Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San-feng) was a Daoist priest born in China during the 14th century C.E. Differing legends surround him, but there are few generally accepted historical facts. Many believe him to be the creator of taijiquan, or of neijia—"internal martial arts" (the spiritual, mental and qi-related aspects which form the foundation of Taijiquan).
Daoist temple at the Wudang Mountains in China. Legends exist that have Master Zhang developing his martial arts and spiritual practices there.
According to historical records, emperors of the Ming Dynasty heard of his reputation—(most likely as a martial artist)—and in 1391, and then from 1407 to 1419, sent out search teams to find him, but without success. From that time to the present, he has become a mythical hero, an archetypal Daoist immortal, a monk-warrior-martial artist gifted with extraordinary magical powers.
Master Zhang and the Creation of Taijiquan
(from author Graham Horwood) — Zhang Sanfeng's fame was established after ten years of studying Buddhism and "external"—"hard style" martial arts at the Shaolin Monastery. Zhang then became a wandering hermit. He finally settled, among other Daoists, in the Wudang Mountains.
Here is one of the stories of how Zhang Sanfeng discovered Taijiquan.
"… 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."(see "Tai Chi Chuan and the Code of Life").
Michael P. Garofalo writes: "By 1459, Master Chang had been declared an Immortal and, as with most saints, stories of his miraculous powers became part of the folklore in the Wudang Mountain area. There is a fairly long tradition amongst Wudang Mountain martial artists and Taoists that attributes the development of soft style martial arts to Chang San-Feng and his disciples (Yeo, 2001; Wong Kiew Kit, 1996). In 1670, Huang Zongxi wrote a book called Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan in which Chang San-Feng was called the founder of internal martial arts practiced near Mount Wudang. By the 1870's, Yang family Tai Chi Chuan teachers were claiming that Chang San-Feng was the originator of Tai Chi Chuan." (see "Chang San-Feng: Taoist Grand Master").
Modern historical research casts doubt on the idea that Zhang Sanfeng had any direct involvement with the creation of what we now call taijiquan (t'ai chi or tai chi). The problem is there are no clear or uncontested historical records to substantiate his being the literal creator of Taijiquan, or of any other martial art discipline. Critics say Zhang Sanfeng was cast as the inventor to bolster Yang family claims, or Daoist points of view, or for other or political and social agendas.
Editor's Comments: Was Zhang Sanfeng an invented character? What does seem relatively certain is that there was a monk of that name living about the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). As a Daoist he would have knowledgeable about the use of the "Three Treasures" of Jing (the body's physical essence), Qi (life-energy/breath) and Shen (silent mental focus), the foundational concepts of Taijiquan. As a wandering monk he had to be skilled in defensive martial arts. The emperors who searched for him were in the process of rebuilding their armies, again a sign that he was a superior fighter.
In contrast to aggressive "external" hard styles that concentrate on improving muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness, Taijiquan is a defensive "internal" soft style that focuses on the manipulation of qi. Again a reason to posit a Daoist monk, such as Master Zhang, as its founder.
Perhaps it really isn't that important (who created what) to the majority of practitioners of taijiquan—the regular folks who go to the parks, the classes, or only practice with a DVD. After all, legends can be more appealing and attention getting than searching and interpreting the ancient texts. Perhaps some young boy or girl will see a movie like Jet Li-Twin Warriors-The Book of Chi (aka Tai Chi Master) and eventually be drawn into the study of taijiquan, then in time even deeper into its spiritual, ethical foundations and grow up to be a master themselves, who like the legendary Zhang Sanfeng, wins struggles and helps others.
Ancient legends about Zhang Sanfeng as spiritual teacher and martial arts master have been transformed into modern Chinese mass entertainment novels, martial art films and television series. (see Wikipedia)
^ Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San-feng or Chang Sanfeng)—is pronounced Jhan(g) San Fong in a relatively high pitch). His name in Simplified Chinese: 张三丰; Traditional Chinese: 張三丰; Pinyin: Zhāng Sānfēng; Wade-Giles: Chang San-feng.
^More recently, some scholars and tai-chi historians have argued that Chang San-Feng had little or nothing to do with the founding of Tai Chi Chuan or internal martial arts. They contend that this aspect of the Master Chang legend was invented in the late 19th century by Yang family stylists to give their art form deeper historical roots. (Wile, 1996; Tang Hao, History of Chinese Wushu, 1935; Henning, 1981; and Siaw-Voon Sim, 2002; Bing YeYoung, 2006; John Bracy, 2008). These authors contend that the Tai Chi Chuan systems … as we know them today (e.g., Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, Sun), were all created as successive variants to the system developed by the military leader and martial artist Chen Wangting (1600-1680) of Chenjiagou Village in Henan Province. Michael P. Garofalo. Chang San-Feng: Taoist Grand Master.
A battle still rages between those who say that Chen Wangting created taijiquan based on the Chen Style family lineage, and those in the Zhang Sanfeng-centered camp, including many in the other taijiquan families, the Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu, Sun, Zhaobao (He), and Wudang who say he did. (see www.literati-tradition.com)
Stanley Henning. "Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan" in Journal of the Chen Style Taijiquan Research Association of Hawaii, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 1-7. [a thoroughly researched negating of the Zhang Sanfeng legend.]