History of Ba Duan Jin

My friend Pan Huai is interpreting for me the official Chinese-language instructional video for Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocade), a popular Qi Gong routine. If you know Chinese, you can watch the video for yourself:

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The video begins with a brief history of Ba Duan JIn. The earliest evidence of the form was found in the Mawangdui Han Tombs excavated in 1972-1974. The archaeological site is in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in south-central China. The tombs date from the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD).

The Han Dynasty was a high point in the production of fines silks and brocades, and numerous extraordinary textiles were found in the Mawangdui Tombs. Many of them were painted with intricate scenes, and one of them, called Dao Yin Tu, shows figures exercising.

Dao Yin (or Tao Yin) is an ancient precursor to modern Qi Gong and Tai Chi. Dao Yin is also the name of a modern form of Qi Gong. The Dao Yin Tu (Tu means drawing) shows more than forty exercising postures. At least four of them are similar to postures of what is now known as Ba Duan Jin.


More about the Mawangdui Tombs:

The earliest written record of Ba Duan Jin dates from the Northern Song (pronounced soong) Dynasty (960–1279). The routine is described as well as illustrated. The Song Dynasty documents contain the first written mentions of the name Ba Duan Jin.

Ba means eight, Duan means pieces or sections, and Jin refers to the finest silk, or brocade. Jin has the connotation of a person’s best, most precious and decorative possession. The Ba Duan Jin Qi Gong is composed of eight postures, and the name suggests that this form of exercise is the most valuable thing a person could have.

According to one Song Dynasty source, the exercises were performed at midnight (!). There were both standing and seated versions of Ba Duan Jin. A number of variations on the standing form have evolved over time.

A Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) manual describes the postures of Ba Duan Jin by name and provides illustrations. The figure below, which is from a Qing Dynasty manual, shows the sitting form of Shuang Shou Tuo Tian (Two Hands Hold up the Heavens). A script, which can be chanted, guides the sequence of movements.

Image courtesy of Gueyang Shanren

Image courtesy of           Gueyang Shanren

In 2001, the Taiji and Qigong department of the Chinese National Sports Committee set out to study and standardize Ba Duan Jin. Experts from a number of fields such as physiology and sports medicine participated in the study.

Experiments were conducted to determine which versions of the exercises and also what sequence of postures were the most beneficial and effective. The resulting standardized Ba Duan Jin routine is described in detail in the official instructional video that we’ll be studying in this series of posts.

Next: the essential principles of Qi Gong.

Ba Duan Jin 4

Exercise seven is wò quán nù mù zēng lì qi. Nu mu is angry eye! Wo quan is grasp (or maybe clench?) the fist. Zeng is increase (and li, as we’ve already learned is put in order). Qi here is vital energy (as in Qi gong).


Start in horse stance with both fists chambered. The movement is well described by Rashka. Inhale while punching with the left. Open the hand and rotate. Inhale, clench and withdraw. Repeat on the right. Do this four times.

The movement (one English version) is Punching with an angry gaze. Or Clench the Fist and Glare Fiercely.  The benefit is increasing Qi–vital energy. Rashka calls it Punch with Fierce Glower to Build Strength.

Lastly, the eighth movement is bèi hòu qī diān bǎi bìng xiāo, Dian is jolt. Rise onto the toes, then drop down on the heels with a jolt. In the version I do, rise high, then lower about halfway before dropping the heels. Do this eight times. The benefit: Bing is illness; xiao is disappear. Make illnesses disappear.

Ba Duan Jin 3

The fifth exercise is yáo tóu bǎi wěi qù xīn huǒ. Yao here is shake or rock; tou is head; bai is move; wei is tail; qu is go away; xin is heart; huo is fire. Once again, the first part of the name describes the movement, while the second half describes the benefit. Rock the head and move the tail to get rid of “heart fire” — is this about heartburn???


Cloud Hands gives the name of this one as Big Bear Turns from Side to Side. Master Faye Yip, in her video, rocks from one side to the other and rolls the head. Repeat left and right four times.

Number six is liǎng shǒu pān jiǎo gù shèn yāo. Liang is two or both (hands) and pan is climb; jiao is foot or leg. Two hands climb (down) the legs. And the benefit: gu is strong; shen is kidney; this yao is waist. The two yaos have different accents.


Do eight repetitions of this nice gravity stretch. Doing this exercise just twice a week for the last six months has noticeably improved my flexibility. If you lay your hands along your feet, you can get a nice pull through the heels of the hands.

Ba Duan Jin 2

The third exercise is Separate Heaven and Earth in English, a pretty far cry from the Chinese: tiáo lǐ pí wèi dān jǔ shǒu.  Tiao is harmonize or reconcile; li is put in order; pi is spleen; wei is stomach; dan is single or sole; ju is yet another word for lift or hold up. Hold up one hand to harmonize spleen and stomach, in other words.

In this one, one hand is raised, palm up, and the other extends down, palm-down. Then the upper hand is spirals down and the lower hand spirals up along the centerline of the body. At about stomach level, the hands pass, the rising hand palm-up, lowering hand palm-down as in the video by Faye Yip, at about the four-minute mark.


Exercise four has a charming English name: the Wise Owl Gazes Backwards. The Chinese is wǔ láo qī shāng xiàng hòu qiáo, which when I look up each word comes out to something like “five work seven upwards towards behind look.” Rashka translates as “Look backward to eliminate five fatigues and seven illnesses.”

Sink down with both arms lowered, both hands facing back. Then open the arms to the left rotating the hands and arms all the way outward, so palms face up as shown.



Also turn the head all the way to the side. Notice that Master Yip does not turn at the waist. This is a stretch of the neck. Keep the head upright and suspended. Return to starting position. Repeat on the other side. Do both sides four times, alternating.

Ba Duan Jin 1

According to legend, the twelfth century Chinese general and folk-hero Yue Fei, also known as Pengju, created the Eight Brocades and required his soldiers to do the exercises every morning to stay fit for battle.


Exercise 1: The short way to say this (from Wiki) is Shuang Shou Tuo Tian–two (both) hands support heaven (tian). Rashka uses Qing (raise) instead of Tuo. Li means put in order. San jiao is the “triple warmer,” a term in Chinese medicine that refers (according to Michael Garofalo) to the heart, lungs and stomach.


There are quite a few variations of this exercise (and of all the others). I am using the one where you sink down, join the hands palm up in front of the dantien, then lift the hands slowly while straightening up. In front of the face, the hands invert to palm-up, then extend overhead.

Faye Yip follows the hands up with the eye, then looks down before releasing the hands and allowing them to float down. In any case, inhale while the hands rise and exhale as they come down. We’re doing eight of these (the number of reps also varies with different versions).

It’s a matter of choice (and fitness and desired level of exertion) whether to remain standing straight the whole time, or whether to squat, possibly all the way to horse stance with thighs parallel to the ground. I am doing the Yang-y modified squat you see in the two videos, one by Faye Yip the other by Peter Chen:

The Mandarin word for inhale is xiru. Exhale is hu. Breathe is huxi and breath is qixi.

Exercise 2: Kai Gong Si She Diao means open the bow to shoot the eagle/hawk/vulture; diao means bird of prey. This exercise is supposed to benefit the kidney and spleen.

Step left, sinking to horse stance in crosshands position. Look left and point left with the left hand while drawing back the right hand to the shoulder (elbow back). Then look right, extend the right arm, lower the arms, and straighten up.

We do this four times on each side, starting with the left side and alternating. Matoko Rashka describes a rather different version in which you shift from left bow stance to right bow stance. In either case, inhale while “drawing the bow” and exhale while switching sides.

Eight Pieces of Brocade

Ba Duan Jin is a Qigong routine that consists of eight exercises and takes about twelve minutes. The routine is “medical” rather than martial–practiced for its health benefits, and it is at least a thousand years old, mentioned and illustrated in Song Dynasty encyclopedias (the illustration below is not that old).


Sources of information:

Many videos are available on YouTube. I like the one by Master Faye Li Yip. The one by Peter Chen is good, too.


The names of the eight exercises vary, especially in English, but even in Chinese to some extent. Below, I am following Matoko Rashka:

  1. Shuāng shǒu qíng tiān lǐ sān jiāo – Support the Heavens to Condition San Jiao
  2. Zuǒ yòu kāi gōng sì shè diāo – Draw the Bow to Shoot the Eagle
  3. Tiáo lǐ pí wèi dān jǔ shǒu – Raise the Hand to Condition the Spleen and Stomach
  4. Wǔ láo qī shāng xiàng hòu qiáo – Look Backward to Elimnate Five Fatigues and Seven Illnesses
  5. Yáo tóu bǎi wěi qù xīn huǒ – Swing the Head and Tail to Eliminate Xin Huo
  6. Liǎng shǒu pān jiǎo gù shèn yāo – Hold the Feet to Strengthen the Kidney and Lower Back
  7. Wò quán nù mù zēng lì qi – Punch with Fierce Glower to Build Strength
  8. Bèi hòu qī diān bǎi bìng xiāo – Shake the Back Seven Times to Prevent Illness

Additional Ba Duan Jin pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Eight Energies

Each of eight forms of energy (or power) has a traditional name in Chinese and is associated with an element such as Earth, Air, Fire or Water (which, to the imaginative, it resembles). On a practical level, each corresponds to a movement in the first part of the moving form and to a technique used in combat or in the sparring game called push-hands. These are techniques for meeting and defeating (or at least deflecting) an opposing force.


Each form of energy is defined as a combinaton of Yin and Yang — yielding or resisting — first on contact with an attacking force, then at the center, and then at the end, or release. The yin-yang nature of each form of energy is represented by three straight (yang) or broken (yin) lines. The trigrams representing the eight energies can be seen in the symbol above.

In general, Yin is the defensive weapon of the smaller and weaker of two opponents. It is axiomatic in Tai Chi that a small, weak opponent may defeat a bigger, stronger attacker by yielding (and using the attacker’s size and weight against him). The eight energies are:

  1. Ward-off: Peng corresponds to SKY, trigram yang yang yang.
  2. Pull-back: Lu corresponds to EARTH, trigram yin, yin, yin.
  3. Press: Ji corresponds to WATER, trigram yin yang yin.
  4. Push: An corresponds to FIRE, trigram yang yin yang.
  5. Grabbing (pull-down): Tsai corresponds to WIND, trigram yang yang yin.
  6. Breaking (splitting): Lieh corresponds to THUNDER, trigram yin yin yang.
  7. Elbowing: Zhou corresponds to LAKE, trigram yin yang yang.
  8. Shouldering: Kao corresponds to MOUNTAIN, yang yin yin.

Peng is all hard opposing energy. Ward off meets the attacking force with unyielding resistence, uses outward opposing force, and holds its ground. It is a straightforward exertion of strength, but also is achieved by correct alignment and positioning.

Lu all yielding, soft energy. Pull back gives and turns away from an attacking force, allowing it to pass by. The attacker’s own energy is used to propel him past you.

Ji rebounds with hands connected, to repel the attacking force. This is the energy associated with water, which is soft on the surface but irresistably powerful force at its center.

An meet a force with resistance, then yields momentarily before surprising with a strong thrust.

Together, Peng, Lu, Ji and An comprise the familiar combination called Grasp the Bird’s Tail, or Lan Que Wei, found in nearly every Yang form.

Tsai commits to a string pull downwards, throwing the opponent all the way down to the ground before releasing.

Lieh yields, turns, and then breaks with splitting force at the finish. Repulse Monkeys and Slant Flying are both splitting movements using Lieh.

Zhou first yields, folding the elbow, before striking. The water is again soft in contact, but powerful at its center, and the lake is unyielding at the bottom.

Kao is unyielding at contact, striking with the shoulder, but then becomes rooted and immovable like a mountain.