God of Martial Arts
Research project on Zhen Wu God of Martial Arts
I took this photo of a life size bronze statue of Zhen Wu in 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 Wu Tang mountain. When I went to Wu Tang mountain, halfway 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 Wu Tang mountain was dedicated to Zhen Wu, not Chang Sang Fen. So who is Zhen Wu?
Zhen Wu is the God of Martial Arts. The mountain is named after him: Wu Tang Shan = Martial Mountain.
Research into the story of Zhen Wu connects us with Chinese history and many aspects of Chinese culture.
In the photo, you can see that under his robes he is wearing armour. 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 one hand, and your other hand makes the sign of the secret sword.
People mistakenly say that you can point the fingers at the tip of your sword to project chi into it. Or they say that if you harden your fingers, you could use them to stab 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 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.
Zhen Wu has his armour concealed under his robes and a hidden dagger in his 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.
Zhen Wu has a dragon embossed on the armour over his belly. The dragon is a Taoist symbol of one’s 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 one’s 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 power of the earth.
Everything about Zhen Wu reflects my own perspective: a dedication to internal martial arts, an assertion of individuality and bare feet on the ground to connect with nature.
Zhen Wu’s 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, Fu Xi.
The Turtle emerged out of the Luo River, and Fuxi saw that this was no ordinary creature.
Its 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. The planet venus which is visible to the eye when looking at the sky traces a pentagram (a five sided star shape) around the sun every eight years.
Within the magic square of the The Luo River Scroll the number five (the Five Elements) is surrounded by the numbers of the Eight Trigrams.
The numbers around the edge represent the Eight Trigrams of the I Ching Book of Changes. This mystical book was created by the ancient shamans in a time so far in the past that even its shadow is hard to see.
Within the eight trigrams of the I Ching, a straight line is a symbol for Yang and a broken line a symbol for Yin.
The trigrams are really a way of showing gradations of Yin and Yang.
So the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang has its origins in Zhen Wu emerging as a turtle from the Luo River.
Fu Xi, the Shaman First Ancestor of the Chinese Nation, is wearing his totem animal skin as a coat. His headdress is adorned with horns to show his closeness to nature and its secret forces. He holds in his hands the Eight Trigrams which are now an integral part of Taoism. (Shamanism evolved into Taoism).
There is a nice parallel we can observe. The main defining character in the formation of Taoism, about 2,500 years ago, was Lao Tzu. His book, the Tao Te Ching is world-famous. His name, Lao Tzu, 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 enigmatic characters for two mystical systems.
The top shell of the turtle is round and relates to Heaven. This is because if you stand on a hill at night and look at the stars whilst turning in a circle, the sky looks like a circular dome.
The lower shell on the belly of the turtle is square and relates to Earth. This is because the earth is mapped by north, south, east and west; a square.
Heaven is Yang and Earth is Yin. Mankind is between Heaven and Earth, with our feet on the ground and our head in the sky.
In ancient China, the number for humans was 15, halfway between Heaven and Earth.
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. Our hands (with opposing thumbs) make us the most powerful creature on the planet. We hold weapons with our hands.
If you add any line in this magic square, either vertically, horizontally or diagonally, it equals 15.
Each season and direction is 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.
There is also an acupuncture system for humans applied on the abdomen called Sacred Turtle Acupuncture.
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 having witnessed 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. One of the many attributes that Zhen Wu was ascribed was being 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 was metaphorically expressed in ancient text 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 the god of martial arts, was said to have aided the emperor in battle to gain the throne and also cured him of a serious illness. In thanks for this, the Ming Emperor, 600 years ago, decreed that 300,000 craftsmen were sent to build temples to Zhen Wu all over Wu Tang 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 1,300 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 Wu Tang Mountain has 600 of the 1,900 medicinal herbs recorded in Compendium of Materia Medica compiled by the Ming Dynasty scientist Li Shizhen.
So Wu Tang mountain is a Taoist spiritual centre with the most beautiful temples and walkways. It is dedicated to Zhen Wu, God of the martial arts. 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.
Wu Tang MouNtain
I made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Zhen Wu, the Mysterious/Dark Warrior, on top of Wu Tang 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 Wu Tang 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 Wu Tang mountain rising up behind it. Inside, it has a great atmosphere. The walls and ceiling are decorated with dragons, yin and yang and the eight trigrams. There are many small statues of gods and Taoist warriors armed with lances, spears, halberds, maces, swords and many other exotic martial arts weaponry. And there is a large gold statue of Zhen Wu in full armour with a sword.
Purple Cloud Temple
Taoist Monk at Purple Cloud Temple
The LANG MEI TemplE
A wall carving on the Lang Mei Temple says that Chang Sang Fen created the Wu Tang Style Martial Arts based on the principles of the interaction of Yin and Yang and that by working with one’s internal chi energy, one can become immortal.
The Lang Mei (Plumb Blossom) Temple dedicated to Chang San Fen
Inside is a statue of Chang Sang Fen
THE golden TemplE
The Golden Temple is on the very top of Wu Tang mountain and is the high point of one’s visit to Wu Tang mountain.
Round the back of the 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 that there was something more here than just the high altitude fresh air and excitement about being on the top of Wu Tang Mountain. There was some hard-to-define special spiritual quality; a sense of quietness, stillness and calm.
Paul at the Golden Temple
Inside is a statue of Zhen Wu with a turtle by his bare feet
Paul Brecher in China on Wu Tang Mountain 2005