Donnie Yen has been making some huge strides in mainstream entertainment. From his breakout roles in the “Ip Man” movies to his recent role as Chirrut Îmwe in “Star Wars: Rogue One”, it’s safe to say that Yen is (and has been) making quite a name for himself.
However, there’s one woman Yen should probably thank for his martial arts career: his mother and Tai Chi grandmaster Bow-sim Mark. While she may not be as famous as her son in the mainstream media today, there are many accolades and accomplishments this woman deserves credit for.
Born in Guangzhou, China, Mark started seriously training in Wushu during high school, specializing in Tai Chi and Northern Shaolin. At the time, women who studied martial arts were almost unheard of. However, her talents caught the attention of the Great Grandmaster Fu Wing Way, one of the most decorated martial artists in China and founder of Fu Style Tai Chi. He ended up taking her in as his private student.
In 1984, Mark won a gold medal at the first International Tournament of T’ai chi ch’uan in Wuhan City. In 1995, she was named Black Belt magazine’s Kung-Fu artist of the year. Before Mark immigrated to the U.S., she was already famous all over China not just because she was a talented female martial artist, but because she was also better than most men in her craft.
“Everything is harder for a woman,” Mark told NextShark with some help in translating from her daughter Chris Yen. “If a man has to work at 100% to excel, a woman must work at 150%! Not just in martial arts but in any field in order to be taken seriously.”
After teaching at her master’s school for 10 years, she emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1975 where she became one of the first people to introduce Wushu to the West.
“There were only a few Chinese kung-fu schools in Chinatown and mostly karate schools around the suburbs,” Mark said. “My school was the first Chinese ‘Wushu’ school and at the time, Wushu was not known yet in the West.”
“People always think I am too small, a very small lady,” Sifu Mark, who’s 5-foot tall, told Boston.com in 2011. Back in the day, Mark would stand inside a circular yin-yang on the floor and challenge her students to come at her. Most of the students would be thrown out of the circle airborne.
Sifu Mark specializes in Wudang Sword, a sword style similar to the fight choreography featured in 2000 blockbuster hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The film’s fight choreographer once said that the sword routines for one of the main characters was inspired by Mark, according to Boston.com.
“As petite as she is, she was also mesmerizing to watch in performance. Nobody else was able to move as fluid, graceful and powerful as her on stage where she truly shined,” Chis Yen told NextShark “Demonstrating the perfection and artistic expression of internal martial arts — Tai Chi, Pa-kua, Leung Yi, Hsing Yi, and rich internal martial art systems that is much harder to perfect than the movements appear — was her forte.”
Being such a popular martial artist while running a school was no easy task for Mark. Her busy schedule didn’t give her very much personal time with her two kids. Donnie Yen, the oldest son, went back to Asia early on to pursue a martial arts and entertainment career, leaving his younger sister Chris Yen with his parents.
Chris Yen, who’s almost a decade younger than her brother, is a decorated martial artist herself and is also pursuing a career in entertainment. She admits that she saw her brother on the big screen more often than in person growing up. She regularly helped out her mother at the studio.
“My mother dedicated her entire life to promoting martial arts and this was her only path,” Chris Yen told NextShark. “Transitioning from a highly respectable Sifu figure amongst her diverse students and the community around her school to becoming a ‘mom’ at home wasn’t very natural for any of us.”
“She is a woman of very few words and kept everything private to herself. I’m not so sure that my brother and I ever had a real conversation with her,” she added.
Because of this, Marks relationship with her daughter strayed more towards master/pupil as opposed to mother/daughter.
“My children were taught the same way I teach my students and even more strict — nothing comes easy,” Sifu Mark said “Practice hard at everything you want to excel in to be successful. I wasn’t very good at being a mother. But Donnie and Chris have strength and a good heart. I always knew they would be fine.”
Despite what you might see in martial arts movies, where there’s a lot of fighting and ego, Mark’s ultimate goal has always been to promote her art and had no interest in competition.
“I wasn’t there to compete with other schools and I prefer to not get involved with politics of any nature. My purpose was to spread the artistic and health benefits of Wushu to the West rather than focus on combat self-defense,” Sifu Mark told us.
“I’ve always promoted martial arts as a healthy exercise and not for fighting. Practicing at a high level not only builds technique but mental awareness. There is nothing to be afraid of as long as your opponent doesn’t have a gun.”
As a successful martial arts master who’s had students open up schools themselves, Sifu Mark broke down what makes a good teacher. She notes that while there are many styles of Tai Chi, all tai chi can be judged by six characteristics and six requirements:
“The characteristics are that the movement should be circular, relaxed, calm, continuous, and done with intent and energy. The requirements are that the spine is naturally straight, the shoulders and elbows are sunk, the chest is empty, the movement originates in the waist, the pelvis is at a natural angle, and yin and yang are clear.”
A good teacher is one who shows the characteristics and requirements, and is able to explain the philosophy of yin and yang, and relate it to the movements,” Sifu Mark said.
Mark, now 74, is semi-retired and has passed off her school to her daughter and long-stime student Jean Lukitsh. However, she remains active to this day and takes a 45 minute walk along the Charles River every day. She also does focused breathing and relaxation exercises in the form of Tai Chi.
“It’s important to keep the body warm all the time. Adequate nutrition and clean hydration is also very important for mind and body maintenance,” Mark said.
The Bow Sim Mark Tai Chi Arts Association is a non-profit institution dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of Grandmaster Bow Sim Mark. The Association offers classes in her forms, and publishes and distributes her instructional books and videos. For more information, go to taichiarts.com