Almost every style of Ba Gua Zhang has a version of Lao Ba Zhang, or “The Old Eight Palms.” These palms are sometimes referred to as the Eight Palm Changes. In Liang Style Ba Gua Zhang, mastery of Lao Ba Zhang is the key to manifesting not only the martial potential of the art, but also the spontaneous internal and external transformations that promote health and develop a clear and transcendent inner spirit.
Lao Ba Zhang should only be practiced after one has spent time on Fixed Posture Circle Walking (Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang) practice. Fixed Posture Circle Walking develops the Mud-Wading Step (Tang Ni Bu) that is fundamental to Lao Ba Zhang. Holding fixed postures while walking the circle develops integral strength and twisting, winding power. Fixed Posture Circle Walking also opens the body’s energy pathways and teaches the body to be relaxed, yet powerful, while in motion
Lao Ba Zhang (Old Eight Palms) is one of the most important forms in Liang Style Ba Gua Zhang. Each of the Eight Palm Changes contained in Lao Ba Zhang illustrates and trains a unique principle of internal body action with virtually infinite applications for self-defense. The essence of the art of Ba Gua Zhang is contained in the Foundational Training (Ji Ben Gong), Tian Gan (Heavenly Stem) Exercises, Fixed Posture Circle Walking Nei Gong (Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang), and Lao Ba Zhang. From these four training methods, everything else can be understood and extrapolated.
I recently attended a performance in which a concert pianist played Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 Opus 23 in G Minor. In his introduction to the Ballade he explained how he had learned this piece many years ago, and that it is a favorite piece for many concert pianists. He added that this “brilliant” work of Chopin is “better than it can be played.” Hence, he returns to it again and again, each time finding something different.
The best forms in martial arts have exactly this quality. The best forms are better than your best efforts to perform them. They are always fresh, because their possibilities are never exhausted. The Lao Ba Zhang passed down by Master Wang Shi Tong is just like Chopin’s Ballade – it is better than you can perform it. It is able to provide inexhaustible insights and applications; it is always there, waiting for your engagement.
Today, many students of the martial arts disparage forms, or think they are a kind of body training that does not teach “real” applications. Or they feel that martial techniques and applications contained in the forms must be extracted and practiced incessantly in order to be able to use them in self-defense. Martial techniques and applications do need to be practiced, but it is engagement with the form that gives them life, that creates them and allows them to emerge spontaneously and transform appropriately at the critical moment.
Some students desire to focus only on the Nei Gong and body development aspects of Ba Gua Zhang and neglect to engage with the forms and explore the martial secrets hidden within. It is true that without Qi and Jin (refined strength or power) the forms are empty, however without the forms, the Qi and Jin have no way to express themselves.
The great boxers say that first one must accumulate Qi. Then Qi must circulate. Finally, when the body is strong and flowing, one must understand the body patterns and the postures. The great boxers of the past have said one must train hard and diligently to develop the ever-changing adaptive ability that is necessary to apply Ba Gua Zhang. They go on to say that this cannot be developed by blindly sitting in meditation praying to the immortals.
Forms like Lao Ba Zhang teach not only strikes and kicks, but also locks, throws and attacks to vital points. Lao Ba Zhang also teaches one the ability to manifest and release different kinds of Jin, to change and transform internally and externally, and to adapt to the changing circumstances All of these aspects of the art are hidden within the form and can only be unlocked by deep investigation and unending practice.
If you like Qin Na, find the Qin Na that lives within Lao Ba Zhang. If you like the Ba Gua Dao or Ba Gua Jian, research how the hands are like swords and the sword is like the hands. If you like pushing hands and sticking hands, research where these skills reside in Lao Ba Zhang. If you like throwing, find the throwing skills hidden in the forms. If you like kicking, research all the kicks hidden within Lao Ba Zhang’s footwork patterns. The spear, the staff, elbow techniques and knife methods are the same. These all reside within the form. They wait there to be unlocked by the diligent seeker.
I give my heartfelt thanks to the Master Wang Shi Tong for passing on this form before his death in 2005. Master Wang’s Ba Gua Zhang was unadulterated, pure and profound. It is now our responsibility to pass his expression of the art to succeeding generations.
More on Wang Shi Tong’s Lao Ba Zhang coming soon!