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Meet the Chinese MMA Fighter Taking on the Grandmasters of Kung Fu

Fighters aren’t usually the blushing type. But Xu Xiaodong can’t hide his embarrassment when asked about his latest battle scar, a three-inch crimson railroad track that snakes over his right eyebrow. It was caused, he says, by an overzealous opponent’s knee at a recent training session, during which Xu grappled with four younger mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighters in quick succession. “I was tired by the end and bam!” Xu tells TIME in his Beijing gym. “Twenty-six stitches!”

It’s by far the most obvious of the 40-year-old’s war wounds, eclipsing even cauliflower ears and a catalog of creaking bones. But it’s nowhere near the deepest. Xu has spent a lifetime fighting, first at school and later channeling a red-hot adolescent temper into competitive MMA. But the fiercest blows he suffered were far from the ring, when he took on practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts, known officially as wushu but more colloquially as simply kung fu.

The dispute started with an argument on social media. Xu wanted Wei Lei, a kung fu master in the discipline of tai chi, to account for the outlandish powers he claimed to possess. Wei boasted of using an invisible force field to keep a dove on his hand, and pulverizing a watermelon’s innards without damaging its skin. The idea that masters of kung fu achieve mystical skills is widely accepted in China; Wei is just one of many making such claims. Xu believes this “fake kung fu” sullies true martial arts. The online quarrel escalated, and before long Xu and Wei were facing off in a basement in the central Chinese city of Chengdu for a bare-knuckle match. Xu says he only wanted to open people’s eyes, but the bout was billed as East vs. West, the master of a hallowed tradition vs. an alien upstart.

In the video of the April 27, 2017, bout that later went viral on social media, Xu takes a standard MMA striking pose. Wei shuffles to and fro with both arms raised like a praying mantis. After sizing each other up for a few seconds, Xu advances, furiously hurling punches at Wei’s head. The tai chi master instantly tumbles onto the checkerboard matting. Xu leaps forward and rains down blows on his opponent until the referee stops the fight. Victory had taken 20 seconds.

The bout left Xu with barely a scratch but a life in tatters. The video quickly became a viral sensation on China’s social-media platforms. Online trolls accused Xu of humiliating traditional Chinese culture, and he found he was banned from social media. The Chinese Wushu Association condemned the “suspected illegal actions that violate the morals of martial arts.” He and his family received death threats.

Many wanted a rematch. One aggrieved Chinese entrepreneur offered $ 1.45 million to any fighter who could defeat Xu. Other tai chi practitioners began challenging Xu both online and in person, setting up camp outside the MMA gym in Beijing that he manages. Some brazenly wandered in to pick fights.

Xu insists his aim was not to disparage Chinese martial arts, but to show that what is often sold as a powerful fighting skill is useless in actual close combat situations. But his efforts were framed by his critics as placing the Western culture of MMA above cherished Eastern traditions–a perfidious sin in an increasingly nationalist China. President Xi Jinping has made reviving traditional Chinese culture a signature policy, deploying kung fu to boost the nation’s “soft power” overseas. Now, here was a man apparently dedicated to exposing it as a fraud.

“A lot of people have been brainwashed by these fake kung fu masters,” says Xu, who broke his silence to talk to TIME. “I’m trying to wake them up and let them know what real traditional kung fu actually is.”

 

The supposedly 4,000-year-old roots of kung fu can still be glimpsed in China’s Henan province, home of the fearsome fighting monks of Shaolin Buddhism. Dating from A.D. 495, the Shaolin temple is perched on the west side of the forested Mount Songshan, one of China’s so-called five Sacred Mountains.

According to legend, the monastery’s fighting prowess evolved from perfecting household chores like sweeping, fetching buckets of river water and collecting firewood. Feuding warlords would eagerly petition the warrior monks’ help for their bloody campaigns. Even after the Shaolin temple was routed for subversive activities during the Qing dynasty, its influence spread as its monastic diaspora journeyed across the Middle Kingdom and as far as Japan.

Today, life inside the temple begins before daybreak, when the hundred resident monks shuffle into the central shrine to perform a 5 a.m. ritual. Kneeling before golden statues of the Buddha, they chant melodic rites accented by drum and cymbal, beneath bronze effigies of the order’s iconic warrior brethren.

Later, the tourists arrive and the monks get to work. Novices put on kung fu shows where they tumble through the air, shatter metal bars over skulls and bend wooden spears with throats. Lithe performers adopt animalistic fighting styles, like monkey, leopard and leaping bullfrog. The reputation of the Shaolin monks has traveled far and wide; organizations using its name are all across China and the world. There are now around 140 Shaolin schools in 70 nations, according to local media.

In the U.S. kung fu entered the culture in the 1960s and ’70s, partly due to Bruce Lee, the U.S.-born actor and martial artist who starred in cult movies Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury. His popularity helped pave the way for actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li to turn kung fu expertise into Hollywood stardom. In the 1990s, hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan littered their music with references to the Shaolin temple and samples from Chinese kung fu movies.

But kung fu’s cultural reputation has taken a battering with the rise of MMA, and in particular the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The first UFC tournament in 1993 was billed as pitting different martial art styles against one another, featuring experts in kung fu, karate, wrestling and even sumo. In the end, Brazilian jujitsu reigned supreme.

A quarter of a century later, MMA rivals boxing in global popularity, augmented by the booming celebrity of stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. Many fans prefer the intensity of the format and stripped-down rules. Brazilian jujitsu, Thai kickboxing and wrestling remain the pillars of MMA fighting. The fluid acrobatics of wushu barely feature.

In China, kung fu remains a powerful draw. A study by Chinese Internet giant NetEase estimated the wushu industry’s worth at billions of dollars, including film, television, education, tourism and retail. Its official association boasts of 2 million full-time students at 12,000 academies. But MMA is catching up, with several rival promotions vying for supremacy. When Canadian MMA fighter Vaughn “Blud” Anderson moved to Beijing in 2008, there were maybe five MMA contests all year. Now there can be 10 in a weekend. “It’s growing faster here than anywhere else in the world,” he says.

Shaolin temple abbot Shi Yong Xin tells TIME kung fu can’t be compared to MMA because its true essence is spiritual rather than simply physical, bringing not superpowers but inner peace. But many people in China still give credence to the idea that the most skilled practitioners have supernatural abilities, and there’s no shortage of self-styled masters willing to go along with the ruse. A quick glance on YouTube reveals kung fu masters with claims of telekinesis and “shamanic dances that open up other realms of existence.” Some make money by promising to train others, and many have passionate disciples; the defeated Wei, for example, has 94,000 followers on China’s Twitter-like microblog Weibo.

The Shaolin temple itself is not free of commercialization. As the monks practice before rapt audiences, hawkers brandish DVDs. Shi himself has a gold-embossed business card with no less than three QR codes on it. But he says crooked kung fu practitioners and teachers often use the temple’s name without permission. “I had one worker who wasn’t even a monk but quit and started his own Shaolin school,” he says bitterly.

So Shi backs Xu’s campaign to rid kung fu of deceptive practitioners, like the female tai chi master who claims she can repel 12 opponents without using her hands. “He’s a good guy, even though he’s a totally amateur MMA fighter,” Shi says, before quipping to a fellow monk that “a hundred people in Henan province alone” could defeat Xu. But overall, concedes the abbot, “Xu is doing the right thing by fighting fake kung fu.”

Xu’s battle is increasingly a lonely one, however, as the Chinese government is weaponizing kung fu for its own propaganda purposes. This year, the Shaolin temple controversially flew the Chinese national flag for the first time, illustrating its “patriotic” credentials under the auspices of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong–born actor among the most beloved icons in kung fu, became a political adviser to the party in 2013 and now regularly appears on its behalf.

In this context, it’s easy to see why Xu weathered such a backlash. His mission to expose unscrupulous kung fu masters was a threat to the cultural outreach of the CCP. The idea that kung fu is unique, with perhaps otherworldly elements, gives it popular currency that sets it apart from Western combat skills. “Everybody thinks that in Shaolin there’s some secret knowledge that nobody wants to teach to others, especially the ‘evil foreigners,’” says Marta Neskovic, 26, a Serbian doctorate student who’s training at the temple for her fieldwork on Shaolin kung fu.

Even veterans of other forms of pugilism believe. “I know Chinese MMA fighters who believe there are kung fu experts who live in mountain caves and can disappear and reappear at will,” says Anderson. He suspects ancient kung fu morphed toward the cabalistic because modern weaponry was making hand-to-hand combat less relevant. “It just isn’t efficient as a form of full-contact combat with a resisting opponent,” he says. “Bullfrog kung fu cannot be what defended the empire.”

 

Proving that to nationalistic Chinese will be difficult, but Xu has dedicated himself to trying. After his defeat of Wei, police stopped a second bout against tai chi master Ma Baoguo, and the mounting opprobrium forced Xu to retreat from public gaze.

Yet he can claim a partial success. In November 2017, China’s General Administration of Sport issued a directive apparently in response to Xu’s bout with Wei, clamping down on self-appointed masters and demanding practitioners “build correct values about martial arts.” But it also banned unauthorized fights, in a bid to stifle debate about the relative merits of traditional and modern martial arts. On Nov. 5, Xu heard he was barred “indefinitely” from organizing tournaments for fighters at his gym.

Nevertheless, Xu is continuing his personal campaign. In April, he fought and defeated kung fu master Ding Hao in under two minutes, and he’s planning another bout against what he says will be three “top, top” kung fu masters in a single day. He hopes that each victory will stifle his dissenters and restore normality to his life. Defeat isn’t an option, he says. “I cut their way of making money by exposing them,” he says. “So I cannot stop, as then the whole weight of pressure will come crushing down on me. I have no choice but to keep on fighting.”

–With reporting by ZHANG CHI/BEIJING

This appears in the November 19, 2018 issue of TIME.
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Meet Clive Sefton, the Brighton based artist hosting November’s artrepublic Kids Club

We asked the local creative to puzzle out a few of our questions.

The first crossword puzzle was designed by Arthur Wynne and printed in the New York World in 1913, the earliest word search is credited to Spanish puzzle maker Pedro Ocon de Oro in the first half of the 20th century and Sudoku… well that’s got a non-Japanese heritage that goes back far further than the early Noughties brain-training craze. Graphic artist Clive Sefton has created his own play on the soup of letters – the original name for a word search – and it’s one that has the ability to ignite a similar warm, glowy feeling to the one you get after completing an energising workout. We’ll let the artist himself explain that one. As he prepares to host the November artrepublic Kids Club, we caught up with Sefton to talk typography, noticing hidden details, the challenges of long words and all things puzzle-based.

Brighton Word Search by Clive Sefton

 

Word searches, mazes, diamond hunts – all of your artworks are highly structured finished pieces, but also playful starting points. Is there a hidden life lesson in here for us?!

With a background in graphic design, I like clean, minimal design and good use of white space. I also enjoy artwork that people can interact with and that brings a smile to their faces. In creating my work I’ve discovered that finding a word or the correct path through a maze releases dopamine, the reward chemical, so people actually feel better for looking at my work!

With ‘One In A Million’, I love how people can view it so differently. Some people spend ages looking for the diamond, some people almost don’t care where the diamond is, and some people are more interested in the process or how much the diamond cost…!

Speaking of ‘One in a Million’ – how do you decide where to place each diamond? Is it random or incredibly specific?

I place the diamond in a random place in each one, though can position it in a specific place in a commissioned piece. This might be the coordinates of a geographic location or relate to a specific date. Only the person who owns the piece has the coordinates of where the diamond is hidden.

While we’re on the topic of pathways and finding things, can you talk us through your route to becoming a full-time artist?

I did a silkscreen printing course with Jane Sampson. Initially I was printing pictures of prawns and crabs but in exploring what I am interested in, specifically typography and ‘accessible’ artwork, the first ‘Brighton Word Search’ came about.

I did the course just after reading ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter so, as well as really enjoying doing the course, I did have this thought in the back of my mind about how good it would be to be able to make back the money that I had spent on it. The difficulty is taking the step to show your work to people you don’t know, as it’s only then that you can tell if people want to buy it.

We’re lucky in Brighton: we have so many opportunities to show our work with little cost up front, and there are so many artists and art buyers around. I first exhibited the Brighton Word Search in an Artists Open House and as well as selling all of the edition, I received my first commission.

Since then I’ve learnt so much and created different work, but I’m still creating Word Search pieces for people of all ages, and across the world.

Your images encourage people to deeply engage with the artwork – to hunt out the details or hidden pieces. What do you find yourself focusing on or looking at closely in art or life?

I love finding faces and animals in everyday life, apparently a phenomenon known as pareidolia. I had an idea a few years ago based on creating images from discarded chewing gum but that hasn’t quite seen the light of day… I also love repeating patterns and grids, whether it be lines on shutters, flyers posted on a wall or even just a sheet of labels!

On the flipside of that, are there any things you avoid focusing on at all costs?

I’m a bit of a perfectionist so many ideas get parked if it’s not quite right.

The longest word in the dictionary is 45 letters long (and a bit of a misery, as it goes) – how big would one of your word searches have to be to hide that monster?! And would you want to work on that scale?

I must admit I had to look up what the word is! A square piece with Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis it would require over 2000 letters in the complete piece – not too much of a problem for a print, but quite a bit of time to make using fridge magnets.

What is the most complex piece you’ve worked on to date? And can you give us any hints at upcoming projects we might want to look out for?

I’ve just created another word search commission using fridge magnets, which I really enjoyed making. I’m also working on another edition of ‘One In A Million’ as the original was so well received.

Finally, you’re hosting the artrepublic Kids Club in November. As a kid, what was your favourite activity and has it ever come into play in your work as an adult?

I used to really enjoy making small FIMO models that I sold to craft shops for window displays, usually in return for free FIMO!

 

Find out how your little ones can join in with the artrepublic Kids Club.

 

For more news stories and events visit our Brighton Gallery page.

The post Meet Clive Sefton, the Brighton based artist hosting November’s artrepublic Kids Club appeared first on artrepublic blog.

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Meet the Photographer Who Caught Bob Dylan in His Prime

Courtesy Jerry Schatzberg

A creative career that arcs from accomplished photographer to celebrated filmmaker is hardly unique. Robert Frank, Chris Marker, and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few, all began as still photographers and then made the leap to moviemaking. But few artists have left as indelible a mark on both pursuits as Jerry Schatzberg. In the ’60s, he photographed cultural icons—Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick, Fidel Castro—for magazines like Esquire, Vogue, McCall’s, and LIFE. In the ’70s, his earliest movies—Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970, with Faye Dunaway), The Panic in Needle Park (1971, with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who won Best Actress at Cannes), and Scarecrow (1973, with Pacino and Gene Hackman; Palme d’Or at Cannes)—would become touchstones of a fraught era.

But for sheer, sustained excellence, Schatzberg’s portraits of Bob Dylan stand alone. In an 18-month supernova of creative energy, from early 1965 through mid-1966, Dylan recorded and released three of the most influential albums ever made: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Schatzberg met Dylan in the midst of that astonishing run, during the Highway 61 sessions in New York in ’65, and photographed him through ’66. (The famous, out-of-focus portrait gracing the cover of Blonde on Blonde is Schatzberg’s.)

A beautiful new book, Dylan by Schatzberg (ACC Art Books), brims with the best of those pictures. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the 91-year-old Bronx native discusses the rewards and challenges of working with Dylan, the real story behind that Blonde on Blonde picture, and making peace with his own fame—or lack of it. The interview, conducted by phone and at the Upper West Side apartment where Schatzberg has lived for five decades, has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. — BC

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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Meet the Film Director Putting the Spotlight on Human Trafficking

Adisa Septuri is an award-winning director, producer, and philanthropist with a track record of putting the spotlight on traumatizing events and social injustices around the world. In 2009 he produced A Day Without Mines, a documentary on child miners in the Kono District of Sierra Leone. “I was in Sierra Leone as part of a film crew to capture something completely different but as fate would have it, I was exposed to the child miners,” said Septuri. While over there, I contracted the deadly Hanta Virus and nearly died over there as a result of it. After being hospitalized for several weeks on life support, I survived that incredible ordeal. While barely clinging onto life, I remember thinking in my darkest moments of the children that I met there and their innocent faces that gleamed with brightness when I gave them a soccer ball to kick around. It was those memories of children laughing and playing in Sierra Leone that pulled me through that ordeal, leaving doctors to refer to me surviving as nothing short of a miracle.” A Day Without Mines won Best Short Documentary at the Beverly Hills Film, TV & New Media Festival. It was also showcased on The National Black Programming Consortium, an affiliate of PBS.

The traumatic effects of babies born addicted to drugs are another issue Septuri has captured through the film. Now, with his recently released film Skin In the Game, he’s activating change by shedding light on human trafficking another topic affecting millions of people in the United States. While human trafficking is often thought of as something that happens overseas, a quick Google search tells a different story. Recently, Wisconsin and Tennessee have shown a spike in human trafficking and according to FBI statistics, Atlanta ranks among the top 14 cities in the United States for domestic minor sex trafficking.

Skin in the Game stars Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse, In Contempt) and is produced by Howard Barish and Kandoo Films, the production company behind 2017 Oscar-nominated, and BAFTA award-winning Netflix documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay. We caught up with Septuri to learn more about his career.

Where does your passion for putting the spotlight on traumatizing events and topics come from?

Although my parents were divorced, my brother, sister, and I had plenty of everything we needed—love, security, and a solid foundation. But growing up in West Oakland, I was surrounded by kids that were not as fortunate—kids that wore second-hand clothes, went to bed hungry or stole because they were trying to survive, so I kind of grew empathetic toward them. I always felt the pull to help and also wanting to be accepted played a big part. I would literally give someone the shirt off my back if they needed it. I saw so much at an early age that children always held a special place in my heart and that passion just continued to grow as I got older. So for me, vulnerable children are a top priority. I am drawn to their stories in a way that I can somehow help or shed light on or activate change.

Human trafficking came to my attention a few years ago and I have a deep compassion for the victims, which are mainly children. Again, I wanted to activate change, so I developed a script and directed a feature called Skin in the Game. I keep a healthy optimism. My work, although reflecting harsh realities, always leans on posting a vision of a future that can be shaped and altered.

Children don’t have many choices and it’s up to us as adults to assist them and give them the safety I felt as a child. So I guess I get it from my parents in that they blanketed and protected me, which is what I am continuously striving to do with them in my work and in my life.

What are the key messages that you want people to take away debut feature film Skin in the Game?

Human trafficking is a worldwide epidemic. It denigrates woman and makes us less than human. It destroys lives, families, and robs us of any hope for a future. The internet has grown so fast and so wide that predators, traffickers, and pimps are using it to recruit our children. They have all types of manipulative ploys such as “sexting,” which has to do with a young person sending a nude picture of herself or himself to them thinking they are sending it to a newfound love only to have that other person threaten to show it to their family, church, or friends if they don’t comply and many children fall victim to this type of manipulation. The threat is real and lasting and could happen to anyone of us or anyone we might know.

And just like our protagonist in the film Lena, who used to be an ex-prostitute and now rescues girls caught up in prostitution, never give up on our children. Lena may rescue a dozen girls and because of brainwashing, the girls often go back to their pimp, but Lena never surrenders her faith and belief in them. It can be an endless cycle, so try to always instill positivity in our young people and a sense that they are great and no matter what happens, we won’t give up on them.

The post Meet the Film Director Putting the Spotlight on Human Trafficking appeared first on Black Enterprise.

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