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Yu Chenghui: Wushu Masters You Should Know

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YU CHENGHUI: WUSHU MASTERS YOU SHOULD KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written June 29th, 2016

“‘I felt that the martial arts were heading in a wrong direction.  There was too much acrobatics, dancing and juggling – these insignificant skills – for performance purposes only.  Fewer people were attending to the combat applications.  I feel that if martial arts continued on this path, eventually the road will lead to an end.  So, we must tap the original essence of traditional martial arts.’” —Yu Chenghui, Kung Fu Magazine “The Two-Handed Sword Reborn”

Abstract: This is the fourth 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 Yu Chenghui.

July 4th (Eastern Time, US & Canada) marks two specific incidents on this particular date.  The first is Independence Day, the birthday of the place I grew up in, where as I said previously in my old write-up “The Shaolin Temple vs. Shaolin: A Movie Comparison”, US citizens get to be prideful and ignorant as to how the United States of America gained our independence.  But more importantly for the Wushu community (I assume not all the readers of my write-ups are from the US), the second is the death of Yu Chenghui, although it should be noted that in China, where he died, it was already July 5th (China Time Zone), which is also my birthday; considering this year will be my 23rd birthday, this will also be the first time my date of birth will be associated with a sad incident that I know of.  On July 4th (or July 5th, again, depending on what time zone we are talking about), 2015, Yu Chenghui passed away.  I had first heard about this the day of, from the YouTube channel of Mastering WUSHU, who had posted a video of Yu Chenghui performing his signature shuangshoujian:

From what I read and heard through the grapevine, he had died due to cancer, similar to the case of Lau Kar-leung, though what specific type of cancer, I don’t know.  This year will mark the first anniversary of his death.  Yu Chenghui was a true Wushu master, one of the few true masters to come out of modern Wushu.  This is why his death is a tragic loss for everyone in the Wushu community, whether you’re a Wushu practitioner or a kung fu movie fan who has happened to have seen his work.  If you don’t know who this man is by now, you should have (if you don’t, seriously?  Didn’t you watch Jet Li’s first few movies?).  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.  Yu Chenghui in particular was one such master who was also a proponent of modern Wushu.  And on the first anniversary of his death, it is only appropriate to recognize and pay respect to him.  This is the fourth edition of “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This is Yu Chenghui.

Background History

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Yu Chenghui was born in 1939 in Shandong province, China, and was a former Shandong Wushu Team member and a champion in his own right.  Following leg injuries and retirement, he was coach of the Ningxia Wushu Team (interestingly, the Ningxia Wushu Team has consistently bagged first place, gold medals and various national and international championships in duilian events of modern Wushu in the past few years).  Like his fellow Shandong Wushu Team member Yu Hai whom he has also costarred with in films including Jet Li, he was senior to Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, whose generation is the first of what modern Wushu fans today call the “old school” Wushu.  He is perhaps most well-known as one of various Wushu actors starring opposite of Jet Li in his first few Shaolin-themed films, The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolínsì), Kids from Shaolin (少林小子; Shàolínxiǎozǐ) and Martial Arts of Shaolin (南北少林; nánběishàolín, literally “North and South Shaolin”), all of which feature the same memorable cast.  Since then, Yu Chenghui had continued his acting career in various martial artist roles.

He is also credited with bringing back the shuangshoujian (双手劍; shuāngshǒujiàn, two-handed sword/straight sword), which was originally lost during wartimes during the Tang dynasty of China, his most significant contribution to modern Wushu.  Throughout most of his life, he spent time researching the weapon, and finally reinventing its methods.  Although shuangshoujian is classified as a “traditional” form, like all the Wushu hand forms and weapons that don’t fall into modern Wushu Taolu’s primary competition styles of Changquan, Nanquan and Taijiquan, it is unique as a standalone, original contemporary creation in martial arts.  There is an ongoing debate about the history of shuangshoujian, its origin and its practice in Wushu circles, as shuangshoujian today is also being practiced in the traditional Meihuatanglangquan (梅花螳螂拳; méihuātánglángquán, Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Fist), Taijitanglangquan (太极螳螂拳; Tàijítánglángquán, Grand Ultimate Praying Mantis Fist) and Taijimeihuatanglangquan (太极梅花螳螂拳; Tàijíméihuātánglángquán, Grand Ultimate Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Fist) styles.  Though there is no real conclusion to settle this debate, or at least one that this writer can come to, it is interesting, and worth noting, that there is no prior evidence of shuangshoujian being practiced before Yu Chenghui’s introduction of the form into Wushu in 1979, and the uncanny resemblance of the practice of the form in the aforementioned traditional Tanglangquan styles, to Yu Chenghui’s own form.  Regardless, shuangshoujian is undeniably associated with Yu Chenghui, and rightfully so given his role in bringing it back into modern Wushu, and stands as one of the true Wushu forms with a complete martial arts practice in modern Wushu, due to his contribution.

Perspectives on Wushu

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Despite the fact that Yu Chenghui was a modern Wushu athlete, he clearly had some misgivings about modern Wushu’s development and the flaws of its practice.  In his interview with Kung Fu Magazine “The Two-Handed Sword Reborn” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, he makes his views on modern Wushu clear as an old school generation athlete, who still had the influences of traditional Wushu in his practice.  In his interview, he states, “‘I felt that the martial arts were heading in a wrong direction.  There was too much acrobatics, dancing and juggling – these insignificant skills – for performance purposes only.  Fewer people were attending to the combat applications.  I feel that if martial arts continued on this path, eventually the road will lead to an end.  So, we must tap the original essence of traditional martial arts.’”  It should be noted that this quote reflects his thoughts during his time researching, and thus his motivation to recover shuangshoujian, the time when Jet Li and Zhao Changjun were still young and rising to fame, and the first of what is recognized as old school Wushu, when more athletic and acrobatics movements and requirements were already implemented into the sport.  However, his observations still clearly stand for modern Wushu Taolu today, which is laden with the rules, requirements and standards of nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements), and the resultant watering down of traditional Wushu and Chinese martial arts content in Wushu observed since its implementation.  “‘The governing body’s only emphasis is on the provisions and rules.  Athletes are too busy on keeping up with these petty restrictions.  No time is left for practicing!  Wushu is becoming a collection of insignificant skills.  If martial arts continued on the same path, it will have no future.’”

Therefore, Yu Chenghui’s observation reflects how modern Wushu should go back to its traditional roots and derivation from traditional Chinese martial arts, in order to improve its practice as a form of modern martial arts.  But, it is also important to note that martial content and the pure physical practice of the method is not the only layer of depth to Wushu, as Yu Chenghui also states.  “‘When a person becomes mature, he must ponder over the meaning of life.  You can’t just be an artist if you do not study this subject.  Therefore, becoming an artist is not just because you are working in the arts.  An artist is a state of being.  It is the pursuit of one’s life…In fact, martial arts practice can be an insightful glimpse into the wonders of Dao.  You may not be able to see, but you can feel it!’”  This is very similar to the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda’s own perspectives on Wushu, who stated in his interview in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, “The Wushu that Qi Jiguang wants to promote is real ability and combat fighting.  Surely this is the central core of Wushu.  But it is not complete Wushu.  Wushu still needs longevity, health and mind cultivation to make it complete.  But never forget, the central core is ji (strike.)  You must have real combat fighting ability, definitely not a ‘flowery blooming, only for watching’ Wushu.”  Thus, while martial content should be first and foremost for Wushu, it is not the only aspect of Wushu that should exist, and should also be balanced out by other aspects such as health, intellectual cultivation, and spirituality.

Why This Person Matters

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So why does this person matter?  Most obvious are the contributions he has made to modern Wushu.  He starred in various movies, including the previously mentioned Shaolin Temple films, which have helped to promote modern Wushu and Chinese martial arts as a whole.  He introduced, or rather reintroduced, shuangshoujian into modern Wushu, giving it one of the few Wushu forms with a complete methodology and martial arts practice, not just a Taolu that could be learned and performed by any practitioner or athlete.  These alone have already earned him a place of respect in the history of Wushu.

But perhaps just as, if not more important, are his views on modern Wushu.  One of the age-old criticisms and flaws of modern Wushu Taolu, is its lack of emphasis on martial content and fighting application in its practice.  Bringing back this emphasis of martial application can help to address that criticism.  A large and core part of this also means looking back at the traditional roots of Chinese martial arts that modern Wushu is derived from, which can give modern Wushu more depth and content as an actual practice of martial arts.  Today, modern Wushu has a clear distinction from traditional Wushu in both its training and its purposes for sport, competition and performance, yet Yu Chenghui’s observations reflect 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 have some legitimacy as martial arts.

As such, Yu Chenghui 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.  And Yu Chenghui is one such example and exception.

Although he was a modern Wushu athlete, Yu Chenghui was a real Wushu master in every sense, one of the last of his kind.  His passing is truly a loss to the Wushu community, and his memory and influence should be acknowledged, recognized 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 “The Two-Handed Sword Reborn”: http://www.kungfumagazine.com/magazine/article.php?article=1051

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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 three-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and most recently 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.