The Mystery of Bagua

Ba Pan Zhang Walking the Circle Takes a Different Turn

Adam_bg1bBagua is one of the youngest Kung Fu styles, becoming popular as recently as the turn of the century. But in spite of its youth it has one thing in common with almost all other Kung Fu styles: its history is a mystery. The Chinese have a common cultural practice that is contrary to occidental cultures. Westerners openly declare their inventions, thus placing their names in history books and reaping well-deserved profits from their basic patents. By contrast, Confucius would only take credit for passing down the ideas of ancient leaders and philosophers.

Most professionals in China attribute inventions and advances in their fields either to gods or their artistic forebears. For carpenters, the deity is Ru Ban. The revolutionary essayist Han Yu of the Tang dynasty did not claim authorship of his writing style but instead paid homage to the Han dynasty stylists. Opera performers worship Tang Ming Huang in appreciation for contributions made by his talent and support for the opera. Martial artists worship either Guang Gong or Yue Fei. Some of them willingly bow to a foreigner, Da Mo. These figures are all given respect regardless of whether or not they actually had any connection or made contributions to their respective arts. So when Dong Hai Quan said he learned his art from a Taoist monk while lost in the mountains, people in Beijing, impressed by his technique, just accepted his story without question or any need for corroboration.

Most books and articles accept Dong Hai Quan’s story or simply state that Bagua’s origin is unknown. When Professor Kang Ge Wu, formerly of the Beijing Physical Education College and now Research Fellow in the Wushu Research Institute, was a student in the college’s MA degree program, he devoted his thesis to this subject. Employing the finest techniques of academic research, he sent out questionnaires to hundreds of stylists, opened up the Qing dynasty’s Forbidden City Royal Archives, and personally visited many related places, including WenAn, Dong Hai Quan’s hometown, and Jiu Hua Mountain, where Dong Hai Quan reportedly learned his Bagua Zhang. Though the issue is still under debate, Professor Kang came to the conclusion that Dong Hai Quan is the actual founder of Bagua.

If this is so, why make up a story to hide his role as father of this genius-level invention? Either he was using mystery and magic to help him promote the art or he was following the traditional way instead of claiming his own independent creation. Professor Kang received support from many individuals and groups, such as Beijing’s Bagua Zhang Yen Jiu Wei Study Association, for this and for his other big contribution: he finally located Dong Hai Quan’s tomb which had been destroyed by Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. He had it moved from Beijing’s outer east gate and reestablished it with a new memorial outside the west gate. The tombstone of this memorial states clearly that Dong Hai Quan is the founder of Bagua Zhang. Professor Kang’s work, however, raised controversy and even some animosity. Mr. Zhen Qi Ping of the Lang Fang City Sports & Athletic Bureau (Wen An belongs to Lang Fang City) and the late Mr. Nan Pu, formerly chairman of the Hebei Provincial Wushu Association to which Lang Fang City belongs, responded with their own research articles.

This research, supported by local martial artists, concluded basically that Dong Hai Quan learned his art in WenAn. Many people in the WenAn area also study Bagua and some, like Li Zun Chin, were in the same generation as Dong Hai Quan. They say both learned from the same teacher, who himself learned from his family and previously for at least three generations. The art that they studied is called Ba Pan Zhang. Ren-Wen-Zhu_1In their opinion, Dong Hai Quan is without doubt an outstanding local product whose major contribution was to establish his credibility and popularize the art starting in Beijing, on throughout China, and out to the rest of the world. Changing its name to Bagua, thus relating the art to the ancient Bagua philosophy, and attributing its origin to an elusive Taoist monk were his insightful ways successfully to promote the art. People interested in this historical research can go to China now to conduct their own academic study.

But my main interest is in the techniques. During each of my three visits to China I spent much time and energy on Bagua. I received tremendous help in Wen An from both Mr. Nan and Mr. Zhen and from the Wushu Associations of both Lang Fang and Hebei Province. Professor Kang and the Beijing Bagua Study Association also provided their assistance. Like many, I am much more familiar with the Bagua Zhang named and promoted by Dong Hai Quan. So in this article, I would like to introduce the much less known Ba Pan Zhang which is practiced today in the WenAn area. Leaving aside myth, history, and academic debate, learning about a different way to perform Bagua can only enlarge our vision, enrich our practice, and benefit the art in general. According to WenAn’s local  information, Dong Hai Quan and Li Zun Chin both had students. In 1915, Ren Zhi Chun, an outstanding student of Li Zun Chin, published a book called Yin Yang Ba Pan Zhang Fa. At the time, only one hundred copies were printed at the price of one silver dollar each. In 1988 it was reprinted by Tianjin’s Gu Ji (ancient book) Bookstore.

Twenty thousand copies were published and now they are hard to get. Of course Ren Zhi Chun passed away as has the younger master, Gao Zhi Kai, who performed the usage with him in the book. However I met Ren Zhi Chun’s nephew, also Gao Zhi Kai’s student, Ren Wen Zhu. Now in his forties, he was several times a gold medalist in traditional Wushu. Not only is he teaching Ba Pan Zhang in Wen An but he was also invited to teach elsewhere in China. He published a book entitled Yin Yang Ba Pan Zhang, subtitled Qing Dynasty Original Bagua Zhang, Volume V of the Hebei Wushu Collection, in 1987. It is extremely hard to find because only fourteen thousand copies were printed.

Let’s start with the name. Zhang means “palm,” used because most of the hand structures in this style employ the palm, not the fist. Pan was originally a noun meaning “plate,” a round-shaped utensil. The Chinese use this word to signify any other round objects. The steering wheel is called “direction Pan.” A round face is “Pan face.” Since Chinese grammar allows nouns to be used as verbs, Pan can also mean a circular movement. We describe eagles circling in the sky and the dragon (long) spiraling around a pole as “Pan.”  Ba, the number “eight,” must be linked with Pan for explanation. The Ba Pan Zhang system emphasizes the eight parts of the human body which execute the Pan movement in practice. The upper four Pan include wrist, elbow, shoulder, and chest. The lower four Pan are ankle, knee, thigh, and stomach. The name “Ba Pan Zhang” highlights the importance of moving the entire body and major joints in a circular manner: Chan Si Jing.

I believe that the viewpoint implicit in the name Ba Pan Zhang should be of greater value to practitioners than for Bagua Zhang. In reality, to walk the eight directions is an external way to view the art. But paying attention to movement of the eight body parts puts the focus on or “in” your body, the internal. The one obvious element that distinguishes Bagua immediately and visually from other styles is circle walking. Today many people feel that without this you are not practicing real Bagua.

Kang Ge Wu

Kang Ge Wu

This isn’t entirely true. Although the major form of practice follows the circle there are supplemental training methods or forms which move in a straight line. In this respect, both Bagua and Ba Pan are identical. But the real and surprising difference between them is the way they walk the circle. Just about everyone has heard of the specialized step called tang ni bu or mudsliding step and jian ci gu, scissor legs, emphasized in Beijing-style Bagua. However WenAn’s way to walk the circle is totally different. I observed that their walking technique is pretty close to the jian ci gu but for them the tang ni bu is nonexistent. Ren Wen Zhu says that tang ni bu was created by Dong Hai Quan and is not found in the original Bagua. Of course the Beijing people might possibly reply that Wen An’s Bagua is incomplete so let’s sidestep this thorny issue and instead inspect the technique. In Ren Wen Zhu’s training the bai and kou are treated the same as in Bagua.

Of course without that how can we walk a circle?  The big difference lies in the step. First of all, the foot must be raised three to five inches above the ground and returned in a heavy, stamping, though quiet, manner. After the student’s technique has improved, then he must work on increasing the speed. In the end, Ba Pan practitioners don’t walk but instead run the circle. These different techniques are clear trademarks separating Bagua from Ba Pan Zhang. In my opinion, the tang ni bu is extremely important to Bagua usage. If it is Dong Hai Quan’s own creation, then it is the development of a combat genius. Sadly this step is rarely performed  correctly because we don’t use Kung Fu to fight anymore.

Most unfortunately, the worst example of tang ni bu, found in China’s modern Wushu, is now starting to spread to foreign countries. Nowadays Bagua forms are always fixed regardless of the    stylistic diversities of different branches. The higher generation Bagua masters, however, had the freedom to show personal  interpretations and create their own sequences. Following that tradition, WenAn’s Ba Pan practitioners enjoy a lot more freedom in practicing the movements. Movements may be performed by themselves, linked together as short sequences, or stretched out into forms. Practitioners are free to compose their own forms while  adhering to fundamental rules: the basic eight palms with the basic eight legs and the basic eight postures. And every single one of the basic eight grand postures supports seven subordinate postures: in other words, one plus seven postures equals eight movements. If we link all of them together it becomes a sixty-four movement form.

As we all know, Bagua practice shows very few kicks but in actuality it does contain them. There’s a Chinese way to say it: “lots of an Tui,” or “hidden kicks.” But Ba Pan practice shows more kicking, or “ming tui” or “visible kicks.” Ba Pan Zhang actually pays special attention to the number of palm strikes and leg kicks which are used: “upper, how many palms; lower, how many legs.”  In fact, most Kung Fu styles, not only Bagua, reveal fewer kicks than they actually employ. In Kung Fu, each single-leg and empty stance contains a potential kick. The palm techniques in Bagua and Ba Pan do not differ in any major way. Basically, both use the Quan Zhang or penetrating palm to open the door, and the shifting inside and outside, called “nei men, wai men,” on the heaven-earth-man (upper, lower, middle) levels when engaging in real sparring.

In Bagua, however, both palms face each other, one extended forward and the other guarding the door near the body, while in Ba Pan the front palm always faces the sky. Ren Wen Zhu stresses that this palm position allows immediate employment of the Chan Si twisting power to attack an opponent. Body Chan Si Jing is fully shown with the zhang – lots of twisting, rolling, circling, rotating movements. Another major shortcoming in China’s modern Wushu is its lack of this. Interestingly and fortunately, foreign practitioners who perform traditional Bagua still try to employ the Chan Si even though not everyone can produce it from the body. Comparing the percentage of the gong (hard) and the rou (soft), Ba Pan is more gong than Bagua. I think there are three reasons for this. First, Beijing has long been the cultural and artistic capital of China. Home to the highest level of China’s arts, all who dwell within its walls are strongly, if unconsciously, influenced by its aura. It makes sense, then, that the Bagua coming from Beijing is more aesthetic than its country brother, Ba Pan. Even Ren Wen Zhu, who won his gold medals performing Ba Pan Zhang, recognizes that Bagua Zhang looks more beautiful in performance.

Secondly, many people practice Bagua for health maintenance. So their execution, based on individual ability and bodily well-being, is of necessity more relaxed, slower, and doesn’t push hard to match combat standards.

Thirdly, Kung Fu is no longer used on the battlefield. Most Bagua branches, since the second or third generation, no longer teach power issuing. So Bagua training has ended up in gentle, elegant, dignified palm changings and circle walkings. Its focus has been shifted to the Yin-Yang principle, Bagua philosophy, and fairy-tales. Today, very few Bagua practitioners practice real Bagua usage. A great many people who show Bagua applications are actually borrowing techniques from other Kung Fu styles or from other Asian martial arts such as judo or Aikido. Some stylists do perform some authentic Bagua  techniques but can’t use them in free sparring. The main reason for this is lack of power issuing training.

This is unbelievably strange and sad since Bagua especially accentuates power issue training: otherwise, why such   focus on whole-body Chan Si? Chan Si Jing is the power issuing method. The fact that WenAn’s Ba Pan training must include power issuing means that either it is really the senior style or perhaps that Bagua lost this essential element in the big city. For Ba Pan, almost every circle running palm change can be done in a straight line for   usage and power issuing training. Another interesting point of  discussion is how many forms is Bagua Zhang supposed to have? It is popular to think that “more is better.” Those who have fewer forms are criticized for being incomplete. Masters who learned directly from Dong Hai Quan already had some background in Kung Fu and many had already reached very high levels in other styles. So when they began to teach Bagua, some of them adopted and converted forms from their original styles to help their own pupils. Therefore different branches do have both differing numbers of forms and diverse ways to perform them.

The effectiveness of the form, how helpful it is to the practitioner, not the number of forms is the correct criterion to judge how complete is the training system. When any style, even any art, enjoys great popularity, almost without exception the purity of the art will be reduced. That Bagua is practiced worldwide now should make us proud. At the same time, many practitioners have watered down the art and even promulgated misconceptions. Therefore it is always necessary and helpful to trace back the origins of the art as far as possible. To find a branch or master who still preserves the purest possible form is most desirable. However, it is a good rule of thumb that the countryside will keep to the more original form than the city. In this regard, WenAn county’s Ba Pan Zhang can provide a strong technical reference for all Bagua lovers. WenAn is only a half day’s trip by bus from Beijing. It is situated by the Hai River between Beijing and Tianjin. In ancient times this area was filled with many lakes, ponds, and tiny streams. Its most famous products were Bagua Zhang and the lotus: lotus flowers, seeds, and roots. An old saying describes the beauty of this region: “lotus fragrance for one hundred miles.” These ponds and waterways somehow isolated the area. But nowadays you will find many roads, even concrete highways, crisscrossing the area.

In 1963 the Hai River flooded destroying many lives and millions of dollars in property. Subsequently its course was redirected into two main outlets running into the ocean. In nearly thirty years the natural environment of Wen An was totally changed. Wheat, corn and cotton are its major crops. Construction of the Jing (Beijing) Jiu (Jiu Long) Railroad was scheduled to be completed when the British returned Hong Kong and Jiu Long to China. The railway crosses through Wen An and people there were happily  anticipating increased development and prosperity. The WenAn County Sports Committee and Wu Shu Association supervised by Lang Fang City (Wen An belongs to Lang Fang) are eagerly looking forward to promoting their Ba Pan Zhang, Bagua Zhang’s brother, to the outside world.

Adam Hsu is a famous and well-respected teacher in the martial arts world. Visit our information page for some products and more commentary and discussions.

One Response to “The Mystery of Bagua”


    I tend to see Ba Pan Zhang as the senior art now, after many years.

    There’s an elegant simplicity in it that makes other schools seem needlessly complicated (I’ve tried many of those on too). But what’s more, it coheres– it’s coherent. I’ve come to see it’s affinities w/ Wang Xiangzhai’s Yiquan– not in the formal appearances, but rather in the practicality of their shared essential philosophies. Xiangzhai’s notorious critique of lapsing Gong Fu practices strikes me as also present, albeit unspoken, in Ba Pan Zhang.

    “Those who proclaim they KNOW surely don’t. Those who actually do know something tend to be hesitant to broadcast it.”

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