Bagua Zhang - Philosophical Beginnings

Dong Haichuan the originator of Bagua Zhang is believed to have studied traditional Northern styles of martial arts in China during his life. Later he was taught a circle walking meditation practice by Taoists known as the Chuan Chen Chiao sect1. He incorporated this circle walking into his martial practice and developed what today is known as Bagua Zhang or Eight Trigram Palm. Like so many of the other Chinese martial styles very little was written or recorded but passed along verbally. Whether the history and details of how Dong originated Bagua is apocryphal or not it is connected to the I Ching. Although, many students today study Bagua without any I Ching theory it is believed the connection was made by Dong to give his students a theoretical basis for researching and improving the art after he was gone. The purpose here is to provide brief coverage of the theory and how it relates to Bagua for those who are interested.

Yin and Yang Theory

Developed by ancient Chinese as they observed that nature was in a constant state of change driven by complementary forces that were interconnected and displayed observable patterns. These forces are seen as dualities: Yin and Yang. These dualities are characterized by seemingly opposite natures: male and female, light and dark, hot and cold, dry and wet, fire and water, etc. These describe characteristics and should be thought of as degrees of character of a type rather than the extreme of one or the other. Symbolized by the Taiji diagram it indicates the cyclic nature of Yin and Yang. They from the whole and become the basis to understanding the nature of things.

Within the diagram the white is yang and black is yin. It represents a cyclic movement from one to the other. As yang reaches its extreme it returns to yin and as yin reaches its extreme it returns to yang. The small circles in the center of each indicate that within yin there is yang and within yang there is yin.

Yin and Yang Relativity

When discussing Yin and Yang theory students often use words that indicate the two are opposites. However, they are complementary characteristics and are not absolute, but relative to one another. As previously stated there are degrees of each. For instance day is considered yang and night is considered yin. Within the day the strongest yang is from one to three in the afternoon with earlier times changing from yin with each hour having lesser degrees of yin until the peak of yang is reached. Afterwards, the yang begins to wane as the yin gradually increases until it has reached its peak and night time occurs.

For the martial art practitioner the practice should always seek a balance between the hard and soft. Hard training is considered to be external or typically physical in nature. Soft or yin training is considered internal or meditative in character. In terms of martial skill the person should be aware and prepared to adapt to the situation with their opponent. If necessary use an absorbing or soft technique to redirect a hard technique of an opponent. Knowing when to change from hard to soft, fast to slow, when to change direction or counter versus attach is the application of the interplay between yin and yang.

From Wuji to Bagua

Baguazhang means eight trigram palm. Gua refers to a specific trigram consisting of solid and broken lines in sets of three. Each set of three lines correspond to the dualistic nature of yin and yang.

Wuji refers to nothingness; the state before Taiji of Yin and Yang. The two states of Yin and Yang yielded the four phases of Si Xiang: strong Yin, weak Yang, weak Yin, and strong Yang 2. The four phases in turn yield the Bagua as pictured in the diagram.

Evolution of Eight Trigrams

Eight Trigrams Derived from Taiji

Eight Trigrams Theory

The eight trigrams represent the number of combinations of the Yin and Yang in sets of three. They are often associated with natural objects: earth, mountain, water, wind, thunder, fire, lake, and heaven. They also have other forms associated with them, such as colors, numbers, animals, directions, and even seasons. These indicate characteristics more so than literal associations with objects and are used to assist in understanding of the natural world.

From Theory to Application

Bagua diagrams are used to understand the natural changes occurring around us. Changes driven by the flow of energy or Qi and how it manifests itself. Possibly the single most important concept from the theory is that of continuous change. Individuals too have circulation and flow of Qi as does the known universe. The martial artist needs an understanding of this for health purposes and for application. Eight different parts of the human body correspond to the eight trigrams. Although, as previously stated these are not fixed entities of a particular type but vary depending of the time and circumstance. The trigrams represent transformations and again the reader is advised against strongly associating them to any literal meaning given by a tag.

Nothing in nature stands still - everything changes. Self-awareness is the basis for understanding change

Instead the martial artist needs to develop a sense of the change and flow of movements when used either for health or for application. Combinations of attack and defense in response to the flow of changes rather than relying on fixed or predetermined sequences. Bagua relies on footwork to enable circular changes more so than linear attacks or retreats. Many of the techniques are designed to upset an opponent's root or disrupt their rhythm and flow thereby giving the martial artist and advantage.

This is but a very brief overview of a complex subject. The two references sited below allow a more detailed explanation of both the theory and the application and provide specific skills and techniques of Bagua.

1. Bok-Nam Park, Dan Miller. Fundamentals of Pa Kua Chang Vol I. Burbank CA. 1995
2. Shou-Yu Liang, Jwing-Ming Yang. Emei Baguazhang. Jamaica Plain, MA; 1996