Sunday, May 21, 2017

Little Trouble In Big China

There was a famous bodybuilder from the 40s (I believe it was John Grimek) who as a teenager decided to enter a swim meet to be held at an Olympic style pool in a nearby town. He didn't have access to a pool or beach, so he decided to train for this event by swinging around a pair of dumbbells to mimic the motions of a swimmer. He did this for several weeks, and when the big day came and he jumped into the water for the first time, he nearly drowned before somebody rescued him. It's really reminiscent of the Bruce Lee aphorism, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

Lee was speaking of what he saw as unrealistic training that doesn't prepare you for an actual fight. Of course there are styles that don't emphasize combativeness as much as others. It is also contingent upon how the syllabus for said style is presented, and this can vary greatly from school to school. Some clubs train for heavy sparring while others pair up students to work pre-set self-defense drills exclusively. Others still, more closely resemble the atmosphere of a gym. Be careful with that one, as gym is used as a term to describe some MMA and boxing clubs.

Over the past couple of decades, MMA has been held as a crucible for testing the efficacy (or lack thereof) of certain fighting systems. Again, not all styles prioritize fighting, but rather other ideals such as character, fitness, and tradition. A fat, brutish thug can still whip ass, and all the good intentions and knowledge of etiquette won't stop him in his tracks. A point match is not like getting mugged. How you train is how it happens.

Recently there was a match that pitted a retired MMA competitor against a proponent of taijiquan after the former issued a challenge to the traditional martial arts community in China in an online tirade. Taiji (tai chi) with the added quan suffix translates as "Grand Ultimate Fist" but for most people tai chi is not a martial art, but a regimen of slow moving exercises that supposedly enhances longevity and health. Clearly, the tai chi representative who responded to this challenge was not doing this for his health. For the record, the combatants are Xu Xiaodong, a Beijing-based MMA coach and promoter, and Wei Lei, the founder of his "Thunder style" of tai chi. Let the lightning strike:

While not particularly graphic, this was still painful to watch. Most of the spectators were clearly less than enthusiastic with the outcome. I'm glad Wei, the tai chi man, wasn't as seriously hurt as he could've been. But Wei said after fight that the only reason he lost to Xu was because he was showing mercy, fearful that his "internal strength" would prove to be fatal against Xu, the MMA guy. Not to be outdone, Xu remarked that tai chi is a "sham", followed by reiterating his challenge to the Chinese martial arts community.

Apparently this is causing a big uproar in China, including complaints issued by the Chinese Wushu Association, as they see this kind of a no-holds-barred match as an affront to Chinese culture and that it violates the morals and principles of martial arts. For this, Mr. Xu has gone into hiding. "I've lost everything, my career and everything," he said. "I think people misunderstand me. I'm fighting fraudulence, but now I've become a target."

I really thought the debate on this was long settled. I could entertain hard-style kung fu stylists taking up this guy's challenge, but to what end? Tai chi and other neijia (internal) arts were simply not designed for a ground-and-pound affair. Maybe if Xu comes out of hiding we'll see more of this kind of spectacle. I hope not.

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