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His Life and Deeds
An Apocryphal Biography of the Legendary Founder of Tai Chi Chuan
compiled by Jack McGann and Christopher Dow
Chang San-feng is revered by practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan as the founder of the art. Maybe he actually lived, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he created Tai Chi, then perhaps.... It doesn’t really matter. His life and exploits form part of what the Chinese call “wild history.” He is the Paul Bunyan of Tai Chi. Whatever the truth about his life, we know for certain that the person who first brought Tai Chi to the earthly plane couldn’t have been merely a common man.
Chang San-feng was born sometime between 600 and 1600 AD, perhaps sometime during the Sung Dynasty, or maybe the Yuan Dynasty, but exactly at midnight on the fourth of April, 1247, and he lived precisely between the years 960 and 1126. His family came from I-Chou in the Liao-tung Peninsula.
He spent many years at the Temple of the Jade Void, becoming expert in Shaolin kung fu. Early on, it was discovered that he could recite Taoist classics after only a single reading. As he traveled, he became wise in the meditative and martial arts.
At the age of sixty-seven, he retired to the Wu Tang Mountains, where he built himself a cottage. At rest, he meditated, returning to the Original Source; when active, he roamed the Three Mountains and the Five Peaks, gleaning the finest elements and subtle chi of Heaven and Earth and circulating them with breathing exercises. During this time, his reputation spread far and wide. The first Ming emperor sent a messenger to find him and bring him to court, but the errand was unsuccessful.
The supposed image of Chang San-feng above is probably not an accurate depiction. Chang, who was nicknamed Lar-tar (Sloppy) and La T’a (Dirty Fellow), was reputedly not nearly so neat and clean and was probably closer in appearance and dress to the image on the right.
His Character and Appearance
Throughout his life, Chang took pains to conceal his achievements. He did not want to appear at court and so worked hard to seem mad. Everyone agrees that he did not keep himself neat and clean; Chang Lar-tar (Sloppy Chang) or La T’a (Dirty Fellow) often acted as if no one was around, spitting, farting, and scratching. He liked to tease people. He was very virtuous and often displayed such great mirth that is was impossible to remain melancholy in his presence. Winter and summer, he wore the same rude bamboo hat, the same old, ragged priest’s robe. Instead of a staff, he carried a horsehair broom. Sometimes he would eat a bushel of food at a time, then again, he wouldn’t eat for weeks. He never ate grains or cereals at all.
His picture can be seen at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. He was seven feet tall, had bones like a crane; his posture was like a pine tree, his face round like an ancient moon, with kind brows and generous eyes and whiskers shaped like a spear; he was a big man, shaped like a turtle (a symbol of longevity), with a crane’s back, large ears, round eyes, and beard like the tassel on a spear. He was very tall, his beard reached his navel, his hair touched the ground.
He had six hobbies: sword playing in moonlight, playing Tai Chi in the dark, mountain climbing on windy nights, reading the classics on rainy nights, meditating at midnight in the full moon, and playing the lute.
During his meditations in the Wu Tang Mountains, Chang was inspired to develop Tai Chi Chuan. One day, while reciting the classics, he heard a crane sing joyfully, like the sound of the zither. The Immortal came out of his hut to observe, and he saw the magpie peer at a snake on the ground. The snake darted hither and thither, coiling and recoiling. The raven attacked, and though the eagle struck over and over, it was unable to make a decisive strike.
After the several-hour encounter, the combatants disappeared. Like lightning, it struck Chang; the snake’s coil was like the curve of the yin–yang and demonstrated the principle of the soft overcoming the hard, just as water eventually wears out rock, the tongue outlives the teeth, and the willow bends in the storm while the oak falls. From these insights, he developed the art of Tai Chi Chuan.
One day, the Immortal suddenly saw a burst of golden light where the mists shrouded the peaks. A thousand rays of chi spun and danced in the Great Void. He searched where the golden light touched down and found a mountain stream issuing from a cave. Approaching the cave, he saw two golden snakes with flashing eyes. He swished his horsehair duster and realized that they were really two spears of such quality that swords could not harm them. Master Chang also discovered in the cave a glowing book of songs and poems from which he extracted the essence, transforming them into the postures of the art of Tai Chi spear.
Chang used the movement Diagonal Flying to break firewood in the forest, and he had a large pet ape who collected his firewood for him. In fact, the ape so often had an opportunity to watch the Master practice that, in faithful imitation, he developed a simian version of Tai Chi.
Upon being attacked by a python, Chang grasped the serpent at either end, and using the technique of Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, he tore it into pieces. Once, encountering a tiger in the mountains, he applied the skill of Bend the Bow to Shoot the Tiger—first he turned to avoid the tiger’s rush, then grasping the two hind legs as the beast passed, he tore it in half.
He could travel two hundred miles in one day. He was so light-footed that he left no footprints in the snow, but his internal energy was so strong that paths would appear in the snow, melted from the heat he generated. His robes rustled as he meditated, and the walls shook. Carrying his horsehair duster, he could out-walk everyone, going a thousand miles at a time. They say he lived for two hundred years and possessed such powerful energy that the sick would collect dirt from his body, roll it into balls, and eat it to cure disease.
His words have come down to us as the "Tai Chi Ching," always the first-quoted in every collection of the Tai Chi Classics.
His Further Exploits
Once, when members of the royal Mongolian family of the Yuan Dynasty were hunting in the mountains, they ran across Chang as he was picking herbs. Though aware that the Mongolians were excellent bowmen, he was offended by their pomposity, so that when they ordered him to leave, he refused. Angrily he said to the prince, “Your highness hunts with a bow and arrow, but I use only bare hands.” Suddenly two hawks flew by, and Chang leapt up, caught them, then dropped silently to the ground. Chang stood a bird in each of his palms, but no matter how hard they tried to fly away, they could not escape, such was his yielding ability. Then Chang said to the shocked prince, “I have mercy on living creatures and do not want to hurt the birds.” He let the birds fly away. One of the guards was so incensed that he drew his bow and shot an arrow at Chang, but the Master caught the arrow in his teeth. Then, holding the arrow in his fingers, he threw it at a tree, where it buried deep into the wood. “I have no need of violent weapons,” he commented dryly.
Some time after creating Tai Chi, Chang was ordered to appear at the court of the Emperor Tai-tsu. On the way, while crossing a bridge, he was attacked by a band of one hundred brigands who thought him easy prey. Within moments, the fight was over, all the outlaws lying unconscious on the ground. Chang walked away unscathed. Later, when the outlaws awoke, they swore that the old man hadn’t even used his arms or legs but had merely shrugged them aside as they attacked, flinging them into unconsciousness. When Chang reached the palace, the emperor conferred on him the title, “T’ung-wei’hsien’hua chen-jen,” which meant, “The spiritual man who understands the power of the occult.”
No one is certain when Chang died, or even if he did. Robert Smith, writing as John F. Gilbey, tells in his book The Way of the Warrior of learning about a man named Lu, living in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s, whose life so imitated Chang San-feng that he might have been the Master himself.