Why (I Feel) Zhao Changjun Is Better Than Jet Li

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By: Matthew Lee

Written May 22nd, 2015

“In wushu circles, it is said that the ’70s belonged to Jet, but the ’80s belonged to Zhao.” —Kung Fu Magazine “Where Wushu Went Wrong”

Abstract: This write-up will cover one opinion on the debate of who is better among two Wushu legends and champions.  The rivalry between Jet Li and Zhao Changjun is legendary among Wushu circles, and there have been divided opinions as to who was really better.  Although Jet Li was a champion who beat Zhao Changjun in Wushu Taolu (forms) competitions numerous times, and is much more famous and well-known as a movie star, his skills have always been questioned in comparison to Zhao Changjun.  The points and differences established between these two Wushu legends will not only attempt to support the argument of this write-up, but will also attempt to extend to more critical thinking of, and the bigger, underlying shortcomings of modern Wushu.

At the time of this writing, this weekend is Memorial Weekend here in the US.  Aside from the holiday itself, it also means that my Wushu idol Zhao Changjun, and his school, the Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy, will be hosting the 2015 New Jersey International Wushu-Kungfu Tournament during this time, which I sadly regret to say I will unfortunately not be attending this year.  This is for multiple reasons, not the least of which is my own personal training, which I must prioritize first before other luxuries at this time.  But it also means I will not get to visit Zhao Changjun again like last year.  (Oh well.  Maybe next year…)

But just because I’m not able to see Zhao Changjun, doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about his influence and impact on Wushu.  For those know who this man is, it comes as no surprise what a big deal he is.  As I have stated multiple times in my previous write-ups, Zhao Changjun is one of, if not the greatest Wushu legends and champions.  Zhao Changjun is famous in the Wushu community for many various things, but perhaps most notable is the fact that he was the competitive rival of Jet Li.  But to those that both know and don’t know who this man is, it is this fact that is the first to be brought up, in order to put Zhao Changjun into perspective, perhaps because of Jet Li’s fame; part of this may be due to the fact that Jet Li is more successful and famous in the professional sense, whereas Zhao Changjun is not, but I digress.  Being called a “rival” of someone will inevitably bring up comparisons as to who of the two is better.  So who is better?  Ultimately, the idea of “better” is subjective, and is a matter of opinion, and opinions are at the end of the day, inconsequential.  But, to be “immature” and entertain myself on this debate, this has brought me to the topic of this write-up, why I feel Zhao Changjun is better than Jet Li.

Before I begin, I feel that I should preface this whole write-up by stating that this is only my opinion, and as an opinion, it is ultimately subjective, with no real basis in fact.  It does not reflect anything about either of these men’s skill or character, nor is it meant as a personal attack on either of them.  Both of these men have achieved more than I ever will in my entire life, and both of them have achieved a level of skill in Wushu I could never ever hope to even come close to.  That being said, it still does not stop me from having an opinion and making observations.  Just as there are plenty of sports fans who make comments on the game or certain teams without ever being an athlete, and plenty of MMA (mixed martial arts) fans who talk smack but have probably never learned to throw a single strike or submission in their life, and plenty of movie fans and critics that can judge a movie without ever being an actor, writer or director, there exist opinions and observations that can be made without having skill or experience, and this is mine.  So if nothing else, just take my opinion as nothing more than that, just a stupid, inconsequential opinion that is not on the level of Wushu that is being talked about here.  Previously, I had a recording of myself going on a rant about why I felt Zhao Changjun was a better than Jet Li, at a “viewing party”, which I hosted, for my collegiate Wushu club, since I thought it would both be interesting and entertaining to share and upload onto YouTube.  For those that are interested in seeing that particular video, you can feel free to watch it here (warning: it’s around 25 minutes, so I hope you like listening to long rants haha):

Although this video covers all the essential points I wanted to make in my argument for this write-up, my rant in it was not as organized as I would have liked it to be, as what I said then was much more stream of consciousness, impulsive and impromptu, rather than well-prepared and structured.  Now that I have a chance to put my thoughts together, I would like to do a better job to explain my opinion.  After all, there would be no point in trying to share my opinion here, if I can’t explain it well.  I firmly believe that you can have virtually any opinion, as long as you’re able to explain why you feel that way from an argumentative perspective, and this is my attempt to do so.  So, without further ado, this is why I feel Zhao Changjun is better than Jet Li.

1.      Because I Think He Is a Better Wushu Taolu Performer


Again, as I established from the start, this is only my opinion, and as with all opinions, it is subjective, and does not hold any basis in actual fact.  For those who don’t know the context of Wushu I am talking about here, I am specifically talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition.  As a sport today, modern Wushu 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).  It is important to make this distinction, because during their competition years, modern Wushu only consisted of Taolu (there was no Sanshou until the ’80s).  This debate is the sole basis on the established “rivalry” between Zhao and Jet, who was better in terms of Taolu performance.  It may also be difficult to support my argument with proof, due the lack of resources to base it off of, as there is only one known publicly released clip of Jet Li competing in Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), and many competition videos of Zhao Changjun.  However, after watching multiple, unedited recordings of Jet Li performing without the aid of camera tricks, angles and wire fu to make him look good, and comparing these videos to Zhao Changjun’s videos, I finally came to this opinion.  In order to be fair, I should explain where I’m coming from, and where my beliefs were and how they shifted into what they are now.

As I said before in “Visiting Zhao Changjun: A Personal Account”, I am ashamed to admit that at first, I thought that Zhao Changjun wasn’t that big of a deal.  I had heard his name, and along with his name, I had heard that he was arguably the greatest Wushu athlete of all time, but I didn’t concede this belief, at least until much later, despite having watched a couple videos of him on YouTube.  This was because I was comparing him to Yuan Wenqing, who I believed at the time to be the best Wushu athlete of all time, with a heavy bias (and yes, I will go as far as to say that I think that Yuan Wenqing is also better than Jet Li; there are in fact many Wushu athletes and champions that I feel are better than Jet Li, but we will stick to the main one here).  So when I started reading about and doing research on Wushu, you can imagine my bewilderment upon reading, to my memory what is one of the first, if not the first Kung Fu Magazine article about Wushu I’d ever read, “Where Wushu Went Wrong” by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh, featuring Zhao Changjun himself.  In it, Zhao Changjun spoke about the rivalry.  “‘The reason why Jet Li was always a little higher was because he was from the Beijing wushu team,’ remarks Zhao in mandarin, ‘and the internationals were always the Beijing wushu team.  Many feel that I was better, but because Jet did movies, there was more focus on him.’”

When I first read this, my thoughts were along the lines of, “Wow.  Really?  Who is this person to say these things?”  This was also because I also started out practically worshipping Jet Li when I was younger, and I had put him on a pedestal.  Jet Li was one of my childhood heroes, and was my favorite out of the three great Chinese martial arts actors of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li; after all, he looked so cool when he was “fighting”, and he seemed so stoic and unbeatable, the epitome of the stereotypical Chinese martial arts hero.  However, as time went by, and I started to do more research, Jet Li would eventually go down to the bottom in my rankings of the three (Bruce Lee is now my favorite of the three, which is appropriate, since he started out as my first childhood hero, and is once again, and I now rank Jackie Chan higher than Jet Li).  However, Zhao Changjun also said many other things in the article that I, being a blind modern Wushu Taolu practitioner, took offense to, as well as other things that I was silently impressed with (which I will get to later) at the same time.  It was at this point that Zhao Changjun would begin to gain my respect, but this was because of his knowledge and experience outside of modern Wushu, not because of his actual skill in modern Wushu Taolu.

It wasn’t until after gaining more experience in Wushu, and seeing professional Wushu for myself, namely that of elite Chinese athletes, both modern and old school, that I started paying attention more and more to Zhao Changjun.  And when I saw Zhao Changjun, namely clips of him when he was younger and arguably at his best and in his prime, he just blew me away.  I can’t easily explain what was different from when I initially saw him to how I see him now, especially when I noticed the difference in the same videos I watched back then and now.  However, I had not yet made any active comparisons between Zhao Changjun and Jet Li, mainly because I had only seen the one competition clip of Jet Li, and none of his other actual Wushu performances.  But when I finally did see videos of Jet Li actually performing Wushu (which are not hard to find, if you know where to look), the nicest thing I can say is that I concluded that Zhao Changjun was better.

It is also important that I distinguish who I think is “better”, from who actually won.  I am not trying to dispute the fact that Jet Li was a Wushu champion, nor am I trying to dispute his skill or ability that won him championships; after all, you need to be considered at least good to become a champion (though some times, speaking from what I’ve personally seen and experienced, this is not always the case).  I am however, disputing who I like more, and thus who I think is better, purely on the basis of being a Wushu Taolu performer.  And as we see in modern Wushu Taolu competition, especially today, a “good” performance no longer equates a “winning” one.  Part of this will also inevitably go into the politics and corruption of the sport.  This is something of an “open secret”, which is not publicly or explicitly stated, but can be objectively observed, that there are politics that can, and have rigged results in Wushu competitions to this day.  In the case of Zhao Changjun and Jet Li, Zhao Changjun’s prior statement of Jet Li winning because of him being from the Beijing Wushu Team, is not unfounded.  First of all, because Beijing is the capital of China, it stands to reason that the Beijing Wushu Team, which at the time was the most well-equipped and best funded by far of all the provincial Wushu teams across China, would be the best prepared, with connections to organizers and judges of competitions.  And the Beijing Wushu Team always had at least one star athlete, who is groomed to be a champion, which was undisputedly Jet Li at the time.  This is a trend that seems to be set down along the history of the Beijing Wushu Team.  Another famous example would be Zhao Qingjian.  The most recent example would be Wang Xi, who I had the privilege of meeting at the Beijing Shichahai Sports School, home of the Beijing Wushu Team, during the summer of 2010, and who is also one of my favorite athletes today.  Yet despite being one of the current champions of Wushu, his winnings are often disputed by others who believe that Shandong Wushu Team member and champion Sun Peiyuan is better than Wang Xi.  While I don’t explicitly share this opinion, I will acknowledge that Sun Peiyuan has qualities that Wang Xi does not, such as explosiveness and an exciting quality to his performances, and that it is completely possible that politics are involved, as it is not unheard of in the history of the Beijing Wushu Team; in fact, it’s been heard of multiple times.  Although this has never been proven, it has been observed.  But going back to Zhao Changjun and Jet Li, this should prove that there is a difference between who I think is “better”, and who actually won.  And once again, I will say that Zhao Changjun is better.

Without going into nitpicking negatives, insulting or putting down anybody, I will simply compare what I’ve observed from these two athletes and their respective performances, rather than go into my deeper feelings.  One factor that I want to take into account is the general choreography of their respective performances.  Although Zhao Changjun’s choreography throughout all his performances have always been a little different, which made them more dynamic and exciting to watch, they have all shared a common flavor that defined his style.  Specifically, he had incorporated plenty of movements from traditional Wushu into his modern Wushu Taolu performances.  In his Changquan routines, he has included techniques and movements from Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg) and Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), two of the base traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles that made up the standardization of modern Wushu Changquan, and even the great fanquan (翻拳; fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch, also known as 滚打; gǔndǎ, rolling hit, according to the 翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist” 段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system by the CWA [Chinese Wushu Association]) technique from Fanziquan.  His gunshu (棍术; gùnshù, staff event) routines also include traditional movements and strikes 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”) (because of Zhao Changjun’s example and inspiration, I have also tried to inject similar movements into my personal competition routines).  My personal preference, which obviously determines what I like, is the presence of actual Chinese martial arts movements being performed in a Wushu form; call me old fashioned, but a large part of what I like about Wushu performances are the actual Wushu movements that make up the martial arts basics and foundation of Wushu, so it is clear that my preferences already lean towards Zhao Changjun in this sense.  Jet Li’s choreography is comparatively much simpler, using many standard Wushu techniques, movements and combos, which generally does not stand out and strike as lasting an impression in comparison to other Wushu performances.  But this is not the only factor that separates these two and their respective Wushu.

Choreography is very much a big part of Wushu Taolu performances, but it is not the sole determinant of what makes a good Wushu Taolu performance.  Theoretically, a form could be composed of any sequence of movements, and still be performed well, as long as it satisfies all the competition requirements (this can be either good or bad, depending on the performance).  It is how the movements are being done, or rather, how they are performed, that makes the performance, the keyword being “perform” to emphasize the performance.  Performance-wise, Zhao Changjun has been known for his unparalleled explosiveness, blazing speed and furious intention; and when I see him perform, I see him perform with an intensity and ferocity that has been unmatched by any Wushu athlete ever in the world.  When I first saw Jet Li actually performing Wushu, I thought he was cool, he was definitely doing things that I couldn’t do at the time, and even now, he still did those things better than I ever could.  But when I saw Jet Li’s other Wushu performances, I realized that he didn’t blow me away like Zhao Changjun did.  This goes into something that defines the greater level and quality of a Wushu performance, jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén).

To define what this concept is in simple terms, jingqishen is the vitality and intention required behind the physical movements, in order to make them meaningful with a specific purpose.  Bruce Lee perhaps 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…”  I have used both the term jingqishen, and this example to describe it, multiple times in previous write-ups before, but I have never elaborated how I would define this.  My Wushu seniors, namely Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, and one of my former seniors of the Wushu school I used to go to, have talked about a 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 would pretty much concede to this idea as a good description and margin of good jingqishen in a Wushu performance, but I would alter the description of it to be a matter of whether or not one would “be moved, psychologically or emotionally, by Wushu movements in a Wushu performance.”  It is important to understand that Wushu Taolu is ultimately an aesthetic performance, which does not take into account the actual martial applicability of the movements within, so ideas of power, and whether or not one would actually be “hurt” from standing in front of an athlete’s Wushu movement is irrelevant.  Wushu Taolu performances are only graded and judged on what is visual, so only what is seen or what it looks like, matters, not if it actually is powerful.  Rather, what matters is the intention seen behind the movement that matters; it is the intention that gives way to the movements in a performance, and whether or not that is transferred visually to an audience determines the jingqishen.  This goes into the second level of 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 is undoubtedly 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, which is not simply a physical quality yet is still perceived by the audience.  Wu Bin, Jet Li’s very own coach, has been quoted as describing 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.’”  In his “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Yang Shi Wen: A Cure to Insomnia?”, Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, describes explosiveness as “a type of dynamic quality that makes you get taken aback like ‘Woah!’”  It is this feeling an audience feels when perceiving a performance, that jingqishen and the “emotional” level of a Wushu performance ideally achieves.  Again, this is not simply a physical quality, but rather is expressed and transferred, which the aforementioned explosiveness is the ideal way to express such a quality, and Zhao Changjun undoubtedly had this.  On a side note, the previously mentioned former senior of the Wushu school I used to go, stated that he had good fajin (发劲; fājìn, literally “released power”), arguably even more than Yuan Wenqing.  In a discussion of old school Wushu between two fellow Wushu practitioners from the US, Shahaub Roudbari and James Cardinell, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, during my first trip to the Beijing Shichahai Sports School in the summer of 2009, James Cardinell commented that when he watched Zhao Changjun’s Ditangquan (地躺拳; Dìtǎngquán), he wanted to “jump off a wall and punch somebody”, which he said he didn’t feel from Yuan Wenqing (and this was during the time I still worshipped Yuan Wenqing).  It is this kind of actual Wushu content that is part of the reason fans of old school Wushu call it “real Wushu”, and Zhao Changjun is surely an example of this observation.  Again, I only felt this after doing more research and paying more attention to Zhao Changjun, not before, when I knew virtually next to nothing about him.  When I still see Zhao Changjun’s videos to this day, I am still moved psychologically and emotionally in this way by his Wushu.  Put simply, I do not feel this same way when I watch Jet Li.  Although I don’t want to say, nor do I feel at all qualified to say that Jet Li didn’t have jingqishen at all, I will say that I feel Zhao Changjun definitely had it more than Jet Li.

Perhaps if I were to concede one thing that Jet Li has, or is at least better at, over Zhao Changjun, is that Jet Li is more fluid.  By comparison, if I really had to be objective and pick out a negative, or rather shortcoming in Zhao Changjun’s Wushu (which I know is blasphemous, you may proceed to crucify me for my opinion now, if you haven’t already), is that Zhao Changjun’s movements were a bit too rigid.  To put it in someone else’s words, as 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”, “he [Zhao Changjun] was extremely tight in his shoulders and his transitions were very slow and stiff.”  Jet Li is much smoother in terms of his transitions, and easily flows from one movement to the next, making his Wushu look very beautiful.  This is a clear indication of the Wushu concept of shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”), which refers to the specific body mechanics behind physical movements and techniques.  Unlike jingqishen, which is a uniform concept, shenfa is a broad concept that varies from method to method and person to person, because although the general execution of common techniques and idea behind each movement may be the same, everybody moves differently and physically expresses themselves in their own way, making it their own individual shenfa.  This is yet another distinguishing concept of Wushu performances, and is arguably what makes different performers of Wushu, especially old school Wushu, interesting to watch.  Others whom I have showed Jet Li’s actual Wushu performances to, have expressed that he is indeed fast (although to be honest, any Wushu practitioner that trains seriously should be fast), and that his form is good.  But that’s about it.  Upon seeing Zhao Changjun in comparison, these same people have all said that Zhao Changjun is not only much more powerful, but looks much more intense, making his impression more memorable.  Going back to my opinion, the positives far outweigh the negatives, because what Zhao Changjun was good at and did really well, he was really good at, and did really well.  This is what makes Zhao Changjun great as a Wushu Taolu performer, and it is for this reason that many Wushu fans and practitioners respect him so.

2.      Because He Is An Actual Martial Artist


This is where some people, namely Wushu athletes and practitioners, may get butthurt.  My definition of a Wushu martial artist is different from a Wushu athlete.  I stated previously in “3 Levels of Understanding Wushu” that what separates a martial artist from an athlete, is that an athlete is physically capable of practicing the sport, but a martial artist has a comparatively more complete understanding of all aspects of what they practice, including the concepts behind the martial arts, not simply the physical aspects.  These ideas include history, theories, and other ideas such as martial applications and fighting ideas, and on a deeper level, philosophical ideas for a more critical level of thinking.  Part of this goes into Zhao Changjun’s and Jet Li’s two different Wushu stories, and their two different training backgrounds.  It is at this point that I no longer refer to Wushu to just mean modern Wushu, but the actual traditional Chinese martial arts, and thus all of Chinese martial arts as a whole.

Although Zhao Changjun is surely one of, if not the best modern Wushu athlete and champion in the history of modern Wushu’s competitive life, what makes him even greater is the fact that he is not simply just a modern Wushu athlete, but he is also very experienced as a traditional martial artist.  Before his professional Wushu career, Zhao Changjun, coming from a family that is part of the Hui ethnic group (回族; Huízú) in China, who are culturally Muslim, was trained in traditional the Hui styles of Tan Tui and Chaquan under Master Yuan Run, as well as traditional Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán, Red Fist), from Shaanxi province, China, and drunken style, under Master Zhang Junde.  Zhao Changjun has described this training in interviews.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, he is quoted as saying, “‘You had to know the attack and defense method within every movement.  If I didn’t know, I’d get spanked so hard.’”  In the interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words” by Mastering WUSHU, “‘my coach taught me each movement, its application, the purpose to attack or to defend, etc.  If I didn’t repeat one movement correctly, the coach’s punishing stick might have been used.  So my understanding of Wushu by then was its realistic application.’”  This traditional training, specifically Zhao Changjun’s training in Tan Tui and Chaquan, started before the Cultural Revolution, which confirms that it is indeed authentic, traditional Chinese martial arts, and not what is mistakenly labeled by modern Wushu practitioners as “traditional” forms that have been standardized in modern Wushu Taolu, which is not authentic traditional Wushu.  His reasons for having this traditional training was because of his father, who wanted him to be able to protect his sisters, especially during the violent times in China.  He learned Wushu to be able to fight, to understand the most basic, fundamental meaning of “martial” in martial arts; after all, this is the most literal and original meaning of Wushu in Chinese, as the term Wushu comes from the Chinese characters 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method, of which the latter character术; shù originally meant the study, practice, and mastering of the skill of the MARTIAL art and ONLY of the martial art itself, thus elevating the method and its practices to the level of an “art” (again, the character 术; shù in “wǔshù” literally means a specific method), and not of artistic expression and creativity, although this context also obviously exists in modern Wushu Taolu.

By contrast, Jet Li can be said to be the product of the communist system, where Jet Li himself states both in an interview and in editorials on his website (which is strangely defunct now) that kids in China were randomly recruited in groups to train in different sports as competitive athletes, and it just so happened by chance that he was part of the group assigned to learn Wushu.  On this basis, it is logical to conclude that Jet Li’s Wushu training made him an athlete rather than a martial artist, considering that his training, as is the case with the majority of modern Wushu athletes, is based primarily on a competitive perspective, which makes the other aspects of practice, such as martial applications and fighting ideas, secondary, thus making it incomplete in terms of actual martial arts training.  The biggest criticism of modern Wushu, specifically Taolu, is that it lacks martial depth and content as an actual martial arts practice, and the Beijing Wushu Team has been criticized for being the epitome of this stereotype, as a both a competitive sports and performance team.  Although there are exceptions, such as Beijing Wushu Team member Ge Chunyan learning and traditional Cheng (程; Chéng) Style Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) under Sun Zhijun, and Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan under the late Feng Zhiqiang, the majority of modern Wushu athletes were trained more to compete and perform rather than understand the martial arts and learn how to fight, and this extends to the majority of modern Wushu Taolu practitioners, especially today.  Jet Li himself admits in one of his editorials from his website that his understanding of the martial applications and fighting aspects of Wushu is limited, a clear indication of his specific training as established.

The only thing that can be considered traditional that Jet Li legitimately learned was his alleged favorite style of Wushu, Fanziquan, which he learned from the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda.  However, this form that he learned is only one facet of the style itself, and the style itself is only one part of the complete traditional Wushu system it comes from, Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist), which Zhao Changjun also learned under Ma Xianda, to add to his completeness in his Wushu training.  It can therefore be easily inferred that Zhao Changjun is much more of an actual martial artist with an actual traditional martial arts foundation and training.  Zhao Changjun’s understanding of Wushu different aspects, performance and competition, as well as martial applications and fighting ideas, appears to be much more complete than Jet Li’s, which, again, is primarily focused on the modern Wushu Taolu aspect of forms training for competition and performance, rather than these other aforementioned aspects of Wushu.

This kind of observation seems to be corroborated by a third party, who has witnessed this difference between the two’s training backgrounds and environments for himself—Donnie Yen, who is essentially the ‘it’ man when it comes to action in Hong Kong, still standing where Jackie Chan and Jet Li have since waned.  Donnie Yen’s Wushu story is a very interesting one that ties into this comparison.  He had dropped out of school, and was sent by his mother to the Beijing Shichahai Sports School to train with the Beijing Wushu Team, like me, to keep him out of trouble, where he trained on and off for two years, the experience of which Donnie relates in the Kung Fu Magazine article “A Touch of Yen” by Wade Major.  On his training experience with the Beijing Wushu Team, Donnie said, “I don’t know if you notice, but these Wushu people, they’re like stage performers.  It’s like a Beijing Opera, almost dance-like.  I said, ‘Why?  There must be a reason for it?  There’s no intensity to it.  Where’s the attack and defense?  Where’s the rawness of martial arts?  Where’s the intensity?’  That’s not martial arts.”  He eventually got to the point where he said he lost interest in modern Wushu, enough to say “Wushu was not the answer to martial arts.  It was a dance form, a great exercise.”  But, fast forward to two films later in Donnie Yen’s acting career, and this story takes a very intriguing turn.  Donnie himself is quoted as saying in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist” by Stephan Berwick, “I…traveled to Xi’an, China for renewed training in contemporary and traditional Wushu.  I chose Xi’an, because that was the home of Zhao Chang Jun, probably the greatest Wushu athlete China ever produced.  This guy was the most explosive Wushu stylist I ever saw.  He confirmed my training approach which is based on using the extreme athleticism typical of modern Wushu, to build fa jing in a variety of movements, no matter what rhythm is followed.’”  Keeping in mind that Donnie has also worked with Jet Li, when these words come from Donnie Yen himself, it’s hard to argue with them.  Stephan Berwick himself, who accompanied Donnie Yen in his travel to and training in Xi’an city, Shaanxi province, China, with Zhao Changjun, his coach Bai Wenxiang the Shaanxi Wushu Team, is quoted as saying in the Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine article “History is the Best Teacher” by Jim Thorp, “‘We went because Zhao was there…We felt that any team with Zhao as captain had to be something special.  And Bai is a wushu pioneer—a highly respected, first generation wushu champion from the sixties—so we knew Sha’anxi was bound to be a special place all around.’”  It is also interesting to note that what appealed to Donnie and Stephan in Xi’an was the traditional martial arts influence with Zhao Changjun and Shaanxi, something that Jet Li and the Beijing Wushu Team did not have.  Berwick himself states, “‘Zhao grew up on the cusp of this shift from traditional martial arts for combat purposes to wushu for sport and competition, and he imbued contemporary wushu with traditional martial arts’ explosiveness—it was much less dance- or gymnastics-oriented than the Beijing style.”

What’s more, Zhao Changjun has also been in fights, and won.  Yes, you read that right.  A Wushu guy that has been in fights, and won them.  Although today the definition of “martial artist” can be separate from a simple “fighter”, there is something to be said about a martial artist with actual fighting experience.  This shows that a martial artist has actual experience and has proven themselves outside of their martial arts system, rather than just let competition results, tournament medals, system belts and rankings, speak for them.  Zhao Changjun relates two separate accounts of being in a fight in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong.”  The first was a street fight around 1978 (about four years after the 1974 Beijing Wushu Team White House Tour), between Zhao Changjun with his classmates, and an allegedly rude patron with some help, after an argument at a movie theater, where Zhao Changjun states, “‘There were seven or eight people and I just beat them up.’”  Whether or not this story is true, or how accurate the related details are to the actual incident, it seems quite credible and very likely to happen, given that China at the time was troubled with social disruption due to the historic Down to the Countryside Movement, making violent conflicts very possible.  The second was in 1985, where he met and allegedly had a friendly exchange with Muhammad Ali, arguably and notably known as “the greatest” boxer of all time, where “Ali quickly relented” after Zhao Changjun began employing his Tan Tui kicks.  Objectively, although the sound of this exchange sounds very amazing, the fact that it was not an official match, as well as the fact that Ali had already retired from boxing for about four years and was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease by that time, makes the validity of this incident a bit dubious.  Jet Li on the other hand, has also admitted in one of his editorials from his website that he has never been in a real fight, nor does he have any desire to be in one.  He even admits in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Cradle 2 the Grave” by Dr. Craig Reid, on the set of one of his movies Cradle 2 the Grave featuring a fight scene with notable professional MMA fighters such as Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, that “The guys in the steel cage over there are real fighters, but I’m not.”  The summation of all this evidence leads to the conclusion that Zhao Changjun is more of a martial artist than Jet Li.  What cannot be denied is that Zhao Changjun is an actual martial artist, and as real a martial artist as they come.

3.      Because He Actually Understands Wushu


As established in his example throughout this write-up, Zhao Changjun qualifies Wushu as legitimate martial arts.  Not only has he been shown to have gone past the shortcomings of modern Wushu, he has become an exceptional example of Wushu that is contrary to the criticisms resultant of these flaws in the modern Wushu system.  He is therefore a foremost example of my personal thesis throughout the majority 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.  But perhaps most impressively, he has shown that he is a thinker and a scholar of Wushu, not just a simple practitioner of Wushu.  This can be reflected in his Wushu journey from the beginning of his life to today.  In “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words”, he reflects, “My view of Wushu changed.  First, as society has changed, Wushu is now a sport.  It has wide range of application, you can compete, you can take it as an exercise or defense, or it can be a performance art for audience to appreciate.  So it has many applications in real life.”  This suggests that he actually understands Wushu in every aspect.

Much of what Zhao Changjun says demonstrates his vast and deep understanding of Wushu, and this is in part because due to his own personal experience, he understands what modern Wushu is, and more importantly, what it is not.  As established in the first reason, it is a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition, and is not the same as original, traditional Chinese martial arts.  Zhao Changjun directly speaks on modern Wushu today in “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, saying, “‘Actually, for competitive wushu, there are no spectators.  No one goes to watch.  They are all doing the same thing, so it’s not interesting.  It’s because they had to go the sports way to bid for the Olympics…it [Wushu] had to be changed, had to be simplified.  They took out the fighting applications so they could jump higher and show more.’”  Modern Wushu Taolu today has been pervaded by the competition requirements of nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements), which can be defined as the degree of difficulty needed from the completion of jumps, sweeps, balances, and connection points in between, that accumulate the required 2.0 points needed out of a maximum performance based score of 10.0, which in turn has been criticized for watering down the actual martial arts content in Wushu, making it look more like tricking and gymnastics.  On this, Zhao Changjun says “‘If you want to jump high, you can’t compete with gymnastics.  The artistic aspect cannot compete with skating…Modern wushu has lost the meaning of the movements.  What are you really doing?  You hold this for a second, then turn and land like that?’”  In the end, Zhao Changjun laments this direction of modern Wushu as an international sport, which makes it fail as a legitimate martial arts system, concluding, “‘It’s because when Wushu tried to go Olympic, somehow they lost the character of what wushu really is.  And that’s where the failure is.’”  And you know what?  As a practitioner of modern Wushu, I hate to admit it, but I agree with him, which is ironic considering I earlier said that I was first offended by these statements he made in the beginning.

In his interviews, he has addressed the flaws of the practice of modern Wushu, and how to make it a more complete and legitimate modern martial arts system.  In “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words”, he says, “‘…Sanshou and Taolu are in different sections in Wushu competition, but actually they both are part of Wushu.  If you want to be a real Wushu expert, you shall practice both, that’s the way to be a good Wushu practitioner.  It is not good if you only practice Taolu and do know anything about the other method, other application or other practice.  That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.’”  However, addressing the fact that modern Wushu athletes usually only specialize either in Taolu or Sanshou for competition reasons, he has an interesting approach and compromise for complete Wushu martial arts training.  He also talks about his first Wushu school, Xi’an Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy, located in Xi’an city, Shaanxi province, China, and states in “Where Wushu Went Wrong” that, “‘At my school, all students must study both traditional and modern on the basic and intermediate levels.  This takes about three to five years.  When that is achieved, the student is evaluated.  For the advanced level, the student specialized in sanshou (free sparring) or taolu (forms) and only trains in that.  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.’”  At his smaller Wushu school, simply Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy, based in New Jersey, United States of America, where he has now settled down with his wife Ma Jun and his children, he also seems to teach both modern Wushu and traditional Wushu, depending on the kind of student, as I have personally witnessed and described in detail in “Visiting Zhao Changjun: A Personal Account.”

Furthermore, unlike most other traditional martial artists, Zhao Changjun is surprisingly open-minded.  His fight experience, namely the previously mentioned exchange with Muhammad Ali demonstrates that.  He also states in “Where Wushu Went Wrong” that he supports MMA, which Donnie Yen considers to be the most authentic form of practical fighting, because of the potential of exchange and further development in martial arts.  “‘Now since were global, everything is mixing…Now everyone gets together to study and explain.  Just look at sanshou.’”  However, Zhao Changjun states in “Where Wushu Went Wrong” that he is also aware that China is behind in development in MMA, because unlike Wushu, it is not organized by the government.  The sum of all this knowledge and experience demonstrates that not only does Zhao Changjun understand Wushu, but he can represent it in the world of martial arts.

Although this is not to say that Jet Li doesn’t understand Wushu, based on the objective research that I’ve done, his understanding of Wushu does not appear to be as in-depth, or is at least not as extensive, as Zhao Changjun’s.  Despite being named “Image Ambassador” (I don’t know what that even means or what it does) by the IWuF (International Wushu Federation), he has sadly not been actively involved in Wushu since his retirement as an athlete; he talks more openly about Taiji more than he does specifically about Wushu.  Currently, he is now a judge on a TV Show called The Brilliant Chinese (出彩中国人; Chūcǎi Zhōngguórén), which is more like a “China’s Got Talent” show.  And no, that’s not a joke.  In the simplest terms, Jet Li can be said to be a Wushu champion turned actor.  Zhao Changjun however, has evolved beyond these roles.  He has the experience and understanding of being a modern Wushu athlete, performer and champion, as well as that of authentic traditional Wushu in its most original and core essence for combat purposes.  Thus, he has an understanding of both sides of the Wushu spectrum, which makes him truly unique, and unlike any other Wushu master.  And the fact that he is someone with actual experience within modern Wushu, being arguably its greatest proponent, means that he actually knows what he’s talking about, and is not just some traditionalist critic of modern Wushu.  He himself states in the interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words”, “With all the practice experience in the past and the understanding of Wushu nowadays, you certainly can feel the difference.  I now feel I understand Wushu more thoroughly than in the past, when I was only an athlete.  For example, the application of Wushu, history of Wushu, value of Wushu, I have a better understanding than I did before.  And I continue to learn everyday.”

So, in a “nutshell” (get it?), this is why I feel Zhao Changjun is better than Jet Li.  I said before in my previous write-up, “Cai Longyun: Wushu Masters You Should Know”, that there are very few modern Wushu athletes I believe could adequately represent Wushu in a complete martial arts sense, but there are certain exemplary exceptions, and Zhao Changjun is at the top of the list for me.  When I was a kid who only watched movies and indulged his fantasies, Jet Li used to be the representative of Wushu for me, as it is with many simpleminded and ignorant Wushu practitioners; but after the amount of research I’ve done along with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained, it is now Zhao Changjun, for all the reasons I have elaborated upon here.  I have said before in “Visiting Zhao Changjun: A Personal Account”, that he is the epitome of Chinese Wushu, and the kind of real martial arts knowledge and skill that its in-depth study and practice can offer.  Once again, this is just my opinion, which is inconsequential at the end of the day, and I honestly don’t think either of these two Wushu legends and champions would care about what a 21-year-old Wushu fan has to say about them.  In any case, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my opinion, I hope you have at least learned more about and taken something away about Wushu from my argument in this debate.


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, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, 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