Liu Cai Chen / Liu Feng Shan (1852 – 1937)

Liu Cai Chen has been a cardinal figure for the development of the wushu style taught at the Zhang Bingxin Liu He Men Federation. He was the teacher of Wong Suen Ting and taught him the system of liu he men, pa kua, xing yi and wu style tai chi. For his part, Wong Suen Ting became the teacher of Zhang Bingxin in Guangzhou. Later Wong fled from the communist regime to Hong Kong. There he also became the teacher of Henry Eleonora, who came from Europe to live with him in order to study liu he men.

In this article we want to tell about the life of Liu Cai Chen and place it in an historical background. After all, Liu lived in a period during which China underwent many transformations.

Information on Liu Cai Chen’s personal life was not easy to obtain. Most of Liu Cai Chen’s own students have already passed away or are of very high age. We obtained the information about Liu Cai Chen‘s life and character mainly from Gao Quan Li, a member of Liu’s lineage who lives in Beijing. He has received this information through conversations with Liu’s son, Liu Wen Hai and from an article on liu he men by Wong Suen Ting. But still the details are sparse, so we bid the reader to allow for some gaps in the story.

The young Liu

Liu Cai Chen was born in the Ningchin district of Hebei in 1852. As a young child he already learned wushu, though which style is unknown. Allegedly his favourite weapons during his youth were sword and lance. In 1867 Liu’s parents died and the 15-year old Liu left for Beijing. There he hoped to find a martial arts teacher who could further instruct him.

19th century’s Beijing

During this period Beijing was the imperial city, ruled by the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese population was not satisfied with its rulers. For one thing, the emperor was Manchu and the Han didn’t like to see the Mandate of Heaven in foreign hands. A second and more substantial cause of dissatisfaction were the heavy taxes that were imposed on the poor peasantry. The harsh living circumstances caused many peasants to become ruffians, rebels or secret sect members. The secret sects flourished during Qing-rule, striving to restore the Ming-dynasty.

This internal troubles forced the Manchu rulers to take military action. They had to turn to foreigners for help, but had to pay a heavy price for it. Foreign states such as Great Britain, The Netherlands and Portugal had since long tried to get their hands on Chinese valuables, like silk and silver. The Manchu paid for their help with trade concessions.

When Liu arrived, Beijing was a big and vibrant city where cultures, religions and a great number of ethnicities mixed together in colourful spectacle. But Beijing was also a vibrant city were cultures, religions and ethnicities mixed together in colourful spectacle. A description from a member of the British legacy, living in Beijing at that time:

“On the corner of the Tartar wall is the old Jesuit observatory with beautiful dragon-adorned instruments given by a Louis of France. There are temples with yellow-gowned or grey-gowned priests in their hundreds founded in the times of Kublai Khan. There are Mahommedan mosques, with Chinese muezzins in blue turbans on feast days; Manchu palaces with vermilion-red pillars and archways and green and gold ceilings. There are unending lines of camels plodding slowly in from the Western deserts laden with all manner of merchandise; there are curious palanquins slung between two mules and escorted by sword-armed men that have journeyed all the way from Shansi and Kansu, which are a thousand miles away; a Mongol market with bare-pated and long-coated Mongols hawking venison and other products of their chase; comely Soochow harlots with reeking native scents rising from their hair; water-carriers and barbers from sturdy Shantung; cooks from epicurean Kanton; bankers from Shansi – the whole empire of China sending its best to its old-world barbaric capital, which has now no strength.” (B.L. Putnam Weale “Indiscreet Letters From Peking”, pp.27-28.)

Here the boy had to earn his own money and for three years he had to pinche and scrape. His living circumstances were difficult but he managed by taking on any odd job. Then he heard of a man renowned for his martial arts skills, named Liu De Kuan.