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Let’s Talk About Jet Li’s Gong Shou Dao

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LET’S TALK ABOUT JET LI’S GONG SHOU DAO

By: Matthew Lee

Written November 21st, 2017

“The convention of Gong Shou Dao really does not seem to present anything new or groundbreaking from what I have seen so far.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: On November 2017, a new product called “Gong Shou Dao” debuted.  The name Gong Shou Dao can both refer to the short film by Jack Ma and Jet Li, and the new sport form created by the two.  The inceptions of Gong Shou Dao has many practitioners talking amongst the Wushu community.  This write-up will discuss both the short film and sport.

On November 11th, 2017, a short film titled Gong Shou Dao (功守道; gōngshǒudào, literally “Attack and Defense Way”) premiered on Youku.com, considered the Chinese YouTube.  The short film was the creation of Jet Li and Jack Ma, businessman and chairman of Alibaba Group, called the “Chinese Amazon”, and featured the likes of Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, Chinese Olympic boxing gold medalist Zou Shiming.  Shortly after its initial release on Youku.com, the short film was posted on Jet Li’s official Facebook page for fans to see.  However, this was not the end of Gong Shou Dao.  Apparently, the short film was meant to be precursor of a new martial arts sport or competition format of the same name.

The name appears to be a wordplay on the terms 攻 (gōng) and 守 (shǒu), which can be translated as “attack” and “defense”, respectively.  According to the online article “Jet Li: ‘My Dream is to have GSD as Part of the Olympics’” on Jet Li’s new website Jetli.com, Jet Li himself, named the founder of Gong Shou Dao, had originally come up with the name using these two aforementioned Chinese words to make 攻守道 (gōngshǒudào, literally “Attack and Defense Way”).  However, Jack Ma decided to replace the first character 攻 with that of 功, which has the exact same pronunciation in Mandarin, and is the same 功 in 功夫 (gōngfu), better known and mistranslated worldwide as the word “kungfu”, which has been interchangeable with the term Wushu 武术 (wǔshù, literally “martial arts”), to mean Chinese martial arts; although “wǔshù” is the more semantically accurate term, and gōngfu more accurately means the idea of “skill” developed over a long time of effort and hard work, both have been used as an umbrella term to describe the Chinese martial arts.  “At first, I was thinking about offense (攻) and defense (收)’ in ‘Gong Shou Dao’ 攻守道 correspond to the ‘yin and yang’ in Taiji.  When Jack Ma saw that, he believed that ‘kung (功)’ is better than offense ‘offense (攻)’.  The fundamental purpose of Chinese martial arts is not ‘offense (攻)’ but to use the ‘Kung Fu 功夫’ or efforts to protect/defend our home and heritage that is sacred to our culture.”

First, let’s talk about the short film.  As stated at the beginning, it was released on November 11th, 2017, also known as Singles’ Day in China, coinciding with the Double Eleven Shopping Festival (双十一晚会放精华版; shuāngshíyīwǎnhuìfàngjīnghuábǎn) hosted by Alibaba, said to be China’s largest online shopping day (pretty obvious to read between the lines about business and timing here), and was directed by Wen Zhang, a young Chinese actor who has co-starred with Jet Li in his more recent (and laughable) movies The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇传说之法海; Báishézhuànshuōzhīfǎhǎi, White Snake Legend Speaks of Fahai) and Badges of Fury (不二神探; bùèrshéntàn, Not Second Godly Detective).  As established, the short film would feature an ensemble cast of martial arts actors, including but not limited to, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing and Tony Jaa, with choreography by Yuen Woo-ping, and was the idea of Jack Ma who approached Jet six years in the making, according to the online article “Interview with Jet Li about the Production of Gong Shou Dao (GSD)” on Jetli.com.  Jet himself also stated that Jack Ma only acted part-time as part of this project, due to his understandably tight schedule as a businessman, which was perhaps made possible due to the film’s short nature.

The short film begins with Jack Ma’s character seeing the Chinese words “华山派” (Huàshānpài, Hua Mountain School, where the last character of 派; pài, school, suggests a specific sect or faction of martial arts in popular Chinese martial arts culture) on an elevated entrance sign above a certain location, and begins imagining himself fighting his way through various masters played by the various martial arts actors (thus explaining how he can match up to the “fighting skills” of all the other actors).  He starts at the first “level” called Fengwutang (风伍堂; fēngwǔtáng, Wind Five Warriors Hall), where he fights off Tony Jaa, Zou Shiming, and Jacky Heung (I have no idea who this guy is) with a brief product placement of China Mengniu (蒙牛; Měngniú, literally Mongolia Cow) Dairy Company Limited, followed by Natasha Liu Bordizzo of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (卧虎藏龙: 青冥宝剑; Wòhǔcánglóng: Qīngmíngbǎojiàn, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Green Destiny Sword) fame, and her “husband” played by former Beijing Wushu Team member-turned-actor Wu Jing.  He then proceeds to the second “level” called Qinghezhong (清和冢; qīnghézhǒng, literally “clear and burial mound”) with some gratuitous shots of women, where he defeats Mongolian sumo wrestler Asashōryū Akinori (it is hilarious to me how to this day, the Chinese will still forgo the reality that size and weight matters in a fight in their kung fu movies).

Finally, he enters the third and final “level” called Yangfangchi (扬芳池; yángfāngchí, Raised Fragrance Pond), where he finds Donnie Yen as Ip Man (yes, I know he’s not really called that in the short film, but let’s be real—he’s wearing the black robe, he’s got the short haircut, and he’s using Wing Chun—he’s pretty much Ip Man here) washing his feet in a pond with Jet Li calling him “xiānsheng” (先生; mister/teacher, there’s something ironically humorous about this), and challenging him to a match, where Jack Ma beats Ip Man through the ambiguous requirement of Ip Man exceeding more than three “kicks.”  He then goes up to a stone lei tai (擂台; lèitái, raised platform) to look at a hanging scroll (which appears to be a half MacGuffin), only to enter a match with Jet Li with a sappy, albeit humorously nostalgic musical callback to the song 男儿当自强 (Nánérdāngzìqiáng, Man Undertakes Self-strength, the music of which itself is taken from the Ming dynasty song 将军令; jiāngjūnlìng, General[’s] Command), the famous theme of the Once Upon A Time In China film series of which Jet starred in (in all fairness, I am impressed with the fact that Jet Li can still move like he did in this short film, given his hyperthyroidism severely limiting his physicality).  It is here that Jack Ma’s imagination ends, and he enters the location, only to be forcibly escorted out by policemen after presumably trying to start a fight.  The short film then ends with a joke of a play on words, where Jack Ma explains, “我是真没看见华山派后面还有出所两个字。” (“Wǒ shì zhēnméi kànjiàn Huàshānpài hòumiàn háiyǒu chūsuǒ liǎnggèzì)  In the subtitles, this is explained away by the translation of Jack Ma saying, he did not see the two words “police station” after “华山派” on the elevated entrance sign.  However, in the original Chinese context, Jack Ma’s part of the line, “华山派后面还有出所两个字” (Huàshānpài hòumiàn háiyǒu chūsuǒ liǎnggèzì) states, “…after Huashanpai still had two words ‘put out.’”  The camera then cuts to the elevated entrance sign to reveal after 华山派, literally two words of 出所 (chūsuǒ, literally “put out”).

The general sentiment of reactions to the short film is that Jack Ma is rich enough to pay off other martial arts actors to “lose” to him in a movie.  In all fairness, if I were in Jack Ma’s shoes, I would use my billionaire resources to live out my kung fu fantasy too.  However, as stated previously, this was not the end of Gong Shou Dao; in the interview with Jet Li on his own website, “Jet Li said that the film is only the prelude for the competitive sports ‘Gong Shou Dao’.”  And what’s most astounding to me is the fact that the short film had virtually nothing to do with the sport of the same name; the only thing resembling the competition format, which we will get into next, is Jack Ma’s final fight scene with Jet Li on the stone lei tai.  To sum up, I will admit that I enjoyed watching (and laughing) at this short film, since this is the closest thing to a Chinese Expendables we are ever going to get with the combined presence of the Chinese martial arts actors Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Wu Jing (all that was missing was Jackie Chan, and I suppose the late Bruce Lee, but it probably wasn’t going to happen anyway), but for the most part, it is inconsequential.  But, if nothing else, viewing this short film will be a hilarious exercise to anyone trying to practice learning their Mandarin.

Now let’s move on to the sport.  Shortly after the premier of the short film, it was announced that the sport of Gong Shou Dao would be exhibited in a Gong Shou Dao Grand Opening Match (功守道揭幕战; gōngshǒudàojiēmùzhàn, Gong Shou Dao Opening Fight) on November 15th, 2017.  Leading up to the exhibition, very little was known about the sport.  The only explicit description available was what Jet provided in his interview on Jetli.com.  “If you think a person practicing Taiji him or herself as 1.0 and two people practicing Taiji push hands is 2.0, then ‘Gong Shou Dao’ is 3.0.  In this event, GSD will take place in a 3.0-meter in diameter ring, one-on-one competition, whoever pushes the opponent out of the ring will be the winner.”  Just from this description, and the promotional photos, I predicted that this will just be another pseudo-sumo competition event (and in some respect, I was right).

Like the short film, the Grand Opening Match was streamed on Youku.com.  At the beginning of the event, Jet Li made a public statement about the current situation of promoting Chinese martial arts and his subsequent motivations to make and promote Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) through Gong Shou Dao.  He stated the fact that people were not familiar with the term Wushu, yet people everywhere knew the term “Chinese gongfu.”  He also said that in order to make Gong Shou Dao unique as a sport form to get into the Olympics (oh gawd), that the sport would not allow techniques with the fists hit as in boxing, feet to kick as in Taekwondo, elbows, throwing as in judo, or grabbing, but would instead display the thirteen principles of Taijiquan; peng (掤; ward-off), lǚ (捋; rollback), ji (挤; jǐ, press), an (按; àn, push), cai (採; cǎi, gather), lie (挒; liè, split), zhou (肘; zhǒu, elbow), kao (靠; kào, bumping with various parts of the body), jin (进; jìn, advance), tui (退; tuì, retreat), gu (頋; gù, left), pan (盼; pàn, right), ding (定; dìng, centering/settling).  This second statement seems contradictory, as right after saying elbow techniques would not be allowed, Jet immediately names the thirteen principles of Taijiquan, the seventh of which is zhou, which literally means elbow, to be displayed in Gong Shou Dao.  How can you say elbows will not be allowed, but then say that elbows will be shown as part of Taijiquan principles in Gong Shou Dao competition?  This in my opinion is just a logical discretion that could be easily be resolved with some clarification.

Guests of honor at the Grand Opening Match included stars of the short film, Wu Jing, Tony Jaa, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jet Li’s Wushu coach Wu Bin (who at one point was on his phone during the event), and IWuF Executive Vice President Anthony Goh.  There was even an official video endorsement from Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee, and president of the Bruce Lee Foundation.  This begs the question just how much support is going into Gong Shou Dao, and what kind of push we can expect from the various Wushu and martial arts organizations.

As established, the competition consists of two competitors, each in opposing colors of black and white (get it?) on a small circular lei tai, with a referee in the middle calling and scoring techniques; at the beginning of each exchange, both competitors engage in a set rhythm of tuishou (推手; tuīshǒu, push hands), then breaking rhythm into a more freestyle and spontaneous environment.  Upon review, I will say that I actually liked some of what I saw; I saw underhook and overhook grips reminiscent of wrestling tie-ups, and I saw hip throws and trips being attempted (which also seemed contradictory to the fact that Jet Li stated throws would not be allowed in competition, but I didn’t care much for that statement in the first place).  I feel that this sort of format really brings the practice of Taijiquan into what I feel is its most active and useful close range, which is the wrestling range, where Taijiquan practitioners are often known to ‘displace’/’uproot’ or quite literally throw (read: takedown) an opponent off-balance.  There is really only one problem I find with this, and it is a glaring problem—THIS HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE.

The convention of Gong Shou Dao really does not seem to present anything new or groundbreaking from what I have seen so far.  Although Jet Li seems to suggest that Gong Shou Dao is the next level of Taijiquan practice after tuishou, this does not seem to be the case.  As I said in “A Look at Taijiquan: What You Need to Know”, there are many kinds of tuishou, all consisting of a two-man exercise at the core of the practice, ranging from a group of preset or predetermined movements at the basic and beginner level, and becomes more freestyle and spontaneous at the advanced level, ranging from stationary to moving feet tuishou.  Case in point, here is a video of Chen Ziqiang, one of the highest level practitioners of his family’s Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan, said to be the oldest known form of Taijiquan, demonstrating his freestyle tuishou:

In essence, this seems to be the same as what was displayed at the Gong Shou Dao Grand Opening Match.  Traditional Taijiquan practitioners have been doing this.  So the question for me is, what is this adding?  How is this any different than what Chen Ziqiang does, or what is done in the tuishou competitions in Chenjiagou (陈家沟; Chénjiāgōu, Chen Family Village), home of the Chen family and Chen Style Taijiquan, and Daqingshan (大青山; dàqīngshān)?

The closest thing to an answer is the rather small lei tai, which essentially structures the environment to that of a pseudo-sumo competition.  Although I understand the cultural relevance of the lei tai as a part of Chinese martial arts culture, in my opinion this ultimately waters down the display of Taijiquan even more than already has been in tuishou competition.  At least in modern Wushu Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), and Guoshu lei tai, the incorporation of the lei tai into full-contact fighting competition did not completely take away from the fighting, which ideally should be the primary aspects to be judged in competition; yes, pushing the opponent off the lei tai does count for points in competition, but for the most part, the way fights are judged is more based on who applied the better strikes and takedowns as well as who was more proactive, which is how it should be.  But in a competition format where “whoever pushes the opponent out of the ring will be the winner”, it devolves into little more than a pseudo-sumo competition.

To be clear, I have no real problem with this kind of competition or training, as I find it to be very applicable and useful in Taijiquan and martial arts training in general.  Traditional Taijiquan practitioners have long criticized these kinds of competitions as not really reflecting the principles of Taijiquan, due to the observations that there is often visual display of tension and unnecessary forcefulness, which is against Taijiquan’s principles, and may as well be wrestling or Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling) instead.  However, I have no problem with this, because training under pressure and resistance, where there will naturally be tension, especially in real fighting and self-defense situations, makes the training more reality-based with verifiable results, and wrestling, regardless of style, has historically been proven to be one of the most realistic and valid methods of fight training, so any practice that makes something closer to wrestling is something I can appreciate.  To be stuck in a traditional framework and have faith in its training without verifying it against resistance and non-compliance (i.e. against tension and force), is delusional, and ultimately detrimental to the validity of martial arts practice.  So, to me, I generally like the idea of this practice.  But why call it something new?

The only benefit I see that can be gained from the inception of Gong Shou Dao is the fact that Jet Li and Jack Ma can slap a brand name onto it.  This whole thing can be seen as a huge marketing ploy, and there has been a general consensus that Jet Li has become a sellout.  In the online article “Jet Li Gave Speech in United Nations and New York Times Square to Promote Wushu and Taiji” on Jetli.com, Jet said, “As an ambassador for IWUF and China Wushu Association, what I did in the past was not enough and I will continue to promote wushu to the world.”  In the Sixth Tone article “Kung Fu Superstar Jet Li: How I’ll Bring Tai Chi to the Olympics” by Lu Hongyong, Jet also stated “I like to say that while ‘Shaolin Temple’ revived interest in martial arts, it failed to capture their essence.”  I can appreciate Jet being honest with himself and wanting to do something about the promotion of Wushu, as well as Jack Ma’s love for the Chinese martial arts and passion for promoting Chinese martial arts culture.  But is coming up with a “new” sport really the answer?

Furthermore, on the goal for Gong Shou Dao to be Olympic, is this also even the right goal?  Modern Wushu has already been going down this road, and I have already written at length about this in “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It.”  Although I can see the benefits of having a sport being Olympic, such as government funding and professional resources, my overall sentiment remains the same.  How can you be so concerned about the Olympic label, when it might not mean anything for the betterment of Chinese martial arts?  And how do pro-Olympic Wushu supporters feel about having a potential competitor for Olympic status getting in the way of Olympic Wushu?  One has to wonder how the IWuF feels about their Image Ambassador deviating from the goals of promoting Wushu and trying to make it Olympic, with this new wildcard thrown into the mix of the bigger picture of Chinese martial arts.  As I have written multiple times in previous write-ups, Jet has sadly not been seriously involved in Wushu since his retirement as an athlete; he hasn’t even uttered the word “Wushu”, at least internationally, and speaks more openly about Taiji than he does about Wushu.  If Jet’s promotion of Wushu is purely Taiji-centric, that’s fine, but why do this of all things?  Why not promote the already existing forms of Wushu competition and practice?

Of course, it’s only been a few weeks, and it’s too soon to say how this will go.  Maybe I will eat my words, which I will gladly do if it comes to that.  Maybe Jet Li and Gong Shou Dao will be the saving grace of Wushu, and Chinese martial arts will finally achieve better awareness and better understanding worldwide.  But that day is not today, and we’re certainly not getting any closer at this point.

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.