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Origins Series – Ba Gua Zhang

July 22, 2011

Have you ever wondered where different disciplines of martial arts came from, what inspired them, and even why certain weapons were created? The goal of our new Origins Series is to uncover the history and origins of some of your favorite martial arts disciplines, methods, and weapons.

Internal martial arts, known in Chinese as “Neijia”, are styles of self defense that focus on the mental and spiritual aspects of one’s state. A focus on one’s qi — one’s internal energy — is central to the practice of these forms, which originated as non-violent meditations in Taoist monasteries. One of the most popular of these internal movement practices is Ba Gua Zhang. Literally meaning “eight trigram palm,” it refers to the trigrams of the I Ching, one of the oldest canonical texts in Taoism. Don’t fret if you’re just now realizing how rusty your Chinese vocabulary is. Allen Pittman offers historical background and an entirely new perspective on Ba Gua Zhang for Western novices in Walking the I Ching: The Linear Ba Gua of Gao Yi Sheng by revealing that Ba Gua Zhang need not be performed in circular motions. For a more demonstrable definition of Ba Gua Zhang check out the video above from Jet Li’s 2001 film The One. As a meditative practice not intended to harm opponents, Ba Gua Zhang is a number one choice for Chinese martial art film choreographers!

From History and Philosophy – “Legendary Origin”

The earliest combat training, recorded in the Chou dynasty (ca. 1111–256 B.C.) included archery, wrestling, and sword fighting. The Taoist text known as the I Ching (“Book of Changes”) appeared even earlier (ca. 1150 B.C.) and its influence pervaded Chinese culture, penetrating military strategy, philosophy, and physical culture. In the period of the Spring and Autumn Annals (722–482 B.C.), professional warriors appeared among the nobility and another Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching (literally translated “The Way and Virtue”), surfaced.

During the Warring States period (403–221 B.C.), knight-errantry arose and fighting techniques spread from professional warriors and the nobility to commoners and foot soldiers. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is traced to this period. The martial (or military) techniques began to branch into methods of civilian self-defense. Much of what remains today is not martial (i.e., is not designed for the battlefield). Coincident with the martial–to–civilian combat transition in China was the development of the yoga systems of India. These may well have influenced early Chinese martial arts. The movement of traditional wisdom along the Silk Road allowed for cross-pollination of combative techniques, methods of concentration, medicine, and philosophical theories. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), the first references to chivalry appeared in Chinese poetry. Later, chivalry became a significant part of boxing ethics. In the Han Dynasty reference was made to “Six Chapters on Hand Fighting,” which represented the earliest reference to pugilism in China. In the later (or Eastern) Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220), the physician Hua-T’o taught “Five Animal Exercises,” movements derived from animals to promote health and longevity. These hygienic influences also became a part of Chinese boxing.

According to tradition, a Buddhist missionary called Tamo came from India to Honan Province during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 386–589). Though legendary, this event is taken seriously by Chinese scholars. There, at the Shaolin temple, he taught Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and physical exercises to balance the long hours of sitting meditation. According to tradition, in the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) the first emperor, Tai Tzu, created a method of boxing called Chang Ch’uan (Long Boxing). During this same period, Chen Hsi-I of Shansi Province is credited with creating a method called Liu-Ho Ch’uan (Six Harmony Boxing), and General Yueh Fei taught his troops Hsing- I Ch’uan (Form-Intent Boxing). Legend also speaks of a Taoist adept, Chang San-Feng, who lived during the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368–1644) and taught a new form called Nei Chia (Inner School), which included the system called T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Great Ultimate Boxing). Tradition connects the “Outer School” to Tamo and Buddhism and the “Inner School” to Chang San-Feng and Taoism. The differences between the two pertain primarily to training: Nei means “inner,” which in a boxing context are skills using Chin or “consciously directed” strength; Wai means “outer,” and uses Li, or skills forged from specialized muscular training (like the forged strength of a farmer’s handshake).

The highly coordinated strength of the Nei Chia (“inner family”) methods develops the muscles, tendons, fascia, and organs through movement of the whole body and mind. This holistic strength, or Chin, develops through movements that activate the whole body. It involves the whole person and develops a visceral understanding of body mechanics. Because sports are highly specialized, development of internal qualities is often uncertain.

Wai, or “outside,” implies the outer musculature and physical conditioning associated with weight training. It is quickly developed through movements that isolate the musculature, conditioning it in a specific way. Such training sometimes breaks the unity of the bodymind nexus and shapes it in strict accordance to task. In contrast to this, Ba Gua—a Nei Chia discipline—deliberately involves the integration of all aspects of the human being.

In more recent history, during the Warlord period (1917–1927), bodyguards, some of whom were highly skilled boxers, formed companies. Their notoriety caused an increase of popularity in the practice of Chinese combatives.

Click HERE to check out the last post in the “Origins Series”.

And read more on Ba Gua Zhang HERE!

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