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The Styles of Bagua

8 Animal Baguazhang

One of the great puzzles of Bagua is just why the style differs so much from teacher to teacher in terms of forms, Changes, straight-line routines etc. Many teachers have different sets of Changes ranging from the simplified to the complex. The most reasonable explanation for this, and one advocated by many Bagua historians, is that Dong Haichuan individualised what he taught each student, enhancing their previous experience to express the principles of Bagua. From this point of view, Bagua, unlike other martial arts, is not a set of fixed forms and techniques, but, in the words of Dan Miller (the editor of the excellent but now-discontinued Pa Kua Chang Journal), "is a complete and effective martial art system which utilises natural and efficient physical skills and strangths and emphasises the use of evasive footwork, powerful palm strikes , and turning and twisting body motions while maintaining whole body strength and mind/body unity" manifests Change" (Pa Kua Chang Journal vol. 4:6, page 29). More esoterically put, Ba Gua Zhang is a martial art which manifests Change.

While this a helpful approach to understanding Bagua, it does not explain its underlying functional structure, which can account for both similarity as well as variation between the different styles. One of the most interesting aspects of Xie's 8 Animal System is that it goes a long way towards resolving precisely this issue.

The 8 Animal System comprises 8 separate substyles, each based around a different animal, which themselves each embody the principles of one of the Trigrams. The Trigram/Animal associations offer a guide to understanding particular types of body strength and movement. The Animals with their Trigram associations and characteristic movements are:

  1. Qian (Heaven): Lion - Linking the forms
  2. Kan (Water): Snake - Flowing with the force
  3. Gen (Mountain): Bear - Turning the back
  4. Zhen (Thunder): Dragon - Lifting and upholding
  5. Xun (Wind): Phoenix - Windmill Palm
  6. Li (Fire): Cockerel - Reclining step
  7. Kun (Earth): Unicorn - Turning the body
  8. Dui (Lake): Monkey - Compacting the body

Each of the 8 Animal styles comprises 8 attacking methods, which are trained through the use of standing postures to stretch and open the appropriate tendons and joints, and Ji Ben Gong, or single movement power training, done standing and with various steps. Each Animal also has its own Circle-Walking methods, though Dr. Xie advises students to use primarily the Natural Step in their Walking practice. Though the Natural Step is primarily associated with the Lion System, there are significant variations in how it is done in the other Animal Systems. This process of learning an Animal's special body strength is supported by qigong methods, again particular to each Animal.

Once the student is familiar with the basic attacking methods and Circle-Walking, Change routines using the attacking methods are taught. The basic structure of this is to combine each of the 8 attacking methods of any single Animal with the characteristic movements of the other seven Animals.

Until now there was no fixed form to these Change routines. They were intended to communicate principles, a fluid and creative process, not static forms. This means that teachers were quite free to create Change routines as they felt appropriate to any student's stengths and experience. Given that Dong Haichuan is supposed to have taught all his students differently and drawing from their previous martial experience (e.g. Yin Fu's Snake or Lohan Fist, and Cheng Tinghua's Shuai Chiao), one can see how this basic structure would support his teaching method.

Though Dr. Xie and his successor He Jinbao have standardised the Change routines in order to preserve and disseminate Yin style more widely, they do emphasise the process of learning the essential body strength of each Animal first, rather than simply memorise the choreography of lots of routines. Moreover they advise students to specialise in one Animal first, particularly so that one can concentrate on being sure of having at least one good, strong skill on which one can rely. This process is also associated with linking an Animal to a student's body type. Thus of the Animals so far revealed: the Lion is suited to big, strong body frames; Phoenix suits those slenderer frames with long limbs; and Bear is suited to the short and heavy. Many martial arts styles do advocate individualising training methods to fit a student's body-type, but this is the first style I have seen with a structure designed specifically for that purpose. I shall discuss more of the ways in which the Animals/Trigrams associations offer a guide to stengths and body-types in the Ba Gua as a Martial Art section of this site.