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Moving Meditation, Materialism, and Mao: Evolving Mythologies of Internal Martial Arts

The meaning of a work (in this case, a martial-arts form) may be relatively independent of its creator's intention (as shown, in this case, by the labels assigned to the movements) and may depend primarily on the myths or personal and societal schemata subscribed to by the practitioner, teacher, or audience.
Lindsey Eck

Issue #51, October 2000

Anthropologists have long examined the meanings implicit in folk dance; connoisseurs have explicated the meanings explicit in ballet; and latter-day critics have even deconstructed the art of striptease. Martial-arts forms (including the popular t'ai chi forms widely taught in this country) resemble dances, as they consist of sets of formal, even ritualized, whole-body movements. Like dances, they may be "read" for their anthropological, sociological, and political significance. In the case of "internal" arts like t'ai chi, the learner absorbs a certain amount of mythology, folklore, and spiritualism in the course of learning the movements and their associated names. Analysis can shed light on the arbitrariness of such abstract representation, as a single form can be put to quite divergent uses, from the religious to the political. That is, a set of movements originally labeled to tell a story about the immaterial Buddha or the immortal Monkey King can be appropriated by Maoists to serve the health and fitness of the proletariat, or by executives as a lifestyle choice completely compatible with triumphal capitalism.

This essay looks at the structure, symbolism, and spirit of the popular Chinese martial and meditative art, t'ai chi (short for t'ai chi ch'uan, also taijichuan), and its more estoeric cousin pa kua (short for pa kua chang, or bagua zhang). I will show that, whereas classical pa kua is structured according to mathematical principles, t'ai chi forms more closely resemble musical compositions. Then I will look at various meanings that may be read from common t'ai chi forms and the classical pa kua form. Finally, I will show that the same forms have been put to vastly different social and political uses. The meaning of a work (in this case, a martial-arts form) may be relatively independent of its creator's intention (as shown, in this case, by the labels assigned to the movements) and may depend primarily on the myths or personal and societal schemata subscribed to by the practitioner, teacher, or audience. Chinese history offers plenty of schemata, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Marxism that have been applied to t'ai chi and pa kua, as has an immense mythology.

T'ai Chi v. Pa Kua — Music vs. Mathematics

T'ai chi and pa kua are both "internal" martial arts; they are also considered to be two different styles of kung fu, a loose term for traditional Chinese martial and related arts. As with so many Chinese concepts, the "internal" vs. "external" distinction actually represents several dualities at once. The styles are "internal" because they originated within China, unlike the "external" styles (what lay people probably think of as kung fu) which are said to be based on teachings brought from India (i.e. outside China) by the Bodhidharma, known in China as Da Mo. They are also internal because they focus on the cultivation of qi (or ch'i, Jap. ki) through meditation rather than "external" limb strength.

Qi is an elusive entity. The original meaning of qi is 'breath' or 'spirit', but even the ancients recognized those labels as metaphorical. The martial arts are full of demonstrations, however, that qi is no mere metaphor. The skeptic whose teacher has dealt him a blow twice, with the identical physical movement, but the second time using added qi, is quickly convinced (by, say, being sent flying across a room) of qi's physical reality. Even the most scientific-minded of Western practitioners wax mystical when trying to define qi, as in this definition by Shaolin-Do Master Joe Schaefer, who holds a Ph.D. in neurophysiology:

Rather than thinking of qi as a substance or energy, think of it as a transfer of energy, an equation if you will. As the energy and matter of the universe is consumed through breathing and eating, and cycles through our body, the pathways for this flow and the efficiency of this transfer can be called qi. Therefore someone with "strong qi" absorbs and has access to more of this "universal" energy than other people. Combined with heightened awareness from meditation, this person can not only draw more energy from each breath, but can also lead that energy with their conscious attention.

T'ai chi and pa kua have certain obvious similarities in movement and both depend on the cultivation of qi, yet there are striking differences between the two styles. Explains third-degree Shaolin black belt Don Duncan:

T'ai chi is a series of choreographed movements which stress deep rhythmic breathing and relaxation. Tai chi is performed very slow.
   Pa kua is another internal art. It is the newest of the four internal arts, dating back to 1790. It ended up as part of the Wu-Tang Shaolin monastery's teachings. Pa kua is composed of eight sets that are performed while walking a six-foot circle. Concealed within the form are applications to the movements. These applications include throws, locks, strikes and holds. In pa kua one avoids direct confrontations by not being there when the attack arrives. Pa kua uses circular movements and footwork to avoid the focal point of an attack.
   Where tai chi teaches the principle of yielding, Pa kua teaches circular evasion.

Sifu Duncan's account not only contrasts the two styles but notably emphasizes the martial aspects of pa kua, as well as, tellingly, referring to the "concealment" of its fighting applications. Contrasting the way the two styles make use of qi, he adds: "In t'ai chi one tries to let the qi build using the breath (the qi follows the breath). In pa kua one tries to let the qi dictate the movement, hence the saying 'qi flowing through 10,000 holes.'"

Note, again, that statements about qi inevitably reach for metaphor in that literal accounts of the subjective phenomenon (like, say, pain) seem to be impossible, perhaps because vocabulary is lacking for translating the practitioner's experience into common experience.

A form is a ritualized set of movements, like a dance. When we compare the large collection of t'ai chi forms with the smaller set of pa kua forms, the immediate difference that stands out is structural: Pa kua is rigidly and explicitly mathematical in structure, whereas t'ai chi forms exhibit a much more irregular structure, more like musical compositions than like the mathematical formality of pa kua.

Digital pa kua

The structure of the commonly studied "classical" pa kua form (which for the rest of this essay I will consider as paradigmatic of the style as a whole) is rigorously mathematical. The term "pa kua" translates as 'eight trigrams.' The Eight Trigrams are a visual representation of the eight possible combinations (23) of yin vs. yang as either a broken or solid line. Originally used in connection with divination (such as the patterns on a cracked tortoiseshell or the yin vs. yang choices revealed by a complex method of tossing yarrow sticks), the trigrams became the basis of the I Ching, a work of mystical philosophy, more than two millennia ago.

Each line, solid or broken, corresponds to a binary choice, a binary digit 0 or 1, if you will. The eight trigrams trace the eight numbers represented in the binary system as 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, 111. In fact, Leibniz is said to have been influenced by a version of the I Ching during his development of the binary system that is the basis for modern computation.

When consulting the I Ching for divination, one will generally use a method such as throwing yarrow sticks (or, nowadays, random generation via desktop computer software) to generate two trigrams; there are 64 possibilities of combining the two (8x8), each of which gets a horoscope-like reading in the I Ching.

The trigrams find their expression in the physical motions of pa kua as well as in the I Ching. In classical pa kua, the form, which involves stepping around in a circle combined with other movements such as blows and blocks, comprises eight sections. Section or half-section boundaries are marked by the return to the position of origin. Each section corresponds to one of the eight trigrams.

During entry-level training, one goes through the eight sections in order, recapitulating all the trigrams as if reading the I Ching from page to page rather than choosing readings by divination. Each of the eight sections itself has a binary format, in that the series of movements (based on a walk around an imaginary circle) is always repeated in mirror image (including a walk the opposite direction around the same circle). Thus the sequence is actually 1a,1b, 2a,2b, ... 8a,8b. The practitioner symbolically enacts all the eight trigrams by systematically completing the set, one after the other.

At the next level of training, the instructor calls out a sequence (essentially randomly generated from the student's perspective, like the results of divination), pairing any "a" section with any "b" section: 7a,3b, 2a,4b ... The number of possibilities, then, is 8x8 = 64. In this way, each of the 64 possibilities can be said to correspond to a pair of trigrams explicated in the I Ching and thus has its own associated tarot-like reading.

Further instances of the octal (reducible to binary) system in pa kua include its 64 rules and its 8 "palms" (hand strikes). The mathematical predictability of different aspects of the form not only instantiates yin vs. yang opposition, but facilitates memorization of an exceptionally long martial-arts form.

Analog t'ai chi

T'ai chi exhibits a much less rigid structure, one that composers or musicians will recognize as similar to that of musical compositions. Whereas classical pa kua demands exact repeats (in mirror image) and a rigorous delineation of sections, t'ai chi has inexact repeats and sometimes incomplete repetitions of sections.

The commonly taught Yang family 64-posture t'ai chi form ("Yang 64"), for example, includes a sequence called "grasp the sparrow's tail." This sequence appears with an "introduction" twice in the form, once at the very beginning and once later, and may be followed by a different "cadenza" or "coda" in different parts of the form. Another common (and more recent) form, "Yang 24," is not only a condensation of Yang 64 but offers further "variations" on its "themes," resembling the ways in which modern pop composers have lifted and adapted sections of earlier classical compositions. Other sequences in t'ai chi forms resemble the musical repeat with a different, "second" ending.

The difference in structure between t'ai chi and pa kua bespeaks differences in origin and tradition. T'ai chi was cultivated privately among aristocratic families who jealously preserved their individual styles through generations, and who had the leisure to create complex forms that required long instruction and probably written notes to perfect. In contrast, pa kua became identified with guerrillas resisting the foreign (Manchu) Qing dynasty — and later with some of the so-called Boxers resisting Western colonialism. Its rigidly mathematical structure came to aid the function of memorizing a long drill when written records might be incriminating. All the while, it remained connected to its own mythological schema: the I Ching's mathematical mysticism based on the binary opposition of yin and yang.

Form and Associated Myth

The styles' survival and renewal over centuries show the ability of different generations of practitioners to adopt newly relevant schemata (Maoist rather than Taoist, for example) over time, while their associated mythology continues to represent earlier Chinese history. Internal martial-arts forms both instantiate traditional mythologies and demand revision according to contermporary ones.

Myth attaches to t'ai chi and pa kua forms in several ways. First, the movements themselves are from remote antiquity. Also, each movement or posture is given a name, often one derived from Chinese folklore or religion and serving as a vague mnemonic of the action ("grasp the swallow's tail" is indeed a grasping motion, for example). Further, the great martial artists who devised and perpetuated the forms hold their own place in Chinese folklore.

Even the name "t'ai chi" as opposed to the full form "t'ai chi chuan" represents a redefinition of the art by deemphasizing its martial aspects. "T'ai chi chuan" translates as 'grand ultimate fist'; removing the word for 'fist' enables the practitioner to see it as a form of exercise or meditation rather than combat.

In the Chen family form called Buddha Fist, several myths are encoded in the physical movement and the mnemonics attached to them. There is a religious-philosophical myth about the centuries-long dialog between Taoism and Buddhism, both of which find representation in the form. Also, there is the mythological theme of the Monkey King, who has partaken of the Peach of Immortality.


Throughout the Buddha Fist, its movements have multiple purposes in that each has a martial-arts application (an arm break, a throw, etc.) and a purpose in directing or channeling qi, as well as a mythical name that alludes to Chinese tradition and serves as a mnemonic. Thus early movements in the Buddha Fist are given such pious labels as "the old hermit asks for a donation," "Buddha prays to heaven for mercy," and "the Immortal salutes Buddha." This last one is a bit of a joke at the expense of the Taoists, who believed in immortality, whereas Buddhists sought reincarnation instead. The religious symbolism works in multiple ways. The motions themselves resemble supplication (praying hands, presenting a begging bowl), yet in origin they are deadly strikes with additional purposes of facilitating fitness and cultivation of qi. Further, the references to Taoist and Buddhist tradition serve to educate the pracitioner and place her or him within a centuries-old tradition, in hopes of promoting a seriousness towards praxis. The grouping of several actions together according to a common theme — in this case, spiritual philosophy — serves as a mnemonic as to which motions belong together and in what sequence.

Along with moving meditation, the t'ai chi practitioner receives a lesson in history, philosophy, and religion. Further mythological stories in miniature within the Buddha Fist concern Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy ("Kwan Yin picks up the mantis," "the youth salutes Kwan Yin") and the Monkey King ("thus white monkey salutes Buddha," "the immortal monkey shrinks his body"). However, such a lesson is lost on the Western devotee of today, as well as the Chinese practitioner in a post-Maoist society. Hence the survival and proliferation of t'ai chi over recent decades has coincided with a deemphasis of its tradition in arcane philosophy, fantastic folklore, and family privilege, and a remythologizing as a means to longevity, fitness in old age, and (this side of the Pacific) New Age savoir faire. Similarly, the mnemonic aspect is mostly lost, since to us the Monkey King is not the familiar figure (analogous to, say, the Greek Hercules or Denmark's Little Mermaid in the West) he is in Chinese folklore.

In t'ai chi's mythological verbalization of abstract movement one is reminded of the late Classical-early Romantic fashion of program music, in which wordless, somewhat abstract orchestral music was supposed to be interpreted as a day in the country (Beethoven's Pastorale) or as a great battle (Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture) and the like.

In contrast, pa kua's mnemonics seem to be strictly that; though they draw on traditional Chinese imagery, they are employed to no spirtual purpose. They are used merely as a metaphorical representation of the physical motion, and a mnemonic as a line in a set of memorizable verses:

pie men tue ye
sing chie sang pangh
ie hua chie mu
nao hou tse yen
chu tao heng yin
'Shut the door, push the moon
Precious chicken spreads its wing
Move the flower, grasp the stem
From the back of the head, pick up the crown
Tracing of the candle across the sky'
— (From a handwritten ms. of Grandmaster Sin Kwang Thé, reproducing his idiosyncratic spelling, outlining classical pa kua, excerpt of section 4)

Here, unlike the little fable alluded to in the Buddha Fist — though mythological figures such as animal totems are used — they are jumbled incoherently, with no attempt to convey a philosophical or religious lesson. Instead, the focus is on the mnemonic aspect, as every single line throughout the eight sections (up to 34 lines in a section), except for the very first line in the first section, is exactly four syllables long. Though the four-syllable line is common in t'ai chi mnemonics as well, the pattern is not nearly as regular as in the pa kua verses. Again, having an orally transmissible mnemonic is paramount in the preservation of an art through covert training by secret guerrilla cells.

One might say that the difference between the traditional mythology of t'ai chi and pa kua is one of retrospective vs. prospective. T'ai chi's retrospective meaning, as expressed in the verbal labels used to conceptualize and memorize abstract motions ("grasp the sparrow's tail" rather than "break arm and throw"), drew upon ancient figures from Chinese religion and folklore: Kwan Yin, the Buddha, the Monkey King, animal totems. Though pa kua's mnemonics allude to some of the same figures, their arrangement is not in little stories and serves instead as a nonsense verse that serves to conceal its meaning from the uninitiated. The real mythology adhering to the cult of the Eight Trigrams and the movements that emulated it was prospective, one of the restoration of the Chinese Ming dynasty and the overthrow of the Manchu Qing (and, later, of Western colonialists). Whereas t'ai chi drew upon ancient dreams of magical delight and Buddhist piety, pa kua came to symbolize a futuristic dream of a strong and independent China, free of foreign influences. By the time China expelled the last foreign influences (i.e. when Mao rebuked Moscow), the Eight Trigrams resistance and its successors such as the Boxers had passed into memory and its eponymous martial art into obscurity along with the disreputable tongs and Triads in ports worldwide.


You can't even begin to write about t'ai chi and pa kua without getting into politics. That's because you have to choose how to spell the terms, and they are among the Chinese words usually spelled in English according to the Wade-Giles system for romanizing (writing alphabetically) the Chinese language, as I have done in this paper. Wade-Giles is the usual system in Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora — a capitalist system, if you will. But today everyone from scholars to the AP Stylebook romanizes Chinese using the Maoist system called Pinyin, according to which one should write taiji and bagua. To adopt the customary spellings is a counterrevolutionary act. (But a necessity for this paper to show up on Web searches.)

The trivial matter of spelling illustrates a larger fact of the Chinese diaspora: The classical martial arts have survived and even thrived in the Chinese diaspora (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia Pacific Canada, and especially the United States) much more than the mainland. There the violent arts known collectively as kung fu (gung fu or gongfu) have been largely suppressed among the populace. From the traditional martial arts the Maoist regime developed "modern wushu," a show of acrobatic skill of little use in fighting. The mainland has encouraged the practice of t'ai chi, however, because of its benefits as a not-necessarily-violent form of low-impact exercise and meditation.

Compared with t'ai chi, pa kua today is much more obscure, both inside and outside China, owing no doubt to its originally secret status as well as to the modern Chinese government's intolerance for an explicitly deadly fighting form. Considering the need, during much of its history, for pa kua practioners to keep the art hidden, its rigorous mathematical structure and easy-to-memorize four-syllable mnemonic verses helped to preserve the art in oral tradition when recordkeeping might be dangerous. Conversely, the poetic imagery, slower pace, and more irregular forms of t'ai chi bespeak a more leisurely, aristocratic development, in which time could be taken and manuscripts kept. Perhaps it is this very hint of leisure that has made t'ai chi so popular with exploited Chinese laborers and stressed-out Yankees alike.

Though one Web source claims that "At present, baguazhang is a very popular health-building exercise all over China, with thousands upon thousands of people practicing it" and another alludes to Mao's bodyguard having mastered pa kua, it is dubious how widespread such practice really is on the mainland. The "thousands upon thousands" figure is hardly impressive when tens of millions practice t'ai chi, and it is known that Mao's regime discouraged the deadly martial arts in favor of modern wu shu, essentially a form of entertainment and exercise. To the degree Mao favored pa kua at all, it was probably in such applications as for the use of his private bodyguard. In any event, it is indisputable that pa kua is much more obscure than t'ai chi (which has been taught in the state schools) and, to the degree that it survives, it is as a "health-building exercise," not a guerrilla martial art.

Throughout East Asia, martial-arts knowledge has served to empower the masses and its suppression among them has been a means of imperial or aristocratic control. Different form are indelibly associated with different political figures or movements. For instance, the set of forms known as the Four Roads of Hua are the legacy of an emperor named Hua, whereas the form called the Long Fist was devised by the Nationalist government in 1928 in an attempt to create a standard kung fu form for widespread use. To perform either on the mainland might amount to a counterrevolutionary exercise, as well as the assertion of power to physically resist the coercion of a police state; hence all traditional forms of kung fu have been morphed into the innocuous and politically correct modern wushu, with the odd exception of t'ai chi.

China's recent suppression of the Falun Gong cult, whose main offending activity was the public practice of qigong exercises quite similar to t'ai chi, shows the unease that meditation and exercise practices can still generate in Beijing. Offical promotion of t'ai chi vs. the suppression of Falun Gong as a danger to the state seems to show that a meditation-exercise practice meant to cultivate qi may be tolerated so long as it is stripped of any accompanying supernatural mythology. The crime of the Falun Dafa was not that it cultivated qi, but that it did so in the framework of a revisionist Buddhism heavily drawing on the supernatural. For example, cult leader Li Hongzhi tells of conducting meditation as a storm brewed in Beijing:

I saw it was going to rain before they were able to finish their exercise. The rain, however, did not fall. The clouds were hanging low and turning up and down on the top of the building. The thunder was roaring and it was very dark. A thunderbolt even stroke [sic] on the rim of the Falun, but it did not harm us at all. We could see clearly how the thunderbolts stuck on the ground, but they did not harm us. This shows that we are safeguarded when practising the cultivation exercises. (China Falun Gong rev. Eng. ed. 156)

It is not the exercises themselves, but such supernatural claims as this (the practitioner need not fear the heavens) that appear to have drawn the ire of the relentlessly secular Chinese government. That and their sheer ability to mobilize mass action beyond government control.

For t'ai chi not to have suffered the same fate on the mainland, especially during the Cultural Revolution, it must have been stripped by the government of its aristocratic and imperial connotations as well as its Chan (= Zen) and Taoist mysticism. For the mainland government has promoted the Yang family 24-posture form, a condensed and adapted version of the 64-posture Yang form, both widely taught in this country along with the 83-posture Chen form. And Master Yang is well known to have taught at the imperial court, and to have been a disciple of the Chen family style, which was taught privately to members of an aristocratic family who governed Chen Village, essentially a feudal manor. Thus t'ai chi in origin and associations is exactly the sort of art generally proscribed during the Cultural Revolution. Its preservation and promotion serves the function of physical fitness while its martial uses are deemphasized; thus the regime has found it socially useful to preserve the "form" of t'ai chi while revising its "content": i.e. it is no longer the mark of aristocratic cultivation but rather of fitness for fulfilling one's (till recently state-assigned) duty.

Similarly, the vast popularity of t'ai chi in the U.S. depends on the ability of practitioners to ignore its associated sociopolitical and mystical mythologies, since few are going to undertake years of East Asian studies before beginning physical exercise. Indeed, reading a stack of books as a prerequisite for praxis would be utterly counter to the spirit of Chan and the Tao alike! American t'ai chi practioners usually conceptualize their practice using one or more of the following frameworks: the Western health-and-fitness schema (t'ai chi is a trendy exercise like racquetball); or the New Age schema (t'ai chi is a natural way to well being, like yoga or acupuncture). It can be seen that t'ai chi's protean nature enables it to be interpreted as meditation, sport, medicine. Pa kua is almost always approached as a deadly martial art, however, except for the somewhat dubious claims made by the mainland government that promote its health and fitness aspects. Thus its cut-and-dried mathematical nature is reflected in the way it attracts adherents and the singular use to which it is put.

As with all classical works, the survival of t'ai chi and pa kua over centuries has depended on the ability of each generation not only to value their utility, but to place each within a new mythology. In this our Western rationalism appears just another schema which interprets, but does not determine, the content of abstract physical movement.

If t'ai chi has benefited from remythologizing (aristocratic family secret into imperial training method into exercise of the Red masses on one side of the Pacific, New Age stress reliever on the other), pa kua has suffered (Taoist mystical practice into martial art of partisan resistance into technique of streetfighters). In resistance to the Manchu, i.e. foreign, Qing dynasty, partisans trained using pa kua for rebellion, including the Eight Trigrams (Pa Kua) Society that used the trigrams as an emblem and their eponymous martial art as a technique. After the crushing of the so-called Boxers (modeled on the Eight Trigrams), though, their spiritual heirs degenerated into the criminal gangs known as tongs and triads and, with their decline, so did pa kua fade in popularity and cachet. However, a further reanalysis as an intersection between deadly combat and macho combat sport has contributed to increased respect and propagation of pa kua on this side of the Pacific, at least.

Both styles' status as "internal" kung fu and their true purpose as cultivators of qi remind us that the real "content" of the forms is known only to the practitioner who should be in a meditative state. And such content, according to Chan (Zen) philosophy, can only be wordless. Research correlating meditative states with alpha rhythms gives a Western scientific correlate to this ancient Eastern insight.

Thus the very philosophical tradition that gave rise to concepts such as yin and yang that are represented in these martial-arts forms denies the possibility of a single adequate mythology by which they may be represented. And thus what seems an utterly prescriptive system of breathing, movement, and mind control becomes the vehicle for personal interpretation after all. Paradoxically, this is no less true for the "math" of pa kua as it is for the "music" of t'ai chi.

Lindsey Eck is a composer, writer, musician, and scholar who lives near Austin, Texas. His Web zine is The Corner Oak. He was recently awarded a black belt in Shaolin-Do kung fu.

Copyright © 2000 by Lindsay Eck. All rights reserved.