Fearless – Chinese Martial Artist Huo Yuanjia

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Jet Li’s Fearless is a movie about Huo Yuanjia (霍元甲), one of China’s most famous martial artists who lived from 1860 until 1910. Huo Yuanjia is regarded as a hero defending Chinese patriotism and nationalism at a time when Western powers were mocking the country and insulting its people.

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The story of Fearless raised concerns over the liberties taken to tell the real-life story of Huo Yuanjia. One of his descendant, grandson Huo Shoujin, filed a lawsuit against Jet Li to block its distribution, claiming that the movie would destroy his family’s reputation.

Fearless – Real Life, Reel Differences

  • The 4-against-1 fight depicted in the movie’s opening text narrative is not real. Huo Yuanjia did fight foreigners on several different occasions, but not in any one single event organized by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce in an attempt to humiliate the country of China.
  • The movie showed Nong Jinsun as being a lifelong childhood friend who did Huo Yuanjia’s calligraphy homework while Yuanjia practiced his martial arts. In reality, the two didn’t meet until 1890, when Yuanjia was fighting in organized competitions in Tianjin and working a variety of odd jobs for Nong Jinsun (农劲荪), who was a promising young merchant for herbs and Chinese medicines.
  • The entire sequence of events, from Yuanjia exacting revenge on rival master Master Chin, to Master Chin’s godson murdering Yuanjia’s mother and daughter in retaliation, never occurred. In fact, Hua Yuanjia’s great-grandson, Huo Zizheng, has asked for an apology from Jet Li for incorporating a storyline where all of Yuanjia’s family members are killed. In reality, Huo Yuanjia was survived by seven grandsons and 11 great-grandsons.
  • The scenes after the murder of Huo Yuanjia’s family is also fiction. There’s no account of Huo Yuanjia exiling himself from Tianling and being found washed up in a remote village.
  • In the movie, a humbled Huo Yuanjia returns to Tianling after his self-imposed exile and reads about a Westerner, Hercules O’Brien, that has defeated every fighter who’s challenged him. He calls all Chinese “the weak men of the East”. This storyline combines two different historical events. First, it was a Russian wrestler back in 1901 that called the Chinese “the weak men of the East”, and he retracted his statement and backed down from the fight when Huo Yuanjia accepted the challenge. The encounter with Hercules O’Brien occurred between 1909 and 1910, when Huo Yuanjia traveled to Shanghai twice to accept an open challenge. It is uncertain if the fight actually took place when the two finally agreed to the rules of the fight. On some accounts, Huo Yuanjia easily defeated O’Brien to further solidify his reputation, but other sources claim that O’Brien grew to fear Huo Yuanjia’s reputation and opted to leave town so the fight never took place.
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Where Are They Now?

Huo Yunajia was born in 1868 (some sources cite 1867) in Xiaonan Village, Jinghai County, Tianjin, and passed away on August 9th, 1910 at the age of 42 (some sources cite Sept 14th, 1910, while others cite 1909) of arsenic poisoning.

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When Huo Yuanjia’s tomb was relocated in 1989, his pelvic bones showed black spots which the Tianjin Municipal Police laboratory confirmed to contain arsenic.

The truth behind Huo Yuanjia’s death is unclear – it is generally believed that Huo Yuanjia, having earned an impressive reputation within the Japanese Martial Arts schools, was invited to a competition by his doctor, who was a member of a Japanese Judo Association based in Shanghai.

From there, different sources have different accounts on what occurred. The exact details are uncertain, whether Huo Yuanjia was accidentally given the wrong medicine to treat his constant coughing, or an act of revenge by the Japanese Judo Association after challenging, and being defeated by, Huo Yuanjia in a match.

Below are a few websites which detail accounts and other significant events of Huo Yuanjia’s life, including different theories on cause of his death:

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