(This information comes from Classical Pa Kua Chang Fighting Systems and Weapons by Jerry Alan Johnson and Joseph Crandall. It is a mix of fact and fancy. In writing the book, no attempts were made to discriminate between the two. Read (with a grain of salt) and enjoy.)
Dong Haichuan was born in Jujiawu, Wen'an County, Hebei. He was originally called Jite. He later changed his name to Haichuan. He may also have been known as Dong Hanqing. As a youth he became skillful in the martial arts. He was famous for his bravery and by the time he was twenty years old, he was highly regarded for his martial skills.
There are two versions of how Dong learned Baguazhang. The first version tells how he got lost in the regions south of the Long River. He was looking for some old friends on Jiuhua mountain but became lost among the peaks. There were no tracks to follow and he couldn't find the trail. As hunger and exhaustion mounted, he thought he would surely die. But just as his anxiety seemed to peak, suddenly there appeared a man who lead Dong to see an old Daoist priest. This Daoist had white downy hair, yet the complexion of a child. Dong watched as the old man practiced. His steps were like floating clouds and flowing water. His palms turned and changed as swift as the wind and as quick as lightning. Dong begged to be taken on as a student and the old Daoist allowed him to stay in his temple. For two years Dong did nothing but walk a circle around a tree until his stepping had carved a trench a foot deep. Then the old Daoist taught him the Single Change Palm. When Dong had mastered everything his master had to teach, he was getting ready to leave. The Old Daoist said to him, "Eventually you must return home. However, when a difficult situation arises, remember my teachings!"
A second version tells how Dong traveled to Emei Mountain in Sichuan. There he met a man named Dong Menglin who taught him Yin Yang Ba Pan Zhang. Dong altered what he had been taught and changed the name to Baguazhang.
Dong returned home and at some point got in trouble with the law. He ran away and hid in a temple in the Western Capitol. One night, while dreaming, he saw all the statues of the gods inside the temple hall moving in a circle. Dong mingled with them turning left and right, suffering their lightning bolts. When Dong awoke in the morning, he had the principles of Baguazhang.
Legend says that Dong was part of the peasant uprising in the middle of the 19th century. Dong was selected to become a eunuch and infiltrate the Qing Palace as a secret agent. He was to coordinate the rebel armies' movements with certain events in the palace. The palace staff became aware of Dong's activities and the emperor ordered Prince Su, the Minister of Internal affairs to handle it. Prince Su appreciated Dong's skills however and made him a court eunuch in charge of defense. Because of his strong temperament and hatred of bullies, Dong did not get along with his associates. He was treated as an outsider and eventually Prince Su transferred him to his private palace and assigned to miscellaneous duties.
At first, no one was aware of Dong's martial skills. One day a martial arts teacher, named Sha Huihui, heard that the Prince was looking for a martial arts teacher. He sent his wife (also a martial arts expert) to the Prince's door with a letter of introduction. The Prince tested Sha's skilled and was pleased enough to hire him. A day was chosen for Sha to demonstrate his skill to the Prince's friends. On that day Sha demonstrated his skills in the courtyard. The guests crowed around the courtyard to watch. They were so many that the courtyard pathways and aisles were obstructed. The Prince ordered tea brought out to the guests but none of the servants were able to enter the courtyard. So Dong leaped over the roof and into the courtyard. The Prince was startled as Dong began serving tea. He figured that Dong must be skilled in the martial arts, so he ordered Dong to demonstrate in the courtyard. Dong demonstrated his skills, turning left, spinning right, rising, falling, overturning and changing. It was like his spirit left and a demon had taken over. He moved like floating clouds and flowing water. He would wheel about swiftly and come to a stop. He changed postures continuously. The guests were truly startled and confused. They began asking questions. Dong leaped back over the roof, spun around and descended to the ground without a sound. The Prince then asked Dong about his teacher and the name of his art. Although Dong had studied with his teacher for many years, he really didn't know the name of his art as it didn't correspond to any known style or school. Thereupon he blurted out that it was called the Bagua School.
Sha Huihui saw the Prince and guests praising Dong's art. He envied Dong and wished to compete with him, but after exchanging a few blows Sha realized that he was no match for Dong and departed in shame. This pleased Prince Su and he gave the position of Captain of the Guard to Dong. Soon news of this spread throughout Beijing and the martial arts community came to know of Dong and his art.
After Sha was defeated by Dong, his anger could not be pacified. Because his job had been taken away by Dong, Sha plotted with his wife to assassinate him. One hot summer evening, Dong neglected to shut his bedroom window. Sha told his wife to take her spear and throw it from the window. He would attack Dong with his saber from the doorway. But Dong was prepared at every moment. As Sha's wife crept outside the window, Dong was aware of it. By the time she had lifted her spear to aim it at the bed, Dong had already rolled off to the side. Dong took the spear and laid it on the ground. When Sha saw this, he dropped his saber, knelt down, and begged for mercy. Sha and his wife begged Dong to accept them as his students. At first, Dong was unwilling. Several times they pleaded with him. Eventually Dong agreed and put an end to the animosity.
There was a bannerman in the Su Palace named Quan Kaiting. He heard about Dong and wanted to find out how good he really was. When they finally met, Quan tried many times to cut off Dong's head with a saber but Dong evaded every blow. Later Quan crept outside Dong's window to spy on Dong and observe his training practices. However Dong found him out. He made a wad of paper into a bullet and flung it directly into Quan's eye. Quan Kaiting then developed an admiration for Dong and asked to be his student. Dong refused, yet Quan persisted in kneeling and begging both day and night. Dong finally agreed and made him a student.
The imperial family welcomed Dong into their homes. Both men and women studied with Dong. One day a certain couple were sitting upstairs. They heard a child laughing on the other side of the roof. They opened the window to look outside and saw Dong, carrying a child on his back, leap up onto the top of the roof. Dong said, "I will mount the clouds so you and they can laugh together." This made the child laugh even more. The next day this couple humbly asked Dong to teach them 'mounting the clouds', but Dong would never agree.
One day Dong was with a number of young students discussing martial arts. There was a flock of birds chattering on the rooftop. Dong became annoyed with the birds so he leapt up onto the rooftop and seized three of them. The students vainly asked Dong to show them the leaping arts. Dong laughingly said, "Why do you want to learn this art? Are you planning to become thieves?" In the end, none were instructed.
Dong was sometimes ordered to go beyond the Great Wall to collect the grain tax. One time he was surrounded by ten bandits with sharp weapons. Dong broke through them and fought them off. He was agile as a whirlwind. He blocked everything and subdued them. When he finished the bandits all knelt before him in awe. Because of this Dong was known beyond the Great Wall.
One time Dong was traveling outside the city when he came upon a group of brigands. Since they had heard of Dong's fame, the head of the brigands invited him for a match at their hideout. Dong asked that all who wished to challenge him take out their sabers and attack simultaneously. He defended himself on all sides. Dong moved like a whirlwind. He injured no one, nor did anyone injure him. Everyone breathed a sigh of release. Dong had won their admiration. After this he was treated as a guest and bidden a respectful farewell down the mountain.
One time Dong was in the palace and said things that enraged a certain boxing teacher. The boxing teacher wanted a duel with Dong, so Dong brought out a spear and suggested that the teacher try to stab him with it. The boxing teacher thrust the spear at Dong but Dong blocked it with his palm and evaded more thrusts with his walking. The boxing teacher couldn't touch him. The boxing teacher started to recover from his rage and Dong retreated until his back was to a wall. The boxing teacher followed Dong coolly and suddenly thrust his spear with great strength. The spear penetrated three inches into the wall only Dong was now sitting on top of the wall. He laughed and said, "How strong you are! I said your art was extremely flowery and fake. Don't you now agree that this is true?" The boxing teacher was shamed and left.
One night, ten of Dong's students gathered in his house. They talked and practiced, and their morale was high. Dong saw that the place was quite crowded, the skill level of the students was advanced, and the mood was intense. He stopped them and said, "Today since we are all together, and indoors, we will play a game. We will put out the lights, then we will see if you can find me. Anyone who touches me will get private tutoring." The disciples all agreed. They moved around in the dark, feeling everywhere, milling about and grabbing each other. No one ran into or saw Dong. Finally a light was lit, and everyone saw Dong gripping the ceiling beam with his fingers, his body hanging in the air. Everyone had a bid laugh.
One day, Yin Fu, one of Dong's senior students, gave a birthday party for Dong. When the feast was over, Dong went and sat in the middle of the room. All of the students started practicing in the outer room and they discussed inviting Dong to practice with them. They went to the inner room to get Dong, but he was no longer there. They left the room and went to look for Dong. They found him in the courtyard practicing. They asked him how he got there since the only exit lead past where they had been. Dong replied, "You practice martial arts, yet your eyes don't see and your ears don't hear. Guilelessness is a shortcoming. I walked out of the room by myself and you did not even notice. Suppose you have an enemy who wants your life. How can you be this way? In this place you are practicing martial arts with me. Since you want to practice martial arts, take fifteen minutes to listen and look around this courtyard and watch for enemies.
One summer there was a succession of tremendous rains. Dong was sitting next to a wall meditating. Suddenly the water saturated wall collapsed. The students feared for Dong and quickly cleared away the rubble, but there was no body underneath. They looked around and saw Dong sitting against the opposite wall meditating.
Still another time, Dong was taking an afternoon nap. One of his disciples, fearing that he would catch a cold, picked up a blanket, tiptoed to the edge of the bed and began to lightly cover his body. But when he put the blanket down there was no body there. Startled, he turned his head and saw Dong seated near the window. Dong exclaimed, "What's wrong with you? Trying to startle me!" Dong had thought that someone was about to attack him.
Another time, after the meal at the end of the day, Yang Junfeng came up to Dong and laughingly said, "Your students brag about your marvelous skills, but I have my doubts about them." Dong said, "You so-and-so! You stick your nose into everybody's business and now you want to test me!" Dong placed a chair in the middle of the room and sat in it. He said, "Extinguish all the lights. Then everyone try to grab me. I will sit still in the chair." When he was done speaking, all the students stood in a circle around Dong. When the lights were extinguished, the students groped around seeking Dong, but no one could find him. When the candles were relit, Dong was still sitting in the chair. Yang Junfeng admonished the men to be vigilant and requested that the test be repeated. This time, just as the candles were extinguished, Yang struck up a light and saw Dong stuck to the room's rafters as though he was tied there.
Although Dong was extremely skilled in martial arts, he was also extremely modest about his abilities and very strict with his students about giving away secrets. One student, named Ruan Zhen'gu, was very good. He could leap onto roofs and vault over walls. His village was 300 miles from Beijing. One night a messenger came to bring him home to help defend his village from bandits. Dong was afraid that Ruan would give away secrets indiscriminately, therefore he said, "You are my student. There is good fruit on the outside, but if the core turns out to be rotten, I will cut off your head." Ruan listened to Dong's words. He did not want to have a rotten core, so he faked a leg injury as an excuse and did not return home.
One time Dong was walking down a road when a group of bandits blocked his way. Dong brought out his Deer Horn Knives and ordered the bandits to disperse. Two of the bandits, not being sensible, attacked Dong with sabers. They were strong men and Dong fought 35 bouts with them before killing them. When the rest of the bandits saw the bodies of their companions, they were enraged. Ten men surrounded Dong attacking him with sabers and spears, shouting furiously. Dong remained calm as he struck and slashed at the bandits, killing them all. Not one escaped death.
According to legend, Dong had the skill of "one hand catches the knife and the other hand catches the sleeve arrow." One of his students was skilled at throwing bullets. In 100 throws, he would hit 100 bull's-eyes. Dong had that student throw bullets at his upper body. The students threw a continuous stream of bullets toward Dong and Dong, using only two fingers, caught them all. The student was awed and said, "Teacher, you truly have supernatural hands!" But Dong said, "Throwing bullets and catching bullets just depends on fast hands and quick eyes. 'Supernatural hands' is an empty title."
One time Dong was conversing with a guest. After the guest had finished drinking his tea, he became so engrossed in the conversation that he absent-mindedly missed the tea table and let the cup fall into empty space. In the moment before the cup fell to the ground, Dong jumped over and caught it.
Dong met with Yang Luchan, the renowned master of Taijiquan, to compare skills. They fought continuously for three days. They matched each other in strength and skills, and finally the match ended in an even tie. From that time on the two were good friends and the reputation of each was greatly enhanced.
In his later years, Dong went to live with his student, Shi Liu, at his cloth shop. He also stayed with his student's student, Ma Gui, at his Yihe Lumberyard.
Dong Haicuan, in his old age, was the epitome of his art. He did his changes with amazing speed. On approaching death, he lay down in bed. His students attempted to adjust his clothes to make him comfortable, but he leaped up and took a saber from the wall, ready to attack. He opened his eyes and saw the students. He said, "Did I ask for help? You must wait!" Then he turned around, discarded the saber and returned to bed. Dong lay in his bed and knowing that he was close to death used both hands to do palm changes. He commissioned the students to uphold the honor of Baguazhang, to always transmit it, to support the school and always show worn shirtsleeves (to show diligent practice.) He said to his students, "I am about to die. You are all well able to pass on Baguazhang, so it won't die out. And so, although I die, I will live on." As his words ended, he died. He was eighty-four years old.
Yin Fu and Dong's other disciples buried him outside Beijing's eastern walls. After two years Yin Fu set up a memorial tablet to him. Again, in 1931, Ma Gui set up a monument to show his sincerity. Dong's tomb was vandalized and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. However, in 1980, Li Ziming and 442 men raised five thousand dollars and move the tomb from Beijing to the Western Mountain Wen'an Gong cemetary.