Travels through Shaolin with RZA
October 1, 1999
by Gene Ching
Wu-Tang Intro: Bring Da Ruckus
It was September of 1999. Seven years after his defection to the United States, Shaolin Monk Shi Yanming returned to Shaolin Temple leading the largest entourage ever to participate in the International Shaolin Festival. Yanming risked everything to bring his students to China; it was to be a powerful lesson in kungfu. His “Return to Shaolin” Tour was reported in our Shaolin Temple Special Collector’s Edition in Spring 2000, and even received attention from some pop magazines like Details and Blast. And yet, those articles only sampled a few tracks off a much larger compilation of warrior travel tales. This death defying journey followed in the footsteps of its leader Shi Yanming – unconventional, unpredictable and unapologetic – and set to a blasting rap beat.
Accompanying Yanming’s “Return to Shaolin” tour was his most notorious student, RZA, the musical mastermind behind the quadruple-platinum rap group Wu-Tang Clan. RZA built his multimillion-dollar music empire upon the mythology of the “old school” kungfu movies. Alongside his Shifu Yanming, RZA made it to the source – for real – standing on the rugged soil of Shaolin Temple. But that was just the beginning of his journey, there was much more to come. Next stop was China’s other famous martial monastery, the cradle of Tai Chi and the very inspiration for RZA’s music, the real Wu-Tang Mountain – Wudangshan.
Track 1: Protect Ya Neck
Yanming and RZA’s journey was straight out of an old Shaw Brothers kungfu movie. Just like in the 36th Chamber, before they could leave Shaolin Temple, they had to pass a test. As they prepared to go, Shaolin’s festival atmosphere shifted from a welcoming celebration to a hung-over after-party clean up. Ever-present sounds of kungfu practice – the backbeat of Shaolin – covered the dwindling sound of confetti sweepers and breakdown stagehands, while the milieu of international languages, heard just days before, was drowned out by the noisy chatter of native Mandarin. And the few remaining foreigners were in a hazy post-climax mode with thoughts drifting towards moving on – a vulnerable state for travelers lax enough to drop their guard.
While Shi Yanming’s penchant for the extreme has won him many accolades never before bestowed on a Shaolin monk, it has also earned him some jealous detractors. And Yanming was not in the strongest of positions, traveling in China with only a U.S. re-entry visa but no U.S. or Chinese passport. Political intrigue, so common in Communist China, forced Yanming, RZA and their companions to leave Shaolin village a few hours before planned by producing a skeleton from Yanming’s closet, his estranged wife. Conspicuously, Yanming’s detractors could have moved against him at any time, but they waited until the moment when it would have the least impact – the very end of his stay. It wasn’t so much of an attack as it was a warning shot.
Considering the events that followed at Shaolin Temple, Yanming was not the last person to be forced to move by the powers that be. In August of 2000, almost a year later, the government ordered the evacuation and destruction of most of the private homes, schools and stores that surrounded Shaolin Temple. This could be perceived as a violation of human rights, but an international watchdog group would have to take notice. When it comes to China, their attention is elsewhere. At this writing, the result of this forced relocation edict remains to be seen, but a few thousand residents have already been profoundly affected. Time will tell. In a strange way, Yanming’s expedited exit was an ill omen of things to come.
Track 2: And You Don’t Stop
But Shaolin monks and rap stars are hard to catch. In the dead of night, Yanming’s monk brothers slipped into stealth mode, quickly spiriting the group beyond the reaches of his detractors with one swift move. The next morning, it all seemed like a weird dream. Yanming, ever undaunted, strutted out as if nothing had happened. RZA seemed amused by the midnight escapade, as if taking notes for Wu-Tang’s following Underground Tour. The rest of the group seemed a little wary, but being mostly New Yorkers, they weren’t overly disturbed. It was all part of their epic adventure, a wild subplot to the action movie.
Instead of idly waiting for the train, Yanming’s monk brothers invited the group to join them for a day at the Yellow River. Known as Huang He in Mandarin, the Yellow River has a reputation for disaster. Over the centuries, natural floods have killed millions of Chinese, earning it the nickname the “river of sorrow.” There were even unnatural deadly floods. In 1938, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kaishek intentionally destroyed the dikes to stop Japanese invaders. The tactic typified poor military strategy, drowning over one million Chinese citizens and destroying the homes and livelihoods of another 11 million. The result was negligible; Japanese troops were only slowed temporarily.
The Yellow River remains one of the great rivers of the world, churning like a mighty dragon, wild and untamed, an awesome force of nature. Controlling power, such as mighty rivers, has always been at the forefront of the Chinese agenda. Today the “river of sorrow” is partially controlled by a complex series of dams, dikes and irrigation canals. These areas have been developed for tourism, an odd mix of scenic natural beauty, technological achievement, communist statuary, traditional pagodas and tourist traps.
The monks took Yanming, RZA and their comrades on a hovercraft ride out to the mud flats of the Yellow River. The unusual silt that makes the river yellow forms a strange mud that bounces like jell-o. Local tourist hawkers sell horseback rides and firecrackers atop of this gelatinous sludge. After some jiggling, riding and exploding, the group took a sky tram ride above the dikes to a scenic vista. It was a typically surreal Chinese tourist experience, made all the more dreamlike from everyone’s lack of sleep the night before. But that midnight melodrama was not nearly as perilous as what came next. The real test to leave Shaolin was a Chinese thrill ride and RZA almost failed big time.
Wu-Tang Track 3: Fatal Sting
A thrill ride is among the most dangerous things Chinese. Just driving in Mainland China provides enough near death experiences to make the most hardened thrill seeker beg for mercy. The way down from the vista was a “roller coaster” – for lack of a better word. It was really more of a tube of doom. Consisting of a convoluted fiberglass half-pipe, less than a yard wide, this doom tube snaked its way down the side of this mountain, suspended over sheer cliffs, high above jagged rocks. The car, if you could call it that, was a small plastic go-cart, little more than four wheels and a handbrake jutting up between your legs. There was no need of a seat belt, since the tiny car was not attached to the tube in any way. Take a turn too quick and you and your car would skip out of the tube and plunge to certain destruction. No seatbelt would save you.
Now there are a few assumptions that this roller coaster made of its riders. One: that the rider is of the same weight as an average Mainland Chinese (much less than most Americans.) Two: that the rider has the common sense to apply the brake so the momentum won’t send the car off the tracks on the next sharp turn. And three: that the rider does not have a lawyer who can sue if you die. Of course, rules such as these don’t really apply to Yanming’s U.S.A. Shaolin Temple, Manhattan Branch.
After the first few of Yanming’s crew came down, the ride manager was livid, screaming at the top of his lungs to use the brake or die. Of course, no one could understand his Mandarin. The Americans were way too big and too crazy for his shoddy ride of death. Plus, being used to U.S. safety standards for rides, they had no fear that the ride could actually be lethal and, consequently, no need of the handbrake. They trusted this Chinese tourist trap to deliver them safely to the bottom, brakes or not. The ride manager saw what was happening and was going ballistic. He cornered the first riders who survived to the end, yelling and pointing frantically, certain that any moment a foreigner was going to bite the big one and his business would be ruined forever. At that very moment, RZA tore down the track and crashed into the awaiting cars. Now RZA is a tall man, much larger than the average Chinese, with a love for speed. Brakes don’t even enter into his lyrical vocabulary. He hit the bottom going full bore, with no shock absorber in sight. Go-carts went flying and poor RZA was split like a wishbone around his plastic handbrake. He immediately hopped up and did that little dance that any man does when his balls are whacked. The frenzied ride manager burst out laughing, as did the rest of the crew. Even RZA giggled between gasps. Fortunately, he wasn’t permanently harmed and it diffused an escalating situation. Once the test was passed, Yanming’s posse could proceed on, leaving Shaolin behind. The previous nighttime intrigues soon faded with RZA’s sore jewels and everyone happily boarded the humid night train to Hubei Province, home of Wudangshan.
Track 4: Enter the Wu-Tang
Hubei Province lies just south of Henan (where Shaolin Temple is located). Despite their proximity, it is a long, uncomfortable train ride to get from one to the other. Hubei is in the heart of China – the only province from which you must cross at least two other provinces to reach either the border or the sea. With a population of almost 50 million, Hubei has been under the international spotlight because of its controversial construction project, the Three Gorges Dam. This is China’s most extravagant modern-day attempt to control another mighty river, the Yangtze (a.k.a. Chang Jiang.)
Three Gorges, or Sanxia in Mandarin, is an area known for its scenic natural beauty and home to almost 2,000,000 people, which will soon be beneath a newly formed 370-mile long lake. Nineteen cities, 326 villages, 1,300 archeological sites and 66,700 acres of farmland will by submerged. Those 1.9 million people will be forced to relocate, making Shaolin’s relocation look like a drop in the bucket. This dam will be the largest the world has ever seen, a whopping 607 ft high and almost a mile and a half long, capable of generating one-fifth of China’s present energy capacity and controlling the disastrous floods that have ravaged the area over the centuries.
In terms of power, Three Gorges will be able to generate more hydroelectricity than any other project in the world, a mammoth 18,200 megawatts, the equivalent of 18 nuclear power stations, dwarfing the U.S. Grand Coulee Dam (now the world’s second largest source of hydroelectricity) which comes in at 10,100 megawatts. In 1991, the last major flood killed several thousand people and millions were left homeless. Dam sponsors claim that the reservoir’s 28.9 billion cubic yards of flood storage capacity will lessen the occurrence of major flood disasters from once every decade to once every century. Three Gorges Dam will not be completed until 2009 with an estimated cost of 20 billion US dollars. However, in 2003 the dam will begin generating power, just not at full capacity. With the “face” of China at stake, Three Gorges Dam has been internally and internationally criticized by economists, ecologists and human rights activists. Hubei is under the world’s scrutiny. Time will tell.
About 100 miles northwest of Three Gorges lies the Wudang Mountain range. Stretching for some 250 square miles, Wudang forms the border between Hubei and Shaanxi. The character for “Wu” in Wudang is the same as in Wushu, meaning martial. “Dang” means deserving. It refers to the mythic Emperor Xuantian Zhen Wu. According to legend, Zhen Wu studied Taoism at Wudang for some 42 years, until he gained the recognition of the heavenly Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor transformed him into a god and said that only Zhen Wu was “deserving,” thus the name Wudang.
In those old dubbed or subtitled Shaw Brothers movies, “dang” was often pronounced as “tang” – the actual sound in Chinese lies somewhere between a “d” and a “t,” — but now following the 1995 United Nations edict, the official romanization of Chinese is a system called pinyin, which uses a “d.” Unfortunately, Wutang/Wudang now suffers for the popular vs. pinyin predicament just like Tai Chi Chuan/Taijiquan, Chi Kung/qigong and Kungfu/gongfu. But the United Nations pinyin standard is important for cultural exchange with China. In such worldly affairs, there is always compromise.
Wudang Mountain is also called Taihe Mountain or Xianshi Mountain. It lies within the territory of Danjiangkou City, and is a branch range of the Daba Mountain range. Within Wudang are 71 mountain peaks, 36 famous rock formations and 24 mountain streams. For 2000 years, Taoists have considered Wudang as a powerful mystic mountain. Many famous Taoist shamans and mystics have retreated to the scenic and secluded mountain to cultivate qi, most notably Zhang Sanfeng.
Zhang is often credited as the founder of Taiji, and is worshipped as another god at Wudang. According to local legend, Zhang was born a General’s son in Zhejiang Province. At one point he was struck blind, only to be cured by a Taoist master. Zhang spent most of his life as a government official, but retired when the Emperor Hongwu (1328-1398) usurped the throne and established the Ming Dynasty. Zhang retreated to Wudang, becoming a Taoist lay disciple in his 70’s. There, he created the magnificent art of Taiji after meditating on a fight between a snake and a crane. Although some dispute this creation theory, it is still widely accepted. Zhang remained a hermit on Wudangshan for the rest of his life, emerging once to see the Emperor only after seven imperial requests for him to do so.
While the contribution of Taiji is pivotal, the evolution of Wudangshan as a Taoist holy place has a longer, more profound history. Li Shimen (599-649 CE) first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (and benefactor to Shaolin Temple) asked the governor of Junzhou, Rao Jian, to ask for rain from heaven at Wudang. After the rains came, Emperor Li began constructing Taoist temples on Wudang. In the following Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, more Taoist temples were erected. It truly flourished under the third Ming Dynasty Emperor, Yongle (1360-1424), who ordered three hundred thousand workers to develop Wudang. During this massive development, 8 Taoist temples, 9 palaces, 12 pavilions and terraces, 36 Buddhist convents and 72 rock pagodas were constructed. Successive dynasties continued adding to the magnificence of Wudang, and in recent years a few modern conveniences such as hotels and another ubiquitous mountain sky tram have been added. No thrill rides yet, thankfully.
Track 5: One Blood Under the W
After the stuffy all-nighter train ride, the posse was subjected to a stomach churning 5-hour bus ride from the train station up the winding mountain roads to Wudang. It was blisteringly hot and cramped. Everyone had bought numerous souvenirs from Shaolin. Swords precariously protruded out of hastily packed luggage, plus there was a large traditional drum the students had acquired as a gift for their master Yanming. RZA, ever the composer, lugged his keyboard and guitar all across China to sample the sounds he was hearing. Outside his room at night, he could be heard banging out some new beat – maybe the next track to tear up the billboard charts. All this gear was stuffed with the passengers into a few rickety “Mian Bao” (literally “bread” – a slang used to describe ubiquitous white Chinese minivans.) These vans make an old ’70s Volkswagen look like an SUV. And remember, driving in the mainland is yet another death defying act, windy mountain roads not withstanding.
Ascending those snaky roads in an over-packed Chinese minivan, it was obvious that the second martial temple would never receive the tourist attention that Shaolin has – it’s just too hard to get there. The way to Wudang is far less accessible than the way to Shaolin, especially considering the new highway Shaolin is constructing. But Wudang is well worth the journey. Wudang’s inaccessibility is a natural barrier that keeps the mountain and its holy places absolutely pristine.
When Yanming’s group finally arrived, their destination was a rewarding mountain sanctuary, the Jiulong (Nine Dragon) Hotel. Although built to cater to developing tourist industry, it was vacant except for the Yanming’s group and workers. And it was beautiful. Its architecture mimics the Taoist style, complete with stylish serpentine dragon sculptures, doorways and floors emblazoned with giant yin yang symbols, an enchanting trail to a hilltop pagoda and commanding views of the nine connected peaks known as the “nine dragons.” And there, jutting out of three of those dragon peaks stood the Wu-Tang “W”.
This was Weird with a capital “W.” The “W” is the symbol of Wu-Tang Clan, like a giant batman logo in a street graffiti-style, instantly recognizable to anyone who followed music in the 90’s. It is also the title of their fourth album, released in 2000. Given the epic nature of Wu-Tang Clan’s work in music and fashion, the “W” has taken on mythic proportions in the culture of American youth. And there it was, the “W,” set in the very living rock of this mystic Wudang Mountain. The natural rock formations looked exactly like the “W.” Everyone shook their heads in disbelief, all except for RZA, who smiled knowingly as if this confirmed a vision he once had. For him, Wudangshan was a pilgrimage in the truest sense. From the rough streets of Staten Island, through the cheap 42nd street kungfu movie theaters, to the very pinnacle of the music industry, RZA had come to the source of his power, his personal Mecca, the inspiration for his empire.
Wu-Tang Track 6: Older Gods
The first visit was to pay respects to Wudang’s South Rock Palace (Nanyan Gong.) This spectacular site, built into the side of a sheer cliff, began construction during the reign of Kubilai Khan (1215-1294) the first Emperor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the grandson of Genghis. South Rock’s initial groundbreaking (or cliff breaking in this case) was in 1285 and took a quarter of a century to complete. It was expanded in 1413 during Emperor Yongle’s extensive redevelopment. Today, like every ancient place in China, it is undergoing more restoration and development.
A beautiful mountain trail winds past curious rock formations towards South Rock. On the way, the roof of a gigantic overhang bears a resemblance to a massive footprint and myths are told of how it is the impression left by an ancient god. A small courtyard fills the pass between the crests that guard South Rock. There sits a mystic well, whose water holds a strangely sweet flavor. It’s like drinking the very blood of the mountain. This water is highly acclaimed for its therapeutic qualities and probably the only non-boiled water that is drinkable in China. One of the courtyard buildings serves as an apothecary where curative herbs freshly gathered from the mountainside are sold. At Wudang, the majority of the tourist vendors sell herbs over ubiquitous tourist trinkets. Beyond the courtyard is the foundation of an ancient temple. Where the original altar once stood, a sparse closet-like new altar houses a Taoist icon. All that remains of the old temple building now are the pillar stones, although there are plans to rebuild it. Behind that is another trail that leads to the cliff site.
South Rock Palace is truly breathtaking. After years of exposure to the mountain elements, its altars have an ancient weathered look, like a dark corner of an antique attic. But look beneath the dust and past the faded paint and its holdings are both magical and magnificent. Those poorly lit statues, faintly shimmering from flaking gold leaf, calmly gaze back from the shadows and beckon you to leave your worldly existence for more spiritual pursuits.
Inside South Rock, a few local Taoist shamans will read your fortune for a small donation (but you’d have to understand Mandarin to appreciate it.) There are also some money tossing games, a common device for Chinese altars to generate donations. Various altarpieces are strewn with coins where previous visitors have attempted to toss a coin into a statue’s mouth or to strike a bell, not unlike a coin pitch at the county fair. If you make succeed, it’ll bring you good luck. If you don’t, well, at least you gave a contribution.
Of course, one of these altars was a death-defying test, since that was the undertone of this adventure. South Rock has one of the most terrifying places to give offerings ever – the Dragon Head Incense Burner. This ancient roost is a carved stone walkway, perilously extending above the cliff like a pirate ship gangplank. It is a beautiful carving, made to look like swirling clouds and a dragon, but provides an insecure footing less than a foot wide and nearly ten feet long. At the end is a small incense burner. Beneath lies another plunge to certain destruction. Remember, South Rock Palace is built into a cliff and this precarious perch sticks out from South Rock. The object is to walk out to the end of this carving and plunk down some incense in the burner without falling off. Recently, a small guardrail was added for safety. Even with this minimal safety measure, it is still a sheer test of faith to offer incense here. Of course, RZA and Yanming’s students lined up enthusiastically to do this. Fortunately, this test was passed without injury.
Track 7: Wu-Revolution
The next visit was to the main temple at Wudang, Purple Cloud Palace (Zixiao Dian.) Located at the foot of Zhanqi Peak, construction began during the Xuanhe Period of the collapsing Northern Song Dynasty (1119-1125) under Emperor Huizong (Huizong’s son Qinzong held the throne for only one more year until Jin forces took the capital and established the successive Southern Song Dynasty.) It was reconstructed during Yongle’s renovations at the same time as South Rock Palace, and expanded again under the successive Ming Emperor Jiajing (1522-1567.) Under Ming reign, Wudang flourished with a residency of 10,000 Taoists. Its previous abbot He Long, a master of light skills, was killed by the Kuomintang in this century.
Today, Purple Cloud Palace is the largest and most active site for Taoism on Wudang. The current abbot is Zhong Yun Long, and he oversees the 80 monks and 50 nuns that reside there. Together they study Taoism, including music, astronomy and, of course, martial arts. Abbot Zhong graciously welcomed Shi Yanming and his tour personally. Zhong is a young man, the same age as Yanming in fact, both born under year of the dragon. Nowadays, many of the abbots of Mainland Chinese temples are younger than the ones in the movies. The Wudang Abbot offered the group some delicious local Wudang tea, hand-cultivated by the priests and nuns, while politely answered questions about Wudang and Taoism.
Seeing Abbot Zhong sitting next to Shaolin Monk Shi Yanming, RZA posed the key question, what about Shaolin vs. Wu-tang? Zhong replied with a grin that there was no rivalry between the two foremost martial monasteries. According to Abbot Zhong, that legend stemmed from a best-selling pulp fiction book published in the 1930’s. In Taoism, not only are there parallels to Buddhism, it incorporates Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. To Abbot Zhong, the three religions are one. Taoism embraces those other belief systems. Zhong had even studied some Shaolin before. However, the emphasis in Wudang kungfu is different. One must be soft as cotton, while being hard as iron. The highest principle is “wu wei” or non-action, and this guides Taoist philosophy, as well as its martial arts.
It was an afternoon of cross-cultural sharing – Shaolin to Wudang, America to China, New York to Hubei. Abbot Zhong and Yanming showed each other the kind of martial etiquette thought only to exist in movies – two great warriors from different lineages meeting respectfully as friends. RZA found affirmation from the emphasis on the music arts by the Wudang priests. While Yanming attempted to explain the phenomena of Wu-Tang Clan to Abbot Zhong, it was a difficult concept to translate. RZA had given impromptu rap performances across China. Rap was well received by the younger listeners, who may have been exposed to it before and could hear its rhyme and rhythm despite not understanding a word of it. But most Chinese were dumbfounded. They probably listened only to “give face.” This NY rap emissary was a little beyond the Mainland Chinese palate. Rap doesn’t fit within the Confucian ideal pentatonic music scale, at least not yet. It has made it to Hong Kong and Taiwan, but as for the mainland, time will tell.
Also in Yanming’s entourage was Rona Figueroa, a Broadway singer and star of Dragonheart: A New Beginning. Her show-tune style appealed more to what the Chinese were accustomed to than rap. They loved Rona. RZA had to catch them by surprise. RZA and Rona formed an American musical one-two punch that sent the Chinese reeling. It was just another sneaky technique from the Manhattan Shaolin Temple.
As a token of respect and generosity, Abbot Zhong presented each member of the tour with a Taoist gold medallion, bearing the image of Zhen Wu. These exquisite medallions were covered with mystic runes that protect against evil spirits. Even the local guides were impressed. These medallions were made especially for the Abbot, and they could only be gotten from him. Then, even more to the delight of everyone present, Abbot Zhong and Yanming took turns demonstrating their kungfu, after which Abbot Zhong invited them to visit his kungfu school that overlooked the temple.
Track 8: Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit
Wudang kungfu is legendary, particularly Wudang sword. They have kept their lineage fairly pure, only opening their doors to uninitiated in the last few years. Wudang has its own distinctive form of Taiji, unlike Yang or Chen. It also propounds the other internal arts of xingyi and bagua, plus many forms of qigong. In a later demonstration, the group was taken to a private grove of trees where students practiced bagua. Around each tree were well-worn circles from bagua’s slippery footwork. And much to the astonishment of the tour group, the trees were also worn kicks and strikes. Parts of their bagua circle-walking practice included striking the trees, and striking them hard like a Thai boxer. This element of bagua practice is not seen so much in West.
There are also other styles of kungfu that are unique to Wudang. Generally, Wudang movements are long and silky, like Taiji but faster, punctuated with explosive short power, though not as accentuated as in Chen Taiji. Like Shaolin, the influence of contemporary wushu is evident in their public performances. Gymnastic stunts like aerials and barrel rolls have been added into the forms to heighten the athleticism and the drama. But a quick eye, one that knows what to look for, can easily observe the deep roots in traditional kungfu. The power of Wudang is remarkable.
Wudang kungfu has the common weapons like staff, spear, and of course, sword. In addition, they often practice fei mao dan (fly whisk.) This consists of a short stick capped with long strands of hair and it is a mainstay of Wudang weaponry, wielded with blinding swishes and punishing blows. But the real jewel is Wudang sword. Just as Shaolin is known for its staff masters, Wudang is known for its sword.
Sword practice always looks to be the simplest of weapons, and yet it remains the most challenging, practiced as the epitome of kungfu skill. The method of Wudang sword is undeniably one of the great treasures of kungfu. Wudang sword is highly sophisticated, perhaps too sublime for someone unfamiliar with sword, but its wicked lethality is undeniable.
Track 9: The Legacy
Wudang has a unique character that has been misrepresented in the West. Like Shaolin, many modern-day kungfu schools have lost connection with their lineages. Legends, customs and traditions have only been passed down in part, and gaps have been filled with movie mythology, hearsay and bad research. Most Western practitioners of Wudang kungfu are not even aware of Emperor Zhen Wu, a considerable oversight. This lost connection does not invalidate their practice, but hopefully, as more about Wudangshan is revealed, authentic Wudang traditions will be perpetuated over misguided Western fictions.
Many Western Wudang schools adopt the crane and snake as their animal totems. It forms an animistic yin yang, sort of the softer martial version of the dragon and tiger symbol. The snake and crane descends from the Zhang Sanfeng Taiji creation myth. As a symbol, this is not incorrect, but at Wudang, the snake is not coupled with the crane. It’s with a different animal for different reasons. In truth, Zhen Wu is more venerated at Wudang than Zhang Sanfeng. The animal totems of Zhen Wu are the snake and the terrapin (tortoise). According to the legend, when Zhen Wu was meditating, he was disturbed by his own hunger. His stomach was growling loudly. In disgust of his own weakness, he tore his stomach and intestines out of his body and threw them away. His entrails transformed into a magic snake and his stomach became a magic terrapin. These two mystic beasts stood by to guard Zhen Wu in his meditation.
This tale is remarkably parallel to the Shaolin myth, where the founder Tamo cut his eyelids off and threw them away in disgust after falling asleep when meditating. His eyelids grew into the first tea plants, to keep monks alert. Throughout Wudang, there are many images and sculptures of the snake coiled around the terrapin. This is the authentic symbol of Wudang.
Just like the one-handed bow of Shaolin or the Tiger-claw fist of Hung Gar, Wudang has a special salute unique to its discipline. The thumb is placed at the base of the index finger, then that hand curls around the thumb to form a fist. From the outside, it looks just like a regular hand-covering-fist salute. But from the inside, the thumb and forefinger form a small yin yang, the symbol of Taoism. It is a subtle distinction, but like a Masonic handshake, it can immediately distinguish a practitioner from Wudang.
Generally, Wudang layman practitioners are fond of wearing white uniforms, just like the type one might see on any contemporary performer. Like most all of Mainland China, they have adopted modern shoes for martial arts, a light canvas-topped, rubber-soled lace-up shoe. The priests tend to wear blue and gray robes; the nuns lean more to gray. Unlike Shaolin monks, who, like most all Buddhist monks, shave their head to free themselves of attachment, Taoist hermits let their hair grow long, going with the flow of nature. Often, their hair is tied back in knots and ribbons in that classical manner, making them look like they just walked off the lots of a Shaw Brothers kungfu movie. Also, many of them wear ornate, traditional hats.
The garb, architecture and natural wonder combine into an overall impression of a time gone by, as if the mists of Wudang have preserved a moment from medieval China eternally. It’s like walking into a traditional Chinese painting. The people live deep within a venerated mountain sanctuary practicing the ancient ways. Their self-cultivation and harmony with nature is evident in their genuine smiles, their peaceful demeanor, and their razor-sharp kungfu.
Track 10: As High As Wu-Tang Gets
The pinnacle of Wudangshan is the Gold Peak Forbidden City (Jin Ding Zijin Cheng.) Positioned at the top of Tianzhu peak at 5275 ft. the Forbidden City is absolutely breathtaking. Today a sky tram covers the bulk of the ascent, leaving only the topmost portion of the climb. On the way up are the Taihe palace, built in the Song (960-1279) and the Bronze hall built in the Yuan (1271-1368.) These structures have an exquisite architectural style. Their towers, terraces and pavilions are constructed in perfect harmony with the mountain. The buildings are in good shape, for the most part, but restoration is in now progress to heighten its glory even more.
At the very top is the Gold Palace (Jin Dian.) This magnificent structure was built in the 14th year of the Yongle period (1416.) It is an altar room to Wu Dang, cast from solid bronze and covered with gold. How this hefty structure came to be on the top of this mountain peak, accessible only by narrow winding trails, is a mystery of ancient science. Recently, a fence of thick solid rods was constructed to protect the Gold Palace. Representatives from all over China carried these heavy rods up the mountain by foot and set them in the fence. Also surrounding the palace are stone walls strewn with chains. In a new tourist spin, it has become “tradition” to buy a small lock and have it engraved with the name of a loved one, then lock it on this chain. Already there are thousands upon thousands of these locks cluttering up the walls, so many that one cannot help but wonder how far they will take it.
On the summit of this mighty mountain, in the presence of such natural wonder and archaic splendor, it is impossible not to become giddy with awe. It’s as if this apex of Wudangshan beams down qi from the heavens through this focal point, and just by being there you can absorb some of its vitality. Yanming was clearly impressed, chanting his new English mantra, “life is beautiful!” and jumping and kicking as Shaolin monks do. RZA was free rapping, spitting his observations and feelings out in rapid-fire improvised rhythm and rhyme. His lyrical skill is truly astounding. How he can free-associate those lighting-fast rhymes on the spot, assembled in a spontaneous driving beat, is nearly incomprehensible. Seeing these two so full of joy, brought together by a mutual love and respect of the martial arts, was a testament to the inimitable power of kungfu today. Once martial arts used to divide people. Today, it unites people from opposite sides of the earth together in harmony.
Track 11: Wu-Tang Forever
Wudangshan maybe the second martial mountain after Shaolin, but it is ahead in the eyes of the world. On December 17th, 1994 Wudangshan was inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO.) Inscription on this list confirms the exceptional and universal value of a cultural or natural site which requires protection for the benefits of all humanity. This is an illustrious and highly desired honor. At this writing, there are only 690 sites (529 cultural, 138 natural and 23 mixed properties in 122 states) that have been acknowledged. China ranks third in the world with 27 sites, behind Spain (35) and Italy (33.) The United States has 19.
Shaolin’s latest debacle, the forced relocation of the villagers is undoubtedly part of a larger strategy. Great prestige comes with being inducted to the World Heritage List. Even the third martial mountain, Mount Emei is on the list already. And neither Wudang nor Emei holds a claim as culturally significant to the world as the cradle of Zen. However, it is worthy of note that of the four most significant Buddhist sites, Lumbini (where Buddha was born,) Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened,) Sarnath (where he gave his first sermon,) and Kusinagara (where he achieved Samadhi,) only Lumbini has been inducted so far. If Shaolin wants this, it will take more than forced relocation and a new highway.
But Wudang and Shaolin are very different places. Shaolin has a forest of steles – stone tablets donated by contributors to the temple. Wudang only has a few. While there, RZA inquired about how much of a donation was required to place a stone. He seemed genuinely interested in giving back something to the place that inspired his musical empire. Now that would be amazing – the W on a stone at the Wudangshan’s Purple Cloud Palace.
Track 12: Deadly Melody
After Wudang, Shi Yanming, RZA and the tour group went to Xian, China’s ancient walled capital and home of the famous terracotta warriors (another UNESCO World Heritage site.) This was the last segment of the warriors’ journey. The martial portion of the tour was over and the tour group could finally just relax, unwind and enjoy the sites of China. But RZA, still in his Shaw Brothers kungfu movie, had one more test before he could leave.
RZA spent the afternoon with the group in old Xian, also known as the Muslim sector. Muslims (or Hui as they are known in Mandarin) represent the largest cultural/religious minority in China, with over 30,000 residing in Xian. In kungfu, they contributed the seminal Northern styles of Cha Quan and Tan Tui. The Muslim sector is an ancient alley street bazaar, full of mysterious treasure vendors, skull-capped old Hui men and an atmosphere from long ago. At the center of the section is the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) founded in 742 CE and rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty. RZA is a devout member of the Five Percent Nation, a controversial group that split from the Nation of Islam in 1964. After being respectful of the Buddhism of Shaolin and the Taoism of Wudang, he finally found a temple of his own beliefs to end his vision quest.
The last test for RZA was waiting at a dinner banquet just down the street. Xian is famous for its dumplings, and this banquet was comprised of 21 courses of gourmet dumplings, plus an ample serving of Xian liquors. Like so many restaurants, the feature attraction is a Karaoke machine. Yanming, always the upstart, convinced RZA to grab the mike, and join his other singing student Rona in a duet. Well, they loved Rona. She sang her beloved show tunes at full Karaoke volume. Chinese can’t get enough of those show tunes. It’s what Karaoke was designed for. But for some unexplainable reason, every time RZA got going, the power would mysteriously fade out. It was plain that the restaurant had no appreciation of rap music. The abbot of Wu-Tang, who held the Western music industry under his thumb, couldn’t play some touristy joint in Xian. If those Xian restaurateurs only knew…
Later, on the last night of the trip, RZA snuck out with a few others to a local bar, and found some young Chinese DJ’s spinning. He grabbed the mike again for a private concert. Those DJ’s were ecstatic. At last, RZA had brought rap to a Chinese dancehall. After all of his explorations to the heart of the martial world, he left some pearls from his own art, worth millions at home, but barely comprehensible to the Chinese.
Outro: Jah World
The practice of kungfu is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. To completely understand kungfu, Chinese culture must be embraced, but not just the romantic culture of yesteryear. Shaolin and Wudang must be honored in the context of modern-day China, with its tourist traps, political intrigues and even its karaoke. And this homage must be tempered with the greater issues of the world at large, such as human rights, energy resources, cataclysmic disasters and the position of the United Nations.
Earnest followers of the warrior way realize that in today’s global community, we are all connected – one blood, one aim, one destiny. Now, even the remote Taoist hermit or Buddhist monk can be touched by the ghettos of Staten Island. You can dream about running away to some secluded mountain temple to do nothing but study kungfu. You can dream of becoming a Shaolin monk or Wudang priest. You can dream this dream, but the hardship you face there is far greater than what impedes your practice today. If you are not working towards mastery here and now, why would things be any different there and then? You can’t run away from yourself, or your world. For some day, no matter how far away you run, a pilgrim might come to you from the other side of the world and with all due respect, bring da ruckus.