Clash of styles

Traditional Chinese kung fu gets a bloody nose from rival


The Madman: Xu Xiaodong

The Ip Man trilogy is sometimes categorised as a biopic. The films focus on the life of Ip Man, the wing chun master who trained a young Bruce Lee, but the action flicks are liberal with their dramatisation of historical events.

In the second film of the series, for instance, Ip Man is in colonial Hong Kong, where a British champion boxer has challenged Chinese martial artist to pit their traditional fighting style against his “superior” Western methods. Naturally Ip Man enters the fray and secures a victory for not only himself but also the honour of Chinese tradition.

This cross-cultural bout never happened, but last week there was a high profile case of life imitating art in Chengdu when Xu Xiaodong, an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter known as “The Madman” defeated a “tai chi master” in just 10 seconds, knocking his opponent to the ground and pummelling him in the face.

In the days following his loss, Lei Lei – founder of the “thunder style” tai chi school – conjured up a series of excuses for his dismal performance, ranging from his new shoes being too slippy to the more philosophical explanation that he had chosen not to win, because winning would mean more people would come to challenge him, upsetting the balance in his life.

The fight was widely watched online and has sparked lively discussion across the country. And ever since Xu scored his victory, other traditional martial arts practitioners have come forward to challenge him. Admittedly, “The Madman” has literally asked for it.

Prior to the fight, Xu took to weibo to condemn traditional Chinese kung fu such as tai chi as outdated and only good for keeping its practitioners in shape. Then shortly after defeating Lei, Xu used weibo again to issue a challenge, staking Rmb1.2 million ($173,875) for anyone who could defeat him using a more ancient fighting style – albeit in a no-holds barred match (eye gouging and groin shots allowed).

Among those who have picked up the gauntlet are tai chi masters Lu Xing and Wang Zhanhai, as well as Shaolin-style boxers Li Shangxian and Yi Long. Lu Xing told the Chengdu Business News he was stepping forward because “Xu is deeply biased against the traditional martial arts and his words were insulting,” adding, “I challenged him so he could have a fresh perspective of tai chi and the true traditional martial arts.”

While some are defending the traditional ways, others are joining Xu in denouncing them, and debating the validity of Chinese kung fu in the modern world.

A blog post on Sina argues that the more violent applications of Chinese kung fu are rarely taught, and the martial art is used more to promote health these days than to win fights. The Chinese Wushu Association goes further by claiming that engaging in fights for money is against the very spirit of wushu (Chinese for martial arts).

But the Sina writer dismisses this spiritual argument as a business trick used by fraudulent tai chi “masters” to avoid revealing their shortcomings when challenged to a match.

Xu has claimed that his real agenda is to tackle and expose “fake” masters in the kung fu world – a mission many support.

No stranger to fighting fakes, even Jack Ma, founder and boss of Alibaba and a longtime tai chi practitioner, has weighed in on the topic, writing on his weibo account that the match between Xu and Lei hadn’t proven anything, and that it was akin to a “street fight” rather than a competitive match.

Besides, Ma continued, the two styles are so different that comparing the two is like “insisting on comparing points in basketball and football matches and then concluding that football is inferior”. Ma himself has more than a passing interest in Xu’s forthcoming matches, as China News reports one of his own bodyguards (a tai chi master no less, see WiC269) has agreed to fight the MMA bad-boy too.

Of course, others suggest that the publicity-seeking Xu’s boisterous goading of the wushu community has a business angle. Xu runs two MMA clubs in Beijing, and the Rmb1.2 million he offered his challengers is being provided by Guo Chendong, the creator of a popular and long running MMA tournament broadcast on Henan TV.

The stakes have been raised since this initial offer was made as well. Drinks mogul Chen Sheng has put up an additional Rmb10 million to fund five matches against Xu. The winner of each match will receive Rmb1.5 million, while the loser will pocket a still healthy Rmb500,000.

Nor is Xu shy about the financial boost he stands to receive from future bouts. The Global Times reports he derided one company that offered him just Rmb500,000 for the broadcast rights to his upcoming fights stating, “It’s too little, I’m worth millions now.”

Like Muhammad Ali before him, Xu is a fighter who is also lippy. As Ali famously put it: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” Xu looks to be following the same script.

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