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Interview with Ba Gua Master Zhao Da Yuan – Part 1

Zhao Da Yuan is a fourth generation inheritor of Liang Style Ba Gua Zhang. Zhao Da Yuan began his martial arts training at an early age, studying a wide spectrum of different Chinese martial arts. Currently retired, he was the chief martial arts instructor at the Police Officer’s Academy in Beijing. Zhao Da Yuan is known for his amazing Chin Na skills, fast hands, and for his deep understanding of Ba Gua Zhang. Zhao is one of the original group of disciples who trained under the late, great Li Zi Ming. Today he teaches Ba Gua, Xing Yi and Tai Ji Quan in Beijing.

Tom Bisio, Valerie Ghent conducted the interview in Beijing, with Huang Guo Qi translating. Photographs by Valerie Ghent.

Zhao interview with Tom Bisio


Tom Bisio (TB): What is Ba Gua Zhang?

Zhao Da Yuan (ZDY): Ba Gua Zhang was created by Master Dong Hai Chuan. It is essentially a combination of the superior and advantageous techniques of various schools of martial arts. In this art, the palm is the main martial technique, along with circle walking and rotation of the body. In that it is different than the methods of other martial arts.

Ba Gua is also based on building up internal energy, through Dao Yin (leading and guiding) exercise, Tu Na (regulation of the breath) and Nei Gong. The use of the circle and rotation in Ba Gua is the most natural and rational of all the gung fu methods. The earth, stars and planets all move in circles and elliptical orbits. Even at an atomic level things move in orbits and circles. This kind of movement is the most basic form of movement for all matter in the universe. The earth rotates around the sun, but also it rotates around its own center. Like the earth, in Ba gua we walk around the center of the circle, but we ourselves also rotate internally.

Ba Gua emphasizes:

  • Ning – twisting
  • Guo – wrapping
  • Zuan – drilling
  • Xuan – spin; revolve; rotate
  • Zou – walking

The best form of defense is to absorb and dissolve rotate the coming force. In Ba Gua, the body is round everywhere. When attacked, rather than resisting with force, I turn and rotate to deflect the force. As you attack, I make contact with your arm and rotate – then your force is deflected. Generally, the body stays round in form, and I rotate, twist and turn. If the attacking force comes, I never resist – I turn and rotate to dissolve the force of the attack. This is the same as the dynamics of the natural world around us – the atoms and planets. To give another example, the spiral grooves inside a rifle barrel makes the bullet spin around an axis. This prevents the bullet from tumbling. As a result, the rifle is more accurate and able to shoot farther than a musket. Why? – because the bullet spins.

So all the movements in Ba Gua, including the movements of the arms and legs, have turning and rotation – unlike Western boxing in which the arms which move in and out in straight lines. This uses force against force – this is not good. The basic techniques of Ba Gua must be in conformity with the principles of turning and rotation. This means you have to absorb the coming attack. For example, you move your arm to push me – I do not push it away, I rotate and you miss.

I move my hand toward Zhao Da Yuan and he meets my wrist and rotates his body deflecting my attack. He then slaps my hand aside and shakes his head

No – not like this; not direct resistance. This is a basic idea in Chinese martial arts. Do not resist directly; do not fight back directly. In Ba Gua, we advocate dissolving the attack. When there is a conflict, do not fight back directly – instead dissolve it. This is the meaning of ning, guo, zuan, xuan and zuo.

After long practice, this affects one’s thinking and attitude as well. When you encounter problems or difficulties in work or life, rather than confronting them directly, it is possible to deflect and dissolve the difficulty without violence and without direct conflict. One of the most important things in Ba Gua, the thing that differentiates it with some other martial arts, is the emphasis on building character and changing your outlook on the world – by this I mean changing the way you look at others and the way you deal with conflicts. Ba Gua helps you to build character and to use your mind wisely. This is again because Ba Gua’s strategy, movements and philosophy are in conformity with natural laws and the science of the dynamics of motion, power and strength – efficiency that is in harmony with the natural world. Ba Gua’s principles are in conformity not only with natural movement, but also with the mental and physical strategies of the martial arts.

TB: Can you tell us about the specific tactics used in Ba Gua?

ZDY: Tactically there are two methods: 1) Meet and rotate to deflect the incoming attack. I discussed this already. 2) Avoid the coming attack – escape and then attack back from the side. After avoiding the attack, hit many targets with different weapons

For example, in Ba Gua we train the piercing palm. I hit you here under the armpit with a piercing palm. This is a hidden strike. The movements are not easily visible.

I attack and Zhao Da Yuan evades, deflects and pierces under the arm into my armpit with a hidden palm strike.

ZDY: If I attack, obviously you can see what I am doing and respond. Then when you block, I borrow your power and hit again as an extension of the previous movement.

Zhao Da Yuan attacks obviously, I move to defend and then he changes, attacking again in a hidden manner by piercing under my arm.

ZDY: If I attack in a hidden way, you are not sure what I am doing. All the body parts are used to strike, not just the palm – shoulder, head, elbow, knee etc. In Ba Gua there are eight elbow techniques. Have you heard about this?

TB: Yes.

ZDY: I can attack his way or this way against various attacks.

Zhao Da Yuan demonstrates several different elbow strikes against his student’s attack. He parries and simultaneously pierces forward with the elbow. This is immediately followed up with a Qin Na locking technique on the shoulder and elbow.

ZDY: You studied the 64 forms. You know ‘Wild Horse Crashes through the Manger‘?

TB: Yes.

ZDY: Watch. I evade and strike the groin and hit with the shoulder and then lock.

He demonstrates the strike. 

ZDY: [demonstrating] Here is the rotation of the body.

ZDY: Here is a dragon attacking technique – it resembles a dragon winding around the pillar. Here is another dragon technique.

He strikes and locks his student by wrapping around their arm.

ZDY: So you see, we have to consider the use and function of every part of the body. You have to risk yourself to absorb the incoming attack. This kind of movement requires that you absorb and dissolve the incoming attack.

TB: Can you tell us about Lao Ba Zhang (Old Eight Palms)?

ZDY: Lao Ba Zhang teaches us about change. Application in Ba Gua is based on yin and yang. Every technique is only complete if it has yin and yang. Yang is the hand that is seen, the visible hand. Yin is unseen, the hidden hand. Each technique and each palm have yin and yang changes that give birth to eight possible other techniques. This allows us to transform according to the circumstances, to anticipate the logical responses of the opponent and be able to adjust to them. I understand the possible changes the opponent can make, and therefore understand my own. This is the same in the 64 Hands. Each technique of the 64 Hands also has yin and yang aspect. A simple example is the piercing palm. The yang way is to attack over the arm, while the hidden, yin way is to pierce underneath.

Again I want to stress that in martial arts it is very important to develop one’s character. My teacher always told me when someone attacks, do not fight the opponent directly; when there is a disagreement do not fight back directly. Instead, deflect and redirect the conflict. Understand the possible changes and change with them. This is the strategy for dealing with problems in life.

TB: You mentioned the dragon winding around the pillar. Can you tell us more about Ba Gua’s Eight Animals?

ZDY: Ba Gua Yin style 3rd generation has 8 animals (Ba Xing). The other schools did not have animal forms. In the Yin style, when they created these forms, they copied many movements from Xing Yi Quan and even the explanations of the animal forms are quite similar to the explanations given in Xing Yi. Li Zi Ming and Sha Guo Zheng (Sha Kuo Cheng) were friends. Sa often came to Beijing and I trained with him in Eight Animal forms. Here is Sa Guo Zheng’s hand-written manual on the eight animal Ba Gua form.

Zhao Da Yuan shows us the book and points out the different animals and their attributes.

ZDY: Here is the monkey. Here is the dragon. The dragon wraps around the pillar that is its special attribute. Here is tiger and swallow. The lion teaches “shaking” and the hawk, “overturning. ” Here is the bear and the snake. The snake specializes in entangling techniques and hooking and grasping. Each animal has a specific skill or set of skills that it trains.

TB: Can you tell us about Nei Gong and Qi Gong in Ba Gua?

ZDY: In Ba Gua Zhang, Nei Gong, Tu Na and Dao Yin are considered the basis, the foundation for learning the other methods. Theoretically it is based upon unity of heaven and human beings and earth. Ba Gua’s neigong methods are different than Tai Ji or Xing Yi. In Tai Ji, the practice of Nei Gong focuses on Zhan Zhuang (post standing) and in Xing Yi, it focuses on San Ti Shi (three-body pattern). In these types of Nei Gong, externally there is no movement but inside there is movement. In Ba Gua there is movement inside and outside. Why? Again, this is because natural objects both rotate externally and internally like the Earth spinning as it rotates around the sun or electrons spinning, rotating and revolving around the nucleus of an atom.

In Ba Gua Zhang, both the internal and external body should move together. There is exhalation and inhalation. In twisting, winding, wrapping, drilling, overturning, rotating and walking we stress the unity between heaven, man and earth in every movement. My teacher Li Zi Ming felt that this was superior to other Nei Gong techniques which emphasize stillness. In general there are three kinds of movement exercise: 1. Sports and, running, weight training you move outside but not inside; 2. Zhan Zhuang and San Ti – you move internally but are still outside; 3. Ba Gua – both the inside and outside move together.

This is important in Yang Sheng (Life nourishing) health care – it is the most effective and rational method of the three. It is effective for both self defense and health promotion. In my investigations Ba Gua practitioners live longer than practitioner of other martial arts.

TB: Can you tell us about Ding Shi (fixed posture) Ba Gua Zhang as a Nei Gong practice?

ZDY: Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang trains the body to develop internal strength. Each palm has specific purpose. Ding Shi combines walking, breathing and the small heavenly circulation (micro-cosmic orbit) with knowledge of the meridians. For example, the Downward Sinking Palm helps heart qi descend and kidney qi rise up so that the two circulate constantly. This is congruent with Tu Na breathing techniques and other Nei Gong methods. The other Ding Shi postures have effects other meridians such as Yang Ming, Tai Yang, Dai Mai etc.

TB: Are there other supplementary Nei Gong exercises in Ba Gua Zhang?

ZDY: There are specific ways to train Nei Gong and specific ways to modify Ding Shi to adapt the practice to the needs of the individual student. However, there are also other methods of Nei Gong that the teacher may give to an individual student. Here is a handwritten manuscript on Lohan Nei Gong, a method that Ba Gua practitioners use to help build up power and internal energy. It is 200 years old. It was not originally a part of Ba Gua, but was included later. Li Zi Ming said if other methods have useful material they also should be studied and incorporated into one’s training.

TB: On our last visit you listed the important components of Ba Gua Zhang training. Could you mention them again?

ZDY: Ding Shi Lao Ba Zhang single movement practice – this is basic basic training for fighting. Then there are the Eight single techniques; Eight Elbows; 13 partner training methods; Training against a post or pillar in order to develop power; Two person practice of defending and attacking methods; Na Fa (seizing which include Qin Na); 8 upper methods, 8 middle methods, 8 lower methods; Qin Na/Na Fa methods of practicing back and forth with a partner; Shuai fa throwing, Basic throws – “dead throwing”, “live throwing” against a fast attack, “changing hand throwing”; Counter throws; 16 leg techniques; 72 leg methods; 64 Forms; Ba Gua Lian Huan – which links and mixes together previous methods;, Weapons – Spear, Saber, 7 Star Stick, Sword, Double Weapons, Specialized Ba Gua Weapons.

TB: Does Ba Gua have pushing hands practice?

ZDY: No. Ba Gua does not have this kind of training. In Ba Gua Zhang, we do practice sticking and rolling hand exercises. Today many Ba Gua teachers incorporate Tai Ji Tui Shou practice methods into Ba Gua. I do not like this. While pushing hands practice trains sensitivity, it is not so useful for real fighting. Real fighting is fast and unpredictable. One must focus on the ability to change and transform quickly according to the circumstances and pushing hands is does not train this. Train footwork, speed and the ability to change. Speed is important in martial arts. Not only does speed help you to hit the opponent, but it also increases your power.

Zhao Da Yuan wads up a small ball of paper very tightly. It is the size of a spitball. He throws at me.

ZDY: That did not hurt. But suppose I had shot it from a slingshot. There would be increased force and it would sting – you would feel pain. I cannot increase the weight and size of my hand or foo0t but I can increase the speed of the attack. Do you understand?

TB: Can you describe your experience and process in learning martial arts and Ba Gua Zhang?

ZDY: When I was seven years old, I started to learn Chinese martial arts. My health was not good at that time, because I had been born prematurely at seven months. I lived in Shanghai. After 1949 my father was stationed there with the military. Every morning in Shanghai my father took me to the park to watch him do his morning exercises. I could not follow his exercises. However, in passing a park we met Zhang Lao Shi (I do not remember his full name) who practiced Wu Shu in the park. After that my father would leave me there with Zhang to train while he went to do his exercises. After my father was done, he would return and pick me up. This is how I began to train martial arts. At that time I trained mainly in Mi Zong Quan (Lost Track style).

In 1956 my father moved to Beijing to work with the military division of the central government. By that time I had trained for years. I liked martial arts. In Beijing at that time many skilled people trained and taught in the parks in Beijing. I studied many martial arts: Shaolin Luo Han, Liu He, Tan Tui, Tong Bei Quan, Ba Ji, Chang Quan, Xing Yi and Tai Ji Quan. I was a teenager. At that time (1956-8), top martial artists of the North Eastern region of China came to teach the military officers. Every time they had classes my father would bring me to watch. This was my first exposure to Nei Jia. Before that I liked the external martial arts – they were very active and looked fast and powerful. Later I was more interested in Nei Jia. First I studied Xing Yi and later when I saw Ba Gua I wanted to study that. I saw that Li Zi Ming was the best of the Ba Gua teachers I met. He was different from the others. He had character and a good heart and he was also excellent at techniques. Not just the performance of techniques, but also their theoretical explanation.

I trained with many teachers. Some teachers look good, they have beautiful movements, but cannot explain why and how to train properly – they only train the forms. Li Zi Ming could clearly explain the meaning of the forms and movements. So a number of us decided to study with him and become his disciples. He became our Master. I myself think Ba Gua is the best of all these arts I studied. Tai Ji is too slow. Long Fist has no internal quality. Ba Gua is not slow or fast in movements but has many changes and variations. I became stronger and healthier from Ba Gua training – so I became Li Zi Ming’s disciple. While training with Master Li, I was introduced to Zhong Jin. Zhong Jin was expert in Qin Na techniques. His method was passed down through his family. He passed on his knowledge and his manuscripts to me.

Read Part 2 of Master Zhao’s interview HERE.