MMA vs. Kung Fu Debate Gains Momentum in China

By: Tristen Critchfield
Feb 8, 2013

The ideals of kung fu have long been entrenched in Chinese culture, but MMA’s continued growth may be changing the way the nation’s youth perceive traditional martial arts.

According to a report in The Economist , young people from China are more likely to gravitate toward the world of caged combat, which emphasizes quick finishes and rewards fighters handsomely for being entertaining, rather than kung fu, which stresses hard work and patience among many other virtues:

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.

Hastening this shift in perception is the recently formed Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation , which was the first MMA promotion granted a permit to hold events in China and began doing so in August 2011. Run by Canadian businessman Joel Resnick, RUFF held its eighth fight card on Feb. 2 in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Among those competing on the card was Meixuan Zhang, who submitted Pingyuan Liu with a first-round heel hook to become the organization’s inaugural flyweight champion. According to The Economist, Zhang earned $160,000 for his efforts, and the event was viewed by millions in China -- up from the approximately 100,000 who tuned in to RUFF 1.

The old-vs.-new discussion has hit the big screen as well. “The Grandmaster,” a documentary by Wong Kar-wai, “shows Mr. Wong’s largely unsuccessful search for kung fu masters of the old school to help train his actors.” The film opened the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 7 and has been well-received online, according to the Economist.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship made its first journey to China this past November and was highlighted by Sanshou specialist Cung Le’s knockout of promotion stalwart Rich Franklin. The Vietnamese-American took the bout despite suffering lingering effects from a foot injury, but as he told in October, fighting in China was an opportunity not to be missed.

"I feel like martial arts basically started from China and my roots are the Chinese martial arts," he said.

In this era of instant gratification, it’s easy to see why MMA would be so appealing to a generation that rarely allows technology to stray from its fingertips. But, as evidenced Le’s reverence for the traditional, perhaps the two can co-exist for years to come.


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