It was a routine lesson in ancient knowledge. As part of a martial arts demonstration, Dawei Li was asked to put a wrist lock on an elder he describes as “just a typical old, little Chinese man.”
Worried he’d break the teacher’s bones, Li agreed, but soon found himself struggling with the maneuver for several minutes, while the elder seemed to pay little attention. Then there was a sudden shift in the aggression as Li was flung into the air.
“It felt like these two invisible hands grabbed me by the chest, flipped me and said, ‘bye bye,’” he remembers.
The example of how one’s body can harness its own energy for strength and longevity was one of many Li uses in his work as a martial arts instructor.
The founder of Kung Fu Flint, a program teaching self-defense and mental and physical wellness, he hopes to spread benefits of the discipline throughout the community and nationwide.
“The goal of Kung Fu Flint is to turn Flint into the kung fu capital of America,” Li says.
His 30 years of training began as a childhood interest in martial arts. But growing up in Byron, Mich., 30 minutes outside Flint, he didn’t have access to a facility where he could learn. So Li was eager to add martial arts electives to his business curriculum at Central Michigan University.
Karate took him to a variety of other sports and disciplines like kickboxing and pencak silat, a form of Indonesian martial arts. Exploring martial arts also yielded health benefits for Li, who was born six weeks premature and had suffered from childhood ailments.
“Our bodies were meant to move and if they don’t move they get stagnant,” he says. “So there’s the physical movement, there’s the breathing, and that’s one of the things I love of about kung fu. When you start to get your internal energy going, it really gets crazy.”
After college he trained in Clio and later discovered the Green Dragon Society in Chicago, where he lived for six years. He made multiple trips to China to study martial arts with the group.
He’s now a ranking “shifu” or master, though he prefers to be called a teacher, in the kung fu form qi dao quan.
Li has lived in Flint since 2014, but the vision for Kung Fu Flint preceded his arrival. While still exploring a physical location for a school he instructs several disciplines at three community locations, including New Evolution Educational Center where Kung Fu Flint supports nutrition and wellness programs.
Though he hosts a couple’s class and teaches all ages and skill levels, he stresses the need for youth to gain from martial arts techniques.
Born David Joyce, Dawei Li took his first name from its Chinese translation and says “Li” translates to “strength and power.” A father, he thought making it a surname was more fitting for his children.
“A child should be taught how to (properly) breathe, how to stand, how to move when they’re a baby, but they’re not,” Li says, pointing out poor physical habits contribute to ailments that plague adults.
“When you teach kids proper balance and proper posture they can literally grow into those better habits.”
Learning proper balance and posture can adults as well.
Martha Shurtz, 68, trains with Kung Fu Flint Saturdays in a space at Summerset Salon on Miller Road. She suffers from vertigo that she’s learned to better manage since starting Li’s tai chi classes about a year and a half ago.
“He is an amazing instructor,” Shurtz says. “I have learned a lot about myself through his teaching.
“He has the patience of Job, which I love about him. He has instilled more confidence in me about myself through the basic moves he teaches us, even walking properly, so if you start to fall, you can catch yourself easily.”
As part of his vision to elevate Flint’s visibility as a kung fu center, Li is developing initiatives like a telephone app that would let students train in real time with other martial artists throughout the world. The larger goal, he says, is to improve the city and greater humanity by helping to create more disciplined, dedicated leaders.
“We all have that drive to become better. Most people ignore it,” says Li. “I’m looking for people who actively walk that path of growth.
“That’s how we change the world, one person at a time.”