As MMA continues its abstract quest for global domination, the UFC is leading the charge into virgin territories from the frontline. For August’s UFC Fight Night 48: Macau card, the UFC brings heavy artillery on its return to the Middle Kingdom. The brash showmanship of Michael Bisping, unorthodox technique of Kung Fu film star Cung Le, explosive offense of Hector Lombard and promise of rising contender Dong Hyun Kim are signs of the UFC’s intent to crack the Chinese MMA market with a strong main event and a co-headliner with significant welterweight title implications.

Returning to the site of its first two forays into China, the UFC revisits Macau, a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China that holds significant autonomy over its economic, social and judicial systems relative to the communist rule over mainland China. The location makes an ideal springboard for the UFC to jump into a Chinese market steeped in martial arts history.

MMA in China, on the surface at least, appears to be a bountiful, untapped resource of over 1.3 billion people. Some of its greatest sporting and cinematic exports have not only excelled in hand-to-hand combat, but redefined the genre. Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, an experimental fighting discipline cited by many as a theatrical precursor to today’s MMA movement, was developed over a glittering career of vintage films including The Kid, Fist of Fury and a showdown with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon.

There is, however, a much deeper narrative to martials arts significance in China. Beneath a thin veil of logic and martial arts history, MMA’s introduction to the Chinese market experienced its share of social, cultural and administrative obstacles, some of which date back to the very inception of martial arts.

Through the next three articles, we will examine martial arts’ role in China’s historic feud between public and private political and economic interests. Using this knowledge, we can see how MMA in the Chinese market is jeopardized by a questionable government regulation of combat sports, the regionalized media landscape, the noticeable absence of an amateur MMA scene and even a minimized sense of national identity.

Martial arts has been a prominent symbol throughout some of China’s most tumultuous periods, particularly in the 20th century. In that time, the system has represented courageous revolutionaries and the order-restoring power of the status quo.

Formal records date Chinese martial arts as far back as 500 BCE, when the Zhou dynasty that preceded Imperial China archived details of hand-to-hand combat techniques in its Spring and Autumn Annals. As the Han dynasty rose in its place and neared the Common Era with a growing land mass and population, people of the region started differentiating between ceremonial martial arts, including sword dances, dance performance and opera, and more practical, weaponless alternatives, including wrestling (Juéli) and Shǒubó (the region’s alternative to Brazilian vale tudo).

By the 1300s, Buddhist sects had embraced unarmed combat across the Ming dynasty, most notably the monks affiliated with the Shaolin Monastery. Different striking and throwing techniques collected under the title of wushu as Shaolin monks became the first group to institutionalize martial arts in China, with dozens of sources attesting to its prominent role in Shaolin monastic life from circa 1664. With wide practice, wushu became a legitimate kung fu—a skill learned through effective teaching and dedicated practice. Its individual techniques, the Quan fa, formed the discipline’s rules—the “laws of the fist.”

The 1899 Boxer Rebellion against foreign Christian forces, including Britain and Russia, inherited its name from the martial arts practice of “Militia United in Righteousness” members, when the activity symbolized nationalistic resilience. By the fall of the final Qing dynasty and creation of the Republic of China in 1912, martial arts’ nationalistic stigma evolved into a sign of national pride.

As the political power system experienced such a significant overhaul, inhabitants became mired in the Chinese Civil War in 1927. Martial arts was promoted by authorities, who backed public teaching, as the foundation to a strong and united nation. With a propaganda agenda, the Republic provided a credible infrastructure for its proclaimed “national art.” Republic of China leaders commissioned training academies like the Guoshu Academy and supported martial arts associations formed throughout the state. This organized and dedicated approach to teaching martial arts would be short-lived.

The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1936 offered less incentive to publicize martial arts as a national pastime. With the Communist Party’s rule consolidated and strengthened, chairman Mao Zedong renamed the state the People’s Republic of China. Zedong’s radical doctrine, suppressive tactics, unsuccessful economic policy and lack of adequate state food reserves prompted martial arts experts to flee the regime. The exodus of talent crippled the influence of independent martial arts schools and the PRC formed the Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports to regulate wushu as a standardized replacement.

By the end of the 20th century, the government agenda for complete state rule had relaxed. In the transition, martial arts was one of the nonessential public assets released from politicized rule. Closure of the PRC’s State Sports Commission saw martial arts return to the private sector for regulation and investment.

With its de-politicization, martial arts experienced an identity crisis. The activity’s focus on self-improvement contradicted the communist doctrines of shared ownership that still persevered in China. Its reputation as a suppressive discipline prompted ill feeling and confusion from a mass audience who could not understand the system’s competitive qualities, hindering its growth outside of the film genre.

In fictional cinema, the popularity of Chinese martial arts saw the rise of the martial arts hero, or Wuxia, film genre. Bruce Lee would pioneer the role in the 1960s using the striking discipline Wing Chun before infusing grappling to develop Jeet Kune Do. Chinese icons like Jackie Chan and five-time national wushu champion Jet Li would carry Lee’s torch into the 21st century, bringing to international cinema audiences such martial arts films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Matrix Trilogy (1999) and Kill Bill (2003).

In reality, sparring disciplines like Chinese kickboxing, sǎnshǒu, and gi-based wrestling, Shuāijiāo, split from one another, while retaining their legitimacy and practicality, to make up the competitive sport side of Chinese martial arts.

Over recent years, a brave few domestic entrepreneurs have used China’s reputation as the birthplace of martial arts to enter and attempt to nurture China’s young MMA market. The highest-profile domestic MMA promotion, Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF), emerged in 2010 when CEO Joel Resnick founded the company. Recognizing martial art’s role in China’s national culture, Resnick used MMA’s shorter, more explosive contests to attract a younger generation of fans conditioned to instant gratification and a shorter attention span from the limitless entertainment options now available at the touch of a button.

Through the different periods of China’s history, martial arts’ function and reputation have changed drastically. In the modern era, martial arts in China had to reassert its identity. While the theatrical side found a home on Hollywood’s global stage, competitive MMA’s path to popular appeal in China is a much more hazardous one.

Next week, in part two, we’ll explore the public obstacles to MMA’s growth in China, focusing on government regulation and the drawbacks of provincial identity across the state.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.