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1868 - 1910
Huo Yuanjia was born 1868 in Xiaonan Village in Jinghai County in Tianjin, and his family's primary source of income was from farming. The Huo family had a long tradition of being practitioners of traditional Wushu. Huo Yuanjia, however, was born weak and susceptible to illness (at an early age he contracted jaundice that would recur periodically for the rest of his life) so his father discouraged him from learning traditional Wushu.
Because of his physical deficiencies, Huo En Di wanted his son to pursue scholarly interests instead of learning traditional Wushu. In his later life, Huo Yuanjia became renowned for his humility and educated judgment. However pursuing scholarly interests was a great blow to his ego which was fueled from the constant bullying by younger children during his youth. His father hired a tutor from Japan, Chen Seng Ho (Chiang Ho), who in exchange for being taught his family style of martial arts Mizongyi, taught Yuanjia the values of humility and perseverance. Refusing to accept the vocation his father had chosen for him, Huo Yuanjia hid in bushes and even dug out a small hole in the wall of the training area and secretly observed his father teaching his family's style of martial arts. Each day he quietly sat and watched, and each night he went to a tree grove and practiced secretly with his tutor. This continued for about ten years.
In 1890, a martial artist by the name of Duo came from Henan Province to visit the Huo family. His manner provoked a trial of strength with the boxers of the family. After seeing a demonstration by Yuanjia's elder brother, he was goaded into a fight. Huo Yuanjia’s brother was beaten, but to the family's surprise Yuanjia himself got up and defeated his brother's opponent. His father then officially accepted him and taught his younger son all that he knew. His name started to spread and he soon began defeating neighboring practitioners in local contests. These bouts made Huo Yuanjia famous in his village and the neighboring areas.
Huo Yuanjia began working with his father as a guardian. While escorting a group of monks, they were confronted by a leader of bandits named Zhao who gave them a letter threatening the monks with an attack from his army. Unperturbed, Yuanjia met Zhao's challenge and defeated him, injuring both of the bandit’s arms in the process; his many troops dispersed. Word of this feat spread fast further adding to his growing fame.
Huo Yuanjia's fame came in 1901 when he responded to a challenge advertised by a wrestler from Russia in Xiyuan Park, Tianjin. The wrestler had openly insulted the Chinese, calling them "Sick man of Asia" and the "Weak Men of the East" because no one would accept his challenge to a fight. When Yuanjia accepted his challenge, the Russian who claimed to be the strongest man in the world forfeited. He told Huo Yuanjia that he was merely putting on a performance and that he had to make such challenges in order to make a living. Huo Yuanjia asked the Russian if he would write an apology in the newspaper, which the Russian reportedly obliged.
Between 1909 and 1910 accompanied by his apprentices Liu Zheng Sheng and Zhang Wen Da, he traveled to Shanghai twice to accept an open challenge posed by a boxer from Britain named Hercules O'Brien (Ou-Pin). O'Brien insisted on Western boxing rules limiting attacks to punches above the waist. Huo Yuanjia, on the other hand, was more accustomed to the rules of Chinese Leitai challenge matches, which had a different set of rules. They finally agreed that the first person to knock down his opponent would be considered the winner. However, O'Brien never fought Yuanjia, opting to leave town instead.
The teacher of the bandit whom Huo Yuanjia had defeated on behalf of the monks Zhang Wen Dat, held a month-long competition inviting all contestants in the hope of luring Huo Yuanjia. Zhang Wen Dat contacted Huo Yuanjia and openly challenged him. Huo Yuanjia, feeling ill, allowed his top student Liu Zheng Sheng to meet the challenge. The next day news spread that the fight was a draw. Huo Yuanjia approached Zhang Wen Dat to suggest to end all of this and to "shake hands", but Zhang Wen Dat refused.
Huo Yuanjia felt that he had no choice but to finally accept his challenge and fight. He defeated Zhang with just two moves. Huo told him that the reason why he lost was not due to a lack of skill, but rather he fought for revenge and not for improving himself spiritually. His disappointment in people like Zhang Wen Dat, and his realisation of new technology like firearms, led Huo Yuanjia to debate the practical uses of traditional Wushu.
Nevertheless, what Huo Yuanjia did give to the people of China was hope and a revised sense of pride with his numerous victories over the foreign fighters. He became known as the best martial arts fighter in the world at that time.
Huo Yuanjia died on August 9th, 1910 at 42 years of age (some say he died the 14th of September 1910) of arsenic poisoning. Some accuse the Japanese as revenge for their defeat during the Judo competition. Others speculate that the European colonists may have felt threatened by the rise of Chinese nationalism he represented and had him poisoned.
The 1982 Chinese film Legend of a Fighter has often been cited as the first film to feature the character Huo Yuanjia. It follows him as a young boy whose father refuses to teach him Kung Fu because he perceived Yuanjia to be weak, and undeserving of kung-fu education. His father enlists a Japanese teacher to educate the boy and distract his attention away from fighting, unbeknownst that the new teacher is a Japanese master who shares something in common with the boys branded "weakness". In secret, young Huo Yuanjia trains for eight years until the day arrives when he displays his honed abilities in defense of his ailing father.
The films Fist of Fury (1972) and its remake Fist of Legend (1994) are fictionalised accounts of the events following his death. The main character in all of these films is based upon a student of Huo Yuanjia named Chen Zhen, who was portrayed by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury, and Jet Li in Fist of Legend and the film Fearless (2006) is a fictionalised story based loosely upon the life of Huo Yuanjia, who is played here by Jet Li. In this version of his story, foreign colonisers, seek Huo's defeat in order to destroy Chinese confidence and arrange a competition in which he must fight four of their best fighters in one day. After Huo defeats the first three challengers, his final opponent is Tanaka (Nakamura Shido), a Japanese martial arts expert. In the days prior to the match, the two fighters meet, and while trading philosophies over tea, Huo Yuanjia earns Tanaka's respect. As the final match begins, Tanaka offers to reschedule, believing the fight to be an unfair one. Huo refuses, and their first round is declared a draw. During the break between rounds, Huo's tea is poisoned by a Japanese envoy in cahoots with European colonists. Despite becoming violently ill, Huo manages to continue the fight, and restrains himself from delivering a fatal blow to Tanaka. Nearing death himself, Huo collapses from the effects of the poison, but to the dismay of the foreign organisers, Tanaka and the crowd proclaim Huo Yuanjia the true champion.