JianFeng Chen was 11 years old when he left his home in Zhangzhou, China, to study wushu — Chinese martial arts — with the Fujian provincial team in the capital of Fuzhou. When he traveled back home to visit his family, he would usually be met at the city bus station by his mother or father, but sometimes he would hop on a bicycle cab (taxis were not yet common in Zhangzhou in the early 1990s) and arrive on his parents’ doorstep as a surprise.
So when Chen, now 39 and the owner of Oregon Tai Chi Wushu in Bend, took 18 of his American students and their family members on a tour of China last month, that was how he wanted to introduce them to his hometown: with a fleet of bicycle cabs to pedal them to his parents’ home, where dinner and an eager family were waiting for them.
“I don’t go home often, but I can feel my childhood,” Chen said of the trip through the streets of Zhangzhou. “That’s a good memory.”
But the visit to Chen’s hometown was just one stop on the seven-city, 18-day tour, which also featured sightseeing at historic temples, training sessions with four different Chinese wushu teams and schools and the Dekun Taiji Cup, a tournament that included more than 350 competitors from China, the United States and Canada.
The trip gave the Bend students a chance to see and practice tai chi and wushu with elite practitioners, but, perhaps more important, Chen also wanted them to see how tai chi fits into everyday life in China and get to know some of the students and teachers personally.
Several of the Oregon students said they were excited to see locals practicing tai chi — still a niche activity here in Bend — as a common form of exercise in Chinese parks, as common as runners or cyclists in the U.S.
“I loved how all the parks, they would have coat racks in the park where you hang up your coat and dance or do tai chi in the park,” said Lalana Tran, a 14-year-old Oregon Tai Chi Wushu student. “It was amazing.”
Tai chi is typically slow-paced, which makes it attractive to all ages, but all movements are based on historical hand-to-hand combat. Hand-held weapons, such as swords and whips, can be incorporated into the movements. There are five main styles of tai chi, each attributed to a historical master of the martial art, and countless different offshoots and varieties from there, but most practitioners are familiar with at least a few of the most popular forms, or tai chi sequences.
“Tai chi was barrier-breaking,” said Allen Groh, 60, another of the Bend students. “Everyone, no matter the language, can step in. You know tai chi? I know tai chi. Let’s do tai chi together.”
Groh said he went on a walk on his own early during the trip and spotted an older man doing tai chi. When Groh recognized the form, he joined in.
“He had a big smile, double thumbs up,” after they finished, Groh recounted. “And I went, ‘my trip is made.’”
The Bend group also visited a number of schools that teach tai chi and wushu in the same sort of structured environment that Chen learned in. In Taizhou, Zhejiang, a city of nearly 6 million on the East China Sea, the Bend students stayed in the dorms at the Taizhou International Culture and Wushu School, home to 2,500 students who focus on southern-style tai chi.
“They wash their own clothes,” Ian Stuehling, 9, said of the Taizhou students, many of whom are just a few years older than him. “I’m not used to hand washing. It’s difficult.”
Tran said Master Chen often tells her classes about how strict his teachers were when he was a student, but she said she was still impressed by the precision of a typical practice at the schools they visited.
“We’re a pretty goofy bunch of people because we’re all really comfortable with each other, but (the Chinese students) were so focused when they were practicing; they were just so clear and sharp,” Tran said. “And then as soon as class was over, they were running around, screaming and being total goofs. Even after just seeing them, I was practicing better. I improved by watching them, and that’s amazing.”
Unlike other forms of martial arts, such as karate or taekwondo, which feature sparring between practitioners, tai chi and wushu are often performed solo. (Although wushu can be used to describe all martial arts in China, in the U.S. it typically refers to a more energetic or “external” performance, while tai chi is slower and more meditative.) In competition, practitioners are judged on their form in much the same way gymnasts or ice skaters are, with points awarded or deducted based on the placement of fingers and where toes are pointed or how low a competitor sinks into a crouch.
Ten Oregon Tai Chi Wushu students competed at the Dekun Taiji Cup in Hangzhou on March 31, and Tran was named grand champion for her snake-style wushu and taiji sword performances. Tran took the top spot over a Chinese competitor, beating her by such a slim margin that for several minutes there was confusion as to who had actually won.
“She let me borrow her straight sword, because we weren’t allowed to bring weapons (on the plane),” Tran said of her closest competitor. “So if she hadn’t let me borrow her straight sword, then I might not have been able to do that.”
As grand champion, Tran was awarded a trophy and prize money by Grandmaster Wu Bin, a legendary coach who has trained numerous wushu champions in China. On this side of the Pacific, however, he is probably best known as the teacher of action-movie star Jet Li.
And the interaction will likely not be a one-off meeting. Since Chen and his wife, Karin, and their students returned to Oregon, they received a message from Wu Bin, asking if they are going to compete at the Tiger Claw Elite Championships in San Jose, California, later this month, as he would be in attendance. (They will.)
And that is the world of wushu that Master Chen wished to share with his students on their trip to China: It is much wider than their school in Bend and the West Coast-based competitions they regularly attend but still interconnected and supportive, like a family you do not get to see as often as you wish you could.
“This is a school, but if you have a great community it’s a family. We’re lucky; a lot of students come here to feel the community,” Chen said. “It feels warm. This is a martial art, this is a sport, this is a business. But in the meantime, it’s a family.”
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