Fu Qifeng and her husband in 2011
Fu Qifeng and her husband Xu Zhuang in 2011

In November 2000, we met Beijing resident Fu Qifeng (b. 1939) and her husband Xu Zhuang, and we’ve been close friends ever since. Teacher Fu is a well-known magician and author of books on magic and puzzles, and she comes from a family that’s been involved with these pursuits for five generations. She sees the connection between magic, puzzles, and acrobatics as a natural one and explains that these and other forms of recreation have traditionally been interrelated. Teacher Fu traces her own passion for puzzles to her paternal great-grandmother:

My great-grandmother Li Shi (Ms. Li) (1869–1952) came from a well-to-do family, the largest salt merchants in Sichuan province. She was very smart and learned everything taught to her brothers from overhearing their classes, and she also learned all the games they played, including tangram. When she was married into the Fu family her dowry included two hundred mu (approximately thirty-three acres) of farmland in Changshou County. But my great-grandfather passed away when he was only nineteen years old, and my grandfather never saw his father.

Fu Tianzheng with his wife Zeng Qingpu, 1945
Zeng Qingpu and Fu Tianzheng in 1945

Great-grandmother was educated and had an open mind, so she sent my grandfather Fu Zhiqing (1887–1940) to Tokyo to study when he was seventeen years old. He studied law at Waseda University, and while in Japan he became a dramatist and magician. Since he was the only son in the family, his mother made him marry young, and he had a son, my father, before he traveled to Japan. My grandmother was also eager to learn, so she went to Chengdu to study silk processing. Therefore, my great-grandmother raised my father. She was in her late thirties when my father was born, and she taught him to play tangram and also taught him to sing. She even had a set of tangram-shaped dishes she used for serving food.

My father, Fu Tianzheng (1906–1972), grew up in Chongqing and became quite well known while still in high school. He could paint, wrote poetry, ran the school newspaper, acted in school plays, and put on his own magic shows. Later he attended Peking University and graduated with degrees in art history and business law. Since his father was a prominent lawyer, he was expected to and did work as an attorney. But he loved the arts so much that he quit law practice in order to become a magician, even though they were looked down upon. He stood out among his colleagues in the Shanghai Magic Troupe and spent his spare time researching and publishing books on the history of magic and acrobatics.

Fu Tianzheng and Fu Tianqi, Tangram Diagrams for Children, 1954
Fu Tianzheng and Fu Tianqi,
Tangram Diagrams for Children, 1954
Tangram Birds

My mother, Zeng Qingpu (1909–1976), also came from a prominent Chongqing family and graduated from the city’s top high school for girls. She shared father’s interest in painting, calligraphy, and tangram, and she would buy little booklets with blank pages and draw tangram diagrams. Sometimes she cut out tangram pieces and pasted them into shapes. She also used multiple sets of tangram pieces to create situational scenes, such as playing ping-pong, house cleaning, and acrobatics. In fact, we still have some of her work.

Mother wrote New Fifteen-Piece Diagrams (Yizhi tu xinbian) and published it in 1953 under the pen name Yun Xin. My paternal second uncle, Fu Tianqi (1910–1977), who was a magician and an artist, did the artwork based on mother’s designs. Mother loved calligraphy, and in the 1960s she began composing revolutionary slogans using the fifteen yizhi pieces to make the characters. She enlisted my daughter and son to help her trace the diagrams for popular slogans, such as “People’s communes are good” and “Let a hundred flowers bloom.”

New Fifteen-Piece Diagrams, by Zeng Qingpu, 1953
New Fifteen-Piece Diagrams, by Zeng Qingpu, 1953
"Let a hundred flowers bloom"
“Let a hundred flowers bloom”

From as early as I can remember, both of my parents loved to play tangram and draw diagrams during their leisure time. They would always be so happy after they created some new shapes. They got our whole family involved. We had a square table, and when we worked together each of us would take one side of the table. When my children were small, my parents also got them involved by asking them to trace the constructed shapes.

During the 1950s, my parents published four tangram books, and my paternal second uncle Fu Tianqi created the illustrations. They also published short articles about tangram and other puzzles in Shanghai and Beijing newspapers right up to the onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Many of my parents’ manuscripts were lost during the Cultural Revolution, but I still have Chairman Mao’s poem, “The Long March”, which my mother composed using characters formed using the fifteen-piece tangram. My brother Tenglong made a rubber chop for each of the characters, and mother used the chops to print the slogan.

The Red Army is not afraid of the Long March;Fifteen-piece composition by Zeng Qingpu, 1973
“The Red Army is not afraid of the Long March.” Fifteen-piece tangram composition by Zeng Qingpu, 1973
Fu Tianzheng teaching the fifteen-piece tangram to his grandson in 1966
Fu Tianzheng teaching the fifteen-piece tangram
to his grandson in 1966

During the Cultural Revolution, our home was searched, and lots of things were taken away. The Red Guards even pulled up our floor to see if anything was hidden under it. Years later we were able to retrieve some of our belongings. However, my father’s favorite tangram book, Easily Accomplished (Xinshou nianlai), was never recovered, and his old set of Compilation of Tangram Diagrams (Qiqiao jicheng) was damaged beyond repair. Both of my parents loved tangram and continued working on it until they passed away.

Wood tangram set, Shanghai, 1950s
Wood tangram set, Shanghai, 1950s

Fu Qifeng inherited the passion of her great-grandmother, grandfather, father, and mother for puzzles and magic. In her retirement Teacher Fu and her husband continue to write about these subjects, while her brother Fu Tenglong (b. 1942), daughter Xu Qiu (b. 1962), nephew Fu Yandong (b. 1975), and scores of former students carry on her family’s tradition as professional magicians.