Portrait of a Beijinger: Woman of Tai Chi (video)


Ed: After a long winter hibernation, the Anthill returns in time for spring. We hit a high note at the end of last year with the publication of our anthology book While We're Here, paper copies of which are now available internationally on Amazon as well as on Kindle. Now we have a fresh batch of stories lined up (and my own book is published in June). We're going to try to hit one new nonfiction or fiction narrative at the end of each week, alongside extra poetry, photography and bonuses. In the end, the Anthill is a labour of love around the edges of our other work, and there is only so much time we can put into it. But so long as there are writers with stories to share, we'll be a platform for it and keep bringing you good reads, while we're here. Do spread the love, share and submit.

We're kicking off with a bang, with this fourth and final instalment in "Portrait of a Beijinger", a short documentary series for the Anthill by Tom Fearon and Abel Blanco who find ordinary Beijingers with extraordinary stories. This video profiles Lü Yan, a tai chi master who went to martial arts academy with Jet Li. The video is on Youku for those of you shouting at your VPN during the NPC along with the rest of us, and also on Vimeo as embedded below, along with Tom’s write-up of Lü Yan's story.


Some people choose to take up tai chi for its health benefits in older age, hoping to increase their strength and flexibility or, for believers of its philosophical roots, to improve the flow of their qi. For Lü Yan, the ancient martial art chose her. She was seven years old when a state sports administration official visited her school during the Cultural Revolution to recruit children who could be shaped into wushu martial arts warriors. Lü, a playful girl with pigtailed buns, was recommended by her teacher as a good candidate.

“I used to want to be a doctor or a pianist, but after learning wushu those dreams disappeared,” said Lü, whose father was a Peking University professor and mother was an elementary school teacher. Every day we trained for around six to eight hours from morning until night. We weren’t permitted to think about anything other than wushu, so we abandoned any other hobbies.”

Lü’s most famous teammate at the Shichahai Sports School was Li Lianjie. The young boy’s speed and grace earned him the nickname “Jet,” a name enthusiastically embraced by Hollywood years later. The pair became close friends, walking each day to school where their 60 classmates gradually dwindled after the first year to an elite ten, including Lü and Li, who were chosen to represent the famous Beijing Wushu Team.

In 1974, the pair were joined by another teammate, Cui Yahui, on a historic visit to the White House. Ping-pong diplomacy three years earlier had paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to China, and this was the next carefully choreographed act aimed at normalising relations.

Dressed in red tracksuits with Chairman Mao pins, Cui, Li and Lü performed their routines in the Rose Garden before an audience of dignatries that included Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger. Despite Nixon’s upbeat rhetoric about the enduring friendship of the Chinese and American people, the secret service was uneasy about tiny (and possibly lethal) martial artists being a sword’s strike from the president, thus it was agreed all performances would be barehanded. 

After graduating from the academy, Lü and Li found their talents in demand by Hong Kong filmmakers. Lü starred in a handful of B-movies, always as the heroine thwarting attacks by bumbling gangsters or kung-fu rivals to swishing sound effects, while Li shared the screen with bigger names, including Jackie Chan, in blockbusters like Shaolin Temple and the Once Upon a Time in China series.

By the mid nineties Lü’s competitive career was over and she turned to coaching, first for the Beijing Wushu Team and later for the Philippines national team, who she led to a swag of gold medals at regional championships.

A fifth-generation practitioner of baguazhang or “eight-trigram palm,” a wushu style characterized by soft circular steps and sharp movements drawing energy from the body, Lü is among the legion of tai chi enthusiasts who practice each morning at parks across Beijing. Dressed in a loose, lily white silk outfit, her palms massage the icy air in Chaoyang Park. Her movements are slow and methodical, punctuated by sharp, sudden turns that cause her neat bob to quiver. The ground is blanketed in sleet and golden gingko leaves, but that doesn’t deter her from unleashing head-high kicks that separate her from the weekend tai chi enthusiasts.

After her practice, she walks a few blocks north of the park to a residential compound where she is something of a local celebrity. Parents greet her on the street as their children lower their heads in respect while passing. Lü and Cui still teach their craft in Beijing to kids about the same age as they were when they began learning wushu. Every weekend Lü teaches classes in a dim community hall packed with children around the same age as she was when she was introduced to the sport.

The benefits of wushu and tai chi extend well beyond self-defense or improved health, according to Lü. “Learning wushu from a young age strengthened my character and taught me not to throw in the towel.”

Watch the previous three episodes in the series: Raise the Red Flag, Call of Duty and Beneath the Makeup

Tom Fearon is a writer and editor who has lived in China since 2009. He worked in Chinese state media for many years, and was a print journalist in Cambodia and Australia. View more of his articles and videos at his personal website

Abel Blanco is a videographer based in Beijing who formerly worked in broadcast media in Spain. Follow him on Instagram @abelblanco or view more of his videos here