An Interview with TBC’s Martial Arts Professor
The Beijing Center turns 25 in 2023.
Professor Howard Hao, martial arts master and Tai Chi teacher, began with TBC in 2002 and has seen over twenty years of students come and go since then. Before being a professor, he was mentor, tutor, and roommate to American students. He’s well-known in the martial arts education world for his novel pedagogical approach, work towards bringing Wushu to the Olympics, and a client list that includes TBC students to celebrities and everyone in between.
In celebration of TBC’s milestone, Professor Hao – who is known by his students as just Howard – shared his story and his fondest memories with TBC.
How long have you worked for TBC? How did it start?
I officially joined TBC in 2002, but my connection with TBC had already started before that. I entered Beijing Sports University in 1995 when Clinton was the president of the U.S. At that time, Sino-US relations were in a “honeymoon” period. There were many exchanges and cooperation between universities in China and the U.S., including Peking University, Tsinghua University, and some other prestigious schools in Beijing. My school was one of them, and luckily, I was chosen to be a mentor and roommate to American students. After completing my undergrad, I continued to pursue a master’s degree in Martial Arts at my school, so I worked as American students’ mentor for another three years.
In 1998, Fr. Ron Anton officially founded TBC at Beijing Sports University. Since I learned martial arts from an early age, Fr. Anton asked me to teach martial arts and Tai Chi courses at TBC. In 2002, TBC moved to its current location at the University of International Business and Economics, and I graduated from my master’s program that year. Fr. Anton thought I spoke good English and got along well with American students, so he wanted me to work full-time at TBC. I then became an official employee of TBC and continued as American students’ mentor and roommate. I started teaching martial arts at TBC in 2000 and worked there for 20 years before COVID started in 2020.
Outside of TBC, I also teach Tai Chi to other international visitors. I’ve taught ambassadors and middle school children, people who have been studying Tai Chi for years and people who just landed in China for the first time. Once, I was teaching the son of the American ambassador, and Quentin Tarantino was in town to film “Kill Bill.” The ambassador’s son felt that Kill Bill was a martial arts movie, so he invited me to have dinner together with them.
I demonstrated a Tai Chi move called “Cloud Hand” to Mr. Tarantino, director Zhang Yimou, and the others who were there. He told me that the move reminded him of the scene in his “Pulp Fiction” movie where John Travolta and Uma Thurman do The Twist.
Before that conversation, teaching Cloud Hand to Americans had been a little tricky, as it was difficult for them to remember the moves, but it really inspired me. Now, since most of them have seen Pulp Fiction, I tell them to do The Twist, but with just a few changes, and they can do it easily. Plus, Americans really like celebrities, so when I tell them I had dinner with Quentin Tarantino or taught Victoria’s Secret model Heidi Klum and so on, they get really interested.
Why did you join TBC? What did TBC bring to you?
I first joined TBC because I liked English and was interested in Western culture. I grew up learning mostly Chinese culture, so I believed I should learn English if I wanted to know more about the Western world. When I was studying at Beijing Sports University, I tried to make friends with international students, so I got chances to practice my English. When my school was looking for American students’ mentor, I was naturally selected because of my English level.
After joining TBC, I lived with American students and spoke English every day. I gave martial arts lessons in English and held meetings with colleagues in English. Everything was in English, as if I was living in the US. Although I was in Beijing, I had more American friends than Chinese friends. TBC gave me a chance to directly experience American culture and gave me a brand-new life experience.
Why did you start learning martial arts? How long have you been learning it?
I started learning martial arts since I was six. My uncle learned martial arts from a “Bajiquan” master, a bodyguard of the last emperor, so I am actually a “Bajiquan” successor. Also, my family wanted me to have a strong body by learning martial arts because when I was younger I got sick easily.
Many people got into martial arts because of Jet Li’s martial arts films “Shaolin Temple” and “Fearless.” However, many gave up halfway, but I worked hard and kept doing martial arts until today.
What’s some of your favorite memories from teaching martial arts at TBC?
Around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, we had the largest batch with 127 exchange students. 40 of them registered for my Tai Chi class, and I even needed to divide them into two classes. I wanted to take advantage of the Olympics and make more students understand Chinese culture through martial arts. Besides the physical practice of Tai Chi and other martial arts, I explained theories of Yin and Yang, Five Elements, and Eight Trigrams to give them a comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture. It was really memorable, to have so many students at once eager to learn.
Some semesters I take students in my class to participate in the Tai Chi Competition of Universities in Beijing. They represent the University of International Business and Economics and are the only international team among many universities in Beijing. I also like to bring them to different communities in Beijing to interact and perform Tai Chi with local people who do it every day. Through Tai Chi, they get to know Chinese culture and society on a deeper level. Sharing my culture and learning more about others is what TBC is about, and it’s been great to be part of that.
In your opinion, what has been the biggest change for TBC over the past 25 years?
The biggest change for TBC is the library. In the early days of TBC, there was no real library. But today, the TBC Library has over 27,000 books, all thanks to Fr. Anton.
When TBC was just founded, many exchange students left their textbooks behind after their semester in China. There were around 1,500 books at the beginning, so Fr. Anton bought a few bookshelves and asked students to help sort the books in alphabetical order. Whenever foreign visitors, such as professors or university presidents, came to TBC, Fr. Anton would give a tour of the TBC library and tell them its history, explaining what we’re doing and why it matters.
Some visitors would donate money immediately after they visited the TBC library. For example, one guest left $2,000 to buy books to show support. I was very moved and appreciated their kindness. I could feel the good relationship between China and the U.S. at that time. The visitors wanted American students to study well in China, and helping to build a library was the best way. Later, I would also pay attention to English sinology books and bring them back to the TBC library. This is how the TBC library was developed. Although it is not the only library of English sinology books, it is at least the earliest and has now developed into mainland China’s largest English sinology library. This is a treasure from Fr. Anton before he left TBC, so the TBC library is named after him and is called The Anton Library of Chinese Studies. It’s one of my favorite places to be between classes, to think about the past and interact with the current students hard at work.