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Huo Yuanjia
Master Huo Yuan-jia 1/3 - Page 2
Author(s) : Yves Gendron
Date : 7/11/2004
Type(s) : Information
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" The yellow face tiger "

Yuan-Jia was supposedly born around 1868 (1) in Jinhai, a small village situated closely to Tianjin(2) from a family whose martial-art lineage would represent more than seven generations. His father used to work for a security company protecting caravans on the dangerous paths of China . Even though being the youngest and the scrawniest of the four sons, this didn't keep Yuan-jia from learning the family fighting technique called Mi-Zong, and to become a formidable and well-known martial artist nicknamed “yellow face tiger”. He first earned his life selling firewood, and then as a pharmacy clerk, but his vocation was martial arts. His great fame as a fighter implicated that, for a long time, numerous challengers came to fight him in a duel hoping to build up their fame thanks to a victory.

The name of Huo Yuan-Jia was not involved in the events surrounding the famous Boxers rebellion, event though he was himself a famed martial artist and that his hometown Tianjin was one of the most implicated regions in the conflict (3). The tragedy of the revolt turned out to be a real disaster for the Chinese martial arts, that had not only proved their powerlessness facing occidental weapons but also were now linked to a fanatic and violent movement that had brought to China another humiliation and considerable devastations. Apart from the prohibition of the practice by authorities, which caused the closing of numerous schools, reject and despise of kung-fu practitioners were even more or less generalized. This was the situation of the Chinese martial arts in the very first years of the twentieth century.


The great Shanghai tournament

With the display of a very occidental man that started a succession of extraordinary events that were going to lead to a considerable rehabilitation of Chinese martial arts and consecrate Huo Yuan-jia as a national hero. That is after one of his power exhibitions held in Shanghai in 1919 that “Oupin” (Chinese transcription of “O'Brian”) challenged the Chinese public and whoever that would dare coming on the ring fighting him.

This provocation appeared as very insulting for a fistful of young Chinese nationalists that instantly formed a committee aiming to choose a champion able to take up the challenge. The name of Huo Yuan-jia, was suggested, he was then approached and he accepted. Master Huo went to Shanghai with one of his disciples Liu Chang-Sheng, where the numerous modalities for the fight were discussed. Immediately a problem appeared: master Huo knowing nothing about the notions of an occidental friendly fight, it was necessary to explain him about the usage of gloves, the presence of a referee, the ban of blows beneath the belt. Master Huo was then worried about the consequences if he had to kill O'Brian during the fight.

The problems were though finally solved, and a date was elected (4) and the event started to be organized with the construction of a vast platform in one of the Shanghai parks. When the day of the match arrived, O'Brian didn't turn up. Some pretended that he was too much disdainful for the Chinese people to come, other, more numerous, claimed that informed about the determination of Huo Yuan-jia, he was scared and secretly escaped from Shanghai. Chinese honor was safe, but the many spectators came to assist to the event were left without a promising match. Noisy and tumultuous, the crowd asked for a friendly match open to all, which was accepted. A first challenger, named Chao, that was a true giant, came. He didn't fight Huo though but his disciple, Liu Chang-shang, in accordance to the custom. As a street fighting specialist, Liu defeated easily his opponent. Then arrived Chang from Ho Mei who was himself a fighting instructor. Once again Liu fought the challenger in the name of his master. This time the confrontation was much more top-quality and impressive. Opponents were equally strong, and the fight had to be stopped declaring them tied.

The event was such a success that it was decided to continue the following day. So the day after, more than 1000 people turned up in front of the platform, the news of the tournament having spread all around the town. This time Chang challenged directly Master Huo, who accepted. That was a terrible fight, but Master Huo ended up winning it. After that no more challengers came. The show was not over yet though since Master Huo and his disciple performed numerous fighting exhibitions and Taos (or ‘katas'; forms executing mimed fights) in front of an enthusiastic crowd. To finish, Master Huo made a little speech to the crowd where he discoursed for a long time and with passion about martial arts before answering questions.

Even if the fight “Occidental boxer” Vs “Chine martial artist” didn't take place, the memorable exhibitions of Master Huo and his disciples had considerable repercussions. Master Huo became a national hero having rehabilitated worth and reputation of Chinese martial arts. Numerous Chinese people found then self confidence and esteem that had been seriously corroded by the tragic events of the revolt of the Boxers rebellion.


the jingwu men

The day after the displays, the “young patriots committee” went visiting Master Huo to congratulate him about his achievements, but also to offer him to stay in Shanghai and to open a martial arts school in order to teach his techniques and perpetuate his art. He accepted. Thanks to his sudden fame, he had no problem finding sponsors to finance his project and get a settling, an old house in the quarter of the foreign concessions of Shanghai . It is in June or July that the association for physical culture, “Jungwu Men” (5) was founded. Jungwu Men meaning “door to excellence in martial arts”. The school itself opened some days later. That was the first modern and civil martial arts institution of China . It was modeled on other physical culture schools in China , schools that had themselves drawn inspiration from Japanese schools. Except that Master Huo's school was advocating a return to Chinese exercise. Since traditional martial arts schools were prohibited, Jingwu was presented officially as a gymnasium.

The purpose followed by Master Huo and his disciples and followers when establishing Jungwu was not only to teach fighting techniques. Another objective was to restructure the teaching and practicing of martial arts on a new basis to make it a modern and organized discipline, open to all Chinese people. This is what had occurred in Japan with Judo, and that will take place again later with Karate and Aikido. Like many educationalists and reformers, Master Huo believed that to make strong the Chinese nation, the Chinese peoples themselves had to strengthen their bodies and spirits. The ultimate goal pursued by Jungwu was to open schools at the scale of China and to form a new generation of Chinese people.

Unfortunately, Master Huo barely had time to lay the foundation of his project. Few weeks after the opening of his school, he had to take his bed and suddenly died on a 14 th of September (6). Between the tournament that made him famous and his death, Master Huo was the hero of only one summer but left behind him an imperishable memory and a promising legacy.



(1) The year of birth and death too of Master Huo vary from source to source. 1856, 57, 68 and 69. 68 is the date that comes the more often. The year of the death is either 1909 or 1910. 1909 is the most frequent date, but the second is credible too.

(2) Harbor town from the North-East of China situated at 140 km in the south west of Beijing . Also known as Tien Tin.

(3) Located between the coast and Beijing , the capital in which foreign regiments were besieged. During the summer 1900, the Tianjin region had troops from the Boxers, of the imperial army and from the international coalition, triggering considerable troubles. (See Boxers rebellion)

(4) Sources disagree regarding the month or even the exact year of the event. Either the end of April or June of the year 1909 or 1910.

(5) Jungwu is the transciption in pinyin. The designation Ching Woo is also still often used nowadays.

(6) As mentioned earlier, sources disagree about the year of his death: 1909 or 1910. Another source claims that he would have died in August.

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