It Still Exists in Mainland China, But It is Not Easy to Find
Right or wrong, the majority of Ba Gua practitioners I have talked to in the United States today think that the "contemporary wushu" performance style Ba Gua which is coming out of mainland China is a terrible excuse for martial arts. They feel that it lacks any real martial content and is nothing more than an empty, flowery dance routine; a external health exercise at best. Most serious Ba Gua practitioners have absolutely no interest in performance Ba Gua. Furthermore, they feel that contemporary wushu Ba Gua performers give Ba Gua a bad name among serious martial artists from other styles.
In my job as the Pa Kua Chang Journal editor I have visited dozens of schools all over the country, attended almost every major tournament held in the last three years, and talked with literally hundreds of martial arts practitioners in person, over the phone, or through written correspondence. Through investigation, I know that while a few practitioners really enjoy the contemporary wu shu style Ba Gua, the fact is that most practitioners don't want anything to do with it. Over 1,000 practitioners subscribe to the Pa Kua Chang Journal and about 1,500 additional copies of each issue are sold at bookstores and news stands. I suspect that there are probably twice that many who practice Ba Gua in this country. Yet, attend any tournament in the U.S. and you will only find five or six competitors in the Ba Gua Zhang event. Why? Ba Gua Zhang practitioners in this country simply are not interested in performance Ba Gua. They want more.
Most martial artists interested in the study of Ba Gua Zhang are interested in quality internal martial arts training which extends beyond gymnastic form routines. They are interested in a well rounded program which includes the combat, health, meditation, qi gong, qi development and other internal strength development components taught in a complete, systematic manner and thus when they see "performance" Ba Gua the majority instantly know that something is missing. Furthermore, because most of Ba Gua that we have seen coming out of mainland China over the past ten years has been of the contemporary wushu variety, the popular opinion is that the communist government in mainland China has stripped martial arts of all its real value and thus the "dance" Ba Gua is the only Ba Gua mainland China has to offer today. Because of this, many practitioners have no interest in going to mainland China to study.
When I first announced our plans to take a group to mainland China to study Ba Gua in the July/August 1993 issue of the Pa Kua Chang Journal, I stated that "this will not be contemporary wushu 'put on the silk pajamas and dance' style Ba Gua Zhang. We guarantee the real thing." Naturally journal readers who study contemporary wushu were upset with my statement. My reason for using these words when talking about our trip to mainland China was to let people know that there still is something other than the "silk pajama dance routines" left in mainland China and this is what we are going to study.
Many Ba Gua Zhang practitioners feel like going to mainland China to study would be a big waste of time because they are interested in learning more than choreographed form movements. Our group is going there to study with individuals who do not teach form routines which are designed to win tournament events. I wanted the readers to know this. I felt I needed to make that distinction so that people would know what to expect if they go on this trip. Perhaps my words were too strong, and I am sorry if people were offended. For people who want to learn that type of "Ba Gua," I think that it is great if that is what they are looking for in Ba Gua. Good luck at the tournament, I hope you bring home a nice trophy. My announcement in the journal was addressed to those who are looking to learn more than the flashy form, someone going to China on a Chinese government-sponsored wushu training trip would get.
Fortunately for those of us who are interested in trying to preserve the martial arts as they were practiced and taught in the days when these arts were trained for use in combat, there are a number of individuals still around in China who are willing to teach combat oriented Ba Gua. However, if one was to travel to mainland China today in search of such individuals, chances are they will not be found. They do exist, however, they are somewhat "underground." They do not associate with the government "wushu" people and they are not happy about what the mainland government has done to the Chinese martial arts in their "contemporary wushu" programs.
When I was in China in the fall of 1991 I attended a "contemporary wushu" event and I also visited a couple of "contemporary wushu" schools. The event was held in a very large coliseum with many government officials in attendance. The news media covered the event and it was evident that the Chinese government had spent a lot of money putting together this event. It was very much a carnival atmosphere. There was a parade before the event began and Chinese acrobats provided pre-tournament entertainment. While all of the performers in this event were very skilled at what they did and had obviously worked very hard to perfect their skills, in my opinion, none of the performer's routines had any real martial content. They were just dancers. I had seen many of these disappointing performances in the U.S., but this was China! I had hoped for better.
While watching these performers it was obvious to me that they could not take their routines and defend themselves with the art they were mimicking if their lives depended on it. When the "full contact" event occurred, this became blatantly obvious. Without exception, all of the contestants in the full contact event used western kickboxing techniques. Not only that, but their level of skill was so bad that any decent western kickboxer or good western boxer could have cleaned house easily. What happened to all of the great techniques that they performed in their solo routines? Those techniques that they worked so hard to perfect and made look so beautiful in their brightly colored silk outfits were thrown out the window because they were not properly trained in how to use them.
At the government sponsored wushu schools in China the students train very hard, however, they do not train how to fight, they train how to perform. They don't train in one style, they train in many styles. They learn dozens of compulsory forms from various martial arts styles. My question is, how can they be expected to really develop any deep level of skill in any one of these arts? Additionally, they train every style in an identical fashion. They train Ba Gua and Xing Yi in the same manner they train the compulsory Long Fist routines. To them a form is a form is a form.
Most of the really good Ba Gua and Xing Yi instructors I've encountered in China have spent their entire lives studying nothing but Ba Gua and/or Xing Yi and they still feel as though they have not had enough time to go as deep as they could have. How can one expect a wushu performer who has studied nothing but form routines for 10 or 15 years, trained in 6 or 7 different internal and external styles from a half dozen different "coaches" to have a deep understanding or skill in arts like Ba Gua or Xing Yi, much less apply these arts in a real fight? It is not happening over there in the "contemporary wushu" schools, but it is happening in the traditional schools.
The traditional "schools" in China consist of a handful of students studying one art with one teacher in the teacher's home or in a local park. They start with the fundamentals of the style and they build slowly and steadily, studying every aspect of the art with a true "master." By studying the art in this manner these students gain much more than the sterile environment of a government sponsored wushu school could ever offer. Arts like Ba Gua and Xing Yi cannot be mass produced in a large school setting and the training cannot be mixed with a dozen other styles. To develop a deep understanding requires study of every aspect of one art, with one teacher, and a lot of time and hard work on that one thing every day.
In April of 1992 Liang Ke Quan took me to a "traditional wushu" tournament in Beijing. The circumstances were much different than the year before at the "contemporary wushu" tournament. The tournament received no government support, it was held in a dimly lit warehouse with broken glass in the windows, most of the lights did not work, and the floor was cement. The practitioners did not have fancy colorful sequined outfits. There were no government officials on hand, there was no media, no parade, no cameras, no cover charge, very few spectators, and no carnival atmosphere. The practitioners did not jump from one ring to another performing a variety of compulsory wushu routines. It was plain and simple. Students demonstrated the one art that they had been studying from their one teacher.
There was a huge difference in the quality of performance here as compared to the contemporary wushu event I had attended the year before. I watched the Ba Gua and Xing Yi events and got a much different feeling from these practitioners. They had strength, power, connection, intention, and refined skill. It was evident from their movement, power, and intention that they had been trained in how to apply what they were doing. After seeing these practitioners I felt very sad that the government is hyping the "dance" Ba Gua and trying to erase what I would consider to be the "real thing" out of existence.
In my opinion, in mainland China today the government is promoting performers and dancers, not martial artists. There is no doubt that these contemporary wushu people work very hard to perfect what they do. I also think that wushu basic training is valuable for any beginning martial artist. Their basic skills training is great for the development of flexibility, strength, coordination, balance and stamina. However, after basic skills training their progress rarely reaches beyond performance oriented form routines. While I have a great deal of respect for their work, dedication, and ability, in the end, they are still only performers, not martial artists. They have taken one very small aspect of the martial arts, namely forms practice, standardized it and made that the sum and total of what they do. These performers have great flexibility, body control, and strength, however, so do gymnasts, acrobats, and dancers and we do not call what they do "war arts."
The contemporary wushu practitioners have taken traditional forms and filled them full of head whipping, nose flaring flash and pizazz so that they will be more visually exciting. In the process they have stripped them of much of the real content. By real content, I am not only talking only about fighting skills, but additionally I am referring to correct health promoting, and internal strength promoting, structural and energetic alignments and connections which make arts like Ba Gua such great health maintenance vehicles. Internal martial arts performed correctly should be a combination of efficient body alignments, natural movements and focused martial intention. The body alignments, internal connections and natural movements allow the internal energetic strengths to reach full potential and the correct martial intention moves that power and energy. The contemporary wushu people have taken the "naturalness" out of arts which are ideally performed naturally and efficiently. They have tried to make something visual which should be hidden. Many of the internal masters have said that if the power can be seen by an observer, it is not internal. Furthermore, in Ba Gua they have standardized an art form which is based on the principles of variation and change. The wushu people focus on the flower and ignore the roots, trunk, and branches.
During my trips to China I have traced the origins of a number of the popular Ba Gua "contemporary wu shu" routines and in the process I have been fortunate enough to witness some of the older generation masters demonstrate these same forms. The differences are very obvious when the two are compared; in the contemporary wushu routines there is no doubt that the body articulations have been greatly modified to emphasize "flash" and in the process structural integrity, natural, efficient movement, and basic internal alignments are sacrificed. Many Ba Gua instructors in China fully agree with this assessment and in China today there is a very great distinction made by the traditional stylists between what is referred to as "contemporary wushu" and what is called "traditional wushu."
While some of the contemporary wushu stylists would argue that their arts are traditional, seeing someone from a traditional school demonstrate their skill next to a contemporary wushu artist is like watching Muhammed Ali shadow box next to a ballet dancer. Both have a high degree of athletic ability and grace, but there is no doubt who you would want on your side in a bar fight. While winning bar fights is not the only reason, or even the main reason to study martial arts, strip them of this quality and intention and they are no longer martial arts. You might as well call it "martial dance."
Because the government in China is promoting something, this does not necessarily mean that it is popular with the elder generation martial artists. Since the purpose of my trips to mainland China has been to meet elder generation martial artists who still teach in a traditional manner, most of the martial artists in mainland China whom I have met feel that the "contemporary wushu" is not martial arts at all. They feel that it is worthless, silly, and not deserving of the name "wushu." Of course you never hear about these people in the media because the communist government will not allow it. They are trying to put "contemporary wu shu" in the Olympic games and so naturally anyone who is not "with the program" is harassed into silence. Most practitioners that I have met in China who are over the age of 70 think contemporary wushu is fine for health, or performance, but they don't consider it to be anywhere close to what they would call real martial arts.
In my view, the "real thing" is something that is complete. If someone takes an art and removes a segment of the training process, it is no longer complete, it is a fragment. In 1992 I visited the home of Li Tian Ji ^ «). Li Tian Ji had studied Ba Gua Zhang with his father, Li Yu Lin and with Sun
Sun Lu Tang and also a student of Li Cun Yi's ) student Hao En Guang & JL). Li Tian Ji is known to have taught a particular form of Ba Gua to many of the early contemporary wushu students. When I met with Li, I asked him where that form originated. He told me that he himself had made up that form back in the 1950's when the government was attempting to standardize martial arts training. He said that in compiling this form, he took pieces of the Ba Gua that he had learned from his father and simplified it so that it would be more accessible to the general public. Consequently it became one of the standard contemporary Ba Gua wushu forms in the wushu schools in China. At the wushu schools, study of this one form was the entire Ba Gua "program." Is this drastic simplification of Ba Gua still the "real thing?" In my opinion it is not. There is no system of training, no Ba Gua specific supplementary exercises, no internal development method, no step-by-step training process, no fighting method, and no lineage associated with studying this simplified form alone. In my opinion, it is too watered down to be what I would consider "real Ba Gua." Ba Gua Zhang has a very complete, Ba Gua specific, system of training, it is not just a form.
Contemporary wushu Ba Gua is great exercise and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their external health, flexibility, coordination, and body strength. However, I would not consider it real Ba Gua and I do not consider wushu Ba Gua to be an internal martial art. They have removed the qualities which make the art internal. I become concerned when I see that only a small fragment of this deep and wonderful art is being passed along to students in the United States who study with these modern day wushu stylists. I feel that if a teacher leaves out the qi gong, the meditation, the breathing exercises, the footwork drills, the basic hand sets, the body development exercises, the power development exercises, the many various straight-line and circle-walking forms, the sparring aspects, the many two-person sets, the fighting philosophy, the fighting applications, fighting theories and methods, the internal strength development training, etc., which is all Ba Gua Zhang specific, his or her teaching is not "balanced" and not complete.
In China, it is my experience that the traditional teachers have much more to offer than the wushu coaches in terms of martial arts, health, character development, and balanced practice and I want to help promote them because their government will not. This is why we are taking groups of people to train in mainland China and why we will continue to sponsor some of these instructors to teach here in the United States.
In the next issue of the Pa Kua Chang Journal we will print part two of this article. Part two will discuss the history of Ba Gua Zhang instruction in mainland China, what a complete system of Ba Gua Zhang contains and why there are so many fragmented Ba Gua systems being taught today both in and outside of China.
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