Gong Shou Dao, or, how to rebrand Tai Chi.
Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be focusing on the Jack Ma and Jet Li short film, Gong Shou Dao. With the rise of modern technology such as the internet, motion capture recordings and online forums, the future is ripe for Tai Chi to survive – and thrive. But what will get lost in translation?
Where else are you going to get ropey CGI basketballs, sumo barbershops and an Ip Man fish foot spa?
A few years ago, Alibaba founder Jack Ma released a short, twenty minute film titled Gong Shou Dao. In it, he takes on a series of martial masters played by the likes of Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen and (Ma’s Tai Chi instructor) Jet Li against a series of increasingly surreal backdrops. The fight choreography is done by Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping so we’re treated to some great scrapping, which makes Ma look like he can competently hold his own with some of Kung Fu cinema’s finest. If you haven’t already seen it, the video’s linked at the top of this post so I’d recommend watching it and then dropping back here when you’re done. Seriously – where else are you going to get ropey CGI basketballs, sumo barbershops and an Ip Man fish foot spa?
You’re back? Good, hope you enjoyed the show. The whole thing plays out like a rich man’s power fantasy, which is pretty much what it is. After all, if you had the money and influence, and loved jumping around in Kung Fu attire, isn’t this what you would want to do? I know I would. But the “official” reason for this film being made is only briefly touched on at the end, when Ma is rolling through some classic Tai Chi stances with a cosmic screensaver playing behind him. Gong Shou Dao is essentially a hip, rebranded version of Tai Chi’s push hands practice that is being pushed as a possible Olympic sport. The Chinese government have long been using Kung Fu’s rich heritage to help increase it’s “soft” power, which is a term used to describe a country’s cultural influence as opposed to economic or military “hard” power. Anyone looking to do a deep dive into this side of things is well advised to check out Ben Judkin’s excellent Kung Fu Tea at https://chinesemartialstudies.com/ – full disclosure time: I have contributed articles myself.
So are the Chinese authorities and associated parties looking to keep the classical martial arts alive by emphasising the health benefits of internal arts while also playing up the martial elements in competitive events? That way, the sports side of things which would revolve around Gong Shou Dao would supposedly make sure that the martial parts of Tai Chi are kept alive and in the public consciousness. It certainly looks like that is the plan, although this has been going on for some time now, and not always with much success. Anyone who watches mixed martial arts programs will notice how few Kung Fu practitioners are involved, and the most famous one is quite possibly Xu Xiaodong; a man who spends his time fighting proponents of classical styles, often with messy – always one sided – results.
There is definitely a Taoist slant to things taking place here. It seems that the softer part of Tai Chi, with it’s focus on balance, breathing and yielding, has long held sway over the more forceful, combative side and now there appears to be an attempt to balance the two out. I would drop an image of the yin yang symbol in here, but I’m sure you’ve already got the point. The danger is that the two become separate and go their different ways, with students having to pick either classes focused on form practice, Qigong exercises and learning the background of the art, or fight training classes dedicated to rigorous push hands training. The latter of these sounds much like a Wushu class, and many martial arts instructors and masters have spoken out how this ends up with lots of students performing amazing acrobatic moves but with little practical experience or ability. Ironically enough, Jet Li has been one of these outspoken masters, so it will be interesting to see how he views the direction of Gong Shou Dao in years to come.
One person cannot force a tradition onto others with just a fancy movie and some big stars.
Whether or not Gong Shou Dao actually takes off or merely becomes an odd (yet entertaining) footnote in the history of Tai Chi is a question that has yet to be answered. As wealthy and important as Jack Ma is, one person cannot force a tradition onto others with just a fancy movie and some big stars name checking him, but this could be a viable way of reinvigorating the “Tai Chi brand” to use modern terms. And while this means that there is the danger of certain parts of it being abandoned or forgotten because they’re not trendy enough, hopefully laypeople will become as familiar with Tai Chi as a martial art as much as a holistic health practice. Any news is good news, as they say!
That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.