May 15 2017

MMA vs Wushu – A Fight Between Reality and Fantasy

MMAvsWushuWhen magic and fantasy come up against hard reality, reality wins. One clear demonstration of this are literal fights between fantasy and reality.

There are now multiple videos online of fights between mixed martial arts fighters (MMA) and various forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. They all go the same way – the MMA fighters demolish the traditional fighters in seconds.

At the extreme end of the traditional fighters are the chi masters. They claim that they can channel their magical life force, chi, to weaken, block, and even incapacitate their foes. The first part of this video shows a chi master in action. You can see how apparently effective chi is against indoctrinated students (who have “drunk the dojo koolaid”). In the second half of the video you can see how spectacularly ineffective chi is against an MMA fighter.

In a similar recent competition, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong had an open challenge to any traditional fighter, and Wei Lei, a practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi, accepted his challenge. The fight went like all the others- Wei Lei was crushed in 10 seconds.

This result was entirely predictable. What is more interesting is the response of the traditional martial arts community and the broader Chinese population. They essentially got mad at Xu for pointing out reality to them. The Chinese Wushu Association posted a statement saying the fight “violates the morals of martial arts.” Xu has had to go into hiding because of the backlash against him.

Martial Arts and Culture

At the core of the resulting controversy is the question – what are the traditional Chinese martial arts? This is a complex question. Bruce Lee is credited with popularizing Kung Fu outside of China, and as a teenager I was big fan of Bruce Lee and martial arts. At least to American fans, Kung Fu, Karate, Tae Kwon do, and similar styles were about effective fighting. They were techniques for mostly unarmed fighting, and were taught for sport but also for self-defense.

Bruce Lee conveyed this also. In his movies you do not see the fantastical magic of chi masters, standing on a reed, flying through the air, or using magic to take down enemies. Lee was certainly theatrical, but he displayed physical fighting skill, not magic.

In fact Lee himself criticized the overly ritualized forms in traditional martial arts and created his own style, Jeet Kune Do, which was an attempt to strip martial arts of wasted motion and ritual, and to distill it down to effective unarmed combat.

That is also the goal of MMA, to borrow effective fighting techniques from the various martial arts, and to discard ineffective rituals based on tradition. MMA is essentially evidence-based martial arts, separating itself from tradition and magical thinking and using only what works.

Isreali Krav Maga is another fighting style that did essentially the same thing – borrow from various styles to create an effective and efficient (and deadly) fighting style for the military.

These evidence-based martial arts are gaining in popularity, because they work. It is also very easy to tell which fighting style is more effective when you have a direct head-to-head competition. When you see an MMA fighter pummel a chi master into the ground in seconds, the outcome is obvious and undeniable.

But tradition and culture are sticky things and they don’t die easily. What is fascinating for me are all the parallels between how the defenders of tradition respond when their belief system crashes directly into reality.

The Wushu Association claims that the fight was not “moral.” As far as I can tell, Wei Lei accepted the challenge and knew the rules. What, exactly, was immoral about that?

Defender of tradition have also said that the traditional martial arts are “not a competitive sport.” They are not really about fighting but about a ritualized method for saving face. OK, I can see that there might be a kernel of truth to that. Traditions often evolve over time, taking on new purposes. When old ineffective traditions are replaced by new more effective methods, they sometime don’t go away, they just morph into something softer.

Many alternative medicine treatments, for example, in order to penetrate mainstream medicine institutions, avoid claiming that they treat diseases. They are just touch-feely quality of life interventions. They don’t actually do anything, they just make people feel better.

Traditional martial arts is not really about winning a fight, but rather a stylized way to save face.

The problem is, these defenses are ones of convenience. They are a retreat from any verifiable claims whenever the light of science and evidence is shining. But as soon as the light is taken away, proponents go back to claiming that their treatments treat disease, or chi masters can actually knock out an opponent without touching them.

They try to live in the nebulous gray zone where they can make claims, have their fantasy, but then fend off any challenges to evidence with excuses.

Perhaps the most insidious argument, however, is the defense by culture. As the NYT article reports:

“When video of the drubbing went viral, many Chinese were deeply offended by what they saw as an insult to a cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture.”

That is the exact same response when science shows that acupuncture points don’t exist and acupuncture doesn’t work. That is probably why 100% of acupuncture studies coming out of China are positive, because a negative study would be an insult to Chinese culture.

The core problem here is when a belief system (whether cultural, ideological, or religious) is used to make an empirical claim, one that is testable by science. Facts then become an insult to the belief system, rather than just facts.

This is a huge problem with alternative medicine. “Indigenous healing systems” are given huge deference because they represent a group’s culture, often a small historically oppressed group. Saying that science does not support the empirical claims made by their traditional culture is portrayed as just another form of oppression.

Rather, I would like to see the development of an international standard (endorsed by the World Health Organization, for example, who currently defers to traditional healing methods) that traditional cultures are entitled to their own beliefs, but not their own facts.

All cultures eventually have to face a time when their traditions butt up against reality. No culture got it exactly right out of the gate, and we still don’t have all the facts and never will. Our collective empirical understanding of reality is constantly evolving. Traditional beliefs should abandon the notion that they have any privileged access to empirical truth, and become part of our collective exploration of reality. There are many aspects of tradition and culture that are not based on factual claims. Traditional beliefs can also be acknowledged as part of a culture’s history and tradition, without maintaining claims that they are factually true.

In my opinion this is a practical, respectful, and mature approach to culture and tradition, which simultaneously acknowledges reality. It is, by contrast, childish to refuse to accept reality. It is also hubris, bordering at times on racism, to claim that your tribe has special privileged knowledge that trumps the collective attempt of human civilization to understand empirical reality.

This conflict is most obvious when dealing with martial arts, because the outcomes are so immediate and unequivocal. The issues, however, or no different when dealing with medicine, history, human origins, or any other empirical claims.

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