Chinese parkour pioneer Du Yize, 27, shoulders a greater responsibility than his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. He’s one of the few serious practitioners in the country of a billion, where a competitive atmosphere puts heavy pressure on athletes and long tradition of avoiding regulation hurts business. Turning down lucrative film offers for stunts, Du holds tight to what he considers the spirit of parkour. He does appear on TV and in commercials, but as a traceur, he says, not a stuntman.
Sitting at home in Beijing, Du talked shop with Vertical Floor, discussing his journey into the discipline and the uncharted territory of Chinese parkour.
VF: How did you first get involved with parkour?
DY: When I was studying at Beijing Film Academy, I ran into some French guys who were trying to make a kung-fu movie independently. I had just come out of a Chinese martial arts school and I loved doing flips and all the moves. They told me the moves I was doing resembled the moves in parkour. That was when I realized what I was doing was called parkour in France.
VF: Did you disagree with them over their characterization of what you were doing as parkour?
DY: At the beginning, I did have some arguments with them as to what this really is. I firmly believed that what I was doing was absolutely Chinese kung-fu, while they held that this was parkour from Western culture. I argued that [parkour] derives from Chinese culture and Chinese action movies. If you look at Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s movies, a lot of what they did is actually identical to parkour moves.
VF: Since you started to practice parkour, you’ve gotten a great deal of fame and publicity. Have you gotten any flak from naysayers who say you only do this to be famous?
DY: Yes. For example, a backflip is a really difficult move for a lot of beginners. Because of the kung-fu foundation that I have, it is fairly easy for me to be able to do them. A lot of people who can’t do them say parkour is not about backflips. That caused some misunderstanding within the parkour community in China. They said I just advocate backflips and other moves with a high degree of difficulty, but not simple parkour moves. But I really practice all of them. It’s just that I want to practice the hard moves first, master them and move on to the easier ones because easier ones come out naturally and automatically.
As far as the business, it all started after we practiced it for years and gained a reputation. Some companies came to us to invite me to perform, but not to other groups in other cities so they boycotted the sponsored performances. Now, a lot of parkour clubs benefit from performing opportunities.
VF: What problems are unique to the parkour scene in China?
DY: I established the Chinese Parkour Club first. Now a lot of people around the country also call their groups “club” or things like that. My club is legally registered, but many of theirs are operating without licenses, recruiting trainees. You can’t regulate that.
VF: You are one of the most prominent traceurs in China. What sets you apart other than the fact that you started early?
DY: When parkour first sprouted up in China, people said no one was going to like it. But I kept at it. I put my videos on all the Chinese video websites, like Youku, Tudou, 56, etc. I worked my tail off to shoot videos. I would run up a five or eight-story building to do the things that I thought could catch eyes. It involved a lot of risks.
VF: What’s your biggest achievement in your years of practicing parkour?
DY: Performing at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (China’s biggest TV program, which has a viewership of about 700 million). And when the media want to do something related to parkour, they think of me first.
VF: How do you communicate with traceurs in other countries?
DY: We all have one common goal, to promote parkour. I have been interviewed by international media, like AP and Reuters. When they talk about parkour in France, they talk about David Belle. In China, they talk about me. I am just a messenger who relays parkour into China. My goal is to promote it in China. For people like David, his goal is probably loftier. But a good number of leaders in different countries wish, someday, parkour could be in the Olympics.
VF: What are some of the differences between China’s parkour and the discipline in Europe and the U.S.?
DY: The biggest difference I found is they practice parkour as a game and a hobby that they really enjoy. In China, people practice it with pressure. You practice a move in order to master it, because if I master it, I could gain something like fame.
This applies to the X-Games and why China’s X-Games are lagging behind. They (European and U.S. athletes) practice with great composure. They have a great atmosphere.
VF: Looking ahead, what are you goals for the short-term?
DY: I’m working on putting parkour into China’s high school P.E. curriculum. Also I want to delve into the movie industry trying to get parkour incorporated into Chinese movies since I graduated from Beijing Film Academy.
VF: Have you considered a career as a stuntman?
DY: No. There were movies coming to me before. One movie asked me to be a body double for an actor and they offered to pay me about $6,000 dollars for just four to five days. I think the skills that I have learned are for my own use, not to sell to others. I don’t think I am doing this for money, so I turned down a lot of offers like that. Yes, quite a number of blockbuster movies contacted me and they would normally pay me ten times as much as they would pay other stuntmen. It is not that I look down on stuntmen and this industry. I just think I have gone through tremendous risks to come to learn every move I can do now. I feel like being a stuntman and showing them the moves is like selling your copyrights to others. I never want it to be my career that I make a living out of.