Feature: An American's Wudang odyssey-Xinhua


Feature: An American's Wudang odyssey

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-02-18 09:33:16

by Sportswriters Wu Zhi, Yue Wenwan

WUHAN, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) -- As dawn breaks over Wudang Mountain in China's central Hubei province, a tall figure is silhouetted against the 600-year-old Yuxu Gong Temple, also known as the Jade Void Temple, brandishing a gleaming Tai Chi sword. Despite his Western features, he blends seamlessly with the other Taoists residing on this renowned mountain.

This is Jake Pinnick, an American who identifies as a 16th-generation disciple of the Wudang Sanfeng martial arts lineage, named after the legendary Taoist reputed to have lived on Wudang Mountain and to have invented Tai Chi.

Annually, tens of thousands of foreigners make their way to the sacred mountain, yet Pinnick stands out as a permanent resident, who has made the mountain his home. He now serves as an instructor, imparting knowledge of Tai Chi and Chinese culture to a global audience.


For millennia, Wudang Mountain has served as a sanctuary for those in pursuit of immortality and Taoist enlightenment. Driven to study at the esteemed Wudang Traditional Taoist Fungfu Academy, Pinnick set off from his hometown of Kewanee, Illinois, in 2010, crossing oceans to reach the mountain.

Back then, the absence of an airport on Wudang Mountain and a less developed high-speed rail network in China posed significant challenges. Compounded by his lack of Chinese language skills and overseas travel experience, Pinnick's journey was fraught with difficulties, including lost luggage and disorientation. He credits the kindness of several Chinese individuals with preventing him from turning back.

Now, fluent in Chinese and with a Chinese family, Pinnick has become a familiar sight in his black Taoist robe, his long black beard, and hair styled into a bun. Whether carrying a long sword or a flute, riding a red electric scooter, or guiding international disciples through the mountain trails, he is a symbol of cultural integration.

"Looking back, I realize I've overcome a lot of challenges," Pinnick reflects. His initial years were filled with obstacles: language barriers, dietary adjustments, and rigorous training demands.

No matter the weather, his daily regime began at 5:30 a.m., involving resistance training with bamboo sticks and physical conditioning through martial arts disciplines. Despite occasionally feeling overwhelmed, he found the strength to persevere.

In his class of 24 international students, only twelve saw the program through to the end. Pinnick was among these resilient few, mastering disciplines such as Tai Chi, the Eight Immortals Cane, Xingyiquan, and Qigong. The cultural immersion deepened his connection to his adopted philosophy of life.

"I came here for martial arts, but I stayed because of the culture behind it," Pinnick explains. He emphasizes that Wudang martial arts focus on harmony - both internal and external - and the balance between strength and flexibility. He highlights the Taoist principle of living in accord with nature, which he interprets not as resignation but as an active engagement with the world.

Upon his first encounter with the Tao Te Ching, Pinnick found that its teachings mirrored his own life experiences. This resonance grew as he explored the works of Zhuangzi, further binding him to the culture and philosophies of his adopted home.


During a performance of Wudang Taihequan at the 2023 Wudang Tai Chi International Friendship Competition, a black butterfly unexpectedly joined him, captivating the audience.

The video went viral on the internet. A netizen interpreted the scene as "Zhuangzi transforming into a butterfly to encourage him;" another commended his performance as "standard, authentic, and true to its roots."

Pinnick clinched two gold medals at the event, while his two foreign students each secured a silver medal. However, he emphasizes, "medals are not important to me; what matters is that people, through me, get to know Tai Chi and Chinese culture."

He has harnessed the power of the internet to widen his reach. Over the past three years, together with his wife, Cao Ling, he has produced and shared hundreds of short videos, drawing fans from the United States and Europe into the orbit of his Tai Chi and bamboo flute practices. Some enthusiasts have even participated in one-on-one online classes with him.

Pinnick views his teachings as comprehensive, covering martial arts, Taoist culture, and related arts, each an essential pillar supporting the whole.

After completing his studies at the martial arts academy, Pinnick decided to stay on for a couple of years to assist his master in teaching students from all over the world. Some questioned why students would come from afar to Wudang Mountain to learn from a foreign coach. His master Yuan Shimao said that Pinnick has a good grasp of martial arts movements and theories and that his unique advantage lies in understanding Chinese while being able to teach foreign students in English.

After China adjusted its COVID-19 prevention and control policies, people continued to visit Wudang Mountain to meet Pinnick in person. A small tea house near Jade Void Temple is where he meets visitors.

After three years of online classes with the American, Maurijn Bracke of Belgium finally had the opportunity for face-to-face instruction. "The study of Tai Chi involves martial arts, Taoist philosophy, classical music, tea art, and more, and Jake can explain them all clearly," said Bracke.

Benjamin Lucas of the UK, who studies at a martial arts school on weekdays, visits the tea house on weekends. He said: "Jake knows well where I lack understanding and can always teach me in English."

There are also Chinese visitors at the tea house. Zou Yang, who quit his job in a high-tech company in Shanghai to study at Wudang Mountain last year, said: "Jake is not only an excellent learner but also a great teacher. For beginners, he demonstrates repeatedly and imparts a calm and inclusive mindset to his students."

Zhang Qiao, a graduate student at Beijing Sports University, was once a student in the martial arts academy. She had been concerned that the American coach might not be professional enough and communication might be problematic. But she discovered that these fears were unfounded. Pinnick's passion and dedication to martial arts deeply influenced her.

"In the past, I was shy about practicing Tai Chi in public. Jake encouraged me to persevere, not caring about what others say. Now I am much braver," she said.

Children often accompany their parents to the teahouse as guests. "They are curious about how a 'foreigner' learns Chinese martial arts and traditional culture. I may not be naturally talented - I started from scratch at the age of 20 - but persistence has made me an 'expert.' My story inspires them, making them believe that their goals are not unattainable," said Pinnick.


Pinnick's dedication to Wudang culture is unwavering, whether he's at home, journeying by train or plane, or even celebrating Christmas with friends, he remains clad in his Taoist attire.

"Practicing Tai Chi is a way to start a new day that is even better than having coffee," said the American, adding that every morning he practices Tai Chi for a while to stretch his body and relax his mind and only when both his body and mind are ready can he begin true cultivation.

He also cherishes playing the bamboo flute, viewing it as integral to understanding the breath control and cultural depth behind Tai Chi. This has led him to incorporate the bamboo flute into his teaching.

Pinnick is proud of his work "Introduction to the Dong Xiao: Learn How to Play the Chinese Vertical Flute," which was published in the United States in 2022. He said there are few English books on Tai Chi or Taoist cultures and he feels obligated to create learning resources for the many enthusiasts worldwide.

Currently, Pinnick is researching the Tao Te Ching and writing a book in English that includes his own understanding of the work.

"Many people are curious about how I explain traditional Chinese culture in English. My answer is to learn Chinese first and then express it in English," said Pinnick, adding in Chinese that "traditional Chinese culture is profound and extensive, and I became fascinated. Learning for two or three years is not enough; it may take a lifetime, and different ages bring different understandings."

This Sino-American family breathes Chinese culture daily. Cao Linna, his 9-year-old daughter, not only practices Tai Chi and Wudang Sword but also plays the guzheng and hulusi.

"We seem to have avoided cultural conflicts inside the family. Jake has always tried to adapt to life in China, and I never had to try to change him. Instead, he has influenced me and our daughter in Chinese traditional culture. I am proud of this," said Cao Ling.

Looking ahead, Pinnick's vision is clear: to establish martial arts schools in both China and the United States, offering students a holistic education in martial arts, culture, and art.

"Many westerners hope to study on Wudang Mountain, but they don't have the time and opportunity. So, I will take Wudang culture to the United States," said Pinnick. "Except that I can't see myself living away from Wudang. This is my second home, where I have my family and my students."

In his quest to promote Tai Chi teaching, Pinnick has earned certification from the American Council on Exercise and is currently enrolled in a two-year online university course. His philosophy of life is simple: pursue your passions relentlessly. "I don't want to be an ordinary coach teaching ordinary students. I want to become a master, dedicated to carrying forward Wudang culture and nurturing the 17th generation disciples of the Wudang Sanfeng Lineage," he said.