Around the World in Eight Palm Changes

By Sifu Adam Hsu

According to different authorities the number of kungfu styles we have in China can go as high as four hundred or as low as two hundred. Thus it may be safe to place the total at about three hundred. What a rich and exciting contribution to the world! On the other hand, for this very reason a potential student can become easily confused, overwhelmed, and perhaps even discouraged from beginning any study. Faced with so many possibilities, how can anyone make the right choice?

Then why don't we change our perspective? Let's first examine reasons why we citizens of the late twentieth century might wish to study martial arts. Rather than looking at three hundred styles, we can instead look at three basic needs:

  1. self-defense and confidence,
  2. self-healing and fitness, and
  3. self-enrichment and entertainment.


It's accurate to describe kungfu as a multi-purpose art and in fact most kungfu styles do help practitioners satisfy each of these needs. But since different styles tend to lean in different directions, the practitioner would do best to choose according to his primary interest.

Of course we all want a "one style fits all." Certainly everyone dreams of finding a style which can serve all three purposes equally, effectively and thoroughly.

Does such a style exist? Yes, and among the several that do, bagua stands out. In fact, it may be the most suitable style for the twenty-first century.

To establish this point of view we must examine the past. Within this family of three hundred or so kungfu styles, bagua, a more recently developed art, is the younger brother. This younger brother has been the lucky beneficiary of fighting expertise developed through the thousand year history of Chinese kungfu. As a martial art, its combat practices are highly sophisticated, including only the highest, genius-level if you will, techniques.

Martial arts historians are in agreement that the usage of martial arts was emphasized in the Ming dynasty. Though it received no less emphasis during the Ching dynasty, exploring the health benefits of kungfu also became a secondary preoccupation. Bagua was founded during the late Ching dynasty. Martial usage and health exercise together were the primary ingredients from which it was formed, nourished and grew.

Though it originated elsewhere, the art of Bagua matured and became popular in Beijing, the ancient Ching dynasty capital. At that time it was the artistic as well as the political center of China. As in ancient Athens, everyday life was rooted in artistic expression, creativity and scholarship which flourished in the city. Citizens received heavy exposure to all the arts ? literature, painting, music, dance, theater, architecture and more. Their rising level of appreciation stimulated higher expectations and demands for quality, which in turn stimulated advances in the arts. For example, the royal family (especially the last emperor) loved opera and people could enjoy frequent performances throughout the city. This rich environment was the context in which several local styles of opera could merge only to develop into the famous Peking Opera.

Of course in the history of most kungfu styles there were periods when crude movements and entire forms were worked over and polished. Bagua, however, was born in this specially charged atmosphere of intense artistic awareness and excellence. Pure Chinese aesthetics are imprinted in its very genes. This may be why westerners who grew up breathing the atmosphere of Graeco-Roman aesthetic find bagua so attractive.

Modern society is changing rapidly. We are under increasing stress as demands on our time, space and energy turn them into scarce and valuable commodities. In this context, all ancient arts, including kung fu, must be reevaluated. Society will not alter itself so that kung fu can survive. Instead we must see which among its many styles can offer the most benefits to society.

Self-defense, self-healing, and self-enrichment are basic needs that the modern person will take into the next century. From this pragmatic point of view, it could be said that bagua is indeed a style that fits all.

Though we live in a highly civilized society, unfortunately it is still necessary to be able to protect oneself. But participating in classes that center only around self defense can be costly ? even if the class is free! Time, energy, and physical hardship all are spent in service of one purpose. Good bagua masters, however, can teach students the extraordinary bagua fighting techniques which use the smallest amount of raw power to produce the greatest results - and still satisfy the individual's needs for health and inner enrichment.

As we are all aware, the majority of kung fu styles possess many forms. Very few hand only single movement practices. Kung fu practitioners traditionally considered training to be complete when all forms on all levels were learned. Criticisms of others were always based on forms; the number of movements one form has in comparison with another, reversing the sequence of two movements, or switching movements into a different sequence, etc. This has caused unnecessary confusion and hard feelings destroying the solidarity among kung fu stylists. Even worse, it has turned art into mass produced merchandise damaging the roots of creativity and self-expression vital to any art form. If we only copy and don not compose, there can then only be interpreters and not artists.

In Dong Hai Quan's time, and possibly even earlier, bagua disciples were taught basic movements, principles, some samples of sequences, health exercises, and special bagua usage. Then the master should help each pupil, based on individual need, to strengthen weaknesses and make progress. Beyond that, the student could not develop his true potential unless he composed his own forms. Such an outstandingly original attitude towards martial arts which led to such advanced and effective training methods have made bagua an outstandingly original, advanced and effective art.

Self defense is not needed on a daily basis but exercise is. Young or old, male or female, healthy or ill, rain or shine, exercise is a prime necessity. Modern conveniences have changed our way of life. We no longer chop wood and carry water. Wheels transport us to work or school. And at work, even our chairs are on wheels!

Realizing the need for exercises many people have joined western health clubs. Others engage in eastern health practices such as qi gong. As beneficial as these activities are, still none can match bagua as an exercise in which the internal and external, physical and mental, practical and philosophical are balanced so beautifully. Moreover, one can practice bagua alone, in a small space, in a relatively short amount of time, and without buying expensive gear.

Many people who love bagua describe its movements as dance-like. Some westerners intelligently point out that the study and practice of bagua is an excellent way to live out the beauty, philosophy, and life-style found in the other half of the world. So in fact, beauty is not only skin deep.

Technology has shrunk what was once a planet full of vast spaces and unknown frontiers into a global village. People of all nations now realize how vital it is to view the world in this manner. But reading, thinking and discussion alone are not enough to make it happen.

The eastern half of the world has already moved a good way toward meeting the west. We see this reflected in its political structures, technology, science, business, and even the arts. In contrast, the west for the most part stands sill, curiously watching from a distance. Practical necessity has yet to seriously motivate the west to journey east.

Kung fu, and bagua in particular, can make an invaluable contribution to the western body and psyche in ways that aren't possible with the western body disciplines. The understanding of self and culture that can come from bagua practice as well as just the sheer enjoyment and appreciation of its benefits could serve to bring people around the world closer together.

Everyone knows that in bagua you walk a circle. And the circle is the universal symbol of inclusion, perfection, completion and wholeness- qualities we all want and need both as individuals and as twenty-first century citizens of planet earth.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1997 .

Written by Sifu Adam Hsu for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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