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.
The movie begins with a text narrative describing the state of China at the end of the Qing Dynasty, when foreign powers ruled China’s key cities. In Shanghai, the Foreign Chamber of Commerce devised a contest where their four greatest fighters would battle against China’s best fighter. The plan was to humiliate the once proud country.
Huo Yuanjia accepts the challenge on behalf of China and he easily defeats the first three foreign opponents before the movie cuts back in time to his childhood. As a child, Huo Yuanlia’s father refused to teach Huo martial arts because of his asthma and instead, forced his son to focus on academics. Undeterred, Huo practices by himself in secret as a youngster and eventually becomes a formidable fighter. He is determined to be “the Champion of Tianling”. With each victory, Huo Yuanjia’s ego grows as people fall on their knees begging to be his pupil.
One night, Huo Yuanjia’s students return with one pupil in a stretcher, saying that a rival martial arts master, Master Chin, was responsible for the beating. Huo Yuanjia, furious and determined to exact revenge in defense of his reputation, challenges Master Chin to a fight. Yuanjia badly beats Master Chin, so much that Chin dies by the next morning. In retaliation, Master Chin’s godson murders Huo’s mother and daughter before killing himself.
Yuanjia begins to lose his sanity when he discovers that his pupils withheld the truth from him. The reason Yuanjia’s pupil was injured by Master Chin was because that student insulted Master Chin’s concubine, and Master Chin challenged Yuanjia’s pupil to a fight to defend her honor. It was only revealed to Yuanjia by his other pupils after Yuanjia’s family was murdered by Master Chin’s godson. Having caused Master Chin’s death for the wrong reason, plus losing his family in an act of revenge, Yuanjia exiles himself from Tianling. He is found washed up in a remote village, weak and unconscious. There, he slowly recovers mentally and physically and ends up staying for an unknown amount of time. When the village talks about visiting ancestors during the “Day of the Dead”, Huo Yuanjia realizes that he wants to return to Tianling to visit his dead wife and daughter as well.
After his self-imposed exile, a humbled Huo Yuanjia returns to a much different Tianling, one that is overrun with foreigners. He reads about a Westerner, Hercules O’Brien, that has defeated every fighter who’s challenged him and calling all Chinese “the weak men of the East”. Huo Yuanjia challenges O’Brien and near the end of the fight, he saves O’Brien from being killed by spikes on the side of the boxing ring.
Huo Yuanjia’s popularity after that fight enabled him to start a martial arts school with the intention of unifying all martial arts and bringing a sense of pride, cultural identity, and nationalism back to China. This leads up to the 4th and final fight, against the Japanese swordsman/ martial artist Tanaka. In between rounds, the Japanese ambassador switches out Huo Yuanjia’s cup of tea with a poisonous cup. After taking a sip, Huo Yuanjia begins to feel sick during the next round and spits out black liquid after every hit from Tanaka.
Now aware of the scandal, Tanaka offers to end the fight so Huo Yuanjia can go to the hospital to get treated but Huo Yuanjia refuses, knowing that it’s too late and insists that the two keep fighting for the people. After a few more blows, Yuanjia collapses onto the mat. In a show of sportsmanship, Tanaka helps him up, lifts his arms up in the air, and declares Huo as the victor.
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.
- The movie suggests that Yuanjia’s father didn’t teach him martial arts because of an asthma condition, when in reality there were other illnesses (not all documented), including jaundice.
- The movie shows Yuanjia as being obsessed with winning fights and being crowned the “Champion of Tianjin”, and students begging to train under him as their master after every victory. There’s no evidence of this in any documentation.
- The movie also shows Yuanjia owing his friend, Nong Jinsun, a lot of money. After every victory, Yuanjia had a celebratory dinner at his friend’s restaurant and would start a tab that never got settled to pay for the food and drinks of all his disciples. There’s no evidence of this either. It’s not even known if Nong Jinsun owned any restaurants.
- The movie suggests that after Huo Yuanjia defeated O’Brien, he issued a statement that all martial arts should be unified and starts the Jingwu Athletic Society (精武体操学校 later changed to 精武体育会) with the financial backing of his friend, Nong Jinsun. Several different sources do confirm that Huo Yuanjia capitalized on his popularity after the O’Brien challenge to start the school, and that Nong Jinsun was one of his investors.
- Prior to the 4-against-1 challenge, Huo Yuanjia asks his dear friend Nong Jinsun to take over as head of the new Federation because he promised that he would return to the remote village. In reality, Huo’s younger brother, Huo Yuanqing (霍元卿), and Huo Yuanjia’s second son, Huo Dong’ge(霍东阁), inherited the leadership of the Jing Wu Association after Huo passed away.
- In the movie, Huo Yuanjia is poisoned during his last fight with Tanaka, when the Japanese ambassador switches Huo Yuanjia’s cup of tea with a poisonous cup. In reality, there are several different accounts of how he died but none resemble an in-contest poisoning scandal.
- Chinese Martial Arts – Huo Yuanjia
- A Historian’s Review of Jet Le’s Fearless: Who was the real Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲?
- Physical Arts – Huo Yuanjia
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.
Huo Yuanjia was the 4th of 10 children and was born weak and prone to illness; as a result, his father refused to teach him martial arts and instead, focus on scholarly pursuits. Undeterred, he would hide in bushes to observe other students training and practice by himself.
Huo Yuanjia’s first exposed his martial arts talents publicly in 1890, when a martial artist by the name of Du came from Henan Province to visit the Huo family. After a demonstration, Yuanjia’s elder brother was goaded into a fight and beaten. To his family’s surprise, Huo Yuanjia then challenged his brother’s opponent and won. After the victory, Huo Yuanjia’s father officially accepted him as a student and soon thereafter, Huo Yuanjia started to build a reputation in his and neighboring villages.
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: