The Immortal Zhang Sanfeng


PureInsight | May 31, 2010



Peerless was the Immortal Zhang Sanfeng,[*]
Traveling all domains, his Great Dao was unmatched,
Later generations, for fame, bungled the boxing art,
Altering my Tai-chi, sullying my name.

July 1, 1996

[*]Zhang Sanfeng is a well-known Daoist figure who is said to have created Tai-chi chuan.”
(Hong Yin, “Tai-chi”)

“Nurture energy, forget words and guard it.
Conquer the mind, do non-doing.
In activity and quietude, know the source progenitor.
There is no thing; whom else do you seek?
Real constancy should respond to people;
In responding to people, it is essential not to get confused.
When you don't get confused, your nature is naturally stable;
When your nature is stable, energy naturally returns.
When energy returns, Elixir spontaneously crystallizes,
In the pot pairing water and fire.
Yin and yang arise, alternating over and over again,
Everywhere producing the sound of thunder.
White clouds assemble on the summit,
Sweet dew bathes the polar mountain.
Having drunk the wine of longevity,
You wander free; who can know you?
You sit and listen to the stringless tune,
You clearly understand the mechanism of creation.
The whole of these twenty verses
is a ladder straight to heaven.”
(Attributed to the Taoist Master Chang San-Feng, Translated and edited by Thomas Cleary)

Zhang Sanfeng was a Chinese Taoist priest who is believed to have achieved immortality.

Zhang Sanfeng was a Chinese Taoist priest who is believed to have achieved immortality, and is said variously to date from either the late Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty or Ming Dynasty. His name is said to have been Zhang Junbao before he became a Taoist. He was the originator of the boxing art Tai Chi Chuan in about 1270AD, towards the end of the Song Dynasty.

What we know of Zhang Sanfeng is that he lived in a simple straw hut on the holy Wu Tan mountain in Jupeth Province, China. He dressed in a simple style, wearing only a light vest even in icy weather, and was often observed to go without food for days, weeks or even months.

The biography of Zhang Sanfeng differs according to various sources. One tradition claims that Master Zhang Sanfeng was born at midnight on April 9, 1247 AD, in the area of what is known today as Liaoning, near Dragon Tiger Mountain in Kiang-Hsi Province in the southeast of China. He is said to have been a government official in his youth, learned Shaolin martial arts while living in the Pao-Gi Mountains near Three Peaks (San Feng), and then living for scores of years as a Taoist hermit and sage in the Wu-Tang (Wudang) Mountains. He is reported to have lived to be 200 years old (1247-1447AD), but the date of his death is uncertain. He would have lived in the Sung, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties if these dates were accurate. (Jou, 1980)

Another tradition claims that there were two Taoist priests called Master Zhang Sanfeng. One was born in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), lived on Wutang Mountain, and combined the thirteen postures with other Taoist practices and arts to create a style of internal martial arts. The second Master Chang San-Feng (1279-1368), was a native of I-Chou in Liaotung Province. His scholarly name was Chuan Yee and Chun Shee. He lived on Wutang Mountain, was a highly regarded Taoist adept with many amazing magical powers, and was very popular with the local people.

Master Chang is known by a variety of names: Chang San-Feng, Cheng San Feng, Chang Chun Pao, Chang Sam Bong, Zhang Sanfeng, Chang Tung, Chang Chun-pao, Grandmaster Chang, Chang the Immortal, Immortal Chang, Zhangsanfeng, Zhan Sa-Feng, Zhan Jun-Bao, Yu-Xu Zi, Chuan Yee and Chun Shee. There may have been a number of male Taoists who chose to use the name Chang San-Feng.

Some believe that at the age of five, Zhang Jun Bao suffered from an illness and lost his eyesight. His father heard that some Daoist priests in a Daoist temple had an incredible way of curing illnesses; so, he took Zhang Jun Bao there. Within a week, he was cured and the whole family was more than happy. The Daoist priest loved Zhang Jun Bao and took him as a disciple teaching him both writing and martial arts. Like all fathers, his father wished him every success. Zhang Jun Bao was expected to take the state exam for a career in the government. However, he was not interested in becoming a politician or minister. He enjoyed martial arts and visited many ancient temples. When he came to Yan Jing, he took up a local government post through the relationship of a good friend. Since he did not enjoy this kind of life, Zhang Jun Bao quit and returned to Liao Dong where he spent most of his time in a deserted temple.

Zhang Jun Bao moved to the Jin Tai Temple in Bao Ji and was accepted by the respected Daoist Huo Long as a disciple. He became well versed in Daoism and named himself San Feng (三丰), which means heaven and earth. (In the 8 trigrams, San (三) represents heaven, or qian (乾); Feng (丰) represents earth, or kun (坤) .)

Another source says that according to a book in the China State Library named, Taiji Masters Lineage, “Sir Zhang Sanfeng, surname Zhang, first name Sanfeng, went to Mount Zhongnan when he was 61 years old. There, by chance, he met an immortal called Dragon Fire who in his later years transferred his knowledge regarding inner alchemy to him after determining that he was a competent practitioner.”

Zhang was indifferent to fame and wealth. After declining his official position and dispatching his property to his family, he traveled around China to live the life of an ascetic. Zhang spent several years at Hua Mountain before settling at Wu Tang Mountain.

Later, Zhang Sanfeng traveled a lot to famous resorts in the south and finally settled down on Mount Wudang. Then after ordering his disciple, Qiu Yuanqing, to stay in the Five Dragons House, and his disciple, Lu Qiuyun, to stay in the Southen Cave, and Liu Guquan to stay in the Purple Heaven Palace, Zhang Sanfeng constructed a house in the place that is now the Immortal Encountering Palace. After cultivating his True Self for as long as nine years, Zhang Sanfeng finally succeeded in achieving the Tao. People called him an immortal and he was said to be able to exercise unimaginable power to restrain the bad and promote the good, and to be able to transform things into different forms as he willed. All the universe becomes one thing in his hand waiting for him to deal with.

Later, Zhang Sanfeng taught one set of boxing forms to Zhang Songxi and Zhang Cuisan, which was the very original form of Taiji boxing. Because there are only thirteen forms, people called it the Thirteen-Form Taiji Boxing. Among these 13 forms, stretching out, stomping, squeezing, chopping downward, picking up, changing places, using the elbow, and leaning against symbolize separately the eight trigrams, while moving forward, retreating backward, watching to the left, turning to the right and staying in the center indicate separately the five elements. From these specific sayings there came the name of Thirteen-Form Taiji boxing. Based upon the Yin and Yang Qi theory and aimed at regulating the operation of the inner organs according to the five-element theory, Tai Chi boxing incorporates many soft movements imitating cats, birds, snakes and monkeys, thus gaining the effects of soothing the inner mental state, harmonizing the operation of inner viscera, strengthening the immune system, etc.

Famous as a Taoist master he was sought out by the emperor T'ai Tzu for help with military strategy, and was instrumental in helping to defeat bandit gangs in the Wu Tan mountains. He was honoured by the emperor of the Ming Dynasty and in recognition of his achievements a temple was erected that still stands today. In his later years, Chang San Feng was canonised as a saint by the emperor Ying Tsung.

The Master was also famous for his healing abilities and his deep understanding of Taoist medicine.

Stories from the 17th century onward give him credit for the internal martial arts. 19th century and later stories give him credit for T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Zhang Sanfeng is also said to have been versed in Shaolin Kung Fu, an expert in the White Crane and Snake styles of Chinese martial arts, as well as in the use of the Chinese straight sword or jian. According to relatively late (19th century) documents preserved within the Yang and Wu family's archives, the name of Zhang Sanfeng's master was Xu Xuanping, said to be a Tang Dynasty hermit poet and Taoist Tao Yin expert.

The Tai Chi Chuan families who ascribe the foundation of their art to Zhang traditionally celebrate his birth date as the 9th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.

Some sources record two Chinese emperors sending missions to Zhang Sanfeng to ask for his advice, although neither mission is reported to have found him.

“Aside from being a wise sage, Zhang Sanfeng is also known as the Father of the 'Grand Supreme Fist', Tai Chi Chuan. Chang discovered that most Wu Kuen, that is to say martial forms, were too vigorous and relied too heavily upon physical strength. It is told that Master Chang, ever observant of Nature, once witnessed a fight between a snake and a bird. The noise of this contest had disturbed the Master's devotions, and venturing forth from his modest hut, he witnessed the bird attacking the snake. At each pass, the bird fiercely pecked and clawed at the snake, however, the reptile through suppleness and coiling of his form, was able to avoid the attacks and launch strikes of his own. The bird in his turn circled and used his wings beat the snake aside when he struck. Zhang Sanfeng contemplated this experience. That night, during sleep, Yu Huang, the 'Glorious Jade Emperor', visited Chang in his dreams and instructed him, teaching him the secrets of the Tao that the bird and the snake innately knew. The next day, Chang sprang up from his sleep wide awake and inspired by his Celestial Visitor, and immediately set about creating a new Martial Art form that relied upon Internal Power, or Chi, at its root. This art held as its foundation the Truth that 'yielding overcomes aggression' and 'softness overpowers hardness'. In honor of his divine influences, Chang called his art Tai Chi Chuan, the 'Grand Supreme Fist'. For this, Zhang Sanfeng is known as the progenitor of the Wu Tang Ru (schools), so named because they come from Wu Tang Shan (mountain). These are the Internal Arts, which are juxtaposed with the External Arts, such as Shao Lin Chuan, which relies upon the physical mastery of the body and development of great strength.” (John Hancock, The Mythical Life of Chang San Feng)

Master Chang San-Feng watches the fight between the bird and the snake.

"When the winter was really cold and the track outside the temple where he practiced was covered with snow, Chang liked to go out and enjoy the snow-covered landscape. Where he had walked there were no footsteps—like no one had walked there... It’s also said, that when he was meditating at night, his cultivated energy—the so-called Chi or Jing—would make his coat flap, and the walls around him would shake. This phenomenon indicates, that his energy had reached its peak. He had obtained the state where his Chi had been transformed into Shen or Spirit." (Bjørn Darboe Nissen, Tai Chi Chuan and the Human Being)

Painting of Zhang Sanfeng

"The 'Cave of the Immortal Chang' at West Pass is traditionally regarded as the site where Chang San-feng realized immortality. The people of Fu-kou believe Chang San-feng left his body in the T'ai-chi Temple on the Wu-tang Mountains. An image of him may still be seen there. He wore a copper cymbal as a straw hat, which he allowed the people of the Fu-kou to strike without becoming angry, for he was very good-natured. The people of Wu-yang also believe that Chang San-feng was a native of Wu-yang and that they have the exclusive privilege of striking his hat." (Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch'ing Dynasty, translated by Douglas Wile, p. 110.)

Mount Wudang, also known as Can Shang Mountain or Tai He Mountain, is located in the Qin Ling Mountain Range of northwestern Hubei Province. Because the scenery around Mount Wudang is so majestic and beautiful, it has been given the name 'The Famous Mountain Under Heaven.' Wudang is a major center for the study of Daoism and self-cultivation.

Many historical documents suggest that Zhang Sanfeng was the person responsible for synthesizing the wushu of the common people with the internal methodology and philosphical principles of Daoism. Wudang wushu is primarily known for its internal styles.

Zhang Sanfeng created Wudang wushu by researching the basic theory of Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, and the Eight Diagrams (Ba Gua). Wudang wushu has a very close relationship with the theories of Taiji, Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, the Eight Diagrams, and the Nine Palaces. Zhang Sanfeng was able to incorporate the Daoist practice of changing Essence into Internal Energy, Internal Energy into Spirit, and Spirit into Emptiness to form the theory of Wudang wushu.

Pictures of the Wu Tang Mountain (Wudangshan) Taoist Temple

Wu Tang monastery was known thereafter as an important martial center for many centuries. Its many styles of internal kung fu were preserved and refined at various Taoist temples.

The Purple Mountain Taoist Temple Wu Tang Mountain (Wudangshan) area

The Wu Tang Mountain area

“Chang San-feng is also believed to have attained immortality in more than a purely spiritual sense, and to have reappeared in the world after his supposed physical death. The works attributed to him are also evidently mixed with later additions and in some cases may be viewed as generic products of a school rather than works of an individual author. The Chang San-feng literature shows an amalgamation of Southern and Northern Schools of Complete Reality Taoism, as well as traces of older Taoist sects practicing magical arts.” (Thomas Cleary, Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook, 1991, p. 183)

“The Chinese ancient book Ming History bears records available in the monastery on Wudang Mountain that do indeed mention him. Descriptions picture him as being seven feet tall, with the bones of a crane and the posture of a pine tree, having whiskers shaped like a spear, wearing the same bamboo hat in both winter and summer, carrying a horsehair duster and being able to cover 1000 Li in a day, sometimes eating 50 Kg of food in one meal, sometimes keeping a fast as long as several months, and possessing amazing memory such as being able to recite a scripture fluently after reading it just one time.” (Mount Wudang and Wudang Kung Fu)

“Erected on Wudang Mountain are two huge stone tablets honoring 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 records 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 this back, singing Taoist songs, working in the mountains, and studying the marvelous secrets of the cosmos.” (Wong Kiew Kit, The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan, 1996, p. 21)

The information was compiled from:


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