Martial Arts as Magic, Part 2: Baguazhang and the Basics
Welcome to Part 2 of my mini-series on creating magic systems based on movement and martial arts! If you didn’t read Part 1, start here, you animal. In today’s article, I’m going to walk you through how to start building the magic system itself. Then I’ll show you how to paint happy little trees.
One note: I’m drawing on East Asian martial arts as a template, but magic that relies on movement doesn’t have to be tied to combat or kung fu. If you wanted to, you could use ballroom dancing as the basis for a magic system and give the foxtrot the ability to summon fire. Hell, I’d read something like that. But as it stands, I think East Asian unarmed martial arts are a good fit because a) they don’t require any equipment (like a wand), b) they have a wide variety of movements and styles, and c) they usually have a rich, well-developed philosophy attached to them. All of this helps give structure to a magic system.
Your magic system is always going to be unique to you, but hopefully this article gives you some structures to work off of and some inspiration to create something that fits your world.
STORY AND THEME
The first place to start is to ask yourself what defines magic in your world and what the themes of your story are. As much fun as it is to design magic systems in a vacuum, everything in a story should work together to create a unified effect.
If you read the previous article in this series, you probably remember how LeGuin’s Taoism-influenced magic in Wizard of Earthsea evoked concepts of unity and balance, which are two things the protagonist Ged struggles with over the course of the story and two major themes of LeGuin’s world.
If you’re looking for another example of how to distill themes into magic, a great example is Avatar: the Last Airbender, where the protagonist Aang has to restore balance to the world by learning five different styles of magical martial arts (firebending, airbending, waterbending, and earthbending). A lot of the conflict in the show has to do with Aang’s reluctance to face problems head-on and his free-spirited nature, traits that are matched by the mostly soft, evasive martial art baguazhang. Aang’s style and personality is contrasted against the style and mindset used by the antagonists, who use an aggressive, hard style of Northern Shaolin kung fu.
Here’s an example of Aang employing baguazhang’s concepts of evasion, circular movement, and strong footwork in the show:
Over the course of Avatar, Aang has to adapt his thinking to learn new martial arts styles that clash with his natural tendencies, which forces him to grow as a person and take on new perspectives. Learning different martial arts (and their associated philosophies) becomes a metaphor for the hero’s journey: eventually, he accepts his responsibility as the savior of the world and finds the courage to face the main antagonist, the Firelord.
We’re going to stick with baguazhang as a running example in this article—it’s got a lot of depth to it, and it gives a good visual example for what magic in movement looks like.
IDEAS AND PHILOSOPHIES
Once you understand how your magic and worldbuilding is connected to your plot and themes, you can start distilling some of those ideas into a philosophy for your magic system. Most martial arts have a number of maxims or key ideas behind them that say something about their worldview, while some, like Arhat Fist or baguazhang, have a long and complex lineage of ideas attached to them.
Baguazhang is based on the Taoist principle that the world is in constant change, and uses the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, as the basis for its structure and techniques. Like the bagua design at the heart of I-Ching, the practitioner moves in circles when fighting, always changing position and angle in order to evade being hit and gain the upper hand on opponents. In this way, the abstract idea of constant change becomes the practical key to the user’s attack and defense. Here’s a video of baguazhang in action:
In a less combat-oriented context, baguazhang’s signature practice, circle-walking, becomes a meditative technique that causes the practitioner to contemplate the individual eight bagua, each of which represents an aspect of the universe and the self.
What makes baguazhang a good template for magic is that there’s multiple levels to it: there’s the top-level, abstract concepts at its heart (the Tao, the ultimate reality of change), the symbolic expressions of that truth in the form of patterns (the bagua and the circle), the translation of those patterns into movement (circle-walking and footwork), and the use of that movement in two very different contexts (combat and meditation).
So that’s the high-level, conceptual stuff—now onto the practical stuff. As a writer and worldbuilder, it’s helpful to break martial arts down to some of the key elements:
- Hand techniques
- Leg techniques
- Structural alignment and body mechanics
- Internal vs External
This isn’t a complete list, but it’s a good place to start. We’re going to cover stance and hand techniques in this article, then cover the rest in the next article.
The best place to start thinking about movement is the stance. In most martial arts, the practitioner’s connection to the ground is key: without a stable stance, you become unbalanced and unable to leverage the entire body. An entire book could be written about the nuances of kung fu stances, but it’s helpful to know that most are based on identifiable characteristics, like horse stance, which emphasize stability and strength, or crane stance, which is more acrobatic and requires constant balance. The differences in stance reflect different ideas, as well as different patterns of movement.
Because I have more experience with wing chun than baguazhang, I’m going to talk about Yee Ji Kim Yeung Ma, one of the stances of wing chun.
When I was learning wing chun in New York, beginning students like me were taught the siu nim tau, which is a series of movements performed while in the Yee Ji Kim Yeung Ma stance. The stance forces the practitioner to bend their knees and turn them inward (along with their toes). Here’s a demonstration by Sifu Alex Richter:
This stance would be terribly awkward in a fight, but its purpose is actually to prepare for a different stance, called advancing stance, which is created by pointing one foot outward while in Yee Ji Kim Yeung Ma and turning the torso.
In this stance, almost all of your weight is placed on the back leg, while the front foot barely touches the ground. To take a step forward, you step with your front foot and use it as a temporary anchor to drag your back foot forward without the heel lifting from the ground. Here’s a video:
While in advancing stance, two key concepts are shifting weight and turning, as well as fighting on one leg. Yee Ji Kim Yeung Ma prepares students’ legs for these kinds of movements, and is embedded with one of wing chun’s core concepts, the centerline, which we’ll talk about more later.
For now, just remember that one’s stance becomes a platform for everything else—movements are rooted in one’s stance, as are many of the core ideas of a martial art style’s philosophy.
All right, now back to baguazhang.
Baguazhang’s palm techniques are an excellent example of how the movement of one’s arms and hands can be filled with meaning. There are eight major palm techniques in baguazhang, each associated with a different trigram from the bagua (hence baguazhang’s other name, “eight trigram palm”): water, earth, fire, heaven, thunder, mountain, wind, and lake.
In effect, each palm is a different mode of thinking and fighting. For example, here’s a description of the Water Palm:
Water adapts, flowing along the line of least resistance, and taking the shape of its container…This formless receptivity and softness allows water to seep into the smallest crack or flow around any resistance. The Water Changing Palm flows or seeps around the opponent’s defenses, always seeking the line of least resistance, while simultaneously concealing Water’s unstoppable power.
Here’s a wonderfully retro video of an instructor demonstrating Water Palm:
In addition to representing the concept of water, the position and movement of the hands reflects the actual trigram for water, which is made of a broken yin line, an unbroken yang line, and another broken yin line. Yin lines are yielding and passive, while yang lines are strong and forceful.
Heaven Palm, on the other hand, is made of three yang lines, and projects force outwards—here’s the description:
The three strong-Yang lines of the Qian-Heaven Trigram push outward and upward with firmness and strength. This effortless, unceasing movement has an image of irresistible force that moves continually forward and upward. The power of the Heaven Changing Palm moves forward with strength, smoothly, continuously and inexorably breaking through the opponent’s resistance.
Here’s a video demonstrating the Heaven Palm:
The cool thing is that you can see the yang lines of the trigram in the positioning of the hands and the expression of the trigram’s central idea in the hands’ movement. This means that you can create bridges between written magic, which relies on symbols, and movement magic expressed with one’s hands.
Because a practitioner may need to switch between different modes of attack and defense, ‘palm changes’ are a major part of baguazhang, too. During a palm change, the user shifts their palm positions and changes direction. Here’s a general description of a palm change:
“…the yang [active] palm changes to become the yin [passive] palm and vice-versa, the practitioner’s path of motion changes direction, the general mechanics and power of the motion involve a rotational movement around the center line of the practitioner’s body (this includes center line of the torso, center line of the arms, and center line of the legs), and the kou bu and bai bu foot maneuvers are employed in some manner.”
Here’s a video of someone demonstrating a palm change:
Each palm ‘mode’ and palm change in baguazhang has symbolism embedded in it—the position of the arms and palms evoke concepts as concrete as earth and as abstract as thunder. From there, it’s relatively easy to imagine ways to represent concepts like ‘light,’ ‘summoning,’ or ‘invisibility.’
If you’re looking for another hand-based system that evokes magical concepts, the legendary ninja practice of kuji-kiri might be a good alternative.