The Origin of Eight-Diagram Palm
by Liu Yida

BAGUAZHANG, or eight  diagram palm shadow boxing, is one of the major styles of traditional Chinese martial arts.  It features a great variety of unpredictable blows with the palm and deft circular movements of the feet.  These well-knit intricate hand and foot movements follow the directions - north, south, east, west, northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest - indicated in the Eight Diagrams as described in the Chinese classic Book of Change.  Hence the name eight-diagram shadow boxing.

This style of Chinese boxing was very popular during the time of the Qing Dynasty's Emperor Dao Guang who reigned from 1820 to 1850.  The story goes that Dong Haichuan of Wen'an County in Hebei Province was the man who created this style of boxing.  Dong was fond of kung fu since he was a child.  He was poverty-stricken but chivalrous, and he drifted from place to place to eke out a living.  When he came to Jiuhua Mountain in the south of Anhui Province, he met the Taoist priest Bi Chengxia who taught him the secrets of the Taoist school of wushu.  Later Dong learned other skills from Guo Yuanj'l, nicknamed the "Iron Stick Taoist." Combining the essence of his masters' skills, he evolved a new style called the eight-diagram palm shadow boxing.  He came to Beijing in 1875 when Emperor Guang Xu ascended the throne and worked in Prince Shan Qi's mansion. There he began to teach his baguazhang which soon became very popular in Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding areas, and he was acknowledged as the respected founder of baguazhang This style of boxing is based on the Eight-Diagram theory. (The eight diagrams refer to the eight combinations of three whole or broken lines formerly used in divination, with each combination representing heaven, earth, water, fire, thunder, mountain, wind or marsh.) The hand, foot and body movements correspond to the revolution of the five elements - metal, wood, water, fire and earth - which were regarded by the ancients as the origin of the universe. The distinguishing features of the eight palm movements are: the palms move and change along with the rapid and deft movements  of the body and feet and all the movements are smoothly and skillfully linked together. They are also called "the rotating and interlocking eight-diagram palm blows."  With regard to the movement of the feet, the performer is required to walk as if he were wading through mud and advance as if he were riding in a sedan-chair, and in stepping forward the preceding foot should rub the shin of the other leg. The hand movements include mainly push, swing, deflect, parry, catch, cut, block, hook, dodge, thrust, and so forth. Basic training consists of "walking in a circle," which is divided into upper, middle and lower stances. Externally, the trainee should practice and perfect the movements of his hands, feet, eyes and body; internally, he should concentrate his thought, cultivate his mind, and increase his inner strength and breath. He can practice individually or in pairs with bare hands or with weapons such as sword, spear, halberd, and so forth.
Dong Haichuan had a large number of followers and he taught each of them in accordance with his aptitude, adapting some movements to suit his ability and talent. Thus after more than a hundred years Dong's baguazhang has now branched out into various forms with some differences between them, each having its own characteristics. There are today five major branches: the Cheng style (after Cheng Tinghua), the Yin style (after Yin Fu), the Zong style (after Zong Changrong), the Liu style (after Liu Fengchun) and the Ma style (after Ma Weiqi).  Though Cheng Tinghua and the others were all disciples of Dong Haichuan, their palm movements and ways of training differed.  The Cheng and Liu styles specialize in pushing the palms, the Yin followers are good at threading the palms out to his opponents, and students of the Zong and Ma styles are known for their plum-flower palms and hammer-like palms respectively.  Baguazhang is noted for its unpredictable changing movements, feints and dexterous moves which combined to distract and wear down the opponent.  Experts of this style of boxing often do not strike first-, rather, they remain composed in face of blustering foes, conserve their energy and watch for openings to launch an attack.  The force of the eight-diagram palms is sometimes unimaginable.  Dong Haichuan worked out a formula which has been passed down from generation to generation in the form of a doggerel:
"The power of the eight diagram palms knows no bounds-, the palms seem to strike even before the hands move.  When the hand threads upward, it's like a hundred birds paying tribute to the phoenix; when it threads forward, it's like a tiger swooping downhill.  Walking round and round, he is like a stray wild goose that has drifted from the flock; but when the palms are thrust forward, they can move a mountain.  Now dodging, now ducking, his body slithers in and out; using the opponent's force he delivers a counts, blow, with as little effort a, pushing a boat down the stream."

In his early days when he served in Prince Shan Qi's mansion, Dong Haichuan once shocked the prince and all his guests at a banquet with his powerful palms.  While entertaining his guests one day, Prince Shan Oi asked his bodyguard Sha Huihui to give a demonstration of his superb martial arts.  Sha was a strong man and a wushu master; his breathtaking performance drew prolonged applause from the audience.  He was so pleased and dizzy with the accolades of the distinguished guests that he challenged anyone to compete with him.  A hush fell over the hall, for no one dared to pick up the gauntlet.  At that moment it happened that Dong Haichuan was serving food and drinks to the guests.  He heard the challenger but hesitated over whether he should answer it.  When he saw no one come forward, he volunteered to take on Sha Huihui.  After a few bouts, he made a sweeping, forceful movement with his palms and flung Sha to the ground a dozen feet away.  Everyone was struck dumb by his prowess.  The prince was so impressed that he later made Dong head of his bodyguards.
Dong Haichuan had seventy-two favorite disciples, and the most well known one was Cheng Tinghua.  Born in Shenxian County of Hebei Province, Cheng was the owner of a shop selling eyeglasses in the southeastern district of Beijing, and this was why he got the nickname "Optician Cheng." Having trained hard for more than ten years under Dong Haichuan's guidance, Cheng became an outstanding baguazhang master and was later invited by Emperor Guang Xu and Empress Dowager Ci Xi to teach the guards in the imperial court.  In 1900 when the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing, Cheng led a contingent of patriotic inhabitants to resist the aggressors.  They came across a group of German soldiers in the city's southeastern suburbs and Cheng quickly finished off six of them with his palms but he himself also got killed in the skirmish.
Ma Weiqi was another prominent disciple of Dong Haichuan.  Nicknamed "Coaler Ma" because he owned a shop in Beijing selling coal and briquettes, he practiced baguazhang every day, walking round and round a coal heap.  This caught the attention of an itinerant acrobatic entertainer called Hu San who wondered if Ma was in his right mind.  When Ma told him that he was practising kung fu, Hu San laughed with scorn and decided to teach Ma what kung fu really was.  So they had a trial of strength.  Hu tried to come to grips with Ma but couldn't even touch him.  Ma just walked round and round, and Hu began to feel dizzy and gradually lost control.  Before Hu knew it, Ma caught hold of his hands and threw him to the ground some three metres away.  Hu San got up, acknowledged defeat and expressed his admiration for baguazhang.
Baguazhang not only serves as a good means of self-defense but also helps improve one's health and prolong one's life.  In practicing it, one's mind must be highly concentrated in order to adjust one's breath and coordinate the body movements so that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, one's vital energy will circulate smoothly through the jingluo (a network of main and collateral passages in the human body).  The joints, muscles and internal organs should also be relaxed during practice so as to facilitate blood circulation and promote metabolism.  This has been proved to be helpful in treating many chronic diseases.
At present, baguazhang is a very popular health-building exercise all over China, with thousands upon thousands of people practicing it.  Quite a number of foreigners are also interested in this traditional Chinese martial art whose usefulness as a means of self-defense and efficacy in improving health and treating diseases are being studied by special research societies in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and other cities.  The people in the United States, Japan and Southeast Asian countries have also set up associations to promote this form of wushu.