Southern China is the spiritual home of martial arts. BRANDON ZATT heads up the dense trail to the ethereal surroundings of Wudang Mountain to the birthplace of Tai Chi.

Wudang’s Golden Summit was built on blood. When first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang died, he left the throne to his son. His brother Zhu Yi objected, murdered his nephew and seized the reigns. He then thanked the gods by building Beijing’s Forbidden City in the north and Wudang’s Golden Summit and Purple Cloud Temple in the south.

The pilgrims’ route dates back to the Ming period. Forest coverage thickens as the path launches into a dizzying ascent. Cresting a 500-step staircase, Wudang’s panorama finally opens up – the summit towers above as we ride outwards in waves and blend into the sky.

Entering the monastic fortress, a path tunnels through the rock, linking bell towers and temple halls as it winds its way to the top. Crowning the summit is the Golden Hall, built entirely of gilded copper in 1416. As the sun sets, the hall takes on a burnished hue. It is the pre-eminent Taoist site, drawing monks who seek mystic experience and the secrets of longevity on its rocky slopes.

Wudang became a prime point for the southern school of Chinese kung fu. Nurturing the ‘soft’ kung fu tradition, based on internal rather than external energy, Wudang claims the birthright of T’ai Chi.

By the time prayers start, the peak is teeming with yellow-clad pilgrims. Expounding on Taoism, monk Zhao divulges that while cultivating good health and spiritual strength may not make you immortal, it can prolong life and lead to more fulfilling days.

Legend has it that 14th century monk Zhang San Feng invented T’ai Chi on Wudang after watching a large bird attack a snake. The snake, using soft, flowing movements, evaded the bird’s hard, direct lunges until the bird gave up. Using similar principles of borrowing and redirecting an opponent’s energy, T’ai Chi is enhanced through practicing the Tao.

Wudang is still a sacred place for Chinese kung fu but spiritual teachings are fading fast. All martial arts have spiritual foundations,” academy master Wang says. “The monks atop the mountain keep T’ai Chi behind closed doors to preserve theirs. They’re afraid that if they make it a show for tourists, it will become like Shaolin – just a show.”

Before dawn at the Purple Cloud Temple, Wang puts his students through the paces. In the darkness their white, spectral robes snap like tearing silk. Then Wang, in flowing black robes, his hair in a topknot, demonstrates the 18-step San Feng Tai Chi. With grace and intensity, he sculpts the air, pausing to strike a pose and bring his creation to life.

Like archaeological finds, Wudang’s distant past must be excavated with care. A long and arduous path leads to its oldest and least visited site, Five Dragon Temple. Rao, one of few qualified local guides, turns off the main road onto a winding dirt path. Both my parents died when I was a boy,” Rao says. “We were all starving so I started working for a gun factory. But when the government shut us down, I returned to Wudang to hunt. We hunted wildcat, boar, even bear. That’s why I know these trails so well.”

When Wudang became a Unesco World Heritage site, hunting was outlawed. With no education, there was little else for Rao. He became a porter, carrying people up and down the mountain in sedan chairs. No wonder Rao seems so proud to guide; being a porter is grunt work but as a guide, his knowledge of the forest, familiarity with Wudang’s culture and network of friends all shine.

Along the trail, weeds attack the shrines. Though the Golden Summit replaced Five Dragon Temple as the main place of pilgrimage centuries ago, the Cultural Revolution sent it to oblivion. At first, people were discouraged from going. Then, as generations passed and the trail grew over, they forgot the way.

Little remains of the once great Five Dragons Temple. There are two giant cracked stone gates, three crumbling walls, and a large red shrine. Grass pushes up through the cracked flagstones. There are no gift shops, no photo booths and nothing to detract from its wasted beauty.

Small farms radiate outwards, orbiting the ruin. Above the temple is a small farmhouse, and its grounds ramble alongside a ridge. It belongs to Rao’s friend Du, who, along with the resident monks, has looked after the temple for generations.

As night falls, temple bells ring and the monks begin to chant. A timeless peace falls over the nearly-deserted site, calling to mind the ancient mysteries Wudang is so richly imbued with. Far off the tourist trail, the 10 men and women who live there may be the guardians of the Wudang way.

• Visiting Wudang these days is obviously much easier than it was for pilgrims of old. Wudang Mountain is located in north- western Hubei Province in Central China. The nearest airport is in Shi Yan, about a 30-minute taxi ride from the foot of the mountain. There are direct flights from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Shi Yan. From Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei province, train T373 leaves Wuhan, Wuchang Station at 8.05am and takes five hours direct to Wudang Mountain (known in Chinese as Wudang Shan), and leaves you 1km from the base of the mountain. Chinese train schedules are subject to slight adjustments every six months.

• Each season in Wudang will offer something unique, though spring and autumn generally tend to be the most desirable times to visit. Traditional festivals are celebrated on the third day of the third month, and the ninth day of the ninth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

• For basic background information and useful tourist information on kung fu, see is sponsored by the local tourism bureau and provides some good information, though it can be a bit cryptic and self-serving.

Ming Dynasty
The Ming reigned in China from 1368-1644 and were considered a return to traditional Chinese culture following several hundred years of administration by the descendants of Genghis Khan and the Yuan Dynasty. The great temple complex on Wudang’s summit and the pantheon of temples mid-mountain were built in the years from 1413-1417 by Zhu.”