Jumping across rooftops or chopping bricks in half – that’s cinema. But real-life kung fu, as the West refers to Chinese martial arts (it’s “wushu” in China), is so much more than that, as I discovered when I visited a martial arts school in Bern.
Not long after this interview – while the article was still being written – Fan Qiang died in a car accident. Nevertheless, Wu Yongmei wanted swissinfo.ch to go ahead and publish it as a tribute to her husband and his passion for martial arts. We have respected her wish and extend our deepest condolences.
The editorial staff
Talk to Swiss people about China and they think of chop suey and kung fu. “Cooking and kung fu are our two best-known skills among the Swiss. Stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are very popular here,” Wu Yongmei tells me as I arrive.
And it’s thanks to kung fu that she met the man of her life. Fifteen years ago, she founded her school in Bern; then she married Fan Qiang. Both have become seventh-rank instructors, the highest in Switzerland.
The couple are very proud to have trained many Swiss martial arts champions. But their greatest satisfaction – more than the medals – is to have been able to turn their passion into a job. And to see their pupils’ fascination and enjoyment.
Parents send children to martial arts courses to grow stronger and learn about self-control and discipline. But “wushu” is also a complete sport which combines strength, flexibility, coordination and endurance.
That said, some people do turn up hoping to learn how to bisect a brick. “It can be done, but people who do it risk serious lesions when they’re older,” Fan says. “When you see it in a film, it’s a special effect. We don’t encourage that type of training. If someone comes along wanting to do that, we try to change their mind.”
One big family
“A teacher for a day is a father for a lifetime,” according to a Chinese proverb. In the old days, establishing the master-pupil relationship was very important. Masters selected their pupils based on the criteria of virtue and morals.
Today, things are clearly different: everyone can sign up for a lesson. Does this mean martial arts have lost their authenticity?
“During the training, we’re like a big family. Pupils call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, like in China,” Wu says. “But we can’t demand that they remain faithful to us for ever or that they serve us tea or make our bed…”
She and her husband have, however, preserved certain traditions, such as pupils using the fist-wrapping greeting with both hands in front of the chest. “They say, ‘good morning teacher’. They don’t use the word ‘master’. If they did, I would feel more responsibility to them and would give them more than a teacher could.”
In the school, some pupils who have studied for many years feel like part of the family. The couple also accept candidates who can’t afford lessons.
“They come by to have a look. If they are really passionate about martial arts, I wouldn’t be comfortable turning them away,” she says.
They come to an agreement: the pupil pays what he or she can, or helps out with the cleaning, or agrees to pay later.
Invited as an instructor, Fan came to Switzerland eight years ago. Having heard that a seventh-rank instructor was in the area, Wu asked him to visit her school.
Fan remembers falling in love with her within three seconds of opening the door. A real lightning bolt. He then got to know Wu, whom he admires, and he decided to work at the school.
For her part, Wu was also impressed by Fan. Watching him, she noticed his ability as an instructor – at a technical as well as a theoretical level. At work, their relationship remains private.
Partners in both their professional and private lives, they spend all their time together. When I ask what their hobbies are outside the school, Wu jokingly says “arguing”, while Fan says he likes sleeping and eating.
More seriously, Wu says she exercises to keep fit and in shape; Fan sticks to martial arts.
It’s time for a lesson. Donning their kung fu uniforms, the laid-back couple turn into imposing and strict instructors.
“Good morning, everyone!” “Good morning, teacher!” The effect is stunning: ten or so Swiss pupils simultaneously greeting in authentic Chinese! It reminds me of my schooldays in China. Wu and Fan appear to have imported traditional Chinese teaching methods, and discipline plays a fundamental role in martial arts.
But there’s discipline and there’s discipline. In China, it’s normal to yell at pupils, who react very respectfully.
“It’s not the same in Switzerland – at first I was really perturbed,” Fan admits. “The pupils have a lot of freedom and the teachers can’t impose their will on them.
In his view, there isn’t enough discipline in Swiss schools, but the atmosphere in Chinese schools is too severe.
“Over time, we’ve found a way of integrating the central points of the teaching methods of both countries.”
The result is that Wu and Fan sometimes raise their voices, but not as they would in China. With a stern expression and hands crossed behind his back, Fan uses body language to transmit respect for martial arts.
What would they have done had they stayed in China? Wu says she would have become a businesswoman.
“I’m lucky to have started learning martial arts when I was really young. Now I’m the best in Switzerland – all because I come from the birthplace of martial arts. If I were to do another job, I wouldn’t necessarily be the best. As the proverb goes: ‘the flower blossoms in the garden, but its scent travels outside it’.”
Fan says he would have continued to teach and appear in films, having already worked on eight Chinese action films, including Zhang Yimou’s Hero, starring Jet Li.
They agree, however, when I ask what the most beautiful thing is that they have experienced in Switzerland. Both reply at almost exactly the same time: “Meeting each other.”
(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch