The Circle of Eight
Bagua Master He Jing-Han Discusses Tradition, Fast Food and Art of Sax

By Gigi Oh (with Gene Ching and Jonathan Oh)

The bagua Witness Master He Jing-Han's bagua with a trained eye and you can see the skill that a novice observer might miss. His posture appears effortless so it looks quite simple. In fact, his poses don't appear uncomfortable at all until you try to mimic it. He twists his body beyond the normal range while staying completely relaxed and strong. Here is a body that has been manipulated through years of practice, shaped into something superhuman, but like many aspects of traditional Chinese martial arts, it's subtly sublime.

Master He Jing-Han is a disciple of bagua grandmaster Gong Bao-Zhai, a direct descendant of the lineage of bagua's founder, Dong Hai Chun (approx. 1813 - 1882). A retired broadcaster and Taiwanese military man, Master He now focuses his attentions on the cultivation of the arts. His approach to bagua has been described as holistic, open and righteous. Last year, He published a book, Ba Gua Quan: Foundation Training, his first in English. Bagua is a prominent internal style, akin to tai chi and xingyi. It is based on a Taoist cosmological system involving eight trigrams, or "bagua," that revolve around the yin yang. Accordingly, bagua is known for its circular movements.

Here in the West, bagua seems to be riding the coattails of tai chi, despite being a completely different entree. Like any new Asian import, most bagua served up in the States has been watered down to suit the American palette. All too often here, bagua is made so bland as to appear like tai chi done in circles. But as more westerners develop a taste for it, the true flavor of bagua begins to emerge. Authentic traditional bagua is a respected delicacy for a select few connoisseurs who can distinguish its subtleties.

Kung Fu Tai Chi publisher Gigi Oh interviewed Master He on bagua, but it quickly expanded to encompass martial arts as a whole. This article is based upon the transcripts from that interview.

Gen (Mountain Obstruction): The Relationship of Tai Chi and Bagua
"I first started learning the Yang Style Tai Chi 108 form. After I studied it for about six or seven years, I hit a plateau. I stopped improving. People were really into push hands then. Later, I started learning xingyi from Grandmaster Chen Tian-Yi and bagua from Grandmaster Gong Bao-Zhai. During my twenty-year tutelage in bagua, I stopped practicing tai chi. After I felt I had a good grasp of bagua, I came back to tai chi and my tai chi was greatly improved.

"Now I understand why. In Chinese martial arts, tai chi is the highest form of expression. It's not your shape or outside appearance (xing); it's your mind's expression (yi). If you learn tai chi without your xing being at a high enough level, your body can't follow your yi. You won't be able to do tai chi well.

"Bagua is the best Chinese martial arts to train your xing. Most people say that when you practice tai chi, you should be slow and loose. But if you focus on the speed, you may tense up your body too much to be totally loose. Or you may become too loose and collapse, so you can't explore your internal jing. It's all from the lack of the beginning basic training to master your xing.

"In old days, tai chi masters would teach their students the basic movements of long fist. This is to prepare the body to have, as they say, 'loose tendons and hard bones (song jin da gu).' Only after you have a good foundation can you start tai chi practice. It's like learning Chinese calligraphy. If you learn cursive characters (tsao shu), then you must first learn cuneiform characters (kai shu). You must learn how to do a basic drawing or sketch before you can do abstract painting.

"In appearance, tai chi and bagua look completely different, but the core concepts are actually very similar. In bagua, you learn to twist and compress your body to its smallest form. Tai chi is wide, open and soft. Their appearances are opposite, like yin and yang, but many of their principles are parallel."

Zhen (Thunder Motion): Cultivate of Power in Internal Styles
"It is believed that the founder of bagua is Grandmaster Dong Hai Chun. But I feel that this system is so complex that it wasn't created by just one person. I find there is a lot of Taoist influence such a daoyin and silk brocade. Many bagua movements combine Taoist jing qi shen (spirit, qi and essence) with luohan quan movements.

"The difference between martial arts systems depends on how you use your body. Most systems move forward and backward while bagua is circular. There is twisting energy in bagua, so naturally you walk in a circle. Many people use tai chi movements to practice bagua - that's not correct. True practice of a particular art depends on the correct control of your body movements according the requirements of the art.

"Xingyi also uses twisting movements; however, you only move in a straight line, not a circle. This is because its founder, General Qi Jiguang, created xingyi for the battlefield. Ancient soldiers moved in a straight line - forward and backward, but not circular. Tai chi uses ?silk reeling' to produce power. Silk reeling requires that every joint is moving constantly in sync with each other. It's like wheels and cogs - large teeth and small teeth move together simultaneously. Yang Tai Chi can be practiced in many ways. Some use Tai Chi to cultivate qi. Master Zheng Manqing's system practices chen jing which is the qi moving only up and down. Master Yang Shouzhong's system practices peng jing. Tai chi chuan is a concept, but you must be familiar with your body shape to really become a master at it."

Li (Fire Elegance): Less Power to Achieve the Same Result
"The first and most important thing is to ask yourself, "Why am I learning martial arts?" What is your purpose? In bagua, I'm actually learning about my body and understanding its structure - the correct way to stand, the correct way to squat, even how to properly hold a glass of water and hand it to someone else. Some people learn martial arts with the sole goal of defeating someone else. They do not learn about themselves. Their mind is not on their own body, but their opponent's. When you find a movement that overcomes your opponent, you only train this movement. As a result, you limit yourself. If someone tells you that a straight punch is most effective, you only practice the straight punch. Even if you master that one punch, if you must use a different angle, you have no attack power. Traditionally, martial arts train all different directions to prepare you for any attack from any angle.

"You should be able to start bagua at any age. When you are young, you can make your body grow into a 'bagua body.' If you are older than thirty, you have to change your body shape first, transform it into a 'bagua body.' If you are under twenty and train very hard, it will probably take about three years to transform your body into a bagua body. If you are older, it will probably take longer. At first, your body will feel hurt and sore, and if you have large muscles, they will probably shrink. This is just the basic training. You should not start form training until your body is ready. Just like if you try to run before you can walk, you will fall.

"Once you learn how to control your body, you discover that martial arts are not about learning how to gain more power, but how to use less power to achieve the same result. Often when you are older, you already have poor posture and bad habits, so to begin at this age, you must throw these away. Once you correct your posture, you will have more freedom of movement. Discovering this freedom will lead to the beginning of your study of true bagua."

Kan (Water Difficulty): Fast Food Culture Challenges Tradition
"I can teach bagua quickly but it depends on the students and how much time they spend on practice. I went to the United States twice, but I stopped because I felt that the few seminars I taught weren't really helping the students. I could only teach them one form in the short amount of time. I feel that students who go to many seminars and learn many forms but fail to master any of them, that's a waste of time. I often ask myself, ?Should I use my traditional method to teach Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese or should I teach them according to their need?' I don't think I should change my teaching style to fit American expectations. I know there are some masters that go to America and teach one form or some combat skills, but to me this is not the true way of teaching Chinese martial arts. In reality, they deviate from the essence of Chinese culture.

"I emphasize basic training (jibengong) a lot when I teach. If you learn all the jibengong well, but not all the forms (taolu), then no problem. This is because you have already learned how to use your body correctly. Your daily life and posture will be correct. My students find that after they learn all the basics, all exercises become easier and their bodies function better. Even their golf strokes and tennis volleys are better. This is the benefit for modern-day people. If you return to learn the forms after, you will learn them faster.

"Students that learn only bits here and there can say that they are learning bagua, but this isn't true because they are not learning everything that really comes with bagua. People should go to the schools that can get them through quicker, if that's all they're looking for. I often ask my American students why they want to learn from me. If they say they want to learn how to fight, I ask them why they just don't go to learn boxing. That's very efficient for fighting. They could probably earn more money boxing than they could earn as a Chinese martial arts instructor. People who want to learn Chinese martial arts have to understand that there is a commitment to learning Chinese culture. The two go hand in hand. If you put out the right message, there will certainly be people who pick up on that and want to learn the complete system. I want students that want to learn the complete system. If I changed to wanting to teach combat, I'm sure that I would only attract students that are into combat."

Dui (Marsh Eloquence): Learning to Relax
"At first, you have to have all your joints and muscles relaxed and "loose" (song). The bagua practitioner does not have a weightlifter's muscular build. When your tendons are loose and your muscles are longer, your qi will flow more easily throughout the body. Second, you start learning to twist your muscles and joints. After twisting, your muscles actually become even more loose and long. Once you learn how to twist your exterior muscles, this leads to the ability to move qi into your organs and internal body. Now you can execute circular movements. When you can do these circular movements, you no longer need to focus on twisting your anatomy. Each movement is connected to a different internal organ. When you practice at this level, your inner energy emerges. The more you keep walking, the more energy emerges. So when you open all of your body parts, each palm movement is connected to a different inner organ. When you practice at this stage your inner energy will come out. When you keep walking, the more you walk the more energy comes out. So when you open all your body parts, then connect your inner body with your qi and blood circulation and use different postures to lead your qi and blood, that is the core principle of bagua."

Xun (Wind Penetration): Skill in the Arts
"In ancient times, we called martial arts ?bow arts' (gong yi). It is connected to music, dance and other arts. When you learn Chinese martial arts, you are learning more than just physical combat. Martial arts give you insight into Chinese culture, calligraphy, medicine, literature and yin yang balance theory. Take bagua for example. When you first begin, you are only trying to learn the forms and make them look good and powerful. But until your mind is at a point where it understands everything involved, only then will you truly begin to understand what bagua is.

"I usually practice the saxophone for four hours [a day]. I wanted to learn saxophone since childhood, but due to lack of funds and free time, I couldn't pursue it until later in life. I started learning three years ago. The sax is great because it helps you focus your internal power. My sifu Gong Bao-Zhai often told me, 'Practicing martial arts is like learning "skill."' Once you gain skill, you have learned much more than just martial arts or how to open a school. The process of learning helps you learn other fields as well. Once you have skill, given the chance, you can become a master at anything - the best general, the best prime minister, the best butcher, or whatever. You should be able to apply the skill you gain from martial arts training to your daily life. With the sax, just learning breath control can take ten years. Since I've been practicing bagua for more than thirty years, I've almost mastered my breathing for sax in only three years. Now it's a matter of channeling my qi through the sax to make a beautiful melody.

"In bagua, you learn to master every joint and muscle in your body. I thought I did, but when I started playing sax, I found I couldn't control my lip or throat muscles. I'm also learning oil painting? The reasons why I practice all these things are to stay well rounded. I have seen great masters focus only on one thing in their life. After a while, they become isolated, like an island. Why? Because when they try to share their thoughts, no one can understand. They spend many years to master one art, but most people don't understand that art so they find it irrelevant. It can come to a point when the masters no longer try to communicate with others. At times, it can be difficult to communicate martial arts to ordinary people, but through art and music, I have found a way to relate martial arts through these other outlets."

Qian (Heaven Strength): The Best Time to Practice
"Martial arts should not be practiced only during portions of your day. Instead, it should be practiced throughout every day of your life. For instance, if I want to practice, I should be able to practice any time. I don't have to change into martial arts clothes and shoes first. You cannot treat it like it's a special event out of your day. Jibengong teaches you to begin from your body shape. You have to know what you are doing and break your old habits. Start doing things with correct posture and make those your new habits. Practicing martial arts should be in every second of the day. You shouldn't need to block out certain hours in the day just devoted to martial arts.

"[Practicing yang gong during the day and yin gong at night] is only for certain people that have reached a higher level. They can connect heaven, earth, and universe qi to their body. For people that are just starting out, it doesn't matter. The only time you shouldn't practice is around 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, a period known as wu shi, because your qi is too strong at top of your head. For normal everyday practitioners, any other time is okay. Those books are for martial arts masters. It's more important to focus on using correct way to breathe, to eat, to drink, and so on."

Kun (Earth Receptivity): The True Offering
In the past, great martial artists were the avant-garde. Most were martyrs. Their thoughts were "in the world" (ru shi). They understood the suffering of the common person. They were people of learning and felt that the corrupt government needed to change. But now, martial arts are gradually becoming ancient and obsolete. It belongs in museums. Some martial artists try to recreate the 18th century; they try to imitate our ancestor's clothing and affectations. I do not agree with this concept. Martial artists should be in touch with what's going on in the world today. Others learn martial arts until they have beaten all the competitors around them. Then they think that they have become a master and that training is over. To me, this is sad because they aren't learning what Chinese martial arts have to offer.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2004 .

About Gigi Oh (with Gene Ching and Jonathan Oh) :
For more on He Jing-Han, see his article Baguaquan in our Sept/Oct issue. He may be contacted at

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