Tai Chi’s origin is shrouded in mystery, legends, and myths and is widely debated today. While the accounts vary and evidence point in different directions, the stories help to immerse ourselves into the philosophy.
Who is the father of Tai Chi? Let us explore the varying accounts, beginning with the oldest attribution, here in part 1.
Zhang Sanfeng (pronounced Jhan(g) San Fong) was a legendary figure in Chinese folklore, an enlightened individual who was in harmony with nature. He was one of the most highly regarded of the real people who became immortals, second only to Lü Dongbin.
One account states Zhang was born in 1247 near Longhushan Mountain and given to the Shaolin Temple and Taoist centres on Mount Hua to learn martial arts. However, around the age of 20, he couldn’t stay in Shaolin as the place didn’t hold him. Zhang was more interested in Taoism than Buddhism.
He became a wanderer.
Living modestly, Zhang Sanfeng observed nature most of the day. He spent many years in Hyangshan Mountains and the surrounding villages, a long time in the forests, rarely entering the villages. He woke up before sunrise and went to sleep right after sunset.
In appearance, Zhang was described as having a strong physique, large ears and round eyes. His beard was the shape of a halberd. He wore a tattered coat made of straw, no matter the season or weather. Regardless of whether he was in a quiet village or city street, he seemed always oblivious.
Zhang would just appear to help, working silently and then disappear, without a word. He rarely spoke.
The ends of Wudang Mountain State said Zhang Sanfeng first arrived in the area in 1368. He built a hut for himself to the north of Genji Peak. After 10 years, he moved to Wudang Mountains, living the same lifestyle. He learned there and later taught meditation, Herbalism, alchemy, traditional medicine and Qigong.
One morning, Zhang was wandering the forest when he hears a strange noise. He went to investigate and saw a snake and white crane in combat. Wordlessly, he sat and watched how both of them switched from fast to slow moves, not allowing each other to win.
The snake was moving flexibly and accurately, avoiding the bites and scratches from the bird. The bird was switching from attack technique to withdrawal technique when the snake was trying to bite her.
In the end, neither opponent won. Each animal ran away in different directions.
Zhang was so inspired by this; how they balanced, were contradictory, but indivisible like a yin yang. How accurately they coordinated each movement, whether it was low or fast.
Developing Tai Chi
Legends say Sanfeng was so inspired by the fight, he used it to create the concept of Tai Chi – a practice of balancing energy and cultivating it. Other sources said he received his boxing system in a dream from a Taoist God.
He started practising Tai Chi himself. First, he kept the new martial art in secret and went on early morning practice it on his own. Day by day, Zhang was improving his breath and his peaceful mind. His movements were slow, relaxing and coordinated.
Practice and Sharing of Tai Chi
One day, robbers tried to attack him in a forest. He used his art for the first time.
Zhang avoided their strikes, moving accurately and avoided combat. They became too tired, and then he attacked them with full power. He defeated all of them.
After some time, he decided to teach Tai Chi to the other monks at Wudang Mountains.
He founded Sanfeng style of Tai Chi and was the first generation of Sanfeng lineage that belonged to the Sanfeng Taoist Sect. Zhang Sanfeng taught them both slow and fast forms at every dawn and every evening. After a few decades of intensive training and life in the monastery, he gave his disciples full permission to become masters of the first generation. Then, he went to live alone again.
At the end of the 13th century, Taoist masters of the first generation of Sanfeng style started to continue his tradition and teach new young Taoists as their disciples, the same as Zhang had taught them. Later, they developed the complete concept of Wudang Martial Arts. They continue this tradition today, and currently, there is the 15th generation of Sanfeng style.
Between the 13th and 20th century, Tai Chi became widespread among other areas and taught, forming their own styles.
“Breathing Out –
Touching the Root of Heaven,
One’s heart opens;
The Dragon slips by like water..
Breathing In –
Standing on the Root of Earth,
One’s heart is still and deep;
The Tiger’s claw cannot be moved.
As you go on breathing in this frame of mind, with these associations, alternating between movement and stillness, it is important that the focus of your mind does not shift. Let the true breath come and go, a subtle continuum on the brink of existence. Tune the breathing until you get breath without breathing; become one with it, and then the spirit can be solidified, and the elixir can be made.”
Chang San-Feng, Commentary on Ancestor Lu’s Hundred-Character Tablet
Translated by Thomas Cleary, Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook, 1991, p. 187.
Poetic interpretation by Mike Garofalo of expository text of Chang San-Feng.
Zhang Sanfeng also taught Taoist medicine to the other monks. He specialised in Herbalism and traditional medicine.
Zhang used to say,
“To cultivate the mood before cultivating the medicine;
to cultivate the character before cultivating the best medicine;
when the mind is steady, the medicine will come naturally by itself;
when the mood and character have cultivated, the best medicine will be in reach.”
(Wudang Store, 2015)
Emperors and Immortality
During the 14th century, Zhang Sanfeng appeared a few times at Wudang to check how they taught. Taoists concluded he achieved immortality. They granted him the status of an immortal and deity. Soon bronze, porcelain or wooden figures of Zhang Sanfeng appeared in temple alters at Wudangshan and Taoists worshipped him. Many people practised martial arts across the whole of China, and Tai Chi kept his figure in home altars and honoured him.
In the middle of the 14th century, the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu, heard rumours about Zhang Sanfeng’s life, martial arts and other good things. Hongwu sent his officials to search for Zhang, but they couldn’t find him. It was said Hongwu came to Wudang to meet Sanfeng. Zhang burnt incense as a gesture of respect for the Emperor, but he went before Hongwu came.
Emperor Hongwu declared Mount Wudang to be the most important Taoist Mountain because of Zhang Sanfeng’s significance.
The third emperor of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle, wrote a letter to Zhang and sent it to Wudang Mountain. He invited Zhang Sanfeng to join the imperial state service, both a well-paid and a considerably honourable position. However, the Emperor paid so much respect to Shang Sanfeng, he called him a deity, saying how great he is and what he wants to learn from Zhang Sanfeng. The Emperor’s envoys were also unsuccessful in finding Zhang. So, Emperor Yongle also went in person to the Wudang Mountains on several occasions, but he never met Zhang Sanfeng.
On one trip, Emperor Yongle met an old Taoist monk and asked him to find Zhang Sanfeng. The old monk said, “Do not try. Even if you meet him, you would not recognise him, and if he learns that you are looking for him, he will hide from you.” That meeting prayed on the Emperor’s mind until several days later, he finally realised that the old Taoist monk was none other than Zhang Sanfeng himself.
Accepting he would never see the monk again, Emperor Yongle ordered the building of Meeting with the Immortal palace and built a giant copper statue of Zhang Sanfeng there. This is located in Wudang and is the largest temple that an emperor built in Chinese history. The Emperor bowed in front of the statue and burnt incense for him. It was the only time in Chinese history that an Emperor burnt incense for a Taoist and immortal.
Zhang Sanfeng enjoyed the favour of several main emperors who gave him the title of Taoist Master, despite him always declining to meet them. But this only made them respect him even more.
The description behind the stone turtle records an envoy carried a message to the Wudang Mountains on Behalf of Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty. In it, Zhang Sanfeng was invited to the imperial court. The inscription reads:
“Your morality is of the noblest.
None can compare with you.
In your actions you are in
Accordance with Nature and yet
You are ingenious and enigmatic.
I have little talent and learning, and I lack virtue.
I send this letter to express my
Sincere desire that we may meet.”