As different as all martial arts are, they share a few common goals such as increasing mental and physical health and learning to move without force, or using an opponent’s force against them. Unique to the internal martial arts is developing the self and relying on philosophy to connect practice with how we interact with the world around us. Never has there been a better example of both than Baguazhang.
Baguazhang (八卦掌 Pakua Chang) or “Eight Trigram Palm” is one of three main Chinese internal martial arts and is based on the Bagua symbol, philosophy of the I-Ching, and Taoism. It is famous for its palm techniques and circular stepping used to evade, attack, and adapt to continual change.
Baguazhang is unique for so many reasons: the connection to philosophical texts, the beautiful circling movements, a bizarre collection of weapons forms, and the positive affect practicing has on your life. Let’s dive into all of this to fully appreciate bagua zhang. And at the end I also included a bonus! The big screen has discovered the uniqueness of bagua and there are some amazing examples of films that have been made.
But first, let’s watch the 2019 gold medalist’s ba gua zhang demonstration before jumping into our discussion. Check out the slow-motion recap at the 2-minute mark. The weight-shifts, 180 degree turns, and issues are unreal.
What Does Baguazhang Mean?
Ba Gua Zhang 八卦掌 is most commonly translated as Eight Trigram Palm or Circular Boxing. The sounds that make up these three characters fall between the Ps and Bs and the Gs and Ks of English. Over the years it has been spelled Pa kua, Baguazhang, Ba Gua Zhang, Pa Kua Chang, and even Pa Gua Chang. In the west it’s most often referred to as “bah-gua” although in China that’s just the name of the eight-sided symbol. Hear how it is actually pronounced on Google Translate – Baguazhang.
Bagua Meaning of Chinese Characters
What’s more important than getting the sounds right is understand the meaning behind the characters:
- 八 Ba: means 8, referring to the eight sides to the bagua symbol and the eight directions. Also it is the most auspicious number.
- 卦 Gua: hexagram, but also referring to the 64 parallel or broken lines representing the infinite possibilities in the I-Ching.
- 掌 Zhang: means palm, and the use of the hands to manipulate and respond to continual change.
Putting this all together the meaning of baguazhang could be something like: a fluid system for learning how to apply the philosophy of the I-Ching to everchanging circumstances so that we can maintain health and equilibrium.
Understanding Baguazhang, its Forms, and Philosophical Influences
Baguazhang is an internal martial art meaning that practitioners focus on developing the health of the body while also focusing on martial skill. Baguazhang is the youngest of the three primary internal arts which also includes Tai Chi and Xing Yi Quan. It is characterized by circular stepping that is coordinated with large sweeping palm or arm work. The body remains upright, and an internal sense of calm is maintained throughout the movements of the form. The bagua zhang forms are based on a curriculum that introduces a student to the meditative concepts, philosophical theories, movements, and on into martial application.
- Standing: Bagua standing introduces the calmness that is maintained through all of the eventual movements and builds a foundation for understanding the internal energy of ba gua zhang.
- Ba Gua Stepping: Ba gua is famous for its circular stepping which teaches how to move lightly while maintaining a strong root to the ground. Using the bagua symbol as a symbolic representation of the four cardinal directions and four corners, practitioners learn evading, attacking, spinning, and countering techniques.
- Baguazhang 8 Trigram Palm Forms: The palm techniques combine upper body techniques with walking the circle. Traditionally, each of the eight palms are taught with the stepping and are often practiced in a free form that is constantly responding and adjusting to the changes of the opponent.
- Martial Application: Bagua martial arts capabilities are what attracts most people to the art and as you will see in the history section below. The baguazhang fighting style is extremely unique because within each attack there is a focus on maintaining calmness as well as retaining flexibility and softness even when striking.
- Weapons: The palm techniques are taught alongside their martial application so that a practitioner understands the purpose of the technique and can use it more effectively. The correct balance and power of the moves are then translated into any of the many weapons forms.
While the training strategies, techniques, and weapons vary depending on the style, all baguazhang forms share a desire to be flexible and responsive to the changes in life and incorporate the teachings from Taoism and specifically the I-Ching.
Baguazhang Principles That This Internal Art is Based On
Key to training in ba gua zhang is understanding and adhering to the idea of transformation and change. This is represented in a martial arts focus related to what an opponent might do but also has a larger application for being flexible and learning to respond to the ever-changing events of our life. This is why baguazhang as a martial art moves continuously and changes between extremes such as fast and slow, hard and soft, straight attacks and curved deflections, and large and small movements.
Baguazhang Principles from the I Ching (Book of Changes)
The idea of infinite possibilities is embodied in the teachings of the Book of Changes or I-Ching. The I-Ching is a philosophical text which uses the lines of the “ba gua” or 8 trigrams to understand the changes in natural events and how to respond effectively or even predict outcomes. Basically, when an energy is identified as being too strong or weak, the I-Ching can be used to identify the energy that would counter or enhance that energy so that things can return to an equilibrium. The I-Ching has been used for personal divination, medicine, effective military strategy, and had a dramatic influence on the development of Taoism.
Baguazhang Principles from Taoism
All Chinese martial arts relate to some degree to the three main religions in China. However, Ba gua zhang has specific and direct ties to Taoism. The founder was believed to have studied with a Taoist master prior to revealing his art to the world. While he never admitted as much, the philosophy of Taoism and circle walking have permeated the art.
Some Taoist traditions use circle walking as a way to wind and unwind tension in the body and to enhance the flow of energy (qi). They also see it as a way of connecting with the cycles of the seasons, day, and world in general. While the Taoists didn’t develop circle walking for fighting purposes, the way it strengths the connection to the body and improves health are well documented.
Taoism incorporates the teaching of the I-Ching and the writings of The Tao-De-Ching as a way to return to the source of our inner energy and live in harmony. Metaphors that are present in these two books such as being open and responsive like the wind or flowing freely like water are incorporated in the teachings of ba gua zhang.
The History of Baguazhang
Unlike Xing Yi Quan where there are questions over who developed the martial art, there is no debate when it comes to Baguazhang. Dong Haichuan (1797-1882) invented and founded the internal martial art bagua zhang.
Where the mystery lies with baguazhang is the fact that for the middle 40 years of Dong Haichuan’s life, from age 18-58, there is no record of what he did or his existence. What we know is that he left his village, changed his name, gained incredible martial abilities, and then as an adult was a servant for Prince Su. Moreover, when he reappeared in society, his martial arts style looked nothing like anything seen in the Forbidden City and almost nothing like anything seen in all of China.
Historians have pieced together political events and the Taoist, philosophical, and martial influences that probably explain his disappearance and the creation of something so unique and rare.
The Origin of Baguazhang Style
Dong Haichuan, born Dong Ming Kui, grew up in the waterside village of Zhu Jia Wu, not far from modern-day Beijing. In the early 1800s, there was a rebellion against the Xianfeng emperor that Dong Haichuan’s cousin was a part of. His cousin returned to the village probably to escape persecution. It is that that Dong Haichuan left the village because of his desire to join the rebellion and due to the relationship to his cousin making his stay in the village unsafe.
Historians argue that without marrying, which typically happened by age twenty, without tax, property, or employment records, that it most likely that Dong Haichuan went underground with the rebellion. More than likely, he changed his name to protect his family either because he joined the rebellion or because of the martial arts he was going to study on this travels.
There is a more fanciful tale suggesting that due to Dong Haichuan’s high level of martial skills that he went undercover in the emperor’s army to lay-in-wait to assassinate him. This has been discredited because it doesn’t explain how his skills developed so uniquely and how all of his eventual disciples were loyal to and worked for the emperor. Either way, Dong Haichuan traveled to meet martial artists and improve his skills.
Bagua Martial Arts Style Influence
There is only one martial art that shares some the primary focuses of Baguazhang. A martial art style called Fan Zi Quan has been practiced for centuries in the village of Cang Zhou, a travelable distance from Dong Haichuan’s village of birth. Fan Zi Quan has circular walking like bagua although they only walk in half circles. It is still practiced today:
Baguazhang Style Influence from Fan Zi Quan
The Influence of Taoism on Bagua’s Martial Arts Style
Dong Haichuan never revealed the name of his master or where he traveled during those 40 years and most of what is known was shared in later accounts by his students. He traveled in the forests and mountains of Jiang Xi and in his writings describes climbing the steps into the clouds and meeting a famous Taoist who had been alive for 1000 years. Putting that account together with actual records, there was a Taoist martial artist named Bi Chengxia who lived in Cloud Temple. What is known is that Dong Haichuan resurfaces 40 years later having developed unique martial art to a high degree based on Taoist philosophy and the I-Ching (Book of Changes).
Baguazhang Style is Introduced to the World
When Dong Haichuan rejoined society in Beijing and the Forbidden City and introduced his martial art, he was challenged repeatedly. Baguazhang style was so unique that many martial artists were skeptical and highly critical of it. The most famous example was when a spear master named Liu Dekuan challenged him. As the story goes, Liu was not able to land a punch or kick and when Dong Haichuan easily moved behind him, Liu asked to be his student. One thing is clear, Dong Haichuan had over 50 disciples who were very proficient martial artists in their own right before becoming his students. Some of these disciples were even older thang Dong Haichuan. These experts and respected elders would probably not have become students if they had not been defeated.
There is even proof that Dong Haichuan sought out skilled martial artists to perfect his own skills and to take on more students. In his final years, he traveled to a village to meet Liu Baozhen, a martial artist famous for his footwork. Dong Haichuan defeated him, took him on as his most famous student and lived with him until his death three years later at age 85.
The Major Ba Gua Zhang Styles
Today there are over a dozen Baguazhang styles but most are substyles of Dong Haichuan’s first few prominent students. The differences between each of their individual styles of baguazhang exist for one main reason: With so many disciples being skilled martial artists, Dong Haichuan taught each student based on the art they had mastered. He taught them to expand on the principles of bagua based on the expertise they already had. Think about how forward thinking this was at time when everyone was expected to conform to the movements of a certain style.
The fundamentals of Baguazhang are shared among each style but the principles were applied to fighting techniques that each disciple was most skilled at. For example, Yin Fu mastered some of the boxing arts so Yin Style Baguazhang has a boxing focus. Cheng Tinghua was expert at wrestling so that style has a greater emphasis on throws. Let’s dive a bit deeper into Yin, Cheng, and Liang style baguazhang since they all worked directly under Dong Hiachuan and they are the most popular styles practiced today.
Yin Style Baguazhang
Dong Haichuan’s first student was a young martial artist named Yin Fu. Yin was famous in Beijing’s martial arts community for his Shaolin boxing abilities. When Dong Haichuan fame spread across the city, Yin challenged him to a fight and lost. Yin was his first great student and rose rapidly in the ranks of martial artists. He became a martial arts instructor for the royal court teaching the emperor’s soldiers, eunuchs and court ladies.
Yin style baguazhang is notable for its attacks from a distance and moving around an opponent. Training is organized into changing, striking, standing, and turning routines. Yin is one of the two most prominent styles of ba gua zhang and was originally referred to as northern baguazhang because it was practiced in the north of Beijing, primarily by more well-to-do people in society.
Cheng Style Baguazhang
Cheng Tinghua was a young, notoriously good practitioner of shuai jiao or Chinese (Mongolian) wrestling. He was also defeated by Dong Haichuan and became his second most prominent disciple. Cheng style bagua zhang therefore relies heavier on throwing and close fighting strategies.
Cheng Tinghua was a businessman in Beijing and owned an eyeglass shop. During the invasion of the eight-nation army Cheng rescued a girl who was being harassed by several foreign soldiers. He fought them off successfully but the group soon returned to his shop and shot him dead when he tried to flee. Cheng style baguazhang was called south bagua zhang because it was taught on the south side of the city in a huge park where it is still practiced today.
Liang Style Baguazhang
Liang Chen Pu also has a pretty incredible story. Liang began studying under Dong, Yin, and Cheng as a young boy while he worked at his parents clothing store. When his parents passed away, he dedicated himself fulltime to the martial arts and opened his own school. Possibly due to growing up in a mercantile family, he did not like how local gangs were treating people in the outskirts of Beijing. In one infamous fight, he reportedly killed 20 members of a gang with a seven-section chain and injured four dozen more. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death but escaped when the prison was damaged during an attack by the 8 Nation Alliance. So in a strange irony, the same aggressors that ended the life of one of Dong Haichuan’s disciples, gave freedom to another.
Liang Chen Pu went on to standardize Liang Style Baguazhang which has a training sequence of standing, footwork, basic techniques, and several open-hand forms. Like the legend about how he fought gangs suggests, Liang was also adept with weapons and Liang Style Baguazhang teaches many of the strange and beautiful bagua zhang weapons.
There Are No Equal to the Baguazhang Weapons
The Baguazhang weapons are some of the most fascinating weapons in all of martial arts. Not only because they are extremely unique, but because they were made specifically by and for baguazhang martial arts. Bagua has the sword, broadsword, pole, and spear, just like the other internal martial arts. However, their sword is immense and the crescent blades and rui knives are unique to this art. Many of the baguazhang weapons are small and meant for concealment like knives and pens and they also fight with ordinary objects like canes.
Most importantly, the practice of baguazhang weapons adds to the philosophy that the art teaches of adapting to all situations. The weapons are long and short for close and distance fighting. Baguazhang weapons are flexible and ridge, as well as curved and straight. They exemplify being open to all possibilities.
The Baguazhang Sword (Jian)
The baguazhang sword is a double-edge sword like the straight swords of all martial arts. However, in the case of bagua, it’s typically longer and when combined with the circular movements of the form creates an almost “moving calligraphy.” It is considered the hardest weapon to master.
The Crescent Blades
Officially the “Meridian Mandarin Duck Crescent Blades” were a pair of weapons that were invented by Dong Haichuan himself. They are small enough to be concealed and contain both attacking and capturing blades for defenses, blocking other weapons, and removing weapons from opponents. Most commonly they are known as deer horn blades.
Riu are often confused with crescent knives but they are a different type of weapon. The blades are straight with the grip being central. They have 2-4 blades and pummels on each end. They also have hooks which are excellent for attacks and latching on to clothing or flesh. The forward hooks are also strong so they can be used for climbing. They are often called rooster claw knives or just claw blades.
Baguazhang Fighting Style in Popular Culture
Hopefully by now you can appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of Baguazhang. This wasn’t lost on Hollywood as ba gua zhang has found its way into many recent famous martial arts movies. There are decidedly two camps when it comes to bagua zhang martial arts being portrayed in movies. One side loves it and appreciates any opportunity to see an art revitalized, popularized, and celebrated (I am in this camp). Others fear that the mysticism and comical nature of some of the movies may cause the art to be taken less seriously. I see that too. But for those of you that like the entertainment side, there are a handful of movies with baguazhang portrayed in it that are just awesome.
Baguazhang in Jet Li’s The One
What better movie than Jet Li fighting himself!! This “One” is my favorite.
Baguazhang in Avatar – The Last Airbender
One of the main character’s powers in the Last Airbender is based on Baguazhang
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Michelle Yeoh is an amazing martial artist and beautifully performs baguazhang in Shang Chi.
Donut from Kung Fu Hustle
Okay, so there is some truth to the idea that some movies are not taking the martial arts seriously enough. But this is too good. Donut from Kung Fu Hustle is a baguazhang martial artist.
Baguazhang Books and Videos
There are over 100 books and videos on Baguazhang. Truly too many to list here because of what you might be specifically interested in. You can find baguazhang books on any style, on the philosophies of bagua, on martial applications, and even the weapons forms.
I found a great Baguazhang PDF that appear to be free at this time of writing and I couldn’t find a payment page. The Art of Bagua is several hundred pages and is a baguazhang pdf that goes into the styles, philosophies, and specifics of bagua.
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