(I’ve always had this suspicion that traditional martial arts tend more towards ‘arts’ than ‘martial’. Their emphasis on complex katas and techniques, which display an impressive athleticism – good in itself – do not necessarily translate into actual, real-life fighting ability. As one sensei put it to me, moving towards a black-belt is about personal improvement. I do wonder how many such practioners could take, say, Jack Dempsey in his prime. That may be why the Israeli army trains in Krav Maga, which is all about disabling an opponent as swiftly and efficiently – and, we might add, as brutally – as possible. Here is a brief reflection from Jamey Toner on fighting against a totalitarian regime for the truth of, well, fighting. Editor)
On June 5th, 1989, one man stood in front of a column of Type 59 tanks coming to rout peaceful protestors of government censorship at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. His name, what became of him, are lost to history; he is known only as the Tank Man.
Today, another Chinese man stands alone. For the past five years, a mixed martial artist named Xu Xiaodong has been fighting the top representatives of traditional martial styles from all around mainland China. Xu argues that these styles are being sold to a trusting public by fraudulent claims of their nearly mystical effectiveness. He first rose to public notice in 2017, when he defeated T’ai-Chi Grandmaster Wei Lei in a match that lasted 20 seconds. For a short time, Xu seemed to enjoy the notoriety; but things rapidly changed.
Because traditional martial arts are considered an important part of Chinese cultural heritage, Xu’s own government has waged a brutal campaign of persecution against his crusade. He and his family have become the victims of constant harassment, ultimately being forced to leave their home. He has been fined the equivalent of over $40,000 U.S. dollars and forced to issue public apologies for referring to Grandmasters as frauds, and his citizenship status has been reduced to the point that he can only travel by hard-seat train. (Xu was forced to take a 36-hour train ride to fight Kung-Fu Master Lu Gang—whom he beat in under one minute.) In his fight with Yuichiro Nagashima, Xu was forced to wear Chinese clown makeup and fight under the name Dong Gua, “Winter Melon”: a mocking reference to the 42-year-old fighter’s weight.
But Xu has not given up, and his record now stands at 17-0. He is also credited with one tie, for a 2018 match against Wing Chun Master Ding Hao. In the first round of this bout, Xu knocked the “master” down six times, only to have the fight stopped and declared a draw with forty seconds still remaining in the round. Hao later claimed that he was not at full strength because the studio had not given him enough rice before the match.
“You can’t stop me from fighting,” Xu declares. And despite the humiliation and censorship he has endured at the hands of the Communist government, he still perseveres in a small, simple crusade for truth. Not for the great truths of the Creed, like the Chinese Martyrs old and new, or for political ideals, like the Tiananmen Tank Man—just for a personal devotion to the martial arts. But, in the government’s response to his ongoing battle, we can see the totalitarian response to any kind of truth, great or small. And in Xu’s unbroken spirit and still undefeated fists, we can see just how much the truth is able to endure.