Bagua Explained

NOTE: This is not so much an article as an ongoing process which will expand over time. The Art of Eight Trigram Boxing is deep and wonderful but not intuitively obvious. We hope to aid the dedicated and guide the wandering. Read a little here and there and use what seems to help. Ba Gua Zhang is worth the effort and – while some sections might not seem immediately clear – the art will unlock itself to the persistent.

To many people Ba Gua is the most exotic martial art. It can also be one of the most confusing. Part of this confusion derives from the richness of the style. It came late (1860’s) on the martial scene and folded many of Kung Fu’s best ideas into a very small space. Ba Gua is a miniaturized martial art, almost a nano-art–not that the information is small, but that it is extremely compact. Studying Ba Gua can be like listening to a world famous teacher who is totally fascinating but whose ideas and words come so fast and brilliantly you are dazed rather than enlightened.

I didn’t write the above paragraph as preface a but as a premise. If we use this suggested template of sophistication and compaction we’re going to get along just fine. Ba Gua’s not mystical. It’s not fake. It’s not “too Asian.” It’s not transcendentally impossible. But it’s also not the “baby steps” approach to Kung Fu training.

At PLUM we are receiving many questions and comments in the vein of, “I don’t want you to send me the Mother Palms unless they have Changes.” “What is Ba Gua San Shou?” “Do you have the Eight Changing Palms or the Sixty-four Changing Palms of the complete XYZ branch?” “I want ONLY the moving changes, not the static changes.”

Before we get any further, let’s establish a vocabulary. As with everything in this article, you may disagree with my usage of certain terms, but it will help to share a code while reading.

PALM: means the whole body
PALM CHANGE: a specific series of actions which reverse your direction on the circle
SIMPLE CHANGE: any of an assortment of actions down to just shifting the feet that perform a change of direction without the choreographed “Palm Changes”
EIGHT MOTHER PALMS: Arm postures held in certain positions while walking the circle or standing
EIGHT CHANGING PALMS: A choreographed series of movements divided unto eight sections including the Single Palm Change and the Double Palm Change. These are performed on both sides. Each of them reverses the directions of the walker through a complex series of moves.
HAND POSITIONS: hand positions in BaGua mean entire postures including the waist and feet
WALKING THE CIRCLE: The basic practice of BaGua is a stylized method of walking in a circle while performing the actions of the styles.
MARCHING: Walking in a straight line while performing self defense series.

Bagua Zhang(Also “8 Big Palms” also the “Old Palms.”) What is the problem with the Mother Palms? Well, people often see these as very simple minded basics, something like the intermediate stages between circle walking and the really good stuff (The 8 Palm Changes). But the Mother Palms are absolutely crucial to doing one of Ba Gua’s most difficult tasks: actually changing the way one is thinking.
Without going on at length here are some of the training methods connected to the Mother.
Dispelling toxins from the body!
Strengthening certain internal organs
Strengthening the arms
Opening the chest and exercising the waist
Key elemental actions for fighting
Preparation for weapons work
Divorcing the torso from the steps
Bridging between standing practice and the later Palm Changes
Introducing all the elements which will be used in the Changes
Developing the essential BI-dimensional thinking
Feeling animal qualities
Training the mind to control the body through “intent”

The Mother Palms are often associated with the Eight Original Trigrams. They are performed in a circle but while the arms don’t move much they do engage and disengage.

As you walk the circle you change. Let’s say you are walking the Lion in CW direction and want to change to CCW. What do you do with your arms? Herein lies a vocabulary problem.
A. Some teachers let you do whatever you want. This is Mother Palms with no changes.
B. Some teachers use a standard change like Lion change to other Lion (slap hands together, separate them). These are Simple Changes.
C. Some animals have multiple possible Simple Changes.

In my school there are at least three ways to get from Lion CW to Lion CCW. (Really there are almost infinite methods but that’s another story.) So the Eight Palms have three each or 24 changes. That’s if there are no changes from one animal to another such as Lion to Snake. What would be the combinations there? Well, the combinatorial is, I believe, 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 or 5280 changes.

San Shou can mean miscellaneous or “free” hands so “San Shou” can mean almost anything including Jimmy Woo’s famous fighting system. It can mean partner exercises ranging from a completely choreographed set to a series of exercises that are barely structured. It can also, for instance, denote Ba Gua Applications. But one of the most important and specific meanings is a sort of free form “riff” exercise where all that one has learned can be mixed spontaneously or nearly so. What do I mean by “nearly so?” Well to sort of jump start the spontaneous (as in Chinese painting, for instance) teachers have created forms with three classical levels of “ad libbing.”
A. A completely choreographed set but hinting at the many ways of bridging.
B. A choreographed set with sections where the student may ad lib.
C. Completely spontaneous mixing of moves.

The first method may introduce another term: Ba Gua Huan Lian Tao Lu or a Ba Gua “Linked” or “Linking” set where the Changing Palms never go back to the other side of the circle and just morph into other moves. The odd thing here is that such a form may not even look like Ba Gua. It may resemble some other style like Lost Track. However, it sure feels like Ba Gua from the inside. (It also shows that Ba Gua need not walk in a circle. A friend of mine was tossed out of a tournament by a well known Chinese teacher of BaGua under the injunction that “Ba Gua is always done in a circle.” Ah.)

The second method is obviously a bridge allowing some spontaneous sections inserted. The third section is obvious.

Since stepping and turning footwork is involved we imagine a circle within the big circle. The little circle represents a footwork change of direction. If that change of direction takes one series of steps performed in a small half circle then you have a Single Palm Change. It’s like jumping from one square to another. If you turn and jump that’s a Single Change. From A to B.

If, however, you pass through B, turn another 360 degrees, then return to change at the B point you are performing a Double Palm Change. Like this…everything else is just a compilation of Single and Double Palm Changes. Either you jump off at B immediately of you pass through and circle back. How many times you pass through B after the first one is inconsequential.

Considering the 150 different “branches” that presently exist in Ba Gua (that’s a style created every year since it was revealed to the public!) there is almost a spooky correspondence of Single Palm Change (SPC) and Double Palm Change (DPC) throughout all these branches.

These are the essential movements of Ba Gua since they supply the reversal of direction so crucial to the style: CW to CCW, and CCW to CW. But why these two changes when, at first thought, you might say all changes are just the Single Palm Change? After all when you come down to it, all you have done each time is merely change direction.

If you have ever studied math coordinates you bump into an interesting notation. Following around a circle you record any degree of angular change up to 360 degrees. After that it doesn’t matter how many times you circle because complete rotations all are subsumed by (N). Therefore we count rotations as x<360 degrees + (N) = number of degrees. It’s a little different in BaGua because we are only concerned about 180 degrees turns, not 360 degrees. In other words you either turn 180 degrees to change or 180 degrees +N. That’s all that is significant; SCP or DCP. All else is commentary.

If you look you’ll see an amazing correspondence between these despite the Baroque efflorescence of all the changes. Like the Shaolin Form Tan Tui (Spring Leg) the first two sets are about the same in each case, then variations occur in the higher numbers. This part actually is influenced by Chinese cultural philosophy. The first Change is an unbroken line (you just change, period). The DCP is “broken” in that you pass the point of change, continue, then come back and complete the change. A broken line is Yin. A solid line is Yang. These parents are said to generate the entire art and, according to my view—and the I Ching—they do.


If you combine the Single Palm Change and Double Palm Change with the Mother Palms and their transitions you have all there is to all 150 styles of BGZ. If this were mathematics we would say the BGZ is the study of operations not integers. Rather than start, as people have always done, with movements then link them together; BGZ starts with transitions which can be broken down into movements. In mathematics, again, things change drastically when you stop thinking about counting and begin playing with operations. This is of course true of almost everything from musical composition to battlefield strategy, dancing, writing, math and physics. It is an aspect of martial and perceptual refinement, not a particular art or discipline. To learn the Palm Changes without exploring their meaning is to condemn another brilliant historical and cultural treasure to the realm of obscurity and quaintness. The quick hit-’em-and-get-out attitude strikes me as the same reduction. Ba Gua Zhang changes the practitioner not just the shape of his opponent’s nose.

What about the other “six children?” We can find a parallel in the Long Fist form known as Tan Tui or Spring Leg. There are many versions of this form but each section (there are either ten or twelve) has to cleave to a certain accepted theme. In the remaining six Changes these themes are said to be from the six remaining trigrams. However, martially, they are much more function. If you want to see my desginations – right or wrong – just look below.

Change #3. Full Spin
Change #4. Change of Direction (Lost Track)
Change #5. Double and Short Palms
Change #6. Raising and Lowering (Heaven and Earth)
Change #7. Tight Turning
Change #8. Long Arm Cutting, Long Spinning.

To really understand the construction of BGZ (Ba Gua Zhang) we have to look at the concept of a Change. A Change is simply reversing the direction you walk the circle. The most basic of these is called a Simple Change (or in my school a “switch”). In this case you are walking on the circle and just reverse direction WITHOUT STOPPING. It looks like this, first one way then another. There may be no footwork to speak of; just turning around. Simple Changes are all either Inside or Outside (facing Center or not). The hand movement may be minimal: a quick threading action, flipping from one Mother Palm to another or even changing without hands. In this case simple pretty much describes it.

Though most styles agree that traditional BGZ uses a peculiar type of footwork known as the Mud Step. Versions differ like women’s shoe styles. Some say the Mud Step was most emphasized in Beijing because it became so muddy in the proper season. Special shoes, it is said, were worn with long cleats to insure stability. Thus the Mud Step was an easy analogy to understand.

Even descriptions of how you do the Mud Step differ. Some teachers describe it this way, “Imagine your foot is stuck in the mud. When you lift it, with a sucking sound, it comes up flat and parallel to the earth, just about an inch of elevation. Then you move it forward so…” In this example you are walking on the mud. But how about this…? “Imagine your legs are sunken in mud up to the knees. You “cut” through with a heavy dragging feeling every time you step….”

A bit different. Then there are variations some do such as the “Chicken” step and the “Floating” step, that you wonder can even be categorized as Mud Stepping.

The two most basic variations, though, are found in the Yin Fu and Cheng Ting Hua branches of the art. Basically the Yin Fu performs smaller steps. When each foot strikes the ground it halts and seals with the ground. The feeling is much like having magnetic boots on. The toes grip, the step sucks downward.

In Cheng style the stride is wider. The foot reaches out, glides above the ground, touches down then may glide a little more. The step is more graceful looking and, some say, a trifle easier in execution.

Variation aside, the BGZ practitioner should understand at least the basic goals of the Mud Step. They are a combination of martial and health concerns. Here is a partial list of what occurs in the human body when the Mud Step is performed even tolerably well:

The center of gravity is kept well back.

The vertical posture of the spine is maintained.

Rather, as in normal stepping, where each leg is alternately exercises; in Mud Stepping both legs are constantly worked.

Rapid execution of advancing footwork is practiced with each and every step.

Since the spine is vertical, not swaying, the rotation of the torso muscles is constant.

The Mud Step is so neutral, weight wise, that quick changes are easier.

The Mud Step has all sorts of advantages. It is also one of the most frustrating exercises in all of the martial arts. Here is a list of miseries in Mud Stepping, just to assure you that you are in Good Company:

The step can be so narrow you feel like toppling.

Your heel keeps peeling up no matter what you do.

You perform three circles in a row, perfectly, than you can hardly walk.

The hands and legs slip out of sync with incredible ease.

You feel like a mincing geisha.

The moment you have something fixed, something else goes out.

Mud Stepping is one of the first things you learn in BGZ and it will be the last for you to perfect. Ah, well, at least you won’t get bored easily…

There is a well known BGZ saying, “The knees support one another.” This refers to the second notable aspect of BGZ walking, namely the scissors actions of the legs.

Once again the initial requirements are simple – deceptively so. The inner thighs should brush together with every step. One leg is never completely relaxed in the normal manner of locomotion where the forward leg is thrown ahead of the other.

That’s pretty much it. But this is an essential part of the art. For instance, let’s look at the brushing of the legs together. This action directly correlates to what is called “threading” with the arms. In threading as one arm draws the other brushes along and extends. The arms “replace” one another. So this action of the legs takes threading down into footwork.

Now here’s something important: just because the legs thread in the Scissors Step they don’t have to move awkwardly. Too many practitioners walk like they are on a tight rope. Rather than try to stick only on the circle when you walk the inner foot should be on the inside of the circle and the outer foot should step on the outside of the circle. This keeps you from trying to move along a razor-thin edge – a very uncomfortable feeling at best.

Scissors Stepping only necessitates the legs touching at mid-stride. Then the foot is free to fall outward or inward as the case may be.

But the Scissors Step is essential in correct BGZ navigation. If the average person is going to turn left, for example, then he rotates outward on his left foot and follows with his right leg swinging a bit to the new direction. But the BGZ practitioner actually uses the left out-turned leg to “aim” his right leg – brings the thighs together – then places the right foot exactly where the left toe aimed it.

The use? Once habituated to “seeking one’s own inner leg” every step the student takes tends to seek his opponent’s leg immediately and intuitively. In this case the self defense usage is only a short step away.

BGZ is based on just two simple steps. One is called KOU BU and signifies toeing inward as you step. The other, BAI BU, refers to the turning outward step. Since Walking the Circle is the fundamental exercise for BGZ, we can see that there’s a whole lot of Kou Bu and Bai Bu practiced each session.

(Much of BGZ’s “genius” is the recognition of simple facts – the kind physicists spend decades chasing down. In martial arts the truth is that there are almost no “straight” steps in real fighting. BGZ accepts this fact and incorporates the truth of it in every practice.)

BGZ footwork is an art and certainly one of the keys to the system. You could write books on just Kou Bu and Bai Bu. Here are a few key points.

First and foremost never – never – by which I mean never, originate the rotation of KB or BB from the ankle or knee. Leg rotation should originate form the hip and waist. Some people are limber enough to aim a knee one way and a foot the other way. Bless them, but the action sends shivers up a teacher’s spine. Never.

The next key point is that, especially when Walking the Circle, the feet should never cross one another. Obviously in the plain vanilla circle walk one foot is continuously performing Kou Bu while the other, outside foot is executing Bai Bu. But some people walk as though on a tightrope where the inside foot is placed on exactly the same line as the outside step. This teaches the inside leg to obstruct the other foot and the outside leg to swing around the obstacle of the front foot. Both of these are rather bad form, old boy. They are bad martial habits indeed and should be avoided.

Given these considerations, remember that Kou Bu and Bai Bu are the Yin and Yang of BGZ footwork.

To the practice of authentic Kung Fu, holding posture is essential. The reasons are many but for now let’s just accept the proposal. And given that stationery posture work is as important as it is, we must acknowledge that standing practice must fit its style. Otherwise much effort will be wasted.

BGZ training has many of the similar benefits as, say, any Wushu “post” exercises. It also has some special traits. First, BGZ standing acclimates the body to positions which are not normal, everyday things. The constant twisting, a feeling that should move from the feet to the crown, must be teased slowly. Forcing the issue isn’t only useless but can actually cause injuries. When you twist to your “limit” in a BGZ standing posture you should then relax. If you do you may find, after a minute or two, that there really was additional “space” left to occupy which you hadn’t noticed before.

As you are dealing with the physicality of BGZ’s special postures, you should come to concentrating on the breath. Imagine it to be spiraling just like the twisting you feel in your muscles. Keep at this and mind will follow. Now you are inhabiting the dragon.

Few people have seen many true applications for BGZ. There are a number of reasons for this:
1. Proportionately few fully trained instructors exist.
2. For over a century many Xing Yi teachers taught BGZ, mixing the two styles as they went.
3. That which makes BGZ special can hardly be perceived visually anyway.

Suffice to say that the really interested student will have to use his or her own intelligence in this. BGZ is an outstanding martial art and worth the investigation. It looks like “real fighting” more than you might imagine. Following are a few hints about its applications, since we can only touch the skin here.

BGZ usage is about a lot more than running around behind people.
Take most of the usage demonstrated with a smidge of doubt.

Go back to the form and basics and practice to compare the usage with the energy of BGZ you are trying to refine. The basics are so powerful in BGZ they will show you the feeling. If you catch it you will be on the right track. There are a lot of decent fighters who nonetheless are not really demonstrating BGZ. We know the reason for this. It is because BGZ demands a different way of thinking and for many this is too strange, too exotic. Yet the effort is worth it. Any art can be improved just by the attempt to catch BGZ’s special flavor. Look at Dong Hai Chuan’s original group: all advanced martial practitioners. BGZ could only heighten the level of their original arts. So beginner or advanced, the applications of BGZ are more than worth the effort to explore.

Some suggested reading: Our Lion Book, Shaolin PoPi by Yen Te Hua, though in Chinese, is a famous text giving the true flavor of BGZ. It shows up in translation as Pa Kua for Self Defense by Lee Ying Arng which, unfortunately, is not always in print.

One Response to “Bagua Explained”

  1. Dear Mr. Mancuso,

    I had to write to thank you profoundly for these essays. As I have no local teacher, I depend on what I can get from a distance: my limited experence of BGZ comes from a brief demonstration I saw years ago, Robert Smith’s book (also from years ago), the excellent book by Master Gao and Mr. Bisio, and your invaluable tapes/dvds. I have a co-worker with whom to practice tai chi and push hands, but I’m stepping gingerly into BGZ own, so even brief bits such as the above discussion of stepping method helps enormously. With appreciation and all best wishes, ELR

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