Bagua and the Pandemic Pivot

The unprecedented changes triggered by the pandemic are ongoing. Like every school all around the world, the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts is adjusting to the changes. We struggle onward despite these challenges, but there are surely more ahead.

Many cling to a hope for the ‘return to normal’ but that’s backwards thinking in so many ways. Change is normal and we’re undergoing global change right now. Others talk about ‘the pivot’. Here at the Academy, it has me thinking about the Bagua. Perhaps it’s because Sifu Ted has been working on a Bagua book, one that I’m sure we’re all eager to read. But also because Bagua is all about changes and pivoting. It is the essence of that art.

NOTE: Just to forewarn you, this essay will spin in circles, like a Bagua article should. As long as it doesn’t become a downward spiral, we’re good, right?

Those who practice alongside with me at the Academy will find this ironic. Bagua is a major component of the Academy’s curriculum, and it is the one style that I do not partake in at all. My aversion is not out of disrespect. I have tremendous respect for the art. It’s just that Bagua has just never resonated with me.

I dabbled in Bagua back in the 90s when one of the Academy’s Sigong, Wing Lam, was first learning it. Sigong Lam had become fascinated with Sun style Tai Chi, which is a fusion of Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi. Lam knew Tai Chi (in fact that was his very first martial art) so he set himself at the task of learning the latter two too, on his own. He invited his instructors to study it along with him, so I was exposed to all the palm changes then.

I’ve forgotten all of that now. As Lam was just learning Bagua himself, he couldn’t transmit a deep understanding yet, so it didn’t seem worth keeping at the time. I’m told that he made profound progress later, but that was after I had moved on.

NOTE: The Bagua practiced at the Academy is from a completely different lineage than Lam’s. When Wing Lam was getting into Bagua, Sifu Ted wasn’t among the Lam Kwoon group. Ted learned his Bagua from Sigong Adam Hsu, as well as from other sources.  

Ultimately, I never bonded with Bagua. Beyond that disconnect, I have a few other reasons for abstaining. The predominant one is math.

“It was my understanding that there would be no math.”
Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford, Saturday Night Live

One of the things I love about Chinese martial arts is that there’s a lot more to it than self-defense and health cultivation. It is also imbued with powerful metaphors. As a writer, I’m all about metaphors. It is perfectly fine to practice Bagua, or any martial art, and completely ignore the metaphors. In the same fashion, you can watch a movie, or read a book or an article like this, and just get the story, totally overlooking any metaphors. But for me, metaphors are the veiled truth behind writing. I embrace them.

When it comes to Bagua, the metaphor is mathematical – a numbers game. Ba means eight so you know it’s about numbers when they put it in the name. Bagua is conventionally translated as ‘eight trigrams.’ But what does that really mean? I’ll get to gua in a moment.

Bagua is concept elucidated in the I Ching, a pivotal classic from Daoist cosmology. Bagua the martial art is a metaphoric physical expression of this Daoist concept. The I Ching is a huge topic on its own but for the sake of this essay, let’s simplify it all by starting with Tai Chi two (or taijitu as you’ll soon see). From there, we can work our way to the Bagua eight.

Tai Chi was initially translated into English as the ‘grand ultimate’ and while I get why, however it’s an unfortunate translation. Tai can mean ‘big,’ ‘extreme’ or ‘highest’ so ‘grand’ is workable. However, ‘ultimate’ doesn’t describe the fundamental duality of chi.

NOTE: This Chi is a completely different word than the Chinese term for vital force. Chi only a homonym when transcribed casually in this way. If transcribed in pinyin, the chi in Tai Chi is written ji as in Taiji. The term describing vital force is spelled qi as in qigong. The words have different sounds but if you’re not accustomed to Mandarin, they might too subtle for you to distinguish the difference. When it comes to Chinese martial arts, precision in pronunciation is as important as clarity in practice. 

The chi (or ji) in Tai Chi is more about polarity, as in north and south poles, or more specifically, yin and yang. The symbol we call the yin yang – – is more formally called Taijitu in Mandarin. Again, far be it for me to describe the meaning behind it all in this short essay, but at its most simplistic level, it’s duality. First there was nothing – wuji as the Daoist call it. That’s the same ji wu means void. Then there was something. But in order for there to be something, there’s got to be nothing, so it forms a duality on the most basic level just by existing. The martial art of Tai Chi is a metaphor for the Taijitu. It’s a martial expression of this philosophy. Tai Chi is all about emptiness and fullness, yin and yang, hard and soft, and the universe of dualities or polar opposites. It’s the primordial binary, the swirling paisleys from which all other distinctions arise. From a modern perspective, it’s a metaphor for the 1s and 0s that are the foundation of the computer coding for the internet you are reading this on right now. From that basic duality, everything emerges – it’s the ultimate.

Bagua adds third duality. Mind you, it’s not a triality. It’s a third symbol that can be either yin or yang. The black or white paisleys are converted to an alternate representation, that of a solid (yang) or broken (yin) bar. These bars are the gua. Gua doesn’t quite translate into English. It’s a very specific term used in I Ching, so it’s sometimes translated on its own as ‘fortune telling symbol’. But this is where we get the ‘tri’ in trigrams because there are three gua.

Why eight? Here’s where that math gets a little tricky. In Bagua, while two plus one equals three as in trigram, it also equals eight. This is because there are eight possible combinations of gua. Three yin gua and three yang gua form two of the combos. For the mixed gua, there can be three placements of a single yin with two yang (top, middle, bottom) and the same three placements of a single yang with two yin. Three plus three equals six, plus the two previous combos makes eight. Eight trigrams. Bagua.

For me, this becomes like juggling three axes in the air. Actually, it’s more. It’s eight. Who the heck can juggle eight axes? Axe juggling something I do in life all the time (metaphorically speaking) but not in my internal martial arts. Honestly, despite my ability to pontificate on Tai Chi’s yin yang theory in writing, such high-minded thinking can jam my applications. Juggling so many ideas overwhelms my ability to apply them. What’s more, for I Ching, two bagua are combined. That’s eight times eight. Sixty-four combinations. Math gets hard for me when it outnumbers my fingers and toes. Sometimes its better not to think about all this too hard and just practice.

In a flailing attempt to learn more about it, I dabbled in I Ching. I Ching is Chinese fortune telling method based on the Bagua, or to be more mathematically precise, the sixty-four hexagrams (a trigram plus a trigram makes a hexagram – we’ve moved from mathematics to geometry now…well sort of). Each of those hexagrams is connected to a concept and those become sixty-four ciphers to the future akin to the seventy-eight cards of the Tarot. Instead of drawing cards, you can throw coins. Heads or tails determine yin or yang. Three coins are thrown together. There are different patterns of coin tossing which gets even more mathematical. I don’t even want to go there. Each of the resulting possible sixty-four combinations are associated to a concept – a Chinese character. Remember that Chinese characters are pictographic, so it’s parallel to those Tarot cards on a visual level too. Those symbols tease some answers to the dilemma we are all facing. They require you to reflect on how these universal concepts might be relevant to your current and future situation.

I threw coins daily for about a year in hopes that it would reveal more about Bagua and Chinese culture. I even got some Chinese cash coins. ‘Cash’ is the term used for traditional Chinese coins with the square hole in the center, the first money dating back the China’s Warring States period (475–221 BCE). However, despite my throwing down real cash, I Ching eluded me even more than Tarot. It felt like a deep convoluted rabbit hole, a square hole in a round coin, one where I never did get to the tea party, so I eventually let that go too.

I confess, this is over thinking it. Overthinking is a writer’s curse.

In comparison, I practice a smidgen of Xingyi and that’s based on the five elements. The five fists are metaphors for the five elements, and the poetry there is sublime. It works on so many profound levels and the deeper I explored it, the more was revealed. It constantly astounded me to see how well the metaphor worked into the practice. The whole numbers game of Bagua is muddled by my attachment to metaphor. You can practice these styles physically and make excellent progress without know any of this stuff. But for me, my I’m BG_Pandemic3into something, I cannot resist going as deep as I can into it. It became quite the heady trip when I was studying Xingyi more actively.

Now I just practice Xingyi a little because I enjoy its energy. Every once in a while, I’ll ruminate over five element theory. That’s an entire world view which opened up to me through Xingyi. It’s an extra bonus premium gift, and what elevates Chinese martial arts from fighting and health cultivation practices into high art.

There’s more. Tai Chi has the thirteen postures. Some say these are derived from the five elements plus the eight trigrams. Five plus eight equals thirteen. There’s an astonishing amount of math in internal styles.

“How can you hold on to something that won’t hold still?”
Benjamin Fondane

So, what does Bagua mathematics have to do with a pandemic pivot? It’s change. But it’s not small change like the coins you toss to forecast the future. It’s big change as in the whole I Ching. After all, I Ching is conventionally translated as the Book of Changes. The ‘I’ (pronounced ‘eee’) literally means ‘change’. And we are in a time of great change.

The Academy was fortunate. It has survived the pandemic so far. I have several friends that owned martial arts schools in early 2020. The pandemic forced them to close their doors and move on. It takes a lot to maintain a brick-and-mortar martial arts school.

In my half century plus of studying the martial arts, I’ve watched many schools rise and fall even without the pandemic. When I started at Lam Kwoon, it was in a tiny industrial garage, so small that only one person to recite a form at a time. It grew to be a huge two-story facility with a massive main training hall, big enough for several classes to go on each time, a second carpeted hall for kids’ classes and internal training, a spacious two-room office, a locker room with several changing closets, a heavy bag room, a lobby with a pro-shop and video rental area, and several storage rooms.

Then it closed. Now it’s an auto repair shop. I stopped by during the pandemic when passing by, and it saddened me to see no trace of our former school whatsoever there anymore.

When I joined O-Mei Academy, it was on a huge growth arc. It grew to span six schools across the San Francisco Bay Area. The flagship school had a main floor, a heavy bag room, a full-sized boxing ring, locker rooms, showers, and an afterschool side that housed multiple classrooms for reading, writing, language, and cultural studies.

Now that flagship school is a Montessori school and all but one of the O-Mei Academies are gone. The coaches have moved on.

Both Lam Kwoon and the O-Mei Academy HQ occupied buildings that were larger than most supermarkets. Both are gone. And there was no pandemic. And there were a few more Kung Fu schools where I trained in between. All my previous schools are gone.

“You must have courage, and your children must have courage, to face all these changes. Because they’re going to happen. If they don’t happen, it will be the most boring existence you can imagine.”

Gene Roddenberry

It was such a relief when the shelter in place order was lifted enough for our Academy to reopen. Training here has been my therapy, my refuge, and my main social outlet during these strange times. The Covid protocols we agreed upon at the Academy were quite satisfactory, even for my germ paranoia. I’m happy to don a mask. I used to work in a shop and wore a mask forty hours a week just to make rent. I was in China for the SARS outbreak. Masking is no big deal and plus I have a few cool looking masks now. I hope I can continue wearing masks after the pandemic subsides because it’s been great to quell my allergies. The availability of hand sanitizer and the option for physical distance at the Academy feels relatively safe, as safe as could be given the circumstances. I’m not aware of any anti-vaxxers in our student body. Most of us are quite the opposite.

What’s more, while the weather is good, I love working outside. Being in Santa Cruz, where ocean breezes blow, the air is so fresh and clean, great for qi. That tiny original Lam Kwoon was so small that it felt like the congested Hong Kong rooftops where Sifu Lam practiced in his youth. When Sifu Linda and I trained there together, we worked out in the parking lot, just like we’re practicing at the Academy now. I enjoy working out on asphalt. That feels more ‘real’ including the slope of our lot. Personally, I hope we can continue to work out outside, even after the pandemic subsides enough for us to resume indoor training.

That is based on if the pandemic ever does subside. Anyone who understands the science behind all this knows that Covid and the Delta variant is just the first major pandemic. Pandemics have been predicted by science for decades and once we conquer Covid, assuming we ever do, more pandemics are inevitable. Perhaps we will always have to carry masks in the future. Perhaps the Epsilon variant will be even more infectious. We’re already talking about the Mu variant, which is eight Greek letters after Delta. These are grim possibilities that no one wants to face, but science is dispassionate. Perhaps that’s why so many reject it now.

Will indoor training ever resume? I hope so before the rainy season comes. Regardless of the outlook, it’s up to us to continue practicing our Kung Fu. The circumstances of practice may change. The protocols and scheduling may shift. The class structure might become something completely different. But the fundamental practice must remain for us to be genuine.

The Academy of Martial and Internal Arts has a special legacy. It is the longest standing brick-and-mortar school propounding the teachings of two of America’s foremost Grandmasters, Adam Hsu and Kwong Wing Lam. While both masters have countless pupils that still teach, Sifu Ted’s school is the oldest that is still in operation. It is up to us to perpetuate it, no matter what the obstacles might be.  

I’m looking forward to Sifu Ted’s new Bagua book even though I don’t practice it. Perhaps it was prescient for him to address this topic now whilst we’re still facing so much change. Maybe there will be some metaphoric or symbolic notions that might tease some answers to the dilemma we are all facing. Maybe someday I’ll come around to Bagua (pun intended?) There’s always potential to pivot.

Whatever may come, I hope we stay strong together. And I hope other schools share my sentiment. No matter what happens, we will always have our practice, and there’s some comfort in that.

Don’t want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange”

David Bowie

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2 Responses to Bagua and the Pandemic Pivot

  1. Pingback: My Latest Essay for the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts: Bagua and the Pandemic Pivot – Gene Ching ~ musings & publications

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