Thursday, January 17, 2013

Birthday of Huo Yuanjia

January 18 is the birthday of Huo Yuanjia, born this day in 1868.

He became one of the most famous and legendary martial artists in China before his untimely death at the age of 42.

Huo Yuanjia was memorably portrayed by Jet Li in the 2006 film, Fearless.  The film does introduce what seems to be gratuitous and upsetting violence during the first half of the movie, including the murder of Huo's family and children. Descendants of Huo Yuanjia have understandably complained that they are disturbed by the tremendous liberties taken in the portrayal, particularly this incident, which did not take place, and it does seem that the film could have been made without that particular consequence being used as the incident that leads to the realization by the hero that he is on the wrong path and needs to change his ways.

Nevertheless, the film is remarkable in its portrayal of the martial artist and his development as a human being, from a rather unsympathetic character to one who embodies a superlative virtue in addition to his superlative skill.  

The film's most memorable moment (I think) comes not in the final fight scene but in the tea ceremony between Huo Yuanjia and his final opponent, which takes place before the match.  The words that are spoken there are worth considering deeply, invoking as they do the question of our purpose here in this world:

ANNO TANAKA:  In your opinion, is one style of wushu superior to another?

HUO YUANJIA:  I don't think so.

TANAKA:  If no particular style is superior, why have so many competitions?

HUO YUANJIA:  I believe no single style is superior -- it's just that the people who practice them have different skill levels.  Competitions can help uncover our weakness, and lead us to a path of self-discovery.  For our true enemies are but ourselves.

TANAKA:  Your words are poignant.

It is well worth watching the entire film to see this moment in context.  One could, it seems, do worse than to make a habit of watching Fearless on January 18 and considering the memory of Huo Yuanjia.