As our bus wound through maple and chestnut trees filled with chattering birds and monkeys towards Zhanqi Peak in Wudangshan Historical Geopark, I glanced at my husband and sons in their flowy white Tai Chi uniforms. Our family was an entertaining sight to our fellow bus riders, who giggled at the unusual presence of foreigners in Taoist garb in Hubei, a central landlocked province of China. In fact, we were the only foreigners we’d seen since we departed Hangzhou – approximately 1100 kilometers east of Wudangshan.
My husband’s martial arts fascination began in the 1970s with the television show Kung Fu. Back then Wudangshan, the birthplace of Tai Chi, was not open to foreigners, so he had to travel to Taiwan to find his teachers. We met years later in 1997 – mutual friends thought we were a good match due to our Eastern philosophical interests, as I was a yogini. Now we had two teen sons, who study Mandarin and are black belts in Tae Kwon Do. A pilgrimage to the mecca of Taoism was a chimera come true.
Before we checked into our hotel, Caicai, our guide, insisted we visit the famous Purple Cloud (Zixiao) Temple, the set of many martial art movies, including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Caicai was born in Zixiao Temple – her grandparents were relic guardians, which made her the ideal guide.
It was time to meet Ming Yue, our Shifu (master) for the week. He is a sword and boxing Traditional Martial Arts Champion titleholder and has his own school in Wudangshan. Dressed in a white Tai Chi uniform and black slippers, with long hair tied back off of his Buddha-like face, Shifu’s gentle manner put us at ease. My husband’s fluency in Mandarin helped us interpret Shifu’s instruction, as we attempted to follow his nimble limbs that floated underneath Wudangshan’s star-studded sky. It was difficult to keep up, as we were exhausted, but somehow the fresh mountain air gave us strength.
Our family program began at 6 am in a garden near our hotel filled with blooming roses and kiwi vines that overlooked the lime and sandstone peaks covered in pine and dogwood trees. Wudangshan was often bathed in morning mist and fog just like the traditional silk landscape guohua paintings we admired in the Wudang museum before we entered the park.
Shifu commenced with a sequence of movements and chants for organ health. We began with the heart – lungs, kidney, liver and brain followed. These are the vital organs of Qigong, a Taoist practice that goes hand-in-hand with Tai Chi. Relaxed slow movements elicit unobstructed energy flow throughout the body’s meridians, which are the key to health and well-being according to this ancient practice.
After an hour of Qigong, we took a short sustenance break. The breakfast buffet included congee, eggs, hot peppers and corn dishes. But our favorite was bing, a pancake-like food made from eggs and flour prepared by the local street vendors.
Shifu believed he could teach us the first form of his system by the end of our week of study. While only about two minutes long, it was no easy feat. We practiced move by move over and over again at our late morning and afternoon sessions while he chanted yi, er, san, si, wu…
The boys learned swiftly, but often became distracted. Shifu, also a father, was patient with our rambunctious sons. To calm and focus us he offered a meditation – a new experience for our sons and beneficial for us all, especially necessary when studying with family six hours a day!
I was particularly drawn to “Tai Chi Walking,” a sort of meditation in motion – a slow-flow movement that incorporates body and breath. It was like doing a walking butterfly stroke on terre firma.
Shifu demonstrated the strength he harbored from his disciplined practice. He challenged our boys to push him over when he was standing and sitting. Each time he slipped into a meditative state in less than a minute and became like a mountain – immovable, strong and steady. We were dumbfounded by his power. It appeared that he wasn’t doing a thing; this was a manifestation of the teachings of Lao Tzu, the ancient Taoist philosopher, who taught that the universal way is to “do that which is not done by doing.”
It was time to explore beyond our tranquil Tai Chi garden and we hiked the Nanyan Palace trail, an architectural cliff wonder. A sedan chair was for hire, for those who needed assistance; we politely declined and took on the challenge. Our boys bolted up the steep staircases that soared up to pavilions and pathways, which were flanked by cypress trees. We discovered a 750-year old ginkgo tree covered in red ribbon – a ritual done by Taoists to evoke good fortune.
Eventually we gathered with a few of Shifu’s students at the incense filled seventh century Nanyan Taichang Temple and performed Shifu’s form – an ethereal experience. It was as if we were in a Kung Fu film scene with the ancient red temple walls, a cloudless blue sky, with all of us gliding through Shifu’s form in our black and white Tai Chi vestments.
At our final early morning session, Shifu performed a jian (one-handed sword) form for us. Shifu’s mastery was like a wind-blown maple tree – all the leaf-bloomed branches swirled about while the trunk was stable, steady and strong.
Late morning, we bused to the Golden Temple gondola, where we explored the highest point in Wudangshan, over 1600 meters. At the top is the largest Chinese temple gilded in gold, built over 600 years ago during the Yongle period of the Ming Dynasty. This was the Ming Dynasty’s spiritual contribution to central bucolic China. It mimicked Beijing’s Forbidden City, with its vast red-walled courtyards covered in dragon and other mythical garniture tiles. As we exited, we passed vendors selling herbs and remedies. Chinese medicine is another ancient tradition pioneered by early Taoists.
The park bus dropped us near Shifu’s home and school, where he hosted us with his wife and daughter. Tea was served in the garden, and we toured the property filled with butterflies, cosmos, aubergine, chives and tea shrubs. He was especially proud of the new living quarters for his students. A trail ran on the periphery of his property that led us to Sword River, part of the Xiaoyao Valley where the most recent Karate Kid was filmed. Black swans and a rhesus monkey were our only company.
A delicious farewell dinner of fish hot pot, green bean, beef, and mushroom dishes as well as a goji berry soup was prepared for us at the Original Mountain Villa 33, a small inn and restaurant. We ate in an intimate dining area surrounded by breathtaking views of the Wudang peaks and forest. We wondered if we should have stayed here or even at Shifu’s school, but realized that without a car (only locals are permitted to drive in the park) the Tai Chi Hotel had been the best choice for us.
The boys had an evening calligraphy class back at our hotel. Shifu drove us in his car for our final goodbye. The juxtaposition of a Tai Chi master driving a vehicle seemed like an anachronism after our week with him.
Calligraphy is an art that goes hand-in-hand with Tai Chi. Practice, precision and a peaceful mind are the key elements to its mastery. While the boys experienced shufa with ink brushes and rice paper, Caicai played the guqin that vibrated into the crescent moon night. Wudangshan’s Taoist way echoed in a harmonious splendor – doing by not doing.
By Cathy Fedoruk. This article originally appeared on kungfumagazine.com