Tracing the Origins of Baji Quan

"For ministers, Tai Chi Quan is used to run the country; for generals, Baji Quan is used to defend the country? (traditional wushu proverb)

Baji Quan, or Eight Extremes Fist, is one of the oldest and best known styles of traditional wushu. Yet despite its long history, scholars and researchers to this day still struggle to identify the exact origins of the style.

A two man pattern from Baji Quan.

Baji Quan Master

Historical Origins

The history of Baji, like so many famous styles, is carried mostly in legends that are both vague and contradictory. Most scholars agree that Baji Quan surfaced around three hundred years ago, first practiced by Wu Zhong, a Chinese Muslim from Meng Village, Hebei Province. Years later, during the reign of Emperor Yong Zheng (1723-1735), the style was officially adopted by the imperial bodyguards defending their monarch.

Baji a Shaolin art?

How Wu Zhong came to learn this style is unknown. One version holds that Master Wu was taught the rudiments of Baji and the art of spear-play from a Daoist monk named Lai Kui Yuan, although other versions dispute that he was only taught spear by Lai and studied Baji under another instructor.

Another story suggests that Wu Zhong had visited the Songshan Shaolin Temple, where he learned Shaolin qi gong for three years, developing Baji Quan in this period. However, it is almost impossible to confirm these, at best, anecdotal histories conclusively, other than that they must have occurred towards the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Our remaining sources of information are the patterns themselves. Baji patterns reveal some of the important characteristics of the style: the stances are low but mobile, not rooted like southern styles; the arms move in wide circles; each strike is delivered in time with stepping or shuffling of the legs; stamping of the feet is frequent, using the recoil to generate more power; there is a noticeable undulation of the body before many strikes; the stylists regularly strike their dan tian in time with strikes, exhaling forcefully; and many of the movements are highly linear and aggressive (RELATED VIDEOS:Baji Muslim Master Pattern, Baji Single Fight Pattern).

Standing on one leg, ready to change direction

Different Influences

The physical characteristics indicate many possible influences. The broad sideways facing ma bu (Horse Stance) and wide open arms recall the Shaolin derived Chang Quan (Long Fist). Conversely, the breathing methods, undulating, wavelike body movements and dan tian stimulation is highly reminiscent of Wudang Quan, as are many of the open palm strikes. We can also see many linear and aggressive strikes that are strikingly similar to Xing Yi.

The visual similarities between Baji, Shaolin and Xing Yi lend credence to the idea that Baji was developed at the Shaolin Temple. The creator of Xing Yi, Ji Ji Ke was known to have visited the temple only a generation earlier to teach and further develop his art. During Wu Zhong's lifetime, Xing Yi would have been well established at the temple. It was not uncommon for masters to make the pilgrimage to Songshan in order to exchange ideas with monks and other practitioners, and Wu Zhong may well have made a similar journey and absorbed elements of Xing Yi into his own practice.

Likewise, if Wu Zhong was taught by the Daoist monk Lai Kui Yuan, it would explain some of the similarities with Daoist arts like Wudang Quan so evident in Baji patterns.

Baji is famous for its spear work

Both versions may indeed be correct. China during the eighteenth century was in great turmoil, the Manchurian overthrow of the Ming dynasty having fueled the breakdown of traditional social barriers. Peasants and aristocracy, civilians and soldiers, Daoists and Buddhists will have all found themselves united under a common banner of opposition to the northern invaders.

Martial artists became more mobile, and either to escape persecution or to contribute to the underground resistance movements, began to seek refuge in the northern and southern Shaolin Temples and, to a lesser extent, Wudang Shan. Thus began a great diffusion of styles, sharing principles, exchanging ideas and ultimately influencing each other to a degree not experienced before.

That Baji shares a common history and obvious visual similarities with styles such as Xing Yi, Shaolin and Wudang is a consequence of the traumatic period in which it was first conceived. Typical to styles developed in this era, Wu Zhong may have taken elements of many different styles and forged them together against a background of war, violence and necessity. Baji is a powerful style, known to favour 'killing with a single blow' and highly effective on the battlefield. No wonder then that until the death of the last Qing Empress Pu Yi, imperial bodyguards were trained in Baji just as they had been for almost 200 years.

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