Walking the Circle

The birds were panting. I closed the door on my Acura’s conditioned air, climbed up Drummond Street. The humidity and heat had their immediate effect. Sparrows and crows walked on grass, beaks agape. Two blocks later, up the mountain, I was sweating hard. This was the auspicious beginning to my tutelage under Ong Ming Thong.

The first lessons were of “walking on the mud”.

“It’s not like normal walking,” he told me, “lifting the feet, up and down. In Ba Gua, slide the foot forward — always touching, never leaving.” The power of upper body technique derives its energy from the push of the stride. The feet are always ready to switch direction.

File:Bagua-name-earlier.svg ©   Benoît Stella   / Wikimedia Commons /  CC-BY-SA-3.0  /  GFDL

File:Bagua-name-earlier.svg © Benoît Stella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Ba Gua Zhang, the “Eight Trigram Palm” is a difficult martial art. Its strategy is unconventional, tough to apply — but its masters have been legendary. The foundation of the art is to “walk the circle” around the opponent, an ongoing evasiveness punctuated with quick entries, and exits. It’s been called the guerrilla warfare of boxing; its specialty is multiple opponents.

It is also a profound system, heavy with philosophy, and closely associated to nature. It embodies the unending change of such interest to Taoists. Its eight directions are the trigrams of the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes — a very old manual for divination. The scene of young and old walking circles around trees is a common one in Chinese parks.

In midsummer heat, he taught me to walk; in autumn chill; in the snow outside McGill University, where he worked. Occasionally, some young guy would stop to share, to make sure we knew he had trained in Wing Chun, Hung Gar, some style or other popular to Montreal. No-one ever asked for a lesson. Maybe it was the weather.

Ong Ming Thong has a doctorate in Cell and Molecular Biology. He speaks five languages. He teaches four martial arts. He could have commanded a price, and I’d have paid it. Once I was able to buy him a meal — and I gifted him with a crafted tea pot, before his return to Malaysia. He never accepted a dime.

Possibly the most civilized man I’ve known, he exemplified humility. He didn’t shy from the elements. Merit, he showed me, is not bestowed by institution. It has no uniform. Greatness is a rare thing, a personal thing and, if we’re honest about it, it grows — like we do — in the mud.

A demonstration of the Baguazhang Deer Hook Swords


Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

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