Pa Kua Chang’s Infinite Strategies

Pa Kua Chang  is one of the most complex and misunderstood of Chinese martial arts. It is one of the internal styles, known for its highly evasive footwork, snake-like body movements, quick changes, close-in fighting manuevers, and the use of optimum angles of attack and defense. A practitioner of this style is usually seen walking in a circular pattern around an imagined center point.

It’s been said that, “only a small number of the people who train in the martial arts will be willing and/or able to excel in the internal styles” (i.e., Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing Yi Chuan, Lu Ho Ba Fa, Pa Kua Chang), “while only a small number from that group (the internal styles), will be able to excel in Pa Kua Chang.” If this holds any water, then only a very small percentage of all martial arts practitioners are willing and/or able to excel in their practice of Pa Kua Chang. Is this true? If so, that would explain why quality instruction in the complete art of Pa Kua Chang is not easy to find. It is a rare style (though it is slowly gaining in popularity), that is usually taught through the use of circle walking forms. At least that is what most people who have seen it in this country are familiar with. What about how all of the other characteristics are developed? Is it all in the forms?

Pa Kua Chang Research

There may be a lot of information contained in the forms of any style. By breaking apart these sequences, we can analyze the applications. But how can we do this without first understanding the theories and principles that went into creating what we are practicing? The Pa Kua Chang taught by Bok Nam Park emphasizes the training prior to these sequences to insure that the practitioner is prepared for what is to come.

It’s been said that, “Pa Kua is a thinking man’s art”, and training with Park emphasizes this point. Basic Pa Kua footwork, body development, palm techniques, breathing methods, chi kung, etc. are each taught separately, then specific “principles” and “theories” are added at appropriate times to lead the student in the right direction at the right time.

To the beginner of Park’s style, especially those practitioners whose only encounters with Pa Kua involved walking in circular patterns, it is common to question the validity of his teaching in relation to what many think of as Pa Kua Chang.

The students are given “clumps of clay” that need to be shaped into perfectly smooth, round spheres. Then gradually, as the students progress, he gives the “chains” that link these spheres together. As the pieces are linked together bit by bit, the Pa Kua that most practitioners have become familiar with, begins to take shape. Students eyes are then opened to see how these traditional forms were actually created, and to the prior knowledge masters of the past had to understand.

Park’s teaching methods often involve leaving the students on their own to figure out how to link these “spheres” together. This is no easy process since constant repetition for long periods of time can be very monotonous as well as fatiguing. In the time it takes to see what one thinks of as “Pa Kua Chang”, those who want to learn just the pretty forms so they “have something to show” will frequently lose patience and begin to look elsewhere. Whereas those who persevere will undoubtedly encounter a true treasure.

If each part of the training is mastered, the body will figure out how to put things into use, if the right input is given at the right time.

The time is right when the teacher’s input is easily adapted into the student’s training because his/her body (and mind) is ready. This can be very frustrating, since it may take months to see new material, but the serious practitioner will understand that this is the best way to learn. If the practitioner continues to add higher level training without first “shaping” his/her skills at previous levels, then confusion is sure to be in the results. A student can experience great revelations in this manner. The occasional “try this” or “now combine these two parts” teaching method forces the student to think, or else true progress will be stalled. The creative mind is enhanced when one is forced to use it.

Obviously, in order to be proficient in anything, one needs to practice, practice, practice! This is the true essence of the meaning of “Kung Fu”. But how does a student learn to be creative?

The key to creativity, and ultimately, continued progress, is in the mind, not the forms. When given specific formulas, the student has the ability to produce unlimited results within the boundaries of given principles.

Here is a good example of how Park puts pieces together: The student learns how to execute a simple palm change (Fan Chang) in a chi kung exercise to coordinate with the mind and breathing. The student is also practicing footwork separately (Pa Fang Ken Pu, “Eight Direction Rooted Stepping”), which shows the student basic attacking and defending maneuvers without using the hands. Basic palm exercises (Tou Chang, “shaking palm”, as one example) are taught, to develop internal striking. Once there is proficiency in these footwork exercises, palm exercises, as well as good body coordination with the palm change, Park will show the student how to combine the “shaking palm” with the palm change, how to combine the palm change with the footwork, and how to attack and defend with the palm change and the footwork.

With these basics in place, Park adds the principles and theories that encourage the practitioners to research and create their own practice patterns.

For example, the eight trigrams were produced by taking two, or yang and yin:


(Yang)         (Yin)

and get four by adding yang or a yin to each:

then repeating the action by again adding a yang or a yin to each creating eight sets of three:


(Heaven)     (Lake)       (Fire)    (Thunder)   (Wind)    (Water)  (Mountain) (Earth)


If we use this in the context of fighting, we can use the duality of attack and defense, and by creating sets of three, it produces eight possible combinations where A = attack, and D = defense:

A + D + A

D + A + D

A + A + D

D + D + A

A + D + D

D + A + A

A + A + A

D + D + D

From here, we can expand the idea, where ‘A’ may equal a long range attack or a short range attack, and ‘D’ may equal a defense to the inside or a defense to the outside. This would expand just the first combination above into eight possibilities:

LA + Di + SA

LA + Do + SA

LA + Di + LA

LA + Do + LA

SA + Di + LA

SA + Do + LA

SA + Di + SA

SA + Do + SA

This example, to those who like to refer to the mathematics of the I Ching, is just one of many ways that the original eight attack and defense “trigrams” above will expand to “sixty-four changes.” With that in mind, the practitioner of Park’s style is learning how to create his/her own patterns to practice, instead of relying solely on a sequence that was created long ago.

The research that must go into understanding the above formulas must include the principles of yin and yang (i.e., yin changing to yang, and vice versa, creates power), wu hsing (i.e., metal – hard power, water – soft power, wood – created between the changing of yin and yang, fire – how fa jing causes internal damage, earth – root), and the I Ching (i.e., eight directions; sixty-four changes; etc.).

Solo practice and research of these formulas and principles must eventually be combined into two person practice in order to understand the reactions of an opponent in a given situation. This will give the practitioner a more realistic “sense of enemy” while practicing alone.

This “sense of enemy” is a very important concept when researching the use of the numerous techniques handed down in the traditional forms. Since many instructors teach applications based on the movements within their given sequences, real life fighting principles must be adhered to. However, many times they come up with elaborate ideas about how to use their techniques that are just too complicated and/or take too much time. I’ve seen many demonstrations, both in person and on video tapes, where the demonstrator goes through this wonderful three, four, or even five step application, directly from their “traditional” sequence, while the attacker is still holding his/her fist out from the initial attack! Wow! This guy is amazing! And we are lead to believe that in the speed of a real fight, a “master” can execute this application. Think about it. Does this make sense? Memorizing the many applications within a form does not help a practitioner to understand how to fight if realistic fighting principles are not practiced and understood. According to Park, a very important principle in a fighting situation is that the person you are fighting is not asleep! If you move, so will your opponent! So, when a practitioner is researching fighting applications that will develop good reflexes in a real situation, all of the previously mentioned principles must be included.

A good example of how given applications are researched is as follows: When two practitioners are utilizing the aforementioned formulas, if one attacks, the other must defend and attack (counter). A simple yet effective exercise using this idea would lead to: A + (D + A) + D + A + (D + A) + D + A + (D + A) + etc., etc. , with one practitioner represented by the open letters and the other represented by the letters in parentheses.

The serious practitioner will be busy for a long time with all that has been mentioned, but this is just the tip of what seems to be an endless iceberg.

Once the practitioner begins to acquire a “reflex” of any given exercise, Park will add the necessary elements to help the student see things differently and continue progress.

One such area that opens the practitioner’s research possibilities is the “Eight Animals.” The animals include: the Lion, Unicorn, Snake, Swallow, Dragon, Bear, Phoenix, and Monkey. Each with its own characteristics.

The animals are first taught as a stationary chi kung set to coordinate the mind, the breathing, and the body structure of each animal. This is essential training! without it, the animals will not be of much use in later stages. The animals are then combined with footwork (i.e., circle walking, which was developed separately), and, once proficient, the practitioner will know how to combine the movements of the eight animals into his/her research, along with all other skills acquired.

With the right tools, the creative mind can go to work. Students can create anything, as long as none of the principles are missing. Once this is mastered, the practitioner’s Pa Kua Chang style can become his/her own, with its limitations as boundless as the mind itself. And since there are many different kinds of people, students will have their own emphasis within the same style: one may be quick and agile, mastering footwork to the point that an opponent cannot touch them, then exploding into a speed combination, at just the right moment, to overwhelm their adversary; another may be bigger and stronger, mastering the right angles with little movement, so that the opponent is lead into their awesome power; one may develop kicking (yes, of course, there is kicking in Pa Kua Chang!), hooking, and controlling the opponent’s footwork; yet another may emphasize throws and takedowns.

Training the mind

In a study involving “free throws” in basketball, three groups were tested. After shooting and having their scores calculated, one group was told not to practice; one group was to practice every day; the third group was to only imagine their practice, every day. After the given time, the group that did not practice at all scored about the same; the group that practiced physically had greatly improved; the third group, that practiced only mentally, improved only 1% less than the group that physically practiced every day! This example is given to show that the mind can barely tell the difference been what is real and what is imagined!

Park will emphasize this idea many times when teaching his students how to build a reflex. While researching their different attack and defense combinations, the students are told to imagine its use in a fighting situation. If this is done with enough repetitions and a focused mind within the correct fighting principles (i.e., what will work and what will not work in a given situation), the body will learn it as a reflex, and movement will commence when it is needed, without any conscious thought. The practitioner will then understand how “the chi can lead the body.”

That said, how can the body learn reflex actions while only performing complex sequences with numerous techniques? Reflex will be developed through mastering these sequences, but in the order of the sequence practiced. In other words, the practitioner becomes “locked in” to the patterns of the form and rarely can use these techniques in an ever changing fighting situation.

The Pa Kua Chang taught by Park emphasizes the practitioner’s ability to adapt to change. Simply put, the I Ching or “Book of Changes” is based on the premise that everything in the universe is constantly changing. How then can Pa Kua Chang be taught without the same principle? Teaching only the predetermined patterns and calling it Pa Kua Chang is giving the student a very limited, and even misleading, concept of this style.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of these sequences, regardless of the style. I believe in the time and energy it takes to perfect these forms. It builds character, patience, endurance, etc. It challenges the concentration and the memory. It preserves the art itself. The continuous movement of the traditional forms teach many ways that different techniques can be linked together. A good system of forms will develop the practitioner according to the movement of that style. A good system will also develop the practitioner’s body control, coordination, and ability to learn more advanced movement. But, (and here is the important part!) these forms, including both solo and matching, are only a piece of the training puzzle. Without the other pieces, it would take a rare bird to reach a high level of skill, to say the least about defending oneself against someone who knows how to fight!

Unfortunately, many of the pieces are missing in most schools. The “masters” or “grandmasters” who truly possess great skill from their many years of training, rarely teach the way they were taught. Maybe they believe their foundation was not important. Maybe they are bored with teaching the fundamentals, or just want to keep their students happy with the “good stuff”, or what is considered “fun.” Lack of patience of the students is usually the main reason. Imagine running a school where the first six months is only stance training? Your doors would close very quickly! That’s the problem. The real “good stuff” is actually what no one wants to do. It’s the stuff that hurts! The stuff that challenges the will and cultivates the self through years of dedication and consistency.

Park, too, was influenced by the lack of student’s patience here in the U. S. However, he soon realized that the students were not developing the necessary reflexes to reach higher levels. Instead of continuing to teach to keep people happy, Park frequently stops teaching for months on end, whereby basics are drilled for hours at a time so the students can refine what they already learned. Those who put in the consistent time and effort realize that even when Park is not teaching new material, they are learning more. These theories, principles, and formulas allow those whose efforts are sincere and consistent, to continue progress in what was already learned. New material is often more a hindrance than a benefit.

Park knows what it took to acquire the skill he has. He lived with his teacher, Lu Shui-T’ien, for nine years; trained with him for seventeen; and still believes his understanding is improving after thirty-five years in one style. Few people will actually put in the time and effort necessary to truly comprehend this system. Park says that if he can do it anyone can do it. I believe that is true, but the key is in the will of each student.

In conclusion, Pa Kua Chang’s reputation of being so complex is not based on the forms alone. Within the intricate system taught by Park, the circle walking is only a part of the complete system; and the circle walking forms are a way to “wrap things up.” The addition of the theories, principles, and formulas discussed will allow any student to progress to a high level of ability, limited only by the effort of the practitioner, with the freedom to have your own style derived from a complete system of Pa Kua Chang.

Article Originally Published, May ’95 Inside Kung Fu Mag. Under the title “Think About It! Pa Kua Chang’s Infinite Strategies”

Written by Shifu Raymond J. Ahles



Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.