One of the pleasures if doing IMA is meeting other fellow enthusiasts who often have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to study the arts at their source. On my previous visits to Tiantan I had noticed that the TCMA people seemed to be concentrated on the Western edge of the park, where there is a large area with both a concrete exercise area and also a large area of trees behind with the characteristic circles of bare earth around the trees which indicates a large group of baguazhang pracitioners train there.
I was hanging around this section of the park one weekend (I had actually come looking for people practicing Chen taiji) when I noticed 2 foreigners who looked to be practicing baguazhang / San Huang Pao Chui nearby. As it was very rare to see any foreigners practicing with them, I waited until they had finished training and then went over and introduced myself. It turned out the two guys were American, called Fritz and Joe. Joe’s main art was Capoeira but had practiced baguazhang for several years in the US before deciding to come to Beijing to learn from the source. Fritz’s main art was Chen taiji which he had studied from a disciple of one of the main Chen family standard bearers based in Seattle.
After the introductions, Fritz and Joe mentioned that they were studying Liang style baguazhang under a grand-student of Li Ziming in the same park later that morning, and offered to introduce me. Always interested to see quality orthodox IMA, I immediately agreed.
Shortly after arriving at their bagua training ground (a clearing under several trees at the back of the park – Tiantan is huge), their teacher M Zhang Xue’an arrived and gave us all a warm welcome. While Fritz and Joe were set to work on warm-ups and basic circle walking, M Zhang gave me a brief introduction to Liang style and how he came to learn the style. He had learnt Liang style baguazhang from Zhang Junmin (a disciple of Li Ziming) in the 1980s, and by that point had been practicing bagua for close to 30 years. He said that in his view, if you wanted to use bagua for fighting, the most important thing after the basic circle walking (Ding Shi Ba Zhang or fixed 8 palms) was to master and really learn how to use Liang style’s 64 hands (直趟64手, zhi tang 64 shou) set.
This 64 hands set has been written about extensively by both Tom Bisio (here: Tom Bisio’s write-up ) and Nigel Sutton in English in his book “The 64 Hands of Baguazhang” (64 Hands of Baguazhang). Suffice it to say that this linear set appears to have been created by the famous IMA master Liu Dekuan (who was not only a master of bagua, xingyi and taiji but also had a very strong foundation in Yue style Sanshou, aka Ba Fan Shou). The 64 hands appears to have mainly been based on his experience in Ba Fan Shou, but of course incorporating many bagua movements and techniques.
After Joe and Fritz had finished revising their 8 Old Palms and the portions of the 64 hands which they had learned, M Zhang began to teach and demonstrate the usage of one or two particular sets within the 64 hands (the 64 hands is actually split up into 8 ‘sets’ or small routines). I was immediately impressed by the practicality of the applications, as well as the power and speed demonstrated by M Zhang, who must have been in his mid-50s at least. The applications were full of extremely simple, practical strikes and locks on the opponent (I understand that Liang style also has separate sets training kicks and footwork, which are eventually incorporated into free fighting). Every action by Joe produced an instant counter from M Zhang, so that even if he tried to escape from the original lock / throw, he ended up in a disadvantageous position and had to ‘accept’ the lock or be hit with an elbow / fist / palmstrike.
M Zhang explained that once the 8 sets were learned in detail, one could practice them in pairs, break them out into individual move practiced (dan cao) and introduce changes and variations into the way they are practiced. All in all, it seemed like a very good ‘textbook’ for teaching students how to fight in a Liang style manner and a good bridge between forms practice and free fighting.
Unfortunately authentic Liang style does not seem to be very widespread even in China, with most of the good masters concentrated in Beijing and it is certainly very difficult to find internationally. If any readers have an opportunity to study this style or this set, I would heartily encourage them to jump at the chance!