The Contentious Origins of Baguazhang

the+professorI started a new debate thread on Rum Soaked Fist by linking to a blog post I did last year challenging the common disregard for Dong Haichuan's claim that he learned Baguazhang from two Daoist hermits in the mountains.  Most people claim that Dong Haichuan invented Bagua himself by putting together some common martial arts scraps he found laying around.  You know, like those scientific contraptions with spinning coconuts and flapping palm leaves The Professor from Gilligan's Island would put together.

One person, Josh, acknowledged that Daoist ritual and ritual theater are possible sources of martial prowess which have not been explored yet, the rest of the crew have devolved into arguing about whose lineage is the most authentic.  One guy, using my favorite metaphor of the car, says that Dong Haichuan was driving a Model T Ford and that our baguazhang machines have been getting steadily more complex until now in 2009, we are driving a Lexus.

We could just as easily flip that metaphor.  Dong Haichuan drove into Beijing in 1870 driving a Lotus tricked out with every imaginable James Bond contraption.  He was happy to let his students watch him put gas in the tank and he would pop the hood and let them check the oil.  But his car died with him.  His students were left trying to reverse engineer a working car.  Some of them studied engineering and some of them were able to find working parts from other cars.  But everyone had to build their own car.  And each of the cars look quite different.  Now-a-days, there are people saying that cars don't need gas, because they've tried it and it doesn't work.  The reality is that their spark plugs are fouled or they need a new alternator.  Yet they seem content to push their car on the hills and tell everyone else they aren't working hard enough.

rinspeedsquba-diving-car-james-bondI may be driving a beat-up 1981 Toyota pickup truck art car, with feathers and fake tiger fur glued to the body, and green onions growing out of the flat bed, and yes, the brakes are a little squeaky, but at least it has an engine that works!

Perhaps the car isn't such a great metaphor.  Baguazhang was a flag ship in a fleet of ships that got caught in a horrible storm.  70% of the fleet when down to Davey Jones locker.  Each ship had to decide what to throw into the sea.  Now that the storm is over, Jetsum (the stuff that sinks), if it was thrown overboard, is now lost forever.  Floatsum (the stuff that floats), can be pulled back aboard by whichever ship gets to it first.  Most of the captains are dead, and most of the crew can't read.  There are a few ships' logs being passed around and pirates are arguing about what lays on the bottom and which floatsum belongs to whom.  Most of the fleet is hobbled and lashed together.  A few boats are getting tows, and no one seems to know where they are going.

Isn't it obvious at this point that we are looking at the wrong thing?  Dong Haichuan wasn't teaching a method.  It isn't clear whether he developed a curriculum or not.  He was teaching a view, an approach, a feeling, a way of understanding what a human being is. Yeah, he shouted, "Bu hao!" (no good) a lot, then he would slap his students with a "Ho, ho, ho, and a' feel my Dantian."

Many martial arts teachers have lineage disease.  If your lineage has become just a method, it needs to be treated with a coarse of anti-biotics and then flushed down the toilet.  The reason I've kept my relationship with George Xu all these years is because he is the best reverse engineer I've ever met.  He's been taking the methods and pulling them apart to see how they work.  His baguazhang lineage is quite unremarkable, but his single palm change is undefeatable.  He understood from the beginning that he had to make his own car.

But I have a different task.  My task is to recover the original ideas and world view which inspired the creation of these arts in the first place.

Anyone in the teaching profession today knows that there are a number of different standard forms used to evaluate and compare classes:

  1. Class Plans (An outline of what happens in a given class built around a teaching objective)

  2. Class summaries (A narrative description of what actually happened in a given class)

  3. Curriculum Overviews (A phrase or sentence for each class in a given semester which describes the objective and/or activity of that class)

  4. Curriculum Standards  (An external measure of teaching results or goals that everyone in the field can agree on)

  5. Coarse descriptions  (One or two paragraphs that describe the topic, feel, and content of the course)

  6. Teaching outcome goals  (What students are expected to learn and how the teacher will varify that they have learned it)

  7. Syllabi  (A week by week description of class activities)

  8. Program integration analysis  (How what is learned in the class is meaningful or useful in relationship to the other classes in a program and the program as a whole)

If you are going to argue about whose teaching is better, you would do well to use the same standard form, otherwise your arguments will be incoherent.  But people! if you can't tap the original inspiration for the accumulation of your particular body of knowledge in the first place, well, you're going to have to use charisma to keep your students around, because methods are hooks without a worm.

The big problem, and I mean huge, is that people bring their own story, their own view, their own inspiration, or their own paranoia, to the method they have inherited.  When you do this the results, the fruition if you will, becomes skewed.  Inspiration creates methods, methods produce fruition.  If you don't know the original inspiration that created your method, you may have already achieve it's fruition and you might not even have noticed. You could be staring the perfect fruition in the eye and think it's a failure.  If you don't share the same inspiration as the founder of your style, you are likely missing the fruition, but you are also probably working with a method that isn't doing a very good job of producing the results you want.

And that me hearties, is why connecting with history matters to our everyday practice.