An Interview with Yao Li
(Originally Published in Vol. 4 Issue #21 of the Wu Gong Journal)
At what age did you move from Taiwan to the United States? Did you settle in Boston right away?
I moved to Washington state when I was 14, and stayed in a town called Mapton for about a year and a half. That’s when I saw the television pilot for the show Kung Fu. That pilot made a strong impression on me. Of course, growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, we were influenced by all the martial arts movies and comic books of martial arts heroes who had “power”. As a teenager, I wanted to possess that power because I thought it was cool. At that point, when the show came on the air in the early seventies, martial arts became a craze. I was a part of that craze.
When did you start training in Chinese Martial Arts and who was your first teacher?
I came to Boston when I was 16, with my parents. My mother had a college classmate that lived here. It was a natural decision for us to move to Boston. When I came here, I started looking for martial arts schools. I found Gongfu very appealing. In 1973, I met my first teacher, Chan Pui.
You competed successfully for several years. Can you talk a little about our experience in your first competition, as well as your tournament achievements?
Back in the 70′s, there was no such thing as Gongfu tournaments. We had to compete against all the karate guys. We were certainly the minority of the group. We had to do better than good to win.
My favorite weapons form was the three-section stick. I used to win a lot of tournaments with that weapon. They had never seen anything like it. I became somewhat of a celebrity in the tournament circuit; known for that form. I was on the cover of Black Belt and Kung Fu magazines.
My first tournament was in 1975. I dropped my sticks and scored poorly. I was determined to become a force in the tournament circuit. In 1978, I became the National Champion in the weapons division. I was last of fifty competitors, and the only Gongfu artist. All karate competitors, all karate judges. I was surprised by their openness and pleased with their compliments. The audience gave me a standing ovation; I was shocked and overwhelmed.
After training in traditional Chinese Martial Arts you decided to travel to Mainland China to learn contemporary Wushu. What was your reason for doing this? What did you gain from this experience?
In 1974, Jet Li and a group of Wushu artists went to New York for a show. That was the first time I saw Wushu performed live. It was a packed house in Madison Square Garden. Their show took my breath away! After that, I decided to visit China. They were so good in every aspect of Wushu. Their performance inspired me to do Wushu.
In 1984, I decided to go to China to study Wushu. I wanted to know how they trained; I wanted to learn the contemporary style; I wanted to meet the martial artists who ate and slept Wushu. I took three trips back between 1984 and 1986. I simply gained another way of doing Gongfu.
Do you feel that contemporary Wushu contains certain elements that can help traditional practitioners?
Yes. Contemporary Wushu extracts the best part of the artistic and athletic aspect of Chinese martial arts. For instance, they have a few forms representing each style. Traditional Gongfu has a system with each form becoming progressively more difficult. This makes traditional Gongfu more repetitive and less exciting to watch. Wushu is explosive and very entertaining.
What aspects of traditional Gongfu are lacking in the contemporary styles?
Wushu fonns are showier and are designed that way for performance and training purpuses. The traditional forms have a certain combative quality that has been carried on for generations of martial artists. Both have their value.
Do you feel that running both programs has enhanced the foundation of your school?
I have been teaching contemporary Wushu for over ten years now. I am starting to incorporate the traditional methods, because I miss it. I think my students can benefit from the traditional methods.
What is your most successful program?
In our school we have several programs. They are all very successful in their own ways. It’s like a whole body; if you take away the arm, you realize how much you need it. The programs enhance each other. Between the Gongfu, Taiji, San Shou, and the cardio-kickboxing program, the Boston Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute has well-rounded programs.
Joshua Grant, 1993 U.S. Team member and 2-time National Champion, leads a successful Taiji program that has produced several national push- hands and forms champions. Taiji students, Ray Neves won two gold medals in Taiji push hands and Karim Ban-Sanders won first in Wushu Taiji sword and third in Wushu Taiji in Baltimore this year. Another sutdent, Elizabeth Spawn, has won the titles at the Third Internationals in China for Taiji straight sword.
To read the rest of this interview click here to register; its FREE