A month ago, Jet Li stood on an Alibaba stage and spoke honestly to the room.
“As a Global Kung Fu Ambassador and a China Kung Fu Ambassador, I still feel pained that kung fu has yet to enter the Olympics.”
And why shouldn’t he? The past few years have seen a couple major bids to get wushu in as an Olympic program, but they all fizzled out without making the final list. Gong Shou Dao is the next step in the effort to bring some form of kung fu to the world’s biggest sporting event.
It’s a tough problem to tackle. For one thing, every aspect of kung fu seems to encroach on the domain of at least one other Olympic sport. As Jet put it himself in an interview with SixthTone — “use your fists, and people call it boxing; use your legs, and they call it taekwondo; throw your opponent to the floor, and people call it judo. How, in the end, should we codify something as broad as Chinese martial arts? Jack [Ma] and I hope that GSD will at least define it for the purposes of international sport.”
It’s a familiar tune in China — Chinese martial arts already went through this exact process in the ’50s, when Mao tried to standardize and sanitize the practice of traditional kung fu. The results were contemporary wushu — high-flying, performance-based routines with no combat application — and sanda, a full-contact kickboxing style that borrows techniques from traditional kung fu. Neither of the two has ever been held as an Olympic event, so the goal of innovating a new sport altogether, and then getting that into the Olympics, is a lofty one, especially with Olympic combat sports already fighting back against sinking popularity, and with historically-significant events like wrestling already on their last legs.
The fledgling Gong Shou Dao event is made even more mysterious and bizarre by the decision to announce it alongside a kung fu movie starring Jet Li and Jack Ma, also titled Gong Shou Dao. So as Alibaba rakes in billions, and Pharrell performs a song about it, we’re also watching Jet Li and Jack Ma fight bad guys, and unveil what they hope to be a new Olympic event.
We’re still not yet totally clear on the intricacies of the rule system, but there are a few easily identifiable traits. Starting in a tai chi push hands position, two combatants in space pajamas try to throw each other. They can do this by sweeping or flipping the other off his feet, or by removing him from the fighting platform altogether. The option for a ring-out style victory lends a bit of sumo appeal. The platform is the smallest of any combat sport, measuring three meters across in diameter.
So far though, early evidence of competitive GSD has received a mixed response online.
“To be honest, I think this is absolutely great. I would love to see competitive kung fu become a thing. Hard competition and hard sparring are all great things to any martial art sport.” – @demeaningsarcasm
Another commenter is equally positive:
“I like the idea of raised platforms; it gives incentives to pushing, which means people risk unbalancing themselves against forward throws. This is why sumo is so explosive and exciting, while judo is filled with stalling and needs a ton of rules to penalize it.” – @evilsdeath
Other viewers aren’t sold on GSD’s uniqueness, or question the competition as a whole:
“First of all it’s nothing new, it’s the exact same old Chen village competitive push hands with a new packaging. Which is not what Jet Li claimed during his interview regarding GSD. Li claimed this was the upgraded version of tai chi push hands and a level up improvement for traditional tai chi. A lot of people were expecting something new, but the rules and techniques turned out to be exactly the same.” – @mibugenjuro
“Considering the IOC wants to remove wrestling, curious why [Jet Li and Jack Ma] think they’d add another, much more obscure and less practiced combat art.” – @kjhwkejhkhdsfkjhsdkf
Only time will tell what’s in store for our heroes Jet Li and Jack Ma, and what will become of Gong Shou Dao. And stay woke: Alibaba is already the official cloud services provider to the Olympics — the GSD revolution could be closer than we think. Either way, we’ll have all the updates.