In Chinese martial arts, the ancestral lineage of discipleship is often considered a primary factor of the quality of a student’s skill and development. The student is often viewed as a reflection of their teacher, sometimes creating biased presumptions.
Pedigree is important — but not from trivial name dropping and bragging rights, but from understanding and smart, meaningful training. Strive to learn your heritage to understand where your art comes from, to see the system from the lens of your ancestors (their lives, struggles, contributions and accomplishments) that you may glean a deeper understanding of the why and how of the system and how it relates to you, personally. Then practice what you learn from your teacher — in your own time at home, not just during class — so that you can understand, internalize and incorporate the principles they share with you.
That is the true measure of respect for your martial family and ancestors, to learn what they learned, in the context of why and how they learned it, and to apply those lessons to your own life.
Blind fealty to yellowed photos and glorified legends won’t improve your health or character, or save you when your life is threatened, just as assumed privilege from pointing to a family tree won’t help you gain skill, if you don’t apply efforts to practice what previous generations of practitioners lived and bled for. We honor their legacy by striving to improve ourselves, inspired by their example.
Dong Haichuan ( 董海川 1799-1882), a famous Chinese Martial Artist of the late Qing Dynasty, considered the progenitor of Bagua Zhang (“Eight Trigrams Palm”), though by his own accounts he credited learning the system from a Taoist Priest/Hermit named Bi Chengxia, from whom the system had been passed down in secret purportedly for many generations. Nevertheless, Dong Haichuan was the first person to teach the art of Bagua Zhang publicly. Dong Haichuan was born in Zhu Jia Wu of Wen An County in He Bei Province. He began practicing Chinese Martial Arts at a very young age, and became a renowned martial artist in his hometown. As an adult, he first went south traveled all over China, studying martial arts and Daoism. Dong Haichuan eventually moved to Beijing around 1864 to hold a post in the Mansion of Prince Su, it is there that he began teaching “Zhuan Zhang”, Turning Palms. The style was later called Ba Gua Zhang, inspired by Daoism, stemming from the theory of 8 Changes in the classic “Yi Ching” (Book of Changes).
Cheng Tinghua ( 程廷華 1848-1900), the prolific second generation Bagua Zhang Master, and creator of the Cheng Style Bagua Zhang.
Cheng “Yanjing” (“Spectacles” Cheng) was an eye-glass maker by trade, and a Shuai Jiao expert before learning Bagua Zhang from Dong Hai Chuan. Born the 3rd of 4 brothers in 1848 in the Cheng family village, Shen County, Hebei Province, Cheng Tinghua was fond of martial arts and in his youth he gained skill at wielding a heavy broadsword and a large heavy staff. When Cheng was around 13, he left his hometown and went to Beijing to apprentice with a gentleman who made eyeglasses. Intent on improving his martial arts skill, Cheng also began to study Chinese wrestling (Shuai Jiao) when he arrived in Beijing.
In the late 1800s, two wrestling styles were popular in Beijing: Manchurian/Mongolian wrestling and Baoding “fast style” wrestling. Baoding wrestling was quicker than Manchurian style, emphasizing throwing the opponent at first contact, without struggling. Baoding wrestling also combined punching, kicking, joint locking and point striking with its throwing techniques. Cheng Tinghua studied both of the popular wrestling styles when he was a young man in Beijing, and built a reputation with martial artists in Beijing as a skilled shuai jiao practitioner.
By 1870, Dong Haichuan had become very well known in Beijing. When Cheng was approximately 28 years old (1876), he sought out Dong in order to improve his skill. Some say that Cheng had become friends with Yin Fu and Shi Jidong (two of Dong Haichuan’s first Bagua students) and they encouraged him to meet Dong. When the two first met, Dong asked Cheng to use his shuai jiao against him. Cheng made several attempts at attacking Dong but was never able to lay a hand on him. Cheng knelt down and asked Dong if he could become a student. At this point, Dong hadn’t accepted many Bagua Zhang students — although Dong had taught many people martial arts in the Prince of Su’s palace, he only taught Bagua to three people prior to teaching Cheng Tinghua — those previous disciples being Yin Fu, Ma Weiqi, and Shi Jidong. The majority of Dong Haichuan’s students in the palace were said to have learned something other than Bagua Zhang.
Cheng Tinghua was Dong Haichuan’s fourth disciple, and studied with Dong for 5 or 6 years before Dong passed away in 1882.
Dong Haichuan was known to have only accepted Bagua Zhang students who were already skilled in another style of martial art. It is said that after laying a Bagua foundation with the circle walk practice, single palm change, double palm change, and smooth changing palm, Dong Haichuan would teach the student Bagua Zhang based on what the student already knew. Dong Haichuan therefore taught Cheng Tinghua using his shuai jiao background as a base.
The Bagua styles which most notably display a Xingyi Quan flavor are the styles which were taught by Cheng and his friends Li Cunyi, Liu Dekuan, and Zhang Zhaodong. The link between Xingyi and Bagua was most likely forged when Cheng Tingghua and his friends Li Cunyi, Zhang Zhaodong, Liu Dekuan, and Liu Waixiang got together to compare styles and learn from each other. Cheng Tinghua was a very open martial artist who would teach his Bagua to anyone who cared to learn it. He enjoyed meeting other martial artist to compare styles and share the techniques and theories of martial arts, and enjoyed sharing his Bagua Zhang skill with other martial artists. Cheng purportedly taught Liu Dekuan, Li Cunyi, and Zhang Zhaodong their Bagua Zhang, however, since they were very skilled in Xingyi Quan and thus were Cheng’s peers, he did not feel right calling them his “students.” Therefore, Cheng said that they should say they learned their Bagua from his teacher, Dong Haichuan.
Cheng Tinghua was killed during the Boxer Rebellion when the “eight foreign armies” invaded Beijing (1900). It turns out that a group of German soldiers were forcefully recruiting locals for a work detail near Beijing’s Zhongwen Gate were Cheng’s shop was located. Cheng was on the street at the time and the Germans stopped him and tried to put him in line with the others. Cheng resisted and fought back; he may have beaten or killed a few soldiers during the struggle, before Cheng tried to run and leap over a nearby wall. As he was jumping over the wall, he was shot. He was 52 years old.
Zhang Zhaodong ( 張兆東 1859-1940), also known as Zhang Zhankui, was born in Hebei Province, Ho Hung Yan Village in 1859, the youngest of three children. His father was a poor farmer and his family was often bullied by those in authority. Later in life, when Zhang became skilled in martial arts, he was very harsh on bullies because of what happened to his family when he was young. As one biographer has written, “Zhang Zhankui was big and tall, short-tempered and bold. He firmly opposed those who were roughshod over the people and disturbed public order.”
Zhang only had a primary school education because he had to quit school when he was still young in order to help his father in the fields. In his spare time he liked to practice martial arts, studying with teachers in his village. The first martial art he studied was Mizong Quan (a popular style in Northern China). When he was a teenager, Zhang Zhaodong became a Xingyi Quan disciple of Liu Qilan, a highly skilled master of the art. Zhang Zhaodong trained assiduously and became an esteemed Xingyi master as well.
When Zhang was 20 there was a famine in his village, so he left home and traveled to Tianjin. When he arrived in Tianjin he had difficulty finding a job because his only trade was farming. To raise money for food he demonstrated martial arts forms on the side of the road.
Zhang hated to see people bullying others so he would always aid anyone who was being picked on. As his reputation grew, government officials recognized his talent for dealing with criminals and gave him a job as a “thief catcher” (bounty hunter).
Shortly thereafter, the famous second generation Bagua Zhang instructor Cheng Tinghua was visiting Tianjin and ran into some trouble. Zhang Zhaodong helped Cheng with his problem and the two became friends. Zhang mentioned to Cheng that he would like to learn Bagua Zhang, and Cheng told Zhang that he would be glad to teach him. Zhang frequently traveled to Beijing to track down bandits who had fled Tianjin. Cheng also introduced Zhang Zhaodong to Dong Haichuan and from that time forward, whenever he was in Beijing he studied with Dong or Cheng.
Since Dong Haichuan died shortly after Zhang Zhaodong met him, he probably learned the majority of his Bagua from Cheng Tinghua. During the early 20th century, Zhang Zhaodong and Li Cunyi ran a very well known martial arts association in Tianjin to spread the martial arts. Students in the public class could study either Bagua Zhang or Xingyi Quan, whichever they preferred. Zhang required his inner-door students to study Xingyi before they studied Bagua.
Earlier in his teaching career in Tianjin, Zhang Zhaodong emphasized Xingyi Quan, then gradually only taught Bagua in his later years.
Since Zhang Zhaodong was a Xingyi man, his Bagua Zhang naturally had a Xingyi flavor. Zhang Zhaodong was a tall, strong man who liked to use wide, open postures in training and liked to strike down on opponents when fighting. His Bagua Zhang form and applications were direct, powerful and relatively simple, not as evasive compared to others because of his strength and Xingyi background. He did not utilize as many throwing techniques as Cheng Tinghua, who had come from a Shuai Jiao background.
When Zhang was over 70, he was well known throughout China for his boxing skill and was frequently invited to other areas of the country to participate and demonstrate Bagua Zhang in martial arts events.
According to the writings left by his student Jiang Rong-Qiao, Zhang Zhaodong died in 1940 of natural causes in Tianjin at the age of 81. I learned Zhang Zhaodong’s Xingyi Quan and Bagua Zhang from Phillip Starr between 1985-1999.
Liu Bin ( 刘斌 1866-1930), the third generation of Ba Gua Zhang, was the disciple of Cheng Tinghua, being one of his first and top students. Liu Bin was a general in the Ching army, but quit his post in disappointment with the Ching government’s corruption and incompetence after his teacher, Cheng Tinghua was killed in 1900 by German troops. Liu Bin then focused on training, developing and teaching Bagua Zhang, and became a highly regarded bodyguard in Beijing as well. As a former general, Liu Bin was an expert with various weapons, and specialized with the 9 Section Steel Whip. Liu Bin taught many students from his school in the Tan Tong area of Heaven Temple Park in Southern Beijing.
Liu Shikui ( 刘世奎 1899-1969) Liu Bin’s second son, Liu ShiKui learned Bagua Zhang under his father’s strict, sometimes harsh tutorage; he trained hard and became a highly skillful master. Liu ShiKui was humble, with a good heart and strong moral fiber. He continued his father’s legacy by teaching Bagua Zhang, including in secret during through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when traditional martial arts practice was banned. Liu Shikui encouraged his students to become good people, and avoid fighting and trouble. Despite his positive life, strong spirit and good nature, Liu Shikui was arrested, tortured, and eventually killed during the Cultural Revolution for teaching martial arts.
Wang Wenkui ( 王文魁 1900-1986), was one of the top disciples of Liu Bin, and close friend of Liu ShiKui. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Wang Wenkui was one of the first to teach Bagua Zhang publicly, and helped write and publish popular books about Bagua Zhang. Though short in stature, Wang Wenkui was widely regarded as a generous gentleman and prodigious martial artist of profound skill, good heart and bright spirit, and is still highly regarded in Beijing’s martial arts community.
Xu Zhenbiao ( 徐振彪 1913-1991), the fifth generation of Ba Gua Zhang, was the disciple of Liu Shikui (Liu Bin’s son) and student of Wang Wenkui. Xu Zhenbiao was known for being a devoted student and disciplined practitioner throughout his life, and developed a high level of skill. From Yang Shifu’s accounts, Xu Zhenbiao was a highly skilled fighter who welcomed challenges, as well as a generous and severe taskmaster as an instructor, holding a high standard for himself and his students.
Shifu Yang Guo Tai ( 杨國泰 July 10, 1928-November, 2013), Cheng shi Bagua Zhang teacher, student of Xu Zhenbiao. Yang Shifu began martial arts training at an early age, with styles such as Praying Mantis and Xingyi Quan, and became a disciple of Xu Zhenbiao in his teens, training closely with him for over 4 decades, even in secret when martial arts practice was banned during the Cultural Revolution. Yang Guotai also enjoyed dancing in his youth, though his lifelong passion was martial arts. After working in a factory for several years (where he lost his left thumb in a machinery accident), Yang Guotai eventually used his martial training expertise and became the head Tui-Na/Massage Therapist at Beijing Hospital. He frequently shared stories about surviving and training martial arts in China during wars and tumultuous periods, including how they would practice in secret during the Cultural Revolution, despite the risks of being caught. Yang Guotai Shifu emigrated from Beijing to Vancouver, BC with his wife and son, Greg in the 1990’s, where he continued to teach Bagua Zhang.
I met Yang Shifu by chance during my first visit to Vancouver, BC in 2000. I went to the Tiger Balm International Martial Arts Tournament in hopes of meeting another well known Bagua Zhang teacher, but I am forever grateful to have met Yang Guotai Shifu instead. While watching one of the competitions, I noticed someone practicing Bagua Zhang on the sidelines. I was intrigued and asked about his practice, and he graciously introduced me to his teacher, Yang Guotai, who was officiating the push-hands event; Yang Shifu was discerning and spirited, and asked me if I practiced Bagua Zhang, then for me to show him what I learned before; Yang Shifu was underwhelmed with my execution of the Bagua I’d previously been training for over decade, then briefly demonstrated a few seconds of the most amazing Bagua I’d seen before, and asked if I’d like to learn real Bagua Zhang. Though I hadn’t heard of Yang Guotai before that weekend, I recognized I’d discovered a rare and hidden treasure, and enthusiastically returned to Vancouver a couple days later for my first lesson and was blown away by his profound skill, power and depth of knowledge. I continued to make the 2-3 hour drive from Seattle to Vancouver every other weekend and any extra holiday break I had for the next several years to learn from Yang Shifu, trained hard with my new classmates and in every class had some new revelation that I continue to learn from to this day.
The rest of my classmates under Yang Shifu all had previous martial arts experience, and most of us had already trained Bagua Zhang from various other teachers. We all considered training with Yang Shifu as graduate-level martial arts training because of the depth, complexity and refinement of skills he developed in each of us. His approach was hands-on instruction to show us the principles and functional health cultivation and self defense techniques at the heart of the system, in the old-school practical, non-sport methods of training. He showed us the how and why of Bagua Zhang, from the most subtle skills to the most profound principles, for both health and self defense. We endearingly referred to Yang Shifu as “the Bagua Yoda” because of his irascible yet generous character, profound knowledge and surprising, incomparable skill. After a year or two of training with Yang Shifu, he invited a handful of my classmates and myself to stay after training and lunch (it was a common occurrence for his wife, our Shimu, to prepare a delicious homemade lunch for us after training at a nearby park) and he conducted a private Bai Shi ceremony in his home in front of his mantle where we were formally inducted to be his in-door disciples and become lineage holders of Cheng style Bagua Zhang. It was shortly after this that Yang Shifu took me aside during a class and encouraged me to begin teaching students in Seattle where I live, while I continued training with him in Vancouver, BC. I introduced Yang Shifu to several friends and former classmates, and coordinated workshops for him to teach in Omaha, NE and Seattle, WA.
I consider myself blessed to have known him and drink from the vast wellspring he shared with us, and the time spent training with him always felt fleeting, especially in hindsight. I miss him, though I continue to learn more from his lessons by dissecting and training; sometimes it seems as if I feel his presence, especially when I’m teaching my students, as if he’s watching over us and teaching through me, as I glean more understanding from all he passionately shared with us.