantageous position from which to attack.

Zhang (as in ba gua zhang) is translated as “palm” or “open hand,” but in terms of technique and usage, it implies the entire arm. Using the entire arm (from the shoulder to the hand) gives one a greater area with which to attack or defend, and allows one to attack and defend simultaneously. The kung fu method of using the arm can be described as the interaction of a series of separate, yet interconnected surfaces; any part of the arm—shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm, and hand—can be used to inflict damage. A shoulder strike for instance, may be followed by an elbow or palm strike, or vice versa.

Ba gua is sometimes referred to as having the “long” arm. This concept can be further expanded to mean the “whole body is the fist,” since the arm is an extension of the body. This concept is most fully expressed in the techniques and usage of ba gua. For example, one can use the step, such as ko pu, to approach the opponent’s side door, use the hip and shoulder to “knock” on the opponent’s door, and then immediately slide the entire arm across the opponent’s body to jam him and create an opening to deliver the finishing blow. In this way, one is able to establish control and protect oneself at close range.

Training System

Developing the ba gua flavor and authentic techniques comes from practicing the various elements in the training system. Most people who practice or teach ba gua do not know the complete system. As a result, their ba gua skills cannot develop to a high level. The exact training methods of Dong Hai Quan or his student Yin Fu are not known. They didn't compile step-by-step manuals to explain the art, and training was tailored to the individual student, not codified to suit a general group. The training methods of Gong Bao Tien can be verified through his student Liu Yun Chiao, and in turn, Sifu Hsu.

Sifu Hsu relates that Gong Bao Tien first learned lohan quan, and that both he and his older brother taught that style in their native village in Shantung province. The younger Gong had a chance to go to Beijing to study with Yin Fu. After several years of intensive study, he returned to Shantung. During his absence his brother had died, so he took over the kung fu classes. Besides ba gua, Kung continued to teach lohan quan to his brother's students and to some of his previous students.

Many of the students had already invested ample time and effort mastering lohan quan and would be better served by his helping them improve their lohan skills. Others would have difficulty adapting to the new, unusual style. Kung subsequently adapted some of his lohan quan to supplement the ba gua training. He felt traditional ba gua training was difficult and time consuming for the beginner. Since ba gua was a young style and the previous generation of teachers was very selective in choosing its students, few instructors had any experience in teaching the art or in developing methods to improve the training.

Ba Gua Training System

A central component of any kung fu style is the “basics,” a group of movements (usually taken from the forms) and stances that establish the style’s unique flavor, emphasize some special techniques and create a strong foundation. Without the basics, it would be very difficult to achieve a high level of skill.

In the ba gua system passed down to Sifu Hsu, the student is first taught how to stand, and then how to walk the circle. The student begins by walking a four-step circle, which is gradually expanded to eight, then 12 steps. Another part of ba gua basics is special arm training.

The step-by-step sequence of ba gua form training is set up to progressively develop the student's potential. The sequence in Sifu Hsu's ba gua system is as follows:

Liang yi zhang (two mind palm): one of four original ba gua forms in the system. This short, linear form consists of eight simple movements grouped into four pairs of interconnected techniques characteristic of four animals: dragon, bear, snake and bird. The form is intended to give the student a taste of the complex, flexible nature of ba gua and allow the instructor to judge the student's potential.

Ba gua tuei (ba gua leg): one of the lohan quan supplemental training forms created by Kung to help students build their foundations faster. This linear form includes some ba gua techniques, but consists mostly of lohan techniques. It is more elaborate than liang yi zhang, and is designed specifically to increase leg strength.

Yin shou (hard arm): another lohan quan-based linear form devised by Kung. Establishing a strong leg foundation in ba gua tuei allows students to relax and control the upper body to a greater extent. They can concentrate on training the upper body, especially the arms, and on coordinating the arms and steps (actually, the entire body) together in a single technique or series of techniques. Yin shou emphasizes this part of training. It has more of the ba gua flavor than ba gua tuei, and several of the movements are similar to those in the pa zhang form.

Nei shou zhang (inner training palms): consists of eight postures done while walking the circle. This part of the original ba gua system was designed to improve the training begun in basic circle walking and to promote health. Each posture is related to a specific internal organ or an external part of the body, such as the neck or back, and is coordinated with breathing.

Ba zhang (eight palms): the original circling form that has become the trademark of ba gua. After the student has spent substantial time developing the proper foundation practicing basics and learning ba gua tuei and yin shou, pa zhang focuses on developing the ba gua techniques and usage. Unfortunately, most ba gua practitioners begin their training with the ba zhang. Merely learning this form is a superficial approach to training that can never yield authentic ba gua. Without extensive basic training and a step-by-step training system, ba zhang is more closely related to folk dance than martial arts.

Ba gua lien huan (ba gua linking form): the highest level of original form training. In ba gua lien huan, the techniques developed in pa zhang are performed on a series of eight wooden posts the diameter of a small tree. The practitioner moves “through the forest,” maneuvering on each post as if it were a real opponent. Although the wooden post is a simple device, it is possible to use many techniques and develop powerful skills by following the correct training methods.

Ba gua basic training provides a solid foundation, and the forms can improve single and combined movements, tempo and rhythm, and management of ji. Being able to apply the ba gua techniques, however, requires extensive two-person training. Liang yi duei zhang and ba gua duei zhang are sets of prearranged movements that demonstrate some of the techniques of the solo forms. More important is san shou training, in which students pair off and work on individual or combinations of techniques.

As mentioned earlier, the ba gua practitioner must be able to maintain contact with the opponent, continually moving and adjusting his position until an opportunity to completely control and destroy the attacker presents itself. The two-person training teaches practitioners to “stick” (nien) to an opponent without endangering their own safety, and to “listen” (ting), enabling one to anticipate the actions of an opponent and move accordingly.

Ba gua zhang remains a mysterious kung fu style because reajing its highest levels is a difficult task. A practitioner must spend many years acquiring the necessary skills and understanding just to open the ba gua door. And even after opening the door, few are able to walk through and ascend to the highest level of this elusive art.

Copyright © Daniel Farber 2013. All rights reserved.


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