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By Jonathan Bluestein
The art of Pigua Zhang is a unique martial art, which hails from Northern China. Like most External Northern-
Chinese styles, it is characterized by the use of wide and long stances, agile stepping methods, big movements
and an emphasis on timing and speed as means of best delivering one's blows. The Pigua Zhang I am about to
describe in this article
represents a branch of the art from northern China, as taught by master Zhou Jingxuan, of
Tianjin city. The descriptions, and the branch being described, are not related to the
Taiwanese branch of Pigua, as taught by late master Liu Yunchiao.
劈 Pi 掛 Gua 拳 Zhang – literally means 'Chopping-Hanging Palm', or "Hacking-Hanging Palm'.
The word "Palm" at the end denotes the art as a style which typically favours techniques with an open palm. The
Chopping and Hanging are the main attributes of most of the techniques in Pigua, which shall be discussed
shortly. The word '掛 Gua' means hanging in the sense of something being hung from a hook.
Very little is known of the origins of Pigua Zhang. It is unclear how it had developed. One hypothesis is that its
large movement were the necessity out of the situation in which people fought in armor, and couldn't effectively
use smaller, more refined movements. This has never been examined or proven. The style which I practice has
been handed down from the founder of the origin of most Pigua branches today – master Guo Changsheng. In
the 1920s and 30s, he and master Ma Yingtu worked together to improve upon the existing Pigua lineages, by
combining their extensive knowledge of martial arts – especially materials from earlier lineage of Pigua and
Tongbei. In addition to the changes and additions to the empty-handed material, they added the use of 4
different weapons, which are nowadays practiced through 4 long forms: The short 'stick' (Black Tiger Whip),
Feng Mo Gun (Crazy Demon Staff), Pigua Dao (Pigua broadsword), and Miao Dao (Grain-Leaf longsword; a
sword from which it is said the Japanese Katana had been inspired, which is longer in length than the latter).
These weapons weren't originally developed with the rest of Pigua, which was created as an empty-handed art.
The body-method of Pigua was therefore embedded into these weapons forms later on. Other "Pigua weapons"
existing nowadays are very modern additions.
There is an obvious connection between Pigua and other northern-Chinese arts, by the way of many common
stances, and some techniques; but its flavour and character remain very distinct. In the rare art of Shaolin
Jingang Bashi, there are quite a few movements that seem to have originated from Pigua. In terms of body-
method, the art closest to Pigua is Tongbei Quan. Both arts are based on the notion of turning the body into a
Whip. Still, even among these two there are obvious differences, and it can be said that they do not always
represent the 'same type of whip'. Tongbei's whip tends to be more elastic and snappy, having the quality of a
rubber band perhaps, and Pigua's whip is usually longer and heavier (this is a generalization referring to the
more common traits, and one should keep in mind that these two types of body-whipping methods exist in both
arts). Both Pigua and Tongbei emphasize the practice of single-movement or single combinations, and have few
forms. Tongbei forms are usually short, while Pigua forms are rather long, and make for good cardiovascular
The Structure of our Pigua System
In our lineage, the art is comprised of:
Several Jibengong exercises: These are isolated movements. They are used to train the essential basics of
the art. They are not complicated and do not require special mastery, or take too long to get good at.
12 Basic Hands: Combinations of 2-3 movements, which form the basis for the rest of the art. More
accurately speaking, these hands are the art, and the forms just link them, and a few other movements, to explore
further concepts, strategies and tactics. Each 'hand' has several variations. The most basic hand is Dan Pi, or
'Single Chop'. The true learning begins with this movement. It develops some of the basic elements and forces
that are most essential to the practitioner.
As the one advances in his practice of the 12 hands, and his ability improves, he will have a benchmark for his
improvement in the form of the following three stages: 1. Swollenness of the palm. 2. Swollenness of the
forearm. Here, a special drill of strengthening the forearms and palms by hitting a cotton-wrapped tree is
introduced to the practitioner. 3. Swollenness of the whole arm.
The following pictures show the basic level of Dan Pi practice, with a medium stance.
3 Long Forms:
1. Man Tao (slow form) – "Wriggling serpent concentrating his spirit". Main key to practicing this form is
2. Kuai Tao (fast form) – "Rising and falling like a sparrow hawk diving to touch the lake". The main purpose
would be to develop Agility.
3. Gua Quan (hanging fist) – A more combative form, with smaller movements and frequent use of fists (which
are otherwise rare in the art). This form is very aggressive in spirit. It requires the foundation of an agile body
and lively footwork. Speed is highly emphasized in the practice of this form.
Four weapons forms: As indicated earlier – Short Stick, Medium Staff, Dao and Miao Dao.
The following pictures show master Zhou Jingxuan demonstrating the Miao Dao form:
The Principles of Pigua
The classical writings of Pi Gua describe the art with several verses. I find some of these to be slightly
ambiguous. I have therefore decided to describe the art using both old and new terminologies, combined.
Heavy Hands – One attempts to let gravity and momentum lead the hands into powerful strikes. The hands
and arms are kept as relaxed as possible in the process (though a little bit of tension is sometimes kept in the
palms). This makes the opponent feel one's hands are like heavy metal rods, while the Pigua practitioner himself
feels light and mobile. Without heavy hands, there is no Pigua. This principle is also the main prerequisite for
the art of Tongbei.
“Big opening, big closing, big splitting, big hanging"- The contrary movements of opening (Kai)
and closing (He) are following each other, and are performed with a bodily frame as large as possible, often
even in fighting. In a close-quarters situation, the hands and body still seek to expand beyond the small,
confined space. The big splitting and big hanging are vital to ensure one has and develops the power to carry the
opponent with his own momentum. Also, the Pigua player becomes accustomed to feeling comfortable at wide
and large body angles, at which other people are completely unbalanced and disoriented. This is opposite to the
some of the more common strategies in the Internal arts. In the latter, one's advantage is in controlling
movement patterns and skills which are very small and refined. In Pigua, it is one's capacity to open up and
stretch, while remaining stable, which gives one the edge in many situations.
"Fierce rising, hard falling" – These again are contrary movements that follow each other, and are done
swiftly, using all of the body's mass in whipping motions. This principle in Pigua is the equivalent of Xing Yi's:
"Rise, Drill, Overturn, Fall", but the body-method of Pigua makes the movements manifest differently.
In the picture: Master Zhou Jingxuan, demonstrating an application from the Feng Mo Gun form to a student. Xigu park,
"Overturning and rolling like a pearl spinning in a jar" – It is said that the power manifestation
should be like the continuous flowing motion of a pearl spinning in a jar. This is a very interesting concept,
which sets Pigua apart from other arts. In Taiji Quan, it can be said that one uses listening power (Ting Jin) in
order to sense a weakness in the opponent's structure. In Xing Yi Quan, the practitioner can use subtle circles,
vibrations and explosive powers in order to shock the opponent and penetrate his defenses. In Aikido, one
attempts to unite with the momentum of his opponent, blend with it, and then lead it. Pigua is much more
violent. It is like a tornado. It generates an immense momentum, passes through the opponent, and sweeps
everything it touches with big swinging, coiling attacks. Which in turn brings us to the next traditional sentence:
"Searching and tracing" - The hands are constantly striving for contact with the enemy. After
momentum is generated, one instantly adopts the mentality of seeking a point of contact. It is not so one can
"build a bridge" as in other Chinese arts – it is so one can find a point through which to lean-over all his
momentum into the other person. Had such a point of contact not been found, the same momentum would be
recycled, and the practitioner will keep "overturning and rolling like a pearl spinning in a jar" until further
contact is made. One strives for contact like a monkey skipping among trees and looking for branches. When the
opponent is weaker than oneself, than the hands just go through him. In case the opponent is too strong at a
given point, the hands will disengage immediately upon touch, and seek to attack from a different angle. Each
strike strives to go through. What cannot go through, slides along. What cannot slide along, changes direction.
"Relaxed long reach power" – The momentum cannot be transferred onwards if one is not extremely
relaxed, and if the power does not reach all the way to the tips of the fingers. The idea is that as the Pigua
practitioner moves his arms about, anything that would touch them would immediately bounce-off.
Defense and Offense are not distinguished – Every defense is an offense. Additionally, two
consecutive movements are blended into one by guiding the momentum of the first movement directly into the
second. Ideally, several movements could be combined into one constant flow, without any stoppage.
"The torso is opening and closing like a bow. The chest and back swallow and spit like a
string which sends out the power like an arrow without a shadow”- A description of the
characteristic movement of the torso, and the way it helps to issue power. The contraction and expansion of the
entire body in Pigua is very sharp, abrupt, springy and quick.
"Its movement are swift and violent, but agile and fierce" – Speed is greatly emphasized, but not
at the expense of agility or roundness. The preference though is for large half-circles or quarter-circles, so when
the art is performed quickly, the round quality of the movement is often only felt by the practitioner and missed
by the sideways observers. There is almost always roundness and coiling in the movements of Pigua, even when
cutting directly into and through the opponent.
Natural movement and striking - This is an art designed for fighting. All of its techniques have obvious
usage, which is rarely complex, and can be used effectively in less than a year of training by most people (and
much quicker if one already has a foundation in a traditional Chinese style). Pigua's big swings, chops and
hooks mimic the way many people naturally and instinctively fight. The difference is that Pigua adds a lot of
sophisticated body-mechanics into the mix, and while it is easy to learn, mastering it can take many years.
Training in Pigua has an animalistic feel to it. The art flows with a mentality which is truly primal. People who
first see the art preformed quickly often think of it as some form of wild dance; in a sense, this is not far from
The art of coiling from side to side – When storming opponents, one's momentum usually throws him
to one side, and hopefully downwards as well. Various drills and methods, especially Dan Pi, are designed to
take advantage of that type of situation, and create the ability to bounce back with the same momentum in the
other direction, after the opponent has been unsettled with the first movement/strike. The spine plays a huge role
in this, and it coiling and uncoiling are responsible for generating extra momentum, and adapting to existing
forces. When moving from side to side, Pigua causes one to feel somewhat like a Drum on a Stick. When
twisted quickly with the fingers from side to side, the stick is like the spine of Pigua, and the strings with their
little beads are like Pigua's heavy hands.
Dynamic Balance – In the Internal Chinese arts, especially Xing Yi Quan, the emphasis is on having a very
balanced and solid structure when coming in contact with the opponent. In Pigua, this is not exactly the same.
The ability one seeks, which we may call "dynamic balance", is the ability to regain balance from large
movements that had been executed very quickly, with a lot of momentum. The 12 basic hands of Pigua, and
their variations, are therefore designed for the development of such ability. They constantly force the
practitioner into difficult physical positions, pushing strikes and movements to the physical limit of their reach
(effectively assuming one "misses" with each strike). From such a disadvantageous position, one is then
expected to be able to move in the exact opposite direction and movement vectors, generating serious power in
Movements, Techniques, and Characteristics
The main strategy is Pigua is to unbalance the opponent. This is done in a very overt fashion – not at all subtle
as in the Internal martial arts. The unbalancing would be done in one of two ways:
1. Striking into and through the opponent, like a very sharp and heavy sword cutting down a branch, or a very
long and heavy whip.
2. Leaning all of one's momentum into the opponent with a very violent movement, as preparation for a strike or
throw. The Gua is Pigua refers to the tendency of the palms and arms to stick the momentum unto the opponents,
and lead him with it. This is primarily done by applying just the right angle as one strikes, creating a drag on the
opponent's entire structure.
Striking in Pigua is very versatile. One can strike with all sides of the palm and forearm, parts of the arm, with
the shoulder, knee, leg, foot, and sides of the body. The preferred striking areas are the palm and forearm, and
the least common are the leg and foot. Pigua throws are usually also strikes, in that the opponent gets thrown
while being hit at the same time. An unsuccessful strike may continue into a throw, as one follows his own
momentum 'to completion'. Finger jabs, groin pokes and strikes to the lower part of the abdomen are also
common. The head and its surrounding areas (neck, collarbone) are the targets of most striking techniques in
Pigua, even though any part of the body may be targeted, from almost any angle. Pigua is an art built on
movement principles (rather than lots of techniques), and as such it provides the practitioner many options for
action, and does not limit one by adhering to a strict form when fighting.
Pigua is unusual in liking to strike with the back of the palm, also commonly doing so with a strike coming from
below upwards (and with other variations). The back-palm strikes snap like boxing jabs, and are very powerful,
able to easily break a nose, or do worse damage when applied by an experienced practitioner. This type of strike
is rare because the back of the hand is, to most people, a gentle area. Indeed, this and other areas on the palm
and forearm have to be strengthened and conditioned so blows can be effectively delivered. There are several
methods in which one can do this.
Like in many Chinese arts, the general training regime of Iron Palm can aid in this. Otherwise, the art itself
includes quite a few movements which are designed to harden these areas, while training the actual techniques.
Still, one does not only rely on the hardening of the palm. Proper striking mechanics are also key. For example –
although much of the body is very loose when striking, the palm itself must have a certain amount of tension in
it during the moment of impact. Failing to hold the palm in this fashion could cause serious injury to it, even in
This art relies on its ability to have a long reach, since the arms and shoulder blades are stretched forward more
so than in other styles. With Pigua, it is possible to reach the opponent with one's arms from a distance that
others may consider "kicking distance". This is one reason that Pigua is very focused on hand-striking. The
other reason being that it is, as mentioned before, an art that uses whipping power in order to deliver force. This
type of power benefits most from elongated movements. With a whipping force, the power-potential of the
strike grows with each joint it passes through.
Pigua features several types of Hook strikes. One of the big differences between traditional Chinese arts like
Xing Yi and Pigua, and an art like Western boxing, is that in many of the Chinese arts, the hooking hand can
reverse direction in mid-air. After the hooking movement, it can go into a head-lock, or if it missed in front of
the body, press against the body for a lean-throw setup, or reverse-hook in the other direction for either striking
or making a scissor-movement throw. In Pigua, this is achieved with the side-to-side coiling skills which I have
The size of the hooking movement can vary in both Boxing and Pigua. In Boxing, the body's structure is more
often kept firm as you hook, while in Pigua it is whipping. The pivoting on the ball of the foot during this strike
is very similar in both arts, but the quality of the strike changes because in Pigua the back is kept straight (at
least in our traditional lineage), the power goes 'through-the-back' like in Tongbei, and the movement is much
more relaxed at all times. Interestingly, Boxing and Pigua use whipping in a very similar way if we compare
many of Pigua's movements to the Boxing jab; but in hooking, Western Boxers more often prefers to hold the
structure 'unbroken', like in Xing Yi.
Leg work in Pigua is extremely tiring and challenging, and the practitioner will have to move quickly through
very low stances in training. Most combat situations would not require such low heights. However, this helps
build dynamic stability, and provide the practitioner with the option to catch the opponent unprepared, as few
people can go as low in a fight, and remain stable.
In our branch of Pigua, there is influence by the Internal arts, because our teacher, master Zhou, has had
extensive training in both Xing Yi Quan and Taiji Quan. Zhou's Pigua students are taught various forms of Zhan
Zhuang, which greatly enhance Pigua's structure, and make it more stable when striking. Pigua prefers striking
from the side, and by teaching the students Xing Yi's mud-walking drill, they gain more forward intent and
power, which supports their ability to attack head-on. In Pigua, the Dan Tian and Hip serve as the "handle of
whip". At an advanced level, Zhou will also teach the student Dan Tian training exercises, which greatly
enhance one's whipping power.
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