Fight club

TV show pits Chinese kung-fu against foreign forms of combat


“I’m comin’ to get ya, chengguan”

Propagandists seeking to promote the global appeal of traditional Chinese culture were disappointed in May, when the martial art wushu failed to be selected for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.

Eight sports were vying for one slot made available by the International Olympic Committee. Wushu eventually lost out, with baseball, squash and wrestling making it onto the shortlist. It was the fourth failed attempt to showcase the martial art as an official Olympic sport.

Reflecting on the setback, Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper, blamed kung-fu movies. “People are being misled that wushu is the same as kung-fu where all the actions are faked special effects,” it complained.

But one man who has become more interested in Chinese combat is Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion. He opened a weibo account last week and in his second posting – having already gained 650,000 followers – asked “Who is the best fighter in China?”

The boxing legend isn’t in the best of shape, admitting to the international media last week that he is battling addiction. But that didn’t prevent more than 70,000 replies from his Chinese followers, many suggesting that Tyson should pick a fight with “China’s best fighters” – the chengguan.

“They will be the ones biting your ear,” one weibo user warned. “You fight in the ring legally. Chengguan fight others in the street legally in China,” another wrote.

“Who is that guy? Is he good? I’ve never heard of him before,” a mystified Tyson wrote back, misunderstanding the reference.

The former champ would have a better idea had he read a recent issue of WiC in which we explained that chengguan are quasi-governmental law enforcers employed by cities to administer local neighbourhoods. Thanks to their notoriously thuggish ways they are also universally hated (for the latest example, read WiC203).

Boxing fans who’d like to know how kung-fu fares against other combat techniques are advised to watch Henan Satellite Television’s Wulinfeng, which translates as “martial arts trends” in Chinese.

Started in 2004, the programme is one of the oldest reality TV formats still running in China. In the beginning Wulinfeng focused on Chinese martial arts. But then fighters from elsewhere were brought in to boost the flagging viewership. The most controversial bout featured Yi Long, known as ‘No.1 Kung-fu Monk of Shaolin’, against US police officer Adrien Grotte in 2010. Entering the ring with an unbeaten record, Yi Long was knocked out by Grotte with a single punch in the second round.

The long arm of the law, indeed.

The video of the fight soon went viral, forcing the Shaolin Temple to publish a statement clarifying that Yi Long wasn’t a kung-fu monk from Shaolin and most certainly couldn’t be classed as their number one either. (Last week we mentioned the Shaolin authorities also denying that a monk-turned-football-coach was one of their men, too.)

Nevertheless, Wulinfeng maintains a reasonable global appeal, especially among hardcore fans of kickboxing and ultimate fighting, with its popularity underlined by the vast amount of clips available on YouTube.

In recent years, Henan Satellite TV has also been cooperating with foreign associations to organise mixed martial art tournaments. The latest offering this month pitted Chinese kung-fu against Muay Thai, in which Yi Long (yes, him again) salvaged some national pride by knocking out a Thai boxing champion.

Henan Satellite TV said Wulinfeng is helping to promote Chinese kung-fu on the international stage. Going global, reckons Yi Long, also helps Chinese kung-fu masters become better fighters. “My way of fighting has changed. Using traditional Chinese kung-fu isn’t enough, we must combine techniques of international kickboxing,” the monk (but no longer the No.1 Kung-fu Monk of Shaolin) told the Global Times.

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