From kung fu film star to Moorestown master
Written by www.courierpostonline.com
Tuesday, 23 December 2008 20:41
A group of children crowd around a TV screen in the corner of a large classroom in Moorestown, watching a kung fu movie from 1987 in which a devoted Buddhist monk defends a monastery.
At the other end of the room, the man who portrayed that monk in the film, Master Zhao Changjun, instructs an adult class in the graceful art of tai chi.
Kung Fu magazine called Zhao one of China's most decorated wushu champions ever.?
Wushu is the term for martial arts in China, what Americans call kung fu.
The sport was adapted in the 1960s for competition. From 1978 to 1987, Zhao won 10 individual all-around titles in China and 54 gold medals in national and international events, exceeding the record of Jet Li who held similar titles during the 1970s.
Zhao starred in or helped direct films such as "Wu Dang", "China's First Swordsman", "Broadsword King: Wang Wu", "Legend of Monk Hai Deng", "Blood-Stained Hero" and "One Arm Hero".
Since retiring from competition, Zhao has focused on teaching and coaching. Speaking through a translator, he offered insights into his chosen discipline and his life.
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In 1991, he opened the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute in his home city of Xi'an (China's first capital, famous for its ancient terracotta warriors).
The school is one of the most highly respected kung fu academies in China with nearly 10,000 graduates, many of whom have become teachers.
Hasan Rucker, a kung fu teacher in South Philadelphia, attended Zhao's school in Xi'an.
I had studied wushu in the U.S. for 10 years but knew that to reach the next level, I needed to go to China, said Rucker. My teacher told me that Master Zhao was the best. So in 2005, I sold my cars, left my job and moved to China for a year.
Even though he's a physical fitness instructor, the school's rigorous training schedule left Rucker exhausted at the end of every day.
Last year, Zhao moved to New Jersey on a mission ?to spread the art of wushu and increase the opportunities for my children, Aimee, 16, and Yun, 9. He opened a school at 200 W. Camden Ave. in Moorestown, offering group and private lessons to children and adults.
The school's first students came from the local Chinese community because of Zhao's reputation in China. Gradually, non-Chinese families have begun to enroll in the school as people recognize Zhao's skill as a teacher.
While most students are beginners, advanced practitioners also study with Zhao, such as Rachel and Adam Margalit of New York City, a sister and brother who are nationally-ranked champions.
Rachel, 17, represented the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Wushu Tournament although wushu has yet to be sanctioned as an official Olympic sport.
Local kung fu teachers also study with Zhao to continue their training.
But by far, most of Zhao's students are children just starting kung fu. The youngest is Kyle Carlett, 5, who began studying with Zhao at age 4 at the Hua Xia Chinese School in Cherry Hill, where Zhao also teaches.
Last month, Zhao's younger students were tested on the routines they had been practicing for months. Each student performed before a panel of four kung fu teachers from other schools, all of whom had studied under Zhao.
Zhao halted the proceedings at one point to tie the shoe of one young kung fu artist. It was a moment that captured Zhao's patience and gentle nature.
Zhao was born to a modest family in 1960 in Xi'an. ?I was small and unhealthy, so my father enrolled me in a kung fu class when I was 6. These were turbulent times in China amid Mao?s Cultural Revolution and my father wanted me to be able to defend myself and my four sisters.
His teachers quickly recognized Zhao's talent and by age 10 he served on the provincial team and by 12 he was competing on a national level.
As his reputation grew, Zhao toured on behalf of the Chinese government and ultimately performed in 30 countries. He later coached the national teams of China, Japan, Malaysia and Switzerland.
Known for his skill in a wide range of kung fu forms and styles, he was the national champion in the long fist form, characterized by low, extended stances and long kicks and punches. He also won competitions in the wooden staff, broadsword and other weapons.
Zhao studied ancient forms of kung fu including the drunken style, which involves bobbing and weaving while performing kung fu maneuvers. Working with old masters and ancient texts, Zhao helped revive some of the older styles of kung fu that were becoming extinct.
He also holds classes in tai chi, the graceful art of slow, relaxed but precise movements practiced by millions of Chinese people of all ages to stay limber, improve concentration and reduce stress.
Before modern weapons, wushu was about combat, says Zhao, but now it's a path toward individual enrichment, fitness and self-discipline.