Portrait of a Beijinger: Woman of Tai Chi4 min read

A tai chi master coaches China’s top students – Tom Fearon

In the third episode of the four-part series ‘Portrait of a Beijinger,’ Tom Fearon and Abel Blanco profile Lü Yan, a tai chi master who went to martial arts academy with Jet Li. The video is on Youku for streamers in China, and also on Vimeo as embedded below, along with Tom’s write-up of Lü Yan’s story.

Some people choose to take up tai chi for its health benefits in older age, hoping to increase their strength and flexibility or, for believers of its philosophical roots, to improve the flow of their qi. For Lü Yan, the ancient martial art chose her. She was seven years old when a state sports administration official visited her school during the Cultural Revolution to recruit children who could be shaped into wushu martial arts warriors. Lü, a playful girl with pigtailed buns, was recommended by her teacher as a good candidate.

“I used to want to be a doctor or a pianist, but after learning wushu those dreams disappeared,” said Lü, whose father was a Peking University professor and mother was an elementary school teacher. Every day we trained for around six to eight hours from morning until night. We weren’t permitted to think about anything other than wushu, so we abandoned any other hobbies.”

Lü’s most famous teammate at the Shichahai Sports School was Li Lianjie. The young boy’s speed and grace earned him the nickname “Jet,” a name enthusiastically embraced by Hollywood years later. The pair became close friends, walking each day to school where their 60 classmates gradually dwindled after the first year to an elite ten, including Lü and Li, who were chosen to represent the famous Beijing Wushu Team.

In 1974, the pair were joined by another teammate, Cui Yahui, on a historic visit to the White House. Ping-pong diplomacy three years earlier had paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to China, and this was the next carefully choreographed act aimed at normalizing relations.

Dressed in red tracksuits with Chairman Mao pins, Cui, Li and Lü performed their routines in the Rose Garden before an audience of dignitaries that included Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger. Despite Nixon’s upbeat rhetoric about the enduring friendship of the Chinese and American people, the secret service was uneasy about tiny (and possibly lethal) martial artists being a sword’s strike from the president, thus it was agreed all performances would be barehanded.

After graduating from the academy, Lü and Li found their talents in demand by Hong Kong filmmakers. Lü starred in a handful of B-movies, always as the heroine thwarting attacks by bumbling gangsters or kung fu rivals to swishing sound effects, while Li shared the screen with bigger names, including Jackie Chan, in blockbusters like Shaolin Temple and the Once Upon a Time in China series.

By the mid 90s Lü’s competitive career was over and she turned to coaching, first for the Beijing Wushu Team and later for the Philippines national team, who she led to a swag of gold medals at regional championships.

A fifth-generation practitioner of baguazhang or “eight-trigram palm,” a wushu style characterized by soft circular steps and sharp movements drawing energy from the body, Lü is among the legion of tai chi enthusiasts who practice each morning at parks across Beijing. Dressed in a loose, lily white silk outfit, her palms massage the icy air in Chaoyang Park. Her movements are slow and methodical, punctuated by sharp, sudden turns that cause her neat bob to quiver. The ground is blanketed in sleet and golden gingko leaves, but that doesn’t deter her from unleashing head-high kicks that separate her from the weekend tai chi enthusiasts.

After her practice, she walks a few blocks north of the park to a residential compound where she is something of a local celebrity. Parents greet her on the street as their children lower their heads in respect while passing. Lü and Cui still teach their craft in Beijing to kids about the same age as they were when they began learning wushu. Every weekend Lü teaches classes in a dim community hall packed with children around the same age as she was when she was introduced to the sport.

The benefits of wushu and tai chi extend well beyond self-defense or improved health, according to Lü. “Learning wushu from a young age strengthened my character and taught me not to throw in the towel.” ∎

This post first appeared on the Anthill. Text, interviewing and subtitles by Tom Fearon; cinematography and photos by Abel Blanco or provided by Yang Guoqing.
Watch the previous two episodes in the series: Call of Duty and Beneath the Makeup