When Tai Chi Is in Your Blood

By Gene Ching

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KUNG FU TAI CHI Fall 2019 magazine coverMany say that the martial arts runs through their blood.  But few can make that claim as definitively as Grandmaster Fu Qingquan (傅清泉).  Grandmaster Fu is the grandson of one of the most renowned proponents of Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan, the Great Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen (1903–1994 傅鍾文).  Fu Zhongwen was the direct disciple of Yang Chengfu (1883–1936 杨澄甫), who was grandson of the very founder of Yang Tai Chi, Yang Luchan (1799–1872 杨露禅).  What’s more, Fu Zhongwen married into the Yang clan.  His wife, Fu Qingquan’s grandmother, was Yang Kuei Cheng/Zou Kuei Cheng (1908–1976 ???), and she was the great-granddaughter of the youngest son of founder Yang Luchan, Yang Jianhou (1839–1917 杨健侯).  This makes Fu Qingquan the great-great-great grandson of the founder.  For Fu, it’s not only in his blood, it’s in his very soul.

Yang Tai Chi is the most popular style of Tai Chi in the world.  Much of this popularity can be attributed directly to the contributions of Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen.  In 1944, he founded one of the early martial arts organizations of the last century, the Yongnian Tai Chi Chuan Association (永年太極拳).  Yongnian County is in Hebei Province and is attributed as the hometown of Yang Luchan.  This pioneering organization predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China and consequently served as a major stepping stone that spread Tai Chi around the globe with representatives throughout Asia, Australia, America and Europe.  Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen was also the first Wushu coach for the illustrious Shanghai University of Sport (上海体育学院).  The Shanghai University of Sport was founded in November 1952 and was the first institution of its kind in the PRC.  It remains one of China’s greatest sports universities and has had a tremendous impact on the martial arts of China for decades.

Fu Zhongwen’s son, Grandmaster Fu Shengyuan (1931–2017 傅聲遠), carried on in his father’s footsteps, disseminating Yang Tai Chi across China.  Since his passing, this tremendous family legacy rests predominantly upon his son, Grandmaster Fu Qingquan.  Promoting Tai Chi is a mission that Grandmaster Fu has been born and bred for, a familial duty that he fulfills with an unbridled and unique passion.


Fu.  James Fu.

Fu Qingquan adopted the English name "James" over thirty years ago.  When it was suggested to him, one of the only English characters he had heard of was James Bond.  Although he knew little of the superspy at that time, it felt right to him.  Beyond just taking an English name, James Fu also learned the language.  He is completely fluent in English making him an ideal Tai Chi ambassador for English-speaking nations.

He’s also proven his skills in China.  In the late '80s, he won the All-China National Championship for Tai Chi in both empty-hand and sword.  He was also the youngest person ever to be certified as a 7th Duan (rank 段) by the Chinese Wushu Association (this ranking system goes to 9 as the highest).  He learned Tai Chi from both his father and his grandfather from childhood, more so from his grandfather because he was a stubborn child.

“Actually I start with my father when I'm five years old,” remembers Fu.  “My father been teaching me about four months, then I give up.  I said, ‘I don't want to learn.’  Then my father said, 'Why?!'  Because my father is too strict, and he hitting me, you know?  With a stick.  Every movement that is not correct, he's hitting me.  So really, I don't like him – hate him.  After he ask me, 'Why you don't want to do anymore?  Why you don't want to learn?' I say, 'I want grandfather to teach me.'  'Why?'  I say, 'My grandfather will be better than you. [laughs] He's the grandmaster!'

“So our Yang Tai Chi form is 85 and also we have three sections.  The first section I learned from my father.  The rest I all learned from my grandfather.  My grandfather say, 'Okay, okay.  I teach.  I teach.'  And grandfather was very nice.  Didn't hit me.  Definitely not. [laughs again] He used different way to encourage me.  My father used his hand and stick to beat – chasing me around to doing things.  But my grandfather, I think he used internal power, you know?  He used the Tai Chi way to teach me and encourage me how to do it.  I like this way actually.  It's more easy for a five-year [old] boy to accept, you know?

“Internal way is the soft way.  Soft power, you know?  With external martial art, it's more outside.  It's hard, strong.  But internal is like Tai Chi – it looks soft but it can be very strong.  My grandfather, he using that way.”


Tai Chi Half a Century Ago

Tai Chi has come a long way over the last half century.  Its growth has paralleled China, which has risen from a poverty-stricken nation to become one of the leading world powers in just the last few decades.  China underwent a major upheaval during the late sixties – the Cultural Revolution.  In stark contrast to America’s "Summer of Love," the Cultural Revolution was a communist purge of capitalist and traditional features of Chinese society that overturned China from 1966 to 1976.  Chinese martial arts were generally viewed as traditional and suffered for that.

James recalls how the Cultural Revolution affected his family.  “My grandfather is the first Shanghai Wushu Team coach in 1950s.  I think it was 1958 maybe.  In 1958 Shanghai Sports Department started [their] Wushu Team.  And that time, the team coaches – three persons: Cai Longyun (November+December 2005 Cover master 1928–2015 蔡龍雲), Fu Zhongwen, my grandfather, and Wang Xiaorong (19??–????  王孝榮).  Until 1966, Cultural Revolution start, he's still teaching there.  And during the Cultural Revolution, they say my grandfather is a spy of America.  So my grandfather was put in jail for one year in Shanghai.  During this one year, they are doing a lot of investigation.  Finally, they didn't find anything about him, so just release him.  Then 1967, release my grandfather from the jail and force him to retire.  From that time, my grandfather come back to home to teach Tai Chi. [laughs]”

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, China reconstructed itself.  However, the rebuilding process was slow.  Most people were still poor and the struggle was very real.  China was closed – foreigners weren’t allowed in and international trade was tightly restricted.  It was not a good time for Tai Chi, or any traditional discipline.  Nevertheless, it persisted on a grassroots level.  “In that time, 1970s, Tai Chi is not that popular,” remembers James.  “It's not like now.  The people were just working.  It's only for elderly people who want to exercise the body.  And actually, in China in that period, men or lady, all have to work.  The society is very fair to everyone.  You have to work to get money.  And however high your level, or how low your work, the wages is quite similar.  Not like now.  So some elderly people still like the old way of China.  They're thinking that society is more fair, not like now, you know?  In that time, 1970, many people doing, but it's not like now – so many people – in all level – especially the high level now join to the Tai Chi group.  That time, it was very medium and lower class.  Of course, also have higher class, but like I say, whole society is very fair, very even.

“For my family, where I born, I always see people come to my house to learn, to practice Tai Chi.  Never stop.  Every day, every night, have at least about ten or twenty people in my house to practice.  And my grandfather, every night, with my father, they are teaching.  So I know things – two or three years old – already see.  So when I start, when I'm five years old, Tai Chi already in my mind.  So really I'm in the family of Tai Chi – grow up in this situation, you know?”


Opening the Door

In 1978, China began to open up.  Deng Xiaoping launched a new Open Door Policy, which opened Special Economic Zones that permitted trade again with the outside world.  It was the first major step towards modernization and triggered societal changes across the nation.  And for James Fu, it gave him his first taste of America, or at least American soda.  “So in that time, we can only practice at home or in park.  We don't have a good facility.  We don't have a good gym or club.  In that time in China – impossible.  People, if they have one piece of bread, already very happy.  We don't even see the Coca Cola. [laughs]  In the 1980s, that was the very first time.  It was in the very high class hotel – Shanghai Jinjiang Hotel (上海锦江??) – first time I have a Coca Cola.  And we are drinking the Coca Cola, and take the empty can back, to showing off, you know?  So that time, we can only practice at home.  Lucky my house have a little space outside, like a garden, a courtyard, for the neighbors.  In the summer, we are all enjoying outside.  At that time, in the house, in the summer, no air conditioning.  If you are rich, you have a fan.  Otherwise, only use a hand fan. [laughs]”

“My grandfather always continued to teach me until he passing away in 1994.  My father, he travelled a lot so he don't have as much time to teach me.  My father is more busy than my grandfather actually.  He's more younger.  Like I say, from 1970, not many people doing Tai Chi, but starting from 1980s, China is open.  Then more people want to learn the martial art, for the health reasons, for the art reason, and also the people's life is getting better.  So in 1980s, my father is quite busy to travel around China to teach Tai Chi.”

The Open Door Policy breathed new life into the Chinese martial arts.  Martial arts programs were reinstated and competitions were held again.  Everything changed again.  “In China, the competition, international or nationwide, they really cared if you get a gold medal or what, because how many gold medals you get is really connected [to] your wallet. [laughs]  So from 1968 to the '80s, Shanghai Wushu team is terrible.  Don't get nothing.  But in that period, the Cultural Revolution, the politics, the fighting, people don't really care.  But in 1980s, China changed – Open – again connecting with your wallet.  So they asked him to come back.  And then, the Shanghai Wushu Team suddenly getting better.”  The new competition circuit gave birth to Modern Sport Wushu.


Modern Wushu and Tai Chi

As fate would have it, James studied under his grandfather in school as well as at home.  When he came of age, he made the team.  “I'm also the Shanghai Wushu Team – the professional.  I'm doing modern, and also Shaolin, from 14 until 17.  That's why I'm saying I'm very special.  I'm learning in the house with the family way and also I'm the member of Wushu Shanghai.  And my grandfather, he is the team coach.  In 1980s, no jincai taolu (competition routines 競賽套路).  It's only the authentic.  So my grandfather is a coach.  I'm the member.  So this is work.  The government pay him to work.  And pay me to work – to learn.  I get a salary.  For Chinese martial art wushu family, this kind of situation is very unique.

“In 1988, I'm the National Tai Chi Champion.  So that's why my boss, my team leader, their money will be more because my team members are national champions [too].”

Modern Wushu was much different for James’ generation.  While the founding of the PRC is commonly cited as the birthdate for Modern Wushu, it really didn’t take shape until the '80s.  As China opened, the traditions of Kung Fu and Tai Chi started to incorporate new notions of sports competition and mold Modern Wushu in that image.  “It's a different situation.  In the school, we are doing more physically – the new sports training – running, weight training, you know?  But in the class of Tai Chi, he taught exactly the same way he teach other students.  When my grandfather was the coach, his students win the China gold medals.  Champions of Tai Chi.  Actually he's a good coach.  So that's why my grandfather retired in '68, then back home, teach at home, until 1986.  Nearly 20 years at home.  Then again, they invite him back to Wushu Shanghai team.  So that's why in my period, he's my coach again.  [laughs]  He's eighty plus.”


The 50th Anniversary of the Yongnian Tai Chi Chuan Association

In 1994, James came to America with his grandfather to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Yongnian Tai Chi Chuan Association.  The U.S. Tour travelled to Richmond, Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington DC, University of Alabama, and San Francisco, California.  It was an amazing experience for them, but it ended sadly.  Fu Zhongwen passed away two months after he returned to China from that trip.

“He was healthy,” James says with a sigh.  “But when he got back to China, the Sports Bureau send him to a body check – it's just a normal body check – and find out his heart have a little bit problem.  So they want to look after him to have a further check-out.  Then my grandfather, he's an old-fashioned man.  He don't like hospital.  He never go to hospital.  So he get very sensitive and say, 'No, no, no.  I don't want.  I want to go home.  And I have so many students waiting for me.'  And in that period, there was a Japanese delegation already in Shanghai, waiting for him.  So he say, 'This afternoon, my Japanese students are there.  I have to teach them.'  So he stubbornly want out of the hospital.  My grandfather say, 'That hospital is far from my house.' So he want to go to the Number One People's Hospital.  So they change hospital for him.  In that period of China, the hospital beds is not enough.  The patient have to wait for the bed.  Sometimes waiting for two days, just outside the room, with chair, waiting for one bed.  My grandfather lucky – because he is a famous person, when he go there, one person just die.  And the people remove his body, cleaning the bed and empty the bed, ready for him.  He see everything.  So when he get the bed, he refused to lay on the bed. Dead body just removed.  He just doesn't want to lie down, sleep, on that bed.  So he sitting one day, one night, on the chair, with an empty bed.  Then the second day, other students come to look after him.  He ask, 'How my face look?'  And the students say, 'Looks good.  Good color.'  You know my grandfather.  And then my grandfather say, 'Okay.  Go home.'  So he went to go home.  And then from the hospital to home, he catch a cold.  Then he go to home, without the key, so he have to outside the house, waiting for the key delivered, so he really get a cold during that time.  Then the second day, he get a lung infection.  Then two more days, he's busy teaching students.  At home for three or four days with high temperature, coughing, then go to the hospital for two days.  And just after two days in the morning, he had phlegm, they tried to give something to suck out the phlegm.  At that time – choke – because he die from choke.

“This is ridiculous.  This is life.  From the body check 'til he die – one week.”

Fu’s sudden death shocked the martial arts world.  In the Spring 1995 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi (then titled Kungfu Wushu Qigong), a nine-page tribute was published, “Grand Master Fu Zhong Wen Remembered,” with contributions from Gigi Oh, James Fu, Jonathan Miller, Xiang Lang Lu, Fred Spencer, Daniel Weng, Larry Young and the co-star from Enter the Dragon (1973) John Saxon.


Tai Chi Today – Martial Art or Just Exercise?

Nowadays, Tai Chi has spread to almost everywhere on the planet, even high above it.  Up in the air, on China Eastern Airlines (中国東方航空) flights longer than three hours, passengers are treated to a Tai Chi exercise video that features James.  “I think in this day, Tai Chi has become a worldwide Chinese art.  But as a worldwide art, it's more close to Tai Chi sport – Tai Chi exercise.  It's already watered down lots of the Tai Chi martial art.  Now the Tai Chi is Tai Chi exercise.”

This has become a sticking point for many traditional practitioners.  Subtracting out the combat applications effectively emasculates it as a martial art.  But despite James deeply traditional upbringing, he keeps an open mind.  “Is Tai Chi exercise or is Tai Chi art?  I think today, most people get the benefit from Tai Chi – definitely.  But they all get the benefit of exercise.  You know if you have food, better than you don't have nothing, right?  You don't choose what you eat.  If you have bread, better than you don't have anything.  Same thing – if you have exercise, better than you are lazy – sitting on the sofa, drinking a Coca Cola.

“So it doesn't matter these days.  People pick up what they want.  Anything happy and simple is good.  For the first stage, Tai Chi art or Tai Chi exercise, doesn't matter.  But further, when you really go into the Tai Chi, when you start to understand what is the Tai Chi, then you better make the decision.  What are you going to learn?  Who you going to learn [from]?  So this is my way.  For my generation of Tai Chi descendants and masters, we need to open mind.  You cannot like before say, 'Learn from me.  The others no right.  The others no good.  Only me the best.'  No, I can't say that.  You go ahead.  You go train.

“But when you go into it, and you like it – Tai Chi – then you can choose more different variety or you choose the master you like.  Give the idea to the world – China is open.  China likes to share the good things to the world.  Tai Chi is one of the good things of Chinese culture. And also, it's not only old things.  It's the new idea of the Chinese art.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Summer 2019

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About Gene Ching :
See Grandmaster James Fu Qingquan demonstrate Yang Tai Chi, on the KungFuMagazine.com YouTube Channel and view “Fu Qingquan – The Belt and Road China Tai Chi Culture World Tour.”

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