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The Warriors of Wudang Mountain: Martial Arts’ Spirit Through Music

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Written by Cheetahara
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The Warriors of Wudang Mountain
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Nestled in the Hubei Province of China, Wudang Mountain is a majestic natural wonder and a cornerstone of spiritual and martial history, deeply rooted in Taoist traditions. This revered and serene site, shrouded in a mystical aura, is renowned as the birthplace of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art form. Tai Chi beautifully encapsulates the Taoist philosophy of harmony and balance, making it famous for its graceful, flowing movements that mirror the natural rhythms of life.

The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra, through its musical composition “The Warriors of Wudang Mountain,” composed by the artistic director D.F. and conducted by Milen Nachev, invites listeners on a symphonic journey into the heart of this spiritual and cultural heritage. The music transcends mere melody to become a narrative, portraying the essence of Wudang’s Taoist monasteries, its martial arts, and the profound principles of Tai Chi.

In the following sections, we will explore how Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra has managed to encapsulate the essence of Wudang’s spiritual and martial legacy and how the principles of Tai Chi flow through the music, creating a symphony that is as enlightening as it is enchanting. But before we embark on this exploration, it’s crucial to understand the foundation upon which this musical masterpiece is built.

Wudang Mountain: The Taoist Sanctuary and the Birthplace of Tai Chi

Wudang Mountain, often shrouded in mist and imbued with an air of mystery, has been a sacred Taoist site for centuries. It is home to an array of temples and monasteries and a haven where Taoist priests have practiced meditation, martial arts, and other disciplines that promote self-cultivation and enlightenment.

Mount Wudang is the ancient cradle of numerous temples and monasteries where Daoist priests engage in spiritual practices (Photo: Wikimedia).
Mount Wudang is the ancient cradle of numerous temples and monasteries where Daoist priests engage in spiritual practices (Photo: Wikimedia).

Wudang Mountain, steeped in rich cultural and historical heritage, proudly stands as the birthplace of Tai Chi, one of the world’s major martial arts disciplines. More than just a form of physical exercise, it is a path of cultivation following the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, demonstrating how opposing forces can coexist in balance and harmony. Often described as meditation in motion, Tai Chi stands out in the martial arts world for its slow, deliberate movements that flow smoothly into one another, creating a fluid dance that balances strength and serenity.

Tai Chi embodies Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, achieving balanced harmony through its slow, fluid movements (Photo: Wudang Tai Chi).
Tai Chi embodies the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, achieving balanced harmony through its slow, fluid movements (Photo: Wudang Tai Chi).

A pivotal figure in the history of Tai Chi and Wudang martial arts is the legendary Zhang Sanfeng. Revered as a Taoist sage, Zhang Sanfeng is also renowned for his erudition and profound knowledge across various fields, as well as his proficiency in many martial arts. Born in the twelfth century during the Southern Song Dynasty, Zhang Sanfeng is believed to have lived beyond the age of 130. About the exact moment of his departure from the mortal world remains an enigma, with legends suggesting he attained immortality through his spiritual journey. Celebrated as the creator and pivotal developer of Tai Chi, his influence remains integral to the martial art’s practice and philosophy.

The statue of Zhang Sanfeng is located at Wudang Mountain (Photo: Shen Yun).
The statue of Zhang Sanfeng is located at Wudang Mountain (Photo: Shen Yun).

His teachings emphasize the soft overcoming of the hard, internal power over external force, and the importance of a serene mind and harmonious qi (life energy). The movements are designed to promote the flow of qi through the body, enhancing health and vitality. Practicing Tai Chi, especially in the serene environment of Wudang Mountain, allows one to connect deeply with nature and the Tao, fostering a profound sense of tranquility and spiritual well-being.

When delving deeply into “The Warriors of Wudang Mountain,” we immerse ourselves in an outstanding musical performance that draws upon the values of this ancient heritage. At the same time, it stirs a deep sense of inspiration with the enduring ethos of honor and justice that resonates throughout the composition.

The Symphony’s Opening: A Gateway to Ancient Wudang

The symphony begins with a solemn gong sound like a summoning of the ancient spirits guarding the mystical Taoist temples within these mountains. The gong’s overtones echo throughout the orchestra, awakening each section and creating a flow of energy that seems to spread from left to right across the stage.

The first to respond to this call is the French horn, whose notes emerge like the first rays of dawn, piercing through the morning mist of Wudang. Following this, the flute and bassoon interweave their melodies, creating a soundscape reminiscent of birdsong. The blending of these sounds welcomes listeners into the secluded world, where legendary tales of Wudang’s martial heroes are hidden.

Echoes of Wudang’s Philosophy in Musical Form

Simultaneously, the subtle yet distinct sound of woodblocks can be heard, replicating the tapping of a Chinese temple block, commonly known as the ‘wooden fish.’ This inclusion is a nod to the meditative aspect integral to Wudang martial arts. The appearance of the woodblocks is more than just a distinctive touch to this musical scene; it signifies the recognition that the path to becoming a Wudang warrior transcends mere physical prowess, demanding profound spiritual development as well.

In Wudang martial arts, every movement, though externally soft and fluid, is powered by an immense internal force. This juxtaposition of softness with strength, stillness with motion, and external fluidity with internal solidity is a living embodiment of the Taoist principles that underpin the Wudang philosophy. This duality is not about opposing forces but rather about complementary elements coexisting and enhancing each other.

The sound of the wooden fish, therefore, serves as a metaphor for the rhythmic discipline of martial training and the meditative focus required to master this art.

A Dance of Yin and Yang: Staccato and Legato

((0:45)) The tempo picks up, signaling a transition to a more agile and dynamic phase. The strings, with their swift staccato rhythms, reminiscent of the martial artists’ agile steps and strikes.

Immediately, the brass and woodwinds interject with legato background sounds, creating a counterpoint that contrasts yet complements the strings.

The piece also includes erhus and pipas, traditional Chinese instruments, which add a layer of historical depth and timeless resonance to the composition. They play in harmony with the legato sounds, weaving through the staccato melody. These instruments, with their unique timbres, evoke a sense of ancient mystery intertwined with Wudang’s history, which is steeped in Taoist wisdom, echoing the tales of Daoist sages and legendary figures who have walked these mountains.

At ((0:57)), the music takes a turn as the strings and woodwinds/brass switch roles. The strings now assume the role of the legato melody while the woodwinds and brass punctuate the background with staccato rhythms. This switch creates a two-dimensional musical effect akin to the rotating yin and yang symbol in Taoism, which signifies balance and duality in all aspects of life. The legato, with its smooth, flowing melodies, embodies yin – the subtle, soft, and introspective element. In contrast, the quick, decisive staccato sounds represent yang – the active, strength, and outward expression of energy.

And we all notice that the cadences here tend to point upward, rising like wings carrying pure and inspired tones. This upward movement can be likened to the spiritual journey of the Wudang warriors as they strive to master martial arts and cultivate their inner selves. It can also be interpreted as the physical agility of Wudang warriors during their training, where they leap and flip through the air.

The Cellos’ Passionate Melody and Harmonious Counterpoints

At ((1:24)), the cellos take center stage with a legato melody, illustrating the seamless, flowing nature of these movements. The cellists in this section deliver their performance with intense passion and zeal, showcasing the warriors’ journey of relentless dedication to honing their skills through rigorous practice over many days. Yet, hidden within this fluidity is strength and flexibility, much like the staccato background that suggests a potent force.

The cellos’ rich, warm tones, with their sweeping legato, run parallel to a staccato background, creating a musical metaphor for the balance between the external display of physical prowess and the internal cultivation of energy and strength.

Moving forward to ((1:49)), the composition continues to emphasize the seamless interplay between the trombone and the strings. The trombone plays a counterpoint that is smooth and harmonious, weaving through the strings’ melody with an effortless grace. And then, very naturally, the two melodies merge into one before entering the highlight of the work, setting the stage for the climactic moments to follow.

The Highlighting: Voicing Wudang Warriors’ Pride and Strength in Music

At ((2:13)), the piece reaches a pivotal moment that ascends to an emotional zenith, unveiling the Wudang warrior’s power and pride in a grand and stirring display. This segment stands out for how it encapsulates the heroic spirit deeply embedded in the martial arts traditions of Wudang.

This is also my favorite part, as it’s fascinating to rewind and immerse myself in the thrilling moments of an epic martial arts saga, where the main character – a noble disciple of Wudang – shines brilliantly, inspiring awe and admiration. Just like the skilled musicians on the stage make us admire and want to become one of them, they bring to life this saga with such mastery that one cannot help but be drawn into the fantasy, aspiring to embody the strength and spirit of these martial artists.

To truly capture the essence of this breathtaking moment, enter the performance “Tai Chi Flow” where you’ll witness the martial arts spirit vividly reenacted on the Shen Yun stage. The dancers showcase fluid motions and athletic prowess, encapsulating this martial art’s blend of outer elegance and inner force. Each leap and flip performed by the dancers, seemingly defied gravity, captivating the audience and leaving them in awe with a relentless and seamless display that spanned the entire stage.

I feel that the music here is like the voice of a Wudang warrior, resonating with pride for their sect and the arduous journey of cultivation they have undertaken. This goes beyond simply improvement of martial arts techniques; it’s a profound path of soul cultivation and refinement that guides one towards a heightened state of enlightenment. When conveyed through music, it becomes a type of music imbued with pride and enthusiasm, capturing the essence of a warrior’s spirit.

In this segment, the staccato melody of the strings takes on a new life, becoming quicker, more decisive, and powerfully expressive. Yet, it still maintains a harmonious balance with the earnest, legato background provided by the woodwinds and brass.

And at ((2:35)), the role changes again. By ((2:40)), the staccato returns to the strings, leading the piece forward as the volume dips, only to gather momentum for another climactic build-up.

The Crescendo of Yin and Yang

At the pivotal moment of ((2:53)), the melody reaches the sublimation, where both the staccato and legato elements blend seamlessly to form a flowing musical like a stream meandering through the mystical cliffs of the Wudang Mountains.

The way the melody unfolds at this moment is reminiscent of a compressed spring finally being let loose. It mirrors the feeling of intenseness in a set of strings that have been gathering energy, stretched to their utmost, and then suddenly breaking free, creating a new stream of sound that is both liberating and deeply fulfilling. This creates a space for the listener’s emotions to expand and find resolution.

The legato melody, rich and prominent, is continuously complemented by a clean, precise staccato background, creating a harmonious interplay that is both dynamic and serene. Throughout the work, there is a consistent emphasis on the interplay between fast, robust strings and the steady, grounding support of woodwinds and brass, and vice versa. Their roles interchange in the cycle, mirroring the dynamic flow of the Tai Chi symbol, a fundamental symbol of Taoism, where yin and yang—opposite yet mutually enriching elements. Again, the vigorous and intense staccato represents yang, while the gentle and steady legato embodies yin.

Throughout the symphony, a series of harmonious counterpoints are showcased, as observed in ((1:02)), ((1:43)), and ((2:07)). In these segments, you can clearly see the playing style on both sides of the conductor. Although they may seem to be at odds, the music blends together wonderfully. And this happened throughout the performance in that way, creating a unique and standout style for this piece. This provides us with an overview of the skilled and professional transmission of the musicians under the masterful guidance of the conductor, along with the incredible creative prowess of the Shen Yun composers. It also applauds their capacity for thought and in-depth exploration of ideas to create works that are not only comprehensive in terms of sight and sound but also offer profound values to their audience. And we, through contemplation and repeated listening, will discover more interesting details intricately woven into the pieces.

The Grand Finale: Orchestral Forces Unite

As we approach ((3:11)), the composition returns to the tonic, where every emotion and melody finds its way back to the main source. The finale of the piece is marked by a significant build-up in volume, a crescendo that brings together all the instrumental forces of the orchestra.

A technique employed in this finale is the use of tremolo on the strings. This method, involving the rapid repetition of a single note, creates a sustained, resonating effect that maintains the piece’s excitement and intensity. The resonant sound of tremolo is not only the vibration in music but also the echo of Wudang’s ancient wisdom, stretching from the past to the present.

For those eager to immerse themselves in the world of Shen Yun, their compositions, including this gem, can be streamed online via Shen Yun Creations (Shen Yun Zuo Pin).

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Visiting the Shen Yun showroom profoundly changed my perception of traditional art's deep value, distinctly different from familiar modern pieces. This inspired me to integrate this elegant, classical style into my life, observing positive shifts in myself and my loved ones. Professionally, I value the creative process, learning from ancient artisans' patience and precision to create meaningful, quality results. Aspiring to share these traditional values, I hope we can find balance and virtue in modern chaos through the precious spiritual teachings of traditional culture and art.