The name, bagua zhang, consists of three Chinese characters. They are simple, easy, and everyone can translate them. "Ba" means the number eight. "Gua" means trigram. "Zhang" means palm.
Usually, people look at the name, put together "eight" and "trigram," and then assume there's an intrinsic relationship to the I Ching, the well-known Chinese philosophical book. Of course "palm" is what we use to defend or attack. Thus, they think, "ba gua zhang" is a martial arts style based on the I Ching principles. This is a misconception common both in China and abroad.
First of all, "ba" does not refer to the I Ching trigrams. In bagua zhang training, "ba" has two divisions: 1) eight areas or directions away from our bodies and 2) eight areas on our bodies. We can call the areas outside our bodies front, back, left, right, and the four diagonals in between. Or lets name them South, North, East, West, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, and Northeast. It wouldn't even hurt to call them heaven, earth, thunder, water, mountain, wind, sun, and lake, names the I Ching gives its eight trigrams. They could also be called just plain one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight!
The eight areas on our bodies are foot, knee, hip, waist, back, shoulder, elbow, and hands. Each area has to be trained to perfection so that the bagua practitioner can apply the martial techniques effectively.
Regarding "gua" (trigram), yes the I Ching says there are eight and eight multiplied by eight makes sixty-four. But the basic message within this simple configuration is to give structure to the Chinese point of view in relation to the world, and show that this point of view is based on a theory. Checking one's fortune or fate is a narrow aspect of the work.
Big or small, the ancient Chinese based their lives on natural laws, lived with nature and searched for a harmonious society. The basis on which their lives were conducted was the good of the society, the smooth workings of relationships, and the individual's preeminent duty to serve the needs of society. For instance, unlike western thought which views progress like a straight arrow shot high and far, Chinese philosophy says that all things develop or progress like a circle, traveling around, and around, and around. The seasons constitute a cycle. There's a cycle of light and dark each day. The blossom at its most beautiful moment is already beginning to decline. And in the most frigid winter, one shouldn't despair because spring is just around the corner.
The Chinese look at the world this way, conduct their business this way, relate to each other and manage their own lives based on this theory. They believe that in the midst of success, always prepare for the fall (even squirrels know how to do this.) During the toughest run of bad fortune, keep up the struggle because the turning point approaches.
And yes, Chinese kung fu is based on this principle too. Bagua is no exception. But to say that practice of the bagua palm changes is based on the I Ching is inaccurate, untrue.
According to popular dictionaries, the translation for the Chinese term "zhang" is palm. However, Chinese martial arts uses many common terms in a specialized way and a word like "zhang" can't be adequately defined in normal dictionaries. Kung fu dictionaries are truly needed. China has published five or six. Hong Kong has one. In Taiwan, one was privately published and another, subsidized by the government, is being compiled. But a consultation with all available dictionaries shows that none sufficiently discusses the difference between martial art terms and common terms.
In kung fu, "zhang" does not refer only to the palm but must include the whole arm from fingertips to shoulder. When a practitioner's kung fu technique has reached the highest levels, the entire body becomes the palm. So the Chinese have a way to say it: "The whole body is one palm."
If anyone wishes to understand kung fu terms like "bagua zhang", even these three simple characters, they must recognize that dictionaries, books, and the I Ching can't help. Moreover, these sources will most likely mislead the research.
The correct approach is to check the bagua itself. And the way to do this is not by overemphasizing its beautiful movements. Nor can it be done by attaching special significance to its very beneficial role as a health exercise. The real meaning can only be found by returning to its roots: the usage. Health benefits and uniquely graceful movements are aspects of bagua which can only make it richer and expand its horizons. But without roots, the beauty is shallow and the exercise most likely will involve arms and legs while leaving the torso too inert to benefit the internal organs.
After all, bagua was created as a martial art--and it still is!