It is not often realised that, of the commonly listed disciples of Yang Chengu, 3 were actually relatives of his, namely Fu Zhongwen, Zhao Bin and Zhang Qinglin. Both Fu and Zhang are fairly well known in the West through the efforts of their students and grandstudents, but Zhao (perhaps unfairly) is much less well known.
An account of his formative years, of which I’ve translated an extract below (written by Zhao’s son, Zhao Youbin, who teaches in Xi’an), is a precious snapshot of growing up in one of the ‘homes’ of taiji.
“…Yang Jianhou had 3 sons, Yang Zhaoxiong (known as Yang Shaohou), Yang Zhaoyuan (Yang Zhonghou), and Yang Zhaoqing (otherwise known as Yang Chengfu). Yang Zhaoyuan inherited much of his uncle Banhou’s temperament and was quick-tempered and had a prodigious appetite for food and drink. Because he had no son but two daughters [in those days it was considered most unfortunate to not have to son to carry on the family line], he became depressed. Later, he developed diverticulitis and died at a young age. He left behind two daughters, Yang Cong and Yang Min, who were brought up by Yang Jianhou and his wife.
During the years of these events, another Yongnian family, the Zhaos, was prosperous and growing. The master of the house, Zhao Lin (Zhao Bin’s grandfather) had five sons, who people called ‘the 5 tigers of the Zhao family’. The Zhao family owned a restaurant near the front gate of Guangfu village called ‘Wan Xing Lou’, which was run by the second son. The eldest son was a scholar, the third was purchaser for the restaurant, the fourth was the restaurant’s book-keeper and the fifth studied in Beijing.
The fourth son, Zhao Bin’s father, was called Zhao Shutang (1882-1951). From a young age he displayed a cautious and loyal nature and was generous to others less fortunate. In his years as book-keeper of the family’s restaurant, he was very generous to customers, always rounding bills down to the nearest 10. Whenever poor people came into the restaurant begging for food, he would straight away instruct the waiters to give them mantou (steamed buns) with some meat and veg. Friends who came to him to borrow money found that he was only too happy to help. As Zhao Shutang got older, his elder brother kept an eye out for suitable girls in the town for him to marry. As luck would have it, he set his sights on Yang Zhaoyuan’s elder daughter, Yang Cong (1888-1962). Both families agreed at once to the match, and the two were married in 1904 when Yang Cong was 17 years old.
Legend has it that, at the ‘hui men’ part of the wedding ceremony [where the new groom visits the home of his new in-laws according to Chinese custom], Yang Zhaoyuan had already passed away a year before, so it fell to Yang Jianhou and Yang Shaohou to welcome the new groom. During the banquet, they asked Zhao Shutang if he knew any martial arts. With a shy smile, Zhao pulled aside his chair and performed the Yang family’s low frame set underneath the table. At this, Yang Jianhou laughed and said ‘You’ve got potential; when you have some free time, please come over, I’ll have Shaohou take your studies further’. And so this episode has come to be called ‘Yang Jianhou tests his new son-in-law at the banquet’ by their descendants.
From then on, Zhao Shutang took on the responsibility of looking after his new wife’s mother and sister. Two years later, Yang Cong gave birth to a son (Zhao Bin 1906 – 1999) and two daughters: Zhao Guizhen (1908 – 1875, who would later marry Fu Zhongwen) and Zhao Xiuzhen.
Zhao Bin was not only Zhao Shutang’s only son, but also the Yang family’s precious first grandson. Although his grandfather Yang Zhaoyuan had passed away, his great-uncles Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu treated him as if he were their own grandson. Zhao spent much of his early years playing at his grandmother’s house, and from the age of 6 or 7 would deliver roast chicken, donkey meat and crispy pancakes (you su bing) to the Yangs. His great-uncles also taught him to practice taiji from an early age. Even Zhao’s original name ‘Zhao Wu’, carried the meaning of inheriting the Yang family’s martial traditions. Zhao’s primary school teacher was none other than the famous Wu (Hao) style master Hao Weizhen, who taught taiji as a one of the school subjects. Zhao was intelligent, had a good memory and liked to fight…At that time, there were a dozen or so male cousins in the Zhao family, and Zhao Bin would be the one leading the fights…
Speaking of group fights, my father mentioned enthusiastically that back then it was mainly the Zhao family kids fighting against the Li family (the grandchildren of the taiji master Li Yiyu). In these fights, Zhao Bin would lead the Zhao family, while the Lis were led by Li Huaiyin (Li Yiyu’s grandson, who would also later go on to become a master of his family’s taiji). Of course, these fights weren’t serious, and neither side held grudges. When Zhao Bin met Li Huaiyin many years later in Nanjing, they had great fun reminiscing over their childhood escapades and decided there and then to become sworn brothers. Unfortunately they never met again. In the early 90s, the chief editor of ‘China Taiji’ magazine, Li Guangfan, wrote to Zhao requesting him to submit an article. My father casually asked Li if he knew of Li Huaiyin’s whereabouts, and was stunned to be told that he was Li Guangfan’s father! Upon hearing that Li Huaiyin had already passed away, Zhao began corresponding with Li Guangfan and the two became good friends.”