Tai Chi is the art of circles. From the body’s smooth spins come strength, energy and an entire cosmology of balance and harmony. But for Lei Lei, a self-professed Tai Chi master, the circles have only generated defeat and humiliation. On Apr 27, at a boxing gym in Chengdu, he entered into a duel with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) enthusiast Xu Xiaodong. In front of dozens of whistling and cheering spectators, the two men circled cautiously around each other in their distinctive poses for a few intense seconds: Lei lifted up his arms like the mantis in Kung fu Panda, and Xu held up his fists like a boxer. Then the circle shrank. The two men collided. Xu made a decisive advance at the master, forcing Lei to step back in a panicky manner until collapsing on the ground. Xu sat on Lei and punched him mercilessly on the head until the referee intervened. Later, photos showing Lei’s bloodstained head became the symbol of this notorious fight, and the video was among the most watched on the Chinese internet in the past month.
Weeks earlier, Lei Lei had been a relatively obscure figure on Weibo whose posts were mainly videos of himself practicing Tai Chi in Chinese cultural settings such as Daoist temples. What stood out from those posts, however, was his particular interest in Tai Chi’s combat potential. Running against the common impression of the ancient martial art as merely an exercise for elders or a form of meditation, he presented Tai Chi as of practical value in physical confrontation by demonstrating act-by-act moves with a sparring partner. Sometimes the demonstration went a bit too far. Once he went on TV to show quebufei, a legendary Tai Chi move wherein a bird was unable to fly away from his hand as he had supposedly “neutralized” its forces. Most people would consider this physics-defying move a literary invention that should only exist in novels. But what ultimately got him the attention of the MMA community was his assertion that he could counter and neutralize the “rear naked choke”, a deadly move of Brazilian jujitsu, with only one hand. The chokehold was often regarded as a kind of check-mate in MMA competitions. His bragging kicked off an extended round of bickering online. MMA practitioners and fans ridiculed him. Lei shot back with dismissive and sneering posts. It went on for several months until on Apr 18, Xu Xiaodong made a proposal to take it off-line, by actually fighting it out. Lei did not back down. The duel was set.
Martial arts (wushu), or more popularly gongfu, “kung fu”, have always been an important part of Chinese identity. Their practice is also closely intertwined with the rise of nationalist sentiments. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, a period when China underwent something close to an existential crisis caused by defeat after defeat in its encounter with Western powers, martial arts became a national obsession that offered the hurt nation a source of dignity and escape. Legends of kung fu masters such as the famed Huo Yuanjia beating Western musclemen or Japanese fighters were an important part of a popular narrative that refuted the racist notion that Chinese were physically inferior. In its extreme version, the kung fu fantasy developed into a kind of hallucination that misguided the Boxer Movement in the late 19th century into confronting firearm-bearing Western troops with bare fists. In its milder forms, it gave rise to a wonderful line of pop culture which included the novels of Louis Cha and films of Bruce Lee.
Lei Lei clearly lives in the tradition that romanticizes Chinese martial arts, though it is hard to say whether he is closer to the hallucination end or to the entertainment one. In contrast, Xu Xiaodong not only rejects that tradition, but actively seeks to smash it. A spitting, cursing man with the body of a fitness instructor who goes overweight and the demeanor of a Beijing thug, Xu self-branded as “the earliest promoter of MMA in China”. According to CCTV journalist Wang Zhi’an, who has done in-depth profiles of both Lei and Xu, Xu Xiaodong used to be a professional sanshou player, a Chinese form of full-contact freestyle kickboxing that also involves throws, sweeps and takedowns. He was unsuccessful in this early career and looked at MMA, at that time still non-existent in China, for other opportunities. He got some initial training in boxing clubs in Guangzhou and fought in a bunch of unprofessional underground matches during this period, which is where his “first MMA promoter” claim comes from.
He later set up his own boxing club in Beijing, which held weekly amateur fighting events. “There are blood stains left in the ring every Friday. Our Ayi has to clean them up the next morning. We are accustomed to it,” Xu told Wang Zhi’an. He also started a talk show on a livestream platform, which often featured him ranting about the uselessness of traditional Chinese martial arts. It is unclear whether Xu was genuinely offended by what he saw as fraudulent claims of kung fu’s combat capabilities, or was more driven by the need to expand his business through public stunts. In any case, Xu enjoyed instant fame, or notoriety, depending on where you stand. And with the newfound popularity, his feud with traditional Chinese Wushu escalated.
Lei Lei’s humiliating, widely-publicized defeat exposed the soft underbelly of Chinese kung fu. The questioning that ensued was fierce and unforgiving. Is the power of Chinese martial arts a carefully guarded myth unable to withstand the test of modern combat? Is kung fu closer to gymnastics or dancing than it is to boxing? Wang Zhi’an, the CCTV journalist, wrote a scathing post on WeChat after interviewing both sides in the fight. He believed that kung fu’s absence in international arenas such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where jujitsu and wrestling thrive, was an indicator of its limited combative power. And he attributed that to China’s lack of a “warrior class” in its long history. Others were more specific in their diagnosis. The lack of real combat training in the routines of Chinese martial arts, their intrinsic conservatism rejecting change, and the communist state’s intentional disarmament of the practice were factors that blunted wushu’s sharp edge.
The most eloquent critique was offered by someone who had long passed away. An interview with Mr. Zhao Daoxin in the 1980s was widely circulated in the aftermath of the Xu-Lei fight. Born in 1908, Zhao was well trained in xngyiquan and baguazhang, two established schools of Chinese martial arts. The interview happened a few years before his death, and his comments were pessimistic and harsh. “Chinese martial arts have no future,” He told his interviewer. This was not meant to be a cheap shot like the ranting of Xu Xiaodong. His conclusion was based on lifelong observing and practicing. In its long history, Chinese martial arts, according to Zhao, had gotten lost in a few meaningless fixations. One such fixation was the need to develop unique, “niche” moves that defined a school or a clan, moves that only had ritualistic value but very little practical use during combat. Practitioners were also obsessed with not falling in a fight, a psychology that gave rise to all sorts of postures that tried to stabilize the body at all cost, sacrificing agility and a range of combative possibilities of high kicks and ground level maneuvers. Zhao also criticized the long tradition in kung fu that shied away from actual combat in its day-to-day exercises. Its routine-based approach to practice, where practitioners repeated sets of predesigned moves, was considered “backward” compared to the systematic training regimes of modern combat techniques. Moreover, quite counter-intuitively, practitioners were often asked to practice in solitude. And combat was often considered a privilege that only “well-prepared” practitioners could aspire to, as the final step after their purgatory.
The right reflexes did not get sufficiently trained for real fights, Zhao asserted. But instead of confronting these real insufficiencies, Chinese martial arts chose to hide behind dubious theories that ostensibly derived from traditional culture. “Generations of baguazhang trainers spoke of mimicking the Eight Trigrams out of the Yi Jing, but nobody could establish any practical linkage between that beautiful philosophy and actual fighting.” The resurfaced interview of Zhao provided ammunition to those who always had trouble with traditional Chinese culture. For them, the self-hypnotizing mystification of Chinese kung fu was a shared symptom of cultural relics, from Chinese medicine to Confucian ethics, preventing them from advancing into the modern age.
The one-minute fight between Xu and Lei had the effect of a public verdict on Chinese martial arts. It fit the psychological need for a definitive settlement of a century-old dispute, despite the poor organization of the event and the fact that Lei Lei is hardly a proper representative of Tai Chi. Wang Zhi’an’s profile of Lei depicts him as an amateur who barely makes ends meet by teaching Tai Chi at the margin of a community gym. But that does not stop netizens from irritating the open wound inflicted on kung fu. Old videos of ridiculous, fraudulent performances by so-called “masters” have become laughingstocks on Weibo.
The public reception emboldened Xu and alarmed China’s wushu establishment. While the former prepared to take on the entire martial arts community, which he declared a hoax, the latter readied its response. At first, it looked like Xu might have the upper hand. Winning the match gave him credibility, and the national press was more than willing to give the outspoken athlete the microphone to continue undermining the reputation of traditional martial arts. Within days Xu was calling out well-known, lucrative Chinese commercial fighting competitions as “frauds”.
The threatened community scrambled to respond. Individual “masters” emerged to challenge Xu for a second match. Some even put their career on the line, vowing to quit martial arts entirely if they lost. At first, Xu happily accepted those challenges, raising anticipation that more high-profile matches would happen. But on May 3, the Chinese Wushu Association, the community’s supreme supervisory body, called off any future privately arranged fights, claiming that they violated “the ethics of martial arts”.
Xu’s crusade against what he saw as bogus wushu ran into a wall. His instant success had threatened something much larger than a few fake masters. A Beijing News report revealed just how big an industry Tai Chi had become. In Wenxian County, Henan province, the place where the Chen School of Tai Chi originated, the local government had incorporated Tai Chi into its 13th Five Year Plan. During the past twenty years, Tai Chi had transformed the place into a bustling town of Tai Chi schools, hotels, resorts and Tai Chi-themed museums. People came from all over the country and abroad to learn Tai Chi. The place created millionaire trainers who “drove Audis and smoked Chunghwa cigarettes”. The controversy put Wenxian under a spotlight and jeopardized the carefully cultivated image of the town. The Association’s statement also implied what was actually at stake: “Martial arts play a unique role in extending Chinese traditions, enhancing national confidence, promoting the export of Chinese culture and increasing the soft power of China.” In other words kung fu is the country’s name card and a cultural asset too precious to be discredited.
In a later livestream video clip, Xu broke into tears in front of the camera:his alma mata, the famed Shichahai School of Martial Arts, cradle of many a kung fu star, had disavowed him. He no longer could claim that he had graduated.
The nationalist undertone of the backlash against Xu became more obvious when a host of longtime conservative accounts on Chinese social media began to publish dirt on him, not his boxing skills but his political views. Xu turned out to be a “reverse racist”, they discovered, meaning that he hated his own country and race. Not only did he believe that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to Japan, he also mocked patriotic Chinese protestors against South Korea’s deployment of the anti-missile system THAAD. Most of his Weibo posts before the controversy were the lonesome rantings of a loose cannon, with barely a repost or two. But that did not stop the conservatives from comprehensively cataloging his social media utterances, which at times contained anti-Party curses and blasphemous comments about the PLA. Within a day, Xu had deleted a large number of his Weibo posts.
This wasn’t the end of Xu’s troubles. A day after the Association’s statement on the 3rd, Xu had to cancel a pre-announced press conference, where he was expected to unveil even bigger challenges to the Wushu community. Two days later, his Weibo account was deleted completely, supposedly by the authorities. For many, his fate was not at all surprising. “Xu touched the rice bowl of hundreds of thousands of people. Sooner or later someone would shut him up.” Said one Weibo commentator. Wang Zhi’an thought that Xu made a few rookie mistakes that made himself vulnerable to counter-attacks online. One of thesewastrying to drag Chinese Olympics boxing champion Zou Shiming into a fight, a perplexing move as Zou did not practice Wushu and enjoyed a stellar reputation worldwide. His impulsive way of handling social media cost him the precious momentum he had built.
Xu was greeted with bitter irony on May 4th, when seven men confronted him at his boxing gym, claiming to be from Wenxian, the town of Tai Chi. They provoked him for a fist fight, which had clearly been banned by the Association the day before. He refused, saying it was illegal. They chased and pestered him, until he called the police. After the police officer turned away the men, he turned down Xu’s plea for continued protection. “Aren’t you an MMA fighter?” the policeman snapped, “You can fight better than I can!”