Among Li Youfu’s most searing memories as a child were the scenes of a drunken official—the cadre in charge of porridge rations—beating the elderly and stealing the hard-earned money mailed home from soldiers deployed at the frontier, as his village starved during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.
He soon made up his mind to study martial arts.
That was in 1961, when Li was 11. The wanton acts had planted in him a firm sense of justice, and the desire to act upon it. But as his training progressed, he came to realize that traditional Chinese martial arts, called wushu in Mandarin and kung fu in the West, aren’t all about fighting, or even strictly about physical strength at all.
“It demands martial virtue,” Li said in a recent interview, referring to the moral and spiritual standards, long-neglected in the modern wushu scene, that once defined the ancient tradition.
These ideas, which have guided the bulk of Li’s career in martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, and qigong training, will be given a major platform in New York State later this year, with a competition that Li will be presiding judge over. Li has been involved in the International Chinese Traditional Martial Arts Competition, hosted by a Chinese television network, for nearly a decade. The event in 2016 will be one of the biggest yet, and another opportunity to pass wushu’s authentic roots to the younger generation.
Li, who is proficient in multiple schools of wushu—northern, southern, internal and external ways—looks a decade younger than his 66 years. Linking all the schools together is a comprehensive philosophy of cultivated strength and moral demand.
For the traditional practitioner, wushu is not merely a set of combat techniques, but a rich artform for the expression of inner virtues and character. Wushu, Li explains, is at its roots related to classical Chinese dance. Much of the movement and poise is identical.
“Classical Chinese dance is beautiful and unfurling,” he said. “Wushu carries a beauty of its own, the application of mechanical principles. It is also applicable in real combat.”
The vast diversity of Chinese martial arts can be roughly divided into two schools: the internal and external. Northern wushu come from a multitude of schools, while the southern disciplines stem from a common root.
“Internal disciplines” refer to a less strictly physical style of wushu, focusing on the flow of energy, mental state, and thought processes. Among them are Tai Chi, Bagua Palm, and Xingyi Fist.
“External” wushu takes an opposite approach, beginning with fitness and control of the muscles before working inward.
Indeed, as Li expounds in his teachings about martial virtue, there are three stages of wushu mastery, first, to attack, second, to defend, and lastly, to neither defend nor attack, and “act at will with complete mastery.”
Despite the harsh political atmosphere through the 1960s and 1970s, Li proved a worthy student. “For ten years I did my master proud,” he said of an instructor he began learning with in 1968, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. “I practiced tirelessly, be the weather frozen cold or scorching heat.”
During the late 1980s, as a practitioner of both martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine, Li Youfu served on a research team headed by the famous Chinese rocket scientist Qian Xuesen. Better known for his achievements as father of China’s space program, Qian was also a powerful backer of study into the effects of traditional Chinese disciplines including wushu and qigong.
Like the meditative qigong practices, which are usually associated with Taoist or Buddhist spiritual cultivation, martial arts also pays attention to the flow of qi or energy about the body. By practicing the slow movements of tai chi, for instance, Li was able to gain a deeper appreciation for the internal dynamic governing the human body.
As Li Youfu grew in prominence, he began teaching and treating patients applying the knowledge he learned in his studies. After moving to the United States in the early 1990s, Li became a licensed practitioner of acupuncture as well as a doctor of Oriental medicine, and taught at the Alhambra Medical University in Los Angeles for 20 years.
A Law to Govern the Heart
For a dedicated traditional martial arts practitioner like Li Youfu, the key to a higher level of performance lies in an internalized spiritual code, called “xinfa” or literally “law of the heart” in Chinese.
Li had experimented with all sorts of faiths and philosophies, from Buddhism and Taoism to Christianity. He searched in many temples and scriptures only to feel a sense that the essentials had not been passed down.
“No matter how hard I tried to apply what the books taught, I experienced no significant improvements,” Li said. “They all seemed to beat around the bush rather than let you understand any deeper meaning.
In 1996, Li found what he was looking for in Falun Gong, a popular qigong discipline that had spread to millions since it was first taught in 1992. A renowned Chinese opera tenor, Guan Guimin, introduced him to the practice: it charged no fees, required no registration, and prescribed a simple set of meditation exercises and a body of unpretentious yet rigorous standards for spiritual self improvement in accordance with Buddhist and Taoist teachings.
“After taking up cultivation in Falun Dafa [another name for Falun Gong], I no longer feel any regrets. The practice far surpasses even the highest levels of wushu.”
Preserving the Essence of Wushu
Li’s practice of Falun Gong also brought him closer to a community of martial artists who shared his aspirations to achieve not fame nor wealth, but ever-higher standards of excellence in the traditional wushu disciplines.
New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD), a Chinese-language broadcaster fiercely independent of the Chinese regime, fostered this community in 2008 when it hosted the first International Chinese Traditional Martial Arts Competition. The event is being held in two parts: first, a general competition to be held in Taiwan on June 4. Then, a final set of rounds will follow in Middletown, upstate New York, on Sept. 17 and 18.
Part of what motivates the event organizers is the goal of preserving martial arts as it was once practiced, not the modern mixture of acrobatics and theatrical stunts. Communist repression had created a gap between the older and younger Chinese generations, wushu was altered to suit new interests.
NTD’s event is strict about keeping the competition about authentic wushu. “We don’t want the ‘new fist’ in our event,” Li said. “It’s lost the genuine, deeper meaning of wushu.”
The so-called “new fist” styles stripped wushu of its spiritual component—the communists were against religious faith or classical philosophies—and later commercialized, with severe consequences to the tradition and inner meaning of martial arts.
“The disciplinary, health-related, and practical elements have all vanished,” Li said.
The competition, Li says, gives both the audience and contestants a forum to experience and develop traditional martial arts, and to understand its inner significance: “You have to know it to be able to appreciate it and see its real value.”
Juliet Song contributed to this report.