— by Allen Pittman
- All form photographs courtesy of Blair Holt; function photographs courtesy of Allen Carroll.
- Published in the Journal of Martial Arts, Volume 8 Number 1, 1999
“The main offensive action of [bagua] is the Single Change. Indeed, it is more than that – it is the basic action in the art.” –Smith. 1967: 132
This article analyzes a fundamental movement of baguaquan (Eight Trigrams Boxing) — or baguazhang (Eight Trigrams Palm), often abbreviated bagua — the “martial art,” or what Donn Draeger calls the “civilian self defense system.” Historically, bagua has no known battlefield record, so it cannot definitively be called a “martial art.” According to its own legends and oral history, bagua originated among the anonymous Daoists of the mountains of Jiangxi Province. And Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) imperial bodyguards were known to have used it.
Bagua means “eight trigrams” or “eight warps.” The character for trigram, pronounced “gua,” originates from the word for the transverse thread on a loom. The meaning is much the same as the Sanskrit word tantra, which means “to weave.” Although this term’s philosophical depth is beyond the scope of this article, three horizontal lines symbolize the concept of bagua. This symbol also appears in Indian Samkya philosophy and is one of the ancient indications of possible Indian and Chinese philosophical syncretism. The upper line represents the order of heaven, the middle line represents the order of the human, and the lower line represents the order of earth. This three-fold aspect is not unique to the Chinese and is found in many ancient cosmologies. Bagua is about the interplay between these forces and how they can he aligned in a person. Bagua’s self-defense system classifies its movements and principles according to this theme, using the trigrams and their eight combinations as an ordering system for movements, postures (static positions), and fighting tactics.
Since its popularization in the 1800’s, bagua has split into many schools and there are many “masters” espousing exclusivity and “secret teachings.” Some of the better known schools in the public view are those descending from reputed bagua founder Dong Haiquan’s students Sun Lutang, Yin Fu, and Cheng Tinghua. The
Gao Yisheng lineage claims to have descended from a line parallel to Dong Haiquan. There are also bagua schools that have absorbed other kinds of boxing into their system like the “Drunken bagua” of Master Fu Zhensong, whose students presently teach in Shanghai.
To grasp the character of bagua’s many variations is difficult, if not impossible. However, something can be understood from looking at the core form common to the many styles. This core movement is the “Single Palm Change” (Dan Huan Zhang). In this article, the author hopes to show five variations of this movement and, in doing so, expand the reader’s awareness and discernment of what defines the self-defense art of bagua. The author has studied with lineage students of these five styles and is acutely aware of the dangers of misrepresentation. Still, paralysis may be worse than analysis, so let’s take the plunge, realizing that these movements have not been derived from books or videotapes, but have been sweated over for some twenty years.
The Mother Palms
In bagua, the fighting tactics, anatomy, and esoteric teachings are organized into the same octagon, with eight hand movements, the Mu Zhang (“Mother Palms”), corresponding to the eight phenomena. These “palms” are blended into a series of movements done while walking around a circle. There is a divergence of teaching on how the Mother Palms are performed. Some lineages turn their body and go the other way around the circle when they do a Mother Palm, while others change palms without changing directions. Still others teach the Mother Palms with arms held in static positions while walking the circle.
Depending on the lineage, other movements besides the Mother Palms are also taught. According to Chinese boxing tradition, empty hand training is followed by the study of standing locks and twists (qinna), vital points and resuscitation methods, and then weapon study. There is no groundwork or floor grappling. At present, most bagua boxing is not taught very systematically and tactical functions are not emphasized.
Whatever the bagua boxing lineage, they all share two techniques: the Single Palm Change and the circle walking exercise. The Single Palm Change has variations and is classified differently in various bagua schools. Some lineages classify the Single Palm Change as a primer for the more advanced Mother Palms. Other lineages consider the Single Palm Change the first Mother Palm. Either way, the Single Palm Change is the basic technique of bagua boxing. It is a way of changing the guard or leading hand and contains an arsenal of options for evasions, deflections, pulls, arm locks, strikes, and clamps to the head and body.
The other basic bagua practice, circle walking, is the same between lineages. There are various ways to step on the circle and various circle sizes, but the walking basically remains the same.
Though circle walking is emphasized in bagua, it is not unique to it. Other Chinese boxing and ancillary skills of Dong’s time, methods like Bapan Zhang, Sun Bin boxing, and qinggong (agility skills), used circle walking in their training. It was known as “gyromancy” in the British Isles, and the “Circle of Narvaez” in Spanish swordsmanship. Turkish wrestlers practice in a circle and in the Hindu religion devotees still circle around trees (as it is said Dong learned it). In ancient Greece, Melancomas circled his opponents, keeping his face unmarked by other boxers, a feat recorded in an essay by Chrysostom. Around the world, folk dancing has circled since ancient times. For these reasons, it is probable that more than one kind of circling body art for fighting and meditation was around during Dong’s time. However, it was Dong’s art in particular that was known for circle walking. Some schools favor one type of step over another. Most schools’ teachings advance to a figure eight pattern and then work up to the circling of nine stations or posts.
Single Palm Change Variations
In this overview, four lineages and five variations of the Single Palm Change will be shown. The reader can compare them through practice. When other articles appear on other bagua methods, they will have a basis for study and be able to see the range of movement allowable in the bagua entity — that is the deep underlying structure common to all lineages. The approach is similar in studying languages: first the standard forms are studied and from that the dialects can be appreciated.
The following lineages will be looked at:
A) Cheng Tinghua (?-1900 A.D.)(via Sun Lutang to the Zhang brothers, to Guo Fengchi, to Robert W. Smith). This version of the Single Palm Change is found in Sun’s text, Study of Bagua Boxing (1916). It uses more movements than other versions like those shown in the later texts of Huang Bonian and Gong Baotian. The other versions of the Single Palm Change shown here also use fewer movements, omitting the final toe-in or combining the first two arm movements into a single movement.
B1 & 2) Li Cunyi (1849-1921 A.D.) [via Chen Panling to his sons, Yunqing and Yunchao]. There are two variations shown for these: one from each of Chen Panling’s sons. The range of movement of the younger son’s version contrasts strongly with the compactness of the older son’s.
C) Zhang Zhaodong (1858-1938 A.D.) [from Wang Sujin to Robert W. Smith and Marnix Wells], Within the same alignments as the Li Cunyi lineage, this version shows an emphasis on the edge of the hand and use of the elbow.
D) Song Changrong (?) [via Gao Yisheng (1866-1951 A.D.) to Zhang Junfeng, to Huang Yimian]. This version, the most compact style, is closest to that found in Huang Bonian’s text Dragon Shape Bagua Palm (1936).
Each of these lineages is traceable to Dong Haiquan (1797-1882 A.D.). The fourth lineage, that of Song Changrong, may have influences outside Dong. Dong popularized bagua boxing during the last century as the Qing emperor’s bodyguard. There is speculation as to how much of bagua boxing Dong created and how much he learned. Dong claimed to have learned bagua from a Daoist (some versions of the story say two Daoists) in the Jiangxi mountains. Revisionist historians on Mainland China claim Dong invented the bagua system from his own synthesis of Daoist circle walking and Shaolin or Lohan boxing. The justification of this theory is odd, even lacking documented evidence of Daoists teaching a circular boxing to people at that time. After fifty years of social-political destruction, it is absurd to demand evidence from a group of Daoists hermits specializing in anonymity. Bagua, and Chinese boxing in general, has always been an oral tradition. Only since the early part of this century has there been substantial writing on them. Some of this century’s best writing and research on martial arts, including many works by Chen Panling, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
However, oral traditions have been among artists and craftsmen since time immemorial. These traditions are often considered “secret traditions” not because they should be kept from people, but because only the practitioners of a school will grasp the nuance of a teaching. You have to experience it to understand it. The saying, “Only show your poems to a poet,” contains the same idea. Observers may think there is a secret hoarded away, but practitioners have experiences from long practice. Common experience is an important part of the teacher-student relationship.
Comparing The Single Palm Change
The Single Palm Change begins from an orthodox guard position with the left palm toward the center of the circle as one walks counterclockwise on the circle.
First Phase: The Toe-In
Cheng’s single change begins with a ninety-degree toe-in and a turn of the waist leftward, putting the hands on the perimeter of the circle. Li’s begins with a less than ninety-degree toe-in (the feet form the same shape as the Chinese character for “eight”), but does not swing the hands to the perimeter. Notice the wider variations in stance and arms.
These five Single Palm Changes from four lineages show the same action done with variations in range of movement and articulation of the hands and feet. They show the change of direction during circle walking with the arms aligned vertically over the legs during the crucial points of balance in the movement. These alignments are known as “six harmonies” (liu he) and they correspond to functions of the mind as well as limb alignments. The “six harmonies” are a defining characteristic of bagua boxing and other neijia. or “inner school,” disciplines, including xingyi and taiji-quan. These alignments are:
- Hand over foot – harmonizes air (qi, “air” Is the direct translation, meaning rhythmic vitality)
- Elbow over knee – harmonizes will (yi, “will” or “intention”).
- Shoulder over hip – harmonizes the heart (xin, “heart” pertains to both the organ and emotion).
The first two physical alignments do not exist during circle walking as the hands are pressing toward the circle’s center and the feet are moving along the perimeter. This trains the person’s will and body to balance and endure some contradictory feelings in the body. The physical alignments occur during the Single Palm Change and the other changes. These alignments optimize leverage and defensive ability.
Varying the degree of toe-in and toe-out can change the Single Palm Change’s angle of attack. The diameter of the circle determines how much to toe-in or out. Zhang’s version also begins with the toe-in. but does not separate the hands. Song’s version begins with the toe-in and the arms begin to wrap around the body. This is similar to Huang Bonian’s Single Palm Change in his 1936 text.
Fourth Phase: Various Functions of the “Swing Back”
“Swing Back” is essentially the same in these lineages. The underlying palm and the leading leg move back along the circle, the hands swinging to the center in one step, or one can continuously walk along the circle slowly raising the hands and lowering them to the center in one-and-a-half revolutions around the circle. The functions for the Swing Back can vary with arm and leg extension as with a taller opponent (see picture of the Li Single Change where I kick and break the arm) or timing (notice the immediate application from circle center with the Song Single Change.) The swing back can also use the forearm across the diaphragm, swing into the opponent’s rear arm. or be used to grab his throat.
Teachers agree on the Single Palm Changes’ importance in teaching decisiveness. The emphasis is on decisive and crisp energy while completely changing direction. It shows a change of guard from one side to another and embodies the quality of metanoia (Greek for “turning,” sometimes translated as “repentance”). In this way, the Single Palm Change is in accordance with both Eastern and Western schools of esoteric/spiritual teaching.
Major Features of the Single-Palm Chance Functions
Sun Lutang Version
Chen Yunqing Version
Chen Yunchao Version
Wang Sujin Version
Here, my extended chop on the Single Change Is used to take my opponent’s wrist and pull him enough to expose his side and cancel out the punch from the other arm. My right hand, elbow, or shoulder can then be used to target his obliques, armpit, or ribs. I can lift my right foot used to protect my left leg against his right kick (not shown). Note the angle of our bodies.
Gao Yisheng & Zhang Junfeng Version
From the above examples, the reader should be able to discern the chief physical characteristics of all bagua styles:
- All walk the circle as a training exercise.
- The primary defensive position (the arms) is basically the same in circle walking, though expansion of the arms varies.
- The six alignments are maintained between the shoulder-hip (heart), elbow-knee (will), and hand-foot (vital energy).
- The torso is held vertically throughout the walk and the Single Palm Change movement.
The six alignments keep the body configured for easy defense and mechanical advantage. Bagua optimizes effort through mechanical advantage. Basic leverage as embodied in the six alignments is the foundation technique of all the various energy (qi) theories in Chinese boxing.
The bagua shown here eschews flamboyance for efficiency and attempts to reduce all tactics to walking and turning. Using the waist as the axis of movement and supporting the hands and arms through the back and legs, bagua is a manifestation of the whole body in movement, moving from strongly reinforced positions in a circle.
Bagua is a civilian self-defense system. Principally, armed escorts and convoy guards used it during the Manchu incursion. It was first made public by Dong Haiquan (1797-1882), who demonstrated it to the emperor at a banquet. Through Dong’s students, it branched into approximately five styles that have been modified, improved, and deconstructed. There is controversy over styles that have suddenly been “rediscovered” in the Peoples’ Republic of China. It seems the martial arts’ commercial aspect and the tourist trade have spurred this trend.
Some systems seem more whole or systematic than others. Some have merged with other forms of “boxing.” Some have become more physical education oriented and have lost their tactical meaning. All the systems hold the core of circle walking in their training and emphasize proficiency in walking and turning (i.e. the Single Palm Change). The author hopes the reader will now have a grasp of what bagua is about and have a basic picture in mind when contrasting it with the study of other martial arts styles.
Special thanks to Chris Martin & Jason Connelly for their help in the technical section.
- Huang, P. (1936). Lung xing bagua (Dragon shape bagua palm). Shanghai.
- Smith, R. (1967). Ba-kua: Chinese boxing for fitness and self-defense. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
- Sun, L. (1916). Baguaquan xue (Study of bagua boxing). Beijing. Reprinted in Hong Kong in 1960.