17. Mount Wudang

The leading location for Daoist martial arts is Mount Wudang, where Zhang Sanfeng allegedly observed the fighting animals. Already a religious center in the Tang, it became a major Daoist sanctuary in the early Ming dynasty, when it was associated with protecting the imperial house and served as the main worship place of the Perfect Warrior (Zhenwu ).

Originally called Dark Warrior (Xuanwu 玄武), indicating a constellation in the northern sky, and depicted as an intertwined turtle and snake, this figure soon appeared as a mighty warrior. His rise to imperial protector began in the Song, when he was seen as the latent force behind the universe and was associated with potent protector deities of tantric background. A national cult developed, he appeared in various manifestations at court, was honored in inscriptions and records, and his hagiography grew to ever longer accounts of miraculous lives and military exploits.

The Ming rulers set up regular sacrifices for him and between 1405 and 1418 greatly expanded his center on Mount Wudang. Bolstered by imperial patronage, the god was adopted by both leading Daoist schools, Complete Perfection and Celestial Masters, and he grew into an increasingly popular figure. He also became the protector of Daoist martial arts, described vividly in the late-Ming novel Fengshen yanyi 封神演义 (Creation of the Gods), where Lord Lao appears variously to fight for the righteous, give advice, provide weapons, and mastermind battle plans.

Located northwest of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, Mount Wudang consists of multiple peaks, each covered by Daoist temples, today encompassing fifty-three ancient buildings and nine architectural sites. The highest and most important is the Golden Peak (Jinding 金顶·), accessible by cable car, with its elaborate temple complex and crowning statue of the Perfect Warrior, made from bronze and weighing about two tons. The other major temple is the Palace of the Purple Clouds (Zixiao gong 紫霄宫), which covers an area of two acres and includes numerous halls and shrines. Nearby, moreover, is the Palace of the Southern Cliff (Nanyan gong南岩宫), a set of buildings carved right into the steep cliff side. The entire mountain is a protected natural park under the auspices of the Department of Tourism and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

A popular retreat for Westerners in the Wudang range is the Wu-xian guan 五仙观 (Five Immortals Temple) on Baima shan 白马山 (White Horse Mountain). Run by Master Li (b. 1964), an accomplished and widely trained Daoist master, it houses as many as 30 students who engage in various practices. They range from martial arts through scripture studies to various forms of internal cultivation, including internal alchemy. As David Hessler, who took a 2-week course there in 2017, notes in a personal email,

Master Li was a good teacher. He did a nice job or explaining some complex ideas to Westerners. The students who had taken several classes from him loved him, including two long-term disciples. I learned a lot about the rituals to follow at a Daoist temple and found Master Li to be of good humor and exceptional understanding of Dao, as well as an inspiring practitioner of water and fire Taiji and Gongfu. I found that immersing myself in a temple environment was very beneficial for my own understanding.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8_A9I2jB18


Read: Chao, Shin-yi. 2011. Daoist Rituals, State Religion, and Popular Practices: Zhenwu Worship from Song to Ming (960-1644). London: Routledge.

DeBernardi, Jean. 2010. “Wudang Mountain and the Modernization of Daoism.” Journal of Daoist Studies 3:202-10.