Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Brief Introduction to Master Dong Haiquan

(from Wang Shujin's, Bagua Zhang Connected Palms, translated by Kent Howard)

It is said that Master Dong was a born in Wen An County in present day Hebei Province. As a young man, he loved to gamble and often got himself into trouble. Finally he had to flee his home to live in the capitol, Beijing. But being very poor, and having no one to turn to, he soon decided to travel to the south and hide in the mountains. After a journey long and fraught with difficulties, he finally reached Mount Ermei in Szechuan Province. There he happened upon two old Daoist masters named Gu Jizi and Shang Daoyuan. They asked young Master Dong his reasons for coming to the mountains, and, liking his character and bearing, decided to accept him as a disciple and teach him martial arts and transmit the He Lo Classic (an ancient Taoist text).

The two venerable priests taught Master Dong a form of walking meditation that traversed a ba gua circle. They corrected his posture and movements and instructed him saying, "Practice this technique while circling this tree until the tree begins to pursue you, then come report to us. You can feed yourself with food from the granaries and water from the stream." Master Dong was confused by their commands but did not dare to question them. He set about practicing as he was instructed and soon fell into a routine, thus setting his mind at ease. He trained long and hard for seven years until he had worn a path three-feet deep around the tree. Then one day, while circling the tree, Master Dong suddenly observed the tree begin to tremble and lean in toward him, and he achieved sudden enlightenment. This was the fulfillment of the masters' prediction that the tree would "pursue” him.

He reported his breakthrough to his teachers who congratulated him on his progress and praised him as a worthy student. They then instructed him in a method of circling two trees by walking in a figure eight. This young Master Dong did for another two years until, as before, the trees "pursued" him. His teachers again lauded him for his steadfast progress and asked if he were homesick. Dong admitted that he was. Upon hearing this, his masters praised him for not losing his human nature. They then taught him "palm" changes and weapons forms for the next two years. After which, they pronounced his skills complete.

The two old Daoist sages then bid their student farewell and bade him to leave the mountain and return to his village. But they instructed him that, as he passed through cities and towns on his journey, he was to call on the local martial art schools and accept any challenges that came his way. Being a dutiful student, he did as he was told and competed with many boxers during his travels home and was victorious over all comers. With each successful match, the fame of his skills and technique spread throughout the martial arts world.

When Master Dong finally returned to his village, he found his ancestral home abandoned and his parents long dead. It is indeed true that, "The tree wishes to rest but the wind is unceasing; the child longs to support his parents but they are gone." He mourned his parents, paid his last respects to his ancestors, and left his home for the capitol, Beijing, in hopes of establishing himself there.

Having no place to stay in Beijing, and very little money, Master Dong spent his days wandering about the Heaven's Bridge amusement district. In the evenings he slept in the open near Heaven's Altar, where the Emperor performed his annual rites on Lunar New Year. One day the martial arts teacher of a Manchu prince, Hou Zhenyuan, came to Heaven's Altar and happened to notice Master Dong. Despite his somewhat disheveled appearance, Hou observed the young man had a rugged countenance and flashing eyes. He could see that Dong was no ordinary person. After engaging him in conversation, and learning that he, too, was a martial artist, Hou asked him politely for a match of skills.

The two decided on using a straw mat, 6 x 8 feet in diameter, as their ring. Whoever stepped off the mat would be the loser. After Dong won three successive matches, Hou respectfully admitted defeat. But he was so impressed with Master Dong, that he subsequently found him a position as a servant in the palace, in hopes of him someday instructing the prince.

The prince had no knowledge of Master Dong's skills. In fact, the prince was quite proficient in martial arts, practicing daily with great fervor, and had a very high opinion of his own skill. One day while the prince was working out, Master Dong made a small comment about his technique. When the prince heard this, he was quite surprised and ordered Master Dong to demonstrate his own skills before the assembled court. Master Dong's performance so amazed the prince, he realized at once that he was in the company of a true master. Without hesitation, he asked Dong to take him on as a student. From that time forward, Master Dong's fame spread throughout the capitol.

Alas it is said, "A tall tree catches too much wind, and fame attracts envy." Master Dong soon became a magnet for every boxer within a thousand miles who wanted to test his skills against the prince's new teacher. But they all went away with their feathers plucked. Many of these braggadocios exited the palace with stolen treasures and antiques, leaving behind messages daring Master Dong to come and get them. Dong traveled far and wide to retrieve the items in martial contests. Still the challenges and thievery continued over the course of many years, and Master Dong found little rest. Finally, Dong himself was implicated in some sort of criminal activity, and, as punishment, was castrated. From that time forward, the other servants in the palace referred to him as "Old Eunich" instead of by his name.

As Master Dong grew older, he began to feel the art taught to him by his venerable masters should be passed on to the next generation. He became acquainted with an eyeglass seller who often came to the palace to repair spectacles. His name was Cheng Tinghua. Master Dong was so impressed by Cheng's sincerity that he allowed him to became his first pupil from outside the palace gates. As the years passed, he took on more and more students from Beijing's common society. Thus, over the years, the fame of Bagua Zhang (Eight Trigrams Style) has spread until it has come to rival that of Taiji Quan (Tai Chi) and Xingyi Quan (Form-Mind Boxing) as one of the three great schools of "Internal" martial arts.

When Master Tong passed away at age ninety, his students erected a mausoleum
in his memory outside the West Gate of the capitol. Each year succeeding generations of his students still "sweep his tomb" (perform memorial rites) in his honor. Though this grandmaster of a generation is gone, along with other great masters who followed in his footsteps, his art endures. However, the great social changes of our times have placed his great art in jeopardy of someday fading away from neglect. How sad!


Tianshanwarrior said...

There has been enough info available that shows this statement:

Master Tung his reasons for coming to the mountains, and, liking his character and bearing, decided to accept him as a disciple and teach him martial arts " is not true, Dan Miller, Kang Gewu among tohers agree that Dong learnt martial arts before his trip to the toaist temple, it was there that he learnt the circle walking whcih he used to accomodate the tehcniques he knew. Dong taught many people his approcah to circle walking and how to accomodate it to the persons martial art, hence why he only taught seasoned martial artists and why his students have very different Bagua styles.

Kent Howard said...

You are quite right. I know Dan Miller, and I have published articles in the Pa Kua Chang Journal. I have also read all of Kang Ge Wu's writings. This book is a direct translation of Wang Shu-Chin's text. So being, I cannot alter his writing. However, I plan to have a "translator's commentary" section in which I report on more modern scholarship on the subject--which is more in line with the comments you have made. By the way, I am now in negotiations with a publisher, and this book will probably see the light of day in late 2008.
Thanks for your interest,
Kent Howard

Jaylen Elias said...

dear kent howard, i am an aspiring baguazhang learner. i know nothing yet but am ambitious to learn i humbly invite you to my town of La Crete, Alberta, Canada (it's up north it may be a little hard to find) to teach me and others bagua, i have discussed this decision with my colleagues and have decided to ask you about this, please come and tech me bagua, i am 13, i have 3 friends (age 17) who would gladly join and i could find others you can reach me at

Kent Howard said...

Hi Jaylen,
I commend your interest in Bagua Zhang. I myself felt the same way at much the same age. It is difficult to find competent teaching, or any for that matter, when you live in a fairly remote area. I grew up on a farm in Kansas, located in the central U.S., so I know what you mean.

I would be happy to come up and instruct your group, as I often teach seminars around the U.S.
However, the cost would be substantial for such a small group to absorb. I am often sponsored by clubs or martial art schools that can guarantee travel and tuition expenses. If you get together the resources, and if you could do so on a continuing basis (you will learn little from one seminar), then I would be happy to arrange a session with you and your group.

There are a lot of ''ifs'' there, I know, but unfortunately it is a large undertaking on both of our parts and needs to be thought through. In the meantime, I have put up some videos on (and adding more soon) that attempt to go over some of the basics of Bagua.
Kent Howard

chungas said...

What about Yin Fu...?? Wasn't he the first student of Dong...??
From what I read wasn't Cheng only a student for the last five years of Dongs life....?? so all this sounds a little like bulldust to me...

Kent Howard said...

Yin Fu was known as one of Dong's greatest students but Cheng Ting Hua may have been the first. Dong and Cheng met, by several accounts, in the imperial palace prior to Dong accepting students from outside the gates. In any event, this is a direct translation from Wang's book. If you have verifiable evidence to the contrary, please supply.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kent, thank you for your articles. I practice Gong Baotian's lineage who's student Wang Zhuangfei in Shanghai transmitted that art. From what I've seen it's seems distinctly different from others Bagua styles. As I understand it Gong Baotian learned from Yinfu and then also went back and learned from Dong Haichuan. The structure of WZF's Bagua is much different than what I've seen elsewhere and on youtube. Could you comment on this? Thank you, Bill