Zhang Wuji was born on Ice Fire Island, a volcanic island within the arctic circle. His father, Zhang Cuishan, is the fifth apprentice of Zhang Sanfeng, the founder of the Wudang Sect. His mother, Yin Susu, is the daughter of Yin Tianzheng, the leader of the Heavenly Eagle Cult. He was named by his godfather, Xie Xun, in memory of Xie Xun's deceased son, Xie Wuji. He spends his childhood on the island and learns some basic survival skills, martial arts and literacy skills from his parents and godfather. When he turns nine, he returns to the mainland with his parents, while Xie Xun refuses to leave and remains on the island.
Upon their return to the mainland, the Zhang family attract much attention from many martial artists in the wulin (martial artists' community) who are after Xie Xun and the Dragon Slaying Saber. The Xuanming Elders kidnap Zhang Wuji and severely injure him with their 'Xuanming Divine Palm', but Zhang Sanfeng saves the boy. Zhang Wuji's parents commit suicide after refusing to reveal Xie Xun's whereabouts. Zhang Sanfeng brings the orphaned boy back to the Wudang Sect and tries to cure him of his injuries, but with minimal success. After two years, Zhang Sanfeng brings Zhang Wuji to seek treatment elsewhere and they encounter Chang Yuchun and Zhou Zhiruo. Zhang Sanfeng saves them and entrusts Zhang Wuji to Chang Yuchun's care. Chang Yuchun brings Zhang Wuji to Butterfly Valley to seek help from the eccentric physician Hu Qingniu. Hu Qingniu partially succeeds in healing Zhang Wuji by slowing down the effects of his injuries, and indirectly imparts his medical knowledge to the boy. Zhang Wuji also learns some toxicology from Wang Nangu, Hu Qingniu's wife.
Discovering the Nine Yang Manual
While recuperating in Butterfly Valley, Zhang Wuji meets Ji Xiaofu of the Emei Sect and her daughter, Yang Buhui, and becomes close to them. After Ji Xiaofu is killed by Abbess Miejue, Zhang Wuji brings Yang Buhui to her father, Yang Xiao, in the Kunlun Mountains. He encounters Zhu Jiuzhen later and has a crush on her. Her family accepts him and agrees to let him marry her. However, he discovers later that the Zhu family and others are actually planning to trick him into revealing his godfather's whereabouts. He narrowly escapes from death and ends up in Nameless Valley.
Zhang Wuji lives in the valley for the next five years. Once, he performs surgery on a white ape suffering from abdominal pain and finds a bundle containing the Nine Yang Manual inside the ape abdomen. He masters the skills in the manual and fully heals himself in the process. At the same time, he builds up immense inner energy and learns to use the Nine Yang Divine Skill.
Becoming the leader of the Ming Cult
Zhang Wuji returns to civilisation and meets a disfigured girl, Zhu'er. Through a series of encounters, he reunites with Zhou Zhiruo, who is now a member of the Emei Sect. He also learns that the six major orthodox sects in the wulin are planning to attack the Ming Cult on Bright Peak. He ventures to the peak ahead of the attackers and uncovers an evil plot by Cheng Kun, his godfather's sworn enemy, to stir up conflict between the Ming Cult and the other sects. He escapes death again narrowly with Xiaozhao, a servant of Yang Xiao's family, whom he meets there. He finds the manual of the 'Heaven and Earth Great Shift' in a secret chamber and masters the skill, which allows him to reach a near-superhuman level of martial arts prowess.
Zhang Wuji resolves the conflict between the Ming Cult and the six sects by representing the cult in fighting challengers from the other sects. He exposes Cheng Kun's evil plot and earns the respect of the orthodox sects. At the same time, he is also reunited with his father's fellows from the Wudang Sect and his maternal grandfather, Yin Tianzheng. The Ming Cult's members are grateful to Zhang from saving them and want him to take the cult's leadership position, which has been vacant since the death of the previous leader, Yang Dingtian. Zhang Wuji reluctantly agrees and reforms the cult to improve its relations with the other sects. Eventually, after Zhang Wuji after reunites with Zhang Sanfeng, and under his father's teacher's tutelage, he refines all the martial arts he had learned.
While departing to fetch his godfather back to the mainland, Zhang Wuji learns that the members of the six sects have been captured by the Yuan military after they left Bright Peak. The Yuan forces are led by the Mongol princess Zhao Min, who is attracted to Zhang Wuji after encountering him in a few skirmishes. Zhang Wuji succeeds in rescuing the captives and earns further respect from them. The sects finally resolve their animosity with the Ming Cult and become its allies. Meanwhile, Zhao Min has fallen in love with Zhang secretly and she frees the martial artists after an agreement with Zhang, telling him that he must fulfil three conditions. The first one is to allow her to follow him on his adventures, and she will tell him the other two conditions later.
Zhang Wuji returns to Ice Fire Island with Zhao Min, Zhou Zhiruo and Xiaozhao, with Golden Flower Granny and her apprentice Yin Li (Zhu'er) secretly tracking them. When Zhang Wuji reunites with his godfather Xie Xun, their reunion is filled with danger as their enemies are coveting the Dragon Slaying Saber. They also meet members of the Persian Ming Cult. Xiaozhao agrees to leave with the Persians to be their leader to replace her mother. Meanwhile, Zhou Zhiruo secretly murders Yin Li and knocks out Zhang Wuji, Zhao Min and Xie Xun with drugs so that she can seize the Dragon Slaying Saber and Heaven Reliant Sword.
Return to the mainland
Zhou Zhiruo frames Zhao Min for Yin Li's murder by casting her adrift while she was unconscious. When Zhang Wuji awakes, he is shocked to see that Yin Li is dead and believes that Zhao Min is responsible. He returns to the mainland with Zhou Zhiruo and his godfather. Xie Xun and Zhou Zhiruo are captured by Cheng Kun and Chen Youliang, who are planning to stir up conflict in the wulin again. Zhang Wuji finds Zhao Min and wants to kill her to avenge Yin Li, but refrains from doing so as he still loves her and thinks she might be innocent.
Zhang Wuji saves Zhou Zhiruo from Chen Youliang's clutches and foils Song Qingshu's attempt to take over the Wudang Sect. A love triangle gradually develops between him, Zhao Min and Zhou Zhiruo. He decides to marry Zhou Zhiruo to prove his loyalty to her. Zhao Min disrupts the wedding by saying that she knows where his godfather is held captive and telling him that her second condition (per their earlier agreement) is that he cannot marry Zhou Zhiruo. Zhou Zhiruo hates Zhao Min for disrupting the wedding and attacks her viciously with the 'Nine Yin White Bone Claw'.
Saving Xie Xun
Zhou Zhiruo swears to make Zhang Wuji pay for betraying her love and vows to kill Zhao Min. Zhang Wuji saves Zhao Min and they attend the Lion Slaying Ceremony at Shaolin Monastery, which is actually part of Cheng Kun's plot to destroy the wulin. Xie Xun is used as bait to lure everyone into a trap – as his fate will be decided by the champion of the martial arts contest. Zhou Zhiruo appears at the ceremony and defeats all challengers. Zhang Wuji almost defeats her but he hesitates at the critical moment and loses.
Zhou Zhiruo agrees to allow Zhang Wuji to help her fight the three Shaolin elders guarding Xie Xun, as defeating them will clear the last obstacle to claiming the prisoner. Zhang Wuji succeeds in rescuing his godfather while Zhou Zhiruo meets her match at the hands of the Yellow Dress Maiden.
Zhang Wuji becomes a key figure in leading the Ming Cult and other rebel forces to overthrow the Yuan dynasty. The rebels defeat the Yuan forces numerous times and draw closer to achieving victory. Meanwhile, he discovers that Yin Li has survived and returned to take her revenge on Zhou Zhiruo. By then, it is clear to him that Zhou Zhiruo was behind the mysterious events on the island. Zhou Zhiruo feels guilty for her deeds and explains to Zhang Wuji that she has been bound by her oath to do so. Meanwhile, Zhang Wuji announces his plans to marry Zhao Min, whom he has finally decided is his true love.
Zhang Wuji leaves the Ming Cult after mistakenly believing that the cult members are plotting to assassinate him. However, he is unaware that it is actually Zhu Yuanzhang's plan to take control of the cult's military. Zhang Wuji permanently retires from the jianghu and names Yang Xiao as his successor. In the last chapter, Zhao Min tells Zhang Wuji that her third condition is for him to help her paint her eyebrows. The story ends here, but in another version, Zhou Zhiruo visits them and makes some cheeky remarks, reminding Zhang Wuji that he has also promised her to do something. She says, "I haven't thought of it yet. But I'm afraid that I might think of it on your wedding day with Zhao Min." Zhang Wuji looks at Zhao Min, then at Zhou Zhiruo, and drops the paintbrush.
Jin Yong's evaluation of Zhang Wuji
Zhang Wuji has a more complicated personality as compared to Guo Jing and Yang Guo. He possesses less heroic traits than them and has an equal balance of strengths and weaknesses. The presence of these humanly traits in him makes him more realistic as compared to the other two protagonists in the Condor Trilogy. Zhang Wuji's personality is strongly influenced by social factors and the people around him. He is often placed in situations in which he has no other choice but to adapt to. He has no chance of escaping from harsh reality.
His relationships with his four love interests (Zhao Min, Zhou Zhiruo, Xiaozhao and Yin Li) are extremely complicated. He is very hesitant and indecisive on who his true love is. Apparently, he loves Zhao Min the most and makes that clear to Zhou Zhiruo at the end of the novel. However, one can really speculate whether, deep inside his heart, he really knows who his true love is,.
Although Zhang Wuji is a formidable martial artist and probably one of the best of his age, he is not a suitable candidate to be a leader. Undeniably, he maintains a morally upright character and adopts an altruistic approach to his fellows. However, he lacks the qualities and prerequisites of becoming a great leader. On a personal level, he is reluctant to become a leader and only obliges to take up the Ming Cult's leadership position to please his subordinates. He lacks strong power hungry ambitions that a typical leader must have in order for him/her to remain in power. The absence of this important trait in him clearly indicates that he will not become a strong leader and may eventually fail as one.
Martial arts and skills
- Medicine and toxicology: Zhang Wuji gained his medical knowledge from Hu Qingniu while recovering in Butterfly Valley, and as the only de facto disciple Hu, who is one of the best healers in the jianghu world, ever took. He uses his medical expertise to troubleshoot when he is learning the "Nine Yang Divine Skill" and "Heaven and Earth Great Shift", allowing himself to advance to levels that no other martial artists have ever reached. He also learns toxicology from the book authored by Hu Qingniu's wife Wang Nangu, an expert in the field of poisons, and the knowledge saved him more than once when fighting mischievous opponents utilizing poison.
- Wudang Long Fist (武當長拳) is one of Wudang's fundamental martial arts and is Zhang Wuji's basic fighting techniques since his childhood, which he learnt from his father while on the raft back to mainland.
- Seven Injuries Fist (七傷拳): The Kongtong Sect's most powerful martial arts. The skill allows the user to inflict severe internal injuries on his opponent, however as the practitioner progresses from one level of training to the next and gets more powerful, he will strain and damage one of the vital organs. Xie Xun, Zhang Wuji's godfather, stole the skill's manual from Kongtong in his desperate bid to seek vengeance on his estranged master Cheng Kun, and practises the skill relentlessly without knowing the true adverse nature of mastering it. However, by the time Xie realized it, it was too late and as a result he suffers from frequent fits of insanity as a consequence of neuroendocrine disturbance. Zhang Wuji learns this unwittingly in his childhood from his godfather, who forced him to didactically memorise all the verses just in case the boy might need to practise it someday. He masters the skill when he grows older and his "Nine Yang Divine Skill" actually helps him prevent the internal injuries.
- Cloud Ascending Ladder (梯雲縱) is the best of Wudang's qinggong skills. Zhang Wuji learnt it from his father in his childhood and the skill enables him to pace at high speeds and leap to extreme heights. The Wudang members deduced Zhang Wuji's true identity after he uses this skill during the battle on Bright Peak.
- Nine Yang Divine Skill (九陽神功): A profound type of inner energy skill that has healing properties and promises superior internal strength. Its origin is disputed, as the instructions of the Nine Yang Manual (in Chinese) is written among the lines of a Sanskrit copy of Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra from the Shaolin Temple, which was later stolen. Zhang Sanfeng's childhood master Jueyuan, who was a monk in charge of maintaining the Shaolin library and a bibliophile himself, had read through the sutra and unwittingly learned the inscribed manual, which he chanted in his dying breath and was overheard by Zhang Sanfeng (who later established the Wudang Sect), Guo Xiang (who later established the Emei Section) and Master Wuse (who was a high-ranking Shaolin monk), each learned broken parts of it. Zhang Wuji was taught the incomplete Wudang version of the Nine Yang Manual in his youth by Zhang Sanfeng and his disciples, in the hope of healing his debilitating injury inflicted by the Xuanming Elders. After falling into the closed-off Kunlun Mountains valley, he healed a sick white ape and retrieved an oilcloth-wrapped bundle of books sawn into the ape's abdomen. While casually flipping through it, he recognized verses similar to the Wudang version and decide to learn it all, over the next few years manages to heal himself of his years-long wounds, as well as increasing his physical power unknowingly. The skill enhances his learning process and grants him access to mastering even more powerful skills which require a strong inner energy foundation. His success in mastering the "Heaven and Earth Great Shift" later is largely due to the inner energy foundation he built up earlier.
- Heaven and Earth Great Shift (乾坤大挪移): The most powerful of all the Ming Cult's skills. It originated in Persia and is brought to China when the Ming Cult spread east from Middle Asia. The skill allows the user to translocate force from one place to another, and redirect enemies' attacks elsewhere. This skill also allows the practitioner to sense the energy flow in himself/herself and opponents, thus gaining a better understanding of external martial arts. One example is when Zhang Wuji managed to copy and learn Kongxing's Dragon Claw Hand after watching him use it only once. The skill's manual is written in a special ink on a piece of sheepskin and the words will only be revealed when the sheepskin is smeared with blood. The skill is extremely difficult to master and requires decades of practice to progress from one level to the next. The practitioner must also have a very strong inner energy foundation and extreme focus when practising it or he/she will sustain internal injuries and die. Only the leader of the cult is allowed to learn the skill. Zhang Wuji discovers the manual when he is trapped in the secret room with Xiaozhao. He masters the first six levels of the skill within hours — a feat no one had accomplished before — because his mastery of the Nine Yang Manual has already equipped him with a strong inner energy foundation.
- Dragon Claw Hand (龍爪手): Zhang Wuji learnt this from Shaolin's Master Kongxing during their fight at Bright Peak. He mentally notes down Kongxing's moves, figures out the counter-moves, and masters the skill in the process. This was possible because he learnt the Heaven and Earth Great Shift earlier, which allows him to sense Kongxing's inner energy flow when he uses the skill.
- Taiji Fist (太極拳): It was created by Zhang Sanfeng and comprises 88 different stances and works on a principle which directly opposes that of conventional martial arts. Instead of basing its moves on speed, power and preemption, the Taiji Fist's moves are slow, "soft" and seemingly powerless. However, the true essence of this skill is to use the opponent's weight and momentum against himself and counterattack with minimal exhaustion. Zhang Wuji learns this by merely observing Zhang Sanfeng demonstrating the skill to Yu Daiyan.
- Taiji Swordplay (太極劍法): A series of swordplay techniques created by Zhang Sanfeng. The swordplay has 54 styles and utilises slow and soft moves that are similar to those of a Taoist drawing circles with a sword during a ritual. The idea is to use the enemy's attacks to repel the enemy by drawing the attacks back on the enemy and minimise the amount of strength used by oneself. Zhang Wuji learns this from Zhang Sanfeng after observing his grandmaster demonstrating it once.
- The Holy Flame Tablets (聖火令) are sacred artifacts of the Ming Cult and have a series of martial arts instructions engraved on them in Persian. These extremely powerful skills were allegedly created by Hassan-i Sabbah. After the Chinese Ming Cult lost the six tablets, the Persians retrieved them and mastered the skills. Zhang Wuji manages to seize the tablets from the three Persian messengers and masters the skills after Xiaozhao translates the text for him. The skills complement the 'Heaven and Earth Great Shift'. By mastering these skills, Zhang Wuji can use the Shift in a more powerful and efficient manner, which he eventually uses to overcome the Persians. However, the skills have varying degrees of success when Zhang Wuji uses them on his opponents. For instance, the perverse and hideous nature of these skills (originally designed for Hashashin suicide attacks) almost cause him to experience a nervous breakdown when he is attempting to break the 'Vajra Evil Subduing Ring' of the three Shaolin masters. He recovers only after hearing his godfather chanting the Diamond Sutra, which helps to counter the repressing effect of the ring.
Zhang Wuji's family tree
- (in Chinese) Tan, Xianmao (2005). Zhang Wuji: Kind, Forgiving and Accommodating. In Rankings of Jin Yong's Characters. Chinese Agricultural Press.