Turning Shaolin monks into entertainers: Shanghai wrestlers tell the world about Chinese martial arts in the ring
Oriental Wrestling Entertainment is looking to gain popularity in the mainland by adding a kung fu twist to the traditional western style
WWE has long been China’s perception of what professional wrestling should be, but the US giants have a fight on their hands in the mainland with a Shanghai-based promotion adding Shaolin monks and martial arts to the mix.
“We are thinking we will do something extraordinary, and bring something new to the wrestling world,” Oriental Wrestling Entertainment vice-president Michael Nee told the South China Morning Post.
“We are the translators, we try to tell the world about Chinese kung fu through the platform of wrestling.”
OWE performed in Chongqing City last weekend, while the company also puts on regular shows in a venue down the mountainside of the Shaolin Temple – the birthplace of kung fu.
Founded in 2017, most of OWE’s roster is made up of former kung fu students including several Shaolin monks, selected from over 200,000 applicants who had trained for more than 10 years at 25 different martial arts schools, and who had never stepped foot in a wrestling ring until nine months ago.
Training is intense, with morning and afternoon sessions six days a week led by Japanese wrestling legend CIMA, real name Nobuhiko Oshima, a staple of Japan’s second largest promotion Dragon Gate.
“CIMA was telling everybody how amazed he was our kids can learn all these wrestling techniques in such a short time,” Nee said.
“For other wrestlers without a kung fu or martial arts foundation, maybe it would take them two years to learn. Our kids learn within three months.
“He took a couple of our kids to perform in Kyoto with Dragon Gate at the end of April, the audience was shocked by the moves we were showing them, they were like, ‘Wow, what the heck is that? I haven’t seen that before.’”
OWE’s debut show in February has already racked up more than 400 million views on QQ, the popular web browser owned by Chinese internet giants Tencent.
The company has the financial backing of Chinese film and advertising mogul Fu Huayang, which means no expense is spared when it comes to lavish production values, lighting and costume design.
The 35 local wrestlers, who perform with Japanese and American wrestlers on their shows, are also employed on 10-year contracts and provided with a state-of-the-art training facility, accommodation and food.
But all the money in the world means nothing for any entertainment or sporting promotion in the mainland without government backing.
“Typical wrestling can be a little too violent. If we try to copy the Japanese way and put that into the Chinese market, our product will be killed by the government,” Nee said.
“We talked to government people, they gave us direction. We will use this to spread Chinese martial arts culture to the world, to make our young Chinese generation go for martial arts, become stronger and healthier.”
This means tamer storylines than wrestling fans would be used to from the sporting soap opera that is WWE.
“We want OWE to be as big as WWE in future, but we can’t copy them. WWE storylines have too much hate or conflict,” Nee said,
“In China, it’s not possible to do that. We can do something a little bit lighter, but we have to be conservative, otherwise the government doesn’t like it.”
This means there are other unique aspects to OWE, with wrestlers given lessons in other elements of performing.
“There’s no background reference when it comes to wrestling for the Chinese audience,” Nee said. “We’re gonna make the show fun, like a Backstreet Boys gig, and have our wrestlers do some funny things like stand-up comedy or dancing before the match.
“It will be a totally different thing. We try to know what our audience is looking for.”
Idol group pop music is also a huge influence on OWE – one of its main investors funds SNH48, based on the famous Japanese AKB48 group. Made up of over 200 female performers around the age of 20, SNH48 performs at their own venues in five different locations almost every day.
“In Japan, AKB48 make money by selling albums, merchandise and tickets,” Nee said. “The China market has got four or five times more people than Japan, so SNH48 has this methodology to make money from the internet. Now they have 1.4 million users online who pay about 1,500 yuan per year.
“That’s the methodology we’re trying to copy. We are hoping we can get 40 per cent of our fans to ‘like’ us online.
“We want to make the wrestlers famous idols, make people come back again and watch our show online. Once our numbers are high, then we can start to have fans pay money for our business model.”
OWE promotes its performers heavily on DouYin, a Tencent-backed social media platform also known as Tik Tok outside China.
“Most of China’s young generation is using that,” Nee said. “We have had 2.5 million fans like us. We tried to put our handsome wrestlers on it, to tell the China market who have no idea what wrestling is that they can come to see good looking guys and have fun.”
When SNH48 started five years ago there were no video clips on Chinese social media, only Weibo, but now the company is worth more than 5 billion yuan.
“We tell our investors it’s a long-term business model,” Nee said. “We’re not just selling tickets and T-shirts to get the money to support our wresters. Then the business model will not grow big.
“The way the Chinese market uses the internet is totally different now. People are smarter, and fans get more choices.”