|Interview with Mr. Ma Chuanxu, Liang Style Baguazhang expert from Beijing and president of the Beijing Baguazhang Research Association|
by Jarek Szymanski
Photos - Jarek Szymanski and from author's collection; © J.Szymanski 2001
Mr.Ma Chuanxu, president of the Beijing Baguazhang Research Association
Mr.Ma Chuanxu was born in 1933 in Boye County in Hebei Province in the family with long martial arts tradition. At the age of nine he was introduced to Shaolin Boxing by his father. In 1951 his family moved to Beijing where he has been living since then. In 1961 he started to study Baguazhang under Li Ziming, Liang Zhenpu's disciple and Dong Haichuan's grand-disciple. He also learnt Xingyiquan, Tanglangquan (Mantis Boxing), Taijiquan and Tongbeiquan from many renowned old generation practitioners in Beijing. In 1978 Mr.Ma was employed by Beijing Municipality Public Security Bureau as martial arts coach. In the meantime he also taught as well as performed security services for the Beijing Railway Bureau. He retired in 1993. Also since 1993 he has been the president of Beijing Baguazhang Research Association.
Mr. Ma Chuanxu is a living legend among current practitioners of Baguazhang in Beijing. Unlike many other teachers he gained his fame not by winning routines competitions or appearing in martial arts magazines but because of his fighting skills tested in many life-and-death fights with bandits during years of service in Public Security Bureau. Only recently one of his colleagues from PSB revealed some of Ma's feats in one of Chinese martial arts magazines - Ma Chuanxu defeated several art smugglers during a fight; caught several drug dealers; "cleaned" train station in China's Zhengzhou of thieves and bandits (he alone caught more than 110 of them within a month). He did it all without using any weapon. He is probably the only person practicing internal martial arts who was employed as the main martial arts coach by Beijing Municipality Public Security Bureau. Many of his students now serve as bodyguards for high rank government officials in China. I have heard about him since my arrival to China in 1990 - "Big Beard" Ma (Ma Dahuzi) was considered to be the true inheritor of Li Ziming's and Guo Gumin's Baguazhang - but never had a chance to meet him. The occasion arose in November 2000 - so I called him and he invited me to his house and agreed for interview. I found many of his explanations to be very clear and shedding light on many issues - like Neigong, features of Neijia, Qi development - that are often discussed but rarely understood by martial arts practitioners. The interview below is basically full transcription of the conversation recorded on the audio tape.
Jarek Szymanski: Mr.Ma, you are very well known in martial arts circles in Beijing but it is impossible to see you during any Bagua competitions or meetings here...
MR.MA CHUANXU: I was working for the Public Security Bureau since 1978 and was teaching special forces. My official post was the General Martial Arts Coach of Beijing Municipality Public Security Bureau. For this reason I could not take part in many public activities, including Bagua Meetings, nor have contacts with foreigners.
JS: As a foreigner I wouldn't be allowed to visit you before?
MR.MA: Yes, it was impossible before my retirement. There is no problem now - I retired in 1993.
JS: You are very famous for your fighting skills. It is not very common nowadays that Neijia practitioners can effectively fight. When did you start your martial arts practice?
MR.MA: I started to learn martial arts when I was nine years old. My family was practicing Shaolin boxing for many generations and it was my first style to learn. In my village two styles were popular - Shaolin and Da Hong Quan, but there were more people who practiced Shaolin. I can't say what branch it was as nobody really paid any attention to names at that time. Our village was very big and there was a Buddhist temple there. My grandfather learnt from a monk who lived in that temple. I learnt from my father and what he taught was not routines but basics of Shaolin boxing, mainly stretching and kicking. He was a very strict teacher and often hit me with stick when I did not practice diligently. I had to perform front kicks with straight leg so that the toes could touch my nose or the chin. When I was in my thirties I was still able to pass below a wooden bench from its one side to the other using Pu Bu very quickly. The bench was so low that my chest had to touch the floor during the movement...
There were many exercises we had to practice, like Running on the Wall (Pao Qiang)...
JS: How did you practice this?
MR.MA: First you lean a wooden board against the wall at a small angle (between the board and the ground). Then you just run on the board towards the wall and back. Your body has to be kept vertical to the ground. Later the angle between the board and the ground increases and finally the board is removed so that you just run directly up the wall. As the result your toes can touch the shin.
JS: You reached certain level in Shaolin Boxing. Why didn't you continue your studies but instead decided to learn Baguazhang?
MR.MA: This is because my father (who was my Shaolin Boxing teacher) told me that Baguazhang was extremely efficient martial art, very demanding for legs, but different from Shaolin's basics. He said that what could be achieved by Shaolin Boxing practice could also be achieved through Bagua practice; however there were skills that could be acquired only through Bagua and not through Shaolin. My father also said that Baguazhang was a higher level martial art than Shaolin Boxing; that it was the highest level art among all styles. Xingyi emphasizes Crisp Power, Taiji - Sticky Power, while Bagua - Clever Power (Xingyi Wei Cui, Taiji Wei Nian, Bagua Wei Qiao). The best methods and techniques off all styles have been synthesized into Baguazhang.
JS: What does it mean that Bagua uses "Clever Power"?
MR.MA: "Clever Power" in Bagua is expressed by its techniques and strategy. Its like going somewhere - taking a longer way or shorter. In Waijia you take a longer way, while Bagua practice is the shortest way to fighting efficiency supported by internal skill.
JS: Why did you decide to become Li Ziming's student?
MR.MA: It was by coincidence. When I learnt that a colleague from the factory I worked in was Li Ziming's student and studied Bagua, I asked him to take me to the park they practiced. Since I already had some skill and my waist and legs flexibility was very good, Mr.Li liked me and when I asked to be accepted as his student he immediately agreed.
JS: When did you start to learn from Li Ziming?
MR.MA: In 1961.
JS: When did you become Li Ziming's disciple (indoor student)?
MR.MA: In 1976. This is because Li Ziming did not accept any disciples when Guo Gumin (1887-1968; Li Ziming's Shixiong - Older Gongfu Brother) was alive, and then the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) came. Actually we were more like friends with Mr.Li. Li Ziming's children were calling me "Uncle". I also learnt many techniques and practice methods from Guo Gumin.
native of Ji County in Hebei Province; in 1921 started to study Baguazhang from Liang Zhenpu and became his disciple; also learnt from Shang Yunxiang, Zhang Zhankui and Ju Qingyuan; often exchanged skills with Guo Gumin, Li Shao'an and Zeng Xingsan; in 1979 in order to protect Dong Haichuan's tomb he suggested to move it to Wan'an Public Cemetery from the old location; on August 2nd and 3rd, 1980 a group of over 100 Beijing Baguazhang practitioners under his leadership moved Dong's remains as well as accompanying stone tablets to the new location in Wan'an Public Cemetery. In 1981 the first single-style research association in China - Beijing Baguazhang Research Association - was established and Li Ziming was elected its first president, he held this title until his death in 1993. Li Ziming was buried at Wan'an Public Cemetery near Dong Haichuan's tomb.
(According to "Chinese Martial Arts Personages Dictionary", "The Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese Martial Arts Practitioners" and article by Wang Tong in "Wuhun" 1993/4)
Li Ziming (1904-1993) was Ma Chuanxu's master and main teacher
JS: Is that true that Li Ziming learnt a lot from Guo Gumin?
MR.MA: Yes, it's true. They were Gongfu brothers (disciples of the same master - Liang Zhenpu), but Guo Gumin was professional martial art teacher. Li Ziming was younger than Guo and was busy running his business - he was the owner of the largest (prior to 1949) soya sauce mill in Beijing. Mr.Li was also engaged in underground work and covered many Communist Party officials, including Wan Li and Liu Ren, who became vice-mayors of Beijing after 1949. After liberation in 1949 Li Ziming was holding important posts - was director of foodstuffs factory and beer brewery - and before Cultural Revolution was promoted to controller position in the First Light Industry Bureau in Beijing.
JS: What happened during Cultural Revolution?
MR.MA: Of course he came under attack, had to resign from all posts and was persecuted.
JS: Did you practice during Cultural Revolution?
MR.MA: Only I continued Bagua study with Li Ziming during that time. There had been about five, six of us who learnt Bagua from Li Ziming in early 1960s, but they all gave up later and I was the only one who kept on the Bagua study.
JS: So you became Li Ziming's disciple in 1976?
MR.MA: Yes, in 1976 when Cultural Revolution was over. There were about eight persons at that time who were accepted by Li Ziming as indoor disciples, including Zhao Dayuan, Wang Tong, Sun Hongyan, Ma Ling, Wang Shitong and Di Guoyong. Since at that time Li Ziming was already quite old and did not practice much, getting more interested in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, many of them learnt from me.
JS: Many people say that you are quite conservative in teaching and are very reluctant to pass some Bagua methods to students...
MR.MA: I emphasize Bagua basics a lot. They are very important and if the student does not practice them correctly, according to my requirements, then it is like throwing all the things I teach away. It is not that I'm conservative but the problem is that many students do not study hard and never get satisfactory level of basic skills. Learning techniques and routines is without any value if the basics are not good.
JS: How can you develop basics?
MR.MA: The are several methods. The most basic of them is walking in a circle. It is divided into three so-called "basins" (San Pan): Lower Basin, Medium Basin and Upper Basin. Yin-Yang concept is very important as well - that's why we often call Bagua "Yin-Yang Bagua". Walking counter-clockwise is Yang, while clockwise - Yin. There are many requirements for walking practice: Hollow the Chest and Pulling Up the Back (Kong Xiong Ba Bei), Collapse the Waist (Xia Ta Yao), Twist Hips and Keep Knees Together (Niu Kua He Xi), Grasp the Ground Firmly with Toes (Zhua Di Lao); Drop the Shoulders and Sink the Elbows (Chui Jian Chen Zhou), Smooth Buttocks and Lift the Grain Path (anus) (Liu Tun Ti Gang), Three Pressing (Head Presses, Tongue Presses and Hands Press creating One Energy) and Three Round Principles (San Ding - Tou Ding She Ding Shou Ding Hunyuan Yi Qi - San Yuan). Only if all these requirements are strictly observed Internal Qi (Nei Qi) will appear and Neigong (Internal Skill) will develop. Once Neigong develops, it's like electricity in hands.
JS: What do you mean "electricity in hands"?
MR.MA: The Intent becomes important. Intent drives Qi and Qi drives Strength (Yi Dai Qi Qi Dai Li). One has to develop Qi of Dantian to make use of it - and only then we can call it Neigong.
JS: So what is "Neigong"?
MR.MA: Neigong is Dantian. You have to attain high skill in Intent (Yinian) practice and develop sufficient Internal Qi. It's like electricity. Dantian, three inches below belly button, once developed is like a leather ball. Dantian becomes the place where all Internal Qi of your body gathers, it's like electric field. Then Qi - which is felt as a stream of heat - flows from Hui Yin Point through lumbar vertebra, cervical vertebra, Bai Hui Point (the hot feeling is extremely strong there), Mu Quan Point, Tian Mu Point, Ren Tong Point. The most difficult place for Qi to pass is where Ren and Du Vessels meet - you have to keep the mouth closed and the tongue has to touch upper palate, breathing should be through nose (not like in Long Fist Boxing where after some exercises practitioners have to use mouth to catch the breath); then Qi flows down back to Dantian and completes one full circle - Small Heavenly Circle (Xiao Zhou Tian).
JS: Is there any specific feeling you have when the Small Heavenly Circle opens?
MR.MA: Of course. Once Small Heavenly Circle is opened a lot of saliva appears in the mouth and when you practice you feel as comfortable as if swimming.
JS: Do you need to use any Intent (Yi) to lead Qi flow?
MR.MA: No, you should not think about Qi when you practice. Small Heavenly Circle will open naturally, not intentionally, when your Neigong reaches this level. However your practice has to be supervised by a competent teacher.
JS: Is it enough to open Small Heavenly Circle?
MR.MA: No, you have to open the Large Heavenly Circle so that Qi can reach your hands. This also takes time and you have to think first - use Intent (Yi) - to drive Qi to the hands. Once Qi follows your Intent, the next step is to be able to move Qi without any conscious effort. The Qi will behave like mercury - once you strike with the hand it immediately flows from out of Dantian, waist, and reaches the hand. The hand will be felt by the opponent as very heavy. Only at this moment you can start learning Bagua techniques and movements.
also known as Guo Enpu or Guo Decang, was originally from Jizhou in Hebei Province. Born in 1887, he was interested in martial arts since childhood. At the age of 14 Guo started to serve an apprenticeship at Liang Zhenpu's secondhand clothes shop and learn Baguazhang from Liang (Liang was one of Dong Haichuan's disciples). At the age of 20 Guo was accepted by Liang Zhenpu as indoor disciple. Since that time martial arts became Guo's profession. As early as in 1920s Guo Gumin was already teaching Baguazhang in many places in Beijing.
After Japan invited China in 1937 Guo was invited by Japanese Embassy to teach martial arts. He rejected the invitation and had to flee to Jinan in Shandong Province, where he taught martial arts to the army of one of the local warlords, Han Fuju.
Han first tested Guo's skill - he demanded that Guo would fight with his best spear experts using wooden spears. Fifty were chosen out of three hundred and Guo suggested that each of them should pierce him three times. As the result none of them was able to pierce Guo and none managed to avoid Guo's three stabs...
After the war Guo returned to Beijing and was teaching martial arts at Beijing's Furen University. After the liberation in 1949 Guo taught mainly in Beijing parks. He passed away in 1968 at the age of 81, his body was cremated and the ashes kept by his disciple, Su Shen until 1984, when two other Guo's disciples, Liu Jiemin and Wang Qichang, moved them to Beijing's Wan'an Public Cemetery. His tomb is located by the side of Dong Haichuan's tomb.
Guo was short and thin; he never got married and devoted his whole life to martial arts. He not only mastered Liang Zhenpu's Baguazhang, but also learnt from and exchanged skills with many other renowned martial arts experts of his time - mainly "Big Spear" Liu (Liu Dekuan), but also Shi Jidong , Yin Fu, Liu Fengchun (all were Dong Haichuan's disciples), Han Fushun (Shi Jidong's disciple), Ma Gui (Yin Fu's disciple), Yin Yuzhang (Yin Fu's son), Zeng Xingsan (Yin Fu's disciple) and others.
Guo Gumin was not only accomplished martial artist, but could also speak English and was a good painter. He wrote two books: "Complete Book of Bagua Boxing" (Bagua Quanshu Jicheng) and "Collected Texts on Bagua Rotating Palm" (Bagua Zhuanzhang Huilan). The first one contains names of Bagua techniques and routines as well as practice methods, while the other - history and - for the very first time - theory of Baguazhang.
(According to the article "Great Baguazhang master - Guo Gumin" by Wu Yue published in "Wuhun" 1998/1)
Guo Gumin (1887-1968) was one of Ma Chuanxu's teachers
JS: Does it mean that all Bagua movements are designed in such a way that one must have Neigong first to be really able to use them?
MR.MA: Exactly. Without Neigong all Bagua techniques are good for nothing and there is no use to practice them. For this reason I'm not willing to teach any techniques to students who do not have Internal Skill - it's waste of time for them and me.
JS: I guess very few people can learn in this traditional way?
MR.MA: Yes, practitioners often feel that walking exercise is very boring and give it up after some time. However once your Neigong develops, once the Small Heavenly Circle opens, the practice becomes very interesting.
JS: Does Shaolin Boxing have similar methods?
MR.MA: No, it does not.
JS: As far as I know Taoists suggest that one should also stop having sex, otherwise the Small and Large Heavenly Circles will never open. Is that true for Bagua Neigong practice as well?
MR.MA: Yes, this is very important condition. My teacher told me that at the very beginning - if you want to develop true skill, you must be like a monk, living in celibacy. There is a story about "Coal" Ma, who was selling coal in Beijing's Caishikou. When he started to study Baguazhang from Dong Haichuan, he took his quilt and moved out to live in the shop. He lived there for three years and did not return home even once during that time.
Your body requires one week to recover after one sexual intercourse. i.e. come back to the condition before the intercourse. One hundred days is required to recover Original Qi (Yuan Qi) completely (i.e. recover to the condition before one had any sex). About three years is required to open Small Heavenly Circle.
JS: What about married people? I'm afraid people who have families will have difficulty with developing any Internal Skill then...
MR.MA: There is not a big problem with practice in Middle Basin (Zhong Pan), you can still get Internal Skill. However once you decide to practice Lower Basin you have to stop any sexual activity.
JS: What if one decides to practice in Lower Basin without fulfilling that requirement?
MR.MA: You will only hurt yourself. Lower Basin is a very demanding practice for the body and it will not be able to endure it. During Lower Basin practice you have to eat well and have good rest. It is like having a bank account. If you draw 1 million dollars from it and then transfer 1 million back it is OK. If you transfer 1 million and one dollar, you will have little saving - surplus energy. However if you transfer only 990 thousand, you will be in dept - your body will not be able to recover from the effort. In this way although your muscles may get stronger, your internal strength, internal potential, will decrease. This phenomena can be easily recognized by hearing one's voice - weak voice, neither loud nor clear, sometimes accompanied by coughing is the symptom of low energy level. Lower Basin method is most suitable for young, unmarried people. Otherwise you have to make the decision to become like a monk for three years...
JS: We were talking about Small Heavenly Circle. What about the Large Heavenly Circle (Da Zhou Tian)?
MR.MA: Once the Small Circle is opened, the Large will open naturally. There is a saying "Small Achievement comes in three years, Big Achievement - in ten years" (Xiaocheng San Nian Dacheng Shi Nian). One has to live in celibacy for at least six years to achieve true skill. Once the skill comes out, you still have to limit the number of sexual intercourses. Two, three times a week will ruin your skill completely. Once every two, three months is not a big problem.
JS: What do you mean by ruining the skill?
MR.MA: Your legs and waist (lower back) will lose the flexibility and strength. There are many martial arts practitioners who had remarkable skill in youth but when older they could hardly walk. This was caused by excessive sex. One of my teachers, Guo Gumin, was never married. When I started Bagua practice in 1961, for six years I was practically living in celibacy as well. At 5:00PM I was coming back home from work, ate dinner, and immediately went to practice. I was coming back at 1:00AM, after 6-7 hours of practice. Everyday, without even one day of rest.
JS: But in this way you did not sleep enough. You did not have enough rest.
MR.MA: Correct practice is better than sleep. What you practice is Internal Skill, it nourishes your body.
JS: You are almost 70 now. Do you still practice everyday?
MR.MA: I get up early in the morning and practice for three hours, everyday. (Mr.Ma's wife added that he does it everyday no matter what the weather is, even on Chinese New Year, the most important festival in China)
JS: Back in the 1960s did you practice any other exercises apart from walking in a circle? Some forms of sitting meditation or standing pole (Zhan Zhuang)?
MR.MA: Sitting or standing meditation are for Neigong only. Walking practice is also called "Moving Pole" (Huo Zhuang/Xing Zhuang) and has very important advantage - it develops both Waigong (External Practice) and Neigong at the same time. When you walk in a circle, you nourish your Internal Qi every minute, you build it stronger and stronger. That's why walking in a circle is so important and at the same time so difficult to understand.
JS: Did you learn and "Light Skill" (Qing Gong) as well?
MR.MA: Walking in a circle develops "Light Skill". Once you reach a certain level you are able to walk without touching the ground.
JS: How is that possible?
MR.MA: The idea is to use your Dantian, waist, to move. I'm sitting here right now. If you want to attack me I can move fast forward without using legs, but by straightening the waist. (Mr.Ma made a demonstration - from a sitting position he was able to move fast very far forward before he touched the floor with his legs).
JS: It all sounds and looks very mysterious...
MR.MA: It is not mysterious at all, it's just a matter of skill, of hard practice.
JS: How did it happen that people learnt about you?
MR.MA: I learnt not only from Li Ziming but also from Han Lanyu (Wu Xing Chui expert, Bao Zhang's disciple), Guo Gumin (Baguazhang expert, Liang Zhenpu's disciple), "Tong Bei" Li, Han Qichang (of Mei Hua Zhuang). My teacher used to take me to all these teachers and usually I had to fight with their disciples. This is how people started to know about me...
JS: I have heard that you also defeated one quite famous foreign martial artist?
MR.MA: There was one foreigner, whose Xingyi was very good. He wanted to study with Li Ziming and become his disciple. Many of Li's students like Zhao Dayuan and Wang Tong were there. They all crossed hands with the foreigner and lost. His Xingyi was very impressive - when he demonstrated it, in the opening movement all his joints were cracking. His External Skill was really good, but his Internal Skill was not. He did not use his strength correctly - held it back in his own body, tensed his muscles too much, had no roots.
JS: You mean one has to be relaxed when practicing Bagua?
MR.MA: In Bagua we say "walk like a monkey" - light and "clever" (Qiao)...
MR.MA: "Shrink, Be Soft like Cotton and Clever" (Suo Xiao Mian Ruan Qiao) so that you can shrink your body, without using any strength, relaxed, like a spring, that can be released at any time, but only upon contact with the opponent, never before. Trying to use power on distance is not effective.
JS: Is this so-called "One-Inch-Power" (Cun Jin) that you are talking about?
MR.MA: Yes, in Neijia we strike using One-Inch-Power. Hitting from a distance is not effective as it does not really hurt the opponent. The worst what can happen are some bruises that can heal in few days. When I strike my opponent I want him to spit with blood...This is the reason we emphasize Neigong so much. When you have Neigong, if you want to hurt the opponent, you can hurt him; if you want to push him into the air like a leather ball, you can do it as well at will.
Ma Chuanxu demonstrating "Pushing and Grinding Palm" (Tui Mo Zhang) - one of eight basic walking postures of Liang Zhenpu's Baguazhang
JS: Have you ever practiced any hardening or strengthening methods?
MR.MA: No, I did not. These exercises develop external, stiff power. What we want is the Internal Qi which drives all the movements. It's like mercury, once you strike it's there, once you withdraw - it returns as well. It's flexible, alive.
JS: Apart from hand techniques one must also master footwork and be able to use legs when striking.
MR.MA: Qi arrives and Strenght (Li) arrives. That means we have to practice to achieve "harmony" (He). Hands, eyes, body and footwork have to combine (He) into one. Once we strike they all arrive at the same time, body becomes one, "coordinated power of the whole body" (Zheng Jin) is used. We develop it through practicing walking the circle, single techniques, routines. In Taijiquan there is a saying "When the opponent does not move, I do not move either; once the opponent moves, I move first" (Bi Bu Dong Wo Bu Dong; Bi Yi Dong Wo Xian Dong). One has to achieve "harmony" of the whole body so that it moves as one to be able to move like this. This is called true "harmony" (He).
JS: It is easy to understand the first part of the saying :"When the opponent does not move, I do not move either" but could you explain the second part?
MR.MA: "Once the opponent moves, I move first". This means once the opponent decides to move, there is a very short moment when he prepares to attack. You should be able to notice this moment and strike when it is not over yet. This requires very good Neigong and high skill - timing and speed.
JS: Some people say that Bagua is not as soft as Taijiquan, its softness is of different quality. What do you think about it? Should one be completely relaxed when walking in a circle?
MR.MA: One should be relaxed (Song) but at the same time look for "coordinated power of the whole body" (Zheng). One should keep the "coordinated power of the whole body" (Zheng) but at the same time relax (Song). It is very difficult to find balance between these two states. One should also avoid excessive tension when looking for "coordinated power of the whole body" (Zheng). Softness is very important in fighting - when the opponent strikes hard you can only use softness to overcome his hardness. We call it "To overcome Hardness with Softness" (Yi Rou Ke Gang) or "To Overcome One Thousand Pounds with a Clever Method" (Yi Qiao Po Qian Jin). You need softness to use these methods.
JS: What do you mean by softness?
MR.MA: The body has to express the "coordinated power of the whole body" (Zheng) all the time, be relaxed, move in spirals.
Ma Chuanxu in "Yin-Yang Fish" Palm (Yin Yang Yu Zhang) developing spiraling power of the body
JS: What do you mean by "move in spirals"?
MR.MA: There should be axles all over the body. There should be axles in shoulders, wrists, elbows, hips, knees. When you touch this part of the body, there is an axle here; when you touch another part, there's an axle there too. The body should not be sloppy. Wherever you touch, there's an axle there and it moves in a spiraling way (luoxuan). The power has to a be spiraling one and only then it can overcome opponent's power.
JS: Can you use this "Spiraling Power" (Luo Xuan Jin) in fighting?
MR.MA: If the opponent touches any part of your body, this part should express "Spiraling Power". Guo Gumin was famous for his "Raising Palm" (Tiao Zhang), also know as "Hand Thunder" (Zhang Shou Lei) technique. It was based on Spiraling Power used to uproot the opponent upon contact and then hit him which ended with opponent sent flying. Any technique should have this spiraling component inside.
JS: When you walk in a circle shall you also express this spiraling power?
MR.MA: Of course you shall. You should walk like a heavy transporter which moves smoothly no matter how bad the road is, whether its wheels get into a hole or meet a stone. One should not over-emphasize grasping the ground with toes (Shi Zhi Zhua Di) as this may result in stiff (dead - Si) power.
JS: What about "Mud Wading Step" (Tang Ni Bu)?
MR.MA: There is a saying "Walk as if rubbing the ground but you must not rub the ground" (Xing Er Ca Xing Mo Yao Ca). The meaning is that feet should move close to the ground, not too high. The second part of this saying - "you must not rub the ground" - is most important. You should walk like a monkey, feet should be placed on the ground very lightly. You must not rub the ground with the soles, otherwise the power will be dispersed.
JS: I have seen some Bagua practitioners who, after they make a step with the front leg and before they put it on the ground, "throw" the body forward so that the front foot can move more forward. Is this a correct way of practicing "Mud Wading Step"?
MR.MA: No, it is not correct. You should never lose control over your gravity center, because the power of the body will be dispersed.
JS: Their explanation is that this way of practice allows them to advance and cut the distance faster...
MR.MA: You should use the waist to drive your body forward, for advancing. Body should be like a (spinning) top, with center of gravity well controlled. The center of gravity should be always on the front leg. You have to "smooth the buttocks and Lift Anus", assume a posture similar to that when sitting on a chair, then the waist drives your legs, center of gravity is on the front foot, and you can advance very fast. (Mr.Ma demonstrated this way of walking)
JS: You are known to be a very strict teacher. Do you have many students who reached a satisfactory skill level?
MR.MA: I can think of two, they both work in the Beijing Municipality Public Security Bureau. One of them, Chen Xiangxian, is the main martial arts coach there. He took that post when I retired in 1993.
JS: What do you think about the level of Bagua practitioners in Beijing?
MR.MA: The level of current practitioners, teachers, is far below that of old generation masters. People like Fan Fenglan, Guo Gumin, Gao Ziying had true gongfu, which can hardly be said about current generation. This is in spite of the fact that many of them publish books and are getting increasing popularity.
JS: When did you became the head of Bejing Baguazhang Research Association?
MR.MA: In 1993 when my teacher, Li Ziming passed away. I took over the position of the president of the Association.
JS: What Bagua branches belong to the Association?
MR.MA: All Bagua branches practiced in Beijing area are represented in the Association. These are Yin Fu's, Cheng Tinghua's, Liang Zhenpu's, Fan Zhiyong's and Song Changrong's branches. Song branch has very few practitioners. We have meetings every month. During this year's election I was again elected the president of the Association and Gao Jiwu (late Gao Ziying's son), Wen Dasheng (Fan Fenglan's disciple), Wang Shanzhi (Wang Fu's son; Wang Fu studied Yin style from Yin Fu's son, Yin Yuzhang) - vice-presidents; Jia Suosen is the secretary.
JS: Did you study Taijiquan?
MR.MA: Yes, I learnt Shanxi Taijiquan from my teacher (Li Ziming); I also learnt a bit from Gao Ziying and Bao Zhang's son, Han Lanyu. Once you really master one martial art than it is very easy to learn other styles. Learning hundreds of techniques and routines is useless. We call it "Once one is mastered all are understood" (Yi Tong Bai Tong).
JS: Do you think Taiji and Xingyi should build similar Internal Skill to Bagua?
MR.MA: Yes, all these styles should emphasize Neigong.
JS: What about Shaolin?
MR.MA: Late Liu Wancang, practicing both hard styles and Taijiquan (Wu Jianquan's branch; he taught in Ditan Park) was very advanced in Neigong. He was very strong and used to exercise with 40 kg heavy stone balls. Besides there were also quite a few Shaolin practitioners (like the late Hu Laodao teaching in Taoranting Part in Beijing) who reached high Neigong level.
JS: Was their power like the mercury - what you just mentioned talking about Bagua's Neigong?
MR.MA: No, their Internal Skill was not that good. Although they reached relatively high level of Neigong, it was still inferior to the one that correctly practiced Neijia styles allow for. I do not think external styles can achieve the highest levels.
JS: Have you practiced any strength building methods (like the one mentioned above - stone ball).
MR.MA: No, I have never practiced them.
JS: What about long spear (Da Qiang)?
MR.MA: Yes, I practiced with long spear. It's length is one Zhang and two Chi (about 4 meters). I learnt Bagua Long Spear exercises from Li Ziming. The goal is to build the power and learn correct body method (Shenfa) - opening the joints and "pulling out" the power (dynamically stretching the tendons). This method has to be used to improve one's skill. People who do not practice martial arts have rather stiff joints which limit their range of movements. By long spear practice one can open the joints, increase their flexibility and hence improve agility of movements.
Ma Chuanxu practicing with Bagua Broadsword
JS: What about other Bagua weapons? What is the goal of practice with weapons in Bagua?
MR.MA: Every weapon has its characteristics and is practiced to achieve specific goal. Taking as example Bagua Broadsword - it is used to exercise Twisting (Ning), Wrapping (Guo), Drilling (Zuan) and Overturning (Fan). Twisting is for body method (Shenfa). Bagua Broadsword is big - four Chi two Cun (about 1.2m) - and the main principle for its practice is "you walk (move) but the broadsword does not move" (Ren Zou Dao Bu Dong); "it is not the man who plays with the broadsword but the broadsword that plays with the man" (Dao Shua Ren Bu Shi Ren Shua Dao). My broadsword is long and big and always points at the opponent so it is not easy for him to enter. Once he attacks I just use "Overturn" (Fan) and cut his arm with the broadsword.
JS: So do you practice Bagua broadsword techniques or improve your Shenfa through broadsword practice?
MR.MA: Both. Not only you can learn how to use the broadsword, but what is more important - improve your Bagua skills, especially the body movements. It is said "Man follows the broadsword, broadsword moves with the man" (Ren Sui Dao Zou, Dao Sui Ren Xing).
JS: Which weapon is the most important in Bagua?
MR.MA: All are very important and none is really important. The most important is Gongfu - the skill. Once you have the skill you can use anything as a weapon. It has no use to learn lots of weapon routines - once you have Gongfu than learning weapons is very easy.
JS: What about the straight sword?
MR.MA: Broadsword and straight sword methods are not separated (Dao Jian Bu Fen) in spite of the fact that the sword has different structure than the broadsword.
JS: What are the features of Bagua spear?
MR.MA: In Bagua we have Bagua Long Spear and Short Spear. The latter is also called "Snake with Two Heads" (Shuang Tou She) as it has spearheads on both ends. Its main feature is using long weapon on short distance (Chang Qiang Duan Yong) and it differs from typical spear methods of "Lan Na Zha". In Bagua you redirect opponent's spear with one end of your weapon and strike him with the other end. Once you can apply the principle of "using long weapon on short distance" than you can effectively use a short stick even against a broadsword. This can be easily seen in techniques of another typical Bagua weapon - Seven Star Stick (Qi Xing Gan) - which is mainly used for point striking. While using long weapon one has to be able to use so-called "flexible grasp" (Huo Ba) which allows for changing the grasp of the weapon without loosing contact with it.
JS: Are there matched routines in Baguazhang?
MR.MA: Yes, we have quite a few matched routines practiced with partner. Probably the most famous and one of the most treasured is "Four Matched Routines of Chopping Broadsword" (Si Tang Dui Pi Dao); other are: "Matched Routine of Chopping Swords" (Dui Pi Jian), "Matched Routine of Chopping Sticks" (Dui Pi Gan), as well as "Seventy Two Seizes" (Qi'Shi'Er Na), "Seventy Two Linked Kicks" (Qi'Shi'Er Jie Tui), "Eight Main Seizes" (Liu Ba Zong Na), "Seventy Two Techniques" (Qi'Shi'Er Zhao) and others.
JS: What are the features of Bagua free fighting?
MR.MA: Bagua free fighting is different from other styles. The most important feature is that both hands move towards the opponent at the same time. In other styles when one hand moves towards the opponent the other is drawn back. In Bagua it is important to strike fast and for this reason both hands move towards the target simultaneously. Hands have to move fast, footwork has to be fast as well, only then one can achieve what is called "excellency" (Bagua Wei Qiao). There is a saying "change in fighting is in front of you" (Bian Hua Zai Qian Tou) which means that the change of technique in fighting is in fast hands method, not in the whole body.
JS: Each of Bagua branches uses different shape of palm...
MR.MA: Yes, Cheng branch uses "Eagle Claw Power" (Ying Zhao Li), Yin branch - "Piercing Energy" (Yi Qi Guan Tong), Liang branch - "Palm like Rows of Tiles on the Roof" (Wa Long Zhang, because the fingers are placed one on each other like tiles on a roof). Dong's disciples were taught in different ways according to the style they had learnt prior to Bagua study; this is the reason they have developed their own styles with distinctive characteristics. Their hand techniques and body methods are different. However all of them should express the "Spiraling Power" (Luo Xuan Jin). This concerns not only Neijia, but also Waijia styles.
JS: Do you teach your students in a different way depending on their body structure? Do you teach tall people in a different way then short ones?
MR.MA: No, I teach them in the same way. Although it is said that tall people have difficulties in going into low postures, the real question is only whether they spent enough time on practice. It is not true that Bagua suits shorter people better than taller ones - all of them have their advantages, but have to practice hard to be able to make use of them.
JS: How many students do you have? Is it difficult to become your "indoor disciple" (Rumen Tudi)?
MR.MA: I have about 60, 70 indoor disciples. They had to learn from me for at least three years before I accepted them as disciples - I have to test morality of my potential disciples.
JS: What do you teach?
MR.MA: What I teach to my students depends mainly on their level. As I mentioned before there is no use to learn many techniques and routines if you do not have good basics. The first three years of practice are very important as this is the shortest time to get the basics of Neigong - Small Heavenly Circle can be opened; however high skill requires about ten years to achieve. By high skill I mean being able to move and respond naturally, without assuming any postures or thinking about using any techniques. To attain the highest levels you not only have to practice diligently, but also have to be gifted.
Ma Chuanxu in Fork Palm (Chazi Zhang), also called Ball-Playing Palm (Rou Qiu Zhang)
JS: What do you mean by "gifted"?
MR.MA: One has to be intelligent, has to have strong Power of Understanding (Wuxing). It is as important as practice. They both are required if one wants to achieve the highest level of skill. One has to be "good material" to become a true martial artists.
JS: "Good material"?
MR.MA: As I said before - one has to be clever, modest, able to practice hard, with high moral standards. If somebody is very clever but sly and cunning, such a person will never achieve much in martial arts. One has to be steadfast in practice, honest, with interest in learning martial arts, true "Martial Virtue" (Wu De). I do not teach clever people who are not honest.
JS: Do you teach children?
MR.MA: Very few. In China children study very hard at school and do not have much free time.
JS: How old are your oldest students?
MR.MA: The oldest ones who start learning from me are in their 40s and 50s. Some of them practice very well. Although their Wushu basics - understood as flexibility and strength of waist and legs - cannot compare to that of young children, but they make good progress in Neigong. This is absolutely sufficient to be able to make good use of Bagua in fighting.
JS: Do you think it is necessary to learn Waijia before taking up Neijia?
MR.MA: No matter whether you learn Neijia or Waijia, you should first develop flexibility of legs and waist. Once you have these basics you can make faster progress in Neijia. Hence some kind of Waijia practice - Wushu basics - can be helpful for your Neijia. Of course these basics can be also acquired through pure Neijia practice, but it takes more time. Waijia can be considered a shortcut in learning basics. There is however a difference - flexibility you get through Bagua practice comes out naturally along the practice process and cannot be lost, while in Waijia flexibility of legs comes from regular stretching - once you give up stretching exercises the flexibility decreases very fast - usually after three months without practice the flexibility is gone. In Bagua once you can walk in the Lower Basin (Xia Pan) the flexibility of legs greatly increases.
JS: What is the characteristics of Lower Basin (Xia Pan)?
MR.MA: The definition is that in Lower Basin hips and knees are on one level - like sitting on a low chair. I used to practice walking in Lower Basin for one hour without rest. My son has been practicing walking in Lower Basin for six years, for two hours every day, so his Lower Basin skill is acceptable. Once the true skill - Neigong - in Lower Basin is attained, the practitioner has the feeling that his feet do not touch the ground while walking. We talked about it already...
JS: Mr.Ma, thank you very much for your time and generosity of sharing all this knowledge!
NOTE - for detailed explanations concerning requirements for Baguazhang practice as mentioned by Mr.Ma please refer to the excerpts from Liu Jingru's book.
End of "Interview with Mr.Ma Chuanxu, Liang style Baguazhang expert from Beijing";© J.Szymanski 2001
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