Why Do Chinese Kung Fu Masters Keep Getting Beat Up?
Written by Andres Salazar
May 2017 was the home of one of the most controversial cultural moments in recent Chinese history. Combat sports competitor and MMA coach, Xu Xiaodong, challenged traditional tai chi master Wei Lei to a fight to test the legitimacy of Chinese kung fu in actual combat scenarios. Within the first twenty seconds, Xu knocked down Wei and landed strikes to the opponent’s head on the ground until he could no longer continue the fight (Atkin, 2018). This moment sparked immense controversy in China, putting doubt on the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts, as well as the self-proclaimed masters of kung fu.
These days, spending enough time on the martial arts side of the internet eventually brings you to a library of new viral videos about kung fu masters being viciously knocked out in competition against boxers, MMA fighters, and kickboxers. What might even be more shocking is that videos like that are not a rare occurrence. It seems that every couple of months, new viral videos arise of these experts in ancient Chinese fighting losing, even to untrained athletes. Since Xu Xiaodong’s win over Wei Lei, discussions on how effective China’s ancient fighting styles have only spread and intensified. Even more, those who beat Chinese kung fu masters in competition, such as Xu Xiaodong, are often censored by the central Chinese government for political reasons (Atkin, 2019). While a group of martial arts enthusiasts is defending the reputation of kung fu on the internet, one question remains: why do Chinese kung fu masters keep getting beat up?
An analysis of the philosophies behind modern kung fu practices leads us to a possible answer. Modern, competition-centred martial arts, such as MMA or muay Thai, tend to focus almost purely on the effectiveness of strikes in competitions and defence. This presents itself as a counterpoint to the philosophy of many kung fu styles, which aims to improve one’s general health and self-defence skills and demonstrate the elegance of the human figure and its movements (Wang, 2012). Kung fu competitions take many forms to account for this philosophy. While competitive sparring is seen in some Chinese martial art championships, world titles often include the category for “taolu” routines, traditional choreographed demonstrations of combat. These choreographed forms of kung fu are meant to demonstrate the element of elegance in Chinese martial arts philosophy. This “soft” approach to combat arts then translates to effectiveness in heavy-contact fights. Whereas modern Thai-style kickboxers focus purely on how to hit hard and how to hit well, the core philosophy pushes Chinese kung fu practitioners towards practicing partially for the sake of elegance.
This ideology towards combat sports then finds its way into common gym practices. Someone walking into a boxing gym will likely see different forms of sparring, solo work on various punching bags, and hitting pads with the help of a coach. All these exercises have a common focus: directly building combat skills that are applicable for effective use in combat. This naturally drives practitioners toward building a skill set that considers practicality its utmost priority. In contrast, many Chinese martial arts aim at building a poignant, elegant form with their movements. Part of the practicality is, as a result, lost, with the focus on the form. This does not necessarily mean that the punches of Chinese arts are less effective, but that the practitioners may not necessarily focus on the same combat efficiency as the typical MMA competitor.
While there are philosophical reasons and practices for kung fu’s infective application in competition, the issue lies deeper in the Chinese socio-political context. Fighters who have beaten kung fu masters have also been victims of harsh censorship. In the case of Xu Xiaodong, the MMA fighter and coach saw his social credit score plummet soon after his original bout with Wei Lei, leaving him unable to purchase plane and train tickets and limiting his social media presence (Teon, 2019). Many have interpreted this to be an attempt by the Chinese government to preserve its cultural reputation. As kung fu has gained popularity through film, television, and other forms of media, Chinese martial arts have become their own industry. Taiwanese researchers, Zhengwei Lin and Wen-Hsuan Tsai (2022), believe that the central government of China uses traditional kung fu styles to boost national patriotism and as a form of soft power to increase its influence internationally. As such, there would be a heavy industrial incentive to protect kung fu’s image as a powerful form of combat that rivals the effectiveness and practicality of modern combat sports.
Recent events have placed traditional Chinese martial arts into an interesting circumstance. While a difference in practice and philosophy can explain Wei Lei’s loss, the idea remains the same: there seems to be a trend where kung fu is unable to compete with combat-oriented fighting styles. Though, one thing is important to consider; most kung fu styles have, at their cores, basic strikes and techniques, such as the jab and the cross, that are analogous to those in different combat sports. However, the difference in approach makes it difficult for traditionalist combat athletes to stay relevant compared to competition-tested styles, such as MMA. By censoring those who potentially hurt kung fu’s image with the intent of preserving nationalistic morale, the Chinese government only tries to hide the real reasons as to why kung fu masters keep getting beat up.
Atkin, Nicolas. (November 10, 2018). Xu Xiaodong, the Chinese MMA fighter who pummels martial arts masters, vows to expose kung fu ‘fakery’. South China Morning Post. Retrieved December 23, from https://www.scmp.com/sport/china/article/2172589/xu-xiaodong-chinese-mma-fighter-who-pummels-martial-arts-masters-vows.
Atkin, Nicolas. (May 25, 2019). China’s censorship of Xu Xiaodong for exposing fake martial arts masters is alarming. South China Morning Post. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://www.scmp.com/sport/mixed-martial-arts/article/3011784/china-censoring-xu-xiaodong-exposing-kung-fu-frauds-and?module=perpetual_scroll_0&pgtype=article&campaign=3011784.
Teon, Aris. (May 27, 2019). Chinese MMA Fighter Xu Xiaodong has social credit score lowered to “D”, is barred from buying plane tickets and real estate. The Greater China Journal. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://china-journal.org/2019/05/27/chinese-mma-fighter-xu-xiaodong-has-social-credit-score-lowered-to-d-is-barred-from-buying-plane-tickets-and-real-estate/.
Wang, Guangxi. (2012). Chinese Kung Fu. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vyHTewol9pwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=kung+fu+history+academic+article&ots=slOC8qrOQE&sig=mVxGF7zZ2py9KW6utuVTVk6Ysnc#v=onepage&q&f=false.