Modern martial arts
Ain’t that a kick in the head
New forms of martial arts are catching on, despite the nostalgia of filmmakersTHERE are now many ways to become a millionaire in China, and for Zhang Meixuan, the route has been through martial arts. In 2011 Mr Zhang, the son of poor farmers, was jailed for assault. On February 2nd in the grimy northern mining city of Hohhot, he became flyweight champion of China in mixed martial arts (MMA) and collected a cheque for 1m yuan ($160,000). His rise from the paddy fields of dirt-poor Guizhou province mirrors the rapid rise of more modern forms of martial arts such as muy thai and Brazilian jiujitsu and their challenge to traditional forms of Chinese kung fu.
Partly responsible for the shift is the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF), a China-based promoter run by Joel Resnick, a Canadian businessman (pictured, behind Mr Zhang). RUFF has been awarded the only permit to hold MMA events in China. The first, in 2011, was seen on television by perhaps 100,000 viewers. The Hohhot event was beamed to millions across China.
Traditional kung fu, incorporating different styles such as Wing Chun, Shaolin and tai chi , though still popular, has been in decline for decades, because of a one-two to the head, first from Maoism and now from commercialism. Youths with smartphones and short attention spans have no time for breathing exercises and meditation. The MMA crowd also accuses kung fu of being useless in an actual fight, and believe even Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two fighting film stars, are more like dancers than real toughs.
Into this debate has stepped Wong Kar-wai, an award-winning director from Hong Kong. His new film, “The Grandmaster”, opened the Berlin International Film Festival on February 7th. For many, Mr Wong’s film is just another kung fu epic. In China, however, the film has sparked further debate on the connections between traditional martial arts, beautifully portrayed in the film during the 1930s, and more modern forms.
A behind-the-scenes documentary, that shows Mr Wong’s largely unsuccessful search for kung fu masters of the old school to help train his actors, has been an online hit. Many Chinese people, including practitioners of MMA, still have a soft spot for the history and discipline of traditional kung fu. But, as in many areas of modern China, the new, the brash and the million-yuan cheque pack a bigger punch.