Myths vs Reality


This is a complex subject because myths and legends can be a tool in attracting students to the arts, the fantasy knights errant and immortal masters.  But it is helpful to separate the fantastical from the concrete and verifiable, both in the practice and application, [i] and in the origins.


Many ai chi schools still list Zhang Sanfeng as the founder of Tai Chi, but the discipline of 20th century history has rendered what was once considered historical mythical.[ii]  Now that we have we have modern historical research, the more rigorous schools like to reference Chen village as the first documented source of the art.[iii]  Tai Chi then spread, and new lineages arose, such as Yang, , , Sun, and all the myriad styles, but we can only reliably talk about that development for the past few centuries, with most of what we know coming from the last.


Wudang sword appears to have evolved independently around the same time as Tai Chi, [iv] roughly corresponding to transition from the medieval era of armored combat, potentially in response to outdated force-against-force medieval weapons work.[v] 


Song Wei-I is currently considered the first reliable account of a practitioner of Wudang Sword, but that may only be because he was secular,[vi] not removed from the world like the Taoists who inhabited the mountain wildernesses.[vii]


Boxing/grappling and weapons play are distinct, where the former have limited uses in warfare, such that the empty hand arts and weapons art may have initially been practiced by different groups for different purposes specific to their professional needs.  For instance, there are certain domains where it is useful to be able to subdue an opponent without killing or maiming, a difficult prospect when one’s weapon is the sword.  At some point, certainly by the modern era,[viii] the two internal systems connected and straight sword became the primary weapon of tai chi.[ix] 


Serious academic research into the historical origins will doubtless continue and deepen our understanding of the origins in the years and decades to come.


At present, the earliest manual we have on internal arts comes from the late 17th century,[x] so that’s really as far back as we can currently trace it.




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[i] In times past, many travelling martial artists would perform in cities, towns and villages for coins, similar to modern busking.  To draw an audience, it was often necessary to embellish the performance to captivate the crowd.  Thus techniques not particularly useful, or even viable, might be exhibited.  Sometimes they were straight up tricks, similar to modern stage magic.  These are known as “medicine shows” from the English term to refer to sellers of snake oil in the old West. The peril is that if one learns martial art not based on sound physical principles it is unlikely to serve the practitioner when they need it for self-defense. All practitioners should therefore be research in the mechanics of the art, testing, validating, and ideally refining.

[ii] Chinese history in the Imperial era was generally pseudo-historical, infused and inseparable from legend.  A parallel in the West would be Herodotus, and the field was all but lost in Europe during the Dark Ages.

[iii] This may be because we feel that propagating non-factual information without context can undermine the teaching.

[iv] This is speculation on my part but the waist techniques of traditional Taoist Wudang sword have a slightly different quality than most Tai Chi.  This can be seen clearly in sword uppercuts, which have a strongly vertical motion, extreme twisting of the waist, and extra extension.  Tai Chi sword uppercuts are usually executed with the torson square with the opponent.  The added extension of wudang waist is considered “not calm” in orthodox tai chi. Tai Chi, like wudang, involves very close fighting and optimally cuts from inside the opponent’s guard after countering, but wudang uses fully extended thrusts, distinct from tai chi, and many of the traditional wudang techniques have use against spear. This the wudang practitioner requires extra-extension, as wudang sword or spear thrust should be faster than a punch or kick.  The more extreme waist has added utility against heavier weapons, especially in fast fighting, due to greater momentum. Extreme waist verticality is an element of Fu style Tai Chi, but that style developed out of Bagua, over the period Fu Zhensong was exchanging information with Li Jinglin.  Tai Chi sword conservative (risk averse) than traditional Wudang, which is significantly more dynamic, physically challenging, and practiced at a quicker tempo.

[v] More speculation on my part, but brute force has much higher utility in armored combat, where protective gear can absorb and turn weapon strikes. Once firearms start to emerge, mobility displaces armor as a primary consideration of warfare. In unarmored swordplay, life and death can be the matter of an instant, thus quickness and flexibility become more optimal than brute force.  We see a parallel in the rapier supplanting longsword for dueling in Europe, and smaller arming swords supplanting heavier medieval weapons. Modern Wudang practitioners generally prefers light, flexible blades optimized for slice and thrust.

[vi] The secular branch of Wudang appears to have spread the art in that those wishing to learn no longer had to travel to remote locations.  Song Wei-I’s most famous disciple Li Jinglin was one of the founding members of the Central Guoshu Institute, and is said to have taught hundreds if not thousands of students, such that much of modern Chinese internal sword derives from him. 

[vii] A wudang priest related to me that many of these practitioners may not have been practicing Taoists, but went to the mountains to get away from the government. This would also explain the lack of formally recorded documents. 

[viii] Song Wei-I is credited with introducing sword art to Chen and Yang Tai Chi.

[ix] However, orthodox tai chi sword typically lacks traditional wudang elements. Here we have the distinction between Wudang as a specific art of sword, originating with travelling Taoists, refrencing Wudang Mountain, and “Wudang” as the umbrella term for the body of Chinese internal martial arts in the modern Guoshu/Wushu era.

[x] The Neijia Quanfa.