“What Made Yuan Wenqing So Great?”
“WHAT MADE YUAN WENQING SO GREAT?”
By: Matthew Lee
Written December 26th, 2015
“‘As someone once put it, Yuan Wenqing is like the Michael Jordan of China.’” —Kung Fu Magazine “China’s Brightest Star”
Abstract: This write-up is written to acknowledge and pay respect to one of Wushu’s most famous and respected legends and champions, Yuan Wenqing. Throughout his competitive career, Yuan Wenqing has left a remarkable and memorable impact on the Wushu’s sport history. In this write-up, I will attempt to cover Yuan Wenqing’s known background history and professional Wushu career, as well as break down how and why he was so great. It is sad that very few Wushu practitioners critically think about their sport and martial arts practice, and only see what was so great, but do not observe how or why. I will attempt to do so in this write-up.
On December 5th, 2015, the 11th Annual University Wushu Games were held by TerpWushu, the collegiate Wushu club of the University of Maryland, College Park, in the United States of America. As the name suggests, this tournament takes place every year, usually in the last quarter of the year, and took place at Ritchie Coliseum on campus of said university. And as one of the coaches of my collegiate Wushu club, I participate in training, coaching and taking willing students and club members to partake in this competition, in an effort to support and encourage participation in the collegiate Wushu community in the US. In my time as coach of my collegiate Wushu club, this year was the year that I brought the biggest team of competitors to competition, and considering the fact that these students and club members do not train regularly, as well as the results that have been consecutively earned over the years to this day, we had a pretty good showing (the idea and attitude of not taking competition training seriously is a relatively new concept I am personally beginning to grasp from a coaching standpoint, but it is what it is). However, as strange as this sounds, my view as a coach of an amateur collegiate Wushu club are that the competition results are not as important as the training approach, and the journey taken to improve their Wushu.
Depending on the skill level or experience, and specific competition division or event that the student is registering for, the student will practice and train the appropriate form. This year, I have had to coach one certain student in the Group B Compulsory (规定； guīdìng) Changquan Taolu, also known as 6th Duan Changquan or “Old Compulsory” Changquan, which I last did in 2013. As such, I have done my best to pursue the qualities of its model and creator, one of the greatest Wushu legends and champions in the history of Wushu, Yuan Wenqing. For my coaching, it was important, at least in my opinion, that I study and understand the qualities of what made Yuan Wenqing so great, so that I could somehow apply and impart this understanding to the relevant students that were training in his form. This brings me to the question of this write-up: “What made Yuan Wenqing so great?”
It’s easy to say that someone like Yuan Wenqing was great; after all, many Wushu fans and practitioners alike acknowledge that Yuan Wenqing was one of the greats in Wushu history. It’s another thing however, to actually think about and break down what made him great, especially when the sport of Wushu has evolved so much, with many different changes in format, generations and champions, since his time. It is important to point out, especially to those readers not familiar with Wushu, that when I say Wushu, I am specifically referring to modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition. Modern Wushu today is separated into two categories of competition; Taolu (套路； tàolù), the practice of forms and sequences, and Sanshou (散手； sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of full-contact and freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known as Sanda (散打； sàndǎ, free fighting). Given the subject matter we are talking about, this write-up will solely be focused on Taolu. When I was still doing research and reading about Wushu, I was waiting for someone to really go in-depth and break down the details and qualities of Yuan Wenqing as an athlete and performer, only to be disappointed. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to do so in this write-up.
So what made Yuan Wenqing so great? I could go on and on about all the things he could do and did, which undeniably made him awesome, and although I will try to touch on all these bases in this write-up, for the sake of being concise, I will limit it to three primary reasons. Yuan Wenqing was an example of modern Wushu’s traditional Chinese martial arts roots, was a masterful performer, and was a reflection of modern Wushu’s development. Now, you, reader, might be thinking, what does this mean exactly? Is this just some shallow attempt at being pretentious? Well, if you make it through this write-up, I will promise I will do my best to elaborate on all this and try to make what I stated clear. So, this is why what I feel made Yuan Wenqing so great.
First and foremost, I feel I should point out where I am coming from in my perceptions of Yuan Wenqing, since this is after all my opinion on what Yuan Wenqing so great. My first conscious awareness of Yuan Wenqing was this video on YouTube:
It was this video that first blew me away, and was the first video that made me take Wushu seriously, and begin to train seriously on a whole other level. This is ironic, since Yuan Wenqing is known for his Changquan (长拳； chángquán， Long Fist) and gunshu (棍术; gùnshù, staff event), and not as much for his daoshu (刀术; dāoshù, broadsword event), as is demonstrated in the video above. He was also part of the reason I chose to take up shuangdao (双刀； shuāngdāo, double broadsword), but I digress. I had actually first seen him in a very low quality recording of the Group B Compulsory Changquan Taolu, which I was competing in and studying for my first competition (needless to say, as a fresh competitive athlete who had never really performed seriously, I butchered Yuan Wenqing’s forms, but that’s beside the point), though I wouldn’t know this until I became fully aware of his name:
Of course, this write-up would not be complete without a summary of Yuan Wenqing’s background history and professional Wushu career. Yuan Wenqing was born in 1966 in Shanxi province, China, and started learning Wushu when he was 9 years old. He is quoted as saying in the Kung Fu Magazine article “China’s Brightest Star” by Martha Burr, “‘I only did it because it was fun.’” He was a member of, and as a champion, was obviously a star athlete of the Shanxi Wushu Team, and was coached by Pang Lintai and Zhang Lingmei. Throughout his competitive career, Yuan Wenqing had achieved many honors, aside from becoming both a national and international champion multiple times, and as previously mentioned, was both the model and creator of the compulsory Changquan and gunshu routines for the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines, also known as the “old compulsories” and “6th Duan” forms for the previous duan (段； duàn, formal rank or level) ranking system for Wushu, which is a parallel to the formal dan ranking systems of Japanese and Korean martial arts systems. His reputation as a Wushu champion earned him the name Wushu Wangzi (武术王子； wǔshùwángzǐ, literally “Wushu Prince”). Interestingly, Yuan Wenqing had a very short-lived movie career (not unlike his modern day successor Yuan Xiaochao, unless he’s planning on making a comeback sometime soon), having co-starred alongside Donnie Yen in the movie Iron Monkey 2, known in Chinese as Jietoushasou (街头杀手； jiētóushāshǒu, “Street Killer”). What’s remarkable was the fact that Yuan Wenqing had a long competitive life as an athlete, and even came out of retirement to compete once again, and continued to dominate the sport in glorious fashion, before finally retiring for good in 1997.
So now that we’ve got his accolades out of the way, what exactly made Yuan Wenqing so great? This brings us to the first reason I stated, which is that Yuan Wenqing was an example of modern Wushu’s traditional Chinese martial arts roots. Specifically, it was his modern Wushu Taolu performances that demonstrated such traditional influences. How was this done? Well, first, let’s talk about his performance qualities on a physical basis. Herein lies the difficulty of this write-up, as it’s hard to describe and put into words qualities that are seen and felt, rather than simply described (just ask any Chinese Wushu coach that coaches by way of onomatopoeia). First and foremost, let’s talk about the choreography of his forms. Those who have seen Yuan Wenqing’s Wushu performances, especially Wushu athletes and practitioners, should know his choreography. As previously established, they are the basis of which the compulsory Changquan and gunshu routines for the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines. Those that have watched Yuan Wenqing also know that for the most part of his competitive career, many of his specific movements, as well as the general mapping, or the directional trajectories of his forms on the carpet, remained largely the same, making whatever changes that were made, very noticeable. This simple, yet important observation, gives way to the fact that because Yuan Wenqing’s forms had very consistent choreography, one could observe how his style of execution of the same movements, evolved over the years (which we will get to later). But back to the specific movements.
Although Yuan Wenqing and his forms could be said, with clearly justifiable reason, to be a representation of modern Wushu, his choreography was clearly influenced from, and deeply rooted, in traditional Wushu movements. The most obvious example, and therefore most notable, was Yuan Wenqing’s signature Changquan form, which had very little deviation in overall movements throughout the years of his performances, and had plenty of movements steeped in traditional Wushu styles, namely Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), the primary and most prevalent traditional northern Chinese martial arts style that made up the standardization of modern Wushu Changquan. At one point, during Yuan Wenqing’s earlier years of competition, his original Changquan routine had the signature tantui (弹腿； tántuǐ， snap kick) technique from the Tan Tui (弹腿； tántuǐ, Springing Leg), style of the same name, which was another traditional northern Chinese martial arts style that influenced modern Wushu Changquan. Also, his gunshu routine, of which there were certain variations he performed over the years, had a consistent content of traditional movements, such as sweeps and strikes that are directly reminiscent of Fengmogun (疯魔棍； fēngmógùn, literally “crazy devil staff”, a staff form that belongs to the traditional Wushu style of 劈挂掌； pīguàzhǎng, literally “chop-hanging palm”) (personally, both Yuan Wenqing’s Changquan and gunshu forms are a source of inspiration for my own choreography in my personal competition routines, along Zhao Changjun’s forms). One of my former seniors of the Wushu school I used to go to, has criticized when Yuan Wenqing for using an abundance of these movements and not being creative on his own. However, I find this abundance of traditional Wushu movements to be a great representation of the traditional Chinese martial arts content in modern Wushu. Evidence such as this supports 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, in order to be considered legitimate martial arts. And Yuan Wenqing and the choreography of his forms are a foremost example of this.
Many critics of modern Wushu, namely Taolu, debase it based on the observation of the lack of martial arts content. However, the abundance of traditional Wushu content in Yuan Wenqing’s and his forms are an example of the contrary. Yuan Wenqing’s choreography is just one example of how his influence has impacted Wushu’s development. His forms have become a mainstay of modern Wushu, with the Changquan and gunshu still being used for the Group B divisions of junior level international Wushu competitions; it is interesting to note that these forms have not been replaced with new forms, as is the case with the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines being replaced by the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines, and have remained in their place, which I agree with. It is also for this reason that I have included these forms in my collegiate Wushu club’s modern Wushu Taolu curriculum. This alone should attest to Yuan Wenqing’s memorable mark and influence in Wushu.
But, as I said in my previous write-up “Why (I Feel) Zhao Changjun Is Better Than Jet Li”, while choreography is a big part of Wushu Taolu performances, it is not the only determining factor in a Wushu Taolu performance, nor is it the sole determinant of what makes a good Wushu Taolu performance. Instead, it is how the movements are executed, more specifically how they are performed, that makes the performance, since all modern Wushu Taolu forms are designed for aesthetic purposes in performance and competition. This is the second part of our discussion of Yuan Wenqing’s performance qualities on a physical basis, his actual physical technique, execution, and what exactly was behind his performances, and it is here that we reach my second stated reason, which is that Yuan Wenqing was a masterful performer. Part of this will go into his physical abilities and skill. Let’s start with the obvious. He was explosive, making resounding pops whenever stopped to display powerful movements and pauses. He was fast, blazing through his form like thunder, yet with the consistency and control of flowing water. And yes, he jumped high; those that see Yuan Wenqing’s performances are quick to note that whenever he jumped, he practically floated.
The stories I’ve heard of Yuan Wenqing are all crazy, most concerning his physical feats. Of the ones that are publicly known, the most well-known is that of his physical strength. Many athletes in modern Wushu Taolu, especially today, use very light apparatuses in competition, which many martial artists criticize as not being durable or sturdy as weapons (which is simply because they are not real weapons, they are performance and competition, but I digress). But Yuan Wenqing could be considered to be an exception to this stereotype. Former US Wushu Team member Jason Yee, who won medals in both Taolu and Sanda at the World Wushu Championships, has been said in “China’s Brightest Star”, “‘I grabbed his [Yuan Wenqing’s] broadsword and I was surprised that it was really heavy, the heaviest wushu sword I’d ever felt. A lot of players try to cheat by getting a very light sword, but his is genuinely heavy and he makes it look really light, he makes it whistle…And of course his staff routine is incredible too, and like his sword, it’s one of the heaviest, most solid staffs I’ve picked up.’” And yet, he moved and maneuvered these apparatuses like they were nothing. The other stories concerning him, one of which could only legitimately be corroborated by more than multiple sources, was the observation that he had a rock star personality, which is perhaps understandable, coming from someone of such high physical skill with a successful professional and athletic career.
But, the real question is, what made him so special, that he was recognized as one of the greats? Objectively, you could argue that there are other Wushu athletes that have jumped higher, athletes that are faster, athletes that are more powerful, athletes that are more athletic, and even athletes that are technically cleaner than Yuan Wenqing. Coming from an old school Wushu generation of athletes that were trained out of sheer grit, mental and physical toughness, as well as a solid foundation martial arts foundation and jibengong (基本功； jīběngōng, basic skills), he surely was not the only one to have all these physical skills and abilities. In fact, when looking at Yuan Wenqing, it is fair to say that compared to other modern Wushu athletes, he was not necessarily the cleanest, by that I mean his technical execution of Wushu movements were not as clear or as solid as that of others. Two-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Wushu Games double medalist Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee said in his “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Best Broadsword of All Time”, that “He [Yuan Wenqing] is an All-Time Great (especially in Changquan) and a great all around athlete, but I critique his broadsword wraps, which have traditionally been not very close to his body, and his technique has been very sloppy as well.” So what made Yuan Wenqing so special? Well, firstly, he had a combination of all these things that no one else had. Again, you may be able to find Wushu athletes that exceeded him in one of these aspects, but you won’t be able to find a Wushu athlete that had the same combination of all these things that he did. In “Yang Shi Wen: A Cure to Insomnia?”, Ching-Yin draws a comparison between Yuan Wenqing and old school Nanquan (南拳； nánquán, Southern Fist) champion Yang Shiwen, stating, “In a way, he [Yang Shiwen] was very much like Yuan Wen Qing who was not the most fundamentally grounded athlete in the bunch, but wowed judges with his charisma, performance skills, speed, flavor, and athleticism.” That, and it was ultimately the way he delivered these in performance that made him so outstanding. And this is where we get into the higher qualities of a Wushu performance.
The first specific concept of these higher, and deeper qualities of Wushu is jingqishen (精气神； jīngqìshén). Jingqishen is the vitality and intention behind the physical movements, which is required to make the movements purposeful and have meaning. Bruce Lee said it best in his explanation of the martial arts as “the art of expressing the human body [in combative form]” in his famous interview on the Pierre Berton Show, “…when you move, you are determined to move…If I want to punch, I’m gonna do it man…” My own Wushu seniors, specifically aforementioned Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee and the former senior of the Wushu school I used to go to, have mentioned the matter of if one were “to stand in front of [insert athlete’s name here]’s [insert Wushu movement here]”, whether or not they would “be hurt.” I have altered this description to be a matter of whether or not one would “be moved, psychologically or emotionally, by Wushu movements in a Wushu performance”, because it is important to understand that modern Wushu Taolu is ultimately designed for aesthetic performance, which does not take into consideration the actual martial application behind the movements, thus ideas of power or whether or not one would be “hurt” from standing in front of a modern Wushu athlete’s movement is irrelevant. And because modern Wushu Taolu is designed to be aesthetic, it is purely graded on what is externally seen or what it looks like, which is what actually matters in performance and competition, not if it actually is powerful or not. Regardless of its purpose or aim, what makes the effect of a movement is the intention behind it. Intention gives way to movement, and it is this intention which must be transferable from the performer internally, to the audience externally, and it this ability that determines jingqishen. This is on the second level what I defined as two levels of performance, where the first was “impressive”, which consists of the simple physicality, difficulty and skill of the performance, which Yuan Wenqing undisputedly had and is enjoyable to watch, but does not have much else to it, and as a result contains no lasting memorable quality to it for the audience, and the second is “emotional”, which is distinguished by the intention and the feeling of the performer, and is not simply a physical quality yet can still be observed by the audience. Yuan Wenqing definitely had this second, “emotional” level of performance. Wu Bin, coach of Jet Li and the Beijing Wushu Team, described jingqishen in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Wu Bin – The Father of Modern Wushu” by Melody Chung, “‘It’s a feeling you get. You can’t explain why you feel impressed by a person’s jingqisheng, but you certainly can feel it. For instance, back in the ’70s Grandmaster Chen Dao Yun had very good jingqisheng. That’s why no one could beat her.’” Going back to the comparison between Yuan Wenqing and Yang Shiwen in “Beewushu’s Blog” post “Yang Shi Wen: A Cure to Insomnia?”, Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, described explosiveness as “a type of dynamic quality that makes you get taken aback like ‘Woah!’” This is the feeling an audience gets when watching a performance, that jingqishen achieves, and again, though it is not simply a physical quality, it is expressed, which is done through the aforementioned explosiveness applied in movements within the performance. Though it is debatable whether or not Yuan Wenqing had the level of explosiveness that Yang Shiwen or Zhao Changjun, he definitely had explosiveness, and he definitely had jingqishen. And he definitely made me feel this way when I first watched him; from the intensity in his eyes, to intention in every movement, he made me feel that fire he had imbued into his performance, which made him unforgettable and easily left a strong impression on me as a performer.
The second concept is shenfa (身法； shēnfǎ, literally “body method”), which can be defined as the specific body mechanics behind the physical movements and techniques. While the previous jingqishen is a uniform quality, shenfa is a much more broad concept, which varies from style to style, movement to movement or technique to technique, and individual to individual, because even though the general execution and idea behind common techniques and movements may be the same, everybody moves differently, and thus physically expresses themselves in their own way, making it their specific shenfa. This goes into the style in question being practiced, the specific movements or techniques being executed, and of course, the individual’s physical bodily anatomy. In the case of Yuan Wenqing, especially in his earlier competitive career, he could be said to be an ectomorph, a somatotype characterized as being “skinny” and having long limbs in relation to the torso and musculature, which Yuan Wenqing definitely had. As previously stated, Yuan Wenqing was likened to “flowing water”, a purposeful analogy to illustrate his ability to be continuously fluid, which can be attributed to his alleged learning of traditional Wu (吳； Wú) Style Taijiquan (太极拳； tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist). The elasticity and flowing movements of his long limbs resembled a Tongbei or Pigua flavor. This fluidity is obviously highlighted in his choreography, which emphasized long and continuous transitions on the carpet, with pauses that were varied and stood out due to the distance of their placement throughout his routines. It is this consistency and unique flavor that was relatively new, especially during his early years of competition which contrasted him with other performers and routines that had many stops and pauses, which obviously made him stand out from the rest of the competition. This, coupled with the large, extended movements and deep stances of Changquan, made Yuan Wenqing an easily appropriate model and standard for modern Wushu Changquan. But this quality alone is not what made him great as a modern Wushu Taolu performer. His fluidity in his long flowing movements was complemented by his previously mentioned explosiveness, which was emphasized in plenty of his stops and power movements. Thus, he had a good balance of explosiveness and fluidity, especially in the later years of his competitive career. It is notable that in the transition into the ’90s, there was a noticeable change in Yuan Wenqing’s physique, where his frame was strikingly more muscular. This coincided with the latter half of his competitive career, where more and more he seemed to emphasize explosive stops and pauses in his forms. However, it is undeniable that he had a balance of both explosiveness and fluidity. And the crazy thing is, he made the combination look easy—unbelievably easy. Having both explosiveness and fluidity, and making the transitions between both look so effortless and masterful, is a quality I believe he had, that has been unmatched to this day by anyone before, during, and after his time. Add his speed to all this, and you have all the describable qualities (that I could find at least) that make up Yuan Wenqing. It is the sum of all these qualities made his presentation in all his performances so impressive, which more than made up for his lack of clean technique. On Yuan Wenqing’s speed and momentum, Jason Yee said, “‘He [Yuan Wenqing] was joking with me once, saying that he does everything so fast so that the judges can’t see any mistakes. His Wushu is just so sophisticated, so powerful, and always amazing.’” Put all this together, and I’d say you have one amazing performer of Wushu. To see what I believe was the best balance between Yuan Wenqing’s explosiveness and fluidity, here is a link to his gold medal-winning performance of his own compulsory Changquan form at the 11th Asian Games in 1990 in Beijing, China:
Finally, Yuan Wenqing was so great, because he is a reflection of modern Wushu’s development. What does that mean exactly? Well, as I pointed out before, the sport of Wushu has gone through many different changes in formats, which in turn have led to differences in emphases of performances, as seen throughout the decades and generations of Wushu. After Yuan Wenqing’s first retirement, Wushu would begin to see a shift in its competition format, rules and emphasis towards nandu (难度； nándù， difficulty movements), which is the degree of difficulty needed from the completion of jumps, sweeps, balances, and the connection points in between, that make up a gradable and quantifiable category of judging for Wushu Taolu competitions now. Yuan Wenqing however, had continued to compete and adapt to all these various changes through his remarkably long competitive career. Thus, his example as an athlete does indeed reflect the various changes that Wushu went through. As an example, one of the biggest changes observed in old school Wushu was the addition of daunting compulsory movement combinations with absurd nandu connections, which were difficult even for the top class Chinese athletes at the time in the late 1990s. These changes were already in effect by the time Yuan Wenqing came out of his first retirement. A steadfast rule of Wushu competitions are that if an athlete wants to win, they must do so conventionally by explicitly meeting the fickle requirements of the competition format. And at some point, Yuan Wenqing, or at least his coach, must have known this. Therefore, his forms were changed to meet the new competition requirements in 1997. And the results were superb, with him becoming champion once again, and going on to become World Champion once again in his own compulsory Changquan form at the 4th World Wushu Championships in Rome, Italy. His reasons for returning to competition in the face of these new difficulties were simply, “‘…I wanted to test myself.’” And test himself he did. Not only did he meet the new competition standards and requirements, he exceeded them, being one of the first, along with his fellow Shanxi Wushu teammate and cousin Yuan Xindong, to perform the xuanfengjiao (旋风脚； xuànfēngjiǎo, tornado kick) 720º with split landing. The former senior of the Wushu school I used to go to, has stated that he does not appreciate the changes made to Yuan Wenqing’s style in his last year of competition. However, I see these changes as adapting to the change of the competition format, rules and requirements of modern Wushu Taolu, while at the same time still retaining the all the core performances qualities established in this write-up, which made him Yuan Wenqing. It is this persistence and adaptability as an athlete that is both exemplary and inspiring, which is something we modern Wushu athletes and practitioners should all strive to follow; constantly testing and improving oneself, while at the same time keeping all the skills and qualities that help define a good performance. And this is the final reason Yuan Wenqing is so great, because his adaptability and progression is a reflection of modern Wushu’s development. To close this off with a good idea of what Yuan Wenqing looked like at the end of his competitive career, I will share this video of him in 1997 with one of his final Changquan performances:
In conclusion, these are the reasons why Yuan Wenqing is so great. To review, Yuan Wenqing was an example of modern Wushu’s traditional Chinese martial arts roots, a master performer, and is a reflection of modern Wushu’s development. I hope that when you, the reader, reach the end of this write-up, these reasons at least are a little bit clearer and make more sense than they did at the beginning of this write-up. What cannot be denied is that Yuan Wenqing made history for the sport of Wushu, made great contributions to it, and was unforgettable as a modern Wushu Taolu athlete and performer. Although I have said in “Cai Longyun: Wushu Masters You Should Know”, that there are very few modern Wushu athletes I believe could adequately represent Wushu, Yuan Wenqing is definitely on the list, right up there with Zhao Changjun. No matter what, Yuan Wenqing has set his place and legacy in Wushu history as one of the greatest Wushu legends and champions of all time.