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Chang San-Feng

Grand Master Chang San-Feng

Chang San-Feng (Zhang Sanfeng; traditional Chinese: 張三丰) is shrouded in legend as an immortal mythical hero and a monk-warrior-martial artist endowed with magical powers. Various traditions differ on his birthdate, birthplace, and death date. One tradition holds that he was born at midnight on April 9, 1247 near Dragon-Tiger mountain in Kiang-Hsi Province in southeastern China. He purportedly lived for over 200-300 years during the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties up to the mid-Ming dynasty.

His first name was Tong (通) and his courtesy name (given upon adulthood) was Junbao (君寶). He was renowned as a Confucian and Taoist scholar and writer. During the rule of Yuan Emperor Shizu, he was nominated to serve as the Magistrate of Boling County (博陵縣) near present-day Dingzhou, Baoding, Hebei. Afterwards, he learned Shaolin martial arts while living in the Pao-Gi Mountains near Three Peaks (San Feng). While traversing the mountain regions near present-day Baoji, Shaanxi, he saw the peaks of three mountains and gave himself the Taoist name “Sanfengzi” (三丰子), which gave rise to a variety of other names, including Chang San-Feng.

Chang San-Feng was also renowned as a master of the “external” martial arts of the Shaolin Temple, but he was indifferent to fame and wealth. After declining further government service and giving his property to his clan, he journeyed through China and lived as an ascetic. He spent several years on the holy mountain of Mount Hua (traditional Chinese: 華山; Huà shān) before settling in the Wudang Mountains (traditional Chinese: 武當山; Wǔdāng Shān), where he lived scores of additional years as a priest, healer, and sage.

Legends make Chang San Feng into a Xian (Hsien; Traditional Chinese: 仙 仚 僊). A Xian is a Taoist term for an enlightened person, an immortal, an alchemist or wizard, a spirit, a person with superpowers, or a transcendent being. A Xian (仙) is similar to a Rishi who is an inspired sage in the Indian Vedas.

Emperors of the Ming Dynasty, who were working to build up their armies, heard of his reputation as a martial artist. In 1391 and from 1407 to 1419, search teams were sent out to find, but were unsuccessful.

Chang San-Feng is credited for creating neijia (內家), or internal martial arts, specifically T'ai chi ch'üan, a Neo-Confucian fusion of Shaolin martial arts with Taoist internal energy cultivation daoyin (or neigong) techniques.

"… one day he spotted a snake and a crane in deadly combat. Chang [Zhang Sanfeng] noticed before the snake attacked, it would raise its head, bow its body, and appear to gather its intrinsic energy, ready to strike out like an arrow. In response, the crane would deflect the attack effortlessly with a downward arc of its powerful wing. From this, Chang developed an entire program of motions and responses…. The crane would retaliate by stabbing its beak down at its prey…. The snake used its flexibility to sway or dodge the strike, as in "roll back"; this allowed the snake to lash out at the crane's legs, but the crane would simply raise the vulnerable limb in a relaxed fashion so that the snake's bite could not attach itself, thanks to the "emptiness" of the bird's extremity.… This natural display of yin and yang from the animal kingdom made a great impression, providing him with the realization that yielding is more effective than using brute force. Chang San-Feng still incorporated many of the martial postures he had learned from the Shaolin Monastery, but he tempered them with his own variations and innovations." (from “Tai Chi Chuan and the Code of Life”)

After witnessing the incident, Chang San-Feng created a set of 72 taijiquan movements. He was an expert in the White Crane and Snake Shaolin martial arts styles and the double-edged jian sword. His master was Xu Xuanping, a Tang dynasty Taoist poet and daoyin expert. His birthday is celebrated on the ninth day of the third month in the traditional Chinese calendar.

When viewed apart from his legend, Chang San-Feng was a real person. He traveled widely, and like many long distance walkers in those times, was skilled in martial arts for protection (likely in the use of the staff and sword in addition to empty hands). He learned from different Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist Zen teachers in accordance with the Three Teachings (三教; Sān jiào) tradition. He spent periods of time at the Shaolin Temple and at Taoist centers on Mount Hua and Mount Wudang. He was reclusive and disdained conventional Chinese social proprieties. He was a highly respected master of internal energy arts, a defensive and “internal” style of martial arts, mysticism, philosophy, and alchemy. His breadth of knowledge, high moral character, writings, and high level of skills drew many followers who maintained his mind-body practices, studied his writings, and told and retold stories that became more fanciful over the following 900 years.

For millennia, inhabitants in India, Tibet, and China have used gentle stretching exercises, breathing methods, herbal remedies, and martial arts training methods to improve health, cure disease, restore vitality, and prolong their lives. Master Chang San-Feng, like Bodhidharma, is a reference point for the imagination immersed in the history of Buddhism and Taoism and centuries of martial arts and health exercises. These traditions are maintained in Detroit and Madison Heights classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

Chang San-Feng

Statue of Chang San-Feng at Wudang Mountain


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