In my last post I discussed my opinions on the fight between MMA guy Xu Xiao Dong and Tai Chi guy Wei Lei. The video has gained a huge amount of attention on Chinese social media, with people asking the question “what is the value of traditional martial arts”. In fact, Chinese state news even covered the story, where they interviewed a senior member of the Chinese Martial Arts Association as well as a professor of martial studies from Beijing.
The overall gist was that pride has been hurt and face lost, all kinds of excuses are coming out. But the issue of what is the appropriate image for kung fu to be portraying in the modern world? Is it just about health and socialising as some have stated? Is it about reconnecting to cultural roots? I want to discuss my ideas in a more detailed way, particularly as my last article was just a spur of the moment thing.
In this video, I talk about how sparring is the the biggest thing in martial arts training that helped me overcome obstacles in my own life. I believe strongly that the greatest part of all martial arts training is self improvement. But self improvement and combat are not antithetical. The relationship between combat and self development has been discussed as far back as the ancient Greeks, and has been written about in many Chinese and Japanese military texts. (Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai for example)
If we are to develop ourselves fully as human beings, how can we fullfill our potential if we have never pushed ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone? The issue here I believe is that as modern day people we get too comfortable in our own lives, we dont “eat bitter” as the Chinese say. Once we become too content we dont push ourselves and egos grow. My teacher grew up in the Cultural Revolution, he trained his Praying Mantis Kung Fu in secret, while the country was falling apart around him. Moving on to the 80s, things stabilised, but people were still poor, and violence was very common. He grew up fighting, as did many males of his generation. There is a marked difference between martial artists of his generation and the younger ones.
My own answer to the question of the value of traditional martial arts is as follows. Most of us don’t live in a world of violence and turmoil. We don’t need to learn deadly techniques, weapon skills etc. But that doesn’t mean martial arts don’ have any value. As I said above, combat is one of the best methods of personal development, it is the only thing that pushes you beyond the edge of your comfort zones. Self defense is something we also need, and the confidence to know that should an altercation occur, we can handle ourselves easily. Sparring and other forms of combat training are a crucial part of martial arts, and challenges, done without ego or spite, are a good way to make friends. Visiting another school and exchanging skills in a mutually agreed environment is good fun, and allows for exchanges of skills to take place. The problem is that most Kung Fu people don’t spar, have never even been on the receiving end of a punch, and yet make big claims. I would like to see more Kung Fu people train for UFC and other competitive formats. Of course adaptations need to be made, but that doesn’t mean “not being true to your art”. It is doing the art a service. It also doesn’t mean getting rid of any traditions, it just means that people with the inclination to compete, can follow a certain road. This is not for everyone though.
Kung Fu has developed a bad reputation, mostly to frauds creating all kinds of scams, and as a good friend of mine says “good businessmen aren’t necessarily good martial artists, and vice versa”. The history of Kung Fu has also been askewed with myths and legends, and a lot of people struggle to seperate that from reality. A good book which clears up a lot of this is The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts.
So as a final thought, I think Xu Xiao Dong is doing a service to Kung Fu, and I don’t agree with figures like Jet Li, Cheng Zheng Lei and the Chinese Martial Arts Association shunning him. Regardless of what I think of him as a person, he is shaking things up, and I would love to see a good Kung Fu person step up and kick his ass. If this doesn’t get shut down by the Chinese government, then it’s only a matter of time.