Let me begin by saying I am well aware anybody that waves their hands in the air does a “Martial Art” or “Chi Gong” in modern times! And following mass consciousness the dictionary -with each new addition – will tend to make connotations into definitions. However by their own origins the words “Martial Art” imply Martial or “Mars” the God of War and “Art” meaning a highly refined skill using imagination—so from my point of view —only War Arts are actually Martial Arts. If the arts are directed to Combat Sports then that is what they are. “M.M.A.” is really only a marketing tool for rudimentary kickboxing with about five throws and often poor boxing. There is very little “Mixing” of anything nor are “Martial Arts” represented in it. It is a basic combination of Combat Sports very far from the reality of War and certainly even further from combining the techniques needed for war (which of necessity use weapons as well). So getting back to the question of Ba-gua Ch’uan actually being a “Martial Art”—
When we add the word “Ch’uan” or “Juan” to another word it means in Chinese “Fist” but connotes “Boxing” or “Pugilism”. The other character for Ts’ang or “Song” or “Chang”, “Zhang” means “Palm” and connotes use of the open hand or “Palm”.
So if what is written is “Ba-gua Ch’uan” or “Ba-gua Tsang” then we have two very clear ideas. One is the concept of Ba-gua (which I deal with in another article) and also the idea of pugilism or “boxing”. That being said the Chinese word for “Boxing” or “Chuan” does not describe boxing as we know it in the West nor does it describe competitive fighting in anyway. In fact neither does it describe warfare. It is best encapsulated with Donn Draeger’s description of “Civilian Self-Defense Method”. So here we have something that is not specifically designed for warfare, nor for combat sport. That being said it can be ADAPTED to those needs. But those needs are not what the original design was for.
This means that the technical boxing-as self defense and self development- is somehow connected to very old Taoist creation theories. So the movements of this “boxing” are directly related to certain Taoist ideas. One of the few to write about this was Sun Lu-tang who was among the very few to write about Ba-gua Ch’uan in the 1940s in China. In his text Sun goes to some effort to try to show that the movements and the Ba-gua concepts are deeply connected. He obviously believed this was the case and I respect his efforts to demonstrate this to the public by writing a book. Other writers since his time following tradition have tried to do the same.
More modern writers have said there is no relation between Ba-gua and the self -defense art of Ba-gua Ch’uan. But then if that is truly the case why use the word in the first place when any other descriptions are more accurate, more true and to – the – point? some say it is to connect the movements to an august tradition, giving them more validity by attaching them to a romantic past. Well, perhaps that is so but if one thinks a bit more deeply any number of high sounding names could have done the job and in fact were used to describe other arts, some related to Ba-gua Ch’uan. And besides why bother at all? and why do we have Sun Lu-tang and a few others in the 1940s writing clearly and plainly it is otherwise-particularly when they claim specific Taoist Teachers? do we assume their dishonesty in the name of the pursuit of our truth?
True the rising wave of Nationalism in China at the time begged for the cultural involvement of teachers like Sun Lu-tang. There was a need to encourage people, particularly the Chinese Nation which was intensely beaten down by foreign interests at this point in history. And Sun and other filled the slot by making these “Encultured (“EnNationalled?”) Civilian Self Defense Systems” easier to do and more available to the public on a mass scale. (Remember other teachers did not follow this trend and kept their arts more secret, less available and in fact much more difficult to do or teach. I often tell my students, “Sun taught it this way for fat people and bureaucrats but the original was likely more like…”).
At any rate we can say safely that whatever their origin these seemingly Taoist Inspired Self Defense Systems were not designed for open competition (though a few occurred more often than not by unskilled people) nor for use in War. For that reason they do not actually fall within the purview of “Sport” or “War”. Again they can be a adapted to fit these models but these categories are not what they were/are designed to do either in structure or intent. The available evidence points to an array skills passed from one teacher to a student oriented specifically to individual self-defense in society. When weapons were taught as part of this process however everything changes. Weaponry brings tactics into the sphere of War. Weapons by their nature are offensive and designed to kill but used prescriptively to defend. At this junction of weaponry a Self-Defense System is easily adapted to mass warfare but again this much depends on the kind of weapon. Archery and Spears work well in mass warfare while some of the more obscure weapons like the Antler or ‘Lunar Cresence Knives’ provide applications more appropriate to policing like the Japanese Jutte or “Sword Breaker”.
Ba-gua Ch’uan applied to the use of the Spear could easily have War or Martial Applications but as an art using the Deer Horn Knives it appears to be a Policing Art for apprehending and hooking and disarming weapons and criminals. As an empty hand self defense system it is just that however marked by certain unique turning actions of the body.
An additional idea; Ba-gua as a concept was adapted as a Way of Strategy and the Hexagrams were re-arranged specifically to predict strategies in war (as early as 5 A.D. I recall-in fact the Gao Ba-gua Ch’uan arranges its tactics specifically to this very old strategic arrangement -separating it from the Book of Changes (I-ching) Traditions but which perhaps not oddly also found its way into Taoist Liturgical Exorcism). As a strategic arrangement these patterns are indeed related to the movement of troops and also the interpretation of data for Intelligence gathering Operatives (See Deacon’s (or M.R.D. Foote’s) “History of Chinese Intelligence).
My conclusion from all of this is that Ba-gua ch’uan is- in its several forms (but hopefully not the most recent inventions of the Communists with their Tourist Gung-fu)primarily a Civilian Self Defense System which has been adapted — either through weapon or principle —to–at times — WarTime service – though that is not its primary structure or intent.