Tianyuan Li might seem like an ordinary Prius-driving mother of two. But put a spear in her hand, and she reveals herself as a lightning-fast kung fu expert.
Li is a master of wushu, a division of kung fu that places emphasis on competition and performance instead of fighting. Wushu can be practiced barehanded or with one of 108 different weapons. Li’s specialty is the spear.
“People think martial arts is for fighting. Personally, I don’t like to see people get injured, get a bloody nose,” Li said. “It’s like Bruce Lee said, right? ‘The art of fighting without fighting.’ I think that way, too.”
Li, now 43, began practicing when she was 8 and growing up in a small village in China. She had grown envious of her brother, who was learning the art at the time, and asked if she could learn, too.
“My parents said, ‘Yeah? You’re a girl. Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure!’” she said.
Li turned out to be a natural. At 12, she was accepted to the Shanxi Province Sports School, which Li says accepts one out of every 1,000 applicants, and went on to win several national championships. It was at one such competition where she crossed paths with the legendary Jet Li.
“He pat my head and said, ‘Oh, you’re a cute little girl!’” she said. “At that time, Jet Li wasn’t so famous, but he was a champion and handsome.”
In her early 20s, Li retired from competitions and went to Japan to teach wushu. There, she met her husband, a member of the U.S. Navy, and the two eventually settled in western Washington.
These days, Li teaches more than 100 students at her studio, Northwest Wushu in the International District, and a second location in Bellevue. Among the students are her own two children, aged 10 and 8.
“They compete. Luckily, they still like it,” she said.
Li herself hasn’t stopped practicing; she still studies under the same teacher she has had since 12. She also performs at festivals and works as a motion model for video games, including Soul Calibur for the Sega Dreamcast.
“They found me, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re perfect for this game,’” she said.
Li has tried to play the games she has modeled for, but she quickly learned she prefers the real deal to the digital version.
“They tried to teach me. But when I play, I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I can’t play this now. I can just do it!’” she said.
Li’s students range from 2½ years old to middle-aged, from beginners to semi-professionals who themselves model for video games.
With a variety of weapons and complex moves to master, the sport keeps students of all ages engaged and challenged while building flexibility, strength, and speed, Li said.
Competitions also give Li a chance to teach her students, including her own children, how to stay focused under pressure.
“You have to be strong. Even when you’re nervous, you have to show your best,” she said.
Wushu makes her students strong and nimble, Li said, but the most important transformation takes place within.
“You call it confidence, or self-esteem. For a lot of things, they’ll feel differently about themselves. They’ll be tougher and stronger,” she said.
It all comes down to one message Li hopes to instill: “Feel good about yourself.”
“For me, wushu is about enjoying your life. Some people have a lot of money, but they don’t feel good about themselves. Wushu makes you feel good about yourself,” she said.
And like her 70-year-old teacher who still has no problem doing the splits, Li plans on practicing for the rest of her life.
“Wushu is my life. I love it,” she said.