By Gene Ching
Submit a martial artist to a body search and an array of discreet weapons are likely to turn up. Nowadays, so many self-defense-conscious citizens pack pocket knives, wallet chains, tactical pens, Kubatons, and keychain cats. And the police and NSA are pretty savvy about what is legal and what is not. In many counties, carrying such items is punishable by the law despite their best defensive intentions. But just imagine how an officer might react if they found an antler.
The Chinese martial arts have the most diverse arsenal of any fighting method in the world. Weapons are treasured gems buried within traditional Kung Fu. The deer antler is actually deployed as a weapon by the internal style Baguazhang (八卦掌). More appropriately called Bagua here (as zhang means “palm” implying empty-handed fighting), the style has a unique assortment of uncommon weapons. It is something that has fascinated Master Bryant Fong for years. Most know Master Fong as a proponent of Modern Wushu. He was a major supporter behind the first Beijing Wushu Team tour four decades ago, the historic event that brought a teenage Jet Li to perform before President Nixon at the White House. He is also the initiator and director of the U.C. Berkeley Chinese Martial Arts Tournament, the longest-running Chinese style tournament in the U.S. where modern Wushu reigns supreme. However, like many masters of his generation, his roots are in traditional Kung Fu, specifically Tibetan White Crane, Northern Shaolin, Xingyi, Praying Mantis and Chen style Taijiquan. Recently, he became the first and only foreign disciple of the renowned Bagua exponent, Master Zhao Dayuan (趙大元?). Master Zhao is an Associate Professor at Beijing’s Police Academy, a former bodyguard who trained real combat skills to other bodyguards, specifically those who protect China’s Premiere and other noted party leaders.
Fong’s discipleship was unexpected. “I had been chasing Master Zhao for ten years to get a lesson from him, but he was always busy, or it was always something. It isn’t until ‘92 until I actually got a chance to study with him the first time… So the last time that I saw Zhao, he told me, ‘I’m going to take a new set of disciples and I’d like to have you be one of them.’ And I told him, ‘I don’t think I qualify.’ Anyone could ask me, ‘Are you a master of Bagua?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I’m working on it.’ I’m knowledgeable in the history and the theory, but since he offered it to me, I said, ‘Well, okay.’ He told me, ‘To find a good student is hard, and to find a good master is too. A good master should be able to explain things – why you are doing it. I don’t think you’ll find anyone more knowledgeable than me at this time because I’ve had plenty of time to actually practice it. Think about this. In the old days, most masters went out and fought every day so they were really good. But nowadays, who can do that? Nobody. But I have a unique situation. I got to test all my techniques on my students. I taught at the Police Academy. I had to fight with everyone, tall, short, skinny, male, female, it didn’t matter. If a technique worked, I found out real quickly. And if it didn’t work, I also knew really quick. So I had to work on my stuff all the time. Most likely, none of these guys that are teaching, not being disrespectful, but none of them can actually use their technique at the level that past generations could. No one has time to do that. How can you be that good? How do you develop that kind of power? The best you can do is sniff a little real Kung Fu. So I have a chance to give you some real stuff. You should think about it.’ That’s why I accepted it. This was a very rare opportunity. Bagua had always interested me when I was young, but I could never find anyone to teach it.”
Circles and Changes
Bagua was created by Grandmaster Dong Haichuan (1797 or 1813 – 1882 董海川), a bodyguard and tax collector in China’s imperial palace. It is unusual amongst the Chinese styles because it is not as form-based. The fighting system is based upon eight techniques for attack and defense, and these can be strung together in any order during practice. In some instances, these patterns are assembled into forms, but it isn’t nearly as reliant upon the form-based pedagogical structure that pervades the majority of Chinese styles. Fong elaborates, “One of the things that is important to realize is that it was one of the last ones created. Because it was last, Dong had a chance to look at everything else that existed, to figure out things that earlier generations didn’t get the chance to see because you don’t have the body of knowledge to look at. So if you look at his background, he knew some Shaolin and other styles. Actually, we don’t really know what he knew, but with that, he synthesized the Bagua system. It’s about principles. It’s not necessarily about how the form has to be done ‘this way.’ In fact, most Bagua forms don’t have to be done any specific way. Three of us from same school, same lineage, same teacher, won’t look exactly the same because each of us are different. And that’s very unique in Chinese martial arts. If you think of the classical guys in Hong Kong, everyone has to look the same. It has to be the exact same technique. Bagua is definitely not like that. How you move is different. But then the principles have to be the same. You might move a little differently, but your basic waist-turning and the way you connect your movement has to be the same – the way you generate your power has to be the same. So Dong was unique in that he could take anyone’s style, put it into his Bagua formula and generate a Bagua stylist. You try and connect the general principles.”
Another unique quality of Bagua is its connection to the Chinese classic of divination, The Book of Changes. Classically translated as I Ching (易經 Yijing), this work can be traced back to the 3rd millennia BCE. The name Bagua derives from the distinctive eight trigrams, eight combinations of solid and broken lines that represent yin and yang principles. It can get rather heady in a cosmological sense, but Master Fong tries not to get too distracted by those implications. “I don’t think Dong went, ‘Alright, this is the Yijing and I’m going to figure out Bagua from that.’ Even Sun Lutang (founder of his own style of Taiji which incorporated Bagua, 1860–1933 孫祿堂) writes about how he went to Wudang and Emei to study Daoism and after he came back from that, he began writing about the connection to Bagua and Yijing and all these things. A lot of that stuff was developed after the art was already created to kind of flesh it out with more cultural understanding, how the Chinese look at things. It fits so elegantly. The Yijing is a way of dealing with time and space. It gives you an understanding of how to manipulate space and time. According to some of the writings, each movement, each footwork, each technique has a different variation. And because you have right and left, you have sixteen. The other thing that’s really interesting is if you look at most traditional Chinese martial arts, they are all right-handed. Bagua is symmetrical. Because Dong was in a more modern era, he had a chance to think about that and create a symmetrical martial art, one that didn’t matter whether you were right-handed or left-handed. So you have an infinite number of variations to understand. However, it makes the art really hard to learn.”
A Strange Arsenal
Beyond the palm techniques, Bagua has an expansive arsenal of cold arms. One of Dong’s disciples, Yin Fu (1840–1909 尹福), documented much of the system in transmissions that are commonly passed along through Bagua circles today. Master Yin allegedly had roots in Shaolin Kung Fu and it is said that he initially learned the Shaolin form Lohanquan (罗汉拳) from Grandmaster Dong. Master Yin’s writings on Bagua describe its unique arsenal, in particular Grandmaster Dong’s ten unique weapons, but the transmissions are colloquial and fragmentary. Master Fong believes it is difficult to know how comprehensive Yin’s transmissions were. “Each of the masters that Dong brought into the system were masters themselves. They probably had some weapons that they were masters of already. His genius was teaching them how to use their weapons in a different way. For instance, the fan. Most people nowadays just open and close the fan, but Dong had over 40 techniques – different ways to use the fan. Most people use the end, maybe for sticking and stabbing, and opening and closing. But the edges, the points, everything could be used as a weapon. How many weapons? These are the only ones we know about. There may have been a lot more. There are also different variations. Think about the Mandarin Duck knives. Some have four points; some have three points; some have two points. It depends on who is the master and what he decided he wanted to use. They may have changed it for their particular use.”
The most distinctive weapon unique to Bagua is the Bagua Dao (八卦刀). It is like a standard Chinese broadsword, but with gargantuan proportions. Bagua has some other oversized weapons like the Big Spear (da qiang 大枪) and the Two-Handed Sword (shuang shou jian 双手劍), but unlike the Bagua Dao, some other styles share these weapons too. The Big Spear is usually more than a dozen feet in length, twice that of a normal spear. According to Fong, it is mostly used as a way to improve power and train grip-changing techniques. He believes oversized weapons are intended more for internal practice because they cannot be practiced properly using just sheer muscle. They require a connection to the core, a quality that is distinctly internal in nature. “In Wushu, we rely on just the wrist and the arm. But to use your core is a lot more difficult. And so the ancient martial artists discovered that if I use a large weapon, I develop to my core quicker. I can increase my power a lot faster.”
In addition to these oversized weapons, Bagua shares some other long weapons with other Chinese styles, with some slight variations. The Bagua Two-Handed Sword has an added feature of a long tassel. Fong points out that in Bagua, the tassel concealed two brass balls for striking and were made from horsehair, which could deliver a painful whipping. Two other Bagua weapons mentioned by Yin were the Monk Spade (yue ya cha 月牙鏟) and the Tiger Head Hooks (hu tao shuang gou 虎头双鉤). Fong attributes the Monk Spade to Yin’s Shaolin background, as it was clearly not a palace weapon. Although the Bagua Tiger Head Hooks have an idiosyncratic spike at the end that separates them from other hooks, Fong says the techniques are similar, albeit a little more circular given the nature of Bagua. Bagua also has the Double-Headed Spear (shuang tou qiang 双头枪). Fong points out that this weapon, like many of the weapons of Bagua, is practiced like the palms: eight basic techniques can be assembled in any order. He notes that many weapons also have sets too, mostly weapon versus weapon sparring sets. “A lot was probably created by the 3rd and 4th generation masters,” Fong conjectures. “The more obscure the weapon, the less likely it is that there’s a form.”
Dong’s Ten Unique Weapons
Master Yin also described some truly unique weapons of Bagua. Grandmaster Dong had ten special weapons that he invented or extracted from the bodyguard trade, although only a partial list remains. Most of these are short, paired weapons, fitting into the ambidextrous symmetry of Bagua. Typical to Bagua, twin weapons are very yin and yang, with one weapon typically used to attack and the other to defend.
A weapon commonly associated with Bagua is the Deer Horn Knives (lu jiao rui 鹿角銳), but as Fong points out, Bagua’s deer horn (鹿角) weapon is actual antlers – two antler points set in a handle so they project orthogonal to the fist. They were used somewhat like Tekagi-shuko (wall-climbing hand claws used by ninja 手かぎ手鉤) or more popularly like Wolverine’s retractable blades. Today’s modern-made Deer Horn Knives are symmetrical in design whereas the original Bagua blades, more accurately called Mandarin Duck Knives (yuan yang rui 鴛鴦銳), are not. Fong says Yin ascribed to Mandarin Duck Knives the “eye of the phoenix, head like antlers, body of the snake, back of the bear, tail of the duck” and so on. The foremost blade is used like a finger so the practitioner’s finger is extended alongside the weapon. Fong knows of two Mandarin Duck Knives forms.
Another misunderstood weapon is the Wind and Fire Wheels (huo feng lun 火風輪). Again, the modern-made version is different from the traditional Bagua weapons. Wind and Fire Wheels figure prominently as the weapon of the child deity Nezha (哪吒), and Fong postulates that the present versions might have descended from Chinese Opera. He knows of three Wind and Fire Wheels forms.
Among precursors to the modern-day tactical pens and police-endorsed Kubaton, Bagua has the highly practical Judge’s Pen (pan guan bi 判官笔), a short fistful of baton with ends pointed like a calligraphy brush. These are used for point-striking and restraining leverage. Similar are the Bagua Needles (bagua zhen 八卦針) which are akin to Emei Piercers (Emei ci 峨嵋刺). These double-pointed rods spin on a ring, a move that seems strictly for show in modern Wushu as it is hard to imagine a practical application. Fong confesses that the Bagua Needles have spinning techniques too, but he is quick to point out that the ring is more to allow grabbing techniques. When fighters wield Bagua Needles, they can open their hands to seize an opponent without fear of losing grip on their weapons.
The most spectacularly exotic twin weapon of Bagua is the Rooster Claw Knives (ji zhao yin yang rui 鸡爪陰陽銳). Fong says these weapons evolved from a wall-climbing device (again reminiscent of the Tekagi-shuko). The original versions had much larger claws. Legends claim that Grandmaster Dong could walk up walls, but Fong theorizes that it was merely Dong using Rooster Claw Knives on the terracotta walls of the day.
Beyond the twin weapons, Bagua also has unique single weapons. Grandmaster Dong is credited with inventing a Seven Star Staff (qixing gun 七星棍). Like a standard Chinese fighting staff, it was close to eyebrow height, but constructed of hollowed-out bamboo and filled with mercury. The fluid weight of the mercury added more striking power, like lead shot in a sap. Mercury has long been considered a mystical element by alchemists, as “dan” in “dantian (the Chinese center of qi power 丹田)” means cinnabar, the common ore of mercury. After mercury was discovered to be toxic, later versions replaced it with a sliding piece of bronze and capped stick with bronze so the core piece wouldn’t break the ends.
Bagua also has a fighting iron fan (tie shan 鐵扇), named Kunlun Fan (崑崙扇) after Grandmaster Dong, who was considered a hero from that sacred mountain. Today, fan is a popular weapon, but the original fighting fans were different. They were made completely of metal with sharp pointed ribs. Fong has collected a metal fan, and some pointed ones with cloth leaves, but not a pointed metal fan. He says the famed Emperor Qinglong (reign 1735–1796) was fascinated by fighting fans. He gathered the fan masters together and recorded all of their techniques, then executed them so he would be the sole possessor of their skills. When Grandmaster Dong left the service of the Palace, he was passed a manual based on Qinglong’s reprehensible research. Just as today’s fighting fans are greatly diminished, most fan forms today are watered down too. According to Fong, “Modern fan is mostly dancing and Mulan (Mulan is martial dance based on the same heroine as the Disney film 木蘭).” In addition, Dong’s fan had two secret retractable blades, a short sword in the front and a dagger in the back.
Another secret Bagua weapon was the Chain Hammer (shou lian chui 手鏈鎚). This was a small ball weight attached to a finger ring by about a foot-long piece of chain. Chain Hammers masters kept them tucked discreetly in their waist pocket or belt with just the ring dangling for easy access. With a quick motion of the hand, the weapon could be drawn and deployed. It was often paired with a fighting fan, and Bagua’s celebrated centenarian, Grandmaster Li Ziming (1903–1993 李子鳴) specialized in it. Fong once heard that his master, Zhao Dayuan, was planning to demonstrate it to the public at an event in 1986, but Li said, “No, don’t show it.”
Can I Really Use an Antler on the Street?
While packing an antler might get you past TSA, a pragmatist might ask, “Why bother with medieval weapons when there are guns?” “Physically, it gives you some different ways to use your body,” says Fong. “Certainly if you look at something like the Rooster Claw Knives, everything is an edge. You got to be really careful. You got to be really focused on what you are doing, otherwise the person you cut might not be your opponent. So a lot of these weapons are ways in which to train you more thoroughly, to give you a deeper understanding of Chinese martial arts.
“I’ve spent my life trying to find weird weapons and see what is their history.
The unfortunate thing is if you don’t do that, a lot of these things will be gone – in less than one generation actually, because if you think of Wushu weapons, there’s only the four that we use and that’s it. You don’t see anything else. The last time I was with the Beijing Team, I asked, ‘How about three-sectioned cudgel or hooks?’ and they said, ‘Oh we don’t teach that stuff anymore. We just concentrate on doing the main routines.’ I began with my interest in weird weapons and now, they’ve thrown that all out and say, ‘We don’t need that anymore.’ Actually, that’s what makes it interesting and different. Other martial artists are eager to get their hands on those weapons because their style doesn’t have that. It’s something that’s very uniquely Chinese. It gives you an understanding of the Chinese mind (laughs), how convoluted they created such a weapon.
“Modern Wushu is all about twirl. We’ve actually lost the use of the techniques. That’s bad. Now straight sword looks like broadsword, broadsword looks like straight sword, spear looks like staff, staff looks like spear. There’s no differentiation. If it looks cool, then I stick it in my set. But after a while, this is going to become like gymnastics with a piece of apparatus that used to be a weapon. And that’s sad that we’ve lost that. Each of these weapons had a specific meaning. A spear is King of Chinese weapons. Everything else is meant to fight that. So you have to take a look at each of these weapons and see how you actually use that against a spear. When you fight spear against Guan Dao, there’s certain reasons why you use certain techniques. Without that, the weapons begin to lose their meaning. Of course, you’re not going to go out and fight with these, but still, to do the weapon properly, one needs to know what the technique was.
“I look at Taiji sword, and oftentimes nowadays people are moving the sword around but they’ve lost the understanding of what the actual technique was. In Wushu, it’s like, ‘We don’t really need that technique. We’ll just use this one to substitute for it.’ After you substitute enough techniques, you don’t have anything. There’s no dian jian (pointing sword 點劍). There’s just pi jian (hacking sword 劈劍). I’ll just use a broadsword technique instead.
“The other sad thing is that all the traditional sparring sets that taught how to use these weapons get lost. And so you’re losing a big part of the art. If the art is important, you need to have all of its aspects. After a while, you pare away everything, and then it becomes an athletic endeavor. That’s cool, but it’s not what it was meant to be. Not everyone is going to want to preserve that, but those who are interested should take the time to do it because it’s a valuable endeavor and there are lots of meaningful things to discover from their study.”
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|Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine September+October 2014|
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Gene Ching :
For more information on Master Bryant Fong, visit sfwushu.com.