Winding journey

Liu Yu, left, and fellow Beijing University student Xie Han duel with swords in Beijing in 1986.
Liu Yu, left, and fellow Beijing University student Xie Han duel with swords in Beijing in 1986.

Liu Yu was just 11 years old when she left her family in eastern China.

Over the next decade, she trained alongside professional athletes like future movie star Jet Li, enduring physical and emotional hardship to become one of the nation’s most celebrated martial arts champions. After marrying and moving to the United States, Liu found even greater success as a teacher and coach.

Her journey from shy, scrawny girl to strong, confident woman is chronicled in the book “Awakening the Sleeping Tiger: The True Story of a Professional Chinese Athlete,” written by Liu and Dawn Cerf.

“Luck chose me,” said the 48-year-old Liu, co-founder of the Wushu Training Center in San Luis Obispo.

Born in 1962 to a doctor and a seamstress, Liu grew up in Baoying during the Cultural Revolution – a time of mass arrests, executions and reeducation campaigns meant to purge China of the last vestiges of bourgeois culture.

Liu’s decision to study Chinese martial arts – known as wushu -- was motivated in part by a campaign to send young city-dwelling students to the countryside to work.

Instead of back-breaking farm labor, Liu chose the path of a performer. Wushu promised better health and better prospects for the girl who struggled with anemia and lack of appetite.

Inspired by the professional athletes on her favorite poster, she said, “I fully believed that I would be a champion too.”

Lessons with one-armed Coach Dai led to her placement at a Nanjing training camp for Olympic-level athletes about 150 miles away.

Under the direction of Coach Wang Jin Bao, a tough yet supportive man who became a surrogate father figure, Liu trained six to eight hours a day, six and a half days a week. She endured freezing cold and sweltering heat, risking injuries and body-numbing weariness.

“When you get there, they don’t treat you like a child. They treat you like an adult,” said Liu said, noting that students as young as nine were responsible for their own laundry and housekeeping. “It’s like a different world from everywhere else.”

The only break in her isolation came at the end of autumn each year, when athletes were allowed to visit their families for roughly one week.

“Too much competition among teammates combined with chronic fatigue, lack of social activities and fear of punishment for stepping out of line hindered intimacy,” Liu writes in “Awakening the Sleeping Dragon.” “We simply never learned to trust each other, believing anything we said or did could turn up in someone else’s daily journal read faithfully by our coach.”

Liu eventually joined Jiangsu Province’s professional second team, gaining a salary and improved social status. A stint on the first team came later.

From 1974 to 1985, Liu participated in tournaments and exhibition tours across Asia. She even appeared in a few movies.

“I (saw) how hard it was to be an actor, a movie star. Every movie they made, they always got injured,” the athlete said. “As a doctor’s daughter, I wanted to be healthy.”

When the team journeyed to Canada in 1983 for a month-long exhibition tour, “The trip opened my eyes,” Liu said.

“We had been taught only a few people (in the West) controlled everything and the rest were so poor,” she recalled. “That was not the truth.”

Instead, she and her teammates discovered a friendly, prosperous country rich with such treasures as scented soap and color televisions. Following that experience, she said, “I wasn’t afraid of the West anymore.”

Life in China was a different matter. After the team returned home, Coach Wang fell out of favor.

Liu, whose loyalty to Wang had already cost her a place on the first team and forced her to give up her favorite martial arts form, found herself at the mercy of manipulative Coach Yin.

“You always had to control yourself, not make trouble,” she recalled. “It could be one word, one conversation and your career could be over.”

Her escape came at age 22 in the form of a four-year degree program at the Beijing University of Physical Education. After years of having others dictate her every decision, she relished the newfound freedom of college life.

“We athletes missed out on learning daily life skills,” Liu writes, as well as family. “We never learned how to do ordinary things, like buying tickets, obtaining treatment at a hospital, or purchasing and cooking food.”

Liu, whose formal education had ended in fifth grade, was also eager to exercise her mind.

Her athletic skills and academic prowess quickly earned her accolades from her university and the city of Beijing. She became China’s collegiate taichi champion at the end of her second school year.

As Liu considered her future -- graduate studies in Germany, a teaching career – marriage was an afterthought. Then a familiar foreigner showed up at her dormitory room door.

American student Norm Petredean had visited Liu’s training camp several times in the early 1980s. While traveling with the team to a competition in 1985, he boldly asked Liu about marriage.

She turned him down. But when Petredean showed up again a couple years later, romance bloomed between the soft-spoken Chinese girl and the confident American.

After deciding to move to the United States and marry, Liu faced one final trial. She had to navigate new rules designed to keep young people from leaving the country in the wake of the June 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.

“That experience helped me become even stronger. It helped me believe in myself,” said Liu, who arrived in Chicago in January 1990.

After coming to Los Angeles, she writes, “We decided to start our own school in a more family-friendly location.” They moved to the Central Coast in 1992 and founded the Wushu Taichi Center in San Luis Obispo.

Over the years, Liu has established herself as a prominent member of the international martial arts scene, serving as head judge at the World Wushu Championships in 1995 and coaching the U.S. Wushu Team in the late 1990s.

She’s also returned to China several times to spend time with family and friends and visit her old stomping grounds with students.

During one such trip, Cerf recalled, the people of Baoying treated Liu and her students like hometown heroes – honoring them with banquets, a parade and a fireworks display.

According to Pat Rice, who has worked with the International Wushu Federation and the U.S. Wushu Kung Fu Federation, Liu has helped “lift the art (of wushu) above the ordinary.”

“She came from China with her own set of skills and teaching abilities,” said Rice, whose Winchester, Va., company, A Taste of China, promotes Chinese martial arts through seminars, retreats and tournaments. “She was very knowledgeable and very skilled and brought a level of competency that strengthened wushu in the U.S. and also on a worldwide level."

According to Liu, the experience of writing “Awakening the Sleeping Tiger” helped her find peace with her past.

“In the old days, I didn’t like looking back,” she said, explaining that Chinese people have a tendency to accentuate the positive aspects of history and ignore the negative. “It’s so hard to write the truth.”

Finally she decided, “If we want to write good things, we have to write bad (things).”

Cerf said the book offers a valuable look at a country and culture unfamiliar to many Americans. It also reveals a side of Liu she never knew existed, she added.

“This book makes all her students appreciate her more,” Cerf said.

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