When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pushed martial arts movies into the Oscar spotlight, it also exposed one of China’s most cherished martial treasures, Wudang Mountain. Nestled in the heart of the mainland in Hubei Province, Wudang Mountain is a famous center for Taoism and is believed to be the birthplace of Tai Chi Chuan. According to legend, Tai Chi (spelled Taiji in modern Mandarin) was created by an ancient Wudang master named Zhang San Feng, who was inspired by mystical visions he experienced on that mountain.
Today, the Taoist temples of Wudang are still active. In fact, Wudang’s temples are protected as one of 730 registered World Heritage sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Inside those temples, the internal styles of kung fu – Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua – are still practiced by robed Taoist priests. Now they are opening their doors to the public for the first time. The Chief Priest of the Wudang Zhang San Feng lineage is Grandmaster Zhong Yun Long. Priest Zhong was our guest during his first visit to America for our Anniversary Gala Benefit last year, and he granted us this first interview for English readers.
Priest Zhong is a peaceful soul with a deep, resonating voice, full lips and prominent cheekbones. There’s a slow grace to his every gesture, which makes being in his presence a very calming experience. His thick black hair and shining complexion overshadow the broad shoulders of a seasoned martial arts master. Adorned in traditional Taoist cap and robe, Zhong was quite excited about his visit to America. He was very impressed with our environmental protection policies and was particularly fascinated by my low emission hybrid car. As a Taoist Priest defending one of China’s natural wonders, he has a genuine concern for conservation.
Taiji is undoubtedly the most practiced form of martial arts in the United States today. Followers range from strapping young push hands champions to the elderly and afflicted. But according to Priest Zhong, we westerners have a very limited understanding of what Taiji is. His mission is to reveal the true meaning behind the movements of this most precious treasure of China.
Origins of a Wudang Priest
“I was born in the year of the dragon in Huangxi City, Hubei. Many of my elders loved kung fu and that left a great impression on me. Although my father was a scholar who did not learn kung fu, my grand uncle both inspired me and taught me a little. In the old countryside, fights often arose between clans, so everyone studied the martial arts. It was a required skill. So in the countryside where I was born, everyone loved kung fu and it was mandatory to study it. This was my inspiration, the city where I was raised. Everybody there loves kung fu, and for whatever reason everyone knew kung fu back then. That’s why I fell in love with kung fu too.”
“In 1978, when I was 13 years old, I began to formally study kung fu under a master named Tang Yun Yue in Jiangxi Rechang. Before that, I was exposed here and there, but I didn’t actually learn a great deal. 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.”
“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. 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 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 WudangBashenmen (8 Immortal Gate.) In spring of 1986, I traveled toLao 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.”
Wudang in the Last Two Decades
“Back then, the living standard was very hard. The old masters were very strict. They only taught me in secret at night so that 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.”
“But after 1988, these rules were loosened. Mr. Qiao Shi, a speaker of the Chinese Congress, visited Wudang and inspired the priests to open the door and spread Wudang martial arts to the world. So we changed the rules and started to teach outside. My old master and I performed for him during that visit. Mr. Qiao Shi saw that it was a great and mystical art. That?s why he said we needed to promote it. Of course, before he had visited, Wudang had already begun to open the door a little. In the old days, Wudang kung fu was not even shown to outsiders, but after the Wudang Taoist Association was formally established, we held two internal martial arts exhibitions in 1985 and 1986. In 1987 we held our first annual lei tai (sparring ring) open tournament. After that I headed northeast continued my research, but I returned in autumn of 1988, and then competed in the National Farmers Athletic Events. In 1988 we began to teach outsiders, and the following year the first Wudang Taoist Martial Arts School was opened. That was the first time we had a school in the mountains teaching outsiders. Now we call it the Wudang Taoist Martial Arts Institute. I also accepted the duty of chief instructor for the Wudang Taoist Association from Guo Gaoyi then.”
“When we first opened the school, we were only allowed to have 40 students a year. That?s all we could take and only Chinese students studied seriously then. Foreigners only came for a very short stays. By 1989, more foreigners came to study, but they all came for too short of a time to learn. Even today, most come and learn a little Taijiquan or a little nourishing qigong. Those 40 students I referred to before stayed all year round to study. It was in 1989 that the association appointed me and Guo Gaoyi to be in charge of the Institute. So from 1989 to 2000, we limited the student body, but after 2000, we’ve opened up to even more.”
“This is the only martial arts school on the mountain that is authorized by the Wudang Taoist Association where you can formally learn Taoist kung fu. Of course, there are eight or nine private schools at the bottom of the mountain where they teach standardized forms. China has a lot of standard competition forms. These schools are actually bigger than the Institute since they are doing it commercially with a great deal of advertising. We at the Taoist Martial Art Institute never advertise. And these days, we do accept foreigners. Several have studied over a year now, but more stay for three month sessions. Most only stay for a week or two.”
“There are about 120 priests and 40 nuns currently registered with the Association. To be recognized, you must be registered. This certifies that you have met the requirements and passed the examinations. There is a Taoist college connected with Purple Cloud Temple (Wudang’s primary temple). The priests and nuns study martial arts, as well as the other aspects of Taoist culture like music, painting, calligraphy, and astronomy. The excellence of some of the Wudang musicians has been recognized by the Wuhan Conservatory of Music.
“From 1995 to 2000, I was in charge of reception for the Wudang Taoist Association as well as the administrator for Purple Cloud Temple, but later I wanted to focus only on the development of Wudang martial arts, so I became president of the Wudang Taoist Martial Arts Institute. I am the 14th generation of the Zhang San Feng branch of Wudang, bearing the Taoist name Qing Wei. Now, there are no more 13 generation masters alive in my lineage. We only have 14, 15 and 16 generation now.”
“Over the last two decades, I?ve participated in many national and international martial arts exchanges, competitions and championships. And I?ve had to answer a lot of challenges, both nationally and internationally. Since master Guo and Zhu have both passed on, I?ve gone on to represent Wudang martial arts in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States as well as greeted Chinese politicians like Jiang Zemin, Qiao Shi and Li Reihuan. In 2001, we formed our demonstration group. Then we went to represent Wudang at the Qimenpai Wulin Dahui (seven gate systems martial family gathering – Wudang, Shaolin, Emei Mountain, Hua Mountain, Kunlun Mountain, Kongdong and Tibetan.) This was held in Nanjing and organized with the cooperative efforts of Wudang and Shaolin. In 2002, I went to America and Macao. This year I went to Taiwan, which made the newspapers as I was being tested for SARS entering the country.”
Wudang Kung Fu Defined
“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. Liangyiseparates 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 Xuan Gong Quan but this is not like Shaolin long fist. It trains the stances, hand techniques and body techniques, combining all of them together.”
“It’s very hard to say how many lineages there are at Wudang today. Through the centuries so many masters have created their own styles. When each master breaks through, when they attain a higher level, they become their own style. When they become their own style, they create another branch of the lineage. Most of the lineages are out in the community among the folk people of the country. Today, there might be thirty or fifty of them, but the Wudang Zhang San Feng branch is the main stream. Now we still call it Wudang San Feng Pai (Pai means “school.”) All of the others came out of the San Feng Pai – they were created and branched out. Under Wudang San Feng Pai are eight men (gates): Taiji, Xingyi (form mind), Bagua (eight trigrams), Baji (eight extremes), Baxian (eight immortals), Xuangong (mystic work), Liuhe (six harmonies) and Jiugong (nine directions). I still focus mainly on Taiji. Wudang Taiji consists of 15 forms. Then from that it also branches out into 18 weapons.
“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 most important 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.”