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Interview with Kent Howard, Translator of Wang Shujin’s Bagua Linked Palms

October 27, 2009

Bagua Linked Palms cover

Recently, Kent Howard, the translator of Wang Shujin’s Bagua Linked Palms, was kind enough to answer some of our questions regarding his background and journey with Bagua. Howard is a nationally known writer, martial arts teacher, and former contributor to the esteemed Pa Kua Chang Journal. Read on to learn more about him and the martial art of Bagua.

How were you first introduced to Bagua?

I first read about Bagua Zhang in Robert W. Smith’s books. My first up close look at Bagua was when I was training in Hawaii back in the 70’s. A friend of mine, who was a student of T.Y. Pang, showed me the Swimming Body form from Xun Xiqun’s system. I had never seen a style that looked anything like it in any of the martial art curriculums I had been exposed to. I was really intrigued. The movements didn’t seem very martial in nature, at least not overtly, and I thought it to be more like a Chinese yoga or qigong form. It wasn’t until later, when I had a chance to learn the same form, that I began to realize the martial potential of those smoothly flowing exercises. By that time I was hooked.

What do you think is particularly special about Bagua to you?

What sets Bagua apart from all other martial arts is the seamless linking of individual elements into an organic form that has its own unique character. Bagua is system of techniques united by overarching body principles. One of the most distinctive, and least understood, features of Bagua is the ability of a practitioner to strike while in motion. That is something no other Chinese martial art prior to the development of Bagua ever taught.

Is there anything you would recommend a person know or do if he/she is interested in exploring the art of Bagua?

You should first determine if Bagua is really for you. You may observe Bagua in performance and think it looks quite interesting, but the proof is in the practice. Any martial art curriculum that asks you to relearn something as basic as walking can be very daunting. Mastering the basic skills of the art can be a test of will. Many of the body practices of Bagua are counterintuitive and require students to rid themselves of ingrained habits.

Of course, it could be said the most difficult aspect of learning Bagua is finding a qualified teacher with whom you can establish a rapport. Many older masters  get into discussions on the inner workings of the art and typically do not demonstrate how the movements are applied. Westerners tend to ask a lot of questions and demand to know more details about what they are learning. You should find an instructor whose teaching style matches your learning expectations. The problem is there are few instructors of Bagua in most areas of the country, so you often have to take what you can get. Any instruction is better than no instruction.

Who are some of your biggest personal influences, and why?

Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Ghandi…if I wanted to start from a grand scale; but their teachings weren’t exactly personal, I suppose. I would say that my teacher, Huang Jinsheng, had a lot of influence on me in both my personal path and my Bagua practice. Master Huang is a Taoist adept, physician, and spiritual leader. All of his lessons, no matter how mundane they seemed at the time, were steeped in a broader framework of how people, things, disciplines—the myriad manifestations of the world—are integrated into the whole of our being.  He cultivated a Daoist-Buddhist-Humanist approach to life which has translated well for me in a variety of life’s adventures.

Do you have any personal favorite movements or positions in Bagua? If so, why are they your favorites?

I tend to gravitate toward the dragon (snake) forms in Bagua. These movements arise from body principles that best represent (for me, anyway) the unique character of the art. The most effective self-defense applications found in Bagua are the ones that respond to threat in a counterintuitive way. That is to say, the reply comes “out of nowhere” from an unexpected quadrant or angle the opponent does not expect. These types of movements often arise from dragon techniques such as “Yellow Dragon Rolls Over” or “Black Dragon Tosses Head” which are found in Wang Shujin’s Bagua Zhang.

Have you ever gotten discouraged in your training for one reason or another? How did you overcome this?

You reach plateaus in your training where you do not seem to be progressing. Everyone does. At these critical junctures you have to dig down deep and find a fresh way of approaching your practice. Bagua is unique in that there really aren’t a lot of forms in any one style. The actual number of movements within these forms is finite; you perform countless repetitions of the movements to invest in vital muscle memory. What is infinite is the mind. Bagua is about change. The old masters said, “First you must become the form; then the form becomes you.” Once you reach this stage, everything you do will be an expression of the form and you can adapt and change at will. As Daoists say, “The way to do is to be.”

Could you share a personal story of training or teaching Bagua?

When a began studying with Huang Jinsheng, my teacher in Taiwan, I had been practicing Bagua for about seven years. Master Huang, seeing that I had a strong understanding of the basics, taught me at a fairly brisk pace. I learned all eight forms from the first set, Bagua Linked Palms, in just two months—one form per week. At this point I was very excited and energized by the speed at which I was assimilating the style. I was a bit of a “form collector” at that point in my martial arts study, and I disliked coming to class and not learning something new to add to my knowledge base.

However, my high-flying, speedy “survey” course of Wang Shujin’s Bagua Zhang was soon brought to a crashing halt. During my next lesson, when I was expecting to move on to the second set, Bagua Swimming Body Palms, I was surprised when we returned to the first form, the Single Palm Change, and began to relearn it in seemingly endless detail. We ended up spending an entire year “learning” the Linked Palms set. By the time we finished, I had gained enough hard-won wisdom to realize that I had been given a great gift. I was challenged every week to come up with new ways to practice, integrate, and assimilate each movement of the form so it became a part of my Bagua body. Few Western students are willing to put up with such a slow learning pace. But I have found one thing to be true, whether you are ready to wrap your head around it or not: From familiarity comes understanding, from understanding comes wisdom, and with wisdom the door opens to mastery. Of course, all of this arises from a lot of hard work.

Have a question for Kent? Leave it in the comments below, and he’ll respond to your questions personally on our blog!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 5:02 am

    Hello Kent Howard, Chen Hsiao-Yen and Darius Edler,

    I know that in the spirit of Master Wang himself you have invited any comments or corrections, but finding a way of contacting you has actually proven quite difficult. The web address given at the end of the books, as you know, is a portal junction with no contact, and although it leads to blog postings from yourself Kent, your profile contains no contact details, so I am submitting my comments and questions here in the hope it gets picked up.

    My comments and enquiry all concern the Post Standing methods, and the presentation of such, and given that Shujin’s original works only offered ‘a very short somewhat cryptic section of text that offered no photos, illustrations, or descriptions to guide the reader in what was a very important part of Wang Shujin’s martial arts curriculum’, then this may be a question for Darius Edler, whose extra commentary in the second volume is very welcome and much appreciated.

    There are eight post standing forms depicted of which the first five;

    Bodhidharma Stance,
    Double Separation Stance,
    Double Push Stance,
    Double Ward-Off Stance, and
    Joyful Stance,

    are all symmetrical about the vertical and horizontal axis. My confusion is with the final three forms;

    Crouching Tiger Stance,
    Smooth Step Single Ward-Off Stance, and
    Smooth Step Double Ward-Off Stance,

    which are all asymmetric. Should each of these last three forms also be practiced in inversion (for the sake of developing true foundational balance and integrity)? Or if this is not the case, are they only to be practiced strictly as presented for reasons of energy flow and the position of internal organs, in particular the liver, heart and spleen, which are themselves located at points of asymmetry within the body? Is it possible that these forms if practiced in reverse may build areas of compression or constriction within the foundation surrounding these organs? I feel that this is a point that could do with being brought out and clarified in the text, as the appearance of asymmetric forms, particularly where static, always raise the question as to whether inversions should be performed. Considering these are foundational exercises it is naturally important that they should be practiced correctly and with no doubts from the outset.

    Also, the text of the first volume Bagua Linked Palms raises expectation that the second volume shall contain further Post Standing forms (a quote from the section of text upon Post Standing methods found in the first volume runs; ‘Wang introduced other post-standing postures, with accompanying photos, in his second book, Bagua Swimming Body Palms’). There is an Editor’s Note to the second volume that Wang Shujin’s second book contained opening chapters (a repeat of material) from the first book which had only been privately published and made available to a close inner circle. The reader however is left wondering whether there were also additional forms presented in this second work or not, and whether for some reason they have been left out.

    I am enjoying these books of yours by the way, many thanks. In trying to seek out a system to embark upon out of the many available I have settled upon your publications above as guide, combined with the Jan Diepersloot Warriors of Stillness series, and for an exhaustive technical overview of Daoist breathing and small circulation etc., Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s various publications. I intend though to start out slowly, and wish to ensure a good foundation. For the first year I intend only embryonic breath and post-standing as exercise, but find I am stopped in my tracks by the uncertainty raised in mind concerning inversions.

    At some point further down the line I shall appreciate closer guidance, and eventually I should like to teach the forms myself. Are there any resources you could recommend here in the UK?

    Many thanks,

    Mark Jolliffe

    • baguaman64 permalink
      August 19, 2011 10:49 am

      Hi Mark,
      First of all, I would like to apologize for the difficulty in getting in touch with me. Some nefarious creature swooped in and stole my web url, and, so far I have been unwilling to pay the ransom to get it returned. I don’t have time to answer your questions completely at the moment, but please feel free to contact me at: I will copy off your reply, read it over, and get back to you in a more thoughtful manner. Also, you should be able to contact me from the blog:

      P.S. Darius Edler lives in the U.K. (Oxford) and could be interested in speaking with you. I will broach the subject with him.

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