Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Alternative History of Baguazhang


I already know a lot of people, as soon as they read the title of this article, will immediately give a condescending laugh and say something like "Idiot".  Because who in their right mind would think that Bagua has other origins that what is commonly accepted?  That Dong Hai Chuan came out of nowhere and somehow took a circle walking meditative art and turned it a fearsome combat art, does that sound about right?  That is a great origins story, in line with a lot of the other great arts, a story that has lots of mystery, many people claiming exclusive rights to the truth and few verifiable facts.  Now before I go any further, I REALLY want to stress that I am not insulting anyone else's history.  I am also not going to state that anyone is totally wrong.  What I am going to suggest here is that maybe there is more to the story that we previously thought and that there are well respected names and locations that we can easily find that tend to point towards a different version of history.  So, again, I want to state that I will never take any credit away from Dong Hai Chuan or belittle his skills because even he said he didn't create the art.  We have just given him credit since he never identified who he learned it from.  

Ok!  Now that I have covered my bases and made sure no one gets their feelings hurt by the suggestion that there is more to the story, lets dive in to what we know about the origins of Baguazhang.

First off, lets tell people who are not practitioners of Baguazhang what we are talking about.  Baguazhang or Bagua for short is one of the 3 main Internal Martial Arts from China and arguably is the most complex and in depth of the three, which also includes Tai Chi and Xingyi.  Bagua is easily identified by the basic exercise of Circle Walking, where practitioners move around a circle, generally facing towards the center.  There are usually 8 or 9 different sets of movements to change direction, depending on the school you practice at and in-between changes the body is held in a static position.  This exercise is where students train power and tendon development with combat applications being done later.  For people who have never practiced Bagua before, the training I just described sounds silly, but when done correctly is physically exhausting in a short period of time since it is a practice that uses the whole body, leaving nothing un-trained.  That is where the similarities end though, with each school using different movements, postures and each having unique practice requirements to be correct.  
The founder of Bagua was named Dong Hai Chuan and sometime around 1864 he showed up in Beijing and got a job working at the Palace where he impressed a group of party guests with his skill at moving through the crowd and when they asked him to demonstrate his kung fu, he obliged and the rest is history.  When he was asked where he learned his art from, he said, "A Hermit".  We know that Dong Hai Chuan only taught 3 palms in the beginning and would create other palms to fit his students needs, since he was making each version unique to the student he was teaching.  But why would it be called Ba Gua Zhang or Eight Trigram Palm if he only had 3 original palm movements?  Just as an FYI, he originally only taught the Single Palm Change, the Double Palm Change and something called a Smooth Body Change.  So instead of just asking leading questions and feeding you the answers, lets examine what we do know about Dong Hai Chuan and ask ourselves if the suggestion I am giving here isn't remotely possible.  We know that Dong Hai Chuan traveled far and wide as a young man, but never really gave an account of his travels, but he was exposed to many martial arts teachers and styles.  He was also illiterate, which puts serious doubt towards him being able to create an art as deeply rooted in Taoist religious practices as Bagua is.  We also know that he only taught a few students who carried his art on, eight students who started their own lineages, and each was taught a vastly different art.  Each of these eight students passed on extremely different practice methods so we know that they weren't taught a standardized training program.  Also each of the eight lineages VERY quickly started expanding and adding different practices to train and focus on different areas.  To many people this suggests that Dong Hai Chuan didn't teach a complete martial system to his students, but only showed them how to improve the art they started with.  So each student would have to create and add exercises that fit their needs.  
Most people know that to create a martial art requires a person to fill three distinct and specialized roles in order to create a well rounded and martially sound fighting system.  They need to be a fighter, a technician and a teacher all in one.  The fighter role is obvious, someone needs to prove the art is effective to draw in students and to promote the art's standing within the martial arts community.  The technician role is required to fully understand the exercises, create new practices, learn every single detail and also connect these physical practices to esoteric ideas (Like the I Ching and Bagua).  Technicians also must know how each exercise fits into the whole art and also how to train correctly to avoid injury and gain steady progress.  The last role is the teacher, who is the one to pass the information on to many people and spread the art.  The teacher is the public face for information about the art and must be a skilled communicator or the art won't spread very far.  Each of these roles is a must in martial arts.  Many people can only perform one role, say for example there are many great fighters who can't teach to save their lives.  Or teachers who aren't the greatest fighters.  This is totally normal, each role requires vastly different mindsets to be successful.  Now I'm not saying that a person can't have some skill in each role, but its very difficult to be great at each, I am sure that is common knowledge.  You might be asking what this has to do with Dong Hai Chuan, so lets apply these roles to him and lets see what seems logical.  Dong Hai Chuan was a great fighter, that so commonly understood that I won't even address it here.  But was he the best technician or teacher?  Since we know he taught a bare bones art that his students had to add to immediately to suit their needs, we can safely assume that he might not have been the greatest technician, since that role would have left many exercises for each student.  So the students wouldn't have needed to add things so quickly.  Being illiterate he wouldn't have been able to connect the circle walking practice to deep, mystical ideas in Taoism either.  We can also assume he wasn't the best teacher, since he only had success with master level martial artists as students and never was able to teach a large public group and sustain it, even with his amazing reputation.  Again, this isn't being rude to Dong Hai Chuan, it is a logical look at what we know, ok?  
But here is where it gets interesting and where new information comes into the picture that suggests where Bagua came from and what the art may have been intended to resemble by its founders.  Again I am NOT claiming to have an exclusive on the truth and I'm not saying anyone else is wrong.  There is a lineage of Bagua called Gao Bagua after its first public proponent named Gao Yisheng.  Gao was originally a student of  Song Changrong and Cheng Tinghua, but broke with them for an unknown reason.  He then studied Xingyi with Li Cunyi and that influence is apparent in the martial art he left behind.  But the really interesting part is that he claimed to have met a hermit from Guanghua Moutain name Song Yiren who taught him a linear version of Bagua.  This type of claim isn't unusual since many Chinese martial artists claim to have learned from mythical or hidden characters to provide legitimacy to their art and in fact the name Song Yiren is the Chinese equivalent of saying "John Smith", it is a very vague and general name.  It sounds like a strange name, but it would have fit perfectly for a monk who had given up his original name to shed ties to secular life.  We see that there is perhaps some truth here because a different martial artist named Han Jinyong was studying Bagua with a different teacher under Dong Hai Chuan, but left to study with a monk from Guanghua Mt named Ying Xia.  When Han Jinyong finished his training, he was so impressed with his teacher and art that he changed his name to Han Muxia which means 'Admires Xia'.  This is no small compliment in Chinese culture, family names are very important and rarely are changed and would never be changed to support an imagined mythical source.  When Han Muxia started publicly teaching, he quickly became famous for beating a Russian strongman who had been beating the local Chinese challengers.  Han Muxia and Gao Yisheng never met each other, but each publicly taught very similar linear Bagua forms, and each learned from a different teacher.  The fact that the linear forms are slightly different implies that there were several teachers on Guanghua Mt that taught linear Bagua, as each teacher would practice and share their own version.  If Gao and Han had created the forms together, they would have been taught identically, right?  Guanghua Mt also had several Taoist groups that used circle walking meditations if I understand correctly and if the name Song Yiren was a pseudonym, then that might be what Dong Hai Chuan meant when said he learned from a hermit and didn't identify him.  Why would you tell people you learned martial arts from someone named 'Teacher John Smith"?  There is one more piece of evidence that hammers home this idea.  Both Gao Yisheng and Han Muxia were famous teachers and each had famous students.  But they shared several well known students, most notably being Wu Mengxia and Bi Motang, both being famous for martial arts but also for personal character.  Each of these students swore up and down that they believed their teachers had learned from separate teacher on Guanghua Mt and that there was no doubt in their mind of anything to the contrary.  This is very important evidence since the word of a martial arts teacher was considered to be very important and would not have been given lightly.
So with all these facts put together, we can start to see that there is more to the creation story and history of Baguazhang than is commonly known.  I truly hope I haven't offended anyone by this, but I felt it was a very important article to write since any good information about our common art of Bagua should be shared with everyone who is interested.  

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.