Celebrating the Birthday of Zhang San Feng, Patriarch of Taijiquan
On the 9th April, we will celebrate the Birthday of Zhang San Feng (張三豐), who was born in 1247. Zhang San Feng is generally recognised as the founder of Taijiquan (太極拳) and resided on Mount Wudang (武當山). Not a lot was known about his background and they vary from sources*. Some say he was became enlightened and become a Daoist priest in his youth, others say he was once a scholar and some say he was a Buddhist monk at the Shaolin Temple in his youth by the name of Jun Bao (君寶). At some point, he was a wondering Daoist and stayed on various sacred mountains**. Zhang San Feng was said to have achieved enlightenment at the age of 70.
In terms of when he actually existed, it ranged from Southern Song (1127-1279) to the Yuen Dynasty (1271-1368) and the early part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). I first became familiar with Zhang San Feng through Louis Cha's novel The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre***. The novel was set during the waning years of the Yuen Dynasty. This is consistent with historical records from that period that mention Zhang San Feng. Some sources claim Zhang San Feng was still alive during the mid-15th Century, which meant he was by then over 200 years old. Due to Daoist meditation practices, this was certainly possible. Whilst it is not common to find people living over the age of a 100, in the right environment, it is possible to live a long life. If you lived on a mountain and your meditated and lived on a wholesome diet, then it is possible.
Zhang San Feng is seen by many as a mythical figure, but this is not true. He wrote a number of books which are part if the Daoist Tripiṭaka on Wudang ****. Taijiquan was an art that Zhang San Feng created after he saw a crane and a snake fight. Modern Taiji dates from the late Qing period when the Yang family taught in Beijing (19th Century). From the Yang style, came Wǔ (Hao) style, Sun Style and Wú style. The founder of Yang style Yang Lu-Chan learned Taijiquan from the Chen family. Whilst stories and facts vary. It is fair to make the assumption that the Taijiquan from Wudang did not stay on Wudang. Just like how knowledge and techniques went to Shaolin and spread onwards. There are many Daoist temples that have their own styles of gong fu, including their own style of Taijiquan. People often say the Taijiquan is an ancient art, but the art we know today is not that old. However the various techniques and theories that go into Taijiquan go back to the early days of Daoism. It would be sensible to say that Zhang San Feng put these various theories and techniques into one art, with many other adding to the art. Some schools of thought believe there were other similar arts that have existed over the course of history. This would not have been impossible, but a lot has been lost over the past couple of centuries. Zhang San Feng is also to Wudang, as Bodhidharma is to Shaolin. This is a nice thought, but it often comes with unnecessary political and idealogical baggage. Which often harms relationships, instead of strengthening bonds.
The Birthdays of various deities is widely celebrated by followers across China. Zhang San Feng is both a historical figure and Daoist deity. He isn't worshipped like a god in the Western sense, but we honour his teaching. It isn't unusual to find an alter with a picture of Zhang San Feng with incense sticks and offerings. This is tradition as opposed to superstitions and or being a cult. What would Taijiquan be without Zhang San Feng? What would Christmas be without Santa Claus? Many Chinese people have heard of the legend of Zhang San Feng, even if they don't practice Taijiquan. There are many legends about Zhang San Feng and many novels and films have been written or made about him. It seems that he must have lead a very colourful life. In reality, cultivating the Dao and practicing Taijiquan isn't quite like that.
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* Whilst the registration of people did exist in ancient China, not everybody was listed. Records do get lost or destroyed. A lot of people are linked with the home of their ancestors and everybody had a wooden ID tag which was checked by law enforcement. Monastics carried a certificate to prove that they are monks & priest (this practice still true today).
** The Daoist tradition of wondering still exists. One can only learn so much in any given area and you will only develop if you wonder and learn.
*** Whilst the novel is fiction, the Condor Trilogy included many historical figures, including noted Daoist priests of the time, such as the Northern Patriarchs and events were included in chronological order.
**** Tripiṭaka mean is a collection of religious text, you may have heard of the Buddhist Tripiṭaka which includes many Buddhist Sutras.