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This article was first published in the Pa Kua Chang Newsletter 1993.

The information in this article was obtained during interviews conducted with Luo Dexiu (羅德修) in Taipei, Taiwan, in September 1992 and March 1993. Thanks to Luo Dexiu’s students Tim Cartmell and Bill Tucker for translating the lengthy interviews.

Bagua Zhang’s Fundamental Principles

Luo implores his students to look beyond technique and use their mind in investigating the movements of the system to see what each movement is trying to convey in principle. To help them in this study, Luo explains to his students three principles of the Yijing (易經), three fundamental movements of Bagua Zhang, three principles of movement in fighting, and three levels of Bagua Zhang training.

Luo refers to the three principles of the Yijing as „regular change, simple change, and no change.“ The „regular change“ principle moves from simple to complex or from small to big as in the Yijing’s movement from the Liang Yi (兩億) to the Hexagrams. The „simple change“ principle moves from complex back to simple or from big to small. The „no change“ principle describes movement which is cyclic. These three relationships exemplify the one moving to many, the many moving to one, and the idea of repetitive, or reoccuring, change.

With these principles in mind the student can examine all Bagua Zhang movements and explore every level of a technique moving from big to small, small back to big; from simple to complex, complex to simple; right to left, left to right; high to low, low to high; inside to outside, outside to inside; stillness to movement, movement back to stillness; from center to eight directions, eight directions back to the center, etc.. The possible variations on one theme become endless.

It is through the exploration of these concepts that Luo can demonstrate Bagua Zhang’s three fundamental movements. He states that there are three fundamental mechanical principles of movement in Bagua Zhang practice and these principles are exemplified in the movements of single palm change, double palm change, and smooth palm change. He says that all of Bagua Zhang’s movements are born from these three principles of movement and he demonstrates how every move in Gao Yisheng’s Xiantian Bagua Zhang form are simply variations of one or more of these three movement principles. It is fascinating to watch Luo take a movement from high to low, or making the movement more complex by adding components of the double palm change of smooth palm change. In taking one or more of these three fundamental movement principles and changing it in accordance with the three principles of the Yijing as described above, Luo can indeed construct all of Bagua Zhang’s characteristic techniques.

Learning how to take the three fundamental movement principles expressed in the single palm change, the double palm change, and the smooth palm change and construct the eight guas (卦) of the Xiantian Bagua Zhang is just the beginning of the learning process for Luo’s students. In teaching the Bagua Zhang form, the student in Luo’s school will transition through three levels of development. These three levels of development are Ba Mu Zhang (Eight Mother Palms), Lian Huan Zhang (Continuously Linked Palms) and You Shen Zhang (Swimming Body Palms). While many Bagua Zhang practitioners will practice seperate forms which are identified with these names and others call their Bagua Zhang system You Shen Bagua Lian Huan Zhang, Luo views these three concepts as seperate progressive training levels of the same sequence of movements.

The beginner in Luo’s school will first learn the Xian Tian Bagua Zhang movements working at the Ba Mu Zhang level of training. At this stage the movements are executed so that each single movement is clearly defined. The focus of practice is to move smoothly, develop root, and combine the body and mind. Luo states that the mind should permeate all of the movements in Bagua Zhang. Execution of the Bagua Zhang form in this detailed manner develops gong li (功力) or „trained strength“. Progress at this level is attained through detailed body movement combined with proper mental focus. In Luo’s opinion, the form should never be practiced in a casual manner.

After his students have had a considerable amount of experience with the Ba Mu Zhang level of training, Luo will teach them to practice the same form movements in a smooth, continuous manner. This is the Lian Huan level of training. While the movements at the Ba Mu Zhang level were meticulous and step- by- step, the movements at the lian huan zhang level continuously flow together, the transition from one move to the next within each form section (or gua) are imperceptible, the form becomes seamless. In the Ba Mu Zhang practice, the root of the power is apparent in each individual movement and each movement is clearly defined. In the Lian Huan Zhang level the practitioner works to connect all movements so that the power is consistently available; there are no movements in which the expression of power appears obvious and there are no movements which lack power. At this level the form movements and expressions of power also become more subtle. Luo states that the practitioner should learn to deliver a great amount of force from any part of the body at any time and express that force through small body movements. A practitioner who cannot accomplish this will always be too slow in a fighting situation.

While the movements of each form section in the Lian Huan Zhang flow together smoothly and continuously so that an observer cannot see where one move of the form ends and another begins, in the You Shen Zhang level of training the practitioner expands the same movements, appearing to make them spontaneous and free form. Although the practitioner training at the You Shen level will be executing the same form sequence that was practiced at the previous two levels, he or she will be creative in the timing and articulation of the changes. At the Ba Mu Zhang level the practitioner moved step- by- step in a somewhat staccato fashion, at the Lian Huan Zhang level the practitioner linked the steps together so that there was continuity. The number of movements per step remains the same at the Lian Huan level, however, all of the moves flow continuously. At the You Shen Zhang level the practitioner may take five steps in the execution of a movement that was practiced with only one step at the Lian Huan level. The rhythm and tempo of the movements and the manner in which the body movements are coordinated with the footwork are variable and spontaneous at this level. The upper and lower body are continuously moving and changing. The practitioner takes the principle of change inherent in the Yijing and applies it to the physical form. Luo states that at this level the mind is creating the movement spontaneously and the form becomes very expansive.

Progressing from the Ba Mu Zhang level to the Lian Huan Zhang level and then to the You Shen Zhang level of training can be compared to the musician starting with scales, moving to smoothly executed pre- arranged composition and then finally to improvisation. While the melody is recognizable when a song is being played by an improvisationalist, he makes the song his own through creative interpretation around the melodic line. Each time the song is played the listener is presented with something new. Luo does the same with his Bagua Zhang when executing the form at the You Shen Zhang level. Like the melody of a improvised song, the form is recognizable, but the variations are endless. In a fighting situation the ability to take fundamental principles based on the form movements and vary them to fit any situation is a key to success. Practicing at the You Shen Zhang level aids in developing this ability.

In explaining the three principles of movement in fighting, Luo takes the Yijing theme and expands it to include two people. The three principles of movement in a two person encounter are:

1. The opponent moves and I am stationary

2. The opponent is stationary and I move

3. Both the opponent and I move

In the context of Bagua Zhang these principles of movement are typically discussed in terms of circular motion and the term „stationary“ does not mean motionless. For example, in the first principle „the opponent moves and I am stationary“ could include a situation where I am grabbing the opponent and pulling or throwing him by rotating my body. In relation to distance traveled forward, backward, or laterally along the ground I am stationary, however, my body is still in motion. Likewise, movement around a stationary opponent involves the opponent or otherwise move to seek an optimum angle of attack.

As one might imagine, the possible variations on these three themes are endless. Luo will have his students work these three principles in combination with the principles of the Yijing as outlined above in order to build a theoretical base from which to study the art in more depth. Using the mind to research the principles of each form movement beyond the obvious „technique“ is emphasized in Luo’s teaching. The students research the applications of these principles by spending a lot of time practicing two man drills based on the Houtian Bagua Zhang set. Without this kind of study it is difficult to add substance and meaning to the practice.

Luo’s approach to Bagua Zhang fighting

In Luo’s system the primary vehicle used to develop a foundation in Bagua Zhang fighting technique is the straight line practice or Houtian Bagua Zhang. In performing the 64 straight line sets of the Houtian Bagua the student will condition the body, develop internal strength, and ingrain the correct principles of movement, structure, body integration and allignment while learning the major aspects of Bagua Zhang’s approach to fighting. While each of the 64 sets may be thought of as „techniques“, Luo discourages the technique orientated approach. Again, he feels that the movements inherent in the Houtian Bagua are expressing principles of motion, not single „techniques“. If the student can discover which principles of motion each set develops, then he or she can learn to apply that principle in a variety of situations. If the practitioner grasps the principle and the body is developed in accordance with that principle of motion, then the principle can be applied in numerous ways.

When approaching a fighting situation, Luo states that it is important to have a quiet mind. If the mind gets flustered, the body will lose continuity, connection and power. There is an old martial arts phrase which says: „If the enemy does not move, I don’t move. If the enemy moves, I move first.“ Luo interprets this to mean that in „not moving“ the heart is calm and the body is in „standby“. He says, even when the body is in motion, the mind is quiet and aware. As soon as the opponent is ready to set up for an attack, you attack first and beat him to the punch.

When sparring, Luo likes to take the initiative and do something to ellicit a response from the opponent. He then seeks the fastest angle of attack based on the opponent’s reaction. He says, „You create the situation and then control the situation.“ He continues by saying that in a fighting situation, an opponent will usually have his body pretty well protected. In order to get inside you will first strike to the outside (the hands or arms) to illicit a response, fluster the opponent, or grab something and use it as a handle to offset the opponent. Once the opponent has been flustered or offset, then you can move in and apply your striking, kicking, locking, or throwing application to the more vulnerable areas of his body. In striking the body, Luo will move in soft and fluid and make contact with the opponent’s body before applying power. The power is applied in a quick, sharp burst after the hand has touched the opponent’s body. He says that even if the opponent has practiced body conditioning exercises such as „iron shirt“ this kind of „shock“ power or „short jin“ will penetrate. This is one reason that a Bagua Zhang practitioner never wants to allow an opponent to touch his or her body.

In moving from outside to inside, or in setting up to execute an application which will inflict the most amount of damage, Luo again turns to the principle of change. Bagua Zhang stylists are famous for setting up one technique and then quickly changing to another midstream to throw the opponent off balance. Luo loves to set up for a throw by offsetting the opponent and then abandon the throw, turn the body quickly while the opponent is falling and strike him against the momentum of the fall. Baiting, grabbing, offsetting, quickly changing and then striking at the optimum angle, Luo is able to inflict a tremendous amount of damage in a very short amount of time.

When teaching students how to apply Bagua in fighting, Luo is a strong believer in giving the student a good taste of the force and power behind the application. He says that if the student does not get a real taste, he or she will only be exposed to the outer shell and will end up with dead technique. Luo is careful enough not to hurt or injure his students, however, he says that the student cannot simply watch a technique being applied and fully appreciate all of the subtly of the application. The student needs to feel where and when the force is light, where it is heavy, and how it is physically applied. When Luo applies his Bagua Zhang, there is no doubt left in your mind that he knows exactly what he is doing, can change and vary his application to counter any move which might be made in defense, and that his level of skill is highly refined.