Bow Sim Mark and Li Tianji


In the early 1981, after China had opened to the West, Bow Sim Mark was invited back to the nation of her birth for the National Wushu Competition, and was subsequently invited the prestigious Beijing Institute of Physical Culture, where she received the highest critique.[i] 


This was the period that Li Tianji accepted her as a disciple, one of achievements of which she was most proud.  Sigong Li was a childhood friend and “kung fu brother” of Fu Wing Fay, her first formal Sifu.  Both Li’s father and Fu’s father were direct students of Song Wei-I, said to be the first secular Wudang swordsman. [ii]


Song’s main disciple was “Miracle Sword” Li Jinglin, general, warlord, and, along with colleagues such as Wang Zi-Ping, a major figure in the formation of modern Chinese fencing. These teachers are similar to European masters and soldier/scholars such as Domenico Angelo and Richard Francis Burton, who knew the age of sword was coming to an end and wanted to preserve the art.[iii]  In both cases, this led to the formation of modern martial sports.


The Li/Fu relationship was critical—Fu Wing Fay "gave her the foundation", but Li Tianji “completed her understanding of the arts.”  Sigong Fu urged her to study with Sigong Li for this purpose because she specialized in straightsword, and “Flying Dragon Sword” Li Tianji is considered by many to be the best of his generation.


When asked who was the best at jian, Bow Sim Mark would reply unequivocally “Li Tianiji”.



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Pushing hands with Li Tianji at the Beijing Institute of Physical Culture


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Fencing with Li Tianji at the Beijing Institute of Physical Culture


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Li Tianji presents a sword to his disciple Bow Sim Mark



Li Tianji demonstrating Wudang Fencing at the International Master's Demo in 1984



[i] This would be analogous to summa cum laude at Cal Tech, if Cal Tech cared about Latin Honors and only accepted 1/10 of the students.

[ii] Fu and Li were said to be lifelong friends from childhood, having trained together under various great masters in youth as the sons of two great masters, Fu Zhensong and Li Yu Lin.  Their fathers’ relationships with figures such as Li Jinglin, Yang Chengfu, Sun Lutang and others likely opened the door for their sons to receive extensive teaching from the best of the best in various fields during the Central Guoshu Institute era of the Old Republic and beyond.  Because both had trained from early childhood and had strong foundations, they were able to receive deep instruction, which was surely a factor in the fame they achieved.  Fu Wing-Fei was famous as a traditional family master in the South, Li came to national fame via his travels, public teaching and research, and involvement with the modern sport. Bow Sim Mark and her most famous student have the same foundation in Shaolin and Wudang and gained a global reputation. This fame came after her time in Beijing, such that it’s clear both teachers were essential.

[iii] In China this came almost a century later such that the connection could be said to be closer.  China is distinct in that martial arts has been considered a cultural treasure throughout recorded history, ingrained into the fabric of society, religion and art.  Sword dance has been practiced in one form or another for over 2000 years.  Li Tianji is said to have been one of the figures who preserved the arts during the Cultural Revolution, such that the tradition could be unbroken.


Posture may be what most distinguishes Fu Wing Fay, Li Tianji, Xia Bohua and the other great teachers of their generation, who improved on the posture of prior generations. Everyone is familiar with Tianji’s waist technique and light footwork from the 1984 Masters Demo.  Those instant direction changes significantly optimized by Bagua.  In that video and others there is  some spinal curvature like all old great masters.  Here is what he looked like entering his prime:



The rigorous formalized Wushu training that figures like Li helped usher in, grounded in the Republican era Guoshu, allowed their students to continue to refine, strengthen, improve and continually revitalize the arts. Chinese Boxing advanced in every generation in the 20th century.