Q: Was Zhang Sanfeng a real person?
A: Zhang Sanfeng is known as a legendary Daoist from several sources spread over 500 years.
The earliest written source is from the gazetteer of the Taihe Mountain (the old name for Wudang Mountain), Dayue Taiheshan Zhi 大嶽太和山志, from around 1400 C.E.
Wong Shiu-Hon presents his academic research about Zhang Sanfeng in the book Mortal or Immortal: A Study of Chang San-feng the Taoist from 1993. Wong concludes that Zhang was probably born in the Yuanyou period (1314-1320) at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and died in the beginning of the Ming Dynasty probably in 1417. It was recorded that both the Ming emperors Tai Zu 太祖 and Cheng Zu 成祖 made an effort to seek him out because of his reputation – both attempts were unsuccessful.
Zhang Sanfeng was said to teach boxing in the biography of Zhang Songxi written in 1734 (ca. 1520-ca. 1590).
Zhang Sanfeng’s biography in the history of the Ming dynasty did not mention him as a boxer, nor did any other historical source from the 18th or 19th centuries apart from three, related, texts where Zhang Sanfeng is mentioned to be a boxer: One was in the biography of Zhang Songxi, another was Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan from 1669, the last was by Wang Zhengnan called Neijiaquan Fa 內家拳法 The Method of Internal Boxing. (All three texts are translated by Douglas Wile in T’ai Chi’s Ancestors).
Zhang Sanfeng is not known to have founded any formal school or temple, but no less than 17 sects have taken him as their legendary founder. The first of these was the Yinxian 隱仙 sect who was founded around 1840. Wong Shiu-hon writes that a list of these sects was kept at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing, this was also stated in Tung Ying-Chieh’s Tai Chi book from 1948.
There is, I believe, enough historical material to conclude that Zhang Sanfeng was a real person. However, the accounts of his life are very old and obviously a mix of reality and legend. The fact that many sects were founded in his name long after he lived clearly indicates that he was simply taken as a legendary founder of Tai Chi. We actually don’t know where this notion arose. It was simply stated in Xu Yusheng’s book from 1921 and repeated over and over ever since.