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Zhang San Feng And The Origin Of Tai Chi Chuan

Zhang San Feng

The most popular theory of the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, however, concerns the Taoist priest Zhang San Feng (pronounced – and sometimes spelt – Chang San Foong), who lived towards the end of the Song Dynasty in the 13th century. After graduating from the famous Shaolin Monastery, the fountainhead of Shaolin Kungfu, Chi Kung and Zen, Zhang San Feng continued his martial art practice and spiritual development in the Purple Summit Temple on Wudang Mountain, which is one of the most important of the sacred mountains of Taoism.

One day Zhang San Feng witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane (some documents say a sparrow), and this inspired him to modify his comparatively hard Shaolin Kungfu into a softer style which was then known as Wudang 32-Pattern Long Fist. This later developed into Tai Chi Chuan.

Zhang San Feng was the first master to discard external training methods like hitting sandbags, jabbing palms into granules and practising with weights, and to emphasise internal methods like breath control, chi channelling and visualisation. He is thus regarded as the first patriarch of internal kungfu, which includes Tai Chi Chuan, Pakua Kungfu and Xingyi Kungfu.

Most Tai Chi schools today honour Zhang San Feng as the founder of Tai Chi Chuan. The notable exception is Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, for reasons which will be explained later. The following “Song of Silent Sitting”, taken from The Secret of Training the Internal Elixir in the Tai Chi Art, which was said to have been written by Zhang San Feng, shows that the original aim of Tai Chi Chuan was spiritual fulfillment.

Sitting silently, practise meditation;
The impulse is at yuanguan.
Continuously and gently regulate your breathing;
One yin and one yang brewing in the internal cauldron.
Nature must be enlightened, life be preserved.
Don’t rush, let the fire burn slowly.
Close your eyes and look at your heart of life,
Let tranquility and spontaneity be the source.
In a hundred days you will see a result:

A drop of elixir rises from kan,
The Yellow Woman is the matchmaker in between,
Both the baby and the red lady are perfect.
The beauty is boundless and inexplicable
All over the body vital energy arises.
Who can know such a marvellous experience?
It’s like a dumb person having a beautiful dream.

Swiftly take in the primordial essence;
The elixir breaks through the three obstacles,
Rising from dantian to the top at niyuan,
Then submerging into zhongyuan.
Water and fire combine to form real mercury,
Without wu and ji there is no elixir.

Let the mind be still, and life be strong,
The spirit radiates throughout 3,000 worlds.
Golden cockerel crows beneath the shadowless tree,
The red lotus blossoms in the middle of night.
Winter comes the sun shines again,
A thunderous roar shatters heaven and earth.
Dragons call, tigers play,
Heavenly music fills the sky in full harmony.
In nebulous mixture everything is empty,
The infinite phenomena are all here.

Marvellous in its mystery, mysterious in its marvel.
The circulation of the stream breaks through the three obstacles;
All phenomena are born in the union of heaven and earth.
Drink the dew of nature, sweet like honey,
Saints are buddhas, buddhas are saints.
When ultimate reality reveals dualism disappears,
Now I realise all religions are the same!

Eat when hungry, sleep when tired,
Offer a joss stick and practise meditation.
The great Tao is just before your eyes,
If you are deluded, you’ll miss the chance.
Once you’ve lost your human form
You may have to wait for a million aeons.
The uninformed dream of going to heaven,
The blind go into a deep forest to practise.
The ultimate secret is marvellous beyond the profane,
Letting out the ultimate secret is a heavy sin.
The four true principles you have to cultivate,
Breaking the gate of mystery to reach the marvellous.

Cultivate day and night without break,
Get a master early to develop your elixir.
There are people who know that real mercury
Is the elixir of longevity and immortality.
Cultivate each day, be more determined each day;
Do not regard spiritual cultivation as just an ad hoc task.
To succeed one must cultivate for three years, nine years,
Before a pearl of elixir can be obtained.
If you want to know who composed this song,
It’s by the Taoist Priest of Purity and Void, the Saint San Feng.

Purposely written concisely in symbolic language to prevent the arcane knowledge from being revealed to the uninitiated, this song provides both the philosophy and the method to attain the highest goal in Tai Chi Chuan, Taoism or any spiritual discipline. Spiritual development in Tai Chi Chuan will be explained in more detail in Chapter 21.

Yuanguan, dantian, niyuan and zhongyuan are various energy fields in the body. Kan refers to the abdomen; wu and ji refer to the circulation of vital energy round the body in a chi kung art known as The Small Universe. Yellow woman, baby, red lady, dragons, tigers and golden cockerel are symbolic terms describing the application of mind and energy in harmonious unity to produce a pearl of elixir or an internal illumination.

Shadowless tree is an allusion to Hui Neng’s “Bodhi is not a tree”, which is a Zen way of saying that ultimate reality is formless; the four true principles are the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of the Buddha’s teaching. These two references, as well as other concepts in the song, reflect the Shaolin teaching of Zhang San Feng.

The evidence for the existence of Zhang San Feng is impressive, although some scholars say that he was a myth. Erected on Wudang Mountain are two huge stone tablets honouring him as a Taoist saint, one decreed by the Ming emperor Seng Zu, and the other by the Ming emperor Ying Zong.

The Imperial History of the Ming Dynasty recorded that Zhang San Feng was born in 1247, learned Taoism from a Taoist master called Fire Dragon at Nanshan Mountain in Shenxi, cultivated his spiritual development for nine years at Wudang Mountain, was known by the honorific title of “the Saint of Infinite Spiritual Attainment”, and was the first patriarch of internal martial arts.

The Records of the Great Summit of Eternal Peace Mountain mentions that he studied the yin-yang of the cosmos, observed the source of the longevity of tortoises and cranes, and attained remarkable results. Collections of Clouds and Water describes him as carrying his lute and sword on his back, singing Taoist songs, working in the mountains, and studying the marvellous secrets of the cosmos.

From The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan
by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit