Earlier this month, a video went viral on the Chinese internet and sent waves through the martial arts community. The video showed a match between 38 year old MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong (徐晓冬) and 41 year old, tai chi master Lei Wei (雷魏). The fight was over almost before it began. Within seconds, with the tai chi master was pummeled to the ground.
The fight streamed live, and overnight Xu’s social media account exploded. He brought in money doing Q&A sessions and streaming interviews. In video rants filled with profanity, he declared traditional martial arts teachers liars and thieves, calling out many by name, including Chen Zhenglei, Chen Xiaowang, and Chinese kickboxer Yi Long.
However, things quickly went downhill for Xu. While many netizens agreed with him, others felt it was all a publicity stunt. Xu’s words were unpopular in part because of the current sociopolitical climate in China. Over the last hundred years, China has faced exploitation and humiliation at the hands of Western nations, civil war, Communist revolution, and self-imposed isolation. China re-emerged onto the world scene in the 1980s. Fueled by the destruction of our natural resources, China has ridden the wave of globalization and technological advancement to reach to a standard of living previously impossible. With full bellies and comfortable lives, many have begun the soul-searching process of discovering what is means to be Chinese. Part of this growing nationalism is a renewed interest in traditional art forms.
Many called Xu a traitor for attacking a traditional Chinese style. Some even suggested he was working for a foreign country to cause unrest. One Chinese multi-millionaire offered a 10 million RMB ($1.45m) prize to anyone who could use tai chi to defeat Xu. A video that surfaced online showed him being harassed on the street. When the police came, even they taunted him, saying he should be able to protect himself. Xu soon appeared crying, saying he had lost sponsorship, and that his businesses had been forced to close. As I write this, his social media accounts have been blocked, and he has gone into hiding.
It took Xu only 10 seconds to destroy a tai chi master, and only 10 days to destroy his own life.
Whether you agree with Xu’s actions or not, both sides of the argument can agree on one thing: many people do not understand tai chi.
Tai chi is misrepresented far too often. Some people think that tai chi masters should be able to use their Qi energy to fight. This is why you see bogus demonstrations where a teacher knocks over a dozen students without even touching them. In kung fu movies, the older the master is, the better the fighter. This is also not true in real life. While one’s technique and understanding may deepen over time, strength and agility naturally decline with age. For many years, unscrupulous teachers have perpetuated misconceptions in order to attract students, encouraging derision from the wider martial arts world.
As I see it, martial arts began with violence. Throughout history, in times of chaos and war, people have needed to protect themselves and their loved ones. Those with skill and experience taught others. Set training drills and forms were used as teaching tools. But over time, warfare evolved beyond just hand to hand combat. As the need for sparring and applications shrank, the role of forms grew. In modern times, many martial arts students have technique (having learned through forms) but do not have experience fighting. MMA is an exception, as its #1 goal is to train good fighters.
Fighting requires speed, force, and knowing how to take a hit. Sure, tai chi contains techniques that can be used in a fight. But, there is no way around it…the only way to learn how to fight is by fighting. Practicing tai chi forms alone will not teach students to fight.
So, if we do not practice tai chi in order to fight, why do we practice tai chi?
Tai Chi is more than a martial art, it is the synthesis of the best parts of Chinese culture. It is what happens when martial arts meet qigong and Chinese philosophy head on. Tai chi develops strength, balance, coordination, focus, and stillness of heart and mind. Understanding the principles of yin and yang will benefit all aspects of your life, from business to interpersonal relationships. Tai chi is a life art, and is an art you can practice for a lifetime. Tai Chi and MMA have a very different focus. When we practice tai chi, we are fighting weakness, uncertainty, instability, insecurity, and stress.
What can help us advance our art is not to compare it another art with a different focus. The goal of each style is different, and each is attaining its goals. It is more valuable to understand the nature of your art, and seek the wisdom found there.