Before the late Qing Dynasty, the concept of “big knife/Dadao” in the army mostly refers to the knife of the long pole, similar to the shape of the Guandao. The knife with a short handle and a large blade (in popular contemporary Baguazhang culture) is called a single hand knife, it is not called a “big knife”, historically speaking. Ironically the signature instruments used by both disciples of Dong Haichuan are often misinterpreted in Airbending schools of today.
[Imperial Guard examination & Chang Dongsheng with a nice chin jab] Most Baguazhang lineages today use large oversized instruments such as the giant saber, for strength conditioning purposes. The foundation for this tradition descends from feudal wrestling battalions. Yin Fu and Cheng Ting Hua were both wrestlers.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Interlinking/ Weaving routines of Baguazhang as popularized in mainstream and films, contain ‘wrestling with weapons integration’ and not pure empty-hand wrestling. Grappling and takedowns with the instrument in hand, are crucial in feudal melee- often against armed opponents. It is worth noting the forms/drilling methods of Qing-era wrestling are often distinct in aesthetics from the silky/ twisting/ turning style of Swimming Baguazhang.
The most elite wrestlers in Qing era reside within the royal courts, known as the Imperial Guard Wrestling Battalion. The signature strength training/ defense instrument is the Horse Cutter in various weight and shapes [pudao/guandao styling]. Yin Style Baguazhang experts utilized this polearm for royal military examination, and in the 19th century- field duty on foot. According to Ming Dynasty treatise, the horse cutter is reserved for high ranking officers in relation to the cavalry (more common in the infantry). Standard Ming cavalry is generally prohibited from horse cutter usage on horseback… the customs continued through the Qing era of the Manchu equestrian military training.
Yin Yuzhang, the son of Yin Fu is remembered for his cleaving Saber methods, utilizing an instrument less than half the length of the iconic Giant Baguazhang saber often instructed in contemporary times. Many Chinese scholars link the cleaving saber to the Pudao in feudal era. The Silky Pudao dates back to the Song Dynasty and remained its emphasis throughout the Qing Dynasty. China is an agricultural continent- the pudao is a rare instrument important to both civil and military airbenders for cultivating qi or vegetables. In feudal times, not everyone had clearance to carry long weapons in certain districts- due to government restrictions at that time. The pudao wielders modified the big knife into a short knife (separating the blade from the pole) and attached the blade to the staff during battle. Yin Fu’s methods undoubtedly emphasize the importance of this long weapon, concealed within the Interlinking Body methods. Live Training Available.
100% of historians and Baguazhang enthusiasts agree- Yin Fu is the Senior Disciple of Dong Haichuan with the most elite demands for martial application [Imperial Guard Commander]. What most do not agree on is the context, and how Yin Style Baguazhang should appear aesthetically, as far as feudal routine training. In contemporary times, kungfu enthusiasts often base imagery from mainstream movies. A classic example: the Baguazhang style demonstrated in ‘The Grandmaster’ motion picture is commonly associated with Cheng Style Baguazhang (or polearm methods in Yin). However, the character in the film, Gong Yutian (Zhang Ziyi’s father) in factual history is built on GONG BAOTIAN- Gong’s system in real life is Yin Style Baguazhang, not Cheng Style. The predicament here… so is the Baguazhang fighter Gong Yutian a badass because of Cheng Baguazhang, or because of Yin Baguazhang polearm usage [the prop left out of the film]? Or is the reason simply modern enthusiasts associate high-level Baguazhang inspired by true history/ presented as fantasy in popular media- to be the most efficient method of learning feudal fighting systems in modern times? [Note: China has plenty of Qing Imperial Guard statues and toy figures as illustrated above. The rest is preference and history!!]
Cheng style Baguazhang specializes in close-in wrestling and joint locks- the whole body generates smooth coiling and uncoiling actions, utilizing palm techniques and dynamic footwork… Sure sounds similar to Yin Fu’s smooth and graceful FEUDAL SHAOLIN polearm strategy for Qing Imperial Guards. According to scholars and this pic, it does appear the Pudao/Horse knife is quite commonly utilized during AIRBENDING!!
The First Baguazhang motion picture ‘THE HONOR OF DONGFANG XU’ (1983) became the inspiration for Wang Kar-Wai’s ‘THE GRANDMASTER’ film (2013). Li Junfeng’s character is based on Han Muxia, a Baguazhang expert in the early 20th century. The unarmed pugilism and martial context, against the Hercules character in the film- is a fictional representation of factual history. China after the mid-20th century experienced the second wave of sports modifications by the Chinese government- pugilism in a sporting context is borrowed from the west. Han Muxia’s Baguazhang context, in reality, is fighting for the war. Muxia trained the Broadsword team (actually called “pistol team”) providing the most practical big knife skills and close-in wrestling. Modern combat sports and the battlefield always have a world of difference. [Master Li Junfeng is an old mentor and family friend of IRFS- a noble individual who stands for accurate documentation of Baguazhang history, regardless of commercial interests in the 21st century. Li has a strong connection with old Cheng Baguazhang masters, especially Sun Zhijun]
Often in cinema, the Baguazhang presented is elegant and silky- with a larger diameter eight step circle. The popular Baguazhang movements employ the whole body with smooth coiling and uncoiling actions, utilizing palm techniques, dynamic footwork, and close-in wrestling. In feudal era, the larger circle radius is necessary for polearm-fu against multiple opponents- a characteristic strategy of Qing footsoldiers and militia. In modern times, there are raw lineages which maintain the polearm structures in the empty-hand routines… some more so than others. According to feudal Shaolin Armed Treatise, pure Yin/Cheng artifact of Interlinking Body methods without heavy modification in modern times- should indeed retain the polearm structures with transitions intact. Close-in wrestling integration, with the primary weapon dominant, is standard- and not the other way around. Pre- 1900s, unarmed pugilistic systems as portrayed in popular Baguazhang films would be viewed as an impractical self-defense system for urban applications.