Writing, Politics and the Internal Art of Ba Gua Zhang: Further Notes Toward a Dao of Writing by Eric Darton

"Seminary Garden." Photo by author.

“Seminary Garden.” Photo by author.

Writing, Politics and the Internal Art of Ba Gua Zhang:

Further Notes Toward a Dao of Writing


To practice the Chinese martial art Ba Gua Zhang is to become both an author and reader of an endlessly unscrolling text. This text is at once vast and minute. It extends behind and ahead of you over many generations and a wide topography. You can only write your part of it, and no matter how skilled you become, the majority of the text has been and will be authored by others, alive, dead, and yet to be born. It is a collaborative work, organized around a discernable, coherent, and deeply integrative form.*

What are the implications of a vast and coherent text made by numberless authors? And what of the individual who enters this stream? What if she or he has, for much of their lifetime, identified as a radical and a writer – someone acculturated and accustomed to organizing their thought patterns and “philosophy” around the intellectual demands of political analysis and written language? How does a Daoist practice, assimilated incrementally into the body, affect one’s understanding of the linguistic and political dynamics at work in the world? To what new fields of “action” does it grant access? What changes take place in the narrative of one’s own and other’s political actions? Put in more starkly rhetorical terms, how does it shift one’s sense of agency and critique of power?

The first and most (retroactively) shocking realization, taught by the continuous chain-linking movements of the form itself, is that there is nothing in the practice that supports the idea of a beginning or an end. There are no “goals,” only cyclical potentiation of movement, actualization and resorption. One does not seek to strike a particular blow, though that blow may happen. One does not maneuver an opponent in order to execute, say, a joint lock, or a throw. Rather it is the interplay of your and your opponent’s movements that creates the “space” for the lock or throw to occur. If a dispositive move happens, it often comes quite unexpectedly out of the build-up of circumstances. The practitioner trained in this form thus has no formula for what she or he will do in a given situation – the situation creates opportunities to draw the opponent into an unsustainable position. In short, I do not try to defeat my opponent. Instead, by maintaining the integrity of my structure, I facilitate the conditions for his self-defeat.**

In Ba Gua Zhang the polar forces of yin and yang interact harmoniously to produce full body power. One’s yin hand may transform instantaneously into one’s yang hand. The guarding hand may move to strike, the striking hand to protect, seamlessly and effortlessly because the yin element of receptivity is contained within the yang element of initiation and action, and vice versa. Thus fighting efficacy is less dependent on speed and muscular strength than on fluid, coordinated internal change. One’s body and limbs become the site of a fully integrated dynamic of movement and stillness, ever ready to shift in response to the situation as it unfolds. The body engages as a unified web of energies.

With regard to writing, it is easy to see, in the endless interplay of yin and yang, the emergence of new and highly pleasurable fields of expression, particularly in context of a syntactic language such as English. Subjects and objects may more readily avail themselves of their inherent but rarely mobilized capacity to compenetrate one another. That which initiates and that which receives may fully employ, and exploit, the fecundity of their co-operability.

In writing and political action then, as much as in Ba Gua Zhang, the inseparable interweave of yin and yang creates ongoing and generative potential for coordinated movement and change, rather than a fragmented response or one based on forced unanimity. Integrity is achieved not via heroic feats of will or labored effort but through a sustained, quotidien practice of building an internally integrated structure that can engage openly and robustly with the outside world.

A second, and truly surprising – because unexpected – consequence of internal arts practice is that one may feel one’s habitual anxieties, ethical and moral constructs, and even the core narrative of one’s identity, being gradually permeated by an indefinable, yet ever more discernable something else. The sense of “being” which provided one with so much emotional solidity and cohesion is subtly altered by the experience of living in the midst of a constantly unfolding, ever regenerative process. Freely translated, the Chinese adage “I do not hold myself together, I do not let myself go,” encapsulates this dynamic balance succinctly. Day by day, molecule by molecule, the body acquires a mode of functioning in which one’s thoughts and feelings arise without immediately defaulting toward narrative. For the writer, this is in equal measure scary and liberating.

Yet the sense of self maintains, even as the “other” is gradually constituted of ever less projective material. In training to fight, it is said that one imagines contesting a flesh and blood opponent. In combat, one fights as if simply practicing the form. The opponent is drained of ideological value and emotional charge. He is simply a collection of energies just as you are. These energies may be observed, and by discernment and appropriate movement, defeated – though rarely by one master stroke, master argument, master narrative.

With respect to the field of political theory and action, two things appertain. Internal arts practice does not transform one into a moral relativist. If anything, one recognizes more clearly than ever the pathogenic nature of political and economic asymmetry and disjunction. Systems of enslavement and oppression, physical and spiritual colonization, objectification, institutionalized violence and coercion appear as so many symptoms of social illness. Addressing the underlying malady, however, becomes less a question of establishing a fixed position from which one demands, say, “justice” or “rights,” than of applying one’s energy with a fluid but unrelenting force toward those personal and collectice practices which support a healthier social equilibrium. In that sense, one’s politics become less theoretical and more grounded in recognizing the fundamental efficacy inherent in optimizing humanity’s generative energies as a whole, and of integrating our activities harmoniously with the cycles of the life-sustaining earth.

Ba Gua Zhang’s emphasis on mobility and opportunism, its avoidance of labored strength and potentially self-destructive clashes of force against force, along with its techniques for drawing the adversary into a disadvantageous position may be easily translated to the level of political tactics and strategy, a topic I hope to address in a future essay.

As one shifts from a reliance on force toward an enhanced capacity for spontaneous movement within a field of sustained intentionality, one feels, in writing, less urgency to create ex nihilo, to manifest one’s will through telling a story, particularly a dramatic one. One attunes, rather, to that which is manifestly real – however invisible, however fictional – at a point upstream from categorical iteration, where one may more readily let pass the impulse to invent or otherwise constitute a subject. By taking up the pen, one cultivates one’s field, and observes as the sentences give birth to themselves. One watches the ideas deploy on the page directed by a subtle, eventually “forgotten” intentionality. The words moving within us have a tendency to assume a form. We guide them while resisting, to the degree possible, our temptation to determine their meaning, endow them with purpose, or make them grow faster by pulling them up out of the ground. Their generative power, transmitted through their roots, is resorbed back into the text. If your works are to achieve full realization, it is not your action that causes this, rather the already abundant nutrients within your cultural substrate, combined with your fund of personal experience and the kung fu of your writerly craft.***

I recognize that what I have said above opens up opportunities to discuss at greater length the ways in which a more paratactic mode of writing may be fruitfully deployed within our syntactic structures, and I hope to take this up as well in future writings.

As ever, I want to express my gratitude to Tom Bisio for his generous, patient and rigorous teaching, and to François Jullien, whose work translates classical Chinese thought into Western language with exemplary clarity and insight.


* The “founder” of Ba Gua Zhang, Dong Hai Chuan, d. 1882, is said to have composed the 36 Songs and 48 methods, sets of chanted mnemonic verses that are considered essential to learning the art. Some practitioners believe they were first written down by the third generation BGZ master Guo Ge Min. If one does not speak or read Chinese, a great deal of the dimensionality of these verses is simply inaccessible. That said, here is, in my view, the best available translation of Song 25:

When the eyes arrive, the hands arrive.

Then intention, spirit and power can be real.

When the three reals and four arrivals combine into one,

[There is] sufficiency to defend yourself and defeat others.

[Huang Guo Qi and Tom Bisio with small liberties by the author]

** “Get out of the way and use the floor to hurt him – keep walking.”

“Make an empty space and plant him in it.”

“If he wants to go up, go up. If he wants to go down, go down.”

These comments, made at various times by Ba Gua Zhang master Tom Bisio to his students, are recollected to the best of my ability.


*** I use the term kung fu here in several senses, including its original meaning: achievement gained through diligent effort.