Baguazhang: The martial dance of an angry baby-god.
In this paper I investigate the Chinese internal martial art baguazhang 八卦掌 in order to expose its theatrical and religious roots.
I show how the conventional histories of baguazhang that developed in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion are both unsatisfying and incomplete (Allen, Zhang 2007; Zhang, Shapiro 2008; P. A Cohen 1997). Drawing on the fictional epic Canonization of the the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi) I explore the idea that baguazhang is an art which developed to portray the rebellious child-god Nezha 哪吒 as the leader of the Thunder Gods 雷神 in ritual-theater staged for the invocation of invisible armies of shadow soldiers (yinbing) (Meulenbeld 2015; Shahar 2015).
Drawing on my experience as a practitioner of baguazhang, I investigate thematic narratives, baguazhang’s unique weapons, its improvisation practice, its stepping, and its signature dragon-twisting movement. By integrating kinesthetic knowledge with a culturally embedded understanding of history, I propose a unifying cosmology that explains the unique characteristics of baguazhang.
Linking baguazhang to the god Nezha, opens many new lines of inquiry. The link suggests a synthesis in practice, where Daoist medium-ship and the golden elixir (jindan) merge with a Chinese version of the Tibetan tantric Buddhist practice of Chöd (Harding 2003; Shahar 2015; Strickmann 2002; Phillips, Mroz 2015). This syncretic possibility conjures images of an angry child returning his flesh and bones to his parents while walking through mud to create an indestructible lotus body—a body that parallels the creation of the diamond (vajra/dorje/jingang) body in other Chinese martial arts (Shahar 2012). (261 words)