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.