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The Zhang San-feng myth


Myth perceived as Fact

In discerning the reliability of information in these areas, one problem is the mixture of popular belief and superstitions purported to be factual. It is problematic that numerous writers on the subject promulgate myths and legends as historical. Unfortunately for the unwary reader, unless he or she has a background in evaluating texts and /or is at least to some extent familiar with more academic writers on the topic, perusal of pop literature on these topics can be frustrating. Thus, it is useful to discuss some ways that one might go about deciphering unsupported legend from the historical and hyperbole from actual events. In at least most cases, inaccurate information is promulgated unintentionally by well meaning writers who are only transmitting legend and myth they grew up with and took from their culture to be true. Not unlike Arthurian legends and the stories of Robin Hood in the West, especially in Chinese culture, myths and legends abound. Although these often contain valuable lessons, it is problematic when fairy tales are reported as factual.

Examples of myths believed by large numbers to be true includes the story of a man named Zhang San-Feng as the originator of Tai Chi Chuan and the relationship of internal martial arts to the Wu Tang monastery. In the case of Zhang San-Feng (also written Chang San-Fang), although often referred to as the founder of Tai Chi, historical evidence does not support this assertion.  According to martial art historian Douglas Wile, Zhang was first suggested as the originator of Tai Chi in the middle 1800s. The legend that developed around the Zhang myth is a good entry point for our discussion of legend mistakenly represented as factual. According to story, Zhang is believed to have developed a fighting style based on his observations of, or dreaming about, a fight between a bird of prey and a snake. However, historians have been unable to ascertain if Zhang, supposedly an alchemist who lived (depending on the source) in either the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, ever truly existed. In contrast, historical evidence supports the founding of Tai Chi Chuan as traceable to the Chen Family Village (or possibly the Yang Family[1])-about three hundred years ago.[2] [3]

In much the same way as the Zhang legend, in contrast to what Chinese historians[4] tell us, the legend of the Wu Tang monastery long ago captured the imagination of the writers of Chinese comic books and filmmakers as the place where the internal martial arts were founded and popularly believed to represent a sort of yin -yang counterinfluence to the famous Shaolin monastery. An even bigger mess unfolds when one discusses "secret arts" said to derive from the supposed merging of Buddhist and Taoist "internal energy" practices. Although the popular fable holds that secret methods were exchanged between Buddhist monks and Taoist recluses, it is problematic that first, aside from extremely rare incidences, such as possibly Chan (Zen) Buddhism, no evidence supports the merging of Buddhism and Taoism into a secret chi energy based cult,[5] and second, with the exception of Indian and Tibetan tantric practices (see chapter six, section three), there are no secret Buddhist energetic practices and no evidence supporting the pop belief that monks secretly practiced and merged separate "energetic" traditions. 

Unlike the Shaolin monastery which was destroyed the last time in 1928 (before the Chinese martial art tourist revival began around 1989[6]) due to its paramilitary activities, pre-Communist Chinese authorities would have no reason to do harm to peaceful monks engaged in energetic practices. Thus, if secret doctrines ever existed that represented blending of Taoist with Buddhist practice, they would still be in practice today. Additionally, with few exceptions, Buddhist lines that entered and developed in China were not concerned with the development of internal energy-and certainly a monk's goal would never be to attain physical immortality such as some Taoists. In terms of energetic and "secretive" training associated with Buddhist monks, although it is possible some variants of Indian or Tibetan tantric Tummo "inner heat" meditation (see chapter five) made its way into China, in almost every case, the story told through pop culture books and seminars to the west and represented as "secrets of ancient Buddhist and Taoist arts" are designed to appeal to customers who are seeking both "power" and, and in the case of yogic sexual practices, good sex. The salesperson's dream: offering both power and sex for the price of a book or seminar.

Caveats noted, in most cases Asian fables presented as truth are harmless and the serious student need only to differentiate popular belief from more academic information supported by substantial sources. Addressing the merging of Taoism with Buddhism, the reader is advised to keep in mind that although there was some intermixing of Buddhist and Taoist ideas and beliefs in the second century when Buddhism first entered China,[7] Buddhists and Taoist monks did not share their knowledge nor collaborate to attain and master secrets of internal energy for power, sex, immortality or other reasons.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of myth as historical is easily found in the work of some writers (often translating Taiwanese texts) who describe "secret" internal arts taught in "the ancient days of the kung fu art." One must consider when and if this merging of myth and tradition is harmless and ask if this information, popular in Asian martial art comic books and film, present difficulties for the reader. The answer depends on who is reading the material and why. In the case of a teenager or young adult finding inspiration from a romantic story, myth merged with quasi history can be inspirational. On the other hand, as a teacher of the internal tradition, I encourage those training to become knowledgeable practitioners to seek deeper understanding. It is important for those responsible for the art to pass reliable information to future generations, and especially so if researching the potential of the merging of human will and consciousness with internal energy and what this means in terms of human potential.



[1] Due to the paucity of evidence supporting the claim of the Chen's as the founders of Tai Chi and the fact that Tai chi classics were written in the early twentieth century and transmitted through the Yang family as well as other seminal contributions to the art by the Yangs, Professor Wile hints that the Yang family, not the Chens, may be the originators of Tai Chi Chuan as we know it today.

[more supporting citations will be added later]

p. 33

[3] DeMarco, Michael, "The Origin and Evolution of Taijiquan," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992


The Zhang Sen-Feng reference is traditionally used by many teachers of internal martial arts, especially Tai Chi Chuan, who reference Zhang as the initiator of martial arts at the Wu Tang (Wu Dang) monastery in Hebei province. In this regard author and publisher Michael Demarco cites noted Sinologist, Anna Seidel, who in reference to Zhang states, "His biographies and legends lack even the faintest allusion to his being a boxing master. . . We know next to nothing about Chang San-Feng's historical existence and his thought" Seidel, Anna, "A Taoist Immortal of the Ming Dynasty," Self and Society in Ming Thought, W. T. Barry, editor, New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 483-531 as cited by DeMarco, Michael, in "The Origin and Evolution of Taijiquan," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992

[5] Some scholars believe Chan Buddhism represents merging of Indian Buddhism with indigenous Taoist influences.

[6] In 1993, while guiding a martial art study group to China, I was approached by a senior martial art master and members of a town council not far from Beijing who, along with a recent "graduate" of the "Shaolin Temple," asked me to become a business partner with them in the forming of a "Beijing branch" of the Shaolin monastery (transformed from an old Red Chinese truck factory). A informative report on the Shaolin temple as a business and tourist center is found in [NAME'S] article in the Wall Street Journal  PUB INFO]  [NAME]

[7] For example, some scholars believe Chan Buddhism (Zen) most likely represents a merging of the formerly Indian Buddhism with indigenous Taoist ideas), for the most part (although one might practice both) there are clear distinctions between Taoism and Buddhism.


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