Baguazhang - basartikel om den inre kampstilen Bagua

Baguazhang – a bystander´s primer to the art of change

In comparison to Taiji and Xingyi, Baguazhang is one of the hidden Internal Arts. With its spiralling, twisting, turning actions likened to that of a moving dragon, with its sudden changes of direction and hands that misleadingly seem to fly separate from the body, it encompasses health and meditation as well as martial practice in a package quite unlike any of its siblings. Over the past few years Bagua has seen a slow rise in popularity as it gets more and more known. We are going to look into supposedly the most difficult of all the Internal Arts, and try the impossible: to take a firm look at the art created to embody change.

The intention of this article is to be an overview, including an overview of the polar opposites of opinion within Baguazhang as it exists today, and to function as a basic introduction for the reader who knows little but who wants a mental framework for finding out more. Baguazhang is an art of many facets. The facet which we know started to reflect light centers around an individual called Dong Haichuan, a Bagua legend who seems to have been the first to bring Bagua out into the open. Dong Haichuan started teaching publicly in Beijing in the mid-1800´s. He is surrounded by so many myths and half-truths that a tome would be needed to list them all, so suffice to say this: Dong turned up in Beijing, became known as an outstanding martial artist using a very complex martial art, and started teaching this to a select number of individuals, 72 of which are stated as official students on his tombstone. His teachings was considered to be post-doctorate level, something you studied after mastering another style first. He died at, probably, 85.

An old daoist on a mountain

No-one is quite sure where Baguazhang comes from - but there is no lack of myth and guesswork to stand in for fact. Dong himself was said to be, quite fittingly, evading and circumspect when it came to where he had been taught the art. ”From an old daoist on a mountain,” seems to be the most precise answer left to posterity. At the core of Bagua is the practice of circle-walking, zou zhuan. Circle-walking has been around in Daoism for millenia, and its been used in other shamanic cultures across the globe. A rare martial art called Long Ta is supposed to be a tibetan version of Bagua; it uses circle-walking, but adds a highly charged psychic component to it. The use of spiralling energy can also be found in Sufy mysticism. Where the style we call Baguazhang comes from is just a matter of opinion today. There are centuries-old grooves worn into stone courtyards in the Wudang mountains where daoists have walked the circle, and oral tradition has millenia old references, but written sources available to the public are almost non-existant. Even the name we have now is a misnomer: baguazhang in mandarin means ”eight trigram palms”, from the Daoist eight trigrams, but until quite recently Bagua was simply called zhuanzhang, ”changing palms” or ”turning palms”, with the connotation of something that twists, turns, and changes. What we know is that the Daoist sect Quanzhen (Complete Reality) used circle walking, calling it zhuan tian zun, ”Rotating in worship of heaven”, and we known that Dong turned up in Beijing and started teaching there. Where, when, and how the circle-walking practices became martial is unknown. Most likely it happened thousands of years ago but might not have been considered a separate martial style, if it was ever seen outside daoist circles at all. Some say that Dong himself made the style up from skills he already had. Having seen traditional Baguazhang, this author respectfully disagrees. Complete, traditional Bagua is so complex and has such a depth as to make it impossible for one man alone to create – it´s beyond most human beings to master the knowledge already available, let alone fit in the time and skill to refine it even more.

Circle-walking and palm-changes

When circle-walking, a Bagua-practitioner walks around in a circle and uses various kinds of footwork, energywork, physical structures, and mental techniques based on the mind. Beginners start out with 12 to 16 step circles, then eventually go down to eight. Circle-walking builds up a sense of spirals and creates the necessary structure for spirals to twist through your body. It´s also the basis for Bagua´s footwork, which grows incredibly complex over time. While walking the circle the student holds different arm-postures. These might look like standing postures put into a circle, but they should have a different life to them than standing postures do. Some styles use only one or two arm-postures, while others have a larger variety of up to twenty, each of which builds up a different way of spiralling and opening up your upper body while linking it to your legs and feet. The circle-walking itself can be practiced alone for a very, very long time. It´s the core of Baguazhang. Next building block varies depending on the system, but it is usually the ”palm changes”, huanzhang. Palm changes are short forms used to change direction in the circle. Some are only two movements long; others, ten. Traditionally there were eight basic palm changes, one for each of the eight trigrams used in Daoism to denote the eight basic patterns of change. Some styles have only eight; others have any number of them, some combine the eight with eight variations of each or with energetic palm changes inside. The palm changes´ basic function is to introduce a martial vocabulary of techniques and tactics, but they are also intended to open up your body a huge amount from the inside and out. Where the circle-walking teaches the student horizontal movement and how to use spirals and energy to minimize inertia, the palm changes teach vertical movement and the ability to change without inertia in an up/down plane as well as in depth. A complete style should also include a large variety of single movement practices, practiced both before and in conjunction with the palm changes themselves. Without them you will never get the full depth that is needed to make Bagua Bagua, whether for health, fighting or meditation-purposes. The skill-level varies from teacher to teacher, just like in Tai Chi. Many teachers only know how to teach palm changes as a physical exercise, lacking all of the internal form and energy-work that should be present inside them. Some styles teach a Xingyi-adapted way of combining animals with the palm changes, which is not present in traditional Baguazhang as far as I have seen. Others teach ways of working with the eight trigrams energetically, either visualized or, like in the traditional version, actually feeling that energy and working directly with it, both in the actual palm change and in sitting meditation. Each palm change is a turning, twisting library of information. Once this is learned, the student learns how to combine different palm changes – tones - to play chords, which in time shifts to what Bagua is supposed to be: jazz.


Baguazhang is an art of spirals. More than that, as you grow more skilled it becomes an art of spirals and spheres happening simultaneously. The spiralling and twisting actions inside your body and in your postures grow over time to become a clear way of working with energy in spirals and spheres. The spirals are used for a number of reasons. Baguazhang is a moving art. It is constantly moving, although some practitioners translate this to ”I should constantly move around”, which isn´t quite true: you can move within the space of five millimeters too. The spirals and the footwork create the skill of how to move without inertia holding you up. This is almost impossible to convey on a written page - it has to be seen in real life to make sense. As a martial art, Bagua is more concerned with fighting two to eight people than one alone, which is why the complex fotwork and inertia-minimizing energetics are emphasized. The spirals are also used to neutralize an opponents´ energy, store it for a second or two, then release it out again in a blow, throw or any other martial action used on the same opponent or another one. A side-effect of Bagua´s spiralling movements is that they create gaps in the opponent. When you are not present, or just half-present, you´re having a gap. Gaps are a major focus in Tai Chi and in meditation-practices as well as in Bagua, but Bagua uses its spiralling actions to create gaps in the opponent, gaps into which the Bagua fighter then moves to finish the encounter. Bagua fighters are famous for their ability ”to vanish without a trace”, disappearing to turn up next to you, behind you or around you in a way that seems ghostlike. This is based on A) huge amounts of training, B) the ability to move using spirals, and C) the ability to both feel and create gaps in the opponent. A Bagua fighter, just like in any other of the internal martial arts on a skilled level, does not need to be particularly physically fast. He or she can feel the gaps you have, and then move straight into them, literally moving when you are not at home to see it. To your perception their movement will be blindingly fast and strange. In reality, they were simply moving when you weren´t around to watch.

Martial arts, health, and meditation

Traditional Baguazhang is a complete package, containing both martial efficiency, health, and, at higher levels, pure meditation. Very few teachers available in the West can teach any of these areas to a decent depth. Just as with Tai Chi, should you find a teacher who teaches even one of those three with skill, count yourself lucky. Oh, and stay. Every part of Bagua works all three aspects. Let´s take one case in point: the kou bu/bai bu stepping. When walking the circle the student learns the gentle basics of how to do kou/bai stepping. Kou is the Chinese character for ”to button” or to close something. When a Bagua-practitioner walks the circle, the outside foot always does kou, which means that the foot goes in in front of the other foot´s toes, either slightly or with the entire foot. This creates the spiral for the next action, bai bu, where you open and step out in another direction. This is the base of Bagua´s movement and a major factor of how it moves without inertia while creating spiralling and spherical power simultaneously. Kou/bai stepping cuts through both martial, health, and meditation usage. Seen from the health perspective, kou/bai stepping spirals the tissue and energy-system in your legs and lower body. This will have a huge health-effect, as it cleans out your connective tissue and energy channels, bit by bit moving up to affect your internal organs and upper body health. However, the twisting and spiralling in Bagua is much deeper and harder than in most Tai Chi, excepting perhaps the Chen-style. Bagua is more yang than Tai Chi. This means that you have to be very gentle when you start out doing the twisting and spiralling, otherwise you might damage your body, knees, spine, ligaments, tendons, etc., and create problems that can become permanent. The kou/bai step should always lead from your hip-joints: this will ensure that you´re not moving your feet or knees out of joint with the rest of your leg or spine. Martially, kou/bai stepping has multiple reasons. One is to minimize inertia. One is that it increases power while creating any number of possible actions, all the way from strikes to throws to actions that tear muscle, joints, or skin. Kou/bai also stand for the old comment, ”A step is a kick, a kick is a step” in Bagua. All leg movements are possible kicks, leglocks, sweeps, throws and strikes, even though you´re just walking the circle. Kou/bai is also of specific use in the meditation aspect of Bagua. As your spiralling goes deeper it cleans out more and more emotional and energetic garbage that has been stuck deep inside your body. Now gaps become a major focus as you practice to stay present and relaxed through the multiple-plane spiralling actions that kou/bai creates. Vision, and gaps in your vision and between your vision and your mind, is a seperate training regimen. Ideally you want to have full presence through a whole step and change, which is something that takes most people a very, very long time to achieve.

Bagua for fighting

Traditional Bagua is a very alive martial art. You can do anything. Like all old internal arts it considers the entire body to be a fist – or a palm, in Bagua language – and every inch of the opponent a target of opportunity. Like all old internal arts it can strike with full power from touch, that is while a hand, hip, foot, arm or anything else is in actual contact with the opponent. Like all old internal arts traditional Bagua uses internal energy in exact and precise ways to create martial applications. No real internal art depends on physical movements to create martial effect; you start with the physical movements, then bit by bit learn how you insert internal power in them, what different kinds there are, how they work, how you can combine them, and how you let them make your martial practice and fighting ability become alive with internal power. In a traditional system there is nothing haphazard about this process; it´s precise every step of the way. A necessary facet of this is how you develop and use internal power safely, without unnecessary risks to your short-term or long-term physical and mental health. Bagua uses strikes with all parts of your hand, your fingers, your wrists, your arms, elbows, shoulders, hips, buttocks, head; it uses throws, often very nasty ones intended to break an opponents spine in the air through using spirals; it uses locks, rakes, tears, rips on muscle and bone and pressure point-attacks; it uses the whole range of pure internal arts techniques of how you use your mind to damage an opponent; it uses kicks, leglocks, and uses throws with the legs only while hitting the opponent at the same time, and generally does several of the above in a concerted defense which at the same time is an attack. If it is a traditional system, the path to learning the martial side should be long. Bagua is an internal art, and the training techniques tend to be slower and gentler in the beginning, so that your body opens up and is able to do the martial training without injury that will impede your progress and health. Bagua also uses tingjing, listening energy, just like Tai Chi and Xingyi, which is built up through the partner-work called rou shou (”soft hands”). Rou shou is the Bagua-version of push hands, except that it´s done with both arms, using spirals all the time, as well as spirals within spirals and spirals going in different directions at the same time. Eventually rou shou allows any attacks, both strikes and leg-moves and throws. Strikes are started out done softly, so as not to program in any shock-reaction into your central nervous system. Their power and speed is raised slowly over time, so that you don´t have gaps induced by the unconscious shock of being hit. Not all Bagua schools teach rou shou. And, like all real internal arts, the beauty of Bagua is that you only become more skilled with age. The practice takes longer time, but once you start accumulating it you will only get better. Most internal arts teachers are considered to be reaching their full skill once they hit fifty, and from there they should only progress. If you practice in the wrong way, or become too attached to a physical, emotional or psychic feeling of strength and power, you will pay for it through unnecessary injuries – which will make you a less skilled martial artist.

Bianhua – the mechanics of change

Bagua was created as a way to physically embody the energies of change in the universe. One of the central tenets of Daoism is bianhua, the mechanics of change - how change happens, how it does not happen, or how it continues to happen in some other way. A change in Bagua is often simply referred to as bianhua, but it is a short phrase for all it can indicate: a physical change in a technique – moving a hand this minute angle instead of that, or your body, leg, shoulder, fingers – a change in the internal energywork, a change of intention in your mind, a change of direction, internally or externally, a change of the specific internal energy, jing, you´re using, or the level your at. Change. It covers the whole universe, yet can become as specific as the grains of sand on a beach. In traditional Bagua, the pre-birth traditions (see below), once you have reached a certain level you start playing with the energetic feeling of bianhua. Then, once you understand that, you look into how you can either follow the change or alter it along the route it wants to be altered. Once you start dealing directly with bianhua, the way your mind, body, and energy works will change. You can start to feel how change happens, and adapt to follow it naturally, ziran, and the way you act and move in a martial encounter will change completely. A high level Bagua-practitioner in a real confrontation will act with the change of everything in the surroundings, following that change to it´s conclusion instead of acting according to a pre-programmed pattern in the nervous system. Once you start practising with bianhua, you also work more with the meditation-aspect of the training. To really be able to be part of change, you have to let many old patterns in both body, emotions, energy, and mind slowly drop away, leaving you free to act as you wish – or how you feel that you ought to. In the spiritual training, one of the techniques you use as you walk the circle is to see what changes and what does not. That which does not change, that which always remains, will be the real core of you.

Two traditions, two masters

Baguazhang has two main traditions or ways of practice: pre-birth and post-birth (xiantian and houtian, respectively). Pre-birth is the old version, which aims to slowly change your energy-system back to being linked to the natural energy of the universe. Pre-birth training uses circle-walking and energetics and mind rather than a focus on physical technique. Post-birth training seems to, possibly, have originated with Dong Haichuan´s student Yin Fu (”Thin Yin”), who is said to have created it when he had to teach large numbers of troops. It might or might not be Xingyi-influenced, as part of post-birth training are linear drills where you move in lines and use physical techniques that usually vary in counts of eight, and, using those, then multiply to sixty-four. Pre-birth training is much more advanced and complex than post-birth. However, it takes a lot more time and mind-work to get the pre-birth training martially functional than through the post-birth practices. To the general student out on the Western market, there are two teachers openly available teaching these two ways of practice. Pre-birth, from master Bruce Frantzis of the US, and post-birth from master Lo Dexiu (Eric Lo) of Taiwan. Both teach open workshops and retreats in Europe, and have senior students available to teach the public in several countries. Bruce Frantzis is a pre-birth lineage holder from Daoist master Liu Hongjie. He studied post-birth in his youth, and has since specialized in the pre-birth tradition. Master Liu´s Bagua is based on Ma Gui´s tradition, a student of Dong Haichuan´s, but it has a strong slant towards the old daoist spiritual training, as Liu Hongjie was a Daoist master of the Kanfa, the Water Tradition. Master Lo Dexiu is considered to be one of the top Bagua practitioners of our time, and is known world-wide for his skills and fighting-ability. He studied with the Hong-brothers of Taiwan, and others, and teaches the complete post-birth system of Gao Yisheng Baguazhang. When it comes to energy-usage and the knowledge of bianhua, this author has neither seen nor heard of anything more complete than the pre-birth tradition taught by Bruce Frantzis. But then again, pre-birth Bagua takes longer time to make fighting-functional; if that is what you are looking for, post-birth Bagua might be more of the right choice.

Training-advice: please heed this

Baguazhang demands a much more open body than both Xingyi and Tai Chi. The spirals created put a great amount of pressure on your body, mind, and energy; unless you have prepared them through practicing something else for a long time you might get both health- and practice-problems in the long run. If you really are interested in Baguazhang, invest eight to ten years doing Tai Chi or soft qigong for a good teacher. See it as your preparatory work to make Bagua work as the unique style that it is. Many who go into Bagua overdo the yang aspect since they don´t have a good understanding of the yin beforehand. Besides, skilled Bagua teachers are even more rare than their Tai Chi and Xingyi counterparts; it might take you those eight to ten years just to locate one.

Publicerat i tvåspråkiga European Internal Arts Journal, juli 2005. Daniel Skyle copyright 2005. Daniel Skyle is freelance writer and internal arts teacher based in Sweden.