Dong Hai Chuan
The Founder of Bagua
Dong Hai Chuan is generally recognized as the founder of Bagua Zhang (Eight Trigrams Palm), one of the three internal styles of kung fu. However, there are many who dispute this, mainly due to the many questions about the man that are still unanswered. Dong was supposedly born in 1797, during the reign of Emperor Jia Qing, and died in 1882 during the reign of Emperor Guang Xu, at the age of 85.
Exact and plentiful details concerning Dong Hai Chuan and his creation of Bagua Zhang are few and and often contradictory to one another, due in large part to an aura of mystery that Dong intentionally cultivated. We do know that he was originally born and raised in Wen An, Hebei province, and later moved to Beijing, where he taught the palace guards his new and unique style, Bagua Zhang. Several legends and possibilities are presented below.
One legend is that Dong wondered into the mountains near Beijing and encountered a dwarf. This dwarf allegedly led Dong to a monk named Bi Deng Xia (Man Without Shadow Under the Lamp) who was the chief student of the actual founder of Bagua Zhang. Dong acquired his art from Bi Deng Xia while Song Wei Yi, the famous swordsman, learned his skill from Bi Yue Xia (Man Without Shadow Under the Moon). In 1949, the writer Li Yingan was learning swordsmanship with master Guo Zhifeng. According to master Guo his arts came from Master Song Wei Yi. However, Master Guo's swordsmanship and pugilistic arts are quite different from those of Dong Hai Chuan's. In view of this difference, it can be presumed that the validity of this tale is highly questionable.
Another version came from Master Ren Zhicheng who wrote a book called "Yin Yang Ba Gua Zhang". According to this book, Ren's teacher Master Li Zhenqing's Eight Palm Maneuvers and Dong Hai Chuan's Eight Palm Maneuvers were both learned from Master Dong Menglin. Indeed there were many similarities between Li's and Dong Hai Chuan's styles. However, there is no concrete proof of master Ren's version.
The most reasonable explanation is that Dong Hai Chuan created Bagua Zhang from his own life experiences. He trained extensively in martial arts for much of his youth in his home. At the age of 40, he was said to have left Wen An and joined a pacifist order of Daoist monks who practiced their faith by walking in circles and chanting mantras. He later became a servant in the Emperor's kitchen where he had to balance great dishes on each hand and in so doing inspired many future Bagua palm movements. It is most likely that he combined various elements - his years of training in Wen An, the circle walking of the Daoists, the footwork and palm changes in the kitchen - to create the Bagua Zhang forms.
On one occasion, the Emperor entertained his guests to a great feast. The palatial grounds were crowded with people at that time and entrance and exit was impossible. Dong Hai Chuan, however, could maneuver himself in and out of the palace grounds with his impressive footwork while balancing trays in each hand. The Emperor was very impressed by Dong's agility and questioned him. It was then that Dong first revealed himself to be a master of Bagua Zhang, and was obliged to give a display of his skill. His performance was so unique that on the spot, the Emperor made Dong the trainer of the palace guards. After this, Dong's fame spread far and wide. Dong only had a few students, as few could gain access to the closely guarded imperial palace. It was only after his retirement when he lived outside the palace that he gained more followers.
Dong Hai Chuan rarely discussed the origin of the art with his pupils. Only after a visit paid him by Song Wei Yi did he say that Song's teacher and his teacher were fellow students. As Song was a master swordsman, it was thought by Dong's pupils that there was a historical connection between the two schools. It was later learned from certain sources that Dong in all likelihood had formerly been a notorious bandit with a price on his head. To escape the the authorities, he may have then became a monk, but was later expelled from the monastery for intemperance. Perhaps as a last resort, he ended up as a servant in the Emperor's palace.
Dong had 57 students. The most famous were Yin Fu, Ma Wei Qi, Shi Ji Dong, and Cheng Ting Hua.
Dong died in 1880 at the age of 85. He was buried a mile away from the East Gate of Beijing, and ever since, his tomb has become a Mecca for all practitioners of Bagua Zhang. Bagua Zhang practitioners today are fourth and fifth generation descendants of his legacy.