Snake-like body movements; highly evasive footwork; powerful palm strikes; and , of course, the practice of walking in a circle. These are common descriptions of the rare Chinese martial art, Ba Gua Zhang. When observed at any demonstration, Ba Gua Zhang is clearly unique. The flavor of the movements is so distinct that it is hard to mistake it for something else. However, this is but the surface of a very deep art form. In order to unlock the keys to its depth one needs to understand how it was created.
Ba Gua (Eight Trigrams) simply means “change”. Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Trigram Palm) is a fighting art that uses that concept and applies it to self-defense (and health).
In terms of Chinese martial arts, Ba Gua Zhang is very young. As the youngest, the creators were able to learn from other well-known martial arts and in turn improve on them.
But how does one improve on arts that are at least 100’s of years older and that have been tested and proven in combat repeatedly over time?
My teacher of Ba Gua Zhang, Master Bok-Nam Park, has stressed “principles are most important” for as long as I’ve known him.
In general, most martial arts will have the student remember countless techniques for numerous situations. The more the student remembers, the higher the rank (of course proficiency is also part of it).
Master Park has never taught that way. His system has always been geared towards “body development” along with teaching his students “how to think for themselves.”
The Real Difference of Ba Gua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang):
So how is it so different? Well, this Chinese internal martial arts system utilizes the Laws of Nature as they have been observed over thousands of years and explained through Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, and the Book of Changes (Yi Jing).
Within this Ba Gua Zhang system, everything we do must adhere to these Natural Principles. And therein lies the real difference.
The Natural Principles are a way in which to describe how the universe works. Through extensive observation and reflection, the wise among the ancients discovered these Laws that no man could have created. Adhering to these Laws results in a smoother flow with all that is within you and around you. Going against these Laws will lead to difficulty and struggle.
In essence, Ba Gua Zhang is a system of self-defense and health that was created in adherence to these Natural Principles.
So the way to make one’s martial arts skills better, no matter how famous or how high is a martial artist’s level, is to apply these Natural Principles.
Any martial art is good. Any school can produce excellent fighters. If you fight a lot you should become pretty good at it. However, if you understand the Laws of Nature and how to apply them you can improve any martial art. With the proper education you can think and create for yourself.
For example, if something is wrong in your body you can figure out how to fix it. If you are tired from working all day loading trucks with heavy boxes you would know that you have been spending physical energy all day and eating a nutritious meal is how your body will replenish itself. You can sit down and rest all you want, but if you don’t eat that meal you will continue to feel weak and depleted.
If you spend all day on a computer and you are tired at the end of the day (or even during the day for that matter) you would know that you have been spending internal / mental energy and therefore sitting down and doing some deep breathing exercises will replenish this internal energy. Sure, you need exercise, but that will mostly circulate the energy, not build more. First you need to replenish the energy used, and the brain cells use about 12x the oxygen of other cells in the body. Deep breathing will bring in fresh oxygen and replenish what was spent.
In a self-defense situation, what if you are suddenly jumped as you leave work and your attacker is much bigger and stronger than you? Would it make sense to use your strength against him? Of course not! So because you are familiar with how to properly move your body due to all your training in Ba Gua Zhang, you know to find the path of least resistance and you are able turn-the-tables on your opponent as he stumbles past you (you moved). You then come up from behind to surprise him!
When practicing with a partner and trying to figure out the best way to defend, always think of these Principles. If your partner attacks with his right leg, is it better to go to the outside or the inside? Why?
Imagine for a moment you’re both standing with your left leg forward and your partner tries to kick you with his right foot (the back leg). If you try to go to his right (or to the outside of his right leg) you are in essence going to speed up his attack! (If two objects are both moving towards each other aren’t they going to reach each other sooner than if only one was moving? How about if the second object is moving away?).
You see, this is a Natural Principle. No need to your martial arts complicated with Chinese philosophy. When you can start to see these things for yourself, you will also be able to come up with the answers to questions you were never asked in class.
Do you think sprinters use starting blocks with their hands on the ground in front of them because it looks cool? Maybe it does, but natural laws teach us that if you want to create a quick burst of speed you should get into a low posture. Just watch the predators on the Discovery channel!
The study of Ba Gua Zhang is like learning how to make your own music. Instead of just copying someone else’s creation all the time you are able to improvise because you understand how it all works. Playing someone else’s creation is fine, but the difference between the good musician and the maestro is how deep inside the understanding goes.
Mathematicians have the same process, from the fundamentals of 2+2 to the calculations required to launch a space shuttle. Once the fundamentals are understood and adhered to one can take it as far as the mind can see. How do you think I can write this Ba Gua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang) newsletter without using longhand?
Now, going back to the example of the kick, do I mean that you should always go to the inside of the kick? Never say “always” to anything. If you have to cross that kick to get to the inside then wouldn’t you again be moving into its path and again adding to its speed? The situation at hand determines the optimal response. What you need to train is the ability to see the optimal move at the optimal time. The ability to change as needed is the most difficult skill to acquire. There is no magic bullet. Consistent proper practice over time is the only way.
In addition to the abstract principles of Chinese philosophy, Lu Shui-Tian Bok-Nam Park’s teacher, passed on to him the fighting principles of Ba Gua Zhang. Here are the first two self-defense principles. The wise practitioner of this system learns to apply these with thorough “imagination sparring” (solo training) and “research sparring” (training with a partner):
Close the Door:
The “door” is simply “a way in.” If you want to keep someone out of your car or home, isn’t it wise to close and lock the door? Where are your “open doors” when trying to defend yourself? If you figure that out isn’t it easier to know how to keep them closed?
This article started with a simple definition for Ba Gua: change. Continuous change is a Natural Principle. Everything is continuously moving and changing. It is essential to life. Which is easier, to hit a stationary target or one that is moving? If someone wants to physically hurt you in some way, what do you think would be better, to stand still or to move?
With a proper education, we can learn to think for ourselves.
Lu Shui-Tian once said to Bok-Nam Park, “I am not your Shifu, nature is your true Shifu.”
To discover more about what makes Ba Gua Chang so distinct from other martial arts styles see How Ba Gua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang) is Different from other Martial Arts – Part 2.
Originally published in October, 2002 Newsletter