A Master of Baguazhang: Dong Haichuan
Dong Haichuan (董海川) was born on the 13th of October 1797 (or 1813) in Zhu village, Ju Jia Wu Township, Wen An County, Hebei Province, China and died on the 25th of October 1882 in Beijing. He is regarded as a skillful martial artist and is widely credited to be the founder of Baguazhang. Most, if not all, existing schools of Baguazhang place Dong Haichuan at the beginning of their lineage.
As a child and young man he intensely trained in the martial arts of his village. The arts were probably Shaolin-based and may have included Bafanshan (a possible precursor to Fanziquan), Hongquan, Xingmenquan, and Jingangquan. These were the arts being taught in and around Dong’s village at this time. Alternatively, Dong is sometimes said to have learned and practiced Erlangquan, Luohanquan, or other arts.
His family is thought to have been poor so at some point around 1853, Dong left Hebei Province to seek work elsewhere. By many accounts he is described as spending his youth travelling, penniless, and often getting in trouble. But he, even by his own claims, continued to study martial arts intensely during his travels. Where, by whom, and what he was taught, varies depending on the source. But it is generally accepted that, during this time, Dong studied Taoist training methods that included some kind of circle walking practice. He synthesized his previous experience with his village arts, what he had learned in his travels, and his Taoist studies to create a unique art originally called Zhuanzhang (Turning Palms). Zhuanzhang in later years became called Baguazhang.
Around 1864 Dong arrived in Beijing and was hired as a servant at the residence of the Prince Su. Later Prince Su gave him the job of tax collector. Dong and his top student Yin Fu went to Mongolia to collect taxes, where he spent ten years. Upon his return he left the prince's employ and began to teach publicly, giving up all other occupations to fully devote himself to developing and teaching Baguazhang.
The nature of what he taught is generally disputed. Some believe that he consistently taught only the first three of eight palms (Single Change Palm, Double Change Palm and Smooth Body Palm) and that he would vary the last five depending on the individuals’ previous martial arts experience. Others believe that he taught considerably more material. It was also in his public teaching period that the art was given the name Baguazhang (Eight tri-gram palm). Baguazhang became popular in Beijing and surrounding areas.
In his later years he was poor and lived with Yin Fu's student Ma Gui. Ma owned a lumber yard and Dong lived on the premises. He died in 1882.
By the late 1800s, Baguazhang had become a well-known fighting style in Beijing and northern China, and Dong Haichuan and his students became famous. This gave rise to many fictitious stories and written pulp novels which were adopted as fact.
Dong taught Baguazhang to several highly regarded martial artists, notably Yin Fu, Ma Gui and Cheng Ting Hua. Their names are recorded at his grave.