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what a martial arts master can teach you about internal dialogue

Jared Pearman

Li Youfu, Martial Arts Master and Doctor of Chinese Medicine, found something unexpected while exploring ever-deeper folds of Chinese thought

Li Youfu at home in Los Angeles, California, surrounded by ancient Chinese books.

“To be healthy, we have to first cultivate integrity. Without goodness, there can be no health.”
— Li Youfu

At the NTD International Chinese Martial Arts Competition in October 2013, one man sat among the judges with a unique air about him, a look more akin to a scholar than a fighter. Li Youfu has served as the chairman of the competition’s judges for the last four years, and the journey of how he arrived in that seat is as fascinating as the kung fu demonstrations we watched on the stage. 

Early promise

Li’s village in China suffered thought the Great Famine of the 1960s. Li, just a boy then, witnessed a cold-hearted finance official take advantage of his community by stealing food and bullying its members. Watching this pained Li much more than the hunger in his belly. That injustice aroused his desire to learn martial arts. But Li’s first instructor refocused his anger toward “the virtues in martial arts,” as Li describes it today.

He was not allowed to fight anyone, even though his skills developed quickly.   

“In 1968, during the Cultural Revolution, a local political gang was beating up some of my classmates in an alley. I rushed to help them, and a group attacked me with knives. Some even had guns. I had no choice but to fight, and soon my friends and I escaped,” says Li of his first violent encounter, which became legendary among his classmates. He stayed humble, however. “I just did what I felt was right.”

It was that same year, when Li was about 18 years old, that he met professor Chen Shengfu, who taught him the unique kung fu style of Biangan. The 70-year-old Chen instructed his young students in only a single set of exercises in Chinese boxing. Bored by the repetition, most students left, but Li persevered. 

After a year of traveling to see Chen every day and just quietly practicing his boxing, Li’s determination impressed the teacher, and Chen took him under his wing. Li learned advanced techniques in Chinese boxing, Bagua palm, and weaponry, as well as Tai Chi and other qigong for greater health.
 Having taken Li as far as he could, Chen brought Li to a higher-level sensei,  Chen Jishang. This supreme master  revealed martial arts secrets almost no one except for an inner circle of martial artists knew existed.

“The elder Chen often said, ‘practicing slowly is, in fact, fast. When you are  in a tranquil state, others will feel it is extremely fast.’”


Li Youfu demonstrating the martial art of “Bagua Palm”


Secrets of kung fu

“Traditional martial arts are unlike what today’s kung fu movies show,” says Li with a smile. “That kind of competition of strength and fighting skills is not martial arts.” He explains that even the Chinese characters for martial arts (wushu) mean “stopping violence.” 

“If you want to practice martial arts to a high level, you must have ‘the virtue of martial arts,’ and show the world mercy and righteousness.” Li further explains, “Virtues help martial arts practitioners overcome the weakness of humanity, reaching a higher realm. Martial arts practitioners who cherish virtues have a firm belief in protecting the good and conquering the evil when they practice. They don’t care about personal gain or loss, nor do they fear being hurt. Thus, they can be trained to have the courage of a real martial art master.”

Li practiced for decades to grasp both the skills and the mindset of a true kung fu master, but the more he learned, the more doubts he had about the path. 

From martial arts to Chinese medicine

“I always felt that martial arts were closely connected to Chinese medicine,” says Li, who began studying the classical works of medicine in order to help his ailing mother. He even began using fighting techniques to cure people, taking what he’d learned in attacking an opponent’s pressure points and altering it so that he could unblock their energy channels. 

Li says that both traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts originated from the cultivation culture of the Taoist school. The Taoist philosophy reveals the laws of the universe, Li says, including the motion of all matter. If people comply with these laws, they can communicate with the universe, and observe the laws that govern everything, including the human body. 

“When I was practicing advanced Tai Chi, I could feel the circulation of the vital energy inside my body. After I began practicing Chinese medicine, these experiences helped a lot. I could even sense a patient’s condition without touching him or her.” 

Having experienced these supernormal abilities, Li kept searching for explanations, reading through classical works of Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese medicine. His searches led him to spiritual pursuits as he sought to understand the divine order he began to sense in life.


Li Youfu practicing the fifth meditative exercise of Falun Gong: non-action. Based on years of experience in practicing martial arts and Chinese medicine, Li believes this meditation can open energy channels inside the body and help people reach tranquility both physically and spiritually; it is one of the best ways to keep fit, he says.


A new discovery

“In 1993, I came to the U.S.,” recounts Li. “Three years later, a friend introduced me to the book Zhuan Falun. He told me that though the book lays out an ancient method of refining mind and body, it is written in modern Chinese. This piqued my curiosity and I eventually found a copy. Soon after I began reading, I experienced immense improvements in the clarity of my thinking and in my well-being. I truly felt that Zhuan Falun was a treasure wrapped in ordinary paper. The language is plain, but everything it illustrates is profound.”

Through learning Falun Gong, the practice taught in  Zhuan Falun, Li came to understand that virtue exists as a type of matter in and around one’s body and that having strong character is the foundation for living well.

“Human life relies on the maintenance of moral fibre,” Li says. “For example, if people don’t act with integrity, they may pollute the environment for their selfish interests. If the very air and water we rely on are polluted, then what good is it to study medicine to try to improve health?” 
“So, to be healthy, we have to first cultivate integrity. Without goodness, there can be no health,” concludes Li.

Photography by Dexuan