Introduction: The Shadow of History
None of the short, English language, biographies of the respected martial artist and actor Yu Chenghui (1939-2015) have much to say about his struggles or activities during the Cultural Revolution. Yet even a brief glimpse at the timeline of his career suggests that these events had a notable impact on his evolution as a martial artist.
How could it be otherwise? The social foundations of the traditional Chinese martial arts were effectively destroyed during the era of High Socialism that followed the 1949 liberation of the Mainland. Once the social and economic ecosystem that had supported and promoted these fighting systems was destroyed, the public practice of the folk martial arts vanished with surprising speed. The newly instituted state sponsored Wushu framework, including regional tournaments and both local and provincial teams, grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Yet these state sponsored institutions also found their legitimacy challenged during the period of disruption that followed.
Daniel Amos has argued that the actual impact of the Cultural Revolution on the survival and evolution of the Chinese martial arts is a much more complicated subject than it might first appear. He has demonstrated that the folk arts disappeared with so little protest in large part because new social institutions were put in place that provided many of the same sorts of assurances that they had previously provided. And, at the risk of oversimplifying, staying in the Party’s good graces was the key to maintaining access to these benefits and enjoying a safe and relatively stable life after 1949.
The Cultural Revolution was such a disruptive event precisely because it did not only focus its attacks on the artifacts of traditional Chinese culture. Rather, once unleashed the Red Guards also turned their attention to many of the newly created social institutions and bargains that a previous generation of revolutionary leadership had put in place. As former folk martial artists and repentant gangsters saw their positions of stability eroded during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution they began to actively reform their social structures and to restore their practices. Private patronage and teaching networks that had previously been sidelined by social reforms once again looked like a possible survival strategy.
At the same time that official Wushu was coming under increased scrutiny, the groundwork was quietly being laid for an explosion of interest in the China’s older historic and folk styles. While the sudden emergence of a “public park” Taiji and Kung Fu would have to wait for the end of the Cultural Revolution, it would be hard to underestimate the importance of this period in sparking the “era of restoration” that followed.
I have occasionally wondered whether and how the folk arts would have been able to reemerge on the mainland without the Cultural Revolution. One suspects that if it had happened at all, it would have occurred much later and by very different means. It seems doubtful that the “Kung Fu Fever” that gripped China in the early 1980s would have emerged in the absence of the Cultural Revolution.
These large scale political and social shifts might at first appear to play little role in Master Yu Chenghui’s life. Yet as we will see they helped to shape the historical stage upon which his martial genius could expand.
Before proceeding with this discussion a few of my regular disclaimers are in order. I do not claim any relationship with Yu or his martial clan, and I have no private knowledge about his life or teachings to divulge. Instead I am interested in exploring what the distinct stages of his career suggest about the evolution of the Chinese martial arts in the 20th century. Most of the biographical material in this essay can be found in various published articles and obituaries that came out following his death in 2015.
The Life of Yu Chenghui
Yu Chenghui was born on August 16th, 1939, in Penglai, Shandong Province. A port city on the Pacific coast, it was the sort of environment that might nurture dreams of knight-errantry in the young and a yearning to reconstruct the region’s lost military history on the part of the more educated. The city had once been a fortified naval base and it was rightly famous for its stone towers and walls in addition to its historic courtyards and gardens. It had even been home to the illustrious “wall builder” and martial arts innovator General Qi Jiguang. He was famous both for his work on the expansion of the Great Wall during the Ming era and for publicly advocating the use of boxing as a training tool in the Chinese military. For these reasons, as well as the beautiful views, Penglai had actually been something of a minor tourist attraction for over 500 years before Yu’s birth.
Unfortunately this was not to be. Yu’s father was forced to leave the area and fled to Taiwan while his son was still very young. I am not sure whether this happened during WWII or the Chinese civil war. One way or another it changed Yu’s fate.
The young boy was sent to Qingdao (another coastal city in Shandong) where he was put to work on a local farm. There he exhibited an early interest in the martial arts and the village elders allowed him to begin his formal training. In a feature article (based on an interview) in a 2012 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine, Yu states that his first teachers were Li Shuzan and Hong Junsheng. The later appears to be the longtime student of Chen Fake who had recently relocated to Shandong after also falling on hard times. Yu was 11 years old when he began his formal training (probably sometime around 1950). Shortly thereafter he was accepted as a student at the Qingdao Amateur Sports School where he studied the martial arts within the newly emerging Wushu sector.
From a young age Yu showed great aptitude in his new profession. In 1959 he won a championship title at a regional Wushu event held in Qingdao after competing successfully in four categories. His performance in this venue led to a number of offers, and in 1960 he accepted an invitation to enroll in Shandong Sports University and join the Shandong Professional Wushu Team.
According to accounts related later in his life, it was at this point that Yu began to develop a sustained interest in various double handed longsword styles. At the time there were no competition routines featuring two handed straight swords (shuang shou jian) within the Wushu establishment. Yet long sabers, and to a lesser extent swords, had been objects of periodic fascination within Chinese martial circles for some time. One of these cycles had occurred during the Republic era when a number of martial artists had started to reconsider what was by then an obscure, largely forgotten, weapon. In fact, one of the very first images I ever posted on this blog includes a 1930s era swordsman holding a shaung shao jian on stage at some sort of public demonstration, probably in northern China.
This interest was especially pronounced in Shandong Province. Local Mantis Boxing traditions had developed a number of long sword styles. A quick search of youtube verifies that these are still widely taught and practiced today.
While researching the historical background of these weapons, Yu states that he studied the classic works of Cheng Zhongyou, the seminal Ming era martial arts writer and recorder of the Shaolin staff method. Cheng had also written on the subject of two handed sabers (a topic of increasing importance with the sudden appearance of large numbers of Japanese pirates along China’s coastal waterways). In his discussion of long, two handed weaponry, he stated that the shuang shou jian had fallen out of use after the Tang dynasty. From that point onward its method had been “lost.”
Cheng’s works were subsequently reprinted in the Republic era. While I have always suspected that most readers are most interested in his commentaries on life and training at the Shaolin Temple during the Ming Dynasty (which Shahar summarizes quite nicely) it seems that his work also fed a revival of interest in long swords and sabers among some practitioners. Could the lost Tang era methods be rediscovered?
Yu’s interpretation of the shuang shou jian method was slow in developing. The early 1960s were a time of great highs and lows in his career. In 1963 he won top honors in the traditional division of the Hua Dong Wushu Competition with this Drunken Jian routine. Unfortunately, later that same year he injured his leg in training. After not receiving timely medical attention he was told that his injury would effectively end any hope for a livelihood in the martial arts.
Following this blow Yu took a factory job and tried to focus on the task of recovery. While he had been told that he would never compete again, he also maintained an interest in the martial arts, continuing his own research and making contacts with other practitioners who shared his interest when possible. In total, Yu would spend close to a decade away from the official martial arts community.
Still, if one were to take a ten year break from publicly practicing the martial arts in mainland China, you would be hard pressed to think of a better time to start than the middle of the 1960s. Within a few years of his leg injury the Cultural Revolution erupted vastly complicating China’s social and martial landscape. This should not be taken to imply that all practice ceased during this period. As we saw in our introduction there was actually an uptick of activity and network formation as the folk arts began to reconstitute themselves. Still, all martial artists found it advantageous to keep their heads down and their practice private.
By the first half of the 1970s a sense of social normalcy was slowly restored. The death of Lin Bao in 1971 signaled the end of the active phase in the Cultural Revolution, and the trend towards restoration was accelerated in 1976 with the arrest of the Gang of Four. Most historians place the de facto end of the Cultural Revolution in this year. Yet the end of one era saw the birth of another. Increasingly citizens began to look to the past in an effort to save and reevaluate the cultural history that had survived.
This was a broadly based trend seen throughout Chinese society. A number of projects aimed at documenting the nation’s surviving folk martial art traditions were launched by Universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was in the midst of this collective striving to reclaim the past that Yu’s shaung shou jian method finally came to fruition.
Yu had spent the last 14 years studying related methods and materials. His form draws movements and inspiration from other late Qing/Republic era approaches to the problem. Indeed, when attempting to “resurrect” a lost method, in the absence of detailed manuals, there are very few other sources to draw on. Still Yu seems to have been determined to offer a complete and original rethink of the problem, drawing on his own research, and building a new longsword method from the ground up. What was still missing was a unique movement pattern to shape his developing swordplay technique.
His inspiration came with the end of the Cultural Revolution. After returning from a movie with his wife on the night of September 15th, 1975, a massive thunderstorm broke. As the rain fell Yu spotted a praying mantis (a totem insect for much of the region’s martial arts tradition) and observed the ways in which it responded to the onslaught of heavy rain drops. The result was an epiphany, a moment of sudden enlightenment. That night he completed his now famous longsword form.
Afterwards he recorded his insights in a classical Chinese poem titled “Realizing Swordsmanship.” In his feature with KFTC magazine Yu identified this as a pivotal moment in his life’s work.
Still, Yu’s shuang shou jian method meets the basic definition of an “invented tradition.” His explicit goal was not just to improve upon the other longsword forms that circulated throughout the region to during the Republic Period. Rather he sought to restore a complete method of manipulating two handed weapons that, according to no less an authority than Cheng Zhongyou, had been lost following the Tang Dynasty. With no written manuals to rely on he was forced to look at a variety of other sorts of documents, artifacts and still existing forms. Yet the critical ingredient seems to have been his own martial genius. Elements of his choreography have shown up in an increasing number of places over the years.
Nevertheless, the actual hurdle when promoting the restoration of a “lost technique” is convincing other individuals to accept it as such. Yu was remarkably successful in doing just this, but the process was far from automatic. He spent the next few years demonstrating and promoting his new method, and building enthusiasm for it. In 1979 he published a book titled “Shuang shaou jian 20 Methods.” Interestingly the text was written in rhymed classical Chinese couplets, much as a classic Ming era sword manual might be.
In the same year he was offered a position as the coach of the Ningxia Professional Wushu Team. Yu used this as a platform to perfect and popularize the public performance of his long-sword method. And when judges in regional competitions refused to allow competitors to perform his new form on the grounds that “no such weapon exists,” Yu would show up and give exhibitions to convince them otherwise. It was while giving one such performance with a borrowed Japanese Katana at a regional Wushu tournament that Yu was first spotted by two directors looking to cast the various roles of a new film titled “The Shaolin Temple.”
When approached Yu agreed to show up and demonstrate some of his sword work. At the time he had no idea that his life was once again about to change. How could he? The “Kung Fu Fever” that this film would unleash remains a unique phenomenon in modern Chinese popular culture. Yu’s role as the evil “Wang Renze” opposite Jet Li (along with his subsequent appearances in the next two Shaolin Temple sequels) made Yu a star in a film genera that did not yet exist in the Peoples Republic of China. It also spread images of his beloved long swords to audiences of a previously unimaginable size.
From this point forward Yu’s sword form became a regular and accepted feature of Wushu competitions, and the master himself made regular appearances in the world of film and later television. Over the next three decades Yu would be involved with a big project every two or three years. Starting in the early 2000s he increasingly turned his attention to wuxia style TV dramas including works based on Jin Yong’s incredibly popular novels. Readers with an interest in Wing Chun may note that in 2008 he played Ip Man in the TV series “Legends of Bruce Lee.”
Conclusion: The Beard of Zhou Tong
While Yu’s sword work was iconinc, among movie and TV fans he was perhaps most easily identified by his beard. Yu famously refused to shave it even when various directors asked him to. When asked about its significance in a 2005 interview Yu gave an answer that that may be useful in attempting to understand both the sources of his inspiration and subsequent legacy. He was reported to have said that he refused to shave his beard because he was hoping that one day he would be approached by a director who wanted him to play the role of Zhou Tong, another individual who is remembered as having a very fine white beard.
The historic Zhou Tong is better remembered as the legendary Yue Fei’s archery tutor. This alone would make him worthy of veneration, but Zhou’s significance has been vastly expanded in Chinese martial art fiction. In a series of steps he has progressed from being merely an archery tutor to a master of all sorts of martial arts never mentioned in the historic record. Likewise Republic era story tellers and later novelists dramatically expanded the field of martial fiction that Zhou could be found in. Eventually he even came to be seen as the instructor of a number of heroes popularized by Water Margin. Interestingly Yu also identifies Zhou as a figure associated with the characters from this classic novel.
One suspects that in directing the reader’s attention to Zhou Tong, the highly literate Yu was making an argument about his own martial ideals. In his life he also strove to balance the martial art and the civil, both in his professional research and his artistic pursuits (as a prolific poet and calligrapher). Like the later renditions of Zhou (who was famous for his spear forms) Yu had also created something new with the express goal of restoring elements of a more glorious past. And while audiences saw Yu primarily as a performer, it seems likely that he wanted to be remembered as a gentleman who had preserved China’s martial traditions by acting as a tutor to the upcoming generation. While, to the best of my knowledge, Yu never had a chance to play Zhou on screen, he embodied many of the values associated with his literary hero in the practice of his daily life.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (8): Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.