• One winter morning, trainees of Wudang Kungfu at the Purple Cloud Temple. Wudang, Hubei Province, China

    One winter morning, trainees of Wudang Kungfu at the Purple Cloud Temple. Wudang, Hubei Province, China

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Project: Wudang Kung Fu

Wudang, China.

Wudang in the Hubei province of China is the capital of Wudang Kung Fu, and its Taoist monasteries and buildings are known as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

High up in the mountains, even in winter when the temperature falls below zero degrees centigrade, there are young trainees of martial arts, with movements so smooth and a gaze so clear and calm. Wudang Kung Fu is more about one’s internal development, other than a set of movements and style itself. I try to capture their perception of the world through photography.

Wudang Kungfu – Introduction

The sacred mountain of the internal arts, Wudang Kungfu, is situated in the Hubei province of China. It is approximately 20 hours away by train from Beijing, 22 hours from Shanghai, or 5 hours from Wuhan. The monasteries and buildings are today known as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites but until 30 years ago the general public was not allowed to enter the mountain. Only the Taoists who trained in the monasteries were to enter the mountains. Then once the mountain was opened to the public, Wushu Schools also started accepting trainees.

Another Kungfu Wushu that is widely respected is the Shaolin Kungfu, which is believed to be connected with the Shaolin Monastery. Huang Zongxi describes Shaolin Kungfu as external arts and Wudang Kungfu as internal arts. In Wudang Kungfu, what we see from outside is less important than what happens inside. Aiming to grasp the perception of the world of Wudang Kungfu, I went to the oldest, renowned Wudang Kungfu Academy, which belongs to the Purple Cloud Temple where most Taoist activities are held today.

Mastering Wudang Kungfu is said to take at least nine years of training. Three years to work on the outside, the forms, and another three years to work on the inside, the mind. Then three years to work on both body and mind but that still does not guarantee to become a master. Having said that, the key members of the Academy, after nine years of training, have won a few gold medals in Wushu championships. Among them, the most talented will be called Shifu and have the rights to train the students.

Wudang Kungfu – Forging the Inner Self

Wudang Kungfu way starts the very moment we wake up in the morning. We do not just get out of the bed right away but concentrate in waking the internal organs one by one, then get up.

Morning training starts at 6:30 sharp. We get in line in front of the dorm entrance and run up and down the mountains to warm the body up. Then practice Tai Chi or Qigong, which are relatively less aggressive than boxing or the wielding of weapons. Although the movements seem slow and mild, each movement has a meaning for the internal body and it associates with a sort of pain or hardship, as if we are stretching and muscle training at the same time. Once the early morning session is finished, all gather at the cafeteria at 8:00. Everybody gets in line, eats and is done by 8:30. We then go clean the dorms and the school before the day training starts at 9:30.

Practice of the day includes Xingyiquan, Bāguázhǎn — repetition after repetition as Shifu instructs. How could those movements be so complicated and difficult, while when Shifu shows us, it looks so simple and easy? Take kicking for example, it is not just kicking with your legs high up in front of you but also bringing the legs to draw a circle from outside, and from inside – forcing our joints to move in ways not used in our daily lives. By repeating those forms that are somehow un-natural, we come to realize that all the little pieces of muscle inside the body are activated. Gee, how tough could this little movement be? We just have to keep repeating, continuing to extend our limits little by little, until Shifu tells us to stop.

Dinner is at 18:00 sharp. After a small break, it’s the time for meditation. This meditation is an active one. Sit up straight, correctly, with the eyes to look down a few meters in front of you. Breathe deeply, slowly, to let the Qi through the body, concentrate on each internal organ – heart, stomach, lungs, etc… The whole set ends with some eye exercises and some leg and ear massages. This active meditation frees us from our thoughts and helps to raise consciousness of our surroundings, while making us feel comfortably relaxed. Once we are accustomed to this process, the spirit and body are released, letting new energy grow within ourselves.

So tired after the whole day of training, we look forward to a good night of sleep, but it’s already the next morning. The muscles ache everywhere in the body, making everything feel heavier. It’s still dark in the mountains, but the warming up starts at 6:30 sharp as usual. Breathe the pure air of the mountains. Feel the existence of the sacred, great Purple Cloud Temple, and this little creature, myself, flowing with energy.

The World of Wudang Wushu

- Open up yourself, let in Qi and the power of the mountain

I met somebody who looks like surrounded by an air ball. Clear air with warm, healing, protecting energy. When he walks, this air ball also moves along with him. He reminds me of a ballet dancer with his movements so smooth and beautiful from every angle, kind yet strong. When he moves his hands, it looks as if the energy in the air is following his will. His gentle, clear eyes are so profound that we would fear that he looks deep in our minds, leaving us no room to resist. This person, still in his mid-20s, is a master of Wudang Kungfu.

This character of the Wudang Mountains, or “Shifu”, tells his students from abroad to cut communication with their home countries and concentrate on the training. He asks: “why did you come to Wudang?” then tells us to forget that reason. Don’t spend time writing but appreciate the beautiful mountains you see from your dorm room. Forget who you are, stop thinking, don’t pay attention to the feelings. Just be serious about the training: this whole process may be the short cut to learning Wudang Kungfu.

Shifu attracts not only students of the martial arts but also students with serious problems in their lives – an ex-warrior mentally injured, an ex-prisoner who took part in an international crime, a man suffering from AIDS and a woman with cancer who gave up western medical care. I saw with my own eyes those people who actually recovered significantly from illness thanks to Wudang Kungfu training and the Chinese medicine of the Purple Cloud Temple to which the school belongs, and the care by a renowned doctor.

I went to Wudang Mountains already 3 times, aiming to understand how “internal arts” Wudang Kungfu was. However, the more I get to know the people in the Wushu school, the more I observe and analyze, deepen my thoughts, the less things seemed to make sense. We hear about supernatural events in the mountains and I also had experiences myself that people may not believe if told. Although we practice Wudang Kungfu with our own body and mind, it is not always associated with real feelings. Wudang Kungfu would not satisfy our “objective” to come up with a general definition or simple explanation.

However abstract it may seem, one thing we can say about Wudang Kungfu is that it activates the internal energy, helps feel it and helps bring the great power of nature. Forget about reasoning or “your” objective but relax and open up yourself – then concentrate on what’s happening inside your body, let the Qi enter, receive the phenomenal, sacred energy of the mountain. This lets you bring about power that you alone would otherwise not possess. This internal energy, expressed in movements, is the Wudang Kungfu. There is no need to look for making the forms perfect. If you follow what each movement aims, your gestures would just be as efficient and look beautiful from the outside.

Life in Wudang Mountains somehow makes us recognize ourselves as a part or the nature, or simply put, animals. Our five senses become as sharp as ever and we’d even feel like going back to a wild being. Those who love and respect the mountain are welcome; those who lack respect may experience a sort of denial or punishment. The great vitality of this sacred mountain is the ultimate cure for people who suffer from illness, while it helps others by purifying and strengthening the heart and the mind, to bring about more power and flexibility.