The Eight Animal Systems of Yin Style Bagua

Yin Style Baguazhang (eight trigram palm) is a combat system based upon the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching), which is a ancient text that attempts to divide the universe into eight primal qualities. Each of these qualities is represented by a trigram, which are glyphs made up of three horizontal lines that are either broken or solid and that represent yin and yang respectively.

The trigrams are:

  • ☰ – Qián (乾) – Heaven
  • ☵ – Kǎn (坎) – Water
  • ☶ – Gèn (艮) – Mountain
  • ☳ – Zhèn (震) – Thunder
  • ☴ – Xùn (巽) – Wind
  • ☲ – Lí (離) – Fire
  • ☷ – Kūn (坤) – Earth
  •  ☱ – Duì (兌) – Lake

The bagua and the Book of Changes were historically associated with divination, although they have been applied to Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, and many other things. Baguazhang applies the bagua to martial arts, and in doing so identifies each trigram with an animal, a characteristic palm, and other martial attributes.

The eight animal systems, which correspond respectively to the trigrams as listed above, are Lion (獅 形 – shī xíng), Snake (蛇 形 – shé xíng), Bear (熊 形 – xióng xíng), Dragon (龙 形 – lóng xíng), Phoenix (凤 形 – fèng xíng), Rooster (鸡 形 – jī xíng), Unicorn (麟 形 – lín xíng), and Monkey (猴 形 – hóu xíng). Of these, seven are concerned primarily with hand techniques, while one, the Monkey system, is concerned primarily with kicking.

Each of the eight animal systems contains eight attack methods, and thus there are 64 total attack methods. Yin Style Baguazhang conceives of each animal system as a complete martial system in its own right, both standing apart from and at the same time deeply interwoven with each of the others.

The characteristic palms, again with respect to the trigrams as listed above, are Interlocking (连 环 – lián huán), Moving with the Force (顺 式 – shùn shì), Turning the Back (背 身 – bèi shēn), Lifting and Holding (平 托 – píng tuō), Windmill (风 轮 – fēng lún), Lying Step (卧 式 – wò shì), Reversing the Body (返 身 – fǎn shēn), and Enfolding (抱 式 – bào shì).

One way in which the animal systems are related is through the characteristic palms. Each animal system applies the characteristic palms of the seven others to all of its own attack methods. In this way a host animal adopts strategies, footwork, and sometimes fighting technique from each of the other seven, although the specific interpretation of the same characteristic palm varies by host animal.

The combination of characteristic palms with attack methods is the basis for Baguazhang’s standard fighting sets, which are also known as changes or forms. Therefore within each animal system there are 56 forms, and a total of 448 forms across all eight animal systems. At their most basic interpretation, the forms each have about 7 techniques, and all of the forms for a given characteristic palm within a single animal system share the same footwork and employ techniques that consider similar situations.

As an example, consider the Dragon system. Its eight attack methods are Pushing, Lifting, Carrying, Leading, Moving, Capturing, Chopping, and Entering. Each of these is combined with the characteristic palms of the 7 non-Dragon animals. This makes for 56 forms, 7 forms for each attack method. For the Pushing attack method they are – Interlocking Pushing, Moving with the Force Pushing, Turning the Back Pushing, Windmill Pushing, Lying Step Pushing, Reversing the Body Pushing, and Enfolding Pushing.

Note, there is not a Lifting and Holding Pushing form. This is because the Lifting and Holding palm corresponds with the Dragon system itself, and adopting characteristics from oneself is nonsensical. Moreover, regardless of which animal the Dragon may be visiting and which of that animal’s characteristics may be adopted, the Dragon retains its own essence. It is still the Dragon.

Each of the eight animal systems will now be considered in turn.

☰ – Qián Trigram Lion System (乾 卦 獅 形 – qián guà shī xíng)

The Qián triagram is symbolic of heaven, initiating, the creative. It is unbroken, pure, yang. Being hard and cold, its element is metal. It is the father. With respect to martial arts it pertains to uplifting the spine. Its animal is the Lion and its characteristic palm is Interlocking.

The Lion system is the most fierce and aggressive of the eight animal systems. The Lion’s attack methods are Sweeping/Slicing, Cutting, Chopping, Hooking, Shocking, Blocking, Seizing, and Grasping. It’s representational posture is called Lion Opens its Mouth.

Lion system emits force using the waist and utilizes a unified whole body force. Training methods aim to create body unity while developing develop strength and endurance.

Techniques are well-knit, unyielding, and oppressive, flowing seamlessly from one to another with no gaps. The Lion seeks to stifle and dominate its adversary by continually pressing the attack, thereby leaving no space for counters. It is supremely aggressive but not reckless. It’s characteristic palm is the Interlocking Palm, which is symbolic of the above attributes.

Attacks in the Lion system feature a circular force, which is emitted linearly. That is, with respect to the target the force is square and direct, however with respect to the practitioner, the force is round, being driven by the circular motion of the waist. Proper use of footwork, positioning, and timing are required for correct application.

The Lion system is foundational in Yin Style Bagua. Its reliance on the waist to originate movement and emit force, its interlocked fighting strategy, and its techniques inform all of the other animal systems. It is the beginning of all methods in Yin Style Bagua and one could view the other animal systems as simply adding nuance and particularities, in terms of force emission, technique, and fighting strategy to Lion. Indeed the Lion system’s first attack, rising sweeping, which is a powerful and effective movement in its own right, contains the seeds of the entire system.

☷ – Kūn Trigram Unicorn System (坤 卦 麟 形  – kūn guà lín xíng)

The Kūn trigram is symbolic of Earth. Wilhelm calls it The Receptive. Huang names it Responding. It is the mother. It is soft, yielding, yin. With respect to martial attributes the Kūn trigram emphasizes maintaining a smooth body structure, including the proper alignment and angle of joints. It’s animal is the Unicorn.

Unicorn, like Lion, emphasizes the waist, but whereas the Lion system uses the waist to emit force, the Unicorn system emphasizes using the waist to remove force. Sun Lutang writes that the unicorn has the skill of “moving quickly, changing, and being unpredictable,” and that the body is “light and quick, turning like a whirlwind.”

Admittedly, as of this writing I have not studied the Unicorn system, and so it is difficult to write much about it, although I would expect that it plays a role in developing the overall foundation of Yin Style Baguazhang in similar fashion to the Lion system. Historically it appears to have been taught immediately after Lion, but it is expected that this generation of practitioners will see it only after the other seven animal systems have been covered.

The characteristic palm of the Kūn trigram is Reversing the Body. When encountered in other animal systems the Reversing the Body Palm features quick turning movements and is often employed to work out of relatively weak positions.

☶ – Gèn Trigram Bear System (艮 卦 熊 形  –  gèn guà xióng xíng)

The Gèn trigram is symbolic of Mountain. It is Keeping Still, quiescence, the beginning and the end. It is the youngest son. With respect to martial attributes it is concerned with the back, which should be held broad and rounded. Its animal is the Bear.

Bear force is short and has a tough leathery quality. It is emitted using the back, which is held strong, while the waist and legs should be smooth and nimble. This is in accordance with the Gèn trigram, which is full on top and empty in the middle and bottom.

Sun Lutang writes that the Bear is “the most dull-witted” but also “the most awe-inspiring”. It has the method of “shaking the fur”, the ability to “uproot trees”, and the “bravery to lean against the body”.

The Bear system is largely devoted to the idea of snatching victory from defeat. As such its techniques tend to be responsive, however despite this, many techniques and strategies are developed to viciously press an attack once advantage is recaptured.

The Bear’s attack methods are Rushing, Penetrating, Withdrawing, Carrying, Leaning, Shocking, Soft, and Following.

The characteristic palm of the Gèn trigram is Turning the Back. When encountered in other animal systems, the Turning the Back palm is typically concerned with overcoming weak positions.

☱ – Duì Trigram Monkey System (兌 卦 猴 形 – duì guà hóu xíng)

The Duì trigram is symbolic of Lake. Its element is metal. It is the joyous, the youngest daughter. It is mid-autumn and resides next to the father. Wilhelm writes that it means “smashing and breaking apart; dropping off and bursting open.” The Duì trigram is open above and is thus associated with the mouth and tongue.

Martially the Duì trigram pertains to holding the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, which is said to complete an energetic circuit connecting the Ren and Du meridians. Physically speaking, placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth stabilizes the jaw and provides a convenient place to put the tongue so as to avoid biting it. Yin Style Baguazhang associates the Duì trigram with the Monkey.

Monkey system is devoted to leg methods, which in addition to being utilized in their own right, are intended to be combined with the hand methods of the other animal systems. This is consistent with being “empty on top”. The Monkey system attack methods are Bending, Stomping, Springing, Hip, Chopping, Swinging, Ending, and Stamping. Sun Lutang writes that Monkey is “the most nimble,” and that it is “soft and yielding on top and hard and firm in the middle and lower part.”

The characteristic palm associated with the Duì trigram is Enfolding. When this palms is encountered in the other seven animal systems it often employees a strategy that uses vertical movement to upset an adversary’s root and bring him down using a contracting force. Sun Lutang refers to the Enfolding Palm employing a “sinking contracting back power.”

☳ – Zhèn Trigram Dragon System (震 卦 龙 形 – zhèn guà lóng xíng)

The Zhèn trigram is symbolic of thunder. It’s element is wood that is young, strong and pliant. It resides in the east. It is the Arousing, Taking Action, the eldest son, spring time, movement, growth, and shooting upward. Wilhelm writes that “it is decisive and vehement.”

Martially the Zhèn trigram pertains to the legs and the feet. In Yin Style Baguazhang the legs are always active. This is true even when training “static” postures and stationary strikes. For example in static strength training postures, the rear leg provides an advancing force wherein the lower leg presses down and the upper leg presses up, thereby creating an empty/hollow knee joint. In contrast the front leg provides a simultaneously opposing lifting force where the lower leg presses up and the upper leg presses down, thereby creating a full/compressed knee joint.

With respect to the feet, they usually grip the ground, and this slightly hollows out the foot around the Yongquan point (K-1). This practice helps develop a better root, strengthens the muscles of the lower leg, and stabilizes the knee joint.

The animal system associated with the Zhèn trigram is the Dragon, which employees a long coiling fluid force that is driven by the legs and waist. The wrist is employed to help release a shocking force that is driven by the entire body. Footwork is expansive and large, while the arms are generally kept in front of the body. The Dragon can change rapidly, is unpredictable, aggressive, direct, and fast. Sun Lutang writes that “it is quiet on the outside and moving on the inside.”

The Dragon system attack methods are Pushing, Lifting, Carrying, Leading, Moving, Capturing, Chopping, and Entering.

The characteristic palm associated with the Zhèn trigram is Lifting and Holding. When encountered outside of the Dragon system, the Lifting and Holding palm tends to employ direct and relatively linear methods of attack combined with unpredictable footwork and abrupt changes. It employees techniques intended to work from relatively neutral positions.

☴ – Xùn Trigram Phoenix System (巽 卦 凤 形 – xùn guà fèng xíng)

The Xùn trigram is symbolic of wind. It’s element is wood that is old and dry. It is the Gentle, Proceeding Humbly. It is the elder daughter, dispersing, penetrating, entering, advance and retreat, and completion. It lies in the northeast. Wilhelm writes that Xùn is the “sign of vehemence.”

Martially the Xùn trigram, which is broken on the bottom, pertains to tucking the tailbone under and uplifting the perineum. Similarly to placing the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, this action serves to complete an energetic circuit connecting the Ren and Du meridians. Physically, the importance of this requirement cannot be understated as it is a critical aspect of transferring force between the upper and lower body for both offensive and defensive purposes. As such the tucking action is not a static position, but is akin to a sexual thrust, which is used dynamically.

The Yin Style Baguazhang Phoenix system emphasizes using the shoulder for the emission and transformation of force. The upper body is use expansively, while footwork is relatively compact. Force is emitted using a relaxed elongated shoulder and a waist set in opposition to the direction of the force. This produces a heavy whipping action. The Phoenix employees spiraling motions in the upper limbs and body that are used to transform and remove force while simultaneously attacking. Sun Lutang states that the Phoenix is “hard and strong on top and soft and yielding on the bottom.”

The Phoenix attack methods are Dodging, Extending, Chopping, Shocking, Transforming, Removing, Curling In, and Stabbing.

The characteristic palm associated with the Xùn trigram is Windmill. When this palm is encountered outside of the Phoenix system it often employees combinations that reuse the same technique on both sides of the body in rapid succession. Strategically the Windmill palm tends to be concerned with moving around an adversary in order to gain position.

☵ – Kǎn Trigram Snake System (坎 卦 蛇 形 –  kǎn guà shé xíng)

The Kǎn trigram is symbolic of water or rain. It is empty on the outside and full within. Wilhelm calls Kǎn The Abysmal. Huang calls it Darkness. It is the middle son, toil, concentration, danger, bending and straightening out, penetration, and entrapping. It is the moon, the winter and resides in the north. In Baguazhang its animal is the Snake and its characteristic palm is Moving with the Force.

Martially the Kǎn trigram pertains to the abdomen, the requirements for which vary between animal systems. For example Lion system requires that the abdomen be held full and rounded out, whereas Rooster requires that it be relatively more relaxed.

As with Unicorn, I have little personal experience with Snake. The Snake’s attack methods are Shoulder, Elbow, Knee, Hip, Shooting / Searching, Holding, Entrapping, and Grasping. Sun Lutang writes that it is the “most clever and nimble, and is the most lively.” He also notes that it has the method of point striking. Snake is also said to employ a constricting crushing force.

When encountered in other animal systems the Moving with the Force palm employees smooth footwork and flowing techniques. It has the dual meanings of yielding to and moving around a stronger force, as well as overpowering and following a weaker force. However both of these mimic the behavior of water, which flows effortlessly into emptiness. Water has a tendency to undermine and when concentrated can build momentum and exhibit an overwhelming crushing force.

☲ – Lí Trigram Rooster System ( 離 卦 鸡 形 – lí guà jī xíng)

The Lí trigram is symbolic of fire. It is hard on the outside, but soft on the inside. Wilhelm calls Lí The Clinging, while Huang calls it Brightness. It is attaching, scorching, dryness, light, lightening, and dependence. It is the sun, the middle daughter, mid-summer, due south. In Baguazhang its animal is the Rooster, and its characteristic palm is the Lying Step, as in “lying down.”

Martially the Lí trigram is associated with the chest, which should be held empty. This means both that the chest is concave and and that the rib cage is relaxed and dropped down. The concaving of the chest is somewhat related to rounding the back, however they are distinct in that rounding the back has more to do with actively making the back broad and round from shoulder to shoulder whereas hollowing the chest has more to do with allowing the sternum to relax into the body. One action is active, the other passive, which accords with the nature of the trigrams.

The Rooster system emits force using the elbow and chest and makes extensive use of the lying step stance. This is a low stance where the rear leg is extended, the front leg is bent, and the body is held in line with the rear leg. It is similar to, but should not be confused with a bow stance.

Effective use of the Rooster system requires that the practitioner develop a high degree of sensitivity and the ability to emit a short range force. Techniques use a refined tactile awareness to off-balance an adversary while nimbly employing the waist and legs to dodge and move. Dodging movements are not unlike how boxers bob and weave to simultaneously gain position and avoid being hit. Offensively Rooster system employees a fierce arsenal of powerful techniques, and next to the Lion system it is the most vigorous.

The Rooster system’s attack methods are Dodging, Extending, Shifting, Rising, Entering, Whipping, Rushing, and Piercing.

Across other animal systems the Lying Palm features the use of the lying step stance, evasive footwork, and working from positions that are neither fully dominant nor fully dominated. It is also typical to see the Rooster’s short application of force adapted to the host animal’s attack methods.

Summary

The following table summarizes the characteristics discussed above.

Trigram Name Wilhelm tr. Huang tr. Symbol Element Animal Palm Requirement Force Emission
Qián The Creative Initiating Heaven Metal Lion Interlocking upright spine waist
Kūn The Receptive Responding Earth Earth Unicorn Reversing the Body smooth aligned joints waist
Gèn Keeping Still Keeping Still [sic] Mountain Earth* Bear Turning the Back rounded back back
Duì The Joyous Joyful Lake Metal Monkey Enfolding tip of tongue on roof of mouth legs
Zhèn The Arousing Taking Action Thunder Wood Dragon Lifting and Holding feet grip ground legs
Xùn The Gentle/Penetrating Proceeding Humbly Wind Wood Phoenix Windmill tuck tailbone, lift perineum shoulder
Kǎn The Abysmal Darkness Water/Rain Water Snake Moving with the Force proper abdomen (varies) abdomen
The Clinging Brightness Fire Fire Rooster Lying hollow chest, drop ribcage chest and elbow

 

* The Gèn trigram is often identified with Earth, however with respect to the Post-Heaven arrangement it would be more logically associated with Water.

Final Thoughts and Observations

The above descriptions are intended to give a broad overview of the theory upon which Yin Style Baguazhang is based, and while it is impossible to expect any theory to give a full account of a complicated reality, the bagua are a powerful and robust theoretical model for understanding and grappling with the complexities and nuances of martial arts.

The animal systems group related techniques whose execution require similar body mechanics and whose usage reinforce one another. The forms contain the core techniques and strategies of the system, but perhaps they are more of a seed than a flower as their practice develops an ability to readily combine attack methods and change as a practitioner sees fit.

All considerations of theory aside, Yin Style Baguazhang is primarily concerned with usage and practical application. Indeed one could think of it as an applied philosophy of sorts. The theory is important but it is a means to an end, and it must produce tangible results. It does.

References:

Huang, Alfred tr.; The Complete I Ching; Inner Traditions, 2010.

Sun Lutang; Fick, Franklin tr.; The Study of Bagua Quan; Shen Long Publishing, 1917 (2010 tr.).

Twicken, David; I Ching Accupuncture; Singing Dragon, 2012.

Wihelm, Richard tr.; The I Ching; Princeton University Press, 1978.

Wikipedia; Bagua.

Wright, Craig. Introduction to Yin Style Baguazhang. 2017.

In addition, Matt Bild has also rendered some partial translations of Sun Luntang’s work, which are available in various Yin Style Baguazhang International workshop syllabi.

 


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