Zhang Hua Sen was born in 1935 in Shandong province. He was born into a poor family that moved to Beijing to find work. Unsuccessful, they ended up living on the streets. To survive they sold Zhang’s elder brother to a wealthy family in exchange for food, and as the family split up to find work, Zhang was left to fend for himself. He was ultimately taken in by a Chinese opera school at age seven. Chinese opera training was hard and often brutal. Forced stretching exercises, hours of training, even practicing singing with rocks in the mouth. Students were beaten by the teachers and many did not make it to be performers. To learn Chinese Opera students also had to learn martial art skills as many of the parts required martial arts ability. Eventually Zhang Hua Sen was performing with the opera company, which opened up travel to other countries as he got older.
During this period, he began training in Mian Quan (Cotton Fist), a Northern Chinese style that combines hard and soft. Zhang’s motivation for study was self-defense and his teacher was Xu Lian Ji. When Xu moved away, Zhang studied Shuai Jiao (Chiense Wrestling) with Xie Chun Fang. Later Zhang Hua Sen was introduced to the famous Tai Ji instructor Wu Tu Nan. He learned Yang, and Wu style as well as Tai Ji push hands from Wu.
In 1967 Zhang was introduced to Li Zi Ming, a disciple of Liang Zhen Pu. Li Zi Ming was the younger school brother of Guo Ge Min, Liang’s most famous disciple. Because Li and Guo were from the same hometown, they were friends and Li was able to grasp much of Guo’s teachings. Li Zi Ming had seen Zhang practicing in the park and saw that he had very good basic skills due to his opera training and previous martial arts background. Li offered to teach Zhang and Zhang studied in private at Li Zi Ming’s home.
When I met Zhang in 1994, I was impressed by his physical skills as well as his friendly manner and willingness to teach. He liked to get on the floor with you and let you feel what he was doing. He got excited if you could do things even half-way right. The first day he corrected my basic mud-walking step, and suddenly, techniques that had been difficult were much easier to apply. Zhang’s opera training gave him a very expressive face which helped convey the feeling of the movements even through the language barrier. A memory that has stuck with me occurred during his visit to NYC. Zhang told us we needed to take smaller steps in order to move faster. He then proceeded to take off around the room in mud steps at running speed. My jaw and everyone else’s dropped in astonishment. It is the most impressive display of mud stepping that I have seen to this day.
Zhang Hua Sen worked hard to impart the key elements of Ba Gua training, not only the forms and their applications, but also the basic training exercises that help develop the Gong Fu of Ba Gua Zhang. We did extensive practice of Ding Shi (fixed posture circle walking) and lines of single movements, as Zhang felt that this was the way to develop practical skill. He showed me Ba Gua’s Chin Na skills and we practiced throwing and kicking. From Zhang, I learned Li Zi Ming’s Lao Ba Zhang and the Sixty- Four Hands, Dragon Palm, Ba Gua Lian Huan, and the 13 Elbows. Zhang also instructed me in the basics of the Seven Star Whip Stick, the Rooster Claw Knives, and the Ba Gua Spear.