This article was published in Pa Kua Chang Newsletter Vol. 2, No. 3 in March 1992.
Looking at the history and development of Bagua Zhang, the chapter on Bagua as taught by Gao Yisheng plays a significant role. Gao not only taught a traditional circle based Bagua, which he called Xiantian (先天) or pre- heaven Bagua, he also taught 64 seperate palm techniques that were linked together and practiced in linear sets. The 64 palm set Gao called Houtian (後天) or later- heaven Bagua. The later- heaven Bagua set provides the practitioner with a very good training tool for use in development of Bagua mechanics, technique orientation, and tactical application. Researching the origin of the 64 palm set also reveals some very interesting information about the origins of Bagua Zhang itself.
There are not many practitioners in the United States who are familiar with Gao’s later- heaven Bagua. Since the later- heaven Bagua was not taught by Dong Haichuan (董海川) or his students, many question it’s validity. This issue of the newsletter will focus on Gao’s Bagua and outline the origin and practice of the later- heaven set as taught by Gao, He Kecai (何可才) and Zhang Junfeng (張峻峯) (two of Gao’s students who brought Gao’s method to Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively).
Gao Yisheng, whose personal name was Deyuan (德源) and pseudonym name was Shoushan (壽山), was born 1866 in the Province of Shandong, Wu Gang County, Da Shan Township, Da Zhuang Zi Village. His family was originally wealthy and owned a great deal of land, however, when Gao was a youth his family’s fortune was swindled away. His family moved to Hebei Province, Wu Qing County, Shou Gou Township when Gao was still young. As a child Gao learned the Shaolin Da Hong Quan (大洪拳) system that was taught in his family. He later learned Xingyi (形義) receiving instruction from Li Cunyi (李存義). When he was 26 years old, Gao began his study of Bagua Zhang with Dong Haichuan’s student Song Changrong (宋長榮).
After three years of study with Song, Gao had only learned the single palm change. He begged his teacher to teach him more deeply. Song said that he was not ready, telling Gao that one can’t learn too much at a time and expect to achieve a high level of skill. Gao was greatly disappointed and left Song to find another teacher.
When Gao was 30 years old he met Zhou Yuxiang (周玉祥), a native of Wa Fang Village in Wu Qing County. Zhou was a highly regarded disciple of the renowned Cheng Tinghua (程庭華). Zhou’s palm skills were profound and he was especially adept at fighting. When fighting he mainly used palm strikes and he seldom lost – for this reason he was nicknamed „peerless palm“ Zhou.
When Gao first met Zhou, they each demonstrated what they knew. To further assess each other’s skill, they ended up crossing arms. After Zhou defeated Gao in three attempts at attack, Gao conceded and asked Zhou if he would teach him Bagua. Because Zhou was only three years older than Gao he said, “ Because we are almost the same age, I really can’t be the one that brings you into the system. You should look upon me as an elder brother.“ Gao pleaded with him, and Zhou agreed to take Gao to Beijing and introduce him to his teacher Cheng Tinghua. If Cheng accepted Gao into the system, then Zhou said he would agree to teach him. When Gao met Cheng and asked to become one of his disciples, he mentioned that he had already spent time studying with Song. Because he already had some background, and because Zhou guaranteed his worthiness, Cheng was happy to teach him. Upon returning to Wu Qing, Zhou taught Gao his art and Gao periodically made trips to Beijing to study with Cheng.
Among Dong Haichuan’s students, Cheng had the most students of his own. Cheng had an eyeglasses shop outside of the south gate of Beijing and was nicknamed „Eyeglasses Cheng“. Gao was able to study with Cheng for 2 years, but only learned eight postures before Cheng died. Although Gao had lost a great teacher, he was able to continue studying with his older boxing brother Zhou. After three additional years with Zhou he learned the traditional 8 palms, the broadsword, spear, straight sword, deer horn knives, short stick, some fighting methods and their corresponding training exercises. After this, Gao started teaching Bagua in his hometown of Wu Qing and the surrounding area.
When Gao was 45 he returned to his original home in Shandong to teach Bagua. Shandong is a province where martial arts are commonplace. Almost every village in Dashan Township in Wu Gang County had a training hall. At the time, most martial artists in the area practiced Shaolin. When Gao first returned to Shandong with the intent of teaching Bagua, he had to follow the local custom of engaging in combat with one of the local martial artists. His first contest was against a local teacher named Wu Huishan (吳會山), who he easily defeated. He later also defeated local teachers Ma Yuanbiao (馬元彪), known as the „Tiger of Dashan Street“ and Li Xuewu (李學武), known as „Iron palm Li“. With these victories, Gao quickly became well known and martial artists from more than ten villages came to study with him.
One day, while Gao was teaching, a long bearded Daoist monk came to observe his class. Gao noticed the Daoist making dissatisfied expressions while Gao was teaching. After the class was over, Gao asked the Daoist why he looked unhappy with what he was teaching. The Daoist replied, “ Even though you have been scraping the surface of this art for many years, you are still boxing blindly.“ Gao asked him to continue. The Daoist said, “ I also practice Bagua and I learned from the same teacher as Dong Haichuan, the founder of your style, in Guangxi.“ (The Daoist had studied with Bi Chengxia (畢澄霞) in the Guanghua Mountains.) „Ever since Dong left us, I have not seen him.“
According to the Daoist, what Gao had learned from his teachers was the „pre- heaven“ Bagua skills. The Daoist knew this method, but additionally, he practiced the „later- heaven“ skills. Gao begged the Daoist to stay and stopped teaching Bagua himself. Gao went with the Daoist and began his study of Bagua from the beginning.
The Daoist that Gao studied with was named Song Yiren (宋異人). Many people feel this was not his real name as Song Yiren is a homonym for „someone who sends his art.“ This Daoist was a classmate of Ying Wentian (應文天) and Dong Haichuan when Dong was studying with the Daoist priest Bi Chengxia. Song’s approach to teaching Bagua was very systematic and what he had to teach was far more than the walking of the circle and the palm changes that Gao had learned from Cheng and Zhou.
After Gao had learned all that Song had to teach, the Daoist Song Yiren left Shandong and traveled to other parts of China. Before he left, Song gave Gao a copy of Bi Chengxia’s book on boxing and left him with this admonishment: “ If you teach this art at all, you must teach all 64 palms of the later- heaven Bagua, otherwise you will be teaching like Dong Haichuan who taught according to each student and thus his complete art was lost. “
When Gao was around 50 years old, he left Shandong and returned to Hebei where he taught Bagua in Yang Cun Village near Tianjin. During this period of time Gao met with his older teacher Zhou Yuxing. Zhou wanted to test Gao’s progress. He advanced on Gao twice and was deflected. On the third strike, Gao used „reverse opening palm“ and Zhou was knocked away. Zhou was so impressed by Gao’s 64 later- heaven palms that he traveled to Shandong to try and find Song Yiren, but Song had left and no one knew where he had gone.
In 1936, with the help of his student Liu Boyong (劉伯庸), Gao wrote a book called Bagua Supple Body Continuous Boxing. The book sums up decades of Bagua experience and introduces the reader to the basic content of Bagua and guidelines for practicing his Bagua. In the book, Gao calls the traditional circling Bagua „pre- heaven“ and emphasized that the pre- heaven Bagua is a basis for the later- heaven Bagua. He states that the later- heaven Bagua provides a method for training in the usage of the pre- heaven Bagua. Gao said that, „Without pre- heaven Bagua the art has no root, without later- heaven Bagua the art is incomplete. Pre- heaven is for strengthening the body, later- heaven is for protection.“ Gao’s student Liu Fengcai (劉鳳彩) has the manuscript to Gao’s book and has recently published a book on Gao’s method called The Gao Yisheng style of Cheng Tinghua’s Bagua. Another of Gao’s descendents, Wen Zhongshi (溫仲石) (a student of Gao’s student Zhang Fuhai 張褔海), wrote a book of his own that was published in the mainland in 1990. This book, entitled Swimming Body Continuous Circling Bagua Zhang, explains Gao’s pre- heaven and later- heaven Bagua and includes direct quotes from Gao’s book.
In 1936 Gao started teaching Bagua at the soccer fields in the English concession in Tianjin. He taught there for over 5 years and then returned to Wu Qing. Gao died in 1951 at the age of 85.
Later Heaven Bagua Zhang
The later- heaven palms were generally taught to the student after he had a basic foundation in the postures, the eight core palm movements and the pre- heaven circling set. These 64 straight line movements were taught as a means of breaking down the system to its component techniques so that the student could concentrate on the mechanics and applications of each. While the circling exercise of the pre- heaven set might teach fluidity and lightness in movement, the later- heaven palms imbued correct reactions and the ability to change from one technique to another in a combat context.
Each of the 64 movements was taught with at least three applications, and one was expected to practice them with a partner to build sensitivity and reactivity. In the beginning, one practiced solo, in a fashion not unlike Xingyi. Each movement was referred to as a „jue“ (訣), which means the „knack“ or „secret“ of doing something, and consisted of only three or four movements each; usually a parry, deflection and follow up. The student practiced each jue to the left and right, going up and down the room, making the movements a part of him. The movements were later linked, making a long form with eight sections, each section ending with a turn about. The partner work was intended to make the attack and defense work completely ingrained and reactive, leading to the final phase, free fighting. Gao referred to the later- heaven palms as bian zhang (變掌), or changing palms, as they taught the student to react and change with his opponent.