Wushu Out of the Olympics…Again

By Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine September/October 2013

Like any martial arts tournament, the Tiger Claw Elite Championship gets its fair share of complaints. Some are valid, some not, but all must be answered. Another stage parent interrupts the MC as he urgently announces the ring assignments. Her child didn't win, and in a longwinded tirade she demands to know why. Most officials would blow her off, but not Christopher Pei (裴康凱). With genuine concern, he looks into her eyes and replies with Taiji calmness, "Tell me more."

Always dapper, Pei cuts a sharp figure among the silk-clad competitors in his signature formal black suit. In the tournament world, he brings a refreshing professionalism to the role of MC, a confident style gleaned from nearly a decade of work emceeing one of Washington DC's leading Chinese New Year galas. He's emceed events at the Kennedy Center, for the Chinese Embassy and for the Hope Chinese School (one of America's foremost Chinese academies). His MC work has earned him recognition for promoting Chinese culture, along with a coveted invitation to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the People's Republic of China in Beijing where only 2000 overseas Chinese attended. Not bad for an immigrant who first landed in America speaking only Mandarin. It was that very experience that motivated him to pursue his lifelong passion of martial arts.

Over the tournament loudspeakers, Pei slips eloquently between English and Mandarin. His clear dulcet tones reverberate across the expansive South Hall. It was much different when he arrived stateside from Taiwan forty-one years ago. "I did not speak a word of English," he admits. "I didn't even know what the alphabet was." Despite arriving just as the Kung Fu craze was beginning in America, it was a challenging time for Chinese immigrants. "I went into school, and it was very tough. If I ever got in a fight, I couldn't protect myself. I could not explain myself in front of the principal or the teachers." It was then that he decided to study the traditional northern style of Kung Fu called T'ien Shan P'ai (天山派) under one of the first masters to teach openly in America, Willy Lin (林旭光). "At least I won't get hurt. My other thought was when I was back in Taiwan, my favorite books were always Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh, the classics. In the Three Kingdoms, the three brothers, the loyalty to the others, is something that influenced me. If you promise something, you do it. For Marshes, you have to know what is right and what is wrong, even though the authority is bad. You don't back down because this is the authority. If you think this is right, you do the right thing. Do the right thing and become a good person."

Wushu Eliminated
The Tiger Claw Elite Championship is one of the only tournaments in America that provides two official Wushu competition carpets. This year, there were nearly 80 Wushu athletes competing in over twice as many events. But grim news hung over the Wushu carpets. After failing to qualify in Beijing 2008, Wushu had made a second bid for Olympic status, the same bid made by eight sports, all contending for one slot in the 2020 Games. On the Wednesday just prior to the Tiger Claw Elite Championship, the IOC announced that Wrestling, Squash and Baseball-Softball had made the short list, but Wushu, Karate, Roller Sports, Sport Climbing and Wakeboarding were eliminated.

Beyond being MC, Pei is a leading proponent of Modern Wushu. He was first exposed to the sport four decades ago and has been an avid supporter ever since. "In 1973, China sent the first cultural exchange groups, and they were Peking Opera and Chinese Wushu. They performed four shows in the Kennedy Center. And I watched all four shows. At that time I decided I would like to do Wushu. But at that time it was very communist and there was no way you can go into China to study, not until 1980. Someone organized 'Ten Famous Masters from US.' But I'm not a 'ten famous master.' They asked my teacher. He had other reasons he couldn't go, so he says, 'You want to go?' I said, 'Yes!' So I went in 1980. I went to Nanjing to study with the Jiangsu Team. Kenny Perez was in that group, and Keith Hirabayashi." Today, Coach Pei still eschews the title of 'master.' "One of the rules I have for myself is, 'Never talk about the faults of the others and never brag about yourself.'"

In the '80s, China was a very different place. "It was a complete culture shock. At that time, I had already opened up my own school for two years and was doing well in the East Coast competitions. I earned the title as 'Sifu' and was very proud of that title. But when I went to Nanjing, thirty minutes into class I realized I wasn't a master because everyone else was better than me, faster and much more powerful. At that time, I could not even touch my head to my toes. And everyone could do that. So I wanted that. I pulled many muscles. Going to the team doctor was almost every day. That was the first three months.

"Also I went to Nanjing at the beginning of the winter season. China had a very strange rule. North of the Changjiang (Yangtze River) has heat; south, no heat. The training, where we were, was only two miles from the river on the south side, so we had no heat. I remember in wintertime we had no heat and still had to take showers. Showers were like ten seconds - jump in and jump out. Wear two pairs of socks. When I came back in summertime, I see myself still wearing two pairs of socks because I almost got frostbite.

"Nowadays if I take students over, we stay at three-star or four-star hotels. Two people to a room have wi-fi, has their own showers in the room, meals and it's all-you-can-eat. Not like during those days when I was there. In the time I was there, there is no heat or air-conditioning in the room. There is no laundry. You wash your own laundry. And the meals, you got a - almost like a face bucket - rice and everything you poured down and ate. When I first went over there, everyone ate very fast. I thought, 'What kind of animal does that?' The students in the sports academy just took the bowl and squatted down anywhere and just ate. I said, 'I will never lower myself to that level.' A week later, I did exactly the same thing because I was so hungry. It's completely different now.

"I was different than most of my peers who went. When I went to the Jiangsu Team, the coach Wang Jianbao (江苏队教练王) said, "What would you like to study?" Everyone had a list of things: 'I want to do this, broadsword, straight sword, praying mantis…' They all had a list. I just said I'd do the four basic weapons and that would be fine. After that, I came back and went to the Beijing Team. And I realized the most important thing is basics. So when Coach Wu Bin (吴彬) asked me, 'What do you want to learn?' I answered, 'Whatever you see I need.' He said, 'You need basics.' For three months, when I was there, I did nothing but basics, just front stretch kick, side-rising kick, outside-crescent, inside-crescent - first three months. And after that, he said, 'Okay, now what do you want to learn?' At that time, it didn't really matter what I learned at that point. I just wanted to have good solid basics. So the second time I went with the Beijing Team, I had a three-month Visa. I extended it two more times for a total stay of nine months."

Wushu Family, Traditional Family
Training with the Beijing Wushu Team, Pei met his future wife, the first woman permitted to perform alongside the men on the team, champion coach Zhang Guifeng (张贵风). Pei was smitten, but Zhang rebuffed his initial proposal as her parents did not approve. At that time, many Mainland Chinese believed that Chinese men living abroad would abuse their wives, or even sell them, once they left China. By 1983, Pei ran out of funds and had to return to America. He wrote Zhang a letter a day for thirteen months. When her father found those 400+ letters, he concluded that Pei was either the dumbest guy or he really loved his daughter and gave his blessings. Their marriage in 1984 made them one of the foremost American Wushu power couples. Not only were their personal records extraordinary, their daughters Diana and Joanna grew into numerously-decorated national champions and leading U.S. Wushu team members.

Pei soon found himself at the center of a brewing controversy, the ongoing battle between Traditional Kung Fu and Modern Wushu. "When I first came back, not only the Taekwondo people and the Karate people attacked me as a Wushu practitioner, even my own traditional Kung Fu brothers attacked me. Karate people said, 'That's not a real martial art.' Taekwondo people said, 'It's acrobatics.' And Traditional Kung Fu said, 'Looks pretty but it's not useful.' (laughs)

"It was really, really hard. All the different martial arts attacked it, but what hurt the most was the traditional brothers because modern Wushu didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of traditional martial arts. It makes a difference. In traditional martial arts, for example, tornado kicks are 180s and 360s. It's going to stay like that for generations and never change. In Wushu, when I competed, 360s were common. If you can do a 540 and land it in a solid horse stance, you're pretty good. Now all my intermediate students all do 540s. And now they're working on 720s. So that's the difference with Wushu; it keeps pushing it to a higher level. But I cannot say that only a 360 is no good because we grow out of 360s. You still have to respect where come from."

Pei still holds great admiration and respect for Traditional Kung Fu. As a former traditionalist, he sees the main differences as a matter of approach. "In the traditional, when I was doing T'ien Shan P'ai, you learned 24 Beat, or 48, and you learned Sancai (三才) and Xiaohongquan (小红拳). People judged you by how many forms you knew. But when I started doing Wushu, I realized it's not how many forms you know, but it's [how] well you can put movements together. The first three months I was there with Coach Wu Bin, I was really frustrated because I felt like I had learned nothing. All he asked me to do was just basics. But after that, he took me to the National Championship, and I suddenly realized, with three-hundred competitors, I could memorize three-hundred routines, because what I see is only basic movements combined together. And I realized I no longer had a routine, but I had many routines, because I can combine. I see the different combinations and I learned how to combine different combinations together to create a routine. That is the biggest difference I feel.

Also, with the traditional, with T'ien Shan P'ai, if I go perform and the stage is short, we really have a big problem because our mind training is to follow the form. I'm going to be off of the stage right here. That will give me problems. Maybe also I was younger at that time and didn't know how to change. But with Wushu, space no longer tends to be an issue. I look at it and just cut this one, maybe extend this one, add a few more moves here, and do it. No problem."

The U.S. Wushu Federation
"I feel that if you feel this is a good thing, even though 99% of the people are against you, if you feel this is good, this is right, then you should have the courage to stick with it." In that spirit, Pei helped to form the very first American Wushu organization. "Three people created the US Wushu Federation. It was me, Bryant Fong, and Nick Gracenin. I said to Bryant, 'Since this is USA, it will not look right that someone with a Chinese background is the president,' so we pushed Nick as the president.

"The US Wushu Federation, when it was first founded, it was by chance because China wanted to push the art into an international stage. So they sent out telegrams to ask each country's Chinese Embassy to find someone to organize a team to come to China to compete. But the guy at US Chinese Embassy who got the telegram didn't know, so he just forwarded it to one of the local Kung Fu schools. The local Kung Fu school didn't realize what it was. He was just organizing his students to go to China to compete. I found out there was such a telegram, because I was waiting for this telegram, and found out this local school got it. So I went there, I said, 'What is the plan for the whole US?' He really didn't plan to do team selections. I said, 'You should do that,' so we finally agreed there should be a team selection. Then I went into the embassy to ask for more assistance.

"By luck, me and my wife were in the lobby at the embassy waiting to see the cultural attaché and say we need some assistance. While we were discussing this with each other, there was an old man sitting in the lobby. We weren't really paying attention to him. We thought maybe that old man was waiting to get a Visa to go back to China. So we went in there and talked. But after that, everything seems very smooth. We got the team together and went to China. And the US got into the international board right away. Later on I found out that old man was Xu Cai (First Chairman of the International Wushu Federation 徐才). (laughs) We did not know who he was. But when we went to China for the competition, Xu Cai came to us and said he heard our conversation about what we were trying to do and he felt, 'Okay, I can help these young people get their dreams together.' That's how the US Wushu Federation got into the international stage.

"When Diana was born, there were a lot of things. School was running. Zhang Guifeng was no longer teaching. Our agreement was that if we had kids, family would come first. So she stayed home and I worked and the Federation was just too much. Because when you worked for the Federation, it was all volunteer, and it was like a full-time 40-hour job and you have to work on it all of the time. At that time, there's no such thing as website design, so a lot of it was cut-and-paste. Some of those early flyers and newsletters that we sent out, if you look at it, it was like a three-year-old working on a computer.

"After I left, others started coming up that wanted to take this over, and the other group came out called the US Traditional, and these two groups combined to become what we have today. The original path has changed. It's no longer the same. And if it's not vision I see for the organization, so I'm not involved with the current organization."

Going Internal
"I had studied Yang since 1972. In 1985, I went to China representing the US and Yang Zhenduo (杨振铎) was there. When I was young, I was very impatient, so when I found out he was the direct descendant disciple, I went over there and I asked him, 'What is qi?' Every master answers differently, but most say, 'You do this ten thousand times, you get it.' So I ask him, and the answer that he gave me satisfied what I needed in 1985. I said 'Wow, this guy understands. I should get serious and study this.' What he told me was qi is not a mysterious thing. It's something that everyone has, but it's largely misunderstood by most people. The easiest way to explain qi is that your mind has to think of something, then the qi flows and the body flows. And I accepted that. I said, 'Okay, I can see that, but how am I to do that?' He said, 'Well, you're welcome to come study.' That's all he said. That's all I did. It's very simple - mind moves qi, qi moves body. I had to explore that. I had to get it. So that's when I started getting more and more serious about Taiji.

"When I studied Yang style, I could not understand a lot of things. Later on, when I added Chen style, I understood. I understood what Yang Zhenduo was talking about - mind moves qi, qi moves body. Suddenly I understood. Then by understanding Chen style, I felt my skills improved in my Yang style. I always told my students that Chen style is difficult to learn but easy to understand. Yang style is easy to learn but very hard to understand. Chen style basically has not changed over the generations, so what the mind thinks, qi moves, body moves. But if you backtrack by learning the body movements, then you understand how the qi is supposed to flow, what the mind is going to do. It's like detective work. You have the clues. You can backtrack. In Yang style, Yang Chengfu (杨澄甫) modified moves. But when he modified the moves, it didn't mean he didn't understand. He understood. It's just his moves made it simplified. So he understood but the physical clue has changed. So that's why I say easy to learn but hard to understand what really goes on inside. Changes of the physical movements make it harder for the next generation to decipher what is actually going on. There are less physical clues. But Chen style is mind moves qi, qi moves body. They haven't changed that much. So you can use inner to go out, and from out, to go back in."

Modern Wushu pushed Taiji to a higher level with the addition of nandu (difficulty degrees 难度) for competition. It is one of the most controversial developments of the sport, so much so that Pei too has mixed feelings. "When the Taiji nandu is done properly, there is nothing more beautiful than that. To suddenly jump up and land gracefully, that's the most beautiful thing to see. But it's also very difficult. So there are two parts. If you have the people that can do the nandu, it is really an enjoyment. But the problem is only a very small percentage of people can do nandu. The Taiji competition nandu is harder than the Wushu nandu. Wushu nandu has running, supportive steps. Taiji nandu has no running, no supporting steps. You basically have to just jump so the physical requirement is much harder.

"If you want to get more people doing this, first you have to have a wide base. If only one percent of the people can do nandu and there's one hundred people, only one guy could do this. But if you have one million people doing taiji, your selection of people is much more. The current developments we have Simplified 24, and the Competition 42, and right away, jump into nandu. It's like going from first grade, junior high and then post graduate right away. You've got to have some other steps in between to gradually move up to that, and without that, injuries are most likely. To do nandu, one other thing is you got to have cross-training. There's no way you can just do Taiji and then practice 10,000 times because the way jumping is required, the calf muscles and leg muscles, it's incredible."

Furthermore, Pei is active with the International Health Qigong Association. He accepted an offer to sit on their board. Modelled after Wushu, Health Qigong is promoting itself internationally with certification and competition. "Health Qigong, currently, needs to make a little more clear what they want to do. I don't think qigong should be a competition event. How do you judge sitting meditation competition? So I will talk to them, but sometimes with Chinese officials, when the top makes a decision, it's very hard. But I see the benefits could benefit a lot more people so I run the health qigong in my locations.

"I run it a little differently, not as you come over here, pay money, I teach you this, and then go. I run it in a way that people were shocked, because the cost that I ask is lower than anything else. Halfway through the class I even provide them a sandwich, then they take a one-hour nap. People that are over sixty-five, it's a very low price, over seventy, it's free. My idea of running qigong is to try and hit the general public as mass as possible. I don't think it should be a competition. Maybe a get together and everyone has a good workout and feels good. It should be a social gathering that encourages each other to get well."

Strike Two for Modern Wushu
At the Tiger Claw Elite Championship after-party, the judges and volunteers finally get to unwind. Everyone decompresses and vents about the day's happenings over libations. The Olympic rejection of Wushu is a topic of avid discussion. Like many, Pei has mixed feelings here too. "I'm very sad because I have the hope that Wushu will get into the Olympics so the art can flourish more, get more sponsorship, more people to help, and make the industry a little bit better. So I'm sad it didn't get in. But the other side, I'm very happy it didn't get in. It didn't get in maybe because the organization did not work as well. So let's say I'm trying to do a job and I didn't get the job. So I have to think - what went wrong? One is - did I hire the right person to do the job? If the person couldn't do the job, I should fire them and get a new group of people. Second, if that person is doing their job - everything I want - then maybe I should change - a different way to approach this. Whatever they are doing now, it didn't work. It didn't get in. You know, Einstein says insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So it's sad it didn't get in because it hurts the industry. Now it forced the organization - the IWuF - to make changes. Now it's two strikes. You either change the people or you have to change the path. Hopefully that someone will come up with the right idea and say, 'We need to do this.' But another thing is, there isn't enough base, even for the U.S. You got to have enough base of people who support you in any sport."

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine September/October 2013

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Find us on facebook For more information about Christopher Pei, visit his school's website at uswushuacademy.com.

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