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The way of the ribbon and the sword

How Bow Sim Mark created a martial arts dynasty, one student (and movie star) at a time.

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By Charles P. Pierce
June 19, 2011

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Early on a Friday evening, on the verge of a summer late to arrive, night falls in long shadows on the Leather District and a stream of people. The human tide from South Station has turned. The people who drifted out earlier as commuters, as lawyers and bankers and assistants to the vice president of vice presidents, now come flooding back off the trains as nighthawks, nightclub cowboys, and weekend gourmets on the make. The hustle of well-paid work gives way to the bustle of expensive play, and the area is soon as alive as it was back at noon that day, and even louder, laughter echoing down the alleys having replaced the low, important mutter of hundreds of people talking simultaneously into their cellphones.

Walk down a short flight of stairs on Lincoln Street, though, and you pass from that world, as frantic at play as it is at work, into another place and – if you stay long enough – into another time as well.

Seven students, all dressed in white, are carving space out of the air around them with their arms and legs. They do not move so much as ripple. They turn and bend, twist and flow, as though the basic human geometry has surrendered to a kind of fluid dynamics. At one point, they pick up swords. Some of the swords are metal. Some of them are wood. They are all solid and substantial. But somehow the bending and flowing and rippling seem to run through the students and out through their blades, making them wavery presences in the air.

It as though each student has constructed a personal world with its own physics and that the movements themselves conform to the unique natural laws of these individual worlds. In the front row, in the middle of a line, there is a tiny woman doing all the same things that the students are doing, but her world seems to be more perfectly round, the equilibrium of her movements deeper and more profound than the kind that you see in the students around her, some of whom sneak looks to see what she is doing. Below the sidewalks of Boston, as a Friday night gathers itself on the streets above, this is a self-contained universe of individual worlds, all orbiting around the tiny woman in the front, who is its center and the source of the power that keeps the room in balance.

***

In July, Bow Sim Mark will celebrate her 35th year teaching wushu in the United States. A martial art that includes tai chi and other ancient disciplines, wushu and its movements were first standardized by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Over the decades, Mark has developed them into performances that are wholly her own and has collected an impressive list of accolades along the way. In 1984, she won the gold medal at the First International Tai Chi Chuan and Sword Tournament in China. More recently, Black Belt magazine named her one of the most influential martial arts masters of the 20th century; Inside Kung-Fu magazine upped the praise, declaring her one of the most influential of the last millennium.

Mark’s specialty is wudang sword, the sweeping style familiar to most Westerners, if at all, from the action sequences in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (The film’s fight choreographer once said he had Mark in mind when designing the sword routines of a character named Jade Fox.) Mark melded her martial training with the arts of song and dance, which is not surprising, considering that her first performance interest as a child was Chinese opera. What she does in routines such as Tai Chi Ribbon – a performance of her own design with long silk ribbons – looks very much like a dance, but with a kind of lethality sleeping within the beauty.

Mark differentiates between the “external” martial arts, which emphasize power and punching, and the “internal” forms, like tai chi and its variations, which emphasize relaxation and flexibility and work primarily through balance and leverage.

“Tai chi comes from here,” she says, pointing to her midsection. “It is internal. The energy must flow from there into the sword. It comes from the center.”

Watching Mark work through wushu forms is to see a kind of otherworldly refinement. All her movements seem to exist within a carefully constructed sphere that shifts when she does. There is a radius of power and a circumference of grace that are meditative until, suddenly, Mark brings her sword from a position of rest into a powerful downward chop or upward thrust. The lethality of the action was always there; it had just been hidden by the beauty of the movements surrounding it, like swaying reeds that conceal a tiger.

“There is a kind of balance you want to see in a martial artist,” says Shannon Phelps, a former Navy SEAL who studied extensively under Mark. “Soft, subtle, composure under pressure, not brute force, but energy. She just personifies that. She’s also a very dangerous lady.”

“People always think I am too small, a very small lady,” the 5-foot-tall master explains with a ghost of a smile. “They are wrong about that.” Back in the days before insurance liability was much of a concern, Mark would stand above the circular yin-yang painted on the floor of her studio and let her students come at her, one at a time. Several of them usually left the circle airborne.

Mark not only established the Chinese Wushu Research Institute, her studio on Lincoln Street, she and her husband, a journalist, also created a kind of family dynasty in the practice. Their son, Donnie Yen, is a fight choreographer, director, and star in martial arts movies both here and in China. And their daughter, Chris Yen, began competing internationally in wushu at age 12 and now works in films. (She’s also been known to accompany her mother on piano when Mark goes through her performance routines.) Mark practices daily at her home in Newton and, though now semi-retired, still teaches a few classes a week at her studio.

Her students call her “Sifu,” which means “teacher,” but which means much more than that. There is a parental element to the title as well. In the Chinese academies where Mark was taught, the master was considered a surrogate parent and the students were part of a lineage of knowledge extending back generations. This is also part of what Mark has brought to this little place in the Leather District. Next month, she will turn 69, although, if you ask her about her age or to slap a date on any particular moment in her past, Mark’s English becomes what can best be described as tactically tentative. “A long time ago” is her standard reply. But her face comes alight when discussing what she has spent her life teaching.

“There are all different students,” she says, “and different students all have different gifts.” They say the best way to know any teacher is to study her students.

***

As a girl, Bow Sim Mark had a gift for singing and dancing. Growing up in Guangzhou, China, she listened to the opera and dreamed of performing with the well-known troupes of her province. She also loved to play, and she was as athletic as she was graceful. At 7, she gravitated toward wushu, first in a program at her elementary school and, ultimately, at the school run by Fu Wing Fay, a legendary tai chi master who spotted in Mark so much potential that, in 1962, he agreed to take her on as a private student. Fu himself came from a notable martial arts lineage; his father had learned from Li Jing-Lin, a soldier nicknamed “Miracle Sword” who was reckoned to be one of the three or four most powerful martial artists in Chinese history. Under 10 years of Fu’s tutelage, Mark mastered his complete system in several disciplines of tai chi, including the wudang sword, and began helping her sifu teach his classes. It was around that time that Fu gave Mark two calligraphy scrolls. “This is a follower who has mastered all I can teach,” they read. “I have finally gotten a follower who can be my successor.”

Mark married a high school classmate, Klysler Yen, and the couple left China in 1973 with their son, Donnie. They settled in Hong Kong, where Mark took a job as chief instructor at a women’s martial arts school founded by Fu’s wife. In 1975, the family immigrated to the United States.

It was in Boston that Mark fulfilled the promise Master Fu Wing Fay had seen in her by founding her own school, the Chinese Wushu Research Institute. When she opened its doors in 1976, Mark had only 10 students – wushu was still all but unknown in the West, and she was the first person in the West to teach it. And while she also taught martial arts at Boston University and, briefly, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mark took as her real work the development of a school fashioned on the model of Master Fu’s in China – an extended family with a distinct lineage, with her as its matriarch and her students as brothers and sisters. This necessarily included her own children, who were also her students and who many times found themselves, formally and informally, working in the tai chi equivalent of in loco parentis.

“I would get to help my mom with the class,” Chris Yen recalls. “I was kind of a mischievous kid, a little bit of a clown. I used to tease the other students. I’d pull them to the side and say, ‘I can help you perfect that move for a dollar.’ ” The students would pay and get their extracurricular lesson, but only out of Mark’s sight. “Mom’s classes were always very serious, though, and I would always do as she said,” Chris says. “I remember experiencing at a very young age – when I was 6 or 7 – helping out in the classes. I was in a very grown-up environment. I was the only kid. All of my students were adults. I liked that a lot.”

On the surface, Chris Yen is unlike her mother. She is almost preternaturally cheery yet deadly straightforward, and she fairly vibrates over whatever has managed to engage her enthusiasm, which is practically everything. At the same time, she has come to grips with the fact that growing up as the daughter of Bow Sim Mark meant that she would be raised just a little differently from all of her bike riding, skateboarding peers whipping over the hills of Newton. “My childhood consisted of seeing my mom in the light of a master, more so than to have had the personal, private mother-daughter relationship at home,” she says. “I didn’t have a normal childhood. I don’t remember playing in a playground. I didn’t get to go out a lot.” Her mother was too gentle to be a Tiger Mom, that preposterous postmodern Charlene Chan marketing construct that blew up in everyone’s face last winter. Master Mark’s strength as a person sprang from the same source as her strengths as a martial artist. It was internal, but that didn’t make it any less formidable.

“I always knew there was something odd about all of us,” Chris says. “We spent a lot more time down at the studio than we ever did in my family house in Newton. We spent a lot of time practicing and training, more so than doing homework. The training wasn’t always pleasant – your form had to be perfect, your toes had to be in the perfect angle, your fingers flexed back. We spent a lot of time perfecting those details.”

It was unsurprising, then, that Chris developed into a champion like her mother. As the youngest competitor in a 1985 international wushu tournament – the first in which the Chinese government allowed outsiders – the 12-year-old placed second in sword, besting women far older and more experienced. She was immediately cast in a Hong Kong film called Close Encounter With the Vampire. Later, the director told Mark he could turn her daughter into a bona fide star. Mark said she was too young. Fame would have to wait until her schooling was finished.

As she grew older, Chris began to search for an alternative to the solitude of wushu. When she got to junior high school, she found it in an unlikely way: She joined a volleyball team. “It was a chance to go out and compete with a team in an arena,” she recalls. “I adapted to it well. In fact, I just fell in love with it – that whole team spirit thing. I don’t remember having a lot of that when I was training in wushu.”

Chris was largely alone at home, because her older brother, Donnie, was already a movie star. More than a decade her senior, Donnie had been invited to China to train in the same school that produced action star Jet Li. From there, he moved to Hong Kong, where he became the protege of Yuen Woo-ping, the director who launched the career of Jackie Chan with kung fu classics like Drunken Master, but who later became famous in Hollywood for choreographing the fight sequences in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In 1984, Woo-ping cast Donnie in Drunken Tai Chi, his first starring role. It wasn’t a hit, but other directors took notice. Donnie picked up roles in bigger films, most notably as one of the assassins sent to dispatch Jet Li in the Oscar-nominated Hero. But his breakthrough didn’t come until 2008, when he starred in Ip Man, a biography of the man who became the mentor of the late Bruce Lee. The film took best picture and best fight choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The 2010 sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, with Donnie’s Ip Man soaring and slashing through 1950s Hong Kong – at one point, he must defeat all the other masters in the city just for the right to open his own school – helped make him the biggest box office draw in China last year. (Currently promoting his new movie, Wu Xia, Donnie was unavailable for a phone interview.)

Because of Donnie’s rising fame, if his sister saw him at all growing up, it was at the movie theaters of Chinatown. “I saw him more on-screen than I ever did in person,” Chris says. “But it was weird, because I would get a lot of attention because of who my brother was, and I didn’t know what to do with that attention. It wasn’t about my family. It was, ‘Hey, your brother’s on the screen.’ But I didn’t really know him.”

The siblings later reconnected over the movies, including ones they filmed in China and Japan. When Donnie set off to make Shanghai Knights with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, he asked Chris to come along as his assistant. When she was cast as a martial artist in a Hong Kong movie called Black Rose Academy, she suggested him for co-director. Chris followed those films with a role in the 2009 Hollywood movie Give ’Em Hell Malone. She lives in California now, trying to find her own big break and training most days in martial arts, including krav maga, an aggressive external fighting style developed by the Israeli army. “I utilize my foundation,” she says. “It’s basically street fighting and offensive technique, very different from the wushu. But, in their own ways, everybody in my family is aggressive.”

“I think I’m very lucky,” she concludes. “I was born into this. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to appreciate what I had. My friends were in the playground and I had to practice the piano. I couldn’t step outside. I don’t think I fully appreciated how rare that was until I started to develop and come out into the world.”

The best way to know a teacher is to study her students, even the ones she’s raised at home. Different students, after all, have different skills.

***

All of Mark's students came to her for their own reasons. Jean Lukitsh came because she was curious. In the summer of 1978, Lukitsh was living in Pittsburgh and just beginning to study tai chi. One of the other students in her class told her about this Chinese woman who was running her own school in Boston. Lukitsh immediately scheduled a trip. After her first visit to the school, she bought a uniform, paid a month’s tuition, and asked an Allston real estate agent to find her an apartment. “I went home and told my family I was moving to Boston,” Lukitsh recalls. “I said I’d probably spend one to three years in Boston, and then I’d be back. That never happened.” Over the years, Lukitsh has become the unofficial archivist and spokeswoman for Mark and her school. She sets up interviews and, occasionally, helps coax answers from her teacher.

Cecilia Wong came to Mark because she was shopping for martial arts classes that didn’t look like rehearsals for a summer stock version of The Matrix.

Mike Nuell came because he’d always been interested in martial arts, and wushu seemed the best fit for “a skinny, small guy.” It wasn’t long before Nuell was coming to the school every day. “When I used to study, Sifu would just say, ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong.’ Then one day she said, ‘You did that right,’ ” he recalls. “I may never do it right again, but it’s that search to be learning and improving. That’s why she’s stayed great. She’s still researching and improving her forms.”

But no student of Mark’s ever came from so distant a place as Shannon Phelps, the former Navy SEAL. Phelps was raised on the big island of Hawaii by a Japanese family, one descended from a ninja clan with roots not far from where the luckless Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is located. They trained Phelps in the full ninjitsu method, which included weapons training and horseback riding. (“It was a battlefield art, and that meant you had to know everything,” he says.)

After leaving the Navy in 1986, Phelps was accepted at Harvard. To him, moving to Cambridge also meant coming within the sphere of the legendary wushu master he’d been told about. “I’d heard about her for years,” Phelps says. “So I got on the Red Line and took it down to Chinatown three or four times a week to practice privately with her and to take classes.” Even when he continued his studies at Yale Divinity School, Phelps traveled to Boston at least twice a week to train.

Despite Phelps’s size, he recalls, Mark “used to just take me and wrap me and throw me on the ground. Then she’d giggle and say: ‘How come you’re on the ground? I’m just a little lady.’ Then she’d laugh and laugh, but she made her point more than once.”

“She’s playing at such a high level that it can be like a cat with a little ball of twine,” he says. “She knows we’re trying hard, but what she’s got we’re never going to get. That’s not her fault.”

And yet Phelps noticed Mark would always laugh with her students, not at them. It was, indeed, an expression of her balance, this laughter amid the seriousness of teaching, this soft amid the hard, this yin amid the yang. “She’s the one who turned [martial arts] into beauty, but beauty doesn’t mean nonfunctional,” Phelps says. “This is the yin energy that she can channel. She’s dancing with that energy, and you can feel it before you even get close to her. She guides that energy so that it’s to her advantage. That makes her more dangerous, not less.”

Phelps lives in California now and has his own students to teach, but in some ways he’s still out there on the cool tiles of the basement on Lincoln Street. “I still consider myself her student, and I have a 10th-degree black belt,” he says. “If you’re thinking you’re a grandmaster, you’re probably not one.”

And that is the last illusion created by the swirl of the ribbons and the sweep of the blades. In the middle of the room, if you glance too quickly, the grandmaster doesn’t look like anything more than another one of the students. You have to watch carefully to see how all of the activity in the room revolves around her, but once you do, you see plainly that Mark is the unshakable center of gravity holding all of the rest of it in balance. In a jagged world, there are still places where things flow. She reaches over and corrects the hand position of one of her students by a fraction of a degree. Somebody starts the music over again.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

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  • June 19, 2011 cover
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