Ever made Congee? Rice soup. Take one cup of rice and ten cups of water and boil the rice until it explodes basically into mush. Then of course this is when people make it taste like something adding chicken, mushrooms, tofu, soy sauce, chili oil etc etc. What is interesting about Congee though is that it can be made into so many different types of meals. Chicken and mushrooms and chili oil are a very different soup than bok choi, black fungus and Hoison sauce. It is the flavorless, Yin, basic Congee that is so boring that allows it to become so many tasty things. But no matter what is added to change its flavour, it never stops being Congee. Plain Congee is pretty boring, but without it we have no meal. Bagua is like learning to like plain old Congee, tasting the tasteless.
Baguazhang has been one of the hardest and most rewarding arts I have practiced and continue to practice for me. I love trying to unravel things and reverse engineering an art that was built with all of the other internal arts already around is more than difficult. Since Dong Haichuan created Bagua after Taiji, Xingyi, Xinyiliuhe, Xinyiba, and so on were already around and the internal arts movement or evolution had already begun, he had access to a wealth of research and information on martial arts to draw from. I am not going to go into the debate about Bagua being from wudangshan vs him creating it himself here, lets just leave that by the wayside for now.
Dong also began by teaching people who were already masters of other arts like Cheng Tinghua and Yin Fu (Shuai Jiao and Shaolin Lohan boxing respectively). This very much would have played a major role in how he approached Bagua to share it with them as opposed to teaching beginners in martial arts. Later in Dongs life he did accept beginners as disciples but there is evidence that he was not really the one teaching much at that point and it was likely Cheng Tinghua doing the teaching and building of drills to teach beginners during Dongs old age, again not the debate I want to wade in to here.
So what was Dong trying to share with these students who obviously had already accomplished high levels of martial skill? What is Bagua? Well, this is the question that has plagued me throughout my Bagua practice and although these are of course just my own opinions from my training and research I thought I would share it as it may have some use for others who are working through their own path in the puzzle of Baguazhang training.
Baguazhang is the art of change, but what does that mean?
In martial arts we first train to understand and perform postures, horse stance, black tiger stealing the heart, flash the back and so on. We train to link them together into choreographed sequences and train them daily (ideally) until we can begin to apply these combinations on opponents. At first with partners in class, then non cooperative sparring, we learn about the timing, distancing and power needed to apply these things and if we don’t give in to the idea that we know better than our teachers (rejecting what we see as useless before we even understand it) we start to see the ways these things are meant to be used. A decent player in any style should be able to apply the style they have learned by situation and circumstance with an opponent. Many times this takes years and although a lot of students never reach this ability due to a variety of reasons, some do and usually become teachers at this point. A few will get to the place that they are not even trying to apply movements to opponents anymore and instead will allow the opponent to put themselves into positions that resemble previous training methods and then apply them, allowing the opponent to decide what is used against them.
So far Baguazhang, from the perspective of a beginner training to intermediate levels and trying to understand it does the same. Drills, forms, push hands, two person work and forms, weapons etc. like any other art. Progressing into more advanced levels of training we find all martial arts worth their weight focusing on principles and mindsets to better understand the art itself and allow it to become more and more “formless”. Herein lies the rub if you ask me, what is meant by formlessness in martial arts? How do we achieve it? Why?
If we return to the idea of learning movements and postures and then linking them together, we can start to look at our training with a different mind. Yin/Yang theory (Taiji) is something given a lot of lip service in martial arts practice and while it is generally understood it is something that should not be thrown away as a way of thinking someone “gets”. Applying the idea of yin/yang to training is of the utmost importance in developing a real understanding of your art. Yin/Yang are ways of defining aspects of a single thing in order to be able to better understand its qualities, properties and to be able to examine parts of a whole. Without a distinction between “this” and “that” we are attempting to discuss the whole of the universe at once. It is far easier to break up things into their parts in order to better examine and understand them. Therefore if we look at postures as snapshots in time during movements “Horse breaks Free”, “Tiger descends the Mountain” and so on we can define these moments as either yin or yang. For our purposes here I will define postures as Yang, hard and apparent examples of martial arts. The Obvious.
This means that between postures there are snapshots in time of Yin. Not postures, moving and not static, the moves between the moves. As one of my masters told to me “In between moves is the Gong Fu”. These moments of change and movement, the yin in this case are where the real skill lies in training at this stage. It is not just superior structure and alignment in postures with names that is the martial art but the way one moves from one to another without sacrificing all the necessary tenets of the art and its movement. In music one would say it is the spaces between the notes.
These yin moments in training are the moments of change, the amorphous cloud where the players body is manifesting power, structure and skill while in motion. Dissolving a shape to create another one. Opponents do not fall from postures, they are defeated by movements. After some time one starts to see there are far more spaces between the movements than there are movements and postures themselves. Names of the postures begin to take on more and more meaning. Less do they refer to the appearance of the end shape, more do they refer to the movement, mind and spirit of the techniques itself. The gong fu resides in the motion not the stillness at its end. Horse breaks free from the corral is not about the punching posture at it’s end, but rather the charging, surging motion in the torso as though breaking through the timbers of a fence. The final strike need not even be with punches or even hands if the energy, intention and mind come together properly. Headbutt, elbow, who cares? If the purpose combatively is to kill the opponent, make him dead. It does not matter what the weapon was.
Baguazhang has more moments in between than postures and positions by design. In fact I would argue that there are so few real postures in Bagua that they are almost manufactured for students to have something to latch on to when they are training and learning the art in an attempt to make it less confusing. When training it is the motion and continuous rolling, coiling, surging and twisting like a tornado that is the manifestation of the art. Movement guided by principles that run deep in the art like other truths in reality, things like gravity, things that are real and proven to be true. I believe Master Dong had found this in his own training and when he began reaching past where his teachers of martial arts had taken him he found this truth of change. Just as air density changes by altitude, yet remains air; Baguazhang is martial arts that changes constantly yet remains martial arts. The concept of change is not an idea to the Bagua player at high levels, it is an indisputable truth they are trying to embody through themselves.
There is history that Dong did not originally even name his art Baguazhang, instead he called is turning palm or changing palm. Baguazhang was a name later adopted for it and most likely had to do with referencing elder Taoist concepts as is the fashion with Chinese martial arts. There is also legend that he only taught three palm ”changes” to his students and worked with them on their own strengths and backgrounds, encouraging them to embody the principles ad worrying not about them doing “his art” but instead doing their own. Looking at the arts passed down by his students we can see this clearly, Yin Fu Bagua is very different from Cheng Tinghua Bagua embodying those men and how they trained, thought and did martial arts. The point i am trying to make clear here is very much “Do not seek to be like the men of old, instead seek what they sought.” Train the art with a teacher who can pass it on, work to understand it and then allow it to change from your own experiences. The idea of doing something the same way for hundreds of years is ludicrous, every master, student, teacher and player does things differently according to their own reality. If the principles of the art are kept intact, how is this change wrong? Master Dong Haichuan did not seem to think change was a bad thing so why would we?
My advice for people who may read this while starting their path into Baguazhang is this. Study and practice diligently. Work hard to learn the movements and methods of your teacher. Train them until you can see the principles present themselves, then work to be yourself in this life and allow your art to be a place of your expression of your understanding, love for the art and true self. Let it be yours. As martial artists we tend to always compare ourselves to the “men of old” in a way that makes them seem like supermen. We are the living art here and now, embrace that and find your happiness. Strive for perfection and be accepting and gentle with who you are. Baguazhang is a great art for this, learn form to become formless. You can’t let something go until you have picked it up first.