Hu Jianqiang
Wushu Star of Zhejiang and Shaolin Temple

By Susan Pertel Jain Ph.D.

Past, Present and Future
A former all-around wushu champion of China, Hu Jianqiang is probably best known to kung fu fans from his prominent film roles acting alongside Li Lianjie [Jet Li] in The Shaolin Temple series and in Sonny Chiba's Shogun. An award-winning film and television fight scene choreographer, Hu Jianqiang performs his gongfu taolu at break-neck speed with a clarity of movement, grace and power that are simply awesome to watch. With his handsome good looks and charming smile, Hu is a man not only blessed with extraordinary athletic talent but also with that certain "je ne sais quois" which world-class stars are made of.

The Early Wushu Years
Hu Jianqiang trained from childhood to be a professional martial artist. Like in the former Soviet Union, it has been the practice in China since the early 1950s to seek out and foster young talent at a young age. By age 10 Hu Jianqiang had been selected to fill one of only 30 slots in the gymnastics program of the Zhejiang Province Physical Education Institute in Hangzhou. Hu's acceptance into the program was not only a tremendous achievement for the young athlete but also a relief for his family. During that time in China young people were being randomly assigned to jobs in the countryside. Hu's elder brother had already been sent to distant northeast China and his parents feared for his future. "Although I had to leave my family in Ningbo, being accepted into the program not only meant that I had a job which helped me earn money for my family but it also allowed me to remain living in a city. I was very lucky," recalls Hu.

Within a month of his arrival at the school Hu's future course was radically changed. Having caught the eye of Chen Xun'an, head coach of the institute's wushu program, Hu was asked to change sports. Hu explains, "Coach Chen told me that although I had the physical makeup to be a good gymnast, he said I had the potential to be a great martial artist." Hu's wife, Zong Jianmei, who was already a young athlete in the wushu program, remembers that her husband lasted only a day. "He didn't like it," she says. "Most of the students in our program had studied wushu before. Jianqiang not only had no background but also spoke Chinese with a local accent. The students teased him a lot."

Hu Jianqiang says that he didn't know much about wushu at the time because traditional martial arts had been banned during the Cultural Revolution. "All I knew was that they used swords and spears, and I wasn't interested in getting hurt!" Hu chose to return to the gymnastics program but within a month found that he had not made the final cut of 20 students. He soon left school and returned to coastal Ningbo. Within a few days Coach Chen showed up at Hu's door urging him to give wushu another try. With no other options, Hu agreed.

When Hu Jianqiang returned to school he quickly made up for lost time. His wife recalls that he didn't talk much to the other students. "Jianqiang was quiet and very determined. He worked harder than the rest of us. Most of the time the coaches have to urge us to do more work. With Jianqiang, they had to stop him from doing too much. If we ran for one hour, he'd run an hour-and-a-half." Zong reports that during those years Hu often trained wearing a suit weighted down with iron sand. "From my gymnastics days I knew that one of my physical strengths was my 'bursting ability.' In other words, I could move suddenly with a lot of power and speed. Working out wearing a sand suit strengthened this ability and helped me to move even faster and more powerfully after I'd taken it off," says Hu.

Hu's talent and hard work soon paid off. By the age of 14 Hu was not only the Zheijiang Wushu Team's top athlete but he'd also been chosen for China's national team and had began touring internationally. Over the next 7 years Hu won numerous national individual wushu titles in Southern Fist (nan quan), Ground Tumbling Fist (ditang quan), Shaolin Staff (Shaolin gun), and Monkey Staff (hou gun). As a national team member he traveled to over 30 countries to participate in competitions and exhibition performances. In 1981 and 1982 Hu Jianqiang won back-to-back all-around wushu titles. It was at the 1978 championships in Shandong Province that Hu was spotted by Hong Kong film director Chang Hsin Yen and cast as Wu Kong, the leader of the young monk warriors, in The Shaolin Temple film.

The Making of The Shaolin Temple
According to Hu, Li Lianjie, Yu Chenhui, Yu Hai, Xun Jiankui and the other wushu champions like himself who were cast in the film were not the director's first choice. "They started with xiqu [Chinese opera] performers from Henan Province but after 3 months the Japanese investors decided they didn't like the results. They decided to recast and start again." Apparently the director thought that it was probably easier to teach wushu champions to act than it was to teach stage actors to perform authentic wushu. Only four xiqu actors remained in the film after it was recast, Ding Lan, the actress playing the Jet Li's love interest, being one of them.

The filming of The Shaolin Temple took two years to complete. "The conditions were difficult for the cast and crew, " remembers Hu. "The temple was deserted at that time with nothing around it but countryside. We had to stay in a hotel two hours away. Because I was still competing for Zhejiang at that time, I often got off the bus on the way back at night and ran the last hour back to the hotel."

Hu emphasizes how special The Shaolin Temple film is in the history of kung fu cinema. "The wushu you saw on the screen was real. Those were real stunts, done at real speed, and with real contact. The director let us choreograph our own scenes allowing us to show our strengths." One of the film's most dramatic moments was Hu Jianqiang's fight scene on top of a temple wall. "That wall was 7 meters high and very narrow," Hu recalls. "While fighting I had to suddenly drop off the wall but grab the edge on the way down. I then pulled myself back up and continued to fight. Although when that scene was done my hands were bloody, I thought we had created a great fight scene."

Because of the reality of the wushu in the film many of the cast members sustained injuries during production. "One of the reasons it took two years to film was that so many of us got hurt," laughs Hu. "Yu Hai and Yu Chenhui both broke their arms learning to ride those horses." Hu himself sustained a serious leg injury while filming a scene with Li Lianjie which forced him to wear a leg brace for the final fight scene of the film. "I wasn't even supposed to be in the scene with Li Lianjie. Another actor was supposed to fight with him but that guy couldn't get the timing right and so the director asked me to step in at the last minute." According to Hu, Li was supposed to do a double kick in the air striking him and another actor in the face before landing. Because the ground was soft, Hu's leg got caught under Li when he came down. "I still have problems with my leg," says Hu.

Although acting in The Shaolin Temple was technically Hu's first creative film role, Zong says that her husband has always been an innovator. "When in school Jianqiang had never just learned a taolu. He learned it and immediately began working to improve it by adding elements that he felt strengthened it and also pushed his own physical limitations." Zong laughs when she recalls the debut of Hu Jianqiang's Southern Fist form at the 1979 wushu nationals in Hebei. Hu Jianqiang had created his form by taking what he considered to be the strongest elements of the Southern style and then adding the more energetic leg movements characteristic of the Northern chang quan style. "The judges didn't know how to score his form," recalls Zong who was at the event. "Jianqiang finished seventh that year but the very next year, performing the same form, he captured the national Southern Fist championship." According to Zong, Hu Jianqiang's new style was put forth in wushu circles as a standard for others to follow.

Argentina to New England
Hu Jianqiang followed up The Shaolin Temple with major roles in Kids of Shaolin and Shaolin North and South. In the latter film Hu played, Zao Wei, the disciple trained in the Southern wushu tradition alongside Li Lianjie's character who represented the Northern style. It's easy to want to compare Li and Hu. "The north has Li Lianjie and the south has Hu Jianqiang," stated Ye Jiahe, chairman of the Zhejiang Wushu Association recently. Both Li and Hu are former national wushu champions turned film actors. When asked about the success of his international film career as compared to Jet Li's, Hu Jianqiang feels that perhaps his time has not arrived. Following his work in the Shaolin series Hu Jianqiang worked in Chinese film and television as both an actor and fight scene choreographer, and in 1988 Hu had a featured role in Sonny Chiba's samurai film, Shogun. In 1992 Hu and his wife left China for Argentina seeking more international film opportunities. Hu left that country in 1997 speaking fluent Spanish but with no major film credits under his belt. "Argentina was a beautiful country and I had many good students and friends there," says Hu. "Creatively however, I was very frustrated. When we had the opportunity to move to the United States, we took it. Now I hope to make up for lost time."

In 1997 Hu Jianqiang, his wife, and young daughter Jia Yin (an aspiring martial artist) settled in Connecticut and opened the Shaolin Wushu Center/USA in South Windsor. With his wife heading the taiji program and Hu the gongfu, the Center has grown rapidly in both size and reputation. After exhibition performances and seminars at both U.S. and Canadian wushu competitions Hu's presence in the U.S. is no longer a secret. Hu is now hotly sought after as both a wushu performer and coach while his wife Jianmei is a regular member of the judging staff at USAWKF events. "Our hope is to create a world-class wushu training facility," states Zong. To achieve this end the couple announced that a formal relationship between their center and the Zhejiang Wushu Team has been established. "Each year athletes and coaches from both institutions can now have the opportunity to take part in professional training programs. This year we led a group of 30 people to China for our first exchange visit. We hope each year that the numbers and opportunities for study will increase."

Future Plans
What about Hu's plans for his film career? "I'm working on that," laughs Hu. "I'm learning English!" Hu hopes that his career in the U.S. can parallel the one he had in China. "Ideally I would like to coach, choreograph, as well as act in films and television. All these areas interest me." In recent months Hu has begun working on his first creative project: an educational video series documenting some of his award-winning wushu forms. Zong reports that the series, entitled the "Wushu Forms of Hu Jianqiang," will be unique. "Not only will the wushu in Jianqiang's videos be world-class, but he wants make sure the artistic merit of the series is equally high."

"I've watched Hu Jianqiang perform since he was a boy," recalls respected coach and international wushu judge, Wang Ju Rong. "His movements are always clean and powerful. His wushu has also stood apart from the others." A world-class athlete, Hu Jianqiang continues to build a creative resume distinguishing him as an artist in his own right. His sold-out seminars at the 1998 USAWKF summer event in Baltimore attest to Hu's appeal as a wushu coach. If all goes as planned, we will be seeing a lot more of this martial artist in the future.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .

About Susan Pertel Jain Ph.D. :
Susan Pertel Jain Ph.D., a Chinese theatre scholar, is an Associate Editor of The Asian Theatre Journal.

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