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March 29, 2011

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Wisdom of Wudang Mountain

IN one week my wife and I learned no more than the simplest moves of tai chi on Wudang Mountain, to the amusement of some of our friends.

"You guys spent 22 hours on a train from Shanghai to Wudang Mountain just to learn tai chi?" a relative asked with a smirk.

"And you learned only 10 movements?" a friend asked in disbelief.

Indeed, in the eyes of those who look down on rustic life and calculate achievements in terms of numbers, we should have learned tai chi right here in Shanghai and we should have learned the more sophisticated 28 or 108 classic movements.

But tai chi was neither born in nor made for Shanghai, a city racing against time and nature for "progress," its goals the very antithesis of the tai chi idea of moving with time and nature for contentment.

After returning to Shanghai on March 20, I found that each time I practiced tai chi, traffic noise filled my ears and car emissions filled my lungs as I tried to "hear far and breathe deep" to be one with nature.

I did try to persuade my young master coach in tai chi at Wudang Mountain to open a school in Shanghai so that I wouldn't have to travel 22 hours every year. He shook his head. Now I see why.

"Wherever I go in the future, it must be a place of mountains and rivers," said Guan Yongxing, a tai chi master in his late 20s.

As coach of tai chi at Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy nestled deep in the mountains, Guan has trained many Chinese and foreign students hailing from Norway, France, the United States and Singapore, among other places. Some foreign students stayed there for five months or longer despite a lack of amenities that urbanites take for granted.

Muakine Salaun, a performance artist from France, had already studied at the academy for around five months when my wife and I arrived. We "graduated" almost at the same time.

He was in his 20s but he had seen the world through performances or studies - from Europe to America to India to China - and he went to Wudang for something he called "spiritual."

"You could live and eat cheaply but be rich in spirit," he said as we chatted over tea and guqin music one night in a cozy tea room in the academy's courtyard.

I took my guqin (seven-string Chinese zither) in the belief that tai chi movements and guqin melodies - both known for ease and elegance - are perfectly suited.

Indeed, Wu Zhaoji (1908-1997), one of modern China's guqin masters, was also a master in tai chi. He said he played music with the flow of his breath, not with the force of his fingers.

That night, at the tea table, I was surprised how well Salaun understood guqin music, although this was his first up-close encounter with it.

I turned on my iPod so he could listen to "Flowing Water" performed by guqin master Guan Pinghu (1897-1967), the very music US NASA sent into space in 1977, along with other voices representative of the Earth.

"It described a man so happy in the field and so appreciative of nature. Then he grew old and died, and his friends mourned," Salaun said, musing on the meaning of the music he had never heard before.

"Flowing Water" tells the story of nature's harmony and how well a simple woodcutter understood the essence of the music played by a guqin master. The two met by chance and master was awed by the woodsman's intuition.

When the woodcutter died, the musician broke his instrument because he had lost his only soul mate, the only person who understood the music.

Luckily, my wife and I met more soul mates that night. Another foreign student in the tea room, whose name we did not learn, concluded upon hearing my wife's performance that guqin music was "personal" - it spoke to one's own heart, not to the audience, as was often the case with piano.

Indeed, the discovery of one's real self - either through tai chi or guqin - has become a lost art.

In many modern societies, Salaun noted, quite a few people take drugs to feel entranced. "But tai chi can also be entrancing - in a healthy way. They just don't know it," he said.

Another night, we invited master coach Guan to take tea and listen to guqin. After hearing me play a Buddhist mantra on my guqin, he said: "Congratulations, you have learned to play well - with your fingers. Next, you will learn to play with the flow of your breath."

"Tai chi is basically about balancing what moves and what doesn't move," said master coach Guan on the training ground in the Zi Xiao Gong, or Purple Heaven Palace, an imperial Taoist temple more than 600 years old.

Indeed, when a tai chi master stands still, it's the controlled flow of his breath that maintains his posture.

Even though my wife and I learned only the simplest form of tai chi during our one-week study, we found it extremely difficult to learn to move our body with a controlled flow of breath.

So accustomed were we to move our bodies out of time with our breath that when we first learned to kick a leg high in the air we would always spin out of balance.

"I would rather you balance yourself in a Horse Stance (a kind of shallow squat) for a long time than learn too many things in a short time," Guan said.

Indeed. Now if I cannot hold a simple squat for five minutes, what's the use of my learning 28 or 108 tai chi movements?

It would be a great achievement if, in 10 years, I could steadily hold the Horse Stance and then perform the simplest tai chi movement well.

"Know less than you practice. That's the way to be," Guan said. "And there are no good or bad (tai chi) schools, there are only good or bad practitioners."

Know less, do more, and you will do well.

When he was six years old, Guan stood upright in a heavy snow from dawn to dusk. He was thinly clad. His father had ordered the mental and physical discipline of standing upright for a long time.

Around 20 years later, he has become a tai chi master - an outstanding 15th-generation disciple of Wudang Sanfeng Kung Fu.

It snowed, too, one day when we were practicing tai chi on the grounds of the imperial Taoist temple. How I wished I could have stood in the snow as long as master Guan once did as a child.

Wudang Mountain

The mountain in Shiyan City, western Hubei Province, is the holy and fabled land of Taoism and the very source of tai chi.

The highest peak is 1,612 meters above sea level and all the other 72 peaks seem to bow to it. In 1994, UNESCO listed the ancient building complex in Wudang Mountain as a World Heritage site.

Construction of the complex began in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and culminated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Wudang tai chi

Zhang Sanfeng, a long-lived Taoist who passed away in the early Ming Dynasty, developed tai chi while he was in Wudang.

Legend has it that he lived 212 years. Legend also has it that a snake-magpie battle inspired him in his creation of tai chi.

In that battle Zhang witnessed in Wudang, the magpie fluttered up and down in a futile attempt to attack the snake. After the magpie was exhausted, the snake, which moved little but deftly to fend off attack, easily killed the bird in a single bout. That's why tai chi is known for overcoming the strong with the soft.

Wudang Taoist Kung Fu Academy

Located about 800 meters above sea level, the academy is surrounded by mountains and close to the Purple Heaven Palace, the largest and best preserved Taoist structure in the ancient building complex in Wudang.

The academy enrolls students for long-terrm and short courses. Its master coaches are the 15th-generation disciples of Wudang Sanfeng Kung Fu, named after Zhang Sanfeng, founder of Wudang Tai Chi.

Boarding is basic and comfortable, but you need to take your own bowl, cup, spoon and chopsticks.

In early spring and winter, it can be very cold, but practicing tai chi soon warms you up and makes you stronger.

Food is simple and healthy. Vegetables are abundant and locally sourced. Meat is also available, but most eat vegetarian fare.

For information and how to get there, visit (English) or (Chinese).



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