Dragon Shape Ba Gua Zhang
My father’s Ba Gua is called the Swimming Dragon system, Long Xing Ba Gua Zhang. It emphasizes moving like a dragon would move. It’s a complete system of Ba Gua including bare handed forms and weapons. The concept of “Dragon Body” is very important in the Chinese martial arts. It involves swimming, coiling movements.
The Chinese dragon is usually up in the air, high in the sky. Watching a dragon moving is similar to how fish swim in the water. Thus the name Swimming Dragon, it is swimming in the air. I think that snake is just as good a word, but people prefer dragon because they like the idea of a powerful creature floating around in the heavens. In any case the movement is the same.
I have confined my studies to the Dragon Shape Ba Gua that my father taught. This is the genuine Long Xing Ba Gua Zhang that Dong Hai Quan passed on to his students. He taught Dragon Ba Gua, Dragon Sword, and Dragon Staff. It descended through Cheng Ting Hua, to Cheng You Long, to my father Chen Pan Ling.
Dong Hai Quan had a number of different students, and each student took what he learned in a different direction. Like for instance, if you were a large guy who was a Xing Yi expert, your Ba Gua would fit more with the Xing Yi type of movement. But if you were a smaller and lighter person, perhaps the Ba Gua sword practice would suit you better. There weren’t different styles of Ba Gua, Dong Hai Quan only taught one thing, it was his students that changed it.
Xing Yi combines internal and external power with an emphasis on explosive power. The footwork is linear, angular and contains some spiraling actions, whereas Ba Gua’s unique circular footwork, spiraling swimming body actions and waist rotation strongly emphasize centrifugal power. Ba Gua’s footwork is unique, and it’s sudden changes of direction lend itself to defending against multiple attackers. Both are respected fighting styles and in China they are regarded as complimentary sister arts. Although complete systems in themselves, practitioners usually study them together.
Ba Gua Training
To properly practice Ba Gua Zhang, the form has to be perfect. The most vital points to pay attention to are the eyes, the legs and the arms. They must be coordinated as if one whole thing. Make sure these are correct or else the form cannot be learned correctly. The posture and body alignment must be just so.
Most important of all is the position of the leg and hip. You have to bend the knees as you walk. If you walk in too high a posture, it’s no good. It can’t be too low, nor too high, it’s got to be the right degree. Otherwise you won’t get the effect. If it’s too high you won’t have balance. If it’s too low, you won’t get the right strength. It’s critical that the Ba Gua practitioner develop a lot of leg strength.
As you practice don’t worry too much about the Yi Jing and the philosophy of Ba Gua. To understand Yi Jing is important, so you should study it. But while you are physically working, you have to focus your mind on that,. So don’t think a lot about the Yi Jing, it will split your mind. Concentrate on your movements and postures. Work on the Yi Jing separately.
The basic body alignments of all Chinese martial arts are the same. Don’t raise your shoulder up, sink both shoulders. When you do enough Tai Ji your posture will build up strength. Eventually your back looks like a turtle’s, rounded and strong. They say that the shoulders are your greatest enemy, you have to keep them from rising up. In addition you must keep your breathing in mind, don’t get out of breath as you practice.
Chen Yun Ching Demonstrating Tai Chi in Taiwan.
Push Hands & Listening Hands
Starting to fight full contact too early can be detrimental. Better to understand the foundation principles, from there you can learn the applications and their many varying themes easily. First a student needs to develop a mature attitude, control over their skill, and an understanding of the responsibility to others. You must never show off your martial skill, this is a big problem that a competent teacher must clearly discourage.
In the internal arts we have partner sensitivity drills like Push Hands that are appropriate even from a beginners level to understand the eight energies and their laws. Once you learn them a myriad of applications become available. I believe if you concentrate on the applications and not the energetic laws your skill will be lacking.
The eight energies of Tai Ji are also common to Ba Gua. The sensitivity gained from Tui Shou is also used in Ba Gua and Xing Yi. So that replaces the free sparring. If you drop someone right into free fighting they won’t be using the principles of Xing Yi or Ba Gua.
Push Hands only has a few principles, they are written in all the books by martial artists, they are all the same. But reading the words and actually doing it are different. The principle is that when you start to contact someone’s hand, you never lose them, you always follow them wherever they go. When they push you, you let them push, but you have to know when to lead, to guide their energy out past you. You really have to listen, they call it “Push Hands”, Tui Shou, but you really have to do “Listening Hands”, Ting Shou.
Tui Shou is one idea, but Ting Shou has more detail. When someone tries to push you let them push, but you have to know when and how you are going to neutralize them. And after you neutralize them you have to attack. Really the principle involves sticking and not resisting. If you resist they will know where you are listening. It’s a very tricky thing, but Push Hands and Listening Hands have really good sensitivity skills for all of the Nei Jia Quan.
Another important factor is the shifting of the weight. Knowing where to center your weight, and the ability to transfer your weight at the right time are very important. This will allow you to push with the power of your legs. Turning the hips at the right time is part of the same process. If you turn too late you’ve been taken, controlled, and pushed. The timing of the weight change and hip turn must be right. To do this you must have good sensitivity to the feeling of the pressure your opponent is putting on you.
The skill of listening then comes into play. I enjoy the two person practice, it’s really good fun. The skill comes from listening. You can’t build skill without that. In general we have a hard time listening to other people, even in conversation. So you must genuinely listen, with your whole body. In Ba Gua you can also develop sensitivity while walking the circle with your partners.
Standing Practice Builds Qi
Qi isn’t really created through specific movement patterns or systems. Qi is created from the long term practice of breathing exercises. You aren’t getting qi from forms. You are getting it from the combination of the breathing with movement. In that way you naturally develop internal energy or qi.
An example of this kind of training was Wang Shu Jin. He spent a lot of time working on standing still combined with breathing. He used the standing forms of Xing Yi and Ba Gua to bring qi into his abdomen. That’s how he made his stomach so hard. It’s not that he trained his belly specifically to withstand a punch, it just happened as a byproduct of his qi training.
So if you want to build strong qi inside, you can’t do it just practicing Xing Yi or Ba Gua. It must be in combination with breathing exercise. Wang Shu Jin would just stand there, but he was doing breathing to build that internal energy. Of course, he also trained every morning with a heavy steel pole. He would walk the Ba Gua circle five hundred times each day with that pole. Not only that, he was a vegetarian and remained celibent.
He had a strong knowledge of Xing Yi and Ba Gua when he arrived in Taiwan, but he came to my father to study for 20 years and learnt the 99 Pattern Tai Ji Quan form. Later he wrote a letter declaring that Chen Pan Ling taught him how to correlate the three internal arts but confessed after training all his life he had not mastered all three Arts.
Chen Yun Ching and James Sumarac practicing Hsing I Destructive Cycle at Confucius Temple, Puli Taiwan.
The Process of Learning
For a beginner, the first thing is to find a competent teacher that you can relate to and be inspired by. A beginner needs to understand the basic prescription of the theories they study and where they are leading to, this also needs to be presented in an interesting and patient manner. Beginners need lots of encouragement and motivation to train daily so they can achieve these goals.
Intermediate students still need encouragement and motivation and should be able to see a consolidation and deeper level of understanding so that they may one day be advanced practitioners and teach properly to perpetuate the cycle of correct martial arts training.
When you begin to learn martial arts, you need to ask yourself, how much do you want to learn? How much do you want to commit to martial arts? Choose one teacher, try not to learn too many things, or else you’ll become confused. If you study too many styles, you’ll get too much advice, it’s all too much to remember. The best thing is to ask yourself are you committed? How serious are you? You’ll need lots of patience at first. Your teacher will say to you, practice what you remember until next time he comes back. Don’t practice things you only half remember, stick to what is clear in your mind. And don’t rush. Don’t learn too much so you don’t remember anything. If you learn only a little you’ll remember everything.
Choose a good teacher, find a system to follow. Don’t train with someone with no system, who’s only here for a week and then gone. You don’t know when he’ll be back to guide you properly. You have to put yourself in the position that you’ve got a system to follow and that your teacher is there for you. You know he will come back and you will go on with the study. Otherwise if you have many teachers, they will each be advising you to do something different and you won’t get anywhere.
My father learned martial arts but he never was one to pick a fight. He never went looking for trouble. But if somebody did try to come after him, he had no set responses, it all depended on how the attacker advanced on him. After all, you never know if they will punch for your face, kick your leg or come in at your body. These are all different techniques requiring different responses. One thing is for sure, when the time comes you won’t be able to use your favorite technique, it never works out that way.
Chen Pan Ling taught that you should respond to an attack in a very natural way. It all depends on the degree to which you understand gung fu and self-defense, and how the opponent is attacking. Someone who never really learned any technique will come in from a long distance to attack you. But someone skilled will come in very fast from very short range.
Seventy or eighty years ago in Shanghai my father was visiting friends. As he got out of his jeep the wind blew off his hat. When he bent down to pick it up a thief stole his briefcase. There was a large crowd milling about, so in order to chase the thief he used the Tai Xing (water lizard)technique from Xing Yi Quan to sweep the passersby aside. Once he caught the guy he put him in an armlock and recovered his luggage.
This is an example of how your natural reactions will always respond to any situation. Your body is more aware of what’s going on than you are. So train your body and mind and it will function quite well in an emergency.
Translated by Shou Mei Sumarac. Written by James Sumarac.
An excerpt from Nei Jia Quan Internal Martial Arts Edited by Jess O’Brien.
Photographs by Gunter Bohenzky.