Around the time firearms conquered human flesh and sinew, roughly around the end of the 19th century, China--the center of the world--had to turn its eyes outwards.
Many martial artists suffered broken hearts and some just gave up their art. Others who lacked training in different professions had no choice but to continue teaching kung fu in order to make ends meet. But neither they nor their students approached these arts with the same serious attitudes of the past. Traditional martial arts and its masters had become obsolete.
Ironically, today, at the very beginning of the 21st century, people are once more finding value in kung fu. The fighting art eclipsed by guns a century ago has become a vital, valuable tool for health maintenance, fitness, self-enrichment, and recreation. What was once obsolete has again become useful.Kung fu practice today, however, does have carry-overs from the dark days of its defeat. The lighter approach to training born a hundred years ago has merged with our society’s greed for instant gratification, resulting in a curious phenomenon: lack of basic training.
Because they needed to establish a rationale for this approach to training, teachers and promoters of a hundred years ago started over-emphasizing philosophical and religious ideas. This created an air of mystery, elevated quality and depth around their bagua. Training without effort or pain became justified and reasonable. Therefore the study of bagua today most often begins with the famous Eight Changing Palms form.
Around the same time, some clever but perhaps not very honest martial artists began promoting the idea of the so-called “internal styles.” No matter how fancy their words, what they were actually saying was that one can reach the highest levels without really sweating.
Would it be wise to believe a financial advisor who says we can become millionaires without investment or risk? If this isn’t mere fantasy, then it must be the lottery! I’m no expert on fantasy, but everyone knows that your chances of winning the lottery are very small.
In kung fu, “internal” and “external” are level distinctions, not style distinctions. No matter what styles people practice, everyone must begin with the external and work like hell: we’re talking about effort and discomfort; we’re talking blood, sweat, and tears. Through this physical and mental labor, we reach the higher levels in our chosen styles, where what is rightly called “internal” practice begins. When the external training reaches maturity, we’ve earned the right to study internal kung fu by reason of our developed and matured physical, mental, and psychological abilities.
Basic training builds more than physical strength and balance. It can also build character, enhance the inner awareness of the body, and cultivate patience, psychological endurance, discipline, and focus.
Bagua is a very different style. Not only different, but special. Compared to the others, more basic training is demanded if the door to the internal is to be opened. Therefore, in real bagua training, one must start with the basics and travel the step-by-step systematized training path, in order to walk in the real bagua circle.
Truthfully, the path to the real bagua is not an easy one. Is there an alternative route?
How wonderful! Practice the Eight Changing Palms the first day, first class, first hour. Bask in the glow of the fascinating palm changes, the lovely flowing circular movements of your hands and arms. And yes, how could we forget. Dive right into the ancient Chinese philosophy and get an immediate hit off the feeling that this art and its practitioners are doing something deep, holy, and righteous.
Some people have no desire to get into the depths and are happy with this instant elevation of their empty practice. Then we too can feel happy that bagua gives them some satisfaction. I also believe there are many people who don’t want to own a pretty, empty shell and have the vision and potential to reach for the deeper levels of the art. If they haven’t engaged with a real bagua master or school, they might be vaguely dissatisfied or feel something is lacking. Or, never knowing the treasures to be found in the real bagua, they might be somehow satisfied. I can’t feel happy about this.
If you don’t have the key, you can’t open the door--nor even the window. So can we talk about “back to basics?” To begin with, even if we start bagua training as a teenager, we’ve already spent 10 years plus developing the skill to walk on the earth’s surface. It’s become second nature to us. Normally, we don’t walk in circles. Without special basic training, how could a person walk the circle in the unusual way demanded by bagua: flat-footed, knees and ankles rubbing, always changing direction (as opposed to straight ahead) and unevenly (one step long, one short)? Some of my students have told me how extremely frustrated they became: it’s like being a baby and having to learn to walk all over again. That’s how difficult it is.
Secondly, the human race is rightfully proud of the hand. After all, the hand created civilization. In everyday life, activities are heavily focused on the hand--wrist, palm, fingers--with very little attention on the arm beyond its function as the hand’s distance and angle adjuster. Without special training, self-defense applications are limited to the hands and neglect the powerful potential of the entire arm.
In some ways, babies are very close to the animals: they act with their entire bodies. Pay attention when you see a mother picking up her child from a sitter. The baby’s whole body leans forward to greet his mother with a happy smile and a loud joyful voice. When the baby is unhappy, his entire body cries, twisting and squirming.
As we humans grow up, we part ways with the animals and learn to act and respond with sections of our bodies. Our motions may be skillful and sophisticated, but almost invariably they are executed piecemeal by separate body parts. Can the same be said of that master of grace, acrobatics, and deadly physical efficiency: the cat?
Many people perform physical exercise primarily from the arms and legs, with little or no real body movement involved. In contrast, bagua requires a great deal of body (torso) twisting, one move often containing twists to several different directions at the same time.
Do remember, even if you begin training in your teens, you’ve had an enormous head start in compartmentalizing the body, in forgetting the skills of your infancy. Without basic training, how could anyone perform the great style of bagua in the manner it requires? No matter how many years of experience you have in a baseless bagua, your movements can only indicate how far and how long you went in the wrong direction.
Nowadays, it’s possible to find classes that offer “bagua” basics. Often what these are general kung fu basics or xing-yi quan and taiji quan exercises adapted for bagua. Others have made up their own exercises.
Basic training, however, is a real treasure, an inheritance handed down from the many years of experience of the great grandmasters. Someone who hasn’t reached a very high level from within this inherited system can’t possibly know what must be done to lead others to reach the highest levels. Finally, some teachers begin with Chinese philosophical principles and create exercises to fit. This makes no sense either.
Quite often people study bagua from books, magazines or watching performances. While their training may look as if it’s the real thing, their way to do it is actually all wrong. Real bagua may be one of the most difficult kung fu styles to find anywhere in the world, China included.
Yes, you can see the Eight Changing Palms performed everywhere. And everywhere you can see great differences. Differences and similarities are not a valid basis for evaluation. Do they have the basics? That is what makes the difference between heaven and hell. The reason why the Eight Changing Palms can look so different is simple: the basics.
To undergo basic training is not an indignity or dishonor for the student. It doesn’t demote a practitioner to a low-level, second-class citizen. I’ve noticed that some people possess a strange, overly sensitive attitude about their kung fu identity. This attitude, along with the McDonald’s Syndrome (instant “fast food” results), gets in a student’s way, holds him back, and greatly damages his potential. Such attitudes must be transcended if one is to reach the deeper levels of the art.
In fact, I emphasize basic training out of a respect for people’s ability and potential. I believe students have the ability to build skyscrapers, not just cottages. If you drive by a brand new construction site for a multi-million dollar high-rise, do you see workers hauling in windows and doors? Are they putting up the walls? Would a tall building so begun last very long or even be safe? What you actually would see is a hole in the ground and it’s liable to be deep: they are laying in the foundation.
That’s why our bagua training doesn’t start with the forms. Beginning construction on a house by setting the very first bricks on the surface of the earth might make us feel good but we only cheat ourselves. For a period of time we aren’t going to see a pretty structure rising day by day from the ground but a cavern dug deeper and deeper into the earth.
This is very important to understand: basics are not low-level kung fu! They are the concrete and steel that shape and support your million-dollar bagua skyscraper. A martial artist who diligently practices the basics is one who truly respects his art and his abilities. Such a person can anticipate great rewards to come.
Well, have I scared you? There’s another way to look at all of this. Kung fu is a multi-purpose art and the needs of society have changed greatly since the times in which kung fu developed. Using cuisine as an example, no one confuses fast food with an elite gourmet meal. When I’m in a big rush, I head for the drive-in window at McDonald’s, sometimes eating my dinner while driving up the freeway. Of course, given the opportunity I’d prefer to dine on high-level cuisine at a four-star restaurant but both places do serve my particular needs quite well.
It is extremely important that the highest expressions of an art, for instance real Chinese gourmet cooking which is difficult to find even in the San Francisco Bay Area (no sweet and sour pork, won ton soup, egg fu yung, chop suey, or spring rolls!), be preserved. Why? Among other things, four-star restaurants help to keep the quality of fast food high. McDonald’s maintains certain standards of taste and cleanliness. You aren’t normally served burnt meat, spoiled lettuce and desiccated buns. But if McDonald’s is the highest-level cuisine available, then dining out on any budget might well become unappetizing. So in kung fu some people must sweat in order that quality on all levels does not deteriorate.
Of course not everyone has the desire, time, energy or talent to undergo the rigorous intensive training necessary to become a professional martial artist. For those with different needs, the basics--practiced correctly but with pace and intensity adjusted to fit their personal situation and purposes-- are still indispensable. People of all ages and backgrounds are capable of meeting this challenge and gaining the rewards. After all, if one doesn’t develop the ability to execute bagua’s whole-body twisting motions, the inner organs will not receive the benefit of this healing massage. Nor will energy flow freely throughout the entire body.
No one practicing bagua for enjoyment or health will be required to act as if a “1 BR, 1 BA” home is the Empire State Building. On the other hand, it is the basics that enable each individual successfully to build his own customized million-dollar skyscraper, a fulfillment of his own specific goals and a thing of beauty to behold.