A Historian’s review of Jet Li’s Fearless: Who was the real Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲？
(From the archives: with the release of Fearless (霍元甲) in the USA and Europe this week, here again is my take on Jet Li’s final martial arts.)
Original post: 8/31/06
I just finished the movie Fearless (霍元甲) Jet Li’s self-proclaimed final wushu film. The movie itself is not bad (Not that I’m much of a movie critic). It’s about equal parts Fists of Fury and Rocky IV (compare the final fight scenes) with a dash of Raging Bull and an inexplicable Dances with Wolves second act. I like wushu movies and this as good as any, I guess. I can also see why it was so popular in
A quick spoiler alert: Most Chinese are familiar with the story of Huo Yuanjia and so know the basic plot of the movie. If you don’t know the story and don’t want to know what happens, you might want to stop reading here.
The movie is loosely based (sometimes VERY loosely) on the life of Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲 (1860-1910), one of
With so much creative license taken, what is the story of the real Huo Yuanjia? Huo is most famous for challenging foreign fighters at a time when China herself was under threat of ‘being carved up like a melon’ by the imperialist powers. Whether or not those foreign fighters ever stepped into the ring with Huo is perhaps less important than Huo as a symbol, both in the early 20th century as well as today, of Chinese patriotism and nationalism.
Huo was born in 1868, the middle of three brothers in the village of Xiaonanhe which is today part of the
It was also about this time that Huo met his most famous disciple, Liu Zhensheng (刘振声 who is seen briefly in the movie) and had his first brush, of sorts, with national politics. After the failure of the 100 Days reform in 1898, one of the leading figures of the movement, Tan Sitong (谭嗣同) was executed and his head put on display. One of Tan’s friends was a Muslim merchant and martial arts expert in Beijing named Wang Zhengyi (王正宜) also known by his nickname Dadaowangwu 大刀王五 or Broadsword King #5. (He was the fifth son in his family and his favorite weapon was, well you know…) After Tan’s execution, Wang fled
Meanwhile, Huo’s fame spread. In 1901, a Russian strongman was making the rounds in
In 1909, another foreign fighter, the English boxer Hercules O’Brien, put an advertisement in the
Huo capitalized on his fame and with the help of investors, including his old friend Nong Jinsun, established his legacy: the Jing Wu Athletic Society. (精武体操学校 later changed to 精武体育会) He attracted many students as well as the attention of some of
Huo Yuanjia died relatively young and his death is surrounded by myth and mystery. According to the story told by Huo’s descendants, the Japanese Judo Association came to Huo Yuanjia’s school to ask for a competition. A disciple of Huo disciples broke the arm of one of the association leaders. After that, the Japanese nursed a grudge against Huo but feigned friendship. When Huo became ill, they took him to a Japanese doctor who then poisoned Huo.
Other sources say that it was Huo who, in competition, defeated the head of the Japanese Judo association. At the banquet that night, Huo suddenly became ill, violently coughing. Huo was taken to a Japanese hospital where he was given, allegedly on purpose, the wrong medicine. He then died a short time later.
Like a lot of famous figures whose lives become encrusted by myth and legend, we might never know the actual truth. Huo apparently suffered from some kind of respiratory problem most of his life. It is not impossible that this might also have led to his death especially after nearly two decades in competitive fighting. Nevertheless, the story of the Japanese treacherously poisoning
After Huo’s death, leadership of the Jing Wu Association passed to Huo’s younger brother, Huo Yuanqing (霍元卿), and Huo Yuanjia’s second son, Huo Dong’ge(霍东阁). After his death, the Jing Wu School spread throughout
What interests me most about Huo Yuanjia’s story is what Huo meant to the Chinese people of his day. Upon my return to the libraries of the UC system, I ‘d like to check the periodicals of the day, especially the English language North China Herald and the Chinese language Shenbao (申 报) and see how the accounts of Huo’s activities differed. How did the stories of Huo challenging the foreign fighters fit within the context of the times? What sort of symbol was he to those who saw a brighter future for China, a future free of foreign domination? The Qing dynasty was in its last few years and as the empire crumbled, foreign powers from Europe and elsewhere began plotting how best to carve up the remains. At the same time, it was also an age of considerable revolutionary fervor, even optimism, and the beginnings of a great quest of national identity. Writers such as Liang Qichao 梁启超 and Yan Fu 严复 began asking important questions about China’s past and future. What did it mean to be Chinese in the ‘modern’ world? How could China become a powerful, wealthy, and independent nation? In many ways, these are questions that China is still asking at the turn of this, the 21st century. Perhaps that is why the stories of Huo Yuanjia, the great wushu patriot, still have such currency nearly 100 years after his death.
References and Sources (admittedly limited due to my current exile in Bordeaux)
告诉你真实的霍元甲 in 国际先驱导报 July 17, 2006
From the archives
Categories: Chinese History