The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, November 15, 2013

An Introduction to Baguazhang

For the past several months, I have become interested in the circle walking practice of Baguazhang.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Plum Publishing, which is an excellent introduction to the Internal Chinese Martial Art of Baguazhang. The full article may be read here.

Bagua Explained

NOTE: This is not so much an article as an ongoing process which will expand over time. The Art of Eight Trigram Boxing is deep and wonderful but not intuitively obvious. We hope to aid the dedicated and guide the wandering. Read a little here and there and use what seems to help. Ba Gua Zhang is worth the effort and – while some sections might not seem immediately clear – the art will unlock itself to the persistent.


To many people Ba Gua is the most exotic martial art. It can also be one of the most confusing. Part of this confusion derives from the richness of the style. It came late (1860′s) on the martial scene and folded many of Kung Fu’s best ideas into a very small space. Ba Gua is a miniaturized martial art, almost a nano-art–not that the information is small, but that it is extremely compact. Studying Ba Gua can be like listening to a world famous teacher who is totally fascinating but whose ideas and words come so fast and brilliantly you are dazed rather than enlightened.

I didn’t write the above paragraph as preface a but as a premise. If we use this suggested template of sophistication and compaction we’re going to get along just fine. Ba Gua’s not mystical. It’s not fake.
It’s not “too Asian.” It’s not transcendentally impossible. But it’s also not the “baby steps” approach to Kung Fu training.

At PLUM we are receiving many questions and comments in the vein of, “I don’t want you to send me the Mother Palms unless they have Changes.” “What is Ba Gua San Shou?” “Do you have the Eight Changing Palms or the Sixty-four Changing Palms of the complete XYZ branch?” “I want ONLY the moving changes, not the static changes.”


Before we get any further, let’s establish a vocabulary. As with everything in this article, you may disagree with my usage of certain terms, but it will help to share a code while reading.

PALM: means the whole body
PALM CHANGE: a specific series of actions which reverse your direction on the circle
SIMPLE CHANGE: any of an assortment of actions down to just shifting the feet that perform a change of direction without the choreographed “Palm Changes”
EIGHT MOTHER PALMS: Arm postures held in certain positions while walking the circle or standing
EIGHT CHANGING PALMS: A choreographed series of movements divided unto eight sections including the Single Palm Change and the Double Palm Change. These are performed on both sides. Each of them reverses the directions of the walker through a complex series of moves.
HAND POSITIONS: hand positions in BaGua mean entire postures including the waist and feet
WALKING THE CIRCLE: The basic practice of BaGua is a stylized method of walking in a circle while performing the actions of the styles.
MARCHING: Walking in a straight line while performing self defense series.


(Also “8 Big Palms” also the “Old Palms.”) What is the problem with the Mother Palms? Well, people often see these as very simple minded basics, something like the intermediate stages between circle walking and the really good stuff (The 8 Palm Changes). But the Mother Palms are absolutely crucial to doing one of Ba Gua’s most difficult tasks: actually changing the way one is thinking.

Without going on at length here are some of the training methods connected to the Mother.
Dispelling toxins from the body!
Strengthening certain internal organs
Strengthening the arms
Opening the chest and exercising the waist
Key elemental actions for fighting
Preparation for weapons work
Divorcing the torso from the steps
Bridging between standing practice and the later Palm Changes
Introducing all the elements which will be used in the Changes
Developing the essential BI-dimensional thinking
Feeling animal qualities

Training the mind to control the body through “intent”

The Mother Palms are often associated with the Eight Original Trigrams. They are performed in a circle but while the arms don’t move much they do engage and disengage.

As you walk the circle you change. Let’s say you are walking the Lion in CW direction and want to change to CCW. What do you do with your arms? Herein lies a vocabulary problem.

A. Some teachers let you do whatever you want. This is Mother Palms with no changes.
B. Some teachers use a standard change like Lion change to other Lion (slap hands together, separate them). These are Simple Changes.
C. Some animals have multiple possible Simple Changes.

In my school there are at least three ways to get from Lion CW to Lion CCW. (Really there are almost infinite methods but that’s another story.) So the Eight Palms have three each or 24 changes.

That’s if there are no changes from one animal to another such as Lion to Snake. What would be the combinations there? Well, the combinatorial is, I believe, 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 or 5280 changes.


San Shou can mean miscellaneous or “free” hands so “San Shou” can mean almost anything including Jimmy Woo’s famous fighting system. It can mean partner exercises ranging from a completely choreographed set to a series of exercises that are barely structured. It can also, for instance, denote Ba Gua Applications. But one of the most important and specific meanings is a sort of free form “riff” exercise where all that one has learned can be mixed spontaneously or nearly so.

What do I mean by “nearly so?” Well to sort of jump start the spontaneous (as in Chinese painting, for instance) teachers have created forms with three classical levels of “ad libbing.”
A. A completely choreographed set but hinting at the many ways of bridging.
B. A choreographed set with sections where the student may ad lib.
C. Completely spontaneous mixing of moves.

The first method may introduce another term: Ba Gua Huan Lian Tao Lu or a Ba Gua “Linked” or “Linking” set where the Changing Palms never go back to the other side of the circle and just morph into other moves. The odd thing here is that such a form may not even look like Ba Gua. It may resemble some other style like Lost Track. However, it sure feels like Ba Gua from the inside. (It also shows that Ba Gua need not walk in a circle. A friend of mine was tossed out of a tournament by a well known Chinese teacher of BaGua under the injunction that “Ba Gua is always done in a circle.” Ah.)

The second method is obviously a bridge allowing some spontaneous sections inserted. The third section is obvious.


walt said...

I've been mulling Bagua as an exercise form, a la Tom Bisio and the folks at Plum, thinking I could use the Advent Challenge (if it comes!) as a time frame to begin. But, uh ... where to begin?

Well, this article is good: defining terms is a help. And Mancuso suggests in one of his books to not fret, but just start by walking in a circle. And lately while standing, I find myself playing with some of the forms, so obviously it's becoming infectious.

A LARGE subject, nonetheless -- exciting and overwhelming, in its way. I'll enjoy reading about your insights as you proceed. Thanks for this article.

Rick said...

A very large subject and very interesting.

Compass Strategist said...

@ Walt, Mancuso is correct. It starts with the walking the circle or walking the line.

You can find some more notes at and

Paul said...

It is always interesting to watch demonstration of BGZ. The performance is mapped on an imaginery circle with the performer freely attacks and defends clockwise, counter-clockwise and in other directions (towards or away from center of circle, not necessarily perpendicular to the tangent of the circle). I always wonder whether or not originally it had something to do with the background of the founder Master Dong HaiChuan, legend had it that he, in revenge, killed a local bully and became a fugitive for many years (and learned martial arts on the run) before he hid inside Qing court and later founded BGZ. Probably he needed (and therefore trained himself accordingly) to fight on many fronts at the same time....