Last month controversial mixed martial arts fighter Xu Xiaodong found himself up against a kung fu master who professed the ability to paralyze an opponent with the jab of his finger.
This technique called the “death touch”, is part of pressure point fighting. A very real and dangerous system that is also extremely difficult to master and apply, especially in a rapidly changing and fluid confrontation.
Xu landed punch after punch to his oppenent face. Less than a minute and one broken nose later, the fight was over.
Over the past two years, 41-year-old Xu has made headlines for winning bouts against self-proclaimed masters of Chinese martial arts, usually in high-profile matches.
His challenge to old-school kung fu masters has been regarded in China as an act of disrespect against traditional martial arts.
By taking on what he calls “fake” masters, Xu has angered powerful figures in the Chinese martial arts community and thrown into doubt the reputation of a prized tradition officially promoted in Chinese culture.
Xu got into further legal trouble last year and has been sued for defamation by a tai chi master whom Xu had accused of faking a win against a strength athlete in a televised match.
Xu lost the case, and was ordered to pay 416,000 yuan ($60,200) and publicly apologize on state newspapers, news websites and his own social media accounts.
Xu paid the fine but did not apologize for five months. Subsequently, a court banned him from flying and booking premium hotels, a punishment meant to foster trust in society under China’s social credit system.
The authorities have also banned him from self-promotion and ordered him to cover his identity if he chooses to live-stream his fights.
He took on the “death touch” master Lu Gang last month in Xinjiang, Xu adopted the alias Xu Donggua – literally “Winter Melon Xu” – and painted his face blue. But such is his level of notoriety, that his identity was clear.
But Chuanwang Zhou, a martial arts coach teaching Chinese kung fu in the US, said Xu and kung fu practitioners do not belong in the same ring.
“Martial arts is about developing a sense of honor and justice, character and spirit,” says Zhou.
“Xu should go fight with other MMA fighters, not Chinese kung fu masters.”
Xu is clearly not listening. He first made a name for himself two years ago, when he knocked down a tai chi traditional practitioner in just 20 seconds. This prompted the state-run Chinese Wushu Association to issue a statement against the fight.
Citing the health benefits of practicing martial arts, which include self-defense and character building, the group said Xu’s fight was against wude, or the spirit of kung fu, and potentially illegal. It called on Chinese authorities to curb future fights.
A few days later, Xu’s account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo was suspended. The next month, his match with another tai chi master was interrupted by police in Shanghai, who arrested Xu for fighting without authorization, according to local media reports.
To evade growing censorship, Xu has tried to set up new social media accounts whenever his old ones were shut down. Footage of his fights is widely shared on YouTube, which is blocked in China.
To his fans, Xu’s fights amount to exposure of paper tigers and the weaknesses of kung fu in modern competitive fighting. But his many detractors feel he should continue to be punished for insulting kungfu, a source of national pride.