Exploding fists

Meet Jack Ma’s bodyguard


Ma’s bodyguard Li Tianjin (right)

Acupuncturist and martial artist Wong Fei-hong has featured in nearly 100 movies since 1949, even though his historical authenticity is sometimes disputed. The film reel still makes Wong the most famous kung-fu master, although more recently he has faced competition from another Foshan native, Ip Man.

Since 2008 a slew of Hong Kong movies loosely based on the life of Ip have been major box office hits. Previously Ip was known as a former trainer of the young Bruce Lee, but now he is viewed as akin to a superhero. The Ip Man character played by Donnie Yen could fight 10 Japanese karate experts at once, for instance, and rip through them with ease. (Ip Man 2 almost outduelled Iron Man 2, when the movies were screened concurrently in Hong Kong.)

If martial artists make excellent movie icons, is Chinese kung-fu equally good for real life combat? Tianjin Satellite TV seems to have a cruel answer for kung-fu fans.

As a reality show, Happiness from Heaven does not sound that action-packed. The programme is about female celebrities spending time with ordinary Chinese families. But one of the starlets in the series tried to help her host, Yang Chengzhang, realise a lifelong kung-fu dream. The 40 year-old Yang was a practitioner of wing chun, a form of martial art also practiced by Ip Man, and a massive devotee of kung-fu films. So a bout was arranged between Yang and a professional ‘mixed martial arts’ (MMA) fighter.

But the production team’s good intentions backfired spectacularly. Yang was knocked out in the second round, after a kick broke one of his ribs. He was seen lying on the ground groaning, and was immediately sent to hospital.

The bout kicked off a fierce online debate as to how kung-fu movies over the years may have softened audiences to the reality of real-life fighting.

“Kung-fu movies have misled martial arts fans and Yang is a typical example of that,” the Global Times noted, citing a popular thread on Sina Weibo.

“Ip Man must be crying. Is wing chun too artistic to be useful?” Hong Kong’s Apple Daily asked.

In his defence the newspaper pointed out that Yang was wearing gloves during combat, which may have softened his attacks. Others complained that it wasn’t a fair fight – these included Zhao Qiurong, president of martial arts association, who told the Guangzhou Daily that using wing chun had been like “a lion fighting a shark in the sea.”

How about if the bout is not a sports event, but a matter of life and death?

In this case, one man appears to have kept his confidence in Chinese kung-fu. Enter Jack Ma, one of China’s richest tycoons, and his bodyguard, Li Tianjin.

The Alibaba boss revealed last year how he learned how to be an effective public speaker by watching Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. (That is, Ma said, you have to sing from your heart.) But Ma must have overlooked the hired muscle in the 1992 film, a secret agent played by Kevin Costner, when it came to ensuring his own security.

During Ma’s public appearances, including Alibaba’s IPO roadshows last year, a stout middle-aged man was spotted carrying Ma’s bag. This is Li, Ma’s bodyguard since 2008, the Chengdu Economic Daily reported last month.

Measuring only 1.7 metres and 188 pounds, the 35 year-old Li has practiced tai chi since the age of eight. He won his first national tai chi championship at 19 and has since triumphed in various martial art competitions.

Tai chi is generally viewed as a slow-moving exercise favoured by elderly people in parks. But if Ma’s choice of bodyguard is anything to go by, it must also be an effective fighting technique.

The key to beating an assailant, Li told media, is to make their body bend in the opposite direction to their natural form. He posits that people with limited strength can beat powerful opponents using tai chi in this way.

In one encounter, Li is said to have been provoked by three Mongolian wrestlers. He knocked the three down in “a blink of an eye and nobody knew how he did it”.

Who witnessed this feat? Well, the story is documented in a book by Chen Wei, Jack Ma’s assistant.

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