Is it Ba Gua Zhang or Pa Kua Chang?


These Chinese characters for the art are usually rendered into Romanised letters as Ba Gua Zhang or Bagua Zhang using the Pinyin system, these spellings being more in contemporary use than the Pa Kua Chang of the older Wade-Giles system. Both systems require strict rules in their precise usage, but any internet search will quickly show that these proper usages are not reflected with any consistency across the globe.

The earliest popular books on Ba Gua Zhang to be available in the West were those such as Robert Smith's "Pa Kua Chang"1, which used a form of Wade-Giles with modifying accents and punctuation omitted for convenience. In English-speaking circles the pronunciation worked fine, and the phrase took hold in American and European martial arts communities, which in those years were really more preoccupied with "Kung Fu" and a little later T'ai Chi, an art itself possessed of numerous spellings! Nowadays the Wade-Giles system, though loved by a generation of western Sinophiles, and in some ways superior, is used only off the mainland, such as in Cantonese-speaking populations abroad.

Since the 'opening up' of the Peoples Republic in recent decades, it has become much more common in the West to use the "Pinyin" system, where accents to the Roman letters are again used to assist in rendering. With noone outside the Republic to correct improper use, a number of lazy variants have inevitably developed and become established, and it would be churlish to simply dismiss them as being 'wrong'. That said, it is not acceptable to make up spellings, and there are certain usages which most practitioners of the art find needlessly ugly or confusing.

A selection of Wade-Giles derivatives

  • Pa Kua Chang
  • Pakua Chang
  • Pakuachang
  • Pa-Kua-Chang
  • Pa-Kua Chang
  • Pa Kua Zhang
  • Pa Kua-Chang
  • Pakua-Chang

A selection of Pinyin derivatives

  • Ba Gua Zhang
  • Bagua Zhang
  • Baguazhang
  • Ba-Gua Zhang
  • Bagua-Zhang

A small selection of other renderings

  • Pakwarr Zhang
  • Baqua Zhang
  • Bakua Chang

Within the martial arts context, the Zhang or Chang may be omitted, since Ba Gua alone will imply the art. Outside such a specific field however, Ba Gua refers to the overall Chinese philosophical system of binomials, and that third word is certainly required for clarity.

The translation of Zhang as "palm" is convenient but also confusing. Some people think it means an emphasis on hitting with the actual palmar surface. Whilst it is true that proportionately speaking, the art does indeed hit rather frequently with the palm, it also makes appropriate use of the palm heel, the various knuckles, fingertips, head etc. — whatever is required, and certainly not ubiquitous palm use or any shyness with the fist. Other people will say that by being a Zhang/Chang art it is describing a system as being more internal than a Quan/Chuan art. Practitioners of Tai Qi Quan would probably attempt to refute this, reasonably enough. What Zhang really denotes is that we are referring to a system of martial art. Zhang effectively means "the techniques where I connect with the opponent".

Most basic dictionaries of martial arts terms will say of Ba Gua Zhang something along the lines of: "An internal system of Chinese martial arts based on the hexagrams of the I-Ching", whereas a full language dictionary will refer instead to the early mathematical treatises of Fu Xi. In fact, very few systems of Ba Gua Zhang today make any real attempt to integrate the overarching Ba Gua philosophy with the actual training or fighting methods, though they will write about them separately. In the Yin Style however, trigram reference is an integral part of an individual's development, and becomes ever more important as skills evolve.

Q: So hang on then, I'm none the wiser — is it said with a B or a P?
A: It is a mixture of both until you find a native Mandarin speaker who can teach you how they say it where they're from!

1 R.W. Smith "Pa-Kua: chinese boxing for fitness and health", Kodansha Int. (1967) ISBN: 0-87011-044-6

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