Interview: The Shifting Patterns of Bagua

Q: You’re at the end of your new book on Bagua , just about to send it to the printer; what inspired you to write this book in the first place?
A: A lot of people who bought my Bagua DVD asked me to write a book. That’s what we call “a clue,” Spencer. Also, as a longtime teacher, I really wanted to make sure people actually learned this art. Bagua Zhang is pretty sophisticated. People come into my school and ask about it all the time, and they know almost nothing about it.

Learning BaguaQ: What do you think their interest is? Why are they asking in the first place?
A: I think Bagua is a buzzword now. It’s like any situation where you have the advanced users, right, and then it trickles down to everyone else. “Someone on the bus suggested I study Bagua.” But it’s too good an art to just throw out there without a decent explanation. So I meant this book to be one where people, by the end of it, could actually do Bagua, feel for themselves what it is like.

Q: What approach are you using to get that result?
A: Even though it’s presented in rational western terms, I took the traditional approach. People do come to Bagua with some interest in Chinese philosophy and culture and they still see it as mysterious and mystical. I think they are making a big mistake. It is true that Chinese culture is not as quantitative as scientific culture, but it shares with western civilization a reliance on pattern identification. This is a very typical theme in Chinese philosophy.  The key to everything Chinese is the pattern. Pattern may not be as precise as quantification, but it does recognize certain things, such as qualities, that can be very important.

Q: How does Bagua integrate this idea of patterns?
A: Look at Bagua’s position with respect to the long history of Chinese Martial Arts: it comes near the end, where it can reap from all that came before it. Bagua is a consolidating style of the highest order, and the way it consolidates things lies in patterns. This is not just primitive numerology. For instance, you have the pattern of walking the circle. You have the pattern of changing back and forth. That’s one and two. You have the triangular shape of the applications, that’s three, etc. The word “Ba,’ itself, in the name of the style, means “eight.” And there are many patterned combinations with that number: just one example is eight times eight variations, which produces the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Jing, and each variation having six steps.

My idea was to preserve the simplest possible patterns and use them to build a method of learning. By the time you finish this book, you will be able to walk the circle, work with a partner, alter your personal practice…you will know many possible ways to do all of this which, expanded, will be a great deal of Bagua.  You are not going to know the Elk Horn knives, three death points and how to spin around in a circle three times, but these elaborations will come.

Q: It sounds like the additive and multiplicative aspect of patterns builds Bagua?
A: Yes, and also the combinatoric, which is very strong in Bagua.  The difference is that in modern martial arts there are, of course, still patterns but on a different scale. Often they are the pattern of the game being played: here are the rules, here is a cage, here is the ref, here is a takedown. There’s nothing wrong with that; it is fighting. But Bagua, coming from military Kung Fu, banks heavily on the idea of unexpected patterns which had to be figured out very quickly. You were not told the patterns when you entered the battlefield. Recognition and application is survival. There are patterns everywhere whether your see them or not, but Bagua is the art of patterns.

Q: How would that differ from other martial arts such as Tai Chi or Xing Yi?
A: In one sense they do not differ. Tai Chi, Xing Yi, all true martial arts use patterns to solve the problem, but some involve greater pattern recognition. It’s a little like the way you learn math. The whole of math brings you through many patterns in a pattern of its own. All forms of math are good, but some encompass a higher level of pattern manipulation. Bagua recognizes very subtle patterns. My DVD is called “Bagua: The Art of Change,” but we should have called it “Bagua: The Art of Patterns.”

Q: What does “change” mean in terms of patterns?
A: For over three thousand years the Chinese developed the I Jing, the trigrams and the Yin/Yang philosophy, all to aid them in decoding the patterns. They are not just saying “Everything is change;” that is just an inadequate translation. If it were all about change—just random change—it would better fit C. S. Lewis’s description of Hell: a place where everything changes into everything else every second with a maddening lack of reason.  No, they are saying that change always fits a pattern.  And you know in every martial art from Wing Chun to JuJitsu, we are all looking for the pattern.

Q: It seems very mechanical, one wheel turning another wheel, etc. How do the animals or qualities such as spiral energy fit in? For instance, we’re told that observation of animals had a major influence on Chinese martial arts. How does this reconcile with your idea?
A: Perfectly, because the Chinese were not observing animals to imitate them. I know, we see a lot of imitative movements in many styles but these are just to capture the spirit of the animal. Essentially, the masters were reducing the animals to patterns too. That’s why the older the art the less you see of the physical animal; the emphasis is on essence. But there’s a deeper level to this…

The contrasting idea here is the explicit and the intuitive. Patterns cannot work if you have to stop everything to write them down and contemplate them.  You have to be able to know instantly. You have to be able to say, “I see all the patterns and I see the area that is not a pattern.” The animal part of the training is to recognize and act without reservation, in other words, to internalize the patterns.

Q: So Bagua is a good art for everyone, or only the advanced martial artist?
A:  If you are the type of student who wants to learn enough math just to add up his shopping list, you are out of luck with Bagua. Some people walk in the door wanting to know how, specifically, to get out of a choke. Bagua can be a little circuitous for them. Its approach is to teach something like: this is how to move your arm in such a wide circle that you can use it to get out of a choke…and twenty other situations as well. If you like that kind of training, Bagua is for you.

Q: Any last thoughts?
A: Like I say in the book, you will come out knowing the basic patterns of the hands; and then the feet; and then how to put them together; and then how to work them with partners, and even practice them on poles; and, finally, even how to employ them for fighting. I mean, I am not teaching all of Bagua in this book, but I am helping you create a very firm foundation because, if you don’t have a foundation, you can’t even walk a circle.

Q: What’s your next project?
A: I had better get back to that Bandit Knife DVD I owe all those people who bought the book.

2 Responses to “Interview: The Shifting Patterns of Bagua”

  1. steve weinbaum says:

    Thanks Ted!

    Although I had planned to buy your bagua book in any case, thanks for the overview. It sounds like a very thoughtful and creative contribution……. and one which will benefit many of us.

    I look to good books for inspiration….. for words and thoughts that I can latch onto to revitalize my daily practice.

    The above “interview” strongly suggests to me that your bagua book will fill that niche for me.

    Steve Weinbaum

  2. steve weinbaum says:

    Re: Teaching and Learning.

    I believe that optimization of learning in the internal arts has two principal components: the expertise and generosity of the master / teacher and the dedication and commitment of the student.
    What I greatly value as a student is the type of advice that a master might give to his son. What are the foundational practices? How much emphasis should I give the exercise. Is it worth 1, 10, 100 or 10,000 repetitions before proceeding? How might I recognize or what are the criteria for quality movement? How might the movement FEEL if / when I’m successful?

    Steve Weinbaum

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