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This article has the following major sections. Click on a link to jump to that section.

  1. The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang
  2. Origins of the Circle Walk Practice in Ba Gua Zhang
  3. The Circle Walking Method
  4. Why Walk the Circle?
  5. Circle Walking Variations
  6. The Benefits of Circle Walking Practice
  7. Conclusion

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The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang

Origins of the Circle Walk Practice in Ba Gua Zhang

Professor Kang Ge Wu (left) of Beijing, China, interviews Daoists to investigate the origins of the circle walk practice.

The art of Ba Gua Zhang was developed during the mid 1800's by Dong Hai Chuan, however, the circle walk practice which he used as a basis for his art was developed by Daoists long before Dong combined this practice with his martial arts training. Exploring Dong's discovery of this Daoist practice may help the reader understand some of the benefits the Ba Gua Zhang stylist derives from this practice and therefore before we discuss the practice itself we will take a look at its origin.

While conducting research for his master's degree thesis on the origins of Ba Gua Zhang during 1980-1982, Professor Kang Ge Wu of Beijing, China, discovered the following concerning Ba Gua Zhang's origins3:

Dong Hai Chuan's ancestors were originally from Hun Dong County in Shanxi Province. Close to the end of the Ming Dynasty the clan started moving North, first ending up in Gou Sheng County, Hebei Province. From there the family split into two branches, one went to Kai Ko village and the other went to Wen An (both in Hebei). Several generations later (around 1813), young Dong Hai Chuan was born in Ju Jia Wu township, Wen An, Hebei. Around the same time, another Dong, known as Dong Xian Zhou , was born in Kai Ko village (he will become important later in the story).

In Ju Jia Wu township, there were two predominant families, the Dong's and the Li's. The Li family was literary, a few of them passed examinations and became government officials. The Dong family was poor, but that was all right with young Hai Chuan because he was only interested in practicing martial arts, not studying for scholarly examinations. It is not known exactly which arts Dong studied when he was young, however, it was most likely some form of indigenous Northern Shaolin. Systems that were known to have been practiced in Wen An around that time were: Ba Fan Quan, Hong Quan, Xing Men Quan, and Jin Gang Quan. It is said that Dong practiced hard and gained a reputation as a skilled martial artist.

For some unknown reason, the Li's had a rivalry with Dong Hai Chuan. The Li family, being officials, had friends in high places and used their influence to persecute Dong. Eventually he grew tired of the Li's games and decided to leave Wen An in about 1853. At this point in Dong's life, the story becomes vague. He most likely went from Wen An to Kai Ko to live with his relatives. Remember Dong Xian Zhou? It turns out that he was also a martial arts enthusiast and had become very well known in and around his village for his skill at Ba Fan Quan. He was so well known that bandits in the area avoided his village so they would not have to confront him. It is very possible that while in Kai Ko, Dong Hai Chuan studied Ba Fan Quan with his relative Dong Xian Zhou. Professor Kang's investigation of Ba Fan Quan revealed that many of the movements and techniques of this style can be found in Dong Hai Chuan's Ba Gua Zhang.

After leaving Kai Ko, Dong continued south. Reports have him stopping in Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and at the Da Ba mountain area somewhere along the border of Shaanxi and Sichuan. Although Kang was unable to determine exactly where Dong went and what he did during his travels, the one pertinent piece of information that Kang was able to uncover was that somewhere along the way Dong became a member of the Quan Zhen (Complete Truth)* sect of Daoism. This sect was part of the Long Men (Dragon Gate) school of Daoism which was originated by Qiu Chang Chun. Interestingly enough, Qiu also invented a method of meditation whereby the practitioner would walk in a circle and, wouldn't you know, this method was practiced by the Quan Zhen sect. Delving further into this Daoist connection, Kang was able to find a section in the Daoist Canon which reads:

A person's heart and mind are in chaos.
Concentration on one thing makes the mind pure.
If one aspires to reach the Dao, one should practice walking in a circle.

This bit of evidence inspired Kang to try and find out more about the circle walk meditation method practiced by the Quan Zhen Daoists. What he discovered was that this practice, which the Daoists called Zhuan Tian Zun (Rotating in Worship of Heaven) is very similar in principle to the circle walk practice of Ba Gua Zhang. Researching Wang Jun Bao's book, Daoist Method of Walking the Circle, Kang found that while walking, the Daoists repeated one of two mantras. The first of these mantras was used in the morning practice and translates to mean "When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the sound of thunder is everywhere and transforms everything." The second mantra was used in the evening practice and translates to mean "When Rotating in Worship of Heaven, the great void saves us from the hardship of existence." It was said that the practitioner should repeat the mantra with each movement in the circle walk practice so that "one replaces one's myriad thoughts with a single thought in order to calm and ease one's mind." The Daoists said that in walking the circle the body's movements should be unified and the practitioner strives for "stillness in motion." This practice was described as a method of "training the body while harnessing the spirit."

Footwork method for changing directions on the circle in the Daoist circle walking practice of the Quan Zhen sect.

When instructing his students Dong Hai Chuan was noted as saying, "Training martial arts ceaselessly is inferior to walking the circle. In Ba Gua Zhang the circle walk practice is the font of all training." Ba Gua Zhang instructors instruct their students to walk the circle with the spirit, Qi, intent, and power concentrated on a single goal. This is similar to the Daoist method whereby one clears the mind with a single thought. Although Ba Gua Zhang's circle walk practice trains footwork to be used in fighting, it also shares the Daoist's goals of creating stillness in motion and developing the body internally.

The general requirements of the Daoist practice was to walk with the body natural and the movements comfortable. The practitioner strived to achieve a feeling of balance while moving slowly. The Daoist practitioners were to walk slowly and gently in such a manner that their Daoist robes were only slightly disturbed by the walking movement. The Daoists started the practice on the Eastern side of the circle with their body facing North. After three revolutions, they walked through the center of the circle to the other side following an "S" shaped pattern like that described by the Tai Ji diagram (see illustration). They then reversed the direction and walked South to West. There was no set circle size. The size of the circle was determined by the practice area. As most Ba Gua Zhang practitioners know, the Ba Gua Zhang circle walking practice is very similar. The practitioner will usually start in the East and face North. In most systems the beginning practitioner will walk slowly, increasing speed gradually. The requirements of comfortable, natural movements while walking in a balanced, smooth manner with no bobbing or weaving are the same as in the Daoist method. While the Ba Gua Zhang practitioner employs numerous methods in changing the direction of the circle walk, the Tai Ji diagram pattern is one of the many changing patterns which is practiced by most major schools of Ba Gua Zhang today.

Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park has worn dirt paths around many of the trees from the practice of circle walking.

Convinced that Dong Hai Chuan had learned the Daoist circle walk practice as a member of the Quan Zhen Daoist sect and had then integrated this practice with the martial arts he had learned in his youth to form Ba Gua Zhang, Kang Ge Wu began to research the arts that Dong was known to have practiced to see if he could detect similarities. Since the Dong family was known for its Ba Fan Quan and thus Kang was fairly certain that Dong Hai Chuan had studied this art in his youth, Kang investigated the forms and postures of this art with the elderly practitioners of today. Not only did he discover that Ba Fan Quan techniques rely heavily on the use of palm striking, he also found that many of the postures and movements of Ba Fan Quan are identical to Ba Gua Zhang. Included in Kang's thesis are photographs of Ba Fan Quan practitioners' postures compared to Ba Gua Zhang postures found in Ba Gua Zhang books by third generation practitioners Guo Gu Min, Sun Lu Tang, Sun Xi Kun and Huang Bo Nian. He concluded that many of the Ba Gua Zhang postures and movements are identical to those found in Ba Fan Quan, Xing Men, Hong Quan, and Jin Gang Quan.

Having found no solid evidence to prove otherwise, Kang concluded that Dong Hai Chuan was the originator of Ba Gua Zhang. He states that after practicing the circle walk practice with the Daoists, Dong recognized the utility of this footwork and body movement in martial arts. Kang believes that Dong Hai Chuan's genius was in coming up with a system of martial arts whereby the practitioner could deliver powerful strikes while remaining in constant motion. Due to Ba Gua Zhang's combination of unique footwork and body mechanics, the Ba Gua Zhang stylist never has to stop moving. The feet are in continuous motion even when applying a block or strike. Kang said that Dong's development of the Kou Bu (hooking step) and Bai Bu (swinging step) footwork in directional changes was also an important addition.

* The Quan Zhen sect of Daoism can be traced back to the Tang period (eighth century) in China. It evolved as one of the two main schools of Daoism. The other main school, that of the "Heavenly Masters," has been passed on hereditarily since the Han Dynasty. The Quan Zhen sect was based on the Buddhist model of monastic communities. The Western missionaries in China refered to the Quan Zhen Daoist as the "Daoist popes." In 1222 Genghis Khan's religious teacher Qiu Chang Chun, a Quan Zhen Daoist, was installed by Genhis as head of the religious Chinese. (Reference: The Taoist Body, by Kristofer Schipper, translated by Karen C. Duval, University of California Press, 1993.

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