Opinion: Why a kick in the teeth is good for Chinese kung fu
When mixed martial arts fighter Xu Xiaodong beat ‘thunder master’ Wei Lei in a Sichuan duel it was not tai chi he was thrashing – but its corrupted form
Sometimes a kick in the teeth is the best thing in the world for you. Let’s hope this will be the case for Chinese martial arts. This week, a viral video of how a mixed martial arts (MMA) boxer thrashed a tai chi master in a fist fight in Sichuan (四川) shocked the public, but it should come as no surprise to professional fighters.
Not Xu. He accused Wei of fraud and questioned tai chi as a fighting technique. The two got into a heated spat over cyberspace that eventually led to their duel in Chengdu (成都), Sichuan, on April 27.
Wei’s humiliating defeat sparked debate in China over the truth of one of its most treasured traditions. For millions who grew up reading books, watching films and listening to stories of glorious kung fu, it is hard to stomach that such legends may be just tall tales. Like football to Brazilians, kung fu has become a quintessential part of Chinese identity. In no culture other than Japan have ancient fighting techniques been elevated to such status.
WATCH: Viral video of tai chi master’s defeat by MMA fighter sparks kung fu debate
This has not always been the case. In fact, while Chinese have practised martial arts for millennia, the public’s obsession with them is a modern phenomenon. Wuxia (martial arts) is the oldest genre of Chinese film and remains hugely popular today. Its rise in popularity goes hand in hand with the spread of nationalism. Kung fu has become an expression of Chinese resistance to foreign humiliation, a symbol of cultural uniqueness.
Personal combat theories and techniques emerged in China at least 2,600 years ago. Over the centuries, these evolved into a rich and unique system, absorbing influence from neighbours. But unlike ancient Japan, which was ruled by a warrior samurai class, the Chinese scholar-gentry elite was not required to receive combat training. Martial arts remained a grass-roots subculture.
It started to gain wider popularity towards the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. The remnants of the Ming army went underground after the Manchurian conquest. They organised themselves into secret societies – many taking the form of martial arts schools, particularly in the south – waiting for opportunities to rise again. They became the prototype of modern day triads – not unlike how bakuto (itinerant gamblers) in ancient Japan gave rise to the modern Yakuza gangs. Ironically, the Manchurian conquerors – ardent lovers of martial arts – later became their biggest sponsors and promoters. Tai chi is one of the schools that benefited greatly from such endorsement.
After the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeats at the hands of the technologically superior British in 1839, China entered a century-long dark age. It became a frequent target of foreign aggression. Against the modernised enemies, the ancient art of personal combat had become an expression of defiance, sometimes even a desperate hope. Stories of great masters defeating foreign fighters never failed to bring cheers to the people. During the Republic of China under the nationalist government, martial arts was elevated to “guoshu” (national arts) and was officially promoted.
WATCH: Ng Gong-yee versus Chun Huck-fu
What really turned martial arts into a popular culture was a duel between two Hong Kong masters in 1954. The fight between tai chi master Ng Gong-yee and white crane master Chun Huck-fu was the greatest social event of the year. Since duelling was banned in Hong Kong, the fight was relocated to Macau. It received blanket media coverage and set public imagination on fire.
The fight itself was a dour affair and ended with a draw. The techniques shown were unimpressive. But public enthusiasm did not subside. Newspapers began to carry serialised martial arts novels. Wuxia films dominated the box office. This gave rise to the legend of Louis Cha and the Shaw Brothers, whose works spread far and wide. Today, Cha is the most-read Chinese writer in modern history.
The chaotic scene has given it a bad reputation. What Xu thrashed in front of the crowd in Sichuan was not tai chi, but the corrupted form of Chinese martial arts. After last week’s duel, some mainland media found Wei was a professional masseur before becoming a “tai chi master”. His qualifications were questionable. And what about those feats of wonder that he performed on CCTV? Xu told a newspaper that a producer of the programme told him it was staged. The pigeon had its feet duct-taped to Wei’s palm. In the end, it was still Newton’s laws – not the magic chi – that kept the bird from escaping. ■
Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations