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Bagua Zhang

As a martial art, Bagua Zhang (eight diagram palm) traces back at least to the late 1700's and early 1800's. However, the principles on which it is based reach back thousands of years to the dawn of Chinese culture. Bagua zhang, together with xing-yi quan and taiji quan, comprise the internal family (nei jia) of Chinese martial arts. These arts are based more on Daoist principles than on Shaolin Buddhism. However, many early masters of these styles also had prior experience with Shaolin-based martial arts.

No one really knows exactly how and when bagua zhang developed. It may have resulted from the fusion of pugilistic methods of the day with Daoist energy and meditiation practices (qigong), along with certain stepping methods used in Daoist rituals (7-star step, the paces of Yu, circle walking, 9-gate walking). Some of the first bagua zhang masters of note from the early- to mid-1800's included Dong Hai-chuan, and his senior students, Yin Fu and Cheng Ting-hua. Subsequently (mid/late 1800's), bagua zhang was often passed on together with xing-yi quan among the next generations of practitioners. Bagua zhang has been transmitted through several excellent groups in China and Taiwan, and is now gaining popularity in the West.

Bagua zhang as a system is built first upon mindful attention to basic circle walking using simple palm postures. It then moves to smooth turning on the circle with single and double palm changes, which are common to all circular bagua systems. These practices develop the corresponding stepping patterns needed to understand "change", and how and when it should be applied. For advanced training, the walking practice and changes can progress to trace a figure-8 and then onto a
9-gate pattern.

Most bagua systems of today feature at least 8 types of changes that
are performed while walking the circle (e.g., Cheng Ting-hua style bagua). However, with variation of a given palm configuration, or of the change itself, some systems can feature up to 64 distinct circular changes (e.g., Yin Fu style bagua). Others feature sets of 64 methods arranged as 8 straight-line sets of 8 methods each (e.g., Liu De-kuan style bagua). One bagua curriculum, assembled by third generation master, Gao Yi-Sheng, of Tianjin, China
(i.e., Gao style), has the student begin with some basic methods (tian gan), then progress to circle walking sets (xian tian), and also to a set of 64 straight-line tactical methods (hou tian).

As an example, in Gao style bagua, the 64 hou tian methods further elaborate practical attributes that are used directly, and varied, and blended with the circle changes for fighting applications. Each hou tian attribute is embedded and trained on a background of rooted postures, deft stepping patterns, and expansive attacks, which are shared by most of the hou tian forms. Thus, each hou tian form is a short sequence of discrete movements, including the attribute, and any shared movements. The hou tian attributes evolve to transcend the form, but not the principle, once the student begins to learn these methods as san shou (loose hand methods). San shou is an advanced practice, and is a prelude to better understanding the use of bagua methods in fighting. In Gao style bagua, increasingly intricate sets of 2-person drills hone the corresponding fighting applications to highly refined levels.

The internal emphasis in bagua is on smooth change, along a curved path, in the horizontal plane, driven by precise and well-rooted footwork (ba bu - eight step). This generates centrifugal and centripetal power for techniques applied during the turning and shifting of body position. Power generation and understanding can be augmented further through the practice of 'swimming body method' (yu shen fa). For applications, methods like 'attract-and-evade' and 'repel-and-follow' take control of the opponent's center and create openings. Other tactical ideas embody the methods of to 'walk-pierce-twist-overturn' (zou-chuan-ning-fan).

Benefits of Bagua Zhang: Training in bagua zhang bestows robust health and a profound awareness because of explicit emphasis on the use of an attentive mind. Practice will develop a sure-footed root in the feet, and deft stepping skills that enable evasion and repositioning, along with the building of whole body method for driving the techniques.

Although not always obvious to the casual observer, the movements in bagua zhang are permeated with highly effective self-defense techniques using hand, elbow, shoulder, foot, knee, hip, and head. As with most martial arts systems, the specific methods of bagua zhang include 'dien, da/ti, shuai, na' (vital point attack, hit/kick, throw, lock or seize). These methods are explored carefully and in a controlled manner in Academic Training Traditions internal martial arts classes and seminars.

Belt or sash ranks are not usually awarded in bagua zhang. Depending on level of commitment, practitioners can be classified as beginner (1-2 yrs), intermediate (2-5 yrs), or veteran (5+ yrs). Training in bagua can include weaponry (staffs, swords, some eclectic instruments), and we have recently added the bagua staff to our curriculum. Most teachers (shifu, laoshi) are considered as experts, with the title of master usually being reserved. Master is a special title that should be assigned only when appropriate, like in the case of a legitimate lineage head, or in special recognition by other teachers.

The photograph of Master Guo Feng-chih (Paul Guo), Metropolitan Police, Taipei, Taiwan (ca. 1960), walking the bagua circle, is courtesy of the photo archive of Mr. Robert W. Smith.