Martial Arts Spotlight: Bagua Zhang
If you've ever seen Jet Li in the blockbuster flick The One and wondered what on earth he's doing, the answer has arrived: Bagua Zhang, one of the three traditional "internal" styles of martial arts (the others being Xingyi Quan and Taiji Quan). Bagua literally translates to "eight trigrams," a reference to the eight symbols presented in the ancient teachings of the Book of Changes (I-Ching). Bagua Zhang ("eight-trigram palm") is a martial arts form considered by some to be the physical manifestation of the concepts and principles derived from the eight trigrams. It is a practice that requires stillness of mind amid constant motion. If you see Bagua Zhang in action, you'll witness rapid direction shifts, fluid movements, and evasive footwork.
At Blue Snake Books, we hope to enlighten fighters and fans with information on all martial arts disciplines in an attempt to expand their overall awareness of martial arts as a whole. Many consider Bagua Zhang to be one of the more advanced Chinese martial arts, so we'll start from the beginning.
How did it start?
It's theorized that the man responsible for the emergence of this dynamic martial art was Dong Haichuan, born in 1813 in Hebei Province, China. Dong became skilled in the local martial arts as a youth. As he got older, he traveled south and became a member of a Daoist sect called Quanzhen. The group would spend considerable time walking in circles while reciting different mantras to quiet the mind and concentrate on enlightened principles. Dong, however, went one step further, combining his passion for martial arts with this new-found Daoist practice, developing a new style of martial arts based on applying techniques while in constant motion. The result: Zhuan Zhang (later to be called Bagua Zhang) was born.
Dong became a renowned teacher of his newly developed martial art, preaching the techniques of the "circle walk" and "palm changes," along with his own combative theories. His students, who were all male and mostly made up of court officials and aristocrats, came from various martial arts backgrounds, each combining Dong's theories with his own original fighting background. Today, there are a number of different styles of Bagua, and most can be traced back to Dong's original students. These include Yin, Liu, Jing, and Cheng styles—each named after one of Dong's students. Next time you find yourself watching Jet Li dominating in The One, you may also want to note that his opponent in the film is practicing Xingyi Quan, one of the other three "internal" Chinese martial arts styles. There's speculation that this is symbolic of the legendary sparring match between Dong Haichuan and Guo Yunglen, a follower of Xingyi Quan.
What's it all about?
Circles play a predominant role in Bagua philosophy, history, and training. Dong's circle walking mantras, the circular Bagua map with the eight trigrams, and the rounded palm motions all lead back to this circular idea of change. Bagua practitioners generally avoid defending in straight lines, and instead, according to Bagua instructors John Bracy and Liu Xing-Han, "use every curve of every joint to conform internal angularities to external angles of attack and defense."
Bagua master Zhang Jie describes this crucial connection between Bagua and the I Ching in his book Liu Bin's Zhuang Gon Bagua Zhang: "Bagua Zhang is based on the concept of change, and that is why Bagua practice includes so many 'changes,' or movements altering your direction. From the circle walk to the single palm change and the eight mother palm changes...from the palm forms to weapons forms, the entire Bagua Zhang system is based on the I Ching principle of change."
From a health standpoint, Bagua has tremendous benefits to the functioning of the body. The coiling, twisting, and turning inherent to Bagua help to align the spine, stretch the tendons, and maximize nerve, muscle, and ligament function. Bagua is said to improve blood supply to nerves and keep the body limber, energetic, and youthful.
Meditation and relaxation are crucial to the practice, as they allow for a fighter to constantly adapt to the demands of the situation. Bagua Zhang can be absolutely beautiful to watch, as the movements are incredibly graceful and involve a high degree of flexibility and aerobatics. However, don't pass Bagua off as a timid form of fighting, as its effects can be decidedly forceful. Sometimes the practice incorporates weapons, including the straight sword and broadsword. If you ever find yourself up against a Bagua master, be prepared to encounter spontaneous and unpredictable movements.