Huo Yuanjia

Huo Yuanjia was born in 1868 in Xiaonan Village, Jinghai County, Tianjin, and was the fourth of ten children. His father Huo Endi was a guard for merchant caravans traveling to and from Manchuria, though the family derived most of its income from farming. The Huo family had long been associated with Chinese martial arts. Huo Yuanjia, however, was born weak and prone to illness. When he was young he contracted jaundice, a condition that recurred periodically throughout his life, so his father refused to teach him wushu.

Because of his weakness, Huo Endi wanted his son to pursue scholarly interests instead of learning traditional martial arts. This was perhaps a blessing, as in later life he became renowned for his humility and educated judgment. However, at the time, pursuing scholarly interests was a great blow to his pride which was also fuelled by the fact that, when he was twelve, he often got defeated by local eight and nine year old children. His father hired a teacher from Japan, Chen Seng Ho (Chiang Ho), who in exchange for being taught his family style of martial arts 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 guard. While escorting a group of monks, they were confronted by a bandit leader 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 fame. On his return home he sold firewood to make a living, and in 1896 Huo worked as a porter in the Tianjin Huaiqing pharmacy, where he learned more about the world. The shop owner, who was also a doctor, had recently returned from Japan and warned him about the growing threat Japan posed towards China. The Boxer Rebellion of 1898 helped accentuate his growing realization that China was being exploited by foreign powers, both Western and Asian.

Huo Yuanjia's real fame came when, in 1901, he responded to leaflets advertising a challenge by a wrestler from Russia in Xiyuan Park, where Huo Yuanjia had already won many victories. The wrestler had openly insulted the Chinese, calling them "Sick Men of Asia" and "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. After losing, he said through an interpreter that he was merely putting on a performance and that he had to make such challenges in order to make a living. Huo Yuanjia then asked the Russian if he would write an apology for the newspaper, which the Russian reportedly complied with.

Between 1909 and 1910, Huo Yuanjia, accompanied by his apprentices Liu Zheng Sheng and Zhang Wenda, traveled to Shanghai to accept an open challenge issued by a boxer from Britain named Hercules O'Brien (Ou-Pin). The match was preceded by disagreement over the rules by which it would be governed. O'Brien insisted on Western boxing rules limiting attacks to punches above the waist. Huo Yuanjia was more accustomed to the rules of Chinese Leitai challenge matches which lacked such restrictions. They finally agreed that the first person to knock down his opponent would be considered the winner. Huo defeated O'Brien easily and his fame spread. It might be suggested, however, that it was not such an admirable feat for a professional wushu master with over 25 years training to be able to beat an amateur boxer about who's level of skill nothing is known.

Zhang Wen Dat continued to challenge him. Huo Yuanjia felt that he had no choice but to finally accept his challenge and fight. He defeated Zhang with just two moves. Huo said to Zhang Wen Dat that he had not learned how to behave humbly and should not display conceit or boastfulness. Huo told him that the reason he had lost was not due to a lack of skill, but rather due to the fact that he fought for revenge and not to improve himself spiritually. His disappointment in people like Zhang Wen Dat, and his realization that the use of new technology like firearms was growing, led Huo Yuanjia to debate the practical uses of traditional wushu. Nevertheless, what Huo Yuanjia did give to some Chinese people was hope and a revised sense of pride with his numerous victories over foreign fighters. However, the foreign fighers may not have been of very high standard. Nevertheless, Huo became known as one of the best martial arts fighters in China at that time.

While conversing with close friend Nong Jinsun, Huo Yuanjia confessed his disappointment and his apprehension about the future of traditional Wushu. He recalled his younger years and what his tutor said to him, that people should do their best, in practice, physically and mentally, therefore improving themselves spiritually. Nong Jinsun agreed that this was and is a timeless and important aspect of traditional Wushu, regardless of technology or unscrupulous people. Huo Yuanjia thought that the teaching of traditional Wushu would be a good way to rebuild the confidence and the spirit of the Chinese people.

Huo Yuanjia needed to disguise the fact that his school was for the learning of self-defense, the building up of health and mind, and the instilling of pride and patriotism into its members and the community. He thus opened it as a "physical training center" instead of calling it a "traditional wushu school" in order to shroud its main intentions by supporting all physical exercises and activities. The popularity of Huo Yuanjia and what he stood for was obvious from the number of members who joined the club at the outset. Chin Woo became very popular, and in its first summer its ranks swelled dramatically.

Huo Yuanjia, still suffering bouts of jaundice and now tuberculosis, started seeing a Japanese doctor for medication and treatment. With his strength and speed improving, Huo Yuanjia's impressive reputation became known in the Japanese martial arts schools. Huo's doctor, a member of the Japanese judo Association, based in Shanghai, invited him to a competition.

Huo Yuanjia's top student, Liu Zheng Shen, competed with a judo practitioner. The Japanese claimed their student won the match, while the Chinese claimed their student had won. It is not clear, however, what kind of match this was. The disagreement ended up in a brawl and ten members of the judo team were injured, some with broken fingers and hands,including the chief instructor. News that the judo team had been defeated by Huo Yuanjia spread quickly through Shanghai. Embarrassed by the news, the Japanese government ordered the judoteam and Huo's doctor to return to Japan. One might wonder, though, why judo players even imagined that they could fight a highly experienced wushu master since judo is a sport not a martial art. Yuanjia became seriously ill and passed away on August 9th, 1910 at 42 years of age (some say he died the 14th of September 1910). Huo Yuanjia was survived by three sonsand two daughters. Huo's father lived for seven years after Huo Yuanjia's death.

When and how he died is still debated and is shrouded in mystery. It is rumored that he had been poisoned by the Japanese as revenge for their defeat during the Judo competition but this is speculation. Some people believe that Huo Yuanjia may have died due to incorrect changes made to his medicine and incorrect treatment by his new Chinese doctor. Others speculate that the European colonists were threatened by the rise of Chinese nationalism and had him poisoned. Some of Huo Yuanjia students including the historian Chen Gong Zhe ( 陳公哲 1890-1961) believed and wrote that he was poisoned by the Japanese doctor Akino who was introduced by the Japanese Judo instructor, 精武 年武術發展史 '50 Years History of Wu Shu Development at Jing Wu', published in 1957). He was admitted to Shanghai Red Cross Hospital and died 2 weeks later. His students Zhang Wen Da (張文達) and Chen Gong Zhe (陳公哲) took the medicine to the Shanghai Public Concession Hospital to be tested and the results confirmed that the medicine contained arsenic.

In 1989 the tomb of Huo Yuanjia and his wife was relocated; his pelvic bones were discovered to show black spots which Tianjin Municipal Police laboratory confirmed to contain arsenic.
Huo Yuanjia died only months after helping to found the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Because Huo Yuanjia was widely admired as a Chinese national hero, a series of other masters agreed to teach at the school including Eagle Claw master Chen Zizheng, praying mantis luo guangyu, xingyi master geng xiaguang, Wu Jianquan the founder of Wu Taijiquan, and Liu Bai-Chuan the famous master of Lohan Chuan. Due to Huo Yuanjia's popularity, the masters decided that he should be the "face" of Chin Woo, resulting in his strong association with it. In June 1910, the Eastern Times newspaper announced the establishment of this association in the name of Huo Yuanjia. It was the first civil Kung Fu organization in China that was not associated with a particular school or style. 

Expansion of Chin Woo

During the Japanese sphere of influence the 21 Demands sent to the Chinese government resulted in two treaties with Japan on May 25, 1915, which separated the corrupt Manchurian ruling class from exercising control over the Han. The students of Huo were spurred on. They bought a new building and renamed it the "Chin Woo Athletic Association". Re-organization, publications of books and magazines, and new styles of martial arts other than what Huo taught, were accepted under the mantle of the new association, and in 1918 the Chin Woo opened an association in Nathan Road in Hong Kong.

In July 1919 the Chin Woo Association sent five representatives to Southeast Asia  to expand its activities overseas. They were Chen Gong Zhe, Li Hui Sheng, Luo Xiao Ao, Chen Shi Zhao, and Ye Shu Tian. They stopped first in Saigon Vietnam where they opened the first Chin Woo school outside China and later in Malaysia and Singapore. To prove their skills, they were often required to give demonstrations or accept challenges. By 1923, these five masters had opened schools all over Southeast Asia and visited nine different countries.

Shut down by the government of the People's Republic of China in 1966, the Chin Woo Association was allowed to re-open in 1976 after the Cultural Revolution, and currently has more than 150 branches around the world including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Poland, Canada, U.K., U.S.A., Australia, and Switzerland.

It is so well known that actors such as Bruce Lee and Jet Li starred in movies connected with Huo's life and achievements; although, the films are not entirely accurate. For example, Huo's father did not die before him - he lived for seven years after Huo Yuanjia's death. Huo Yuanjia was survived by three sons and two daughters.