From the Heartland of the Dragon


From the Heartland of the Dragon: The Classical Teachings of Yuanming Zhang

by Heiner Fruehauf, Ph.D.

Tianfu: Home of the Dragon. I had first come to Sichuan Province in the spring of 1983, searching for one of the last traditional enclaves on the Chinese mainland. I strolled through the narrow alleys of the provincial capi­tal, Chengdu, smelling the pungent aroma that emanated from its herb and spice stores, and spending long afternoons in tra­ditional tea shops filled with storytellers and an audience of wild-looking herds­. men. Chengdu, historical hideout for be­sieged emperors, had been made acces­sible to the outside world by railway only in the late 1950s, and was worlds apart from the urban bustle of Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Beijing.

In 1990, I had come back to immerse myself in the rich fabric of traditional Chi­nese culture. At first, I was terribly disil­lusioned to find that most of the wooden atrium houses had been replaced by the cement plate housing complexes which cause many of China’s cities to look alike. A dusty ring road circled the town where, the old city walls had once stood. My fa­vorite tea shop had burned to the ground, and was now filled with the cold glare of neon lights and the barter of pool tables. But the herb shops were still there, and so were the people who kept the traditions alive: masters of medicine, qigong, poetry, music, and martial arts. I just needed to find them.

A New Acquaintance

About six months into my post-doctoral studies at Chengdu College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I was perusing some qigong books at a local bookstore. A short­haired young man wearing a tie ap­proached me and invited me to his home. I hesitated at first, but something about his assured manner made me agree to take the 15-mile journey to his countryside home. When we arrived at our destination, I be­gan to understand that my boyish looking companion was indeed someone very spe­cial. His abode was filled with esoteric cal­ligraphy, ritual swords, and ancient musi­cal instruments. His name was Yuanming Zhang, the bright offspring of a local mar­tial arts family, and China’s youngest grandmaster in the field of traditional en­ergy work. When he invited me to partici­pate in a mountain retreat, I felt a pang of excitement. Wasn’t that exactly why I had originally come back to China?

I learned more about my host when I arrived at the Zen Buddhist nunnery at the outer regions of Mt. Qingcheng, the cradle of Chinese Taoism. Some of the old nuns told me that Master Zhang’s great-grand­ father had been trained by the legendary hermit Yinyi since the age of three, and had been the martial arts and calligraphy teacher of former Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek. Today, I cherish the mo­ments when Yuanming Zhang is in a par­ticularly buoyant mood, and lets his audi­ence glimpse his training at the Swallow Cliff Cave: the ritual 49-day purification fasts, feasting on the. lights of the moon and the stars, and sleep that was turned into active meditation by balancing on a bamboo pole.

Much of the tradition that I had feared lost was combined in Yuanming Zhang.

Traditional Legacy

Master Zhang’s main teacher, the her­mit Yinyi, had been the last disciple of Master Panlong, a Taoist mountain man who had synthesized the secret teachings of many Chinese energy schools, such as High Level Fire Dragon Qigong (huolong shengong), Hermit’s Sword (jianxian gong), Bagua Circle Qigong (tagang budou), and a variety of other esoteric techniques. Once his education at Mt. Qingcheng had been completed, Zhang traveled to most of China’s other holy mountains, to teach and seek apprentice­ship with other schools’ masters. After 20 years of intensive practice, he had become the eighth generation lineage holder of Chinese Dragon Qigong, the seventh gen­eration lineage holder of Mt. Emei Qigong, an 18th generation master of Mt. Wudang’s Longmen School, a fourth gen­eration master of Bagua Palm, and a sixth generation master of Hebei Xingyi Fist.

Due to this background, Zhang’s teach­ings now incorporate a rich mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Scholar’s Qigong. His work features an unusually wide range of traditional practices, including ritual fasting, sword dances, and therapeutic calligraphy. Through the Tibetan influence within his lineage, he shows an advanced understanding of the various applications of mantras and mantras in meditation and other aspects of daily practice.

Despite these highly esoteric roots, Zhang has chosen to leave the mountain path and bring the essence of the cave teachings to the parks and assembly lines of modem China. Since he first began teaching in 1988, he has personally in­structed more than 100,000 Chinese stu­dents. On the few occasions that I trav­eled with him to week-long seminars at universities, hospitals or factories, I ob­served him rekindle the long-extinguished flame of cultural self-esteem. This was one of the most important tasks to accomplish in modem China-to show a generation of gray, sick, and futureless people that paradise is a far cry from the technical wonders of the Western world, and that happiness and prosperity could be found right here at home, in the rich Chinese tra­dition.

Further Study

In order to convince the skeptics and further qigong’s development, Yuanming Zhang has also submitted himself to close scientific scrutiny. When hooked up to sensitive measuring devices during exter­nal qi emission, researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University detected a con­centration of en­ergetic particles that was three times as high as regularly present in nature. Lab technicians at Xian’s North­west University observed signifi­cant changes in a chemical target solution when he emitted external qi thousands of miles away in Shang­hai.

Since manifestations of qi can now be measured with scientific instruments, the Chinese government has gradually come to reverse its stance that qigong is com­prised by “superstitious practices from feudal times”, and cautiously begun to endorse it as a precious national heritage. As a result, Yuanming Zhang has been in­vited by the National Ministry of Health to train modem physicians in the art of medical qigong and qigong massage.

American Influence

Yuanming Zhang then brought the tra­ditional essence of Chinese energy work to the United States. Since 1992, he has given extensive workshops in such places as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, lectur­ing at educational and research organizations including the United Nations’ Qigong Society, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Reed College, Na­tional College of Naturopathic Medicine, and the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care. His Ameri­can students range from the merely curi­ous, to advanced martial artists, medical doctors, massage therapists, and various alternative health care professionals. He particularly wants to bring qigong to people with difficult and recalcitrant dis­eases, and recently he designed a specific set of qigong exercises for people suffer­ing’ from immune-related disorders.

Presently, Master Zhang is making plans to build two retreat centers for international Yuanming qigong practitioners and connoisseurs of traditional Chinese culture. Construction has already begun in the secluded forests of Mt. Qingcheng, close to the hermitage of his own master, and close to the Buddhist and Taoist temples where he spent a good part of his youth. The center will serve as a retreat for people interested in studying and prac­ticing qigong in the heartland of traditional Chinese culture. He is also planning to build a North American center in the mountains of Oregon, which remind him of the wooded terrain of his na­tive Sichuan.

The Sichuan center, in par­ticular, endeav­ors to create a forum for the en­dangered tradi­tional arts and their dwindling number of mas­ters. Chinese medicine, mar­tial arts, calligra­phy, and string music will be taught here as different mo­dalities of Chinese energy work. Special emphasis will be placed on developing a master style curriculum promoting the­ classical aspects of the Chinese healing arts.

Through such teaching, China’s cultural traditions will not be lost, but will con­tinue to be learned, and carried on through future generations.

About the author: Heiner Fruehauf has researched Chinese culture at universities in Germany, China, Japan, and the United States for 15 years. In 1990, he earned a Ph.D. in East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.