Saturday, February 27, 2010

An introduction to swimming dragon baguazhang

While I am on the topic of the internal arts I thought I'd share with you my notes for the seminar I'm holding tomorrow on the Chen Pan Ling "swimming baguazhang" system.


Baguazhang (Pa kua chang) or “8 trigram palm” is an ancient Chinese martial arts system that belongs to the internal (neijiaquan or wudang) school.

Baguazhang is said to be a physical manifestation of the Yi Jing (I Ching) – the Book of Changes, one of the ancient Chinese classics attributed (in part) to Confucius and strongly influenced by Daoist(Taoist) thought. Legends trace the origins of Bagua to Tung Hai Chuan (A.D. 1798-1879) who is said to have learned this art from an anonymous Daoist monk in the mountains of Kiangsu province. Shifu Dan's teacher Chen Yun Ching’s lineage (as depicted on the left) traces directly back to Tung via three different sources.

After becoming famous in Beijing, Tung was challenged by Kuo Yun Shen (known as "Divine Crushing Hand") of the xingyi (h'sing-i) school. Legend has it that Tung and Kuo fought a 2 day duel until Tung prevailed. It is said that after the battle Tung and Kuo became friends and agreed to teach each other’s arts. So today it is still common practice for bagua and xingyi to be taught side by side.

Chen Yun Ching’s baguazhang is that researched by his father, the legendary Chen Pan Ling before World War 2. He was the chairman of the Nanjing Institute which was charged with the preservation of traditional Chinese fighting arts in the advance of the Japanese. Because of the depth of Chen Pan Ling’s research from a variety of sources (all pre-War) there is good reason to believe that this is one of the oldest variants of baguazhang in existence.

The structure of bagua

The basic building blocks of bagua are the 8 palm changes. These are movements that contain the essential principles of “change”. In this regard it is important to note that the art of bagua concerns itself not with static postures, nor even particular movements. Rather it concerns itself with understanding the inevitable process of change – how one movement morphs into another.

The Yi Jing (Book of Changes) described 8 different principles of “change” and it is these principles that are manifested physically in the 8 palm changes of bagua.

The 8 palm changes

It is important not to see the 8 palm changes as “techniques” but as a series of movements encapsulating an important principle of “change”. Once you understand these principles you will be able to negotiate your opponent’s changes in movement and be able to control him or her.

In most systems of bagua, the practitioner walks in a circle, then abruptly enters into one of the palm changes. "Circle walking" provides important conditioning for the legs (the circle allows you to cover endless ground without needing a large space) and teaches you important principles of acceleration in stepping. The even height, low-slung walk used in bagua is in this respect the antithesis of ITF taekwondo's "sine wave" theory.

In many schools of bagua this "circle walking" is performed with a characteristic "flat footed" stepping, sometimes called "mud stepping". This stepping is however not used in Chen Pan Ling swimming dragon bagua which prefers a more natural stepping method.

There are myriad possibilities for applications arising from each palm change; so many they are not possible to tabulate. Some schools of baguazhang have quite complex palm changes corresponding to the bewildering turns and twists that characterise those applications. By contrast the swimming dragon baguazhang of Chen Pan Ling is quite sparse; it is stripped back to the basic principles and does not try to capture the exact movement of all the applications.

The Academy of Traditional Martial Arts (where I teach) sees this as a plus: attempting to re-enact specific applications might seem like a good idea until you realise that the more application-specific your palm changes become, the more circumscribed or limited they are in their scope. It is our opinion that Chen Pan Ling stripped back some of the layers that others added until he retained on the bare principle of each palm change. Each principle can then give rise to the myriad possibilities that characterise the art of baguazhang - without being limited by the form of particular applications. Such was the genius of Chen Pan Ling.

Single palm change

The first palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “qian” or heaven. It is said to embody the masculine (yang).

The single palm change teaches the basic principles bagua evasion.  The palm form is "tui" - or push.

Double palm change

The second palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “li” or "to adhere". The palm form is "kuo" - to button or hook.

The double palm change expands on the basic bagua evasion by containing additional follow-up movements (ie. it teaches you how to cope with your opponent’s reaction to the single palm change).  It uses "kuo" to penetrate your opponent's defences.

Hawk soars up to heaven

The third palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “zhen” which symbolises great power. The palm form is "ling" or "to lead".  It introduces the concept of cross-body movement – one of the most important principles of bagua. It’s applications alone are almost impossible to quantify.

Yellow dragon rolls over

The fourth palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “kun” which is said to embody the feminine (yin). The palm form is "pi" - to split.  It introduces entering interceptions and attacks that cleverly utilise the full weight of your body.

White snake sticks out tongue

The fifth palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “kan” or "sinking inward". The palm form is "tou" - "to hold up".  It expands on the second palm change in the way in which it extrapolates the movement of your opponent and follows him or her.

Its applications include arm locks and takedowns as well as projections. This palm change contains the movement known in taijiquan as “fair lady works at shuttles”.

Giant roc/tai/peng spreads its wings

The sixth palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “gen” or "turning back and cutting off". The palm form is "dai" - "to carry".  It contains sweeping hand movements that serve to “cut” the opponent’s balance. It is these hand movements that give the palm change its name (the roc/tai/peng is a mythological giant bird).

White monkey presents a peach

The seventh palm change is a manifestation of the trigram “dui” which is symbolised by a lake or swamp. The palm form is "jin" - "to enter".

Its applications involve a coiling energy that draw the opponent in, and coiled counterattacks.

Eight immortals cross the sea

The eighth palm change is also called “whirlwind palms”. It is a manifestation of the trigram “xun” - "enter like the wind".  The palm form is "ban" - "to move about".

Its movements have the greatest number of applications of any of the palm changes. The “whirlwind” nature of the arm use appears initially to be too expansive for practical use, however it is in fact a “fuller” or “larger” version of countless smaller techniques which include unbalancing techniques, throws, evasions and strikes to vital regions.

Many schools of bagua have linking forms (ie. forms that link the palm changes into a single sequence). Some schools of bagua (eg. the "Gao" style of the late Zhang Junfeng of Taiwan) have adapted the usual "circle walking" into straight line "fighting forms".

The video below shows Zhang Shu Wen of Harbin, China doing a form called 八卦六十四手 - Bagua 64 Hands. This linking form is an example of a linear style of bagua. There are 8 "roads" of 8 techniques for a total of 64 techniques.

As with many bagua systems, Chen Pan Ling swimming dragon bagua features sword and staff forms in addition to its empty hand sets.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, February 26, 2010

Aggression as a regrettable necessity

The title of this blog is "The Way of Least Resistance". This is an attempt to translate at least part of the meaning of the Daoist maxim "wu-wei" (無為). This translates literally as "no action" but it is not an instruction. Rather it is a description of an ideal state: the state in which you have done nothing, yet everything is done. It is the position a wise person gains by going with the flow of nature, not against it.

The most common analogy used to describe the essence of wu-wei is a river or stream; one does not get far by swimming against the flow of the water. In order to get to a bank, one must go with the flow.

The principle of wu-wei is my own guide for conflict resolution. To me, this ancient concept, stemming from the Chinese classic "Dao De Jing" (The Way and Its Power), remains as potent and profound today as it ever was.

It is said that this principle is built into the internal arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan since they all stem from the Daoist philosophical tradition. Indeed xingyiquan is said to be a physical manifestation of the Dao De Jing, while baguazhang is based on the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) - a neo-Confucian classic that was strongly influenced by Daoist thought. However I have found that practically every far-Eastern martial tradition exhibits characteristics of wu-wei. This is no surprise: ultimately the most efficient fighters learn not to oppose force with force; to "go with the flow" and use their opponent's energy/force against them.

However on a more pragmatic level, a wise person knows that conflict is best managed by being avoided where possible. One should have recourse to aggression only where it is a regrettable necessity. I believe this to be self-evident; a truism that needs no further justification or proof. However recent events have provided me with some potent examples of just why this maxim is so profound.

Consider the following video which has now gone viral.

It shows a 67 year old man in a physical altercation with a much younger man on a bus. You can watch it, but the gist of it is this: the young man and the older bearded man are conversing. It is clear that the younger man is irritated - about what I'm not sure. The conversation escalates into a verbal argument and the bearded man then walks to the front of the bus to get away. Insults continue to be hurled back and forth, causing the young man to walk down to the front to remonstrate. He starts walking away, the bearded man hurls a final insult and the young man returns, throwing a punch. The bearded man is unharmed by the blow and counters with a flurry of punches that knock the young man down. The video ends with close ups of blood splattered all over the floor and on the chairs. The young man, bleeding profusely from his swollen mouth, asks for an ambulance.

This video illustrates how a situation can be needlessly escalated. There were ample opportunities for the bearded man to leave the altercation behind once he'd moved to the front of the bus. The "breaking straw" was the bearded man's final threat that caused the younger man to start the altercation.

While it is true that the younger man had walked up to the front of the bus and threatened repeatedly that he was going to put his "foot up [the bearded man's] ass", there was a moment when the tension had a chance to be diffused. The younger man had turned and was walking away. All was quiet for a moment. Then the bearded man suddenly (and, I believe, very foolishly) piped up: "I'm going to put my foot up your as and slap the shit out of it". The young man then immediately returned and the fight ensued.

Had the bearded man kept his mouth shut, there would have been no fight, of that I have no doubt. The younger man was walking away. Even when he returned he threw what can best be described as a lacklustre punch: his heart really wasn't in it. The bearded man re-escalated a situation that was "cooling off".

I think it is very apt to examine every encounter to see what was the "breaking straw" - the point of no return in the escalation of violence. In some cases I saw as a prosecutor, there was none - the attacker needed no provocation or other pretext. In most cases however there was such a point. I think a wise man or woman will avoid causing that turning point. Yes, the bearded man did "win" this altercation. But next time he might not be so lucky; his next opponent might be stronger, armed, in company or all of the above. And even though he "won" in this case - was it worth it? I don't think so. What did he actually achieve? Was the younger man "taught a lesson"? Most likely not. The younger man would have gone home seething and wanting revenge. He probably feels wronged and "victimised" - even if he was actually the aggressor.

Clearly the younger man was having a bad day. This didn't justify him taking out on the bearded man, but at the same time a different person might have walked away with little more than the memory of some guy on the bus being grumpy - as opposed to having blood on his knuckles.

So how can my analysis of "aggression only as a regrettable necessity" be applied to this situation? Surely the bearded man wasn't the aggressor? He might not have been the main one, but he was an aggressor nonetheless. "Where and how?" I hear you ask. The final insult he hurled back at the younger man was nothing if not an act of aggression. It had no function other than to act as an insult or threat; to belittle the younger man. It was an act of aggression and it was unnecessary: there was simply no reason for the bearded man to say what he said. As understandable as his reaction was (and we all feel like saying things like that) it was not logical or productive. It had only one possible result: to escalate the conflict into physical violence. And that it did.

Now I mention earlier that the situation might not have played out as "well" as it did. Nor is it guaranteed not to revisit the bearded man in the future. If you listen to the video at the end you will hear the younger man swearing he will get his revenge. This reminds me of another scenario which came to my attention a few years ago when I used to be a member of the forums at

A fellow on that forum posted the following query:
    "Well, recently some tough guy insulted one of my best friends. I then insulted him back very badly and now he's probably one of the most [censored] persons on the planet. He says he'll come after me and throw some punches at me, yet first i didn't feel scared at all. I've been through quite some fights and i know how to take punches as well as give them. Yet what worries me is that i've found out he's asking a big and strong friend of his to beat me up instead of himself.

    I find that to be quite cowardly and now this big and strong is coming after me, as he knows where i live (he grew up in my neighbourhood). Now i honestly feel scared. I'm 1m77 myself but he's 1m85, so quite taller and also quite stronger, as i know he quite often fights in bars or at party's.

    So my question being, is it cowardly to use a weapon such as a home made brass knuckle in a fight against this guy or will this invoke even more fights because he would be [censored] for me using a brass knuckle.

    Anyhow, in any case i'm not just going to take these punches because the first dude didn't even apologize for insulting.

    So err, what to do ?"
I answered as follows:
    "Well, you've got your self in a pickle, haven't you?

    "I then insulted him back very badly..." I'll be blunt: this was a big mistake. Do you know the nursery rhyme beginning "sticks and stones..."? In my opinion the smartest thing would have been to walk away. If you doubt me, consider what your efforts have brought you so far: fear and potential danger.

    Now do you really want to escalate the "war" by arming yourself?

    First, you should be aware that being in possession of a weapon without a lawful excuse is illegal in almost every first world country. "Self-defence" is usually not an excuse, unless you've picked up a stick from the roadside just before/during an attack. Check the law in your jurisdiction before you decide to pack the brass knuckles in your backpack/pocket.

    In my State in Australia you would be facing a serious fine or possibly imprisonment for the possession alone.

    Second - do you really think it would be smart to hit him with brass knuckles? If you hit the guy with this weapon and seriously injured him you'd have a tough time convincing a jury that it was "self-defence". They'd wonder why you went out "armed" in the first place (it will be hard to shift the impression that you were looking for him so as to beat him up). I'm afraid you'd come across as a common thug - particularly with your weapon of choice, a brass knuckle. I'm not being judgmental about this bit, just a realist - I speak as a former court lawyer.

    You'd almost certainly do time if you injured him. If you killed him you go for manslaughter or even murder. You'd go away for a very long time.

    Please take the time to consider your next move very carefully...

    What you want to do is diffuse the situation - not escalate it to a full-on war. I won't suggest how you go about this - only you will know, given the vagaries of your situation.

    Good luck. Btw - "cowardice" is the last thing you should be concerned about."
The correspondent wasn't terribly pleased with my advice. He replied as follows:
    "Well the answer to how to diffuse the situation would be more helpful to me than the entire text you just wrote. Can you give suggestions, all are welcome?"
A variety of suggestions were then made by others (not by me). In fact, sometime later I added:
    "You'll notice I deliberately didn't offer any suggestions as to how to diffuse the situation.

    I'm fairly sure the original poster knows what to do. And he'd be wise not to take advice on the next step from people who don't know the full details of what happened and who the protagonists are..."
And I stand by that "specific advice" or lack of it. I don't think anyone can provide an answer as to what he must do. All anyone can say is what he shouldn't do - ie. "wu-wei" , the action he must not take.

At around that time an article appeared in a newspaper where a fellow got into a fight at a cafe. He and his wife were seated at a table in an alfresco area when someone passed by and made some derogatory comments about his wife. He got up and hurled abuse back. After some ugly words the situation started to dissipate with the aggressor moving away from the table. However the husband couldn't resist hurling one more insult at his opponent. The aggressor turned back to the table and threw a single punch. That punch felled the husband, causing him to strike his head on the concrete. He died soon afterwards.

In his case the husband paid the ultimate price for hurling that final insult: it was an act of aggression that was unnecessary. It might have well been "deserved" if one adopts some kind of "moral calculus". But "morals" are not in issue here. It is logic - or better yet, applied logic: ie. wisdom.

So the next time you feel like "giving someone a serve" or doing anything else that is calculated to "spite", "get back at" or otherwise belittle someone, ask yourself this: is it a regrettable necessity that I do so? I say "regrettable" because acts of aggression always come at a price. The question is: is this price the lesser of evils?

The situations in which you might find yourself asking this question are myriad.

Just last year I was a passenger in a car being driven by an acquaintance. We were coming back from a funeral of the father of one of my dear friends. My acquaintance is, to put it bluntly, a lousy driver; not because he lacks control of his vehicle, but because he continually commits little acts of aggression, like "bullying" his way into a lane. In this particular case we were on the freeway onramp when he noticed a car just behind him on the right. The lanes were merging and he had right of way. However he perceived that the car behind was trying to nudge ahead. So he did something he often does: he made a sudden swerve to the right, then back again. The driver of the other car panicked, swerved himself, almost hit the side barrier, then backed off. My acquaintance immediately felt foolish. For one thing he had scared the living daylights out of our other 2 passengers, one of whom was an elderly lady. For another, even he could see that his action was rash.

Just how foolish his act was is something he will probably not understand until the worst case scenario eventuates. The car behind us might well have hit the side barrier and rolled. Its occupants could have been seriously injured or killed. Other cars might have been involved in the accident. All because he elected to enact a little aggression - ostensibly to "teach the other driver a lesson".

One thing I never told this acquaintance (and I wish I had) is that the driver of that other vehicle was one of the sons of the man whose funeral we had just attended, no doubt lost in thought and grief and certainly not expecting some lunatic to start swerving madly in front of him...

So the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, jumps your queue, hurls an insult at you, etc. ask yourself the following questions before you act:

(1) Are you about to commit an act of aggression?
(2) If so, is it a regrettable necessity?

Answering those questions will help you determine how to manage/diffuse any ensuing conflict in a way that is favourable - to you and, for that matter, everyone.

Clearly you might not have much time to ask yourself those questions; you might have to make a split decision. That's why it pays to think about these things beforehand.

And this calculus applies equally to fighting technique: every attack leaves an opening so you should ensure that your attacks are appropriately conservative.

In the end any acts of aggression - be they verbal or physical - must be necessary, if regrettable. Acting outside this paradigm might prove very costly indeed.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Xingyiquan: an introduction to form/mind boxing

It has occured to me that I've written quite a few posts about xingyi without ever describing what it is. So I thought I'd give a brief introduction to this art.

What is xingyiquan?

Xingyiquan (H’sing i ch’uan) or “Form/mind fist” is an ancient Chinese martial arts system that belongs to the internal (neijiaquan or wudang) school.

It is said to be a physical manifestation of the Dao De Jing (Tao te Ching) – the principal text of the Daoist/Taoist philosophical tradition. Legends attribute the creation of xingyiquan to legendary Chinese general Yue Fei (March 24, 1103 – January 27, 1142), however it is possible that xingyiquan predates this period.

The version of xingyiquan taught by my teacher Chen Yun Ching is that researched by his father, the legendary Chen Pan Ling before World War 2. He was the chairman of the Nanjing Institute which was charged with the preservation of traditional Chinese fighting arts in the advance of the Japanese. The lineage of the Chen Pan Ling system is depicted on the left.

The basic stance/posture

The basic stance in xingyi is sometimes called “zhan bu” or “battle stance”, however it is most commonly referred to in the context of the posture that is employed in the first element, pi quan, as seen below. That posture is known as “san ti”or “3 heavens”.

The san ti posture is widely used in “zhan zhuang” or standing meditation.

The stance is performed with your feet approximately 1 ½ shouder widths between the heels, with one foot’s width between your feet, your front foot pointing forward and your back foot pointing off at an angle. Your weight should be biased slightly to the rear foot.

The 5 elements

Xingyi’s basic building blocks are the 5 elements. These are 5 “essence” movements: ie. movements that contain the essential principles of xingyiquan. Accordingly, they are more than just techniques; they are a means of inculcating these fundamental principles and the kinaesthetics that underlie these principles. The 5 elements of xingyi are modelled on the “5 elements of traditional Chinese cosmology – metal, water, wood, fire and earth.

Pi Quan Metal (Splitting) 劈

The element is pi quan. It is known as “splitting fist” and corresponds to the element “metal”.

It is regarded as the fundamental movement in xingyi.

Beng Quan - Wood (Crushing) 崩

The traditional order of practising the elements is altered slightly in the Chen Pan Ling system, with beng quan coming next instead of zuan quan.

It is known as “crushing fist” and corresponds to the element “wood”.

Beng quan is often regarded as the "powerhouse" of xingyi.

Zuan Quan - Water (Drilling) 鑽

The third element is zuan quan or “drilling fist”. It corresponds to the element “water”.

Zuan quan features 2 deflections and an upwards “drilling” punch.

Pao Quan - Fire (Pounding) 炮

The fourth element, pao quan, teaches the use of simultaneous deflection and striking.

It is known as “pounding fist” and corresponds with the element “fire”.

Heng Quan - Earth (Crossing) 橫

The fifth and final element is heng quan.

It is known as “crossing fist” because it teaches the student how to cross the centreline of the attacker, simultaneously deflecting and striking with the same arm.

The 12 animals

Apart from the 5 elements, xingyiquan also teaches the "12 animal" forms which I will detail another time.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cracking the "xingyi code"

    "Pi is able to conquer Beng and Beng is able to defeat Heng. Heng is able to subjugate Zuan and Zuan is able to overmaster Pao. Pao can overcome Pi. All of these belong to the theory of Yi (Change). Looking for the real meaning is nowhere else but within the Five Phases" - Ancient xingyiquan Song of Mutual Conquest
Readers of my blog will be aware that for years I've pondered what is called the "destructive cycle" of xingyi's 5 elements: each is meant to be a foil for another in a kind of 5-way "rock, paper scissors". I'm not the first person to suppose that they can be (and were indeed intended to be) arranged into a looping 2 person form.

While there are plenty of 2 person "destructive cycle" xingyi forms out there, not one follows the order of pi, zuan, beng, pao, heng (at least in a way that results in each attack being deflected and countered). Normally there are repetitions of pi or beng, or a completely different order.

One of the "standard" destruction cycle forms of xingyiquan performed by my senior James Sumarac and Andrew Cheung Sifu - a great form, however note the repetition of the elements

While some of the destruction cycle forms I've seen are really quite good, I can't help but feel that they haven't grasped the key to how the elements interact. One example I came across recently follows the order of the elements, but lets the pi quan (splitting fist) "land" (ie. it is not deflected). I think it is dangerous to groove a response that lets the pi quan through. A pi quan strike to the shoulder can be devastating. And we also know that pao quan should, in theory, negate the pi quan.

Following my xingyi seminar I had some realisations about the application of the elements (based on ideas I've been mulling over for a decade or so). I realised that if I put those applications together into a 2 person drill they would each be an effective response to the other. The other night I successfully tested my theory as a 2-person drill - I had at last "cracked the xingyi code".

I've ironed out a few things with the footwork since (the footwork really is the key - and the footwork is straight from the basic form of the elements).

So my collection of applications match the order of the elements perfectly:

Side 1 ----- Side 2
Pi ------------- Pao
Zuan --------- Heng
Beng --------- Pi
Pao ---------- Zuan
Heng -------- Beng
etc.---------- etc.

It is important to note that the side 1 and side 2 both perform the constructive cycle; it's just that they start at different points in the sequence. The order in which the sides take turns at doing things however is the destructive cycle, thus:

Side 1 ----- Side 2
1 ------------- 2
3 ------------- 4
5 ------------- 1
2 ------------- 3
4 ------------- 5
etc.---------- etc.

As a single person drill it looks like this:

The single person version of xingyi's 5 elements destructive cycle

I haven't yet filmed the 2 person version, but you get some idea how it works from the video below:

A video showing the interaction of the elements in the destructive cycle

As I've said, the key to understanding the application of xingyi lies in understanding how the footwork of the elements changes relative you partner/opponent. I discuss this briefly in the video below:

Applied xingyi footwork - the key to cracking the "xingyi code"

The interplay between beng quan and heng quan is quite fascinating and was one of the big "aha" moments in putting the drill together.

Essentially the heng quan deflects the zuan quan, then answers with a curved strike (ie. the heng quan).

Beng quan can then defeat heng quan by firing straight forward so that it stifles the heng quan. I've found that when you use your beng quan in this way it will usually have to be angled slightly differently from when it is used as a strike: in other words the beng quan will serve primarily as a deflection rather than a strike.

Indeed, if you try to convert that beng quan into a strike, the heng quan can itself be "curved more" so as to deflect the beng. In other words, this is really a "stalemate" position and marks the epicentre of the drill. This matches the ancient poems which talk about heng quan being the "base" of the elements or the point of "change" (depending how you look at it). On this subject I'll quote from another site:
    "Heng Quan is considered to be neutral, or the center of the Five Elements. It is located centrally between Yin and Yang, and constitutes a bridge between them. In the Five Elements, it is like a ball rolling and belongs to Earth... Everything grows from the Earth."
[See this site and also this site.]

You will note from my solo drill that I actually fire out 2 beng quan in succession. I feel this is entirely consistent with the 5 elements. In many schools beng quan is performed in precisely this way, namely there are 2 beng quan punches, one with the reverse arm, then another with the leading arm. Luo De Xiu (who practises the xingyi of Hong Yi Xiang) does precisely this in the video below at 2:53 to 2:55.

Luo De Xiu performing the 5 elements of Hong Yi Xiang's xingyi system - note the double beng quan

It is that second beng that is answered by pi quan.

And so it goes.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic