No matter whether you feel the study of the 易經 Yìjīng is relevant to the study of 八挂掌 Bāguàzhǎng or not, there is no escaping the association of the style to the 8 three-lined images that the Yijing is built on. It is in the name after all. Some Baguazhang practitioners that I have great respect for are in the “it is irrelevant to the art, and even counter-productive to mention” school of thought. I can see where they are coming from as I have also met or seen the work of people who blather inanely about ancient philosophies without the slightest clue as to what they are trying to say. I have seen plenty of people who use the Yijing as the very hallmark of “exotic otherness” upon which their mystical desires are hung. Yet this seems to be yet another manifestation of the argument of practical vs intellectual; with the unspoken assumption that reading is time not spent fighting or sparring and so you cannot have a clue about martial arts “in the real world.”
Not for the first time I will say that just because someone offers an either/or proposition doesn’t mean that I will accept their framing of the world. If there is a theme to my ranting it is that these dichotomies always seem to be reconciled by applying the perspective of “and” rather than “or.” Looking at the Yijing when studying Baguazhang doesn’t necessarily mean to cast the oracle in the midst of the fight to see what the Dao is telling you to do, though I have heard that as one of the dismissals of the Yijing in Baguazhang. A couple of long ago conversations, one with Michael Smith and another with Sam Masich, led me to begin exploring a model of the Bagua that is simple, practical and usable under stress. This model has been my primary lens for all of my subsequent studies in Baguazhang, no matter the branch or style.
One of the first things is to consider how the 卦 Guà are constructed. When the Yijing was cast the mathematical calculations based on the random falling of the yarrow sticks led to a number that showed a 陽 yáng or solid line, a 陰 yīn or broken line, or a solid or broken line that was changing to its opposite. The trigrams were always built from the bottom up and so have a distinct top and bottom; this vertical quality is important for where we will go with this.
The trigrams themselves can be essentially laid upon the body with each line of the gua being associated with a particular body region. The lower line corresponds to the area from the hips down to the feet. The middle line equates to the waist and ribs. While the upper line is related to the shoulder girdle and arms. Since a solid line is Yang and a broken line is Yin we simply need to be clear about how we will consider what we mean by Yin-Yang in this context. The most basic way I use this pattern is to treat Yin-Yang as hidden and obvious respectively. When we touch do I show you my structure or not? Do I let power be apparent or do I use releases and small spirals to hide behind?
So the Heaven trigram would be three solid Yang lines and I would be strongly structured and obvious when I touch; while the Earth trigram would be three broken Yin lines and so would be my most vaporous and evasive, showing you nothing of my structure and power. The idea is simple, yet it takes some concentration to pull off with a degree of consistency. It is simply an experiential metaphor that gets applied to the touch. There is little point trying to manifest this in a solo way, though it can be done, as it makes the clearest sense when under pressure.
Therefore, Heaven is all obvious, like a blitzkrieg attack; full out, no holding back, without fear or subtlety. Tactically it is the attack that is used against the tentative or weak, crushing the foes under foot. I liken this to when the hero is wading through the minions on his way to the boss battle. It is Bruce Lee in the underground in “Enter the Dragon,” one-punching foot soldier after footsoldier.
Earth is as hidden as possible; with the lightest touch creating dissolving spirals and quick footwork. When touch is maintained it is completely segmented so that nothing behind the touch can be found. Earth is the ultimate of leading-into-emptiness, with evasion at maximum and no thought of attack at all. It is the body movement of the person trying to get out the door or towards the weapon that will turn the tide. Of course it may also only be a moment of the touch that creates the opening before the counter-attack that utilizes another of the gua.
Water is a solid line between two broken lines, so the obvious manifestation is the waist. Think loose limbs and strong body. Water flows around obstacles so this is for passing guards and reaching into the body of someone who is braced-up. It is for the stiff human-tank who wants to wade in and pound with heavy shots. The hits from Water are heavy and wet, like the classic mud-palm; while the body receives the hits either by being non-compressible (think “belly flop”) or by taking the hit but dissipating the force out one of the limbs through a spiral. I suspect that my meaning is much easier to show that tell.
Fire is composed of two solid lines top and bottom with a broken line in the middle. Here the body is hidden behind the fences created by the limbs. This is where you do not let your body be touched and punish every attempt with darting crispness. Fire’s hits are not heavy, they are sudden and continuous. This is the realm of limb destructions, Chin’na and striking chains. Where Water does not care if the body is touched, for Fire keeping the body safe is the whole game.
Lake is a weak broken line above that cannot hold the weight of the solid Yang lines below. Water is the tactic of up to down. So this is the realm of take-downs and drops, like the classic swallow-skims-the-water. This is for the opponent who has too much weight forward and poor connection to his legs. As you join in you do not contend with the upper body, hiding the shoulders, while you add your weight into their structure attempting to crumple them. It is also trips and sweeps with low line kicks as the leg’s power can show.
Mountain is a solid line above over two broke lines. This is where we have a good strong bridge between the upper limbs but the waist and legs remain hidden. This style of moving provides the set-up for throws and over-turning. The idea is taking the opponent up and over, so it has a close feeling to it, where you enter and get hip to hip. It actually works against the same people as Lake, but by taking them the other direction. Instead of crushing the weakness in their structure, you tear it up out of the ground.
Thunder is a solid bottom line followed by two broken lines. The image is one of a strong start but a weak ending. Since the legs are shown but the waist and shoulders are hidden it has the quality of a burst from the ground that dissipates quickly. Here we use a shove to create distance or space. It is like the often criticized Taijiquan “push.” This has quality similar to Earth in that it doesn’t really include a good finishing attack and is going to need to turn into something else. However in terms of multiple opponent fighting this is something that I find is frequently useful as it can be used to place opponents on the battlefield. It is the toss that does no direct injury, yet can put someone another’s path or some unyielding surface.
Finally Wind is a broken line on the bottom with two solid lines above. The image is that the weak Yin line below cannot contain the strong line above. This is were we use rapid footwork with power coming from the waist and legs. I often think of the style and quality of good Aikido when I think of Wind. The footwork sets up the connected body and limbs to create projections. Where Thunder will fire you off of the legs Wind pulls you into angular momentum while stepping around you. Thunder is a landmine, while Wind is getting your boot caught in the stirrup of a runaway horse.
So this is a basic glance at the way I use the Bagua in my everyday training. It is fairly simple in idea, yet complex in application.