The Wudang Myth Exposed

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, Wudang martial arts were practiced virtually in secret. There were no martial arts schools on Wudangshan. There were no students. Only the priests that resided at the various temples were taught qigong, taiji and kung fu – no one else. Then along came Mao Zedong and his Red Guard. All hell broke loose on all of the sacred mountains across China as priests, nuns and monks were murdered or beaten and driven from their temples.

During the 1960’s and 70’s Daoist activity at Wudangshan was almost completely halted. By 1979 when the Cultural Revolution ended, there were no more than 20 monastics living on the mountain.  Most of the Daoists had experienced relocation into labor camps.  Only the eldest ones were allowed to stay in the temples. Many were beaten by the Red Guard, and none were allowed to take on disciples.  Li Cheng Yu, almost 100 years old at the time, escaped beatings by gluing her lips together and sitting on the temple steps in meditation without food or water for three days. Amazed by her skill, the Red Guard let her remain along with a few high-ranking Daoists.

However, many martial artists did indeed flee China and filtered into Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Eventually some made it to the United States as well. That exodus gave rise to a myth with widespread origins which has become quite commonplace in taiji and martial arts circles. Many believe that today’s Wudang kung fu and taiji are newly-invented external styles that may provide health and wellness but have no internal foundation or internal power and bear no relevance to the Wudang lineages prior to the 1960s.

It is the aim of this blog to show that nothing could be further from the truth. (Of course, these critics when they mention health and wellness are only referring to physical health. Wudang Daoists, on the other hand, consider health of the mind and spirit as the ultimate aim of Taiji, but more on this later)

So then, how did this myth get started? Well, let’s back up a few decades.

Since students naturally have a special fondness for their teachers, those with masters, who had fled China, felt as though the very best of the best had left. Appalled by stories from embittered masters who had lost status and wealth, they felt that no master with any skill whatsoever had survived on the Mainland. Either they had been slaughtered on sight, beaten to death, forced into labor camps or had escaped the country. But they forgot to consider that, even in a labor camp, one can cultivate his qi and polish internal skills chopping wood and carrying heavy bags of soil. In fact, their skills may have become more developed than masters in foreign lands who taught students during the day then sat around drinking, smoking and gambling all night.

The truth of the matter is many Daoists had indeed fled their temples, but not all of them escaped to other countries. Many mingled among the farmers and laborers in their hometowns and began working in the fields, others in restaurants and kitchens, and still others in labor camps. Tasks like digging, planting and carrying bags of grains or grinding rice and cooking over a hot wok gave them a chance to secretly hone their skills. Even today Wudang Daoists practice the Convenient Shovel (Fang Bian Chan).

In 1979 chairman Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 established reforms to open up China, which effectively brought an end to the Cultural Revolution and eased the repression of  religious freedom.  This began a slow trickle of Daoists returning to Wudang.  Most importantly for the San Feng Pai sect, Guogaoyi 郭高一 (1921-1996) and Zhuchengde 朱诚德 (1898-1990), both dragon gate (Longmen Pai) masters, returned in 1980-81.

Born in Shangqiu, Henan Province, Guo Gaoyi as a child practiced the rudiments of Erlang Quan and Shaolin Quan. Later, he met high-level Taiji masters, Yang Kuishan and Guo Yingshan, while fighing in the Sino-Japanese war as a teenager. After the war he took vows at a temple in Liaoning Province where he studied Wudang Sanfeng Taiji quan from Yang Mingzhen (杨明真). During the Cultural Revolution he was forced out of the temple and returned to his hometown. In 1981 he entered a temple on White Cloud Mountain (Henan Province), where was ordained as a Daoist under Priest Tang Zhongliang, a Longmen Pai Taijiquan master.  After the death of his teacher, he moved to Wudang Mountain and began teaching.

Master Zhu as a young boy met a wandering Daoist and was accepted as his disciple. In 1932 he was forcibly conscripted into the Nationalist army. In 1939 he was discharged for health reasons and became a Daoist priest. He came to Wudang Mountain looking for his master, who had already passed away. During the Culture Revolution he was assigned to a hard-labor brigade where he chopped wood and carried fertilizer. After returning to Wudang Mountain, he continued his practice and received national attention for his qigong skills.

At that time, the 13th generation leader of San Feng Pai was Wang Guang De 王光德, who also became the head of Wudang Daoist Association once religious practice was legalized in 1979.  Master Wang was a local from the nearby town of Danjiangkou who had been studying under various Daoist masters since childhood – having taken Dragon Gate (Longmen Pai) master Li Cheng Yu 李诚玉 (1885-2003) as a master from a very young age.  Later he studied Gongfu under Xiao Yao Wan 萧耀宛 (1911-1997), the 12th generation head of Wudang San Feng Pai.

These three, Masters Wang, Guo and Zhu became the teachers of the 14th generation of Wudang students, which included a 19 year-old disciple, Zhong Yun Long, who came to Wudang in 1981. Zhong, a native of Huangxi City, Hubei Province, a hotbed of kung fu styles, was no stranger to external martial arts.

In Zhong’s own words from a 2003 Kung Fu Magazine interview with Gene Ching, he explains: “Under my first master, I studied Yue family boxing and Yang family boxing. That’s Yue as in the famous Song General Yue Fei, and Yang kung fu, not Yang Taiji. This Yang was another general from the Song Dynasty. According to legend, all the men in the family were generals that died in battle, so the women of the family had to become generals to defend the country against the Jin invasion. Anyway, I studied with that master for about six years, and then at 18, I went to Shaolin Temple to study for about six months.”

Next on the list, Wudang: “At 19, I came to Wudang to study formally. Mostly, I studied under masters Guo Gaoyi and Zhu Chende. Wang Kuangde also taught me a lot. At that time, Wudang was not as open as it is today. Not everybody could go there to study. They had rigid restrictions on who could be accepted as students.”

Zhong went on to explain what it was like in those earlier years: “Back then, the living standard was very hard. The old masters were very strict. They only taught me in secret at night, so no one would see it during the day. There were no kung fu schools up there. The only people who could learn Wudang kung fu were formal priests. Wudang had very exacting rules about who you could teach and who you could learn from.

“Then, in 1984, the Wudang Taoist Association was founded and that began to open things up. Before that, only the older Taoist priests lived in the temples. Due to China’s turbulent recent history, there was a missing generation. All the masters from the last generation are very old. I am the part of the younger generation of priests to come in. It was the first time they recruited new blood for the Wudang Association and I was among the first recruits.”

In 1985 master Wang, as the head of the Wudang Daoist Association, put out a call for Daoists scattered by the Cultural Revolution to return to Wudangshan. Among the several that answered his call were two famous masters: the Bagua master Lu Zi Jian 吕紫剑 and the Daoist nun and master of eight immortals sword Zhao Jian Ying 赵剑英.  Both returned in 1986.

Born into a martial arts family in Yichang, Hubei Province, Master Lu began training with his mother at age 7. At age 18, he moved to Beijing and studied Baguazhang with Master Li Changye and Xingyiquan with Master Yu Shirong, and finally he returned in Chongqinq, Sichuan Province to study Taijiquan with Master Li Guocao  In the 1920s he served as a member of the Nationalist Party military committee. When the Nationalist leaders fled to Taiwan, like many, Master Lu stayed in mainland China and served in a labor camp. In 1980s he won a number of martial arts competitions, garnering national attention. Then in 1986, he answered Master Wang’s call.

Master Zhao was born on Wudangshan. She was a very sickly child. When she was six years old, a soldier noticed just how sick she was and offered to teach her Kung Fu, an art form that literally saved her life. Though she was a girl and it was uncommon at that time for girls to learn Kung Fu, it was her passion for Kung Fu that shaped her life. She began studying martial arts to improve her health. When she was 15 she became active in war efforts during the Sino-Japanese War. She nursed injured soldiers and taught hand-to-hand combat. In the early years of the Communist Party she lived with her husband in Guangxi Province where she taught martial arts. In 1980, after two decades of silence, she came back to Wudang Mountain and is credited with preserving Wudang’s Taiyi 5 Element form.

Along with Master Wang, Masters Zhu, Guo, Lu, and Zhao were at the core of a renaissance of martial arts activity at Wudang that had not been seen since the fall of the Qing dynasty. Decades of turmoil were ending and a new resurgence emerging. And soon, a new leader would arise.

At the time that he put out his call for Daoists to return to Wudangshan, Master Wang also gave fourteenth generation San Feng disciple Master Zhong Yun Long 钟云龙 the enormous task of traveling around China to search out the different Daoist masters who had fled from persecution during the calamities of The Cultural Revolution and to bring their practices back to Wudang so they would not be lost.  Zhong spent 3 years seeking out and training with different Masters including Kuang Chang Xiu 匡常修 in Laoshan, famous for his unbelievable kicks.  A tradition of kicks that remains strong within the San Feng lineage to this day.

(The San Feng Pai Xuan Zhen style, also known as Wudang Northern style, forms the foundation from which everything else stems. This Dark Gate style Master Zhong learned in Laoshan 崂山 from Golden Mountain sect master Kuang Chang Xiu 匡常修)

In his Kung Fu Magazine interview, Grandmaster Zhong recounted his arduous three-year trek: “In winter of 1985, the Wudang masters asked me to go down the mountain and spend three years to search for lost Wudang masters and schools. I first studied under Gansu Chen Ye and inherited Wudang Bashenmen (8 Immortals Gate) In spring of 1986, I traveled to Lao Mountain in Shandong and studied Xuanmen Wuxue (dark gate martial study.) That autumn, I went to Zhongnan Mountain in Shaanxi to study Huan Yen Dan Ba (Taoist alchemy) under Gansu Li Yue. I continued my studies on Zhongnan Mountain through the spring of 1987, inheriting Wudang Xingyimen and Baguamen. Then in June I was ordered to return for the first Wudang open tournament.”

Through his travels and training, master Zhong amassed a huge body of knowledge ranging from Daoist martial arts to inner alchemy and healing practices.  In 1989 together with master Wang, Zhong founded the Daoist Association Martial Arts Academy at Purple Cloud Palace, with Master Guo serving as head martial arts instructor and Master Zhu as head qigong instructor.

Why is all of this important? Well, from 1966 to 1979, not only had Wudang lost a generation of experienced Daoist-trained martial artists but also an entire generation of novice recruits. Perhaps, even more importantly, until Master Zhong returned from his journey across China, Wudang had lost decades, if not centuries, of structure. Master Zhong brought back the missing elements to complete that structure and dispel those critics who claim that the new generation of Wudang Daoists replaced that structure with newly reinvented forms.

Taken from Wudang Houston’s Wudang San Feng Pai History, the structure of San Feng Pai is currently composed of the following sets:

First the Martial Set:

  1. Taiji Gate 太极门
  2. Xingyi Gate 形意门 (form mind)
  3. Bagua Gate 八卦门 (eight trigrams)
  4. Baji Gate 八极门 (eight extremes)
  5. Xuan Zhen Gate 玄真门 (the mystic work from Kuang Chang Xiu)
  6. Eight Immortals Gate 八仙门 (Baxian)
  7. Six Harmonies Gate 六合门 (Liuhe)
  8. Nine Palaces Gate 九宫门 (Jiugong)

Tracing these 8 categories, you begin to see the disparate strands that contribute to present-day San Feng sect. Taijiquan comes principally through two dragon gate (Longmen Pai) masters (Guo Gaoyi and Zhu Chengde), while Xingyi comes from both northern (Shang Ji 尚济) and southern lineages (Huang Wan Yang 黄万祥).  Bagua comes from another dragon gate master (Liu Cheng Xi 刘诚喜), while Bajiquan is simply comprised of the standard Jing Wu Academy set. Xuan Zhen Gate, also known as Wudang Northern style, forms the foundation from which everything else stems (this style Master Zhong learned in Laoshan 崂山 from Golden Mountain sect Master Kuang Chang Xiu 匡常修).  The eight immortals style he learned from a wandering Daoist Gansu Chen Ye 甘肃陈爷 during his travels in Hunan province.  And the last two gates are elaborations of Xingyi and Bagua respectively.

The second Set is San Feng Health Cultivation 三丰养生功

This middle section of the San Feng Pai curriculum is not organized like the first or last sections.  There is a proliferation of health cultivation techniques, from the five elements qigong 五行气功 to standing and seated eight pieces of brocade 八段锦.  There are also classical medical qigong sets like the five animal frolics 五禽戏 and “expelling the old and taking in the new” 吐故纳新.  Aside from this there is martial qigong, like iron body 筒子功, iron arm 铁臂功, iron palm 铁砂掌, iron throat 铁脖功, mystical two-finger skill 二指玄功, and Taiyi Qigong 太乙气功.  Later there are forms of health cultivation which border on inner alchemical practice like the Three Heaven Gate Enlightenment Training 三天门悟性气功 (also known as Tongzigong 童子功).  These techniques were transmitted primarily through Dragon Gate (Longmen Pai) Masters Guo Gaoyi and Zhu Chengde.

The Third and most secretive set is the San Feng Elixir Path 三丰丹道

The highest level of San Feng Pai is concerned with the practice of inner alchemy.  Most of these teachings are closely-guarded secrets.  The first step is known as “establishing the foundation,” 筑基 and it is divided into the following parts: regulate the body  身體要正常, engender sufficient energy 能量(陽氣)要充足, purify the heart and lessen desires  清心寡欲.

After this, one begins the practice of refining the heart 練心, which has two parts.  This is followed by regulating the breath 調息, which has three methods, the last of which is turtle breathing 龜息.  At this point one is ready to begin training in cosmic circulation method 周天運行法.

In training the cosmic circulation method one begins with small cosmic circulation 小周天, which has two sections – collecting the medicine and leading it to the stove 采藥入爐 and regulating the fire timing 調理火候.  After the creation of the small medicine 小药, the fruit of the above practices, one proceeds to large cosmic circulation 大周天, which has several parts. Through this practice one moves on to embryonic breathing 胎息, after which he or she can begin the second phase of the inner-alchemical enterprise.

So, you can see from the above training and structure, Wudang Taiji and Kung Fu are focused on developing internal power as opposed to purely external force. As for health and wellness, there is so little here that most outsiders can begin to comprehend. It is the ultimate aim for Daoism and Taiji to unite and bring about the total union of the body, mind and spirit, which includes all six individual energy bodies and two universal ones. Until that is accomplished, one’s Taiji, even though at a very high level, is not complete.

It is important to understand Master Zhong Yun Long’s thoughts on this final point since, as the 14th generation leader of San Feng Pai, he had the responsibility of training the 15th generation of disciples who would become the current masters of Wudangshan like his nephew Zhong Xuechao, who began informal study with his uncle at the age of six then formal study at Wudang after high school in 1992, Yuan Xiu Gang, (Shi Mao) Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy at Yao Ling, Chen Shiyu, The Wudang Daoist (Traditional) Martial Arts Academy at the Temple of the Returning Dragon (Huilong Guan 回龙观), and Gu Shining, Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy, to name a few.

In his Kung Fu Magazine interview, Master Zhong explained it this way: “Wudang kung fu is one of two main streams of Chinese martial arts. Shaolin kung fu is famous for its strength and explosive power, its external power. Wudang kung fu is exactly the opposite. Softness or yin power is used to overcome hardness. Stillness overcomes motion. Four ounces overcomes 1000 pounds. Of course, it also has a hard part. There is external power. Wudang forms appear soft on the outside, but internally it is really hard. By hard, I mean qi, because internal forms cultivate qi. When you train in this, the qi is very strong and becomes hard inside. But on the outside, touching and seeing it, it is very soft. It’s also like lightning when it comes – fresh and electric. When it explodes, fajin (explosive power) is like thunder.

“These days, mainstream Wudang focuses on Taiji. But Taiji is the big brother, so to speak. Beneath Taiji are three concepts: Liangyi (literally “two gifts” but it can be analogous to “heaven and earth”), Taiji (literally “grand utmost”) and Wuji (literally “void utmost.”) We say Zhang San Feng absorbed a hundred different styles. He took these specific styles, ideals and philosophies and focused them on the life nourishing culture that is Taoism to invent internal martial arts. According to Taoist beliefs, from Wuji arises Taiji, from Taiji arises Liangyi. Liangyi became sixiang (literally “four elephants” – this represents the four pillars or forms) and this created Bagua (eight trigrams, same as used in I Ching divination). From this we say ‘one created two, two created three, three created ten thousand.’ This philosophy is the foundation of internal form. That’s why Liangyi, Taiji and Wuji are all under the Taiji umbrella.

“Yin and yang combined together in balance creates Taiji. When you separate yin and yang, we call it Liangyi. Liangyi separates the hard and the soft. Put them together and they become Taiji. Within the taiji is the Tao of life nourishing culture. Before, I said that Zhang San Feng absorbed a hundred styles and mixed them with Taoist life nourishing culture. What is really meant by this is that our style has combined the methods of tuna (breathing methods), daoyin (stretching techniques), caibu (collecting and nourishing) and hunyuan (akin to qigong). Now under Taiji there are three different levels, first Liangyi, then Taiji, then Wuji. But if you talk about the form itself, it also has different levels. First is tuna, the breathing method, second is caibu, collecting and nourishing, and third is called hunyuan. Hunyuan means combining yin and yang, so it’s an internal meditation method. These three levels comprise Taijiquan technique.

“We use internal power to support external movement. Through many years of study, Wudang has developed many internal forms. In different periods, each form had a different creator. And each creator had his own basic form to base the foundation of his style. At Wudang, we have a basic entry-level form called Wudang changquan (long fist) but this is not like Shaolin long fist. It trains the stances, hand techniques and body techniques, combining all of them together.”

Grandmaster Zhong  stated that he mainly focuses on Taiji and explained that Wudang Taiji consists of 15 forms. From there it branches out into 18 weapons.

Back in 2003, Master Zhong had a final message for his readers, a message that is still very relevant today, and one, which all those critics of Wudang Taiji should take to heart:

“I want to send a message to the readers that Taiji is not just the Taiji form itself, because it is misleading in the world today. People talk about Taiji and think Taiji is just the form. But as I told you, it’s not just the form. It’s the three main concepts, Liangyi, Taiji and Wuji. Not only are these in the form, they are the philosophy of daily life. Not only are these the daily philosophy, they are Taoist culture. It’s our ancient culture, our ancestor’s culture. The form you learn is not just for self defense. It can also help you develop your intuition and your hidden potential. When you learn this – the style, the form or the internal technique – it can also help you slow the aging process and enjoy a longer, more prosperous life. Wudang Taoist culture is not only in martial arts, but also in learning qigong and nourishing life. This is very important. Wudang Taoist culture is a treasure of our ancestors and our nation. Now Wudang Mountain has opened the doors. Not only me but all the masters of the mountain are willing to share this treasure with the world.”

For further reading, here is a list of sources that I used for this blog:

The Chief Priest of Wudang Mountain by Gene Ching, Kung Fu Magazine, Sep/Oct 2003. View Here

Wudang San Feng Pai History, View at WudangHouston.com

The Truth About Wudang History, View at Daoistgate.com

Old Wudang Masters, View at innersecrets.at

Wudang Teachers, View Here