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Li Zi Ming Ba Gua in New York City (Pa Kua Chang Journal 1994)

The following article, Li Zi Ming Ba Gua in New York City by Dan Miller was originally published in the Pa Kua Chang Journal Vol. 5, No. 1 Nov/Dec 1994.

 My heartfelt thanks to Dan Miller for his many contributions to the art of Ba Gua Zhang and for his permission to post this article.

In my capacity as the editor and publisher of the Pa Kua Chang Journal, I frequently receive phone calls from individuals seeking a Ba Gua Zhang instructor.

Tom Bisio practicing Ba Gua Qin Na with Zhang Hua Sen in Beijing

More times than not I will simply direct them to look at the instructor’s directory on the back page of the Journal, find someone in their area, and go check out the instructor to see if that person is teaching something they would be interested in learning. Every teacher has a different personality, different teaching style, and different emphasis in their Ba Gua instruction and so it is difficult to make recommendations to individuals I do not know about teachers I may or may not know. However, there are three or four teachers in this country who I will wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who calls from their area. Tom Bisio, of New York, is one of them.


When I recommend a Ba Gua teacher to a stranger over the phone I will only recommend someone that I know to be very skilled in all aspects of Ba Gua and teaches a very complete and well balanced system of Ba Gua. Furthermore, that individual will be someone who is skilled at teaching the art, is enthusiastic about teaching the art, and teaches willingly and openly without holding back information or making students grovel to receive the material. Finally, I will only recommend an individual who I think is honest and straightforward, someone who is easy to get along with and doesn’t play mind games with their students. There are far too many teachers out there who play the “I’m the great master and you are the peon student” game. This might work in a cheap Hong Kong kung fu flick, but only ends up causing problems in the real world. Skill in executing all aspects of Ba Gua, skill in transmitting the art to others, and a decent personality are the three characteristics I look for in a good Ba Gua teacher. Whenever someone from New York calls me for advice about a Ba Gua teacher, Tom Bisio is the name I give them because I know that he fills all of the above listed requirements.

Early Martial Arts Training

Leo Gaje was Tom’s first Arnis teacher

Tom Bisio began his martial arts career studying Tae Kwon Do at a local YMCA when he was 14 and then he subsequently started studying Ishin Kempo Karate when he was 15 years old. He continued to practice this art while in High School. When he went to college, Tom began searching for an Arnis instructor because he had read a magazine article about Arnis and the art interested him. He eventually found an ad in Inside Kung Fu which told of an Arnis class being given at the Filipino Consulate in New York City. He went to the Consulate to inquire about the class and found that Leo Gaje was teaching a small group in a courtyard on the roof of the Consulate building. He began taking this class when he was 19 years old. Shortly after Tom began his study with Gaje at the Consulate, Gaje began also teaching a class in Queens and so Tom increased the intensity of his training. He studied with Gaje 4 or 5 days a week in small group or one-on-one sessions in Queens and also continued studying with him on Sundays at the Consulate. Tom studied with Leo Gaje from 1976 through 1988. In 1979, Tom Bisio went to the Philippines to fight in their national full contact stick fighting championship. Even though he had only three years of Arnis training at the time, he was entered in the senior instructor’s division (which was reserved for practitioners with at least ten years of experience). In this tournament Tom defeated all opponents and was designated co-champion (the final championship bout was cancelled). During this trip to the Philippines Tom also met and trained with his Doce Pares Escrima teacher, Momoy Canete.

Tom Bisio in the Phillipines practicing Doce Pares Escrima with Momoy Canete (1984)

Tom said that while Leo Gaje’s style of fighting was very close-quarter stick fighting with fast movements designed to quickly defeat the opponent on the inside, Momoy’s specialized in blade and dagger techniques which utilized a larger stick and more powerful outside strikes. The techniques in Momoy’s system are designed to open up the opponent with the powerful strike from long range and then move in quickly to strike with the dagger.

While Tom continued to study with Leo Gaje until 1988, he also continued his study with Momoy Canete. He made a trip to the Philippines to study with Canete in 1984 and stayed there training for three months. In 1986 Tom went back to the Philippines to receive further instruction and took some of his students with him.

Studying Chinese Martial Arts

Tom Bisio in Taiwan studying with Hsu Hong Chi

Tom Bisio started studying the Chinese internal martial arts with Vince Black in 1983. Previous to meeting Black, Tom had read about Xing Yi and was very attracted to its internal qualities. From what he had seen of some of the old masters in books, Tom thought that the movements of Xing Yi looked like the loose body action of his Filipino styles. He had tried to find a Xing Yi teacher, however, of those that he met, none could really use their art. He said that they could all talk about the theory in great detail, but when it came down to actually using it in a realistic situation, they fell far short of his expectations. The Filipino arts that he had studied were very practical and he was looking for that same degree of practicality in a Xing Yi system. Unable to find a suitable teacher, Tom began studying Xing Yi’s standing practice on his own.

Tom met Vince Black in 1983 at a stick fighting seminar that Leo Gaje was giving in Big Springs, Texas. Tom said that he asked Vince to correct the standing postures he had been practicing. After correcting the material Tom had tried to pick up on his own, Vince spent the rest of the evening tossing Tom around the hotel room in order to demonstrate Xing Yi’s fighting practicality. Afterwards, it was very evident to Tom that Vince knew how to apply Xing Yi in a very realistic manner. Vince was the first Xing Yi instructor that Tom had met who could explain the Xing Yi theory in great detail and could also use it in a realistic manner. Shortly after that, Tom traveled to San Diego and stayed for two weeks studying Xing Yi with Vince Black. During that visit Tom saw Vince’s Kajukenbo class working out and also became interested in studying that art. He said that the Kajukenbo appealed to him because, given his background, Kajukenbo was a bit easier than Xing Yi to learn how to apply right away. He also liked the practicality of the art. That visit began Tom’s training with Vince Black in Xing Yi, Ba Gua, and Kajukenbo which continues to this day.

After Tom’s trip to the Philippines in 1984, he went to Taiwan to study Xing Yi with Hsu Hong-Chi (許鴻基). Hsu was Vince Black’s Xing Yi teacher, and Vince had written a letter of introduction for Tom. While training with Hsu, Tom found that Hsu’s ability level was everything Vince had said it to be. He said that the degree of power Hsu had was amazing, especially given his size. Tom studied Xing Yi’s five elements, five element linking form, some of the animal forms, and some of Tang Shou Tao’s preliminary sets with Hsu while he was in Taiwan. While learning the forms and exercise sets from Hsu was valuable, Tom states that Hsu also taught him many lessons about living life and being a good person. He said that Hsu often sat and told stories that had a moral and these lessons were very valuable.

While in Taiwan, Tom also had the opportunity to study with some of Hsu Hong Chi’s friends and also met Hsu’s brother. He said that the only other American studying with Hsu at the time was Tim Cartmell. Tim had moved to Taiwan at the beginning of 1984 and studied with Hsu almost daily until Hsu died in October of that year. Tom said that the two most valuable things about his time in Taiwan were watching Hsu Hong Chi move through the forms and getting to know him personally.

During the mid to late 1980’s Tom took many trips to San Diego to study Xing Yi and Ba Gua with Vince Black and he also attended special Tang Shou Tao training events in Arizona. Additionally, he sponsored Vince to come to New York and teach on many occasions and in 1986 Tom and Vince both went to the Philippines to train Doce Pares Escrima with Momoy Canete. Tom and Vince have also taken two trips to China together to study the Li Zi Ming system of Ba Gua.

Studying Ba Gua Zhang

Tom Bisio started his study of Ba Gua Zhang with Vince Black in the late 1980’s. The first system he was exposed to was the Jiang Rong Chiao (姜容樵) system that Vince was teaching at the time. Tom said that at first he thought that the Ba Gua looked nice and it felt good to practice, but it was difficult to figure out how to really use it. He could recognize the potential for the movements to be used nicely in application because the circular movement had some similarities with some of his movements in Arnis, however, it was hard to put the movements together with the correct timing and power. He says Xing Yi is a lot more direct in that sense.

When Tom started studying the Li Zi Ming (李子鳴) system of Ba Gua from Vince and later with Vince’s elder Ba Gua “brother” in Beijing, Zhang Hua Sen (张华森), he became more comfortable with Ba Gua’s usage. He said that because Li Zi Ming’s Ba Gua consists of a very complete system of learning, it was easier to build the knowledge from the ground up and thus easily discover the proper usage of power, timing, and Ba Gua technique application.

When Tom first started working the Li system in China with Zhang Hua Sen, Zhang would simply have him practice a lot of exercises which were designed to develop proper Ba Gua power and mechanics. This training consisted of exercises practiced while standing in one place as well as the performance of long lines of repetitive exercises and techniques. Power development training and footwork training were also emphasized. Zhang had Tom practice these single techniques repetitively before he was taught any forms. Tom was accustomed to practicing in this fashion in his Filipino arts and thus he was familiar with this training process.

After Tom had studied the warm-up exercises, single movement practice, nei gong palms, old eight palms, 64 linear forms, continuously linked palms, dragon palms, and various weapons of the Li Zi Ming system, he began to grasp the depth of Ba Gua and the Ba Gua training process. He said that the “old eight palms” helps the practitioner understand the circling and changing aspects of the art while the 64 linear forms gives the practitioner a fundamental knowledge of the usage. The “dragon palms” puts the linear applications on a circular format and thus mixes together the important components of the “old eight palms” and the 64 linear forms. Each of the weapons develop strength qualities in different parts of the body and thus are also valuable training tools. Another valuable training exercise Zhang worked on with Tom was partner practice to research different ways to apply techniques in the moment. This practice gave him a better understanding of the best angles from which to apply the techniques. Tom says that the Li Zi Ming style and the way it is trained makes sense as a complete system and, because of its step-by-step method, students of this style can develop good fighting skill in a relatively short period of time.

Tom commented that Zhang Hua Sen is one of the best teachers he has ever had the opportunity to train with. He said that all of the impressive teachers he has met in the martial arts not all are very willing to get in there and do the techniques with the student. The teacher applies the technique on the student and then the student applies the technique on the teacher. In this way the feeling of the technique is conveyed clearly. Tom’s experience with many of the Chinese martial artists is that they sit on the side and tell the students what to do instead of doing it with them. Zhang gets very involved when he is teaching and emphasizes precision in the placement of the feet and hands. When he was working with Zhang, Zhang would make very subtle corrections in Tom’s technique applications that would make the difference between a very impressive result and no result. Tom said that Zhang had a very keen eye for that kind of thing.

Studying a Complete System

Tom Bisio and Vince Black in Tianjin, China
Tom Bisio and Vince Black in Tianjin, China

Tom Bisio has been very fortunate in his study of the martial arts because the Arnis, Escrima, Xing Yi, and Ba Gua he has studied have all been very complete methods taught by instructors who know how to apply these arts in a realistic situation. Tom states that, like the Chinese arts, many of the schools teaching the Filipino arts today teach a very incomplete method.

In his training with Leo Gaje there was not only practice with the stick techniques, but they spent a great deal of time with footwork practice. After extensive practice with stickwork and footwork performed separately, they then practiced how to properly link the footwork with the stickwork. Then they practiced two person drills incorporating both the footwork and stickwork and learned the strategic principles of combat including how to close the distance, how to cut angles, and how to utilize effective combinations.

Power training was also an integral part of Gaje’s training methods. There were exercises designed to develop vertical power, horizontal power, torqueing power, opening and closing power and power delivery at other various angles. This training was balanced between the use of double sticks, single stick, stick and dagger, and single and double knife fighting. Other various heavy weapons and training apparatus was used to learn how to develop power and special fighting skills. One such method was to lay out halved coconuts on the ground and execute footwork drills on top of the coconuts. Tom said that in Gaje’s school form sequences and linear fighting sets were not taught until the practitioner had a firm grasp of the basics as listed above.

When Tom studied with Momoy Canete, he was exposed to some different training methods for developing skill and power. Canete taught Tom spear techniques which served to develop power and connection between the two hands which is useful when fighting with the stick and dagger. Canete also taught Tom how to use a chain weapon in order to develop a whipping type of power in the body and also the use of a bullwhip to develop accurate timing in power delivery. Additionally Canete had Tom train with opponents using extra heavy sticks in order to develop courage.

Because his study of the Filipino arts, in a complete and balanced system, had taught him how to properly move the body and how to apply power appropriately, Tom already had many of the components necessary to begin the study of classical Xing Yi Quan when he met Vince Black. Vince states, “When I met Tom, he was already a seasoned martial artist who had mastered a discipline of body mechanics in the Filipino martial arts and was therefore fairly well connected internally. He had done some self study of Xing Yi’s standing postures, so he was ready to immediately assimilate anything and everything I showed him. I started him at a more advanced level than other students I have taught. I had asked Tom specifically why he wanted to study Xing Yi, for himself or to teach others, and he said that he wanted it for his own training. So I felt that because of his personal aspirations I could start him at a level more appropriate to his personal ability.”

Tom Bisio studying Li Zi Ming style Ba Gua with Zhang Hua Sen in Beijing

The Tang Shou Tao system of Xing Yi taught by Vince Black is a very complete method consisting of three levels of training. The classical Xing Yi forms (five elements, twelve animals, etc.) are not taught until the student reaches the third level. The first two levels are designed to develop balance, strength, flexibility, coordination, rhythm and timing in applying martial arts applications, and internal body connections and alignments in a step-by-step training curriculum. Black feels that without a very solid foundation built from specific methods designed to build internal body connections, power, and mechanics from the ground up, it is difficult for inexperienced practitioners to experientially understand classical Xing Yi posturing and movements.

Vince Black says, “Because Tom had trained himself without needing encouragement and was very meticulous with the Xing Yi method, his Xing Yi developed quickly. However, after several years of training on his own, he decided he wanted to teach Xing Yi. I gave him permission to teach the Xing Yi and about 18 months later he called to share an observation which was that, ‘Xing Yi is really difficult to teach.’ He asked if there was something else he needed to understand in order to effectively teach the Xing Yi to beginners. I invited him back to my school in San Diego to stay for several weeks and he saw the complete breakdown of our training program and learned the different kinds of conditioning exercises which we teach in the first two levels of training. After that it was easy for him to begin to develop new students in Xing Yi.”

Tom said that he had become frustrated trying to teach new students Xing Yi’s five elements because the students were having a tough time grasping the subtle movements and Xing Yi’s expression of power. After Tom learned the first two levels of Tang Shou Tao Xing Yi training and began teaching it in his school, not only did the students begin to improve greatly, but practice of this material filled in the gaps of his own training. Tom states that if a beginning student comes to Xing Yi and begins working with the five elements right away, they do not have enough experiential knowledge of martial technique or appropriate martial arts power to understand the subtlety of the five elements and use them effectively in a fighting situation.

Tom had the same experience when he began studying Ba Gua. Even though he was an experienced martial artist, by simply studying the Jiang Rong Chiao form he was not able to fully appreciate the subtleties of Ba Gua’s power and application. However, after studying the complete Li Zi Ming method, starting from the basics and working gradually to the more advanced material, he could then understand and appreciate Ba Gua’s special flavor.

Chinese Medicine

When Tom Bisio began studying with Vince Black, in addition to the exposure he was getting to Vince’s fighting arts, he also had the opportunity to watch Vince treat patients in his acupuncture clinic. Vince’s skill in acupuncture and bone setting impressed Tom. He had felt that martial arts instructors were supposed to know this kind of healing methods, however, Vince was the only one he had met who had a deep knowledge of the subject.

In his years of stick fighting, Tom had seen many people receive injuries that put them out of commission. Seeing this made him feel that any teacher of martial arts should know enough about medicine to be able to help heal the kind of injuries that are going to naturally occur during rigorous martial arts training. If the injury is taken care of when it first occurs, the injured person has a much better chance of recovery, they will not have to quit training, and the chances of permanent damage will be reduced. Tom also said that if a student comes to practice martial arts and they have a problem with their body due to an old injury or they have a chronic deficiency of some kind, an instructor who knows Chinese medicine and bone setting can fix the problem and thus the forms and exercises fall right into place. Tom says that when there is a structural problem in the body, it will not always correct itself with exercise and thus “try harder” will not cut it for some people.

Vince Black began teaching Tom about the healing arts soon after Tom started studying Vince’s martial arts. Additionally, Tom enrolled in massage school and then later went to a formal acupuncture school. As he gained an understanding of the Chinese medicine he also began doing apprentice work in Vince Black’s acupuncture clinic in San Diego. During one visit, Tom stayed in San Diego for six weeks and worked with Vince in the clinic everyday.

North American Tang Shou Tao President Vince Black (center) with his two Vice Presidents David Nicoletti (left) and Tom Bisio (right). All three studied Xing Yi directly from Hsu Hong Chi and have studied Li Zi Ming’s Ba Gua in China

Today Tom Bisio is convinced that the martial arts and the healing arts go hand in hand. While it made sense to him before he started studying medicine that the martial artists could help themselves by studying the medicine, after going to acupuncture school he now realizes that the Chinese doctors also need the martial arts training. He said that individuals who practice the Chinese internal martial arts have a sense of internal harmony and have a sense of what the body is supposed to look like and feel like. Individuals who do not practice martial arts do not have this sense of a healthy body and thus it is more difficult for them to develop a feeling for their patient’s health. Tom said that in the acupuncture school he attended there were many individuals who were training to be doctors who were not healthy themselves. He feels that if the doctor does not have a healthy body and does not know what a healthy body is supposed to feel like, then they will not have an experiential knowledge of how to get there. Tom thinks that teaching the doctors to take care of their own health and take responsibility for their own body should be taught before giving them a bunch of information about how to treat other people. He also commented that when he works on students who practice the martial arts, their health improves much faster because they take responsibility for their own body.

In Tom’s experience, individuals who practice the internal martial arts and study Chinese medicine pick up the medicine much faster and typically develop a higher level of skill. Additionally, he says that those doctors who want to develop skill in bone setting need to also develop the ability to apply the kind of “short power” which is cultivated in internal arts practice. Without this kind of power development the difficult bone setting techniques cannot be performed.

Teaching Medicine and Martial Arts

Tom Bisio began teaching Filipino style martial arts in 1979 at Columbia University in a martial arts club. After three years of teaching at Columbia, Tom began teaching elsewhere in New York. Since that time he has taught the Filipino arts, Kajukenbo, Xing Yi, and Ba Gua as well as the healing arts. Today Tom no longer teaches the Filipino martial arts or the Kajukenbo. He currently teaches Xing Yi and Ba Gua Wednesday through Friday in New York City. He also teaches Qi Gong to his patients, Kung Fu (injury) medicine Chinese medicine to other health practitioners and martial arts instructors, and Tui Na to a few individuals who apprentice with him in his clinic. Those individuals who might be interested in studying with Tom can reach him at (212) xxx-xxxx. (Editors note: Contact Tom Bisio here).

When someone from New York calls me and wants to find a martial arts instructor, I tell them that if they want to learn a good, solid, complete system of martial arts taught by someone who is a good teacher and easy to get along with, they should study with Tom Bisio. The typical reaction is, “I’ve never heard of this guy.” To which I reply, “Just because someone has not written about themselves in martial arts magazines does not mean they are not highly skilled. In fact, most of the highly skilled martial artists I’ve met in this country rarely appear in the magazines.” Tom Bisio keeps a low profile because he is more interested in practicing and teaching good martial arts skill than making a big name for himself. Tom says, “People are too concerned about theoretical ideas and lineage. If you want to study good martial arts, find someone who has good skill and is willing to convey it. Who cares if he is the top guy in his lineage. Feel their skill, don’t just talk about it. The theoretical stuff is nice to know, but the bottom line is ‘can they do it.’ People have too many preconceived notions that they got from books, but usually their thoughts and ideas are not based in the reality of martial arts and the application.”