"...the 70s belonged to Jet Li and the 80s to Zhao Changjun! "


Text by Emilio Alpanseque
Photography by Hector Maury


Famous for his extreme quality of movements and blazing speed and power, Master Zhao Changjun was the all-around National Champion of China for 10 consecutive years, from 1978 until 1987; nobody has broken that record so far. After retirement, Master Zhao has become a world-renowned coach, founding in 1991 the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute in Xi'an, a 5000 student full-time boarding school producing countless national and international champions over the years. In this exclusive interview, Master Zhao shares with us highlights of his incomparable career as well as some of the important aspects about Wushu.


Q: Master Zhao, thanks for this great opportunity, I would like to start by asking you this question: were you a 'natural' at Wushu?
I think you can say that I was somewhat of a 'natural' at Wushu. But, working hard is always the premise for success, that's very important. I started to learn Traditional Chaquan from a non professional coach when I was six. And I started to learn Wushu professionally at 10 years old. So, I built up very solid basics right from the beginning. Therefore, I was able to learn faster than other classmates when we started training different styles or new techniques.


Q: How has your personal understanding of Wushu has changed over the years?
The reason I started to practice Wushu was to get stronger. I was weak when I was young. I remember I had a fight with other kids but I lost. With that experience, I wanted to learn Wushu. I talked to my father and he considered that Wushu would make me stronger so he agreed. That was my purpose to start Wushu. But at that time, what was in my mind was to learn how to fight. That's how I started it at six years old. At that time, 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. Then, I start to do it as a profession at the age of 10. 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. For me, it was a career since I was a professional athlete. Wushu was not a technique for fighting anymore. For example, the 'salute' pose we usually do in Wushu, you start with your right fist out and then your left palm covers it meaning to 'hold'. Of course, there are many other ways to explain the 'salute' move. But the overall understanding is to 'hold', to avert conflict, to respect seniors and coaches, that's the inside meaning of that simple move.


Q: Today, do you feel that you still have further to go in your studies?
As the saying goes: "You are never too old to learn". 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.


Q: Do you have a particular memorable Wushu experience that has remained as an inspiration for your training?
Here is one story. When I was in competition in the 1970s, Jet Li and I were rivals. He won many championships, and I was always the second. As an athlete, you won't be the best if you don't want to be the champion. That has inspired me along the way. Since competitive Wushu was my profession and I was in competitions, I should fight for the No. 1. I always remember the 1978 competition, in the Long Fist division. The judge commented on my palm position. He said that my small finger was a little away from the rest, that's why I received a deduction. If I did not do that palm position wrong, my final score could have been higher than Jet Li. In the end, Jet Li won me over 0.05 in the 1978 competition, he was the all-around champion and I was the second. I learned my great lesson from that. If you want to become a champion, every feature of Wushu, like the Wushu spirit, jumping ability, instant power, speed, and understanding of each movement, is very important.
That's why you have to be extra careful in your training for every movement. You have to set up high standards in practice. With that in mind, I won many National all-rounds championships the following years. That is why, in the Wushu circles everybody says that the 70s belonged to Jet Li and the 80s to Zhao Changjun!


Q: Were there times when you felt fear prior to a competition?
Never. I am the excited type at competitions. I practiced hard in my training, my coaches had confidence in me all the time. I almost never had mistakes in competitions. I am also the type who always performs better in real competition. The more audience I have, the more competitive the competition is, the better my performance will be. I was like that since I was young. When I started Wushu practice at six, I could do more than 10 butterfly twists if I had audience, comparing to 7 or 8 in practice.


Q: How can a practitioner choose the right competition events? Are there any general guidelines for this?
Of course there are. During practice, the teacher or coach is very important. Basics are the most important. During basics practice, the teacher/coach will see difference for choosing a specialty. It is not about what to choose for a competition, but how to adapt better to each athlete's abilities. For example, my coach found that I have a strong instant power after several years of systematic practice. My speed was very fast. Therefore, I would be better off if I practice staff and broadsword. Why? Broadsword must look like an aggressive tiger. That's the spirit you shall have in practice. On the other side, spear and straight sword look more elegant. They require more flexibility. I was not that good at it. Usually both power and flexibility do not happen in the same person. That's the difference a teacher or coach shall identify and help practitioners to choose based on their own physical conditions.


Q: Can these generic competition events be improved by practicing other styles such as imitation styles, internal styles, flexible or double weapons?
Of course. At least your coordination ability will be improved. For example, I did not practice Tai Chi when I was practicing Long Fist. Later I practiced Tai Chi and realized that it helped me relax when I needed to in Long Fist practice. Long Fist requires strength and flexibility; it is not always hard or stiff. So, they help each other. Another example, 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. Another example, many weapons have something in common. For instance, broadsword and straight sword, if you are a comprehensive athlete, with good coordination, you can practice both, but you shall focus on one with the other as supplementary. For example, if you practice straight sword 4-5 times a week and practice broadsword once a week, you will have faster speed in straight sword. The more you practice, the more skillful you will be.


Q: What advice would you give to students as far as supplementary training goes (i.e. weights, food supplements)?
You definitely need to have supplementary training. We used to practice 6 times a week, twice a day. Each week we would include two sessions that were mostly supplementary training to build up our physical strength.
We did many exercises like squats with and without lifting weights, one-legged squats, long-distance running, short distance running, frog jumping, sprints, etc. Two times per week focused on strength and conditioning. I never tried any special medicine supplements. I think food is very important, regular meals, balance diet, nutrition in general and good rest. Enhancing drugs may work only temporarily and most likely will harm your health. We practice Wushu to condition our bodies and minds, to improve our health, and not for the opposite.


Q: What is your general feeling on the new competition format developed towards the Olympics?
On this issue, I won't say that the new routines are incorrect, I don't think that way. Every Wushu practitioner has a dream, that Wushu can be part of the Olympic family. Wushu shall have a seat in the international Olympic family. That is also my dream. The current model to promote Wushu made some necessary changes to Wushu to make it adapt to the Olympic requests, rules and convenience for judges, etc. However, some characteristics of Wushu have been dropped too. For example, the new routines give so much importance to the jumping techniques. I don't think jumps are the most important aspect of Wushu. It is not correct to take them as the most important characteristic. It is a certain deviation from the right direction of Wushu development.


Q: Can you define for us 'traditional Wushu' and 'modern Wushu'
Here is my way of defining them. Wushu practitioners will have very good basics via modern Wushu practice.
They will learn and understand traditional Wushu much faster then a usual person because they have solid basics. They probably do not study much on the method of traditional Wushu, practice of Taolu and understanding of traditional Taolu because they have to study and work towards how to receive high scores from modern Wushu judges. Their practices are focused on that, so does their study experience. traditional Wushu pays more attention to application, methods, spirit of attacking and defending. Said in a different way, the priority of a modern Wushu is to compete, therefore their practice has a different focus. However, since they build up good basics, they will never be late to learn traditional Wushu, even in their 30s or 40s. For example, two students start to learn traditional Wushu at the same time, one does not have professional training in modern practice. One month later, you will find that the one with modern Wushu experience does a much better job than the other. My understanding is that modern Wushu seeks for competition skills while traditional Wushu seeks for deeper abilities and knowledge.


Q: Master Zhao, once again, thanks for sharing this valuable information with all of us.
Not at all. Thank you for making it possible!