The 36 Songs give critical advice about the body alignments and training methods of Ba Gua Zhang. Generations of Ba Gua teachers and students regularly consult the 36 songs for the martial wisdom that they contain.
Many years ago, my friend Huang Guo Qi and I translated the 36 Songs of Ba Gua Zhang. While our translation was adequate, I felt it could be improved upon. I consulted five other translations and the commentary on the 36 songs by Guo Gu Min’s disciples (included below) in creating this new, and I hope much better, translation of the 36 songs.
Commentary excerpted from Writings on Ba Gua Zhang Skills (八卦掌术集成) by Guo Gu Min (郭古民),
Thirty-Six Songs (Training methods)
Empty the chest, push up the head, settle and expand the Yao.
Twist the Kua, join the knees, and grasp the ground firmly,
Sink the shoulders, drop the elbow, extend the forward palm,
The eyes gaze through Hu Kou.
Empty the chest, lift up and straighten the head, and settle down the Yao as much as possible. Twist the Kua, close the two knees, without opening them, and walk by grasping the ground with the toes. Lower the shoulder and drop the elbow – straight but not straight and bent but not. When extending the palm, erect the fingers and separate the middle finger and ring finger. Look through Hu Kou of the front palm with the two eyes – watch through the gap of the fingers.
空胸拔顶下塌腰，Kong Xiong Ba Ding Xia Tao Yao,
扭步掰膝抓地牢。Niu Bu Bai Xi Zhua Di Lao.
沉肩坠肘伸前掌，Chen Jian Zhui Zhou Shen Qian Zhang,
二母须从虎口瞧。 Er Mu Xu Cong Hu Kou Qiao
First the rear elbow folds and piles inward to protect the heart.
Turn and drop the hand and extend it forward.
Extend and reach toward the front elbow with embracing power,
The front and rear hand join together to gather spirit.
Turn leftward to have the right elbow become the rear elbow, turn rightward to have the left elbow become the rear elbow. Fold and pile up the rear elbow to protect the heart with the elbow tip. Erect the palm and drop the wrist in the front and back palms, and point to the front elbow joint with the index finger of the rear hand – at a distance of less than one inch. The rear hand follows and joins the front elbow. Together they embrace without any awkward force.The movements are different in the rightward and leftward rotation, but the spirit must be focused and consistent.
后肘先叠肘掩心，Hou Zhou Xian Die Zhou Yan Xin,
手在翻塌向前跟。Shou Zai Fan Ta Xiang Qian Gen.
跟到前肘合抱力，Gen Dao Qian Zhou He Bao Li
前后两手一团神。Qian Hou Liang Shou Yi Tuan Shen
Curve the step and straighten the foot to extend forward,
Walk like pushing a millstone.
Bend the knees, coordinate with the Kua and twist the Yao fully,
The eyes watch the three aspects (directions), and the body does not waver.
One must to be round and active when walking circle with the foot turned, and the foot is empty and nimble when it extends to take a step. When advancing, extend the foot as though wading into water, with the front foot empty and the back foot firm. Walk the circle stepping forward with turned steps and straight foot, like pushing the millstone. To push the millstone means circular rotation, same in the both the left and right side. The Yao only can drops down by bending the knees, and the Kua must turn with the waist, as much as possible. Once the body turns, the eyes should follow, so that it is possible to see the three sides without shaking the body. If one trains with this method, it is possible to open the tendons and bones, with elastic force.
步弯脚直向前伸，Bu Wan Jiao Zhi Xiang Qian Shen
形如推磨一般真。Xing Ru Tui Mo Yi Ban Zhen
屈膝随胯腰扭足，Qu Xi Sui Kua Yao Niu Zu
眼到三面不摇身。Yan Dao San Mian Bu Yao Shen
Training postures on a single side is insufficient,
It is better to move and circle freely from side to side.
Left changes to right and right changes to left,
Withdraw the body with retreating steps to create the proper opportunity.
In doing the movements, whether simple or complicated, one must understand advancing and retreating. Knowing only how to advance with understanding how to retreat and come back (i.e. just doing the posture in one direction) is not special. Being able to go leftward, rightward, forward and backward freely as a single posture, is truly precious. Shifting leftward and rightward in application of techniques, while being able to withdraw the body and walk backward with retreating the steps, and advancing and retreating to seize the opportunity and gain the advantage is best.
一势单边不足奇，Yi Shi Dan Bian Bu Zu Qi,
左右循环乃为宜。Zuo You Xun Huan Nai Wei Yi.
左换右兮右换左，Zuo Huan You Xi You Huan Zuo,
抽身倒步自合机。Chou Shen Dao Bu Zi He Ji
The feet turn and the hands follow,
The rear palm penetrates out and the forward palm returns.
Coming and going there is no difference between them,
As speedy as an arrow leaving a bow.
To turning the step with the hands following creates integration between upper and lower. When the rear palm pierces outward to replace and become the forward palm, the forward palms naturally returns to become the rear hand. Forward and backward, is really just a shift between the left and right. When the palm pierces it must be as fast as and arrow leaving the bowstring.
步既转兮手亦随，Bu Ji Zhuan Xi Shou Yi Sui,
后掌穿出前掌回. Hou Zhang Chuan Chu Qian Zhang Hui.
去来来去无二致，Qu Lai Lai Qu Wu Er Zhi,
要如弩箭离弦飞。Yao Ru Nu Jian Li Xian Fei.
When piercing, the fingers and palms move straight and close to the elbow,
Rear shoulder becomes front shoulder.
Do not leave space and do not hesitate,
Walk forward between the opponent’s legs.
When the palm pierces, it is prohibited to bend the arm and use the force of the forearm. Fa Jin must emanate from the root of the arm (the shoulder). When the palm pierces, it must be fast, and the palm should closely follow the front elbow directly forward, so the opponent cannot easily escape. The front shoulder is replaced by the rear shoulder as the rear hand pierces outward. The back shoulder moves to the front to accept the hand or arm of the opponent.
Song 5 talks about how to release the strength (Fa Jin). When it says it is like an arrow flying out from the string, it implies that there is no hesitant and slow movement. It must be remembered that the left palm follows the left step to turn and drop leftward, and the right palm follows the right step to turn and drop rightward. The most marvelous method is to follow with the step as soon as the hand moves, and to release power immediately when the step goes into the crotch of the opponent’s trousers.
穿时指掌贴肘行，Chuan Shi Zhi Zhang Tie Zhou Xing,
后肩改做前肩承。Hou Jian Gai Zuo Qian Jian Cheng.
莫要距离莫犹疑，Mo Yao Ju Li Mo You iu,
步入裆兮是准绳。Bu Ru Dang Xi Shi Zhun Sheng.
When the chest is empty, Qi will sink,
The back engages and the shoulders sink, extending intention forward.
Qi reaches Dan Tian and the grain duct withdraws,
The head erects and pushes upward to foster Jing Shen.
When the chest is empty, it is flexible and without stagnation, so the shoulder and arm can move freely and naturally to attack and defend. Qi must be strong and vigorous; it must not impatient and floating. When Qi is able to sinks to Dan Tian the interior is firm.
How to tighten the back? When the chest is empty the back it like a cover that tightens itself. The two shoulders drop downward, with an intention to extend forward, to pierce, protect, turn over and drop downward. Dan Tian is located three fingers below the navel. When Qi sinks to Dan Tian, the airways are open and respiration is smooth; strength automatically becomes firm and dense. By also shrinking and withdrawing the anus (grain duct), Qi and strength become infinite The head must not incline to one side. Otherwise, it is easy to topple over. The head must be lifted upright (upholding the head), and must be supported by the Jing Shen; then all is advantageous.
胸欲空兮气欲沉，Xiong Yu Kong Xi Qi Yu Chen
背紧肩垂意前伸。Bei Jin Jian Chui Yi Qian Shen
气到丹田缩谷道，Qi Dao Dan Tian Suo Gu Dao
直拔颠顶贯精神。Zhi Ba Dian Ding Guan Jing Shen
In walking do not sway the body,
All relies upon mutual exchange below the knees.
In the lower position knees and hips must be level.
It is necessary to sink the legs and Yao in the middle position.
Walking the circle all depends on the lower part of the body, and the various parts of the upper body should not shake. It exactly means that it must be tranquil in the upper and mobile in the lower. In walking the circle, the two knees are crisscrossed for applications, without borrowing the force from the others, to win others only by footwork. In terms of the postures, there are the upper, middle and lower plates. In the lower plate, it is needed to flex the knee to the level of the Kua (the knee and thigh parallel to the ground). In the middle plate and lower plate, it is necessary to lower the thigh and waist, so that the back force would be sufficient.
走时周身莫动摇，Zou Shi Zhou Shen Mo Dong Yao,
全凭膝下两相交。Quan Ping Xi Xia Liang Xiang Jiao.
底盘虽讲平膝胯，Di Pan Sui Jiang Ping Xi Kua,
中盘也要下腿腰。Zhong Pan Ye Yao Xia Tui Yao.
Gently the lips and mouth, and touch the upper palate with the tongue.
Breathe in and breathe out all through the nose.
When force reaches its peak, release it by saying “Hun” and “Haa,”
The Qi of the whole body unites.
In training, the mouth must not open, and the tongue must touch the upper palate. When the tongue touches the palate, the respiration passes through the nose, which is extremely important to protect the trachea and lung. This also benefits the lung and strengthens the lung’s respiratory volume. “Hun” and “Haa” are the lingering sound of inhalation and exhalation. When force is employed (released) to its utmost and cannot be controlled, the sound should be used to discharge it, so as to release strength and increase power. This is called the “empty original undifferentiated Qi” which is without beginning or end.
抿唇闭口舌顶腭，Min Chun Bi Kou She Ding E,
呼吸全凭鼻口过。Hu Xi Quan Ping Bi Kou Guo.
力用极处哼哈泄，Li Yong Ji Chu Heng Ha Xie,
浑元一气此为得。Hun Yuan Yi Qi Ci Wei De
Stretch the palm and make Hu Kou round,
Spread and open the middle finger and ring fingers.
Pierce first and then hit with the wrist bone,
Relax the shoulders, lengthen the Yao, follow step and drill
The area between the thumb and index finger are interested is Hu Kou (Tiger’s Mouth); it must be round and stretched. When Hu Kou is round, the vision is clear (the eyes should look through Hu Kou). Then, separate the middle finger and ring finger in order to separate the fingers of the whole palm, so that strength reaches the tips of the fingers; then one can pierce with direct force. Afterward, drop the wrist to strike the opponent with the strength of the wrist bone. Sending the hand out with a relaxed arm and long lower back, power will be complete and sufficient.
掌形虎口要挣圆，Zhang Xing Hu Kou Yao Zheng Yuan,
中指无名缝开展。Zhong Zhi Wu Ming Feng Kai Zhan.
先戳后打施腕骨，Xian Chuo Hou Da Shi Wang Gu,
松膀长腰跟步钻。Song Bang Chang Yao Gen Bu Zuan.
Stepping forward combine the hips (knees), in reversing separate the step
When changing the palms, change the form, and lower the entire body.
Advance or retreat in accordance with opportunity and situation,
Provided the Yao and legs are skillfully arranged.
The Kua and knees must close when stepping forward Kua; Bai Bu to take back (reverse) the step, so that turning the body back is lively and agile. When changing the palm, you must to change the step, and simultaneously walk forward, assisted by lowering the body. Only by retreating by advancing, and advancing by retreating, is it possible to seize opportunity and advantage to do whatever you want; all marvelously arranged by the waist and legs.
上步合胯倒不掰 Shang Bu He Kua Dao Bu Bai,
换掌换式矮身骸。Huan Zhang Huan Shi Ai Shen Hai
进退退进随机势, Jin Tui Tui Jin Sui Shi
只要腰腿巧安排。Zhi Yao Yao Tui Qiao An Pai
This palm is quite different from others,
In advancing lift and move the front foot first to achieve success.
When retreating the rear foot moves first.
In stepping aside one must leave the central position.
The footwork in Ba Gua Zhang is different from that of other martial arts. When advancing one must lift the front foot first. When retreating, first retreat with the back foot, and then withdraw the front foot. This increases the effectiveness. In order to avoid the central point (literally: “the sharp point of the sword”) I must move aside from the central position, so that the opponent misses, allowing me to advance with maximum efficacy.
此掌与人大不同, Ci ZhangYu Ren Da Bu Tong,
进步抬前乃有功。Jin Bu Tai Qian Nai You Gong.
退步还先退后足, Tui Bu Hai Xian Tui Hou Zu,
跨步尽外要离中。Kua Bu Jin Wai Yao Li Zhong.