A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Robert W. Smith
(Kodansha International, Ltd., 1967, 160 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
In his introduction to Pa-kua: Chinese Boxing for Fitness and Self-Defense, author Robert W. Smith makes an important statement:
“Chinese books on Pa-kua boxing lay great stress on philosophical aspects which most Westerners would stamp as mysticism. My eschewing of most of these does not mean I disbelieve them. It merely means that I do not think a beginning text written for the Western reader is the place for philosophy—that too much philosophy would obfuscate material which by its very nature is difficult to present.”
Pa-kua may be a Category I book, presenting basic background and instructional material, but it has historical significance, being the first book in English on the subject. Indeed, the author states that it is the first non-Chinese book on Pa-kua. This fact should almost be a given considering the author. Robert W. Smith was one of the earliest Westerners to widely promote the Asian martial arts in the West. His many books on the subject, under his own name and pseudonyms, would have dominated any English-language martial arts library prior to 1980. To my knowledge, his only rival in this aspect would have been Bruce Tegner.
Despite Smith’s demurring on the topic of philosophy, he opens the book with a historical section that includes the philosophy behind pa-kua. This lies in the I-Ching and the resulting pa-kua diagram of the eight basic trigrams arranged in a circle. The history itself is amusing in that the origin of pa-kua, like the origin of tai chi and hsing-i, is shrouded in time, though all three arts were reputedly created and disseminated by mysterious Taoist monks living in remote mountains. Apparently pa-kua, like tai chi and hsing-i, is a gift presented to humankind directly from the Tao.
The first historical person associated with the art was Tung Hai-ch’uan (1798–1879), the student of pa-qua's mysterious Taoist monk. Tung became famous in Beijing, and there was challenged by Kuo Yun-shen, a hsing-i exponent who had killed men with his “crushing hand.” The duel lasted two days and ended in a crushing defeat for Kuo. Kuo was so impressed that he and Tung became fast friends, and they agreed that their students should learn both arts. This is why pa-kua and hsing-i are often coupled, and indeed, the circular nature of the former is complemented by the linear nature of the latter, and vice versa. Smith then takes us through time and a number of other masters who took up and further disseminated the art. Included are some amusing stories—legends—regarding the fantastic abilities of Tung and his successors.
Chapter two introduces what Smith calls a “beginning method.” This is not the characteristic walking of the circle usually associated with pa-kua but a more simplified series of eighteen independent exercises whose postures embody given martial movement patterns. In these, the feet tend to remain firmly rooted, and there is little stepping. These movements, Smith agrees, are not classical pa-kua and are more linear in nature, showing the influence of hsing-i. Most of the movements are presented in series of four to eight photos, and some are accompanied by secondary photos showing Smith applying the movements to an opponent. Striking dominates these movements, but there are a few sweeps and throws. The photos are clear and of adequate size.
The movements are not linked in the descriptions, but Smith later states that the practitioner should master the movements on both sides and then strive to link them into a flowing sequence, performing four in one direction, then four in the opposite direction, and so on.
The next chapter presents the classical pa-kua circling method and modifications. One of the chief differences between the exercises described previously and the circling method is the application of strength. The hsing-i-like movements emphasize vertical strength while the circling method emphasizes horizontal strength. Before going into the instruction on the circling method, Smith presents twenty pages relating the principles of the art as related to him by his teacher, Kuo Feng-Ch’ih.
This advice includes the concepts of relaxation and slowness, the mind, breathing, the use of strength, and the link between substance and function, among others. Each point is expanded on, winding up with the concept of the circle as a training tool.
The instructions for the circle walking begin with the single palm chang before moving on to the double palm change, snake posture, lion posture, standing palm, and dragon posture. Each style is defined in clear text that is accompanied by clear photos and foot-stepping patterns.
I don’t practice pa-kua and I don’t have many books on the subject, so I don’t have a strong enough knowledge of the art to objectively assess the quality of the material, but Smith was an experienced, energetic, and perceptive student of the Chinese martial arts, and his postures look pretty good to me. Plus, the information he presents in his various books usually is solidly based, and this one seems to be no different. So, all-in-all, this seminal English-language text on pa-kua is pretty good at conveying the basics of the history, principles, and techniques of the art.