How It All Began
If you have ever watched a Kung Fu movie, you will have seen organized martial arts fighting in the most fundamental and truest style of fighting. The movie may be fiction, but the organized fight scene is a re-enactment of real events that occurred on a regular basis throughout the lands.
At the beginning of the 20th century, in the town of Lục, located in the Southern Province of Vietnam, there were many scheduled organized freestyle martial arts competitions where prizes were offered to the winners and the crowd would place bets on who they thought would win.
It attracted large crowds that enjoyed a good martial arts competition, and it attracted the fighters, not just for the large monetary prize but also to become famous and to establish themselves as masters of their sect of martial art.
At one such competition, there was an unknown stranger who emerged from the mountains specifically to join the martial arts competition. He called himself Hoàng Bá.
It so happened that his opponent was a large brawny Laotian fighter––a worthy opponent.
As soon as Hoàng Bá entered the ring, the Laotian fighter launched into him and throwing a kick to Hoàng Bá‘s chest. He was thrown clear across the ring.
For a moment, he was motionless. Everyone thought he had died.
Suddenly, Hoàng Bá stood up. Everyone stared in amazement. He looked like a different man!
His face was red. His eyes were red. His hair stood up in wild spikes.
He began weaving and rolling his body towards the Laotian fighter as if he was possessed by some demon, his mouth mumbling incessantly a torrent of strange unintelligible incantations.
Suddenly, Hoàng Bá lunged at the Laotian fighter, wildly beating him with enraged fists and legs, heedless of the opponent’s moves.
The Laotian fighter tried to defend himself but the blows landed everywhere and there was no way for him to block the hits.
All of a sudden, Hoàng Bá launched a forceful kick to the opponent’s face, causing a horrible cracking sound––that of the Laotian’s jaw bone breaking into pieces.
The force of the kick threw the man high into the air and he landed with a thud some distance away.
From that point forward, a sect of martial art that would eventually be known as Thất Sơn Thần Quyền was finally revealed. I say ‘revealed’ because this martial art was not a new form of martial arts, even at that time. It is ancient.
Well, before I get to the martial art itself, let me explain the geographic region known as Thất Sơn that Master Hoàng Bá emerged from, because it is the base that sets everything up.
The Seven Taoist Mountains
The Vietnamese have an old saying: “Tu Phật núi Yên, tu tiên Bảy Núi.” (Cultivate Buddhism on Mount Yên, Cultivate Taoism on Seven Mountains). That’s because this is where the vast majority of Vietnamese Taoists retreated to. There are even traces of Lao Tzu.
This points to the fact that seven of the Seven Mountains had been known throughout the ages as a place where Taoists congregated to learn the Tao from masters.
The name Thất Sơn Thần Quyền means ‘Fighting Style of the (Taoist) Gods from the Seven Mountains‘. I will start with the Seven Mountains (Thất Sơn) and explain the importance of this geographic area before I move onto the Fighting Style of the Gods (Thần Quyền).
Thất Sơn is the common name of the entire southwestern mountainous region bordering Cambodia. Although it means Seven Mountains, the range comprises of around 40 individual mountains.
The ‘Seven Mountains’ denoted by this name is not just any random seven mountains of the huge mountain range. It is the seven holy mountains of Châu Đốc, a city in An Giang Province.
The mountain range borders Cambodia, rising up within the fingers of the Mekong Delta. This is an ancient place where heaven and earth meet, and many mysterious things have happened (and continue to happen) that defy explanation.
Núi Cấm (Forbidden Mountain)
Núi Cấm (禁山) means Forbidden Mountain. It is also known as Thiên Cấm Sơn which is the ancient classical script that basically means the same thing: Heavenly Forbidden Mountain.
But it wasn’t always known as the Forbidden Mountain. It was once known as Đoài Tốn.
As an enthusiastic student of the I Ching, I immediately recognized the name as two specific trigrams. Đoài ( ☱ ) means joyous lake. Tốn ( ☴) means gentle wind. Put it together and what do you get?
Hexagram 28 Đoài Tốn (Ta Kuo):
Preponderance of the Great.
Above: Đoài the joyous, lake.
Below: Tốn the gentle wind, wood.
The ridgepole sags to the breaking point.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.
The lake rises above the trees:
The image of PREPONDERANCE OF THE GREAT.
Thus the superior man, when he stands alone,
And if he has to renounce the world,
He is undaunted.
If I had to hazard a guess, this had to have been a I Ching derived divination. I cannot see it as some ancient sage simply pulling the two hexagrams out of a hat and calling an entire mountain #28 Preponderance of the Great just because it sounded cool.
Unfortunately, since I was not present at the time the divination was cast, I have no idea what the question was, or more importantly, what lines showed up. If I knew, I would have a much clearer understanding of what the divination says.
What I do have, however, is hindsight, which is always better than foresight.
Looking back, I see a group of martial arts masters (or one master with his disciples) retreating from some major political defeat that was too great for them to overcome. They are renouncing the world and have located ‘somewhere to go’ in order to ‘stand alone’ and retreat from the chaotic world.
It would be to these mountains, where they retreated to––their last stand, when foreign forces began to invade and take over the lands.
As history details, this is exactly what happened.
Núi Dài Năm Giếng (Elongated Five Wells Mountain)
Núi Dài Năm Giếng (Ngũ Hồ Sơn) means The Long Mountain with Five Wells. When I first heard that name, I thought to myself…why would anyone care that five wells were dug into the mountain to extract ground water?
To my surprise, that’s not what the word ‘well’ means in this instance. As you can see from the photo, these are five ‘natural‘ water holes within a large rock formation.
The wells are roughly 4.5 to 5 feet in depth. Due to fissures or cracks within the structure, there is a constant supply of fresh water to these holes, even during the hottest months when rainfall is sparse.
I italicized the word ‘natural‘ because ancient legends say that these five water holes were created by Lao Tzu himself, using some mystical powers from his own hands. While I am dubious of this claim, it nevertheless seems to be a very interesting rock formation.
After the wells were created, there were sky deities who would often descend from the sky to bathe and to use the water. They also spoke of five lotus flowers which sprang from the lip of the wells (shower heads?) and five beasts that guarded each water hole (privacy screens for the bathers?)
I don’t know. Every time I hear about some legend of people coming down from the skies, my first instinct is to re-image them as extra-terrestrials who landed and created useful formations for their own use.
There is one other odd fact about this mountain. Fruit trees grow in abundance, everywhere on this mountain. They constantly bear fruit, all year round, and in excellent condition despite the fact that no one tends to them. It’s as if this was once an orchard of the gods.
Maybe it was…
Núi Cô Tô (Phnom-Ktô Mountain)
Núi Cô Tô (Phụng Hoàng Sơn) – Phnom-Ktô is an ancient Khmer name because this mountain sits right on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. ‘Phnom‘ means ‘hill’. As for ‘Kto‘, I have no idea what it means in Khmer, but I do know what Phụng Hoàng Sơn means: Red Bird Mountain.
But Phụng Hoàng isn’t just any ordinary bird, it is an Asian phoenix (without all the dying-and-reborn-in-fire connotation because it is immortal and doesn’t die).
The reason for calling this mountain Asian Phoenix isn’t all that mystical. It’s merely because, from afar, it looks as if a bird is spreading its huge wings across the mountainside.
Personally, it looks more to me like an elephant stepping out of the mountainside. There is even a natural formation in the rock that looks like the eye of the elephant. But there is already an Elephant Mountain, so this one will simply have to remain Cô Tô Mountain.
What is, perhaps more important are the ‘footprints’ found on this mountain. All are huge prints. If a person made them, the person would be two or three times the size of an average human being.
This shoe pattern, sunk 3mm deep into solid granite, is about seven times the size of a normal shoe. The people say it was made by giant deities who descended from the heavens.
It’s not the only shoe print. There are others in and around the area of the Seven Mountains.
Núi Dài (Long Mountain)
Núi Dài (Ngọa Long Sơn) means Reclining Dragon Mountain. Of the Seven Mountains, This is the longest, steepest, wildest, most difficult mountain to scale.
There are many thick bamboo forests, many large waterfalls, and a large number of wild and dangerous beasts that still live within this mountain.
Other than the mountain people who live and work their fruit farms on the cliff-sides, there is not much in the way of tourism since it has not yet been developed and modernized.
As for Taoist points of interest, until there is better access, I cannot provide much more information than what I’ve been able to glean from various sources. Still, lots of amazing rock formations and strange mounds here.
Núi Tượng (Elephant Mountain)
Núi Tượng (象山) (Liên Hoa Sơn) – This entire mountain looks like an elephant from a distance, but more interestingly, there is a boulder that looks very much like an elephant; hence the name.
Of particular note is the town of Ba Chúc. I had detailed a certain event that occurred within this town in one of my previous posts, The Ba Chúc Massacre Tree.
That post focused on the tree where the massacre occurred; however, the towns people had fled to several nearby caves on Elephant Mountain (Dồ Đá Dựng Cave, Cây Da Cave, Ba Lê Cave, Tám Ất Cave) to hide from the Khmer. Unfortunately, they were found and massacred to the last person.
For more details about the massacre, please refer to the Ba Chúc Massacre Tree post.
Núi Két (Parrot Mountain)
Núi Két (Anh Vũ Sơn) – Unlike Elephant Mountain, Parrot Mountain does not look like a parrot when viewed from afar. However, like Elephant Mountain, it does have a rock formation near the summit that looks like a parrot.
Looking at an image of the parrot rock formation, I can see why, at certain angles, it would be called Parrot Mountain.
This mountain is significant because it was the birthplace of a Buddhist sect called Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương.
It is an interesting sect, which combines much of the basic tenets of Buddhism, alongside with the more traditional Ancestral Worship that the Vietnamese were already practicing.
There are several other noteworthy temples on this mountain which houses thần Thành hoàng (the Golden Temple deity), Thần Nông (Shennong), and various Enlightened Buddhas.
More on this in a future posting.
Núi Nước (Water Mountain)
Núi Nước (Thủy Đài Sơn), aka Water Mountain is the smallest of the Seven Mountains. At 54 meters high, with a circumference of a mere 1,070 meters, it is far smaller than most of the other 40-odd mountains within the Seven Mountain Range, but it was included with the Seven Mountains for one important reason.
There is a Dragon Vein on Water Mountain
One legend of note is that of Cao Biền (Gāo Pián, 高駢). He was a military general for the Chinese Tang dynasty, as well as the Prince of Bohai (渤海王). He was also the mandarin who governed Giao Chỉ.
Aside from his lofty titles, of higher interest (to me, at least) is that Cao Biền, a practitioner of Taoist magic, was also the Great Sorcerer for King Tang.
During the period of Chinese domination over Vietnam, Cao Biền was sent to Trấn Yểm any ‘Dragon Veins’ of the South that he could find, using a form of dark magic to practice geological acupuncture known as yếm huyệt (more on Dragon Veins and yếm huyệt in a future posting). This was done to suppress numerous uprisings from the people so that the Chinese could retain dominion over the Vietnamese.
Folk legend has it that between 806 and 820 CE, there was an unknown visitor from the North who was a long-time disciple of Cao Biền.
When he arrived at Water Mountain, Cao Biền‘s disciple discovered that there was a Dragon Vein on Water Mountain, so he took action to yếm huyệt the dragon vein, using a large stone pillar.
Many years later, when Master Ngô Lợi, came to Water Mountain to establish a temple, he followed the Dragon Vein of Water Mountain and discovered that it had been Trấn Yểm-ed by Cao Biền‘s disciple.
The stone pillar was as tall as a man and had a width of about two feet. All its surfaces were engraved with power runes––strange hieroglyphic ancient characters.
It was unusually heavy and took dozens of people and beasts of burden to pull it out of the pit that it had been buried within.
To undo the damage, Master Ngô Lợi dug up the pillar and threw it into a latrine used by a buffalo farm to dispel evil spirits trapped within. The latrine was filled with buffalo feces and urine, which was supposed to dispel evil spirits.
It seems to me as if this method failed, because a short time later, the people reported that on a night of heavy rain and strong wind, the stone pillar was smashed to rubble by a single bolt of lightning.
To someone who understands the rudimentary of lightning, it seems to me that a stone pillar lying within the depression of a watery latrine would hardly be an effective lightning rod since lighting always seeks the path of least resistance, not to mention the highest points within a region affected by an electric storm.
More than likely, Master Ngô Lợi went back to the latrine and set explosives on it, destroying it for good so that it would not be able to do any more harm.
He then went back to the Dragon Vein site where the stone pillar had been dug up and ordered a stone turtle to be erected in its spot to protect the Dragon Vein.
The Stone Turtle is still intact to this very day.
Okay so now that we have the ‘what’ and the ‘where’, we need to get into the ‘when’, the ‘how’ and the ‘who’.
Next posting is going to be about the God Power Martial Art, so hang tight.
(Continue to Thất Sơn Thần Quyền 2: Vietnamese Taoist Martial Art)
This is fascinating, coming from an interest in geography as well as martial arts. I am looking forward to additional entries about the martial arts especially. It would be nice to learn more about what the practitioners at these sites were like and what they taught as well. Thank you for finding and sharing.