Thoughts on Lineage

As I said before, the history of modern bagua really begins with only one teacher, Tung Hai Ch'uan, and the few experienced martial artists who studied with him when he went public in Beijing at the turn of the 20th century. The inheritors of the styles developed by those students state or imply that their version is at least as good, if not better, than that of those who have learned and taught the modern wu-shu bagua forms invented by the Sports Committees of the various Chinese government-sponsored athletic colleges. I would imagine that the staff of these modern facilities also feel that what they teach is equal or superior to what is being taught by the traditionalists.

Then, of course, there are the countless kung-fu and karate "masters" who have learned a little bagua and are happy to teach it as a sideline, without worrying too much about the depth of their own understanding, much less what they are passing on to beginners. I have seen websites and advertising where earnest young men in aikido or karate outfits promise to teach you bagua as it was originally created, and offer bagua weapons forms using the sai and shinai to prove it! I have visited sites which promise you can learn the essence of the art in seven days and another web page in which a young instructor wrote that the name of our art came from the war cry "bagua" the founder used to shout in battle. I wish I was making this all up____

A cynic might think that the art has changed a great deal since its origins in the mid-19th century, and some of that change has been for the better (e.g., we understand the human physiology much better than before, in terms of how to train safely and get the most out of the human potential), and some for the worse (e.g., effective self-defense skills are replaced by highly gymnastic crowd-pleasing movements as a way of using the forms for competition).

You should never assume that a teacher is less competent on any level because you have never heard of them or their teachers, and vice versa. In the same way, a long and prestigious lineage cannot guarantee that a particular teacher will automatically be as great as those who preceded him or her. Similarly, just because an organisation is large and has a famous teacher as a figurehead will not guarantee competent instruction in any of the member schools.

Sadly, modern bagua organisations are sometimes shams in the sense that they exist only on paper, or the members have bought a certificate by sending in the required membership fee or visiting a famous master for a week or two in China. There are always otherwise reputable teachers in China who are not in the least bit shy in handing out certificates to any foreigner who comes with enough money and an introduction from someone they know overseas.

I don't think that there is any way around the necessity for change in even the best system of forms and training methods. To remain a viable art—and not just a museum piece—any style of bagua must evolve to remain relevant to modern students. Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece with relevance only to academics and those obsessed with the past.

I have been creative in small ways in my own teaching, as my skills have evolved in what I practise and teach; although, I have not consciously changed the forms that I learned from Erle Montague. In fact, too much change can also cause problems, and I do think that it is important to leave a legacy for future generations that has some continuity with the past. My only problem with creativity is when some teachers refuse to acknowledge that they have been creative, and attribute their curriculum to mysterious Chinese gentlemen who happened to live next door in Vanier, Ontario or in Twin Farts, Nebraska.

Leaving aside the tricky issue of deciphering lineage and deciding who has the real goods from a technical and historical perspective, a master may come from a traditional school, or modern one, or both. In this regard, a large part of the historical difference between traditional and modern bagua is the relationship between the student and the teacher.

In traditional schools the master was very selective of his students. He usually had only a few, and they were recommended by a close friend, family member, or other martial arts master. The prospective student had to undergo the bashi ceremony of swearing allegiance to his master. He then became an "inner door disciple" and was shown most of the training secrets. The best among the students was then selected to be the next lineage holder after the master passed away. He was shown all of the style's secret training techniques.

These disciples typically took care of all the master's needs and treated him like a father. All fellow students were treated like brothers. It was often not an exaggeration to think of them as being adopted members of an extended family. By contrast, in a modern or non-traditional setting, the teacher is willing to accept any student who walks in the door and is willing to pay the required monthly fee. There is no implied student-teacher loyalty in either direction, and the training is softened to meet the student's needs and to retain students.

Having trained in variations of both styles of school, I can't help but feel that one approach will appeal to those who crave authority and want to feel connected to something venerable, while the other to those who are more independent and value initiative and innovation. Both approaches have their merit in empirical values. Both approaches are also easy to overdo—the traditionalists become obsessed with historical accuracy over practicality, while the non-traditionalists can be too quick to throw out whatever doesn't appeal to them and change forms and methods for all the wrong reasons.

In addition, it can be difficult to find instructors who are better than you in ways that go beyond the stylistic differences meaningless at an internal level. Conversely, many practitioners and instructors take the attitude that unless they remain bound by whatever they have learned from their instructor, it has no legitimacy. It is easy to be too humble. And failing to learn from your own experiments and insights is as ridiculous as assuming that everything you invent is gold!

To return to the original topic, I would suspect that the history of bagua is full of myths and personal agendas. Finding the original method is highly unlikely; however, finding a good teacher with access to one of the better inheritances and variations of this discipline is both possible and crucial if you want to have some hope of developing even a pale reflection of the original art.

I just wish that innovative teachers would have the courage to come out and say, "Yes, I invented this, so what?" Honesty isn't everything, and it can sometimes be used as a weapon, but it is one of the few ethics that are essential for day-to-day integrity. "Being a man" has gone out of fashion, but I tell my two sons that you cannot have that elusive manna without maintaining honesty in your everyday life, both with yourself and with others. They look at me like I am an old relic (I guess I am in some ways) when I harp on the subject____

It is important to remember that modern experts are often bringing aspects of their other fighting arts to whatever they teach, so that the information is rarely purely from a bagua perspective. And, this is certainly going with the experience and attitude of the founder of this discipline, whose genius lay in his reputed ability to get experienced martial experts from diverse styles to incorporate their strengths—but not their weaknesses—into the bagua he taught each of them.

In the end, martial lineage is important, but the ethics, individual abilities, and teaching skills of the person you plan to learn bagua from are even more important than how skilful his teacher was and who in the past had taught him.

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