The background of John Liu’s Zen Kwun Do is shrouded in mystery and it is not a well known system despite having had many students throughout Europe. Liu achieved success both as an actor and a recognized instructor and it was in Paris that he first settled with his wife Marion Blank and daughter Natasha. The purest expression of Liu’s art can be seen in ‘Zen Kwun Do Strikes In Paris’ which happens to feature very vague biographical detail. The film itself was produced by his own company with Marion having an executive producer credit and Natasha even making an appearance.
It is generally acknowledged that John spent considerable time studying with Tan Tao Liang and Tan has quite openly discussed this. However, a rumored rift between the two appears to have led to Tan being omitted from the history of Zen Kwun Do. That said, there is really no definitive history or easily accessible information about the system. A quick search of the internet will reveal sparse details and provide more questions than answers. I was curious about Liu’s history and his training in a style of combat which remains as elusive as the man himself. Therefore, I hope that the following will at least answer some questions and perhaps fuel some debate in the process.
My sources are promotional material which appeared upon the release of ‘The Secret Rivals’ in 1976. Interestingly, Sifu Liu Zen actually appears to be an amalgamation of several beloved Chinese folk heroes. This is where one becomes skeptical and questions the veracity of certain details.
Zen Kwun Do reportedly originated from Liu Gar which combines elements of both northern and southern Shaolin arts and also Karate. It takes it’s name from Sifu Liu Zen who was born in 1868 and was one of the first Chinese academics to study in Europe at the end of the Ching Dynasty. When he returned to China Liu Zen was disgusted with the Ching Emperor’s junta and took refuge in the Shaolin Temple. Throughout this period he is said to have taught Zen to the young monks and actually became a monk himself, taking the name Yuan Kung. This in itself is almost a depiction of the Bohidharma legend which is at the heart of Shaolin. In any case, Liu Zen had studied Kung Fu and had a deep interest in painting, reciting poetry and also playing music. It is said that he had knowledge of acupuncture and also healed the poor which is akin to the story of Wong Fei Hung.
In 1893 Liu Zen journeyed to his older brother’s home in Hawaii and both men became involved with Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s Hsing Chung Hui Society (Revive China Society). Liu Zen wholeheartedly supported Sun’s efforts and helped raise money for the cause. In 1911 Dr. Sun’s revolution was a success but the political climate was unsettled and Liu Zen moved to Japan. In 1948 he visited his relatives in Hawaii and eventually settled there. His older brother had a grandson by the name of John (Liu Chung Liang) who was born in 1944. Liu Zen taught the young boy calligraphy and told him stories about the martial world and the Shaolin monastery.
One morning John saw Sifu Liu Zen training in the courtyard and asked to learn Kung Fu. Reportedly the old man smiled and told the young boy to return to his calligraphy. Liu Zen stated that the first step was to be ‘steady and calm’ and only then could one achieve ‘endurance’. Therefore, every morning John would practice his calligraphy and watch Sifu Liu practice. This is almost reminiscent of Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) in ‘Fearless’ and emphasizes the relationship between art and combat.
In 1958 Liu went to live in Okinawa, Japan with his mother following his parent’s divorce and trained in Karate with a Sensei Yano who passed away in 1968. It is said that Liu achieved a dan grade with relative ease and won championship titles at this time. However, the traditional nature of Okinawan Karate makes his grade/competition titles slightly dubious especially given Liu‘s age. Sources state that Sifu Liu Zen died in 1958 but his wisdom would continue to inspire John. The old man’s ethos was ‘a mighty hand with a Buddhist’s heart’.
John Liu’s rather cloudy biography states that his next mentor was a monk named Shiou Yun who became the head of the Liu Gar association. In 1975 John stated, ‘in my whole life Sifu Liu Zen had given me the torch and Shiou Yun leads me to the right path.’ Nothing is really known about Shiou Yun and all that exists is a drawing which depicts a man who looks like Liu’s master from ‘Zen Kwun Do Strikes In Paris’.
What is known is that Liu and his mother moved to Hong Kong and then eventually Taiwan in the mid 1960s. It was in Taiwan that John Liu first met Tan Tao Liang who was teaching Taekwondo at a University. John’s mother arranged the meeting and Tan agreed to teach him. Interestingly, Tan has stated that Liu was not flexible and had trouble stretching which casts further doubt on the training with Liu Zen/Yano/Shiou Yun. Whether Liu was a complete novice before meeting Tan Tao Liang is certainly debatable. However, by 1967 Liu became IKU champion and founded the Zen Kwun Do system three years later.
The release of ‘The Secret Rivals’ in 1976 was the start of a successful film career with many genre classics (more of those in another article). Liu’s reputation in Europe was cemented in 1976 when he gave demonstrations and participated in an exhibition bout against Chuck Norris. Coverage of this historical meeting states that Liu anticipated Norris’ technique but others have stated that Chuck was too lenient. The exhibition status of the bout meant that the winner was whoever gained the loudest ovation from the crowd. Most internet sources cite John as the victor and he no doubt used such publicity to his advantage at the time.
The reputation of Zen Kwun Do grew in stature throughout Europe and gained further students as Liu’s film career continued at a steady pace. He moved to Spain and was involved in some controversy before resurfacing in Robert Tai’s ‘Trinity Goes East’ in 1998. His current whereabouts is unknown and the legacy of Zen Kwun Do appears to rest on celluloid and in fan’s collections.
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