Zhang Sanfeng—Founder of Tai Chi Chuan

He is considered the founder of Tai Chi Chuan or Tai chi boxing—an internal martial arts style.

Zhang Sanfeng—the man himself—was claimed to have written that, "in every movement, every part of the body must be light, agile, and connected in a sequence. The postures continuous, the movement rooted in the feet, released through the legs, focused on the waist, and expressed with the fingers."

One story has it that Zhang saw a bird of prey attacking a snake. He noticed how the snake defended itself by keeping still and alert, before counter-attacking and killing the bird.

With his knowledge of Taoism and Shaolin kung fu, an external or hard fighting style, Zhang was inspired to create a new martial art based on softness and yielding.

Many details of Zhang's life remain unclear. Much of what has been written about him varies according to different sources.

Zhang was a legendary Chinese Taoist priest, believed to have lived for about 200 hundred years. Although the date of his death is unclear, it's said he lived from 1247 to 1447 AD. If this were the case, then Zhang would have lived during the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties.

According to one tradition, Zhang was born near Longhu Shan or Dragon Tiger Mountain in southeast China's Jiangxi Province. This is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism.

One story has it that Zhang had a childhood illness and lost his eyesight. His father took him to the nearby Taoist temple and within a week Zhang regained his eyesight. The Taoist priest then took Zhang as a disciple and taught him writing and martial arts.

Zhang's father hoped that his son would sit for the state examination for a career in the government. But Zhang was not interested. He had no interest in fame or wealth.

It was said that Zhang turned down an official position, gave away his property to his family, and then traveled around China. He went to live at Mount Hua before settling at Wudang Mountains, where they are many Taoist monasteries.

Two Ming Dynasty emperors each ordered a huge stone tablet erected on Wudang Mountains to honor Zhang as a Taoist saint. Zhang is believed to be a Xian (仙)—a Taoist term for an immortal or an enlightened person.

Zhang's boxing art was passed down through the generations, most notably in the Chen village where it evolved into the Chen style of tai chi. Other martial artists who learned from masters in the Chen village, then created their own systems, and the art split into five family styles: Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, and Hao. These styles—plus a variety of modern styles—are now practiced by millions across the world.

Yet the original movements and theories of Zhang's boxing art are now lost.

By Margaret Trey, PhD.
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Added on May 7th, 2018
Last updated: August 2nd, 2018