An Old Story
It is a pattern that we know well. After a debate about the utility of the traditional martial arts (and what that suggests about the state of the Chinese body politic), things got ugly. The conversation descended into public taunts amplified by the media. Students of Taijiquan, the most popular traditional style practiced in China, felt that they had to defend the honor of their system from a group of upstart fighters who seemed to have no regard for the nation’s culture. Champions were chosen and a fight was arranged in front of a national audience. But it was over all too quickly. The master of Taijiquan was left bloodied and battered in front of a stunned audience.
The media immediately went to work. What did this embarrassing defeat suggest about the decline of Taijiquan and the traditional Chinese martial arts more generally? Are its supposed masters frauds? Do the “internal arts” have any future in an increasingly modern world of global competition and fast paced information flows.
As the baseline level of knowledge that informs public debates on Chinese martial arts history had increased, discussions of the first and second National Martial Arts Examinations, staged by the KMT and the Central Guoshu Association, have become more common in the West. These two events have long enjoyed legendary status in China. They have been eulogized in popular publications, films and scholarly papers. They are remembered as the proving grounds from which a generation of martial arts masters emerged.
Lost within the fog of hagiography are some of the serious challenges that plagued these gatherings, including low levels of turnout by China’s diverse martial arts community. Like the Jingwu Association before it, the Central Guoshu Association (even with official government backing) had troubling expanding its influence into the countryside. Nor were period audiences all that impressed with the performances mounted by some of China’s traditional martial artists. Taijiquan faced a public scandal in 1928 when it became clear that its advertised promises failed to deliver results in actual fights. The noted author and martial arts advocate Xiang Kairan devoted much of his 1929 publication “My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing” to discussing the various problems that had been exposed through the system’s poor showing in the previous National Martial Arts Examination.
Yet I suspect that few readers clicked on this post hoping to find a discussion of Xiang Kairan’s observations on the Republic period martial arts. Another challenge match has been making waves that are being noticed well beyond the boundaries of the Chinese martial arts community. The South China Morning Post (and many other news outlets) has recently run multiple articles on the recent fight between Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong and Taiji master Wei Lei. If you have not yet seen video of the fight just follow the link. Trust me, it will not take long.
These sorts of asymmetric match-ups between traditional Chinese martial artists and athletes from the modern combat sports are not particularly rare. A quick search on Youtube will pull up several examples. The same may be true for traditional combat arts of other nations as well. I am not sure as I have never invested the time to do a comprehensive comparative search. But these sorts of fights seem to be a well-established part of the modern dialogue surrounding the Chinese martial arts.
In fact, when this film first came out I debated as to whether I should post it to the Facebook group. Was this real news? It is not just that we have heard this story before, it’s the latest incarnation of an all-time classic.
While watching this fight I found it hard not to think about the efforts of pioneering Chinese martial artists in the United State like Leo Fong who spent much of the 1960s-1970s looking for innovative ways to cross train in Boxing, Judo and Jeet Kune Do. As long as we are in the Bay Area, we should also recall James Yimm Lee’s call for scientific physical training and realistic combat drills in his long simmering feud with the traditionalist T. Y. Wong. And all of that was just a prelude to Bruce Lee’s outspoken attacks on the entire traditional martial arts scene. One could probably put together a similar list of innovators (and rivalries) in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia as well.
There are differences as well as similarities in all three of these time periods. In 1928 the “pure fighters” challenging Taiji’s dominance were students of more combatively inclined external Kung Fu schools. In the 1960s Bruce Lee and others were cross training in systems like boxing, judo, fencing or the Filipino martial arts. In the current era Muay Thai, BJJ and American style MMA camps have moved to the fore. And the explosion of social media has certainly changed the texture and feel of this conversation.
Still, one cannot shake the feeling that we have been here before. An advocate for “realistic” and “modern” approaches to training issues a challenge, “traditionalists” of all stripes line up, and it’s the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships all over again. This is a drama that, in one form or another, has been playing out for the better part of a century. And that is ok, because it turns out that it’s a story we love. I have had more readers contact me to ask if I was planning on talking about the recent Xu Xiaodong/Wei Lei fight than any other news story that I can remember.
I am not sure that there is much that is new or noteworthy to say about the fight itself. Clearly Wei was terribly unprepared for the fight. It didn’t look like he had ever done any serious sparring. And to be totally honest, he went down fast enough that I couldn’t even get a decent read on how talented Xu is in absolute, rather than relative, terms.
Yet the more I thought about the event, the more I decided that the most interesting aspect of this fight was not actually the two combatants, but rather the audience that they sought to appeal to. After all, we only heard about this event because many people around the globe decided to talk about it first, which then inspired some major media outlets to start writing stories. And I use the term “story” intentionally, as I expect that many people were fascinated by this event because it seemed to speak to issues that were bigger than the details of Wei’s training regime.
Professor Carlo Rotella, a noted historian of Boxing, recently delivered a guest lecture at Cornell titled “My Punches Have Meaning – Making sense of boxing.” I think that some of his insights might be worth considering in the current context. He noted that individuals who are engaged in the professional combat sports very much want to believe that there is a meaningful logic behind the most important events in their athletic careers. And yet the more closely they are matched in skill and ability (things that yield a competitive and entertaining fight from the audiences point of view) the less likely this seems to be true. Any fight will have a winner or a loser. But the more closely matched the two fighters are, the more influence random occurrences seem to have on the outcome of a given match. For that reason, when evaluating the career of a given athlete, members of the Boxing Hall of Fame are careful to look at an entire series of fights over a long stretch of time, and not just a single victory or loss, when trying to decide between two possible athletes for induction.
Both the athletes and the audiences, however, cannot stand the thought that at its core the sort of violence that we see in the ring is both devoid of moral meaning and more random than we would care to admit. We respond to this void by attempting to impose social meaning onto what is about to happen, or to retrospectively draw meaning out of unexpected events. Rotella noted that you see these attempts everywhere, from the musical selections as fighters walk to the ring (or cage), to the way that sports journalists attempt to connect certain match-ups to larger trends in the sport, or even sociological shifts in society.
All of which bring us back to the reoccurring battle between traditionalists and modernists (however the two camps are being defined in a given decade) within the Chinese martial arts. The rich history of sports writing suggests that humans have no problem finding meaning in the punches of even the most evenly matched competitors. Yet when the styles of combat, training methods or ideologies of the fights are very different this exercise becomes even more socially useful. Indeed, it is the very asymmetry of the match-up, the expectation of a blow-out, that might generate interest among the audience.
There is no reason to expect that the average fight between randomly selected Taijiquan instructors and professional MMA athletes would be particularly interesting. While individual Taiji students may be interested in fighting, their art is clearly designed for a number of goals, ranging from self-defense to preserving elements of Chinese culture and working towards physical and emotional health. MMA is only designed to do a single thing, and that is win in the octagon. And if there is one lesson that modernity has taught, it is that highly specialized skills will almost always beat generalist approaches to the same problems. That is true in the workplace (ergo the explosion of new professions in the last century) and it also seems to be true in sporting competition.
This will not come as a surprise. On an intuitive level, it is something that we all seem to recognize. We accept that to be a jack of all trades is to be a master of none. And that probably means getting choked out by a grappling master at some point in your personal training. Yet that reality does not seem to be the determining factor in how most people approach the martial arts. At best, it is one half of an ongoing dialectic.
As I noted in the conclusion to my volume on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (co-authored with Jon Nielson), many individuals turn to the martial arts as a source of meaning and identity in a world where the forces of globalization and rapid economic change have disrupted basic social structures. Yet there is more than one way in which the martial arts might step into this breach. On the one hand, they might attempt to address a problem that rapid social change has created (e.g., how do I defend myself against rising crime, or how do I show that in the 21st century professional Chinese athletes can beat the best American fighters?)
Alternatively, other arts might choose to address the more fundamental problems that occurred when individuals became unmoored from their traditional communities or sources of identity. If your village in southern China has been knocked down to make way for a new “third tier city” composed of mostly empty apartment buildings and shopping malls, maybe a traditional practice like Taijiquan can offer a new and more flexible vision of what it means to be part of an authentic Chinese community in an era when the very notion of community is eroding.
When discussing the ways that various religious communities have adapted in the face of globalization Peter Beyer termed these two strategies the “First and Second Integrative Responses.” Some religious communities respond to social dislocation by focusing on a very specific set of concrete issues (the problem of social justice in poor Latin American countries), where as others turn to more far reaching philosophical and social discourses in an attempt to reestablish dislocated identities (the rise of fundamentalism in all of the world’s major religions).
The dual trends that we see within the Chinese martial arts are not surprising. Across a wide range of social issues there is a similar pattern in which debates have broken out between those looking for empirically verifiable results in narrowly defined, but socially relevant, areas and others who have turned to a more generalized discourse that promises a single set of principles that can reframe and restore meaning to many areas of human endeavor.
It is not a coincidence that Taijiquan is the most popular martial art in China today, while the Mixed Martial Arts are one of the quickest growing trends. This is a specific instance of a much more general trend. Nor should we be surprised to discover that in one form or another this debate has been going on for a long time. China’s current encounter with global markets began in the 19th century and it reached a fevered pitch after the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1901. Scholars like Douglas Wile have previously explored the ways in which Taijiquan reorganized itself and emerged as an elite led response to the existential crisis that Western globalization posed to China during the late 19th century.
Nor can we expect an end to this debate any time soon. Individuals (in both China and the West) end up in the opposing wings of this dialectic because they feel different insecurities, or they select different strategies to understand and mediate the challenges of a rapidly changing society. Learning to live together in harmony also seems unlikely. The articulation of one world view, or set of values, seems to undercut the legitimacy of the other strategy. Either China needs “scientific truth” to prosper, or it needs to “remember who it really is.” But in practice it is difficult to select “both” for the same reasons that it is challenging to be both an MMA champion and Qigong master. Some goals cut against each other on such a fundamental level that compromise becomes difficult.
When Xu and Wei square off against each other, we just cannot tear our eyes away. Anyone who is familiar with the last 50 years of Chinese martial arts history could probably guess how that fight was going to end. Yet it is that weight of history that gives each subsequent bout meaning. We watch expecting the “specialist” to marshal the forces of modern scientific training and win, while hoping that the “generalist” will give us some reason to believe that a shift in cultural values might provide an effective way to deal with the challenges of the modern world. The fact that we have all made similar (sometimes contradictory) choices in many areas of our own lives means that we all have some skin in this game. We are compelled to watch fight after fight because we also believe that those punches have meaning.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Two Encounters with Bruce Lee: Finding Reality in the Life of the Little Dragon