Research project on Zhen Wu
September 2014


Life size bronze statue of Zhen Wu

I took this photo on 18th September 2014 at the opening of the British Museum exhibition of Ming dynasty China.

When I started to learn Tai Chi Chuan I read that it was created by Chang Sang Fen on Wudang mountain. When I went to Wudang mountain half way up was a very small temple dedicated to Chang Sang Fen, but the whole complex of temples across the entire mountain range and the main temple at the top of the peak of Wudang mountain was dedicated to Zhen Wu, not Chang Sang Fen, so who was Zhen Wu?

Zhen Wu is the ultimate symbol of Martial Arts Power, in the photo above you can see that under his robes he is wearing armour and his left hand is making the sign of the secret sword. Many people, even some martial arts practitioners, do not know the true significance of this hand sign.

There are many Chinese straight sword forms where you have a long straight sword in your right hand and your left hand makes the sign of the secret sword. People mistakenly say you can point the fingers at the tip of your sword to project chi energy into it, or they say that if you harden your fingers you could actually stab an opponent with your finger tips as if they where able to puncture through skin and flesh like a sword.

However those who are true enthusiasts of traditional Chinese martial arts know the real meaning of this hand sign. It is the hand sign of the hidden dagger. The left hand contains a hidden dagger that can be used to stab the opponent when his weapon and concentration are distracted by a feint attack from your long sword.


The dagger is not visible to the opponent.

So Zhen Wu has his armour concealed under his robes and a hidden dagger in his left hand, this corresponds with the highest levels of Traditional Chinese martial arts where the practitioner has his Iron Shirt concealed under his skin and his martial power contained internally.

My book The Training Manual of The College of Chinese Martial Arts explains in great detail how to develop Chinese martial arts internal power.

The story of Zhen Wu spans the whole of Chinese history, he is for me a symbol of all that I am interested in within Chinese culture. He has a dragon embossed on the armour over his belly. The dragon is a symbol of ones immortal spirit body that is strengthened in the lower belly. This energy center is called the Tan Tien, the field of the elixir of life where ones chi can be cultivated. This is all explained in great detail in my book A Taoist Way of Life

I walked around the statue and saw that his hair was unbound, he was not restrained by dictates of how one should formally present oneself. And he is barefoot, he is physically in contact with the natural chi energy power of the earth. Everything about Zhen Wu so far reflects my own perspective, dedication to internal martial arts, an assertion of individuality and bare feet on the ground, the importance of direct contact with nature.

Zhen Wu origins are in Chinese prehistory over 5,000 years ago. At this ancient time he was known as The Dark Lord of the North, he manifested as a Turtle to The Shaman First Ancestor of the Chinese Nation, Fuxi.

The Turtle emerged out of the Luo river and Fuxi saw that this was no ordinary creature, his shell had different numbers of dots in each of its nine sections. These dots were in the shape of the major star constellations in the night sky (for example 1 is the north star and 7 is the big dipper) and also the dots when counted equaled a specific number for each section of the armoured shell of the Turtle.

At this time Zhen Wu was actually spelt Xuan Wu – Mysterious Warrior. Individually Xuan means Dark/Black, Deep, or Profound and Wu means Martial, Military or Warlike (as in the Wu of Wudang).

There is an association between the armoured Turtle and the armour of Zhen Wu. There is also a connection between Zhen Wu being the protector of the north and protecting ones back, traveling warriors would carry their shields on their backs to protect their backs (the North) like the shell of the Turtle protects its back.

The shell of the Turtle is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to nourish the blood, strengthen the heart, liver, kidney and bones. It is also used, in cases of dehydration, to replenish body fluids and Zhen Wu is associated with the element of water. (The Turtle emerged from the Luo River)

The shell is round, the circle is the Chinese symbol for Heaven
because when you look at the night sky it is round like an umbrella
reaching down to the ground (The Chinese invented the umbrella)

The numbers form a magic square, the square is the Chinese symbol for Earth
because when you map the earth you choose compass coordinates,
either the four directions N, S, E, W or the four corners NE, NW, SE, SW.
(The Chinese invented the compass but it pointed south not north)


The numbers around the edge Fu Xi saw were the Eight Trigrams of the I Ching Book of Changes, this is a work of genius created by the ancient shaman in a time so far in the past that even its shadow is hard to see.


Fu Xi was clearly a Shaman, he is dressed as his totem animal with his headress adorned with horns to show his closeness to nature and its secret forces. It is not clear which animal skin/masks he is wearing it could be wolf, bear or deer or some other creature. He holds in his hands the Eight Trigrams which are now an integral part of Taoism.

Before Taoism became a formal religion it was the understanding of The Way of Nature. However Taoism did not spring into existence fully formed it too had its hidden origins. Taoism evolved from Shamanism.

There is a nice parallel we can observe, the main defining character in the formation of Taoism about two thousand five hundred years ago was Lao Tzu with his book, the Tao Te Ching and his name when translated simply means The Old Man. The great shaman leader of the early Chinese people was called Fu Xi which translates as Xi The Hidden One. So we have two mysteries characters both keeping their identity enigmatic and both standard bearers for mystical systems.

With the eight trigrams of the I Ching a straight line is a symbol for Yang and a broken line a symbol for Yin. So the trigrams are really a way of showing gradations of Yin and Yang. So on the armoured shell of Zhen Wu we have the major star constellations, the circle of heaven and the square of earth, Yin and Yang, the Eight Trigrams and the number five in the center is The Five Elemental Forces. Wood. Fire. Earth. Metal. Water.


There are even deeper levels of complexity on this Turtle shell which is now known as The Luo River Scroll.

In ancient China Heaven was associated with the four cardinal directions and the number 20. We get the number 10 when we add the numbers to their opposite on the cardinal directions
North 9 + South 1 = 10
West 3 + East 7 = 10
So together we get 20, the number of Heaven.
1,3,7, and 9 are the Yang numbers.

In ancient China Earth was associated with the four corner directions and the number 20. We get the number 10 when we add the numbers to their opposite on the corner directions
North West 4 + South East 6 = 10
North East 2 + South West 8 = 10
So together we get 20, the number of Earth.
2,4,6 and 8 are the Yin numbers.

Heaven is Yang and Earth is Yin
and mankind is between Heaven and Earth
Our feet on the ground and our head in the sky.

And in ancient China the number for man was 15,
half way between Heaven and Earth.

And you may ask why is the number 15 associated with mankind ?

Well what makes us the most powerful creature on the planet is our opposing thumbs to hold weapons and what we create with our hands. The number 15 is code for the hands because there are 15 major joints in the hand of an adult human that enable us to articulate our fingers.

And so if you add any line in this magic square either vertical or horizontal or diagonal, it equals 15. Also interestingly the new moon is 15 days after the full moon and 15 days before the next full moon. This piece of information takes us to an even deeper layer of revelation hidden within the The Luo River Scroll, the astronomical information contained within it.

North is 9 and South is 1, there are 91 days in each season.


Each of the four seasons are represented by an animal.

Spring – Green Dragon.
Summer – Red Phoenix.
Autumn – White Tiger.
Winter – Black Turtle.


Xuan Wu/Zhen Wu the Black Turtle is the Guardian of the North.

West is 3 and East is 7, this is the proportion of the earths solar axis.

Along the bottom is 618, the Chinese read from right to left. This is the golden ratio known as PHI it is the ratio of all organic life forms. It is most clearly seen in the proportions of the pentagram. The pentagram is a five pointed star, each point corresponds to one of the Five Elemental Forces. Within the magic square of the The Luo River Scroll the number five is surrounded by the Eight Trigrams. The planet venus which is visible to the eye when looking at the sky traces a pentagram around the sun every eight years.

So we find that in far ancient times our distant ancestors knew many advanced things and this information was hidden in codes and symbols and handed down from generation to generation. The numbers on The Luo River Scroll on the back of Xuan Wu/Zhen Wu The Black Turtle, is the worlds oldest magic square. A mathematical devise that reflects the intellectual development and sophistication of the human mind at a very early time in human history.

Only the wise few who could understand what was meant by these symbols could gain the knowledge. Those who did not have an enquiring mind would just think it was a myth with no relevance. There are even deeper levels of explanation with Xuan Wu/Zhen Wu, that are not mathematical and astronomical but biological and spiritual.

Zhen Wu is the Chinese God of the Martial Arts, when we fight we do not have time for thought or emotion, only action. We need to have an instant reflex reaction to counterattack and defeat our opponent. Humans at the front of their heads have a modern section of their brains used for thinking, behind this in the middle is an older part of the brain which can experience emotion.

However at the back of the head hidden away in the brain stem is an ancient part of us that is purely reflex activated, its origins are from the dawn of our evolution when we were reptiles. It is this reptile mind that as martial artists we access to have reflex reactions without emotion or thought so we win the conflict. Whilst others are thinking how to react or being overcome by their feelings, we have already responded with our instantaneous reflex reaction and defeated the threat.

So Zhen Wu is Xuan Wu the Dark Turtle, a reptile, this is no coincidence, we access our reptile mind when we fight. Also the Turtle has both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton, as martial artists we develop both our internal and external power. Turtle are active primarily at dawn and dusk, it is said that the best chi can be accessed if one trains ones martial arts forms during this twilight time. The moment after Yang day has finished but before Yin night begins is the gap between this world and the next. Similarly at dawn the darkest Yin night has finished and the bright Yang day has not yet begun, it is at this magical time that one can access mysterious forces.

Very recent DNA studies have shown that turtles are related to the other reptiles but that the Turtle actually have more DNA that is related to birds. The Chinese have always been very specific about immortality. It is the intentional creation of an immortal spirit body which is able to fly through the air like a bird.


An Immortal riding on a Bird

So for the shaman who regularly left their bodies on their healing journeys to bring back the lost spirits of those who where in a coma from serious illness. And for the later Taoists who’s deepest purpose was the creation within themselves of their own immortal spirit bodies which they could use after death to continue their journey and fly through the sky. The choice of Xuan Wu/Zhen Wu a Turtle which is actually genetically more of a bird than a reptile is pure genius.

The Chinese word Xian (immortal) is defined as – Men and women who attain supernatural abilities and after death become immortal and fly through the air. Interestingly the same word in Tibetan means – Shaman – one who has supernatural abilities, including travel through the air.


An Immortal riding on a Turtle

One of the important steps to take before constructing ones immortal spirit body is to make sure that the chi energy you are using to construct your spirit body has a positive quality. There is a Taoist meditation technique where the five negative elemental traits, anger, hate, anxiety, sadness and fear are transformed into the five positive elemental traits of kindness, love, trust, courage and confidence. These transformations are carried out inside ones own internal organs, it is called The Taoist Five Elements Meditation.

Anger is transformed into Kindness in the Liver/Wood.
Hate is transformed into Love in the Heart/Fire.
Anxiety is transformed into Trust in the Spleen/Earth.
Sadness is transformed into Courage in the Lungs/Metal.
Fear is transformed into Confidence in the Kidneys/Water.

There is a legend about Zhen Wu, The Dark Mysterious Warrior, which symbolically refers to this process. It was said that he washed his internal organs in a river to purify them. Many folk tales that are variations of this story now exist.

Liver-Wood-Eyes/Sight-Anger-Kindness-Decisiveness-Green Dragon.
Heart-Fire-Tongue/Taste-Hate-Love-Emotional Wisdom-Red Phoenix.
Spleen-Earth-Lips/Speech-Anxiety-Trust-Intellectual Creativity-Yellow Bird.
Lungs-Metal-Nose/Smell-Sadness-Courage-Physical Balance-White Tiger.
Kidneys-Water-Ears/Hearing-Fear-Confidence-Strength of Will-Black Turtle.

There are many advanced Taoist meditations that use the understanding of the relationship of the Five Elements to further improve ones health and develop ones spirit, these and many other Taoist meditations are all explained in great detail in my book A Taoist Way of Life

There are many folk tales and popular stories about Zhen Wu and many references to him throughout Chinese literature.


In this picture Zhen Wu flies through the night sky on the back of a Turtle and holds a mystically enhanced sword in his right hand. This weapon is said to have belonged to Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals. The legend says that he borrowed the sword from Lu Dongbin to subdue a powerful demon, and after being successful, he refused to bring it back after witnessing the great power of the sword. The sword itself would magically return to its owner if Zhen Wu released it, so he always holds this sword tightly, and never lets it go.

The sword is surrounded by lightning and one of the many attributes that Zhen Wu was ascribed was the Head of the Thunder Department in Heaven. In Chinese martial arts there is an explosive way of striking called Fa jin (an explosive release of internal power). This striking method in ancient text was metaphorically expressed as being sudden and explosive like thunder. For more information about Fa Jin please see The Training Manual of The College of Chinese Martial Arts

Zhen Wu as a martial god was said to have aided the emperor in battle to gain the throne and also cured him from a serious illness. In thanks for this the Ming Emperor, six hundred years ago, decreed that 300,000 craftsmen were sent to build temples to Zhen Wu all over Wudang mountain. They were there for over 10 years and built the most incredible Taoist center in the world. This monumental work added to the already existing Taoist temples that were built during the Tang Dynasty 1300 years ago.

So as well as being a god of war Zhen Wu was also connected with healing, he healed the emperor, and interestingly the area of Wudang Mountain has 600 of the 1,900 medicinal herbs recorded in Compendium of Materia Medica compiled by the Ming Dynasty scientist Li Shizhen.

So Wudang mountain is a Taoist spiritual center with the most beautiful temples and walkways. It is dedicated to Zhen Wu God of the martial arts, so it would make sense for Chang Sang Fen to stay in this location whilst he worked on further developing his internal martial arts style which later evolved into the Tai Chi Chuan that we have today.

I made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Zhen Wu, the Mysterious/Dark Warrior, on top of Wudang/Wutang Mountain in China in 2005. This experience is recounted in The Journal of The College of Chinese Martial Arts -Volume 5 May 2010

Here are a few photos from that trip.


Purple Cloud Temple

At the base of Wudang Mountain is the Purple Cloud Temple which is dedicated to the Green Dragon and the White Tiger. It is beautifully situated in a small valley with the main great Wudang mountain rising up behind it. Inside it has a great atmosphere, the walls and ceiling are decorated with dragons, yin yang and the eight trigrams, there are many small statues of gods and Taoist warriors armed with lances, spears, halberds, maces and swords and many other exotic martial arts weaponry and there is a large gold statue of Zhen Wu in full armour with a sword.


Taoist Monk does Vertical Kick at Purple Cloud Temple


The Lang Mei (Plumb Blossom) Temple dedicated to Chang San Fen


Inside is a statue of Chang Sang Fen

A wall carving says that Chang Sang Fen created the Wudang Style Martial Arts based on the principles of the interaction of Yin and Yang and that by working with ones internal chi energy one can become immortal.


The Golden Temple right on the very top of Wudang mountain.


Inside The Golden Temple is a statue of Zhen Wu
There is a Turtle by his bare feet

Round the back of the Golden Temple was a small flat stone terrace with a plumb tree covered in blossom and red ribbons. I stood in a Chi Kung posture under the tree in the snow and really felt just for a moment that there was really something more here than just the high altitude fresh air and excitement about being on the top of Wudang Mountain. There was some hard to define special spiritual quality, a sense of quietness, stillness and calm.