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An Interview with Ba Gua Master Zhao Da Yuan – Part 2

Part Two of a very informative interview with Ba Gua Zhang Master Zhao Da Yuan, a fourth generation inheritor of Liang Style Ba Gua Zhang. In this section of the interview he talks about training with Li Zi Ming, Ba Gua weapons and teaching Ba Gua Zhang.

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

Read Part 1 of Master Zhao’s interview HERE.

TB: Can you describe Li Zi Ming as a teacher?

Z.D.Y: Li Zi Ming was a good teacher. He was a good person first and foremost, but also could explain theory and application in detail. The purpose of martial arts is to make you a good person. If you are a good person you interact with others appropriately. Then there is little need to use your fighting skills. Martial arts should make you well rounded, give you and understanding of life, philosophy, culture, and medicine. The practice of martial arts should promote health and self-awareness as well as the ability to defend yourself.

TB: How did Li Zi Ming Teach? Did he teach different people differently?

Z.D.Y: Yes. Li Zi Ming taught different people differently. In the early group of disciples of which I was a part, one of my school brothers, Yang Jia Tong, studied Tai Ji with Wu Tu Nan and focused on more on that, even though he learned from Li Zi Ming. Di Guo Yong – you know Di Guo Yong? He focused more on Xing Yi. I focused on Ba Gua, although I also studied Tai Ji, Xing Yi and Qin Na at the same time. Most teachers of Martial arts in China will not let you study with others – if you come to learn Ba Gua, you cannot learn other arts at the same time. However, Li Zi Ming was not like that. He always stressed the importance of learning from others and of learning skills form other schools.  If he was your Master, you could learn other arts also. Because of my job – teaching martial arts and security methods to bodyguards and police forces – it was important for me to learn to learn practical techniques. In the morning we all practiced together, my school brothers and I. But on holidays or days off, Master Li would take me to my school uncle, An Guo Liang, to learn practical techniques. Here is picture of myself and the other disciples in 1982, when Li Zi Ming took his first group of disciples.

Zhao pulls out some photographs.

Z.D.Y: Here is An Guo Liang. You can see some of my school brothers that you have met – Wang Shi Tong and Di Guo Yong, here I am…… and  here is Ma Chuan Xu. In 1984, here is picture of the second group of disciples. You can see Zhang Hua Sen and Wong Tong, both of whom you know. Here I am in a National competition in 1979. Many of the people in this photo are gone now. They died. These disciples – Ma Chuan Xu and Di Guo Yong – are still alive.

So the differences in what we were taught by Li Zi Ming also depended on the different body qualities, temperament and experience of the different disciples. For example, my school brother Ma Chuan Xu is thick, big and powerful. When attacked, he evades and strikes back directly, I am not as physically strong, so I have to employ smooth changes and a variety of techniques and changes. Ma Chuan Xu’s expression of Ba Gua has fewer changes – more simple and powerful movements. He is quite powerful. I do not have the same amount of power, so I rely on more on the ability to change and transform. My teacher Li Zi Ming said Ma is an aggressive powerful fighter, and I am technical fighter.We were instructed to work on our weak points – Ma Chuan Xu, to be more nimble and use more changes, and me to develop more power. So our training among the school brothers had different emphasis from disciple to disciple.

You have trained with Wang Shi Tong, and met Ma Chuan Xu, Di Guo Yong and Wong Tong, so you know that their abilities, strengths and emphasis are quite different.

Because my job involved training security personnel, I also had to learn Qin Na. For my students who are in the military or the police or bodyguards, they need to learn practical techniques that immediately disable or control the opponent. I also teach according to the needs, temperament and physical attributes of my students. There are so many techniques and methods in Ba Gua that it is impossible for one person in their lifetime to learn all of them. You should learn what is more suitable for your situation, body condition, and personality.

For example, in the Bagua Saber there are 4 methods

  1. The Sixty-Four Saber
  2. Hand Rolling Saber
  3. Whirling Slicing Saber
  4. Eighteen Blocking Saber

To learn all four methods is very difficult and for many people impossible. Most people learn just one method. If you learn slowly for example, then just learn the 64 Saber. If you are more capable, you can learn the Slicing Saber . If you can learn quickly, then you can learn Hand-Rolling Saber. Wong Tong and his disciples focus on the 64 Saber. I focus on the Hand-Rolling Saber. When I learned the saber, Li Zi Ming told me to learn the Hand-Rolling Saber and he told Wong Tong to learn 64 Saber.

TB: In Xing Yi the spear is considered to be the main weapon or the weapon most representative of Xing Yi. Is there one weapon in Ba Gua that most represents the style or is most important?

Z.D.Y: This is not true in Ba Gua. Most people think the Ba Gua Saber is representative – largely because it is big and easy to notice. The spear movements resemble spear movements in other styles. The other weapons are special to Ba Gua. These are not taught to many people. They are not taught or trained outside of  Ba Gua. They are specific to Ba Gua and not easy to learn.

TB: Originally there were some famous Bodyguards among the students of Dong Hai Chuan. Was weapon training more important at that time then it is today?

Z.D.Y: There are many misunderstandings in the instruction of these weapons. Many of the stories are made up, they are legends. A simple example is the Rooster Claw Yin Yang Knife (Ji Zhao Yin Yang Rui). This is a very interesting weapon. The weapons Dong used, he used them inside the royal court. Wu Shu people outside of the royal court could not see what he did. It was not like today where everyone trains with their weapons in the public parks. You can see their weapons and how they train with them. In Dong Hai Chuan’s day, it was more like, for example, when I teach bodyguards of officials. They have weapons, pistols, guns etc. – but outsiders don’t know what kinds of guns and other weapons they use, or how they use them.

After Dong Hai Chuan died, someone wrote a legendary biography of Dong. It was serialized in a newspaper in Beijing. In the story he mentioned that Dong used the Yin Yang Rui – people then imaged what kind of weapon it would be. In the newspaper story they had a picture of this weapon to go with the story.

Zhao Da Yuan draws it. It is reproduced below:

Z.D.Y: Other people had other ideas about what the weapon was. Many people said that they had seen it and looked this way ……or that way. In fact, people do not really know what the real weapon was. This….most people think this is the weapon.

He points  at the drawing.

ZDY: But Li Zi Ming said that Liang Zhen Pu told him it what it looked like. This was the weapon pictured in the old manuscript passed down from Liang Zhen Pu to Li Zi Ming. With Professor Kan Ge Wu, I researched the descriptions of the weapon in the manuscript and we think this weapon goes with the movements described in the manuscript.

Zhao Da Yuan now draws another version of the Ji Zhao Yin Yang  Rui, pictured below:

ZDY: Variations of this weapon are now used for performance – but these are performance forms used in competition. There are many misconceptions historically about weapons. You have trained in Liu De Kuan’s spear method?

TB: Yes.

Z.D.Y: Liu De Kuan only passed on one set of spear forms and the 64 Forms in Ba Gua. Although he is called “spear king”, and people think of him as being skillful with spear, he was in fact more skillful with in the use of the Da Ji. Here is the Da Ji.

Zhao Da Yuan goes to a corner of the room that is filled with weapons and pulls out a pole arm – a  halberd-like weapon that looks like a spear with a crescent moon on one side just below the spear head.

Z.D.Y: I trained with the Da Ji when I was young but have not picked it up for 20 years. Liu De Kuan was famous for his use of the Da Ji and the 64 Forms. Today most people only remember him for the spear and the 64 Forms. Historically there are many stories and legends  about the Da Ji.

Another interesting weapon is the Deer Horn Knife. This is very seldom seen or trained.

Zhao Da Yuan pulls out the weapon and brandishes it.

Ba gua Deer Horn

TB: It really is a deer horn. It is very interesting.  I have never seen this weapon.

Z.D.Y:  The deer horn knife is a weapon specific to Ba Gua. The horns come from a rare deer. The deer horn knife is used for hitting vital points. Also there is the Ba Gua Zhang Zong Lei (literally:  Ba Gua Hand Grenade). I don’t have that weapon here but I will describe it for you. There is a band around the wrist and to it is attached the steel ball, on a short cord.  You throw the steel ball outward to strike.

Zhao mimes throwing the ball outward and laughs.


Z.D.Y:  Another specialized weapon is the Wind Cloud Wheel – not many people perform it anymore. Do you know this weapon?

TB: I studied the Wind Cloud Wheels with Wang Shi Tong 

Z.D.Y:  If you learned that weapon from Wong Shi Tong then we practice the same forms. One other special Ba Gua weapon is the Ba Gua Biao Shou Zhang  – which are steel darts. You wear a belt that holds the darts and as you move through the palm changes to attack and defend, you throw these darts.

Zhao Da Yuan performs the double palm change – as he turns, his hand brushes his waist and he mimes an underhand throw.

TB: Is the Da Dao for training the body?

Z.D.Y:  Ba Gua saber, the application is different than in other styles. Other styles move the saber with the body – the body plays with the saber. In Ba Gua the saber plays with the body. In other styles, the saber moves around the body. In Ba Gua the saber does not move – the body moves.

Zhao demonstrates the long fist saber, by whirling it around the body and then performs moves from the Ba Gua saber in which the saber is still as he walks and turns around it.

Z.D.Y:  Another example is the Ba Gua spear. The spear is a long weapon, but in Ba Gua it is used as a short weapon rather than a long weapon. There is a Ba Gua saying – if the weapon is long use it short – close in; If it is short, use it as though long.

Zhao demonstrates an infighting movement with the spear- a spear version of the single palm change. Then he shows its more familiar usage as a long  weapon – the familiar movements of Lan, Na and Zha from the Xing Yi spear. 

Z.D.Y:  I used to assist in international competitions. I would help the judges understand the correct usage and distinctions of the various weapons in relationship to Ba Gua. In competition many people hold and use the weapons incorrectly. For example, the Deer Horn Knives must be held correctly for the form to be utilized properly. Many people hold them incorrectly and then they can not be employed properly. In Ba Gua, there is special way to hold the weapons and use them. Weapon usage must be compatible with Ba Gua hand methods. Also the principle of the defending and attacking with these weapons is different. For example, take the Hand-Rolling Saber. In the sport universities I sparred against the Japanese sword. They attempted to cut my body. I evaded and used the saber to chop their arm. The Hand-Rolling Saber is meant to attack the limb – cut the hand of the enemy. Li Zi Ming said the most important principle of the saber that is once the enemy wants to extend his arm – chop it . When I teach the knife, I emphasize cutting the wrist. If the opponent attempts to stab you, you cut their wrist.

TB: Chinese masters commonly say that with each passing generation more of the art is lost. Is this true of Ba Gua and is more true in the modern era?

ZDY: Yes. It is related to modern society. First of all, the government authorities stress only those things that relate to international competition. They study Western sports. They look at Western ideas and theories to understand traditional arts. They are more  interested in the difficulty of the movements, the athleticism – for example going very low in stances or leaping high. Modern Wu Shu only emphasizes competition, so the traditional understanding of things is lost.

The other problem is that the people in Wu Shu circles realize that in order to be famous they have to participate in the tournaments organized by the authorities – they have join national competitions and win a prize. Those competition forms are not traditional, they are composed according to principles of Western sports.

In this society today people are very busy. In the past they did not have to worry about their job or owning an apartment – it was all offered by the government. They had time to just train. Now people work hard to make money. They have no time or energy to learn these traditional arts, even if they love them. Young people cannot spend as much time as before to train. With the passing of the generation of senior teachers like Li Zi Ming, much has been lost.

In my generation – I am now 70 years old – if my generation, who saw directly the teachings of the old masters like Li Zi Ming, cannot pass the art on, then it will be lost. Then, in future generations all that we will see is Wu Shu competition forms – body movements without the internal culture and knowledge of how to use the movements. The real internal understanding will then be lost. This is why last year I started to take disciples again. I hope they can preserve and inherit these arts. I told my disciples that their main mission is to inherit and pass on these arts, not to perform for tournament. I stress this to them.

TB: Do you also teach your students how to teach?

ZDY: Yes. In the process of instructing them, I teach them what order they should teach in and why and how to correct mistakes, what supplemental training they should do to aid their practice and the reasons behind why they do things. I do not teach them just to do forms. We train Monday and Thursday afternoon in garden downstairs and Saturday or Sunday morning at the sports university gym where there are mats so we can practice throwing and other techniques.

TB: Do you teach older students who have not practiced martial arts before? Is it possible for them to learn?

ZDY: After 40 or 50 years old, you have to train the nervous system. Reactions are slower and movements are slower than when one is young. There is often a decline of physical strength. But these things can improve through training in traditional Chinese martial arts. Chinese martial arts have 2000 years experience in doing this. There are real Ba Gua has methods of training the body, mind and nervous system and strengthening the constitution. It is also important to teach older students how to fall. It is easy to fall and injure yourself when you are older because you are surprised and less flexible. Falling practice teaches people how to react and relax so they can respond rather then simply freezing up. This way they will not be injured if they trip and fall.

Valerie Ghent (VG): If you have a student who is upset or angry how, do you handle this? Do you tell them not to train that day? 

ZDY: This is actually good time for them to train. If student has anger you have to observe their eyes and see it. If people are angry the pupils look down. In Chinese medicine this is hyperactivity of liver fire – qi and blood flush upward. I ask them to sit and close eyes – do not let them open their eyes – get them to relax and breathe and stir saliva in their mouth and then swallow the saliva down to suppress heart and liver fire. If they do this for 5-6 minutes they will become calm. If they are still not calm, ask them to count their own heartbeat and it will slow down and clam them. Then let them train.

If a persons’ face is pale and angry, this is spleen deficiency – that person will pass out easily. For deficient people it is good to have them sing or shout until color comes back in cheeks.

Crying can caused by different things. How you work with the person depends on the reason, the cause. We would discuss these kinds of things with Li Zi Ming. He told us you have to observe the situation and figure out the reason. Often if it was raining outside we would not train, but talk about these kinds of things and the theory of Ba Gua.

TB: Can you tell us about the different levels of training?

In Qin Na they have saying that there are nine levels of skills. This must be followed.

1. The skills and movements must be correct.

2. Internal qi should circulate and change with external movements.

3. The spirit must be strengthened.

4. Train Strength.

5. Be familiar with techniques.

6. Understand how to use strength.

7. Know the method of using the techniques.

8. Change according to the circumstances.

9. Highest level: Understand medicine.

ZDY: Martial arts skills are important but they must be adapted to the needs of society. In the United States, you have guns. In China we also have guns and no longer need these kind of techniques for bodyguards and soldiers, except perhaps for those few who bodyguard important people. In martial arts today preserving health and protecting yourself is the most important thing. To preserve health you also develop your character and learn to dissolve and avoid conflict and fighting. My Qin Na teacher said something very important: “Once you have this technique, you never use it [for fighting] in your whole life.”