As martial artists, we are instinctively drawn to the magic and unsolved mysteries of Chinese wushu. The hidden meanings and legends behind a movement, pattern or entire style is what inspires our burning devotion to train hard and strive for perfection. Wudang wushu is one of those mysteries.
True Wudang wushu is like a diamond, with its myriad facets shining brightly - Daoism, Wudang historical culture and a deadly fighting style make up the three major aspects. The Wushu Scholar team travelled to the Wudang area for the first time in September 2004 with great expectation, excitement and trepidation. With images from the landmark movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon running in our heads, we were eventually to find that even this flagship of modern wuxia cinema fell far short of the real world of central China's most famous mountain.
"Wudang is like the mother - tai chi is like the son" (Master Cai Xing Sheng, Vice-Chairman, Wudang Research Association)
Revered in the wushu community, Wudang is seen by many as the spiritual and historical home of the three major internal styles of wushu, Xingyi, Bagua and Taiji. Located in Hebei Province, central China, Mt Wudang is a distinguished Daoist pilgrimage and has attracted many prolific martial artists and philosophers throughout history. In Shiyan City and the Wudang mountain area, we met and filmed a number of masters of traditional Wudang wushu, which is incredibly popular among the local residents. Of all the Masters that we met and befriended, two stand out for us.
Master Du Xin De is the Abbot of the White Horse Temple, one of the few working mountain temples in the Wudang range. A practising Daoist monk, his life revolves around the Daoist path, of which Wudang wushu is an integral part for him.
Master Cai Xing Sheng is the Vice-Chairman of the Wudang Research Association, a lay-Daoist and life-long practitioner of Wudang wushu. Through their friendliness and openness in guiding us through the Wudang maze, our faith was cemented that these two outstanding practitioners had nothing to fear when explaining the subtleties of Wudang wushu.
Wudang wushu is strikingly beautiful and precise. Gracefully shifting from mid to low stances and from small to large movements, legend reveals that Wudang boxing was originally derived in a dream after Zhang San Feng watched an imaginary fight between a snake and a crane. Some of those animals' essential characteristics - poise, precision, suppleness and fluidity - are clearly visible in Wudang wushu patterns and movements.
Patterns in this style are characterised by slow flowing connecting movements punctuated by explosive strikes before returning back to rhythmic flowing grace. It has been noted that many consider Wudang style to be the birthplace of the three main internal styles of Taiji, Xing Yi and Ba Gua. As well as some historical evidence that points towards this conclusion, preserved mostly in legend, many characteristic movements from each of these styles are observable in Wudang patterns.
Wudang wushu is an internal style which focuses on building internal strength through breathing and mental focus. Master Cai, Vice Chairman of the Wudang Research Association, explained to us the difference between internal and external according to Wudang wushu principles:
"An internal style is based on breathing in and out and leading the breath. It starts with the internal and moves outwards. External style breathing exercise are generated by external movement, which is actually passive. But internal breathing exercise uses initiative, using the breathing to lead the moves."
Alongside the combination of fast and soft movements and strong focus on breathing, a noticeable feature which characterises Wudang wushu style and other Daoist styles is the use of a circular body shape to protect and stabilise the body. The Wudang wushu stylist uses 'crane legs' in order to become solid when standing and agile in movement, and uses the 'turtle back' to protect the inner organs during a fight and promote their healthy function, according to Daoist medical principles.
Footwork is considered fundamental, and in a local training hall Master Cai showed us the diagrams he himself painted on the floor in order to train his students. By moving in between the nine points marked within the 'Yin-Yang' diagram, students learn the deceptive and powerful footwork required to evade and manipulate an opponent, using small circles in a limited space to maximum effect.
Knowledge about genuine Wudang wushu is patchy in the west - whilst its reputation for beauty and deadliness inspired Ang Lee to create Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, many might ask - is it useful as a fighting art? In the past Wudang martial arts, along with other Daoist styles, were taken to the highest internal levels by monk practitioners, whose daily lives were focussed on religious and not military exercises. Isolation is a contributing factor as well, but more often than not, monks, in their efforts to escape the material world, simply do not fight. However, that is not to say they couldn't - we found today's modern lay and monk practitioners still trained with a balanced focus on the 'martial' as well as the 'art'.
In fact, Master Cai explained that Wudang wushu is often seen as such a mystery to the outside world because the style is not as open and transparent as other styles. For a beginner, the movements and principles for fighting are all included in their basic exercises and patterns and yet they will not perceive these until they have practised for many years. Yet advanced Wudang wushu stylists train in pushing hands and two person drills, similar to many traditional styles, in order to develop sensitivity and an awareness of attack and defense.
All the masters we spoke to in Wudang stress that the emphasis for students should be on a correct and solid foundation, which cannot help but lead to good self defence skills.
"Having learnt a particular self defence skill, the young Cai tried to use it in a fight and failed. He complained to his Master that his teaching was useless and fake, but the older man replied that ten years training should include nine years training the foundation and only one year for the patterns and moves. Cai's foundation was not good, that's why he failed. Ashamed, Cai learned his lesson and redoubled his efforts, concentrating from then on on getting his foundation correct"
A strong foundation for Wudang wushu requires particularly good leg strength and a high degree of flexibility. The ability to move smoothly and quickly between in deep and long stances relies on strong legs, and so foundation training focuses on basic hip and ankle flexibility as well as strengthening exercises like horse stance. The advanced practitioner takes this to another level, by practicing horse stance or one-legged positions carefully balanced on bricks.
Locally and across China the style is famous for its health benefits - Wudang wushu foundation training follows the Daoist path, and focuses on building internal strength and health. We were treated to a demonstration of basic exercises and skills by a group of elderly practitioners, who happily showed with ease how they could achieve a full-splits position and lift themselves off the floor using their fingers. Only when we were informed that these particular stylists were all recovering from cancer operations within the last year were we finally speechless. It is because Wudang style puts faith in internal power and does not rely on physical strength that these masters can keep on improving well into their old age.
The Daoist origins of Wudang wushu are proudly displayed in the weapons used in this style. The classic straight sword (the iconic Wudang wushu weapon) is the only weapon, according to Daoist mythology, that can be used to destroy evil spirits. The straight sword holds a semi-iconic status amongst Daoist wushu practitioners for this reason and reflects the epitome of wushu achievement. The Daoist flute and horse-hair whip are equally iconic, both items of religious importance - for example, the flute was often carried by wandering Daoist monks as music was seen as a means to perfect the spirit.
Although Wudang wushu also incorporates other weapons like the broadsword, spear, Da Dao and Guan Dao, the core weapons used all require great skill and precision to become effective. It is in this spirit that Wudang Wushu stylists trains - aiming for nothing less than perfection and the ability to manipulate an opponent without any recourse to physical force.
Mt Wudang occupies a particularly special position in Daoist history. The five sacred mountains in Chinese Daoist culture are Taishan, Huashan, Songshan, (North) Hengshan and (South) Hengshan, but in the Ming dynasty, Wudang was conferred a status far exceeding these five by the Emperor Yongle. During his reign, the Emperor patronised the site heavily and contributed over 200,000 military men to aid the construction of a massive interweaved series of temples on the Wudang mountain peaks, much of which survives today. He finally conferred the official title of 'Great Mountain of Supreme Harmony' and secured its central place in the Daoist tradition.
Daoism is often mistakenly portrayed as a purely mystical, ascetic doctrine, only suitable for lone hermits wandering through the mountains. Though some branches of Daoism follow this path, the popular brand of Daoism that enjoyed grass-roots support among the peasants and farmers of China incorporated rituals of deity worship from other indigenous beliefs, and quasi-magical systems of internal development from the Wu magicians.
The local culture in and around Wudang is steeped in this Daoist heritage. The Wushu Scholar team visited a local mountain temple in the Wudang range called Bai Ma Si (White Horse Temple), where annual feast days attract hundreds of local residents to patronise the temple and offer gifts to the Daoist divinities. In the temple grounds, where Wushu exists alongside Daoist practises, the relationship between physical and spiritual progression is organic.
Daoist wushu like that of Wudang focuses on internal training to develop strength and energy and an intrinsic part of this is meditation and qigong. Many of the health benefits of Wudang wushu derive from the strong emphasis on breathing and qigong. We asked Master Cai Xing Sheng what qigong is:
"It is a combination of correct breathing and correct meditation skill. You have to follow the traditional Chinese medical ranges theory. As a beginner you do not need to know this, but you must follow a teacher who understands this. We say everyone can train Wudang Wushu because it's not a mystery - you just have to follow your teacher correctly."
Of course, many of the Wudang wushu patterns are qigong exercises in themselves, as the practitioner must breath correctly and circulate their internal energy when performing the pattern. For the advanced practitioner, a pattern becomes a moving meditation, improving physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
Our explorations of Wudang wushu have enlightened us of this old and profound style. In and around the celebrated Wudang mountain, wushu has become an intrinsic part of the culture and the local stylists are fiercely proud of their achievements. In every pattern, every movement, every nuance we were awed by this beautiful and powerful style.
For readers who want to find out more, subscribing to Wushu Scholar magazine will give you access to the full Wudang Wushu resources we have already released and many more we will release in the future.
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