WUDANG kung fu is one of the two most representative styles of traditional Chinese martial arts, the other being Shaolin. It’s a popular saying in China that “In the north, Shaolin kung fu is king; yet in the south, Wudang kung fu rules.”
Unlike its northern counterpart, which is known for its “external” form of martial arts and integration with Zen Buddhism, Wudang kung fu is an “internal” martial art based on the philosophy and canons of Taoism, an indigenous Chinese religion.
Wudang kung fu is named after the Wudang Mountains, a sacred center of Taoism and home to a complex of famous Taoist temples. Located in central China’s Hubei Province, just south of Shiyan city and north of Shennongjia Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Wudang Mountains are considered by Taoists as the most ideal place in the country to achieve taihe or “great harmony,” the pinnacle of Taoism.
The first Taoist temple, Five Dragons Temple, was built here during the reign of Emperor Taizong in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Further structures were added in the following centuries, particularly under the sponsorship of Chinese rulers who were pious Taoist followers themselves, such as Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Soon, Wudang Mountains drew many believers to practice Taoism here. One of them was Zhang Sanfeng, a legendary 12th century Taoist figure and the man widely credited with founding Wudang kung fu.
There are various historical accounts about Zhang’s life. One tradition claims that he was born in Shaowu in southeast China’s Fujian Province in 1247 and lived for more than 200 years. He is said to have served as a government official for a short period of time in his youth, but later left his office and gave away his wealth and began to travel the country as an ascetic.
Zhang eventually settled in the Wudang Mountains and lived there as a reclusive Taoist priest, healer and sage.
Zhang spent much time studying Taoist philosophy and medicine. To prolong his lifespan and achieve immortality, he advocated the so-called Taoist “inner medicine.”
He once said: “To cultivate the mood before cultivating the medicine; to cultivate the character before cultivating good medicine; when the mind is steady, the medicine will come naturally by itself; when the mood and character have been cultivated, good medicine will be in reach.”
In the book entitled “Epitaph of Wang Zhengnan,” Huang Zongxi (1610-95), a renowned Chinese naturalist, political theorist and philosopher, claimed that Zhang Sanfeng also created Taoist internal martial arts, which include both Tai Chi Chuan and Wudang kung fu.
The internal and external are key concepts in traditional Chinese fighting arts. The difference is the source of the energy applied.
For instance, a fighting movement may be exercised by external muscular and structural forces, or by controlling the circulation of an inner force called chi (“life energy”), which can be accumulated by physical and spiritual exercise and flow through a relaxed body.
Zhang’s Tai Chi Chuan and Wudang kung fu were allegedly created according to Taoist ideology, which holds that the Tao, the everlasting source, pattern and substance of everything in existence, suggests naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity as well as softness, quiet, unification and harmony. And these elements are present in the movements and skills of Wudang kung fu.
The initial purpose of Zhang’s Wudang kung fu was to maintain fitness. The movements and skills of Wudang kung fu were designed to improve blood circulation, relax muscles and joints and cultivate physical and mental health.
Later, it also became a fighting art for self-defense. Its strategy is to fend off hard attacks with soft movements, defeat the strong in a yielding way, confront the active with stillness, beat the fast in a slow manner and strike out only after an opponent has struck first. It emphasizes defense rather than offense. This is because Taoism promotes peace and harmony, rather than conflict; so Wudang kung fu is meant for protection, not destruction.
Wudang kung fu has three main styles, namely, baguazhang, Tai Chi Chuan and xingyiquan.
Baguazhang, literally “Eight Trigram Palm,” is named after the trigrams of “I Ching” or “Classic of Changes,” an ancient Chinese divination text and one of the key ideological foundations of Taoism. Circle walking is the customary movement of Baguazhang.
Tai Chi Chuan combines slow, deliberate movements, meditation and deep breathing. It is today chiefly a mind-body practice to help treat or prevent health problems, as well as delay aging.
Xingyiquan, which translates literally to “Shape-will Boxing,” is the oldest of the Wudang internal martial arts. It concentrates on the mind and the shape of the body, rather than physical strength and heavy handed force. It is primarily composed of five basic fist movements, all exercised at short range.
Some documents indicate that xingyiquan was created in imitation of the fighting techniques and spirit of 12 animals — such as the tiger, monkey, snake, eagle, horse and bear — to tap into the natural instincts and fighting abilities those animals possess.
Wudang kung fu remains popular in China today, and like its northern counterpart Shaolin kung fu, it is also being practiced in many other places around the world. In 2006, Wudang kung fu was written into China’s first national intangible cultural heritage list.