Kung Fu Secrets: The Bagua & The Book of Changes

Ba Gua: (Chinese)

Literally “eight changes” (八卦 – also pa kua). Along with the five elements, the eight changes form the basis of nearly all Chinese metaphysical systems, especially the I Ching (or Yijing), the oracle book. The eight trigrams are said to be formed by every possible interaction of yin and yang, represented by broken or complete lines:

☰, qian, heaven, is all yang;
☷, kun, earth, is all yin;
☵, kan, the dangerous ravine, is yang surrounded by yin;
☲, li, fire, is yin surrounded by yang;
☳, chen, thunder, is yin overwhelming yang;
☶, gen, is yin rising beneath yang;
☴, xun, wind, is yang overwhelming yin; and
☱, dui, the joyful marsh, is yang rising beneath yin.

Mirrors framed by the eight trigrams are used to repel evil forces, and the martial art baguazhang is based on harnessing eight kinds of movements in different combinations. The use of the eight trigrams to foretell the future or receive divine advice traces back to the ancient practice of scapulimancy: burning bones or turtle shells over a fire and deciphering the cracks that form as various trigrams showing how things were about to change. (See FENGSHUI, TAO, XUANGUI, YANG, YIN, CHINESE CHARACTERS: “木, 火, 土, 金, 水”)

The eight trigrams can be arranged after two models: early and later or pre-celestal (前天) and post-clestial (后天) arrangements. Conceptually speaking, the pre-celestial configuration represents the unconditioned, celestial state, distinguished by oneness and true consciousness, it is here where the Original Spirit or Primordial Qi is present. The post-celestial maps the conditioned, human state, distinguished by multiplicity and discriminating consciousness, when the Original Spirit is hidden behind human activity such as acquired conditioning, compulsive habits, the six senses causing trouble, wandering thoughts and what’s described as the seven emotions.

pre-celestal I Ching
post-clestial I Ching

The Martial Art: Baguazhang

Baguazhang (八卦掌) also sometimes called Pakua chang, though there are differences is one of the three iconic martial arts styles considered to have originated from the temples of Wudang mountain, the other two being Taiji and Xing Yi Quan. It is more broadly grouped as an internal practice (Bāguà zhǎng literally means “eight trigram palm”, referring to the bagua “trigrams” of the I Ching (Yijing), one of the canons of Taoism.

Bagua was created by Grandmaster Dong Haichuan (1797 or 1813 – 1882 董海川), a tax collector and bodyguard in the imperial palace during China’s Qing dynasty.  Unusual among most kung fu styles because it is not as form-based.  The fighting system is based upon eight techniques for attack and defense, and these can be strung together in any order during practice.  In some instances, these patterns are assembled into forms, but it isn’t nearly as reliant upon the precice reconstruction of a specific series of movements which make up a Chinese kung fu from: what practitioners of Karate would call a Kata.. 

It’s believed Dong Haichuan learned from Taoist and Buddhist masters in the mountains of rural China. Many Chinese authorities would refute the Buddhist influences, maintaining that those teachers were purely Taoist in origin. As Baguazhang frequently makes reference to concepts central to Taoism; Yin and Yang the I Ching and Taoism’s most distinctive paradigm, the Bagua diagram (shown above), one can see why.

“I don’t think Dong went, ‘Alright, this is the Yijing and I’m going to figure out Bagua from that.’  Even Sun Lutang (founder of his own style of Taiji which incorporated Bagua, 1860–1933 孫祿堂) writes about how he went to Wudang and Emei to study Daoism and after he came back from that, he began writing about the connection to Bagua and Yijing and all these things.  A lot of that stuff was developed after the art was already created to kind of flesh it out with more cultural understanding, how the Chinese look at things. It fits so elegantly. The Yijing is a way of dealing with time and space.  It gives you an understanding of how to manipulate space and time.  According to some of the writings, each movement, each footwork, each technique has a different variation.  And because you have right and left, you have sixteen.  The other thing that’s really interesting is if you look at most traditional Chinese martial arts, they are all right-handed.  Bagua is symmetrical.  Because Dong was in a more modern era, he had a chance to think about that and create a symmetrical martial art, one that didn’t matter whether you were right-handed or left-handed.  So you have an infinite number of variations to understand.  However, it makes the art really hard to learn.”

Master Bryant Fong: Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine October 2014

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