Learning from Other Traditions

What I learned from Baguazhang

From 2010 to 2012 I had the opportunity to study a branch of Gao Style Baguazhang under Robert Jay Arnold of the Tian Wu Dao, he currently teaches in Taiwan. You can find his Youtube channel here. Baguazhang, or Bagua, as it is more commonly called, became a leading style among the various Chinese martial arts when Dong Haichuan became a bodyguard at the Chinese Imperial Court in the mid 1800s. I was surprised to find out that Mr. Arnold was a former MMA fighter, who grew up in a rough part of Chicago, learned boxing and even more surprised to find out that he now practiced a comparatively new internal style of Chinese martial art that focuses on footwork and deceptive technique. I asked Mr. Arnold if he was willing to teach me any of the sword arts he knew, and he kindly offered to teach me a Dao style. He told me that this particular sword art had not originated with the style of Baguazhang that he had learned. I would not be learning the classical Dao style associated with Baguazhang that uses a particularly large sword, but a style that used the Niu Wei Dao that had been adopted by his branch of Baguazhang some time later.

For those two years I got up at four in the morning and trained with him, using a wooden sword I had purchased some years before. By that time I had already been practicing the longsword style of the Liechtenauer tradition for some ten years. I was just starting serious research and writing on my first book, and I was open with Mr. Arnold about the fact that my first love was the sword arts of Europe. He was willing to teach me anyway.

When one starts a new style, particularly one so different from where one comes from, it is best to enter with an open mind. What I mean to say is this, even though I had an explicit goal, to understand swordsmanship in general better, and I plainly intended to use what I had learned to enhance my study of European swordsmanship, I came to him to learn his art on its own terms. One cannot learn an art if one clings to preconceptions. I believed that I would get more out of it if I did my utmost to faithfully learn the style, the pedagogy, and to make it my first goal to understand and replicate it. I feel my experience proved me right. I could not, after all, contrast one art with another if I had learned one of them only half heartedly. So, when I was taught spinning jumps I learned them, even though I did not know what they were for, or how they might be used. When I was taught backward cross-legged crouching footwork for a low block I practiced it forty times a morning for weeks, even though I thought it inefficient.

Mr. Arnold told me that I was a good student, and I believe the decade I had spent learning other styles of swordplay helped me learn his art. I learned all the moves in the style in a matter of months, and from there we worked on application, strategy, and the philosophy of using the art. I learned whole new ways to move, whole new ways to fight. The Dao style I learned was very far removed in almost every method and application I had learned, interpreted, or guessed at in the Liechteanuer tradition, or in Silver’s or Talhoffer’s, the other areas where I had put serious study up to that time. As I learned more about this style’s way of moving, teaching, the way it made you flow, and the way it taught you to control the fight, I found a great deal to value in it.

Now you may have noticed earlier that I said that Mr. Arnold used to fight in MMA matches, and his record was pretty good too. Quite a few in the larger martial arts community don’t think much of Chinese arts, especially the “internal” ones. I find many of their criticisms valid, but dismissing these arts on the basis of their current state of acceptance is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. According to Peter Lorge’s book Chinese Martial Arts, China’s period of martial arts atrophy began much earlier than it did in much of the rest of the world. In most places we find fighting arts beginning to decline in the 1600s. China’s long stable dynasties, large, well organized population, and successful bureaucracies, gave it longer periods of peace, shorter periods of instability, and generally made violence, and the arts that distill it, less valuable. We can see this begin in the Ming Dynasty, as early as the 1400s, when most of the more martial societies were experiencing heydays in their martial cultures.

China’s surviving martial arts have more temporal distance between them and the days of their invention and original application, and it shows. There is a great deal more emphasis on physical fitness, self-improvement, and philosophy, than on martial effectiveness. We see more styles optimized for civilian contexts, rather than the dueling or battle fields. We find more extreme positions, more extraneous movement, less focus on blending the unarmed and armed arts, and much less partner drilling and sparing than in most other historical arts. That does not mean that what we see in the various Chinese arts is worthless, only that it lacks a great deal of context which might make those practices valid. No move I learned with Robert J. Arnold was useless, but their uses often weren’t obvious.

One example Robert gave me of how a move with a valid use can be ignored is jump kicks. No one uses jump kicks in the ring. Taking both of your feet off the ground for an extended period leaves you vulnerable, and diminishes the power of the attack. Yet he showed me five videos of assaults that happened in public where someone successfully came to the rescue of someone else with a jump kick. He explained that in all of these cases it was an ambush attack to effect a rescue and there was a barrier between the rescuer and the attacker that needed to be circumvented. The jump kick is one of the best ways there is to solve that problem. You might say, how often would something like that actually come up? Well, let’s think about an ancient battlefield imagine a guy from the enemy army is fighting an ally of yours with his back to you, there is a dead horse on the ground between you and him. Jumping the horse’s corpse should be a forgone conclusion, but you can easily turn that into an attack with momentum behind it. If you have a weapon that can be very effective, and if you don’t then turning the jump into an attack with a kick is quite natural. His point is that sometimes when you can’t see a technique’s use, you just need to think harder about the context it was created for. The curriculum I learned from him arranged the lessons in ways that I sometimes found counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong, just that it took me a while to understand it.

Every sword fighting style attempts to control the fight, and whereas Liechtenauer and Ringeck did so with offense, the dao style I learned did so with defense. Instead of closing distance with the opponent, or lunging in and out of distance, we attempted to maintain a very wide distance with circular footwork, not dissimilar to what we see in Destreza’s principle strategies, until the opponent decided to engage. Baguazhang began as a bodyguard’s art, and emphasized protective thinking, rather than aggressive thinking. It shunned risks of prolonged engagements, but did not try to limit engagement to a single movement in the lunge-and-retreat style like we see in Angelo. The style emphasized continuous and circular motion, rather than traveling on a line or reciprocating arc, and it was designed to keep you in distance for a short time, then leave it. The short single edged cutting sword I was learning to use couldn’t do the single time defenses of a longsword, it used blocks where longswords would use parrying thrusts, and beats where a longsword would use intercepting cuts. All defenses were used to buy time and space so that you could gain the capacity to attack through superior position, hence the longer distance one maintained, and heavy use of the back weighted stances that facilitated lateral motion.

Studying a Chinese sword art gave me insights into quite a number of techniques from European sword and buckler and messer styles. It opened my mind to a whole host of potential ways to generate power by synchronizing different body movements, and using parts of the body I had never before considered. Take “Rays Abe” from Ringeck, if you and your opponent both get to a close distance and your forearms high, and either touching or close enough to touch, then you can hook your pommel over their forearm to control their arm and weapon, and forcefully pull down to either throw them, or cut them in the head. The problem is that your arms won’t be strong enough to dominate theirs on their own. Oh, sure, if you are much stronger than they are, you can sort of make the technique work, but it’s not really decisive.

My interpretation became much more successful when I applied what I learned from Baguazhang about generating power, and examining the Glasgow illustration of the technique. Older Chinese martial arts in general, and Bagua in particular emphasize the capacity to generate power using the whole body, and comparatively small motions that are convenient to execute from many positions achieved in real fighting. The power to forcefully pull your opponent’s arms down in “Rays Abe” can’t come from your arms. They just aren’t strong enough, instead the most effective way to generate the power comes from shifting your weight into a low back weighted stance.

Even if your opponent is much stronger than you, no one can resist 60-100 kilos of person being forcefully driven down onto their wrists. Effectively you sit on your back leg and lower your center of gravity and let your opponent’s arms take your weight. Even a small woman is too heavy for a large, strong man to lift with extended arms. Training how to keep your balance while shifting into a back-weighted stance isn’t particularly difficult, but there are ways to do it better, to add power, increase your stability, and to prepare for following actions. All of which I learned in Bagua. Anyhow that’s just one example of how you can generate power in an unexpected way, and the capacity to understand this ancient technique of Ringeck’s came from my training in Bagua.

Or take the classic Ochs on the right shown in Dobringer, and the principal stances of the I.33. These all show back weighted stances in the original illustrations. You know what we don’t see much in modern HEMA practice, back weighted stances. On the other hand back weighted stances are the principal starting and walking positions of most Chinese martial arts, and Baguazhang in particular, which uses circular footwork while maintaining the capacity to generate power with a grounded foot by taking advantage of back weighted stances.

I felt my time learning this art was profitably spent, it enhanced my HEMA work, and it provided a totally different perspective that made me a better fighter. I hope my experience will help others in their own cross-training and let us learn from unexpected sources.

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