Yesterday I got back home from a two week, government arranged trip to the Henan Province of China. The focal point of the trip, aside from visiting famous monuments and being shown some basic mandarin, was learning about the pillars of historical Chinese culture. These pillars were traditional tea making, calligraphy, the education system, and Shaolin Kung Fu or Shaolin Wushu. As surreal as it sounds, I actually spent a week training in Kung Fu with Shaolin fighters, surrounded by the beautiful Chinese mountains. This gives me the rare ability as a westerner to say, without any doubt, that a Shaolin Kung Fu fighter would get bodied within a round in any regional MMA circuit the second he met a fighter with basic fight IQ.
Now don’t get me wrong, Shaolin Kung Fu is an incredible sight to behold. The performances we were shown before training are some of the most impressive physical feats a human being could ever dream of achieving, as close to perfection in movement as I will probably ever see, but it isn’t combat. Even international Wushu tournaments are scored like Olympic gymnastic events, a certain number of practitioners will present a choreographed performance showcasing their skills without actually fighting, before receiving a score based on aesthetics and difficulty. As poetically beautiful as it is to watch, it’s just a form of dance at the end of the day. There is a very, very good reason that you don’t see Bo Stances, double fist punches, backflips and push palms in MMA fights. Combat Wushu does exist but it’s nothing more than a light kick or two followed by a basic Judo takedown to score points, the ref stands them up and they try again.
The closest thing to a Shaolin fighter that MMA has is Tony Ferguson, despite the janky style and brutal elbows, his way of moving and unorthodox methods of avoiding damage are very similar to lot of Wushu techniques, plus he’s been known to practise on Wing Chun dummies. The reason I bring that up is because, as obvious a statement as it is, Tony Ferguson isn’t Chinese. The closest thing that high level MMA has to a traditional Chinese fighter is part American, part Mexican. Yet Chinese MMA is starting to build up a good name in the UFC. Just two weeks ago, Song Yadong had an almost flawless performance which ended in a beautiful KO of Alejandro Perez, Weili Zhang has looked good in her fights leading up to her scheduled bout with current UFC champion Jessica Andrade and fighters such as Jingling Li and Guan Wang are paving the way for a new generation of incredible talent coming from the East.
As the most populated country in the world, if China embraced MMA it could completely take over the sport, but the government is very unsupportive of mixed martial arts coming anywhere near their country. Don’t be fooled by the Andrade vs Zhang event taking place in Shenzhen, Guandong this August, Chinese officials are making a lot of moves against the interests of all forms of MMA. A few years ago, a video depicting an MMA fighter accepting a challenge from a Tai Chi master went viral. The video showed the Tai Chi master getting knocked out and brutalised on the floor in only 14 seconds. After this video went viral however, the fighter (Xu Xiadong) had all his social media accounts shut down or restricted, needed to limit his visibility in public life following attacks in the Chinese press, had his social credit score lowered to D and was ordered to pay a 400,000 yuan ($57,800) fine. Since the debacle, Xu Xioadong has made a name for himself in MMA communities by calling out and trying to expose masters of traditional Wushu martial arts, a move which has made him a cult figure with some but reviled by more conservative minds in the country.
In other legislative moves, a recently passed law means that MMA fighters with tattoos have to make sure that all body art is completely covered, causing promoters who don’t want deal with the hassle to stop booking inked fighters completely. A key reason for this unsupportive attitude towards mixed martial arts is the idea of tradition, China is a country that uses it’s history and unique culture as a way of guarding national spirit and patriotism, both being useful propaganda tools. For the Chinese PR machine, having a fighting style which fits in beautifully with confucian philosophy and is often shown in tandem with other art forms such as calligraphy and traditional dance, is a wonderful method of pushing the idea of a powerful nation who fights against foreign influence using sheer willpower and the spirit of the people. To have that idea be challenged by MMA, heavily regarded as a western fighting style and considered more brutal and savage by traditional Wushu practitioners, is a small scale reflection of China losing what it sees as it’s individual identity – a terrifying prospect for a country whose success relies heavily on keeping it’s population certain of the greatness of their nation.
The mystique of the Wushu martial arts is disappearing, the days of Kung Fu films and legends of Dim Mak are long gone. People who claim to have Qi based powers are now seen as con artists like Count Dante as opposed to great confucian minds, the perception of Kung Fu and other traditional martial arts is morphing into more of an aggressive form of dance than a fighting style. People are starting to clue on to the truth about Shaolin. Even without disproving legends such as the 13 Shaolin monks who defeated a 600 man army to rescue a prince or being sceptic of films such as Shaolin Temple, the public perception of Shaolin is not as positive as it once was. I’m not naming any names, for fear of putting friends in danger, but a few people I interacted with on my trip talked about how they respected the beauty of Kung Fu, but knew it wouldn’t work in a fight. One person told me that they had even been given an introductory lesson in boxing by their gym teacher, the teacher being scornful of the utility of Wushu traditions and wanting to teach students the basics of effective self defence.
If China loses enough support from the people, more questions start being asked about why photos of Xi Jingping are in every school (including the Shaolin academy), why social media and Google aren’t available to individuals in the country and why pro-communist party posters are stuck to literally every single lamppost on the side of most roads. And with questions like those, the answers will either be the truth, an extremely damaging thing for the state, or rumours and misinformation which could cause just as much distrust if not more.
At the end of the day, MMA represents a threat to the Chinese way of doing things, another western influence into a country whose propaganda and PR relies completely on the illusion of undiluted national identity, the sport will likely end up being allowed but with similar restrictions to that of Hollywood films being shown in China. That is to say, allowed if specific approval is given by a panel and it is deemed to either support the Chinese state or at least show no opposition or resistance. The financial interests of the country will likely continue to permit the UFC to air events in China (Fight Pass isn’t blocked in the country, although the One FC app very much is) however the legislative bodies will pull out all the stops to keep MMA as far away from Wushu as possible.