Spinning Bagua

When we think of Kung Fu and its long history, we tend to think of its venerable age, lineage, and established methods. But everything in Kung Fu was new once — VERY NEW — and innovative. Responding to environment, population and, most influentially, technology, these impulses sparked revolutionary changes, as well as temporary (and sometimes, embarrassing) fads.

Now, martial arts has inspired its fads. That doesn’t necessarily mean the material is bogus, but rather that the appeal to public interest eventually moves along, leaving behind a dedicated contingent of practitioners who, publicly or privately, cut new pathways.

Child ninjas — masked and black-faced — swinging from trees, followed by Bruce Lee’s cat cries, followed by Peter Max gi’s…well, no need to remind us of the things stuffed way back in our martial closets. Even Tai Chi — NOT the art itself but the way some people exploit its benefits — has attained a faddish following that makes those of us who practice in our backyards shake our heads at the $2000 courses that seem to suggest all Tai Chi is performed on a cliff overlooking a beach at sunset. Not to mention the obvious misappropriation of Tai Chi by pharmaceutical companies, using the art to sell their pills

So, what about the new kid in the guan, Bagua Zhang, the style many refer to as the “last traditional Chinese martial art?”

Like Tai Chi, Bagua revolves around only a few hand and weapon forms, but incorporates countless avenues for developing usage and technique, internal and health practice, philosophical analogy, and kick-ass self-defense.

Like Tai Chi, Bagua itself contributes revolutionary concepts to the larger body of traditional martial knowledge. Just the act of walking in Bagua — the explicit use of the waist to manage rotation; the simplification of the two foot patterns to direct the walking, then the more complex instruction of how to place the foot; the tri-level attention to the arms; the deadly beauty of the changing palms themselves to control direction — shows the genius in its methods. And this is not to mention the neurological information, such as that which comes from eye movement, incorporating modern studies with traditional methods. There are so many things to do to perform well, and these are just the things that I can describe to you, the things that are describable.

But an art foundationally based on change leaves itself vulnerable for anyone to come along and, you know, change it.

Like Tai Chi, it is also a wide-open door for exploitation.

One reason, I believe, is that Bagua, as an advanced art, immediately makes it a target to be dumbed down to appeal to a larger audience. I cannot tell you how many non-martial artists have contacted our studio saying they overheard a conversation on a crosstown bus ride, and they want to learn Bagua, because it has to do with the I Ching. It comes off as mystical as it is martial (again, like Tai Chi), and that is a surefire recipe for ‘anything goes.’

Examples of how this manifests are easy to find: a lot of Bagua is being taught without foundation. The walking has no authority, circling without intent. Any technique that uses wide looping motions without power is just ineffective (but, unfortunately, plentiful on youtube) and displays a superficial interpretation of the circle concept itself. And any instruction to ‘just run circles around your opponent’ displays only a kindergarten understanding of the meaning of martial rotation. Finally, Reeling Silk, one of Bagua’s fundamentals, is a subtle and difficult concept, and at base is NOT the one-dimensional calisthenics I’ve seen that makes me turn away from the screen.

Maybe I take this too personally, but I worry about Bagua. I watch its rise and acceptance with a combination of joy and cringe. Sure, anyone who has been in the art for a while has seen bad kung fu, the kind that makes you want to pull aside the performer and whisper, “Your teacher is no good. Run away!” But with Bagua Zhang, I am more inclined to want to pull aside the teacher and say, “What are you doing and why are you doing it? Go back to the basics, you’ve got it all wrong.”

Happily, I think authentic Bagua will win, although faddishness will never disappear; Bagua Zhang almost has too much to offer. The true Bagua circle is not empty, and those who approach with a serious curiosity will find a world of potential, and real teachers who are prepared and anxious to teach them.

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2 Responses to “Spinning Bagua”

  1. Michael Babin says:

    Good points and this is a tough issue to come to terms with for any long-term practitioner who cares about what he or she is practising or teaching. You can argue that any movement exercise –– no matter how dumbed-down –– is better than no exercise for many modern sedentary people; but overweight, out-of-shape beginners are more liable to injure their legs or backs EVEN WHEN TRAINING CORRECTLY much less the New Age twaddle often taught as side-lines by hard stylists.
    In the end, every beginner needs to identify what they want from their own training; whether they have the abilities or potential to develop those abilities and whether or not the instructor they have chosen is mediocre, excellent or a complete sham.

    It takes experience to identify all that and many beginners simply can’t, at first, tell “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” when it comes to bagua teachers. [with apologies to Sergio Leone].

  2. Charlie Thompson says:

    Great article. i feel the same way but could not put it into words. Xing Yi is so important as well. Learning the forms are only the beginning, without a training partner I’ve had to study twice as hard not only with speed, posture foot placement, and intent. Holding the tree standing meditation has improved my overall training to a higher level. So much to learn, so little time.