The Evolution of Ba Gua Zhang Strategy

As stated above, many schools of Ba Gua Zhang believe that all fighting strategies and applications come from the theory of yin/yang, five elements, and ba gua - the principles of nature. In general, yin and yang represent the dynamic interaction of opposites, the five elements represent a system of checks and balances and interactive play between components of a system, and the ba gua represents angular, linear, rotational, and cyclical movement, variation, change, and combinatorial theory. Throughout history, almost all aspects of Chinese religion, society, art, and culture have used these models as a philosophical base for their theories, and warfare is no exception.

All of the great military and martial minds in China's vast history have drawn from the philosophy of yin/yang, ba gua, and five elements in constructing their theories and strategies of warfare. The relationship between Chinese philosophy and the strategies of war become quite evident when one turns to the classic transmissions of warfare (Sun ZHs Art of War being the most well known) which have guided China's military development from the Waring States Period through present time.

Throughout a large part of China's modern history (Tang Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty), all military leaders, in order to earn their military appointment, were required to pass imperial examinations. These examinations were based on the compilation of information contained in seven classic military documents: Tai Gong's Secret Teachings, The Methods of Si Ma, Sun Zi's Art of War, Wu Zu, Wei Liao Zu, Three Strategies of Huang Shi Gong, and Questions and Replies Between Tang Tai Zung and Li Wei Gong. All of these classics emphasize similar strategies, such as, overcoming one's opponent through subtle skill instead of brute force and outwitting one's opponent through speed, stealth, evasiveness, and flexibility. Even modern day military books in China, like Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare, adhere to the same principles and theories that were valid centuries ago. All of these strategies can be, in some way, traced back to the theoretical models of the yin/yang, ba gua, and five elements.

The bandits and thieves of the day, who were the primary opponents of the Ba Gua practitioners, usually carried light or concealed weapons and employed "dog pack" like tactics in attacking their opponents.

Drawing from the teachings of the classics and the fundamental theories of Chinese philosophy, each generation of military and martial leadership has adapted to the situation at hand. In all varieties of warfare in China, from hand-to-hand, weapon-to-weapon, foot soldier-to-mounted soldier, mounted soldier-to-mounted soldier, combat with armor and shields, chariots, or cavalry; all the way to present day conventional weapons, the specific tactics and weapons of fighting have changed, but the theories and principles of warfare in China have remained the same.

Modern day examples of these ancient theories and strategies being directly applied to warfare were abundant during the Vietnam conflict. In July of 1993, five-tour Vietnam veteran Col. David Hackworth, America's most decorated living veteran, return to Vietnam to interview NVA and VC officers to compare lessons learned from the war. One thing Hackworth discovered, as written in his article "Why We Lost in 'Nam" published in the December 1993 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine, was that the Vietnamese were prepared to adapt to the situation at hand and, using the tactics and strategies of Sun Zi, were able to overcome a far more powerful force. In his article Hackworth states, "I did not find one former VC leader I interviewed who hadn't studied Sun-tzu backwards and forwards. Bay Cao, at 74, could recite complete passages from Sun-tzu's writing."

Most schools of Ba Gua believe that Ba Gua Zhang is no different then the example given above in its reliance on the ancient strategies and theories of Chinese warfare in its execution. In fact, it could be argued that Ba Gua Zhang adheres to the principles of Chinese philosophy, which formed the foundation for all military thought in China, more than any other combat art. These practitioners believe that Dong Hai Chuan's genius was in taking fighting techniques he knew from his Shaolin based training and modifying what he knew in order to be consistent with the theories of Chinese philosophy. The originator of Ba Gua

Zhang went back to the roots of theory and strategy in inventing his art and in doing so left a true art form; one that is open to variation and change from one practitioner to another and one that is adaptable to an endless variety of situations.

Origins of Ba Gua Zhang Strategy

Ba Gua Zhang is an art based on natural principles, not on individual strengths, techniques or situations, and therefore it can be applied in any situation by any practitioner. An examination of its development shows that it was developed in a specific time and place in Chinese history and many of the techniques that have been passed down to today's practitioners are reflective of that moment in history. Ba Gua Zhang was not originated, nor was it nurtured through its infancy, as an art for soldiers on the battlefield or for boxers in a ring. The art "earned its stripes" in its use as a guerrilla style tactic employed to fight multiple opponents. Therefore, in order to understand some of the primary fighting tactics the Ba Gua Zhang practitioner has historically employed when applying his art, one must look back to the circumstances of its origin.

During the time when this art was becoming popular in China as a very effective combat method, the majority

Defense Infancy

Li Cun Yi owned his own body guard company and taught Ba Gua to his employees so that they could learn to fight multiple attackers

Dong Hai Chuan taught each of his Ba Gua Zhang students based on their individual strengths, physical size, and martial arts background of the practitioners utilizing this art were working professionally as body guards, caravan escorts, and residence guards. Ba Gua Zhang instructor Li Cun Yi owned his own bodyguard company and many of his famous students who learned Ba Gua and Xing Yi from him learned while they were employed in his company so they could do their job. The bandits and thieves of the day, who were the primary opponents of the Ba Gua practitioners, usually carried light or concealed weapons and employed "dog pack" like tactics in attacking their opponents. Therefore, those who worked as bodyguards, residence guards, and caravan escorts needed to be able to handle simultaneous attacks from multiple opponents who were armed with weapons.

In order to successfully handle opponents employing these tactics, one needed to be highly mobile, very quick and thorough in application, and very efficient in dealing with more than one attacker at a time. Ba Gua Zhang became famous in this era because it's practitioners were able to draw from its underlying theories and adapt perfectly to this situation. The practitioners were highly mobile, lightning fast, observant and aware of all directions, and thus could deal with multiple attackers. Ba Gua's strategy of outflanking the opponent was developed ideally for this situation because a practitioner who was faced with two or more attackers could get to the outside and behind one attacker and put that attacker between him and the other attackers. Ba Gua's use of turning and twisting maneuvers in rapidly changing directions was also ideal for being able to address multiple attackers. Ba Gua's use of quick and efficient percussive techniques which broke bones or otherwise quickly damaged the opponent in short order also were ideal for churning through one opponent after another. However, this is not all there is to Ba Gua Zhang. Ba Gua means variation, change, and adaptability.

While the tactics and techniques listed above defined Ba Gua at the period of time when it was being used most prevalently as a combat art in a real life or death situation, these tactics and techniques do not strictly define Ba Gua Zhang because there is no way to strictly define an art which is based on principle. The art changes as the situation dictates and it changes to a certain degree with each practitioner who practices the art. This is why Dong Hai Chuan taught each of his students differently and why every Ba Gua instructor has a different interpretation of the art. It is not an art which should be copied exactly from the teacher to his or her students.

Every student is unique and thus every student should be taught to develop his or her Ba Gua based on their own individual strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, each practitioner takes the principles of the art and develops them in a way which is suited for a number of various combat environments. If every student was taught exactly the same and only practiced the art in a well lit, smooth floor martial arts school, the practice would not be following natural principles and would not adapt well to varying circumstances.

In my personal opinion, I believe that the most important concept that has been extracted from the Yi Jing and applied to the art of Ba Gua Zhang is the general concept of adaptability, flexibility, and change. These characteristics are most important in learning how to adapt the art to any situation and modify the method to suit any given practitioner. Since these concepts are clearly demonstrated in the most schools of Ba Gua, I will discuss these two topics in more detail below before we move into a discussion of the Eight Mother Palms.

Adapting the Art to Fit the Situation

Although submissive joint locks which control an opponent, rather than break their joints and bones immediately, and grappling techniques which are used to take the opponent to the ground, wrestle with them, and choke them out, are becoming popular today, they are not very effective against multiple attackers or opponents who carry concealed bladed weapons. When fighting multiple attackers, if you take too long dealing with one, or you go to the ground with one, the others will quickly be on your back. Also, if you try to wrestle with someone who has a concealed knife, you will easily be cut or stabbed.

Because ground grappling and submissive techniques do not work well in the combat situations which the Ba Gua practitioners who developed the art most often found themselves, Ba Gua practitioners have historically not practiced submissive techniques or ground fighting. But it does not mean that Ba Gua does not have these things. Ba Gua is an art based on sound theoretical principles and thus it can address any combat scenario. Practitioners who are taught to understand the principles of Ba Gua can learn to research and apply those principles in any situation.

Ba Gua Zhang strategies in the late 1800's and early 1900's were designed to fight multiple attackers and deal with them quickly and efficiently. The forms and techniques which have been passed down in choreographed sets reflect these strategies. However, we should not think that Ba Gua Zhang is limited to these specific techniques or the multiple attack scenario. It is wrong to think that because Ba Gua Zhang was not practiced as a ground fighting art, that it does not have ground fighting, or because it emphasizes the palm strike, it does not strike with the fist, or because it primarily employs circular footwork, it does not have linear applications. Ba Gua has ground fighting, punching, kicking, joint locking, inside fighting, outside fighting, and everything else that can be effectively employed in a combat environment because Ba Gua principles can be effectively applied to all of these situations. Ba Gua Zhang is an art based on principle, not technique or situation. Because it is based on principle, it is variable, adaptable, and universal. It can be applied in any situation, environment, or scenario.

The Individual Expression of the Art

Ba Gua follows natural principles. The principles of nature dictate that all individuals are graced with their own nature, their own character, their own individuality, and their own uniqueness. In order to follow the principles of nature, each individual follows his or her own individual nature. Daoist teachings invite each individual to discover his or her own nature and live life in accordance with their nature and natural principles. Following the "Way" in Daoism is discovering how one's own nature fits seamlessly into the ever changing ebb and flow of the natural world. Since history indicates that Dong Hai Chuan was a Daoist and developed his art while living at a Daoist temple, it would seem natural that he would teach his art to his students based on the Daoist principles. An examination of what his students learned from him and how it was in turn passed on to their students reveals that he did teach every student in accordance with that student's unique qualities and characteristics.

In teaching his students, Dong Hai Chuan took into account each student's martial arts background, character, size, aptitude, ability, personality, age, and physical condition. Because he taught each student differently, based on that student's unique qualities, every lineage of Ba Gua Zhang has its own flavor. Even fundamental components of the art, such as the "eight mother palms," are executed differently in every lineage. In turn, Dong's students and grandstudents all approached the transmission of their art as Dong did. They taught each student in a way that was unique to that student. Unfortunately, in recent years, instructors have begun to "standardize" Ba Gua forms and teach the same choreographed form routines and fighting applications to all of their students, regardless of the student's size, aptitude, or character. This severely limits the art and the individual student's progress in the art.

The first and foremost principle of Ba Gua Zhang is adaptability and change and thus those practitioner who try to define Ba Gua Zhang and rigidly structure its practice and application are moving away from the art. Art is something that is individually expressed and is adaptable. Providing too rigid a structure to an art and judging it based on that structure is stifling the growth of the art and the progress of those who practice it. In this Journal I have tried to present all the various ways that individuals might validly practice components of this system, such as the circle walk (see Pa Kua Chang Journal, Volume 4, Number 6) or the single palm change (see Pa Kua Chang Journal, Volume 5, Number 5) in order to demonstrate that there are many acceptable variations on this theme of Ba Gua Zhang. Yet, there are still many practitioner's out there who point at another's Ba Gua and say, "That is not right!"

By now you might be asking yourself, "What does all of that have to do with the Eight Mother Palms? Isn't this article supposed to be about the Eight Mother Palms?" You are right, and we are about to get to the Eight Mother Palms. However, I felt that it was first necessary to discuss the topics that were addressed above for several reasons. These reasons are as follows:

1) Some schools of Ba Gua utilize the practice of the Eight Mother Palms strictly as a physical foundation for the practice of forms and applications which follow. These schools attach no philosophical connection with the individual palms and do not relate them in any way to the eight trigrams of the Yi Jing. It does not mean that these schools do not believe in any type of philosophical connection between the martial art and the philosophy, it just means that they believe that relating each of the mother palms to one of the eight trigrams and then trying to make some correspondence between the nature of the trigram in philosophy with the practice of that particular palm is going overboard. They believe that the philosophical connections are much simpler and more general. It does not mean that they are "wrong."

2) There are many schools of Ba Gua who define the Eight Mother Palms as eight different static upper body positions held while walking the circle. In these schools, the entire body posture is the "palm." Although all of these schools practice these eight palms with

Gua Postures

Cheng You Xin's son, Cheng De Liang, holds the "Embracing Moon At Chest" posture the same developmental and theoretical concepts in mind, they do not all use the same eight postures. One school is not right and the others wrong. There is no such thing as the "original" eight palms or the "orthodox" eight palms.

In practicing the Eight Mother Palms, whether standing still, or walking the circle as a qi building exercise, or in using them in fighting applications, different postures are suited to different individuals. A smart teacher will not teach the same eight postures held in the same exact way to every student because every student is different in size, shape, character, aptitude, age, and health condition. Therefore, it is natural that different schools and systems of Ba Gua developed different posturing.

3) Some schools define the eight mother palms as the exact palm shape (from the forearm down to the fingers), not a body position or posture (again, among the schools that do this, the eight palms are not always the same). This group tends to get more detailed about the relationships between the Eight Mother Palms and the eight trigrams and builds combinations of these eight palm shapes to form the 64 hexagrams of the Yi Jing. While all schools are not prone to do this, it is certainly a valid way at approaching the Yi Jing philosophy as it relates to the martial art practice and application.

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