Exact and plentiful details concerning Dong Haichuan and his creation of Baguazhang are few and far between, due in large part to an aura of mystery that Dong intentionally cultivated. We do know that he was originally born and raised in Wen An, Hebei province and later moved to Beijing, where he taught the palace guards his new and unique style, Baguazhang. Several legends and possibilities are presented below.
One legend is that Dong wondered into the mountains near Beijing and encountered a dwarf. This dwarf allegedly led Dong to a monk named Bi Deng Xia (Man Without Shadow Under the Lamp) who was the number one student of the actual founder of Baguazhang. Dong acquired his art from Bi Deng Xia while Song Wei Yi the famous swordsman learned his skill from Bi Yue Xia (Man Without Shadow Under the Moon). In 1949, the writer Li Yingan was learning fencing with master Guo Zhifeng. According to master Guo his arts came from Master Song Wei Yi. However, Master Guo’s fencing and pugilistic arts are quite different from those of Dong Haichuan’s. In view of this difference, it can be surmised that the validity of this historical version is open to doubt.
Another version came from Master Ren Zhicheng who wrote a book called Yin Yang Ba Gua Zhang. According to this book, Ren’s teacher Master Li Zhenqing’s Eight Palm Maneuvers and Dong Hai Chuan’s Eight Palm Maneuvers were both learned from Master Dong Menglin. Indeed there were many similarities between Li’s Babanzhang and Dong Haichuan’s Baguazhang. However, there is no concrete proof of master Ren’s version.
The most plausible version is that Dong Haichuan created Baguazhang from his life experiences. He trained extensively in martial arts for much of his youth in his home, Wen An in Hebei province. At the age of 40, he was said to have left Wen An and joined a pacifist order of Taoist monks who practiced their faith by walking in circles and chanting mantras. He later became a servant in the Emperor’s kitchen where he had to balance great dishes on each hand and in so doing inspired many future Bagua palm movements. It is most likely that he combined various elements – his years of training in Wen An, the circle walking of the Taoists, the footwork and palm changes in the kitchen – to create the Baguazhang forms.
On one occasion, the Emperor entertained his guests to a great feast. The palatial grounds were crowded with people at that time and entrance and exit was impossible. Dong Haichuan, however, could maneuver himself in and out of the palace grounds by leaping on and off the courtyard walls while balancing trays in each hand. The Emperor was very impressed by Dong’s agility and questioned him. It was then that Dong first revealed himself to be a Master of Baguazhang, and was obliged to give a display of his skill. His performance was so unique that on the spot, the Emperor made Dong the pugilistic teacher of the palace guards. After this, Dong’s fame spread far and wide. Dong only had a few students, as few could gain access to the closely guarded imperial palace. It was only after his retirement when he lived outside the palace that he gained more followers. Among these students were accomplished martial arts masters in their own right.
In order to gain access to the restricted grounds of the imperial palace, men were required to become eunuchs in most cases. Dong Haichuan perhaps intended to be ‘a riddle wrapped inside an enigma’, for he never dispelled rumors that he was a eunuch. However, it is unlikely, for he was twenty-one when he was appointed teacher of the palace guards, and the surgery would have been too painful. It is more likely that this was a fabrication to put others in awe of Dong’s sacrifice for the art.
Many anecdotes are available to describe Dong’s ability. One day, Dong was meditating in a sitting posture inside a room. Across from him in the same room were his students. At one point, the wall behind Dong suddenly collapsed and the students were so frozen with fright that they could only gape and stare at the site of the accident. To their amazement, they found Dong unharmed, meditating in a chair in another corner of the room.
Another incident occurred on a cold winter day. Dong was asleep on a couch. A student wanted to cover him with a blanket. No sooner had the student placed the blanket on the master, than Dong suddenly disappeared. Looking around, the student was amazed to see the teacher sitting in another corner of the room.
Master Dong rarely discussed the origin of the art with his pupils. Only after a visit paid him by Song Wei Yi did he say that Song’s teacher and his teacher were fellow students. As Song was a master swordsman, it was thought by Dong’s pupils that there was a historical connection between the two schools. It was later learned from certain sources that Dong in all likelihood had formerly been a notorious bandit with a price on his head. To escape the the authorities, he may have then become a monk, but was later expelled from the monastery for intemperance. Perhaps as a last resort, he ended up as a servant in the Emperor’s palace.
Dong had 57 students. Many were already highly skilled in other martial arts. The most famous are as follows (listed in order of seniority): Yin Fu, Ma Wei Qi, Shi Ji Dong, and Cheng Ting Hua.
The martial skill of Dong Haichuan was well-known to the Emperor, and Dong was sent to Mongolia at some point to collect taxes from the populace. Master Dong took one of his students, Yin Fu, along with him. Dong gained a reputation for being an excellent tax collector. This was most likely due to his high skill in martial arts (collecting taxes being a pugilistic feat with Mongolians). After ten years, the Emperor called Master Dong back to Beijing.
Dong died in 1880 at the age of 84. This was the sixth year of the reign of Emperor Guang Xu (1875-1908). Dong was buried a mile away from the East Gate of Beijing, and ever since, his tomb has become a Mecca for all practitioners of Baguazhang. Baguazhang practitioners today are fourth and fifth generation descendants of his legacy.