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The legend of Zhang Sanfeng

Many legends are told about the origin of Wudang Style. This is one of them:

At the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127), the people in the Wudang Mountains were always exposed to attacks by dangerous animals, thieves or looters. Daoist life was unsteady because people always lived in fear of the next attack. Among them was a man who was more than one hundred years old. His name was Zhang Sanfeng.

Zhang Sanfeng very much wanted to find a system that would enable Daoist people to defend their monasteries against thieves and wild animals so that they could do their meditative exercises in peace. But no matter how hard and concentrated he thought about the problem, he did not find a proper solution.

One day – Zhang Sanfeng was sitting in the yard and rested – he suddenly saw two shining lights in a cherry tree nearby, one of them white, the other multicolored, and both bright and beautiful. When he looked at them closely he saw that they were a snake and a bird fighting and challenging each other in a lively manner. The snake had its body wrapped around the tree, only its head was peeking out and moving to and fro, its eyes sparkling. It moved quietly but as magnificently as a dragon and radiated an aura of indestructible force. The bird stood on a branch nearby with its body slightly bent, watching the snake. Perhaps it would have liked to move closer but did not quite dare. Its beak was opened as if in attack and it was swinging its wings as graceful as a phoenix.

The snake and the bird were playing this game with grace and skillfulness. Hardness conquers softness and tranquility overcomes motion. Both kept on changing the way they moved so that one of them always succeeded in making the other defenseless. The longer Zhang Sanfeng watched them, the more fascinated he became. But suddenly he heard the snake and the bird call out together: “Come along, come!” and they flew off into the sky. And low and behold, Zhang Sanfeng flew up, too, and followed them far, far away. Before he knew it, he had entered the inside of a mountain made of pure gold and he saw trees made of jade and liquid jade running in the river and golden cows and horses grazing on the mountainside.

An ancient, white-haired man was practicing his fist form on the river bank. The snake and the bird touched down in his lap and on his yellow robe transformed into a magnificent dragon and a dazzling phoenix.

The old man was a wise teacher of the Wudang School, and his movements were very similar to those of the snake and the bird in their playful fight: as quiet as a mountain lake and as soft as a springtime meadow, but there is hardness within the softness and motion in quietude, they just don’t show. One hundred moves and ten thousand changes, the longer you watch, the clearer you can see the force and the skill that enable you to level mountains, dump them in the sea, catch dragons and subdue tigers.

Zhang Sanfeng asked the old man if he would instruct him. The sage happily agreed and told him he had developed the fist form after the “Five Animals Frolics” by Hua Tuo and called it the “The Wudang Mountains Five Elements Fist Form”. He said it was an effective system of self-defense and good health, it would keep one hundred illnesses at bay and ensure longevity. He’d be very pleased if Zhang Sanfeng wanted to learn and practice the form with him.

Zhang Sanfeng nodded his head in agreement.

He started exercising immediately and studied the forms one by one until he had finally mastered all of them. And then he woke up and realized he had only been dreaming.

But since the form had been bestowed on him, Zhang Sanfeng shared his knowledge and practiced the form with Daoists every day. He also continued with his own daily practice and soon he no longer felt the chill in cold winter and did not sweat in hot summer. Bit by bit his silver-gray hair became black again, the wrinkles in his face disappeared and he even grew new teeth. Once he had learned how to subdue lion and tiger, he transformed from an old man to a child.

And so peace and tranquility returned to the Wudang Mountains.