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Pan Qingfu: Wushu Masters You Should Know

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PAN QINGFU: WUSHU MASTERS YOU SHOULD KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written July 3rd, 2017

“‘When I teach, I demonstrate each movement many times so the students can imitate me.  First I show them; then I tell them the meanings: why you do this, why you do that.  Everyone changes very fast when they know the meanings.  If you can’t teach self-defense and you don’t know the meanings of the movements, then don’t teach martial arts.’” —Pan Qingfu, Kung Fu Magazine “Iron Fist Master Pan’s Champions”

Abstract: This is the fifth edition of a segment of write-ups entitled “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This series is dedicated to the recognition of great Wushu masters who have made great contributions to Chinese Wushu.  Sections of each edition will be divided into the individual’s background history, perspectives on Wushu, and why they are worthy of recognition.  These Wushu masters are not to be confused with modern Wushu coaches, athletes and champions.  This specific edition will recognize Pan Qingfu.

As if June was not filled with enough tragedy from the passing of Ma Xianda and Lau Kar-leung during the month of June, it seems we in the Wushu community must lament the passing of yet another Wushu Grandmaster.  Perhaps the recent string of deaths of Wushu Grandmasters in the past few years is a sign of the passing times for Wushu, and the true end of our great seniors and masters in the Wushu community.  Personally, I am going to find it more and more difficult to be able to enjoy the summer, and the month of June with such sad incidents bookending the month.  On June 29th (Eastern Time, US & Canada), 2017, Wushu Grandmaster Pan Qingfu passed away.

At the time of this writing, the details of his passing are unknown to this writer.  Pan Qingfu could easily be considered a true Wushu master, one of the few true masters to have a background in both traditional and modern Wushu.  The death of such a historical figure in Wushu is a tragic loss for everyone in the Wushu community, though it seems that only those who have been involved in the Wushu community for a long time and those that have done their research know who this man is, and as time goes by, fewer and fewer young Wushu practitioners today are unaware of such old masters as this man.  If you don’t know who this man is by now, you should have.  And this is why I have decided to write about him, to help spread recognition of this great master on the first anniversary of his passing.

In an effort to recognize such Wushu masters, I have decided to start a segment I’d like to call, “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  In this context, the use of the term “Wushu master” does not refer simply to coaches, athletes and champions of modern Wushu, who have only represented Wushu in the sport, performance and competitive sense, and will instead only be reserved for those who have actually earned the title in a complete traditional martial arts sense, as I have found in my personal research of Wushu.  As stated previously, Pan Qingfu was one such master who involved in both traditional and modern Wushu.  And in the wake of his passing, I would consider myself negligent if I didn’t take the time to write about him to recognize and pay respect to him.  This is the fifth edition of “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This is Pan Qingfu.

Background History

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Unfortunately, like the cause of his death, when exactly Pan Qingfu was born and what his life was like when he was young is a mystery.  What can be verified is that he was born in Shandong province, China.  What comes afterward is well-known in the Wushu community; if there ever was a Wushu career decorated with many relevant accomplishments in contemporary times, it is Pan Qingfu’s.  He is credited as one of the choreographers for, and also had a starring role in Jet Li’s debut film The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolínsì).  He is also known from his starring role in the movie Iron & Silk as himself, where the movie apparently documents the real life experience of Mark Salzman from his book of the same name, also starring as himself in the movie, during his time learning Wushu and teaching English in China.  But perhaps most famously, Pan Qingfu is known for the taking down of triad members under the mandate of the Chinese government, as well as for teaching special forces.  As a Wushu coach, he was first coach of the Hunan Wushu Team, and later the Tianjin Wushu Team, leading both to championship results with duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets) routines during his time with each, and even producing Tianjin Wushu Team members and champions Lang Rongbiao and Hou Dongmei.

Of course, an account of Pan Qingfu’s life and accomplishments would be incomplete without his famous tiequan (铁拳; Tiěquán, literally “iron fist”) gongfu, which earned him the eponymous nickname “Iron Fist” (no pun intended on the Marvel character of the same name, or the show which ends up falling short of any potential expectations).  There are stories where people observed Pan Qingfu constantly cultivating his tiequan skill by constantly hitting and conditioning his knuckles on a sheet of metal, which resulted in calluses on his knuckles.  Such dedication to his art was truly the definition and embodiment of gongfu (功夫; gōngfu), literally means skill or effort achieved over a long amount of time.  Following his career in China, Pan Qingfu moved to Canada, where he continued to teach.

Perspectives on Wushu

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As a master with such a strong traditional background who was trained in Chinese martial arts prior to the Cultural Revolution, and having seen firsthand the change of Wushu before and after, one would naturally think that someone of Pan Qingfu’s standing would be against modern Wushu.  However, as established, this is not the case.  In the movie Iron & Silk, Pan Qingfu states, “We don’t call it kung-fu.  Here [China] we call it wushu.” to Mark.  Chinese martial arts has been mistranslated worldwide as “kungfu”, which itself is a Romanization and mispronunciation of “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu)  in Chinese.  As previously stated, gōngfu means “skill”, whereas Wushu is the more literal and accurate term for Chinese martial arts, however gōngfu is still being used by traditional Wushu practitioners, dubbed “traditionalists”, to distinguish it from the term “Wushu”, which generally refers to modern Wushu, though again, Wushu can be used to refer to all Chinese martial arts.  Pan Qingfu’s statement implies a sort of solidarity with the definition and perspective of Wushu as the definition of Chinese martial arts in mainland China.  Before his time as a modern Wushu coach, Pan Qingfu was even known to have competed in modern Wushu Taolu.  In fact, there is a video on YouTube of Pan Qingfu performing a Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) Taolu, complete with a cekongfan (侧空翻; cèkōngfān, aerial) and xuanzi (旋子; xuànzi, butterfly), yet still at the same time abundant with movements pertaining to traditional techniques.  Perhaps most interesting is his teaching style.  In his interview with Kung Fu Magazine “Iron Fist Master Pan’s Champions” by Dianne Naughton, he states, “‘When I teach, I demonstrate each movement many times so the students can imitate me.  First I show them; then I tell them the meanings: why you do this, why you do that.  Everyone changes very fast when they know the meanings.  If you can’t teach self-defense and you don’t know the meanings of the movements, then don’t teach martial arts.’”  Despite the fact that modern Wushu Taolu was ultimately a competition event based on exhibition and performance, Pan Qingfu’s views reflect his martial mentality, which still had the influences of traditional Wushu in his practice, and predates the generation of Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, which is the first of what modern Wushu fans recognize as old school Wushu.  He could also be considered a co-creator of sorts of modern Wushu Ditangquan (地躺拳; Dìtǎngquán) style, having advised Wushu legend and champion Zhao Changjun to change his style after Zhao was cut from the 1974 Beijing Wushu Team White House Tour, who in turn based Ditangquan off of drunken style, due to having no access to the traditional Ditangquan, which was thought to be lost.  Modern Wushu Ditangquan would in turn later be used by the Tianjin Wushu Team under Pan Qingfu.

Pan Qingfu’s approach to training were also different from the usual training methods of other coaches.  During his time as coach of professional Chinese provincial Wushu teams, he seemed to have a holistic approach, being receptive to his students’ psychological needs and wants, while still maintaining discipline and hard training.  “‘I didn’t copy anyone or follow any other team.  I made my own road.  I taught very special and dangerous techniques that no other team could do.  I know how to teach the dangerous movements and make them safe so nobody got hurt.’”  He is also quoted as saying, “‘As you get older, your body gets younger.’”  Thus, it is clear that the awareness of both the psychology and proper body mechanics of practitioners is vital to the safe and healthy practice of Wushu.

Why This Person Matters

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So why does this person matter?  Firstly, based on his law enforcement accomplishments, he is the closest thing to a real life hero you could get in Wushu.  Despite his traditionalist background, he did not shy away from the performance aspects of modern Wushu.  He contributed to The Shaolin Temple film, which was the catalyst for reinvigorating the real Shaolin and its Shaolin Wushu, and served as the inspiration of a whole generation of Wushu athletes and martial artists in China.  As a modern Wushu coach, is teaching style encompassed attentiveness to the physical and mental health of his students, as well as the deeper level of Wushu practice, which included the martial applications and fighting ideas of Chinese martial arts.  All these have earned him respect in the Wushu community.

But perhaps more relevant, his involvement and views in modern Wushu should inform us about our own practice of Wushu.  Firstly, modern Wushu Taolu has historically been criticized for a lack of martial content and depth.  The sharing of martial applications and fighting ideas can help to address this flaw in modern Wushu practice, and help to make modern Wushu more complete as a form of modern martial arts.  Part of this means looking back on modern Wushu’s traditional roots in Chinese martial arts styles, something that Pan Qingfu’s traditional background exemplified.  The summation of all this reflects my longstanding thesis for most of my write-ups, which is that while modern Wushu is not on the same level of martial arts as traditional gongfu, it should still retain the depth of its traditional counterpart, to have some legitimacy as a practice of martial arts.  There is also the criticism that the practice of modern Wushu, as with most competitive sports, is unsafe and leads to major, sometimes crippling injuries.  This in turn leads to the observation that most modern Wushu athletes have short competitive and athletic careers, due to having their bodies broken down by intensive training.  But following the stead of Pan Qingfu’s coaching example, the analysis and breaking down of risky, physically extraneous movements and techniques into safe progressions of natural and healthy body mechanics can help to reduce the likelihood of injury.  This can help to promote Wushu as a safe and healthy martial arts practice, and is very similar to Zhao Changjun’s opinion about the relationship between traditional and modern Wushu in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, where he states, “‘There should be a good relationship between traditional and modern wushu. They should have more interchange. This could lengthen the competitive life of modern wushu. It could increase development and provide more room to grow. You need two legs to walk: one is modern wushu, one is traditional. You cannot give up one of them.’”

Thus, Pan Qingfu is someone who is worthy of representing Wushu in a complete sense physically, martially and intellectually, not just in the sport and competition sense.  Again, this goes back to the misuse of the word “master” to refer to coaches, athletes and champions of modern Wushu.  However, most of these so-called Wushu “masters” are more often than not modern Wushu athletes, who could only represent Wushu in the sport and competition sense; while this is not to put down the ability, skill and experience of modern Wushu athletes, their expertise is more often than not only restricted to this one aspect of Wushu, and not complete in terms of actual martial arts foundation, fighting ability, and intellectual understanding.  There are very few modern Wushu athletes that I believe could adequately represent Wushu in a complete sense, and they are not the Wushu champions and athletes that people normally would think of today.  However, there are plenty of Wushu masters that could more than represent Wushu in all of these aspects, and Pan Qingfu is definitely part of that list for me.

Pan Qingfu is clearly a real Wushu master in every sense.  His passing is truly a loss to the Wushu community, and his memory and influence should be acknowledged and respected by us all.  In the spirit of sharing great knowledge and information, I have decided to include educational and relevant links at the end of this write-up, for those who are interested in learning more about this great master.

Kung Fu Magazine article “Iron Fist Master Pan’s Champions”: http://www.kungfumagazine.com/magazine/article.php?article=57

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.