Fearless: The Life of Huo Yuanjia

By Jessica Williams

“We are triumphant!” “We are triumphant!” “We are triumphant!” This was the shout of pride and encouragement that filled the room as Hou Yuanjia slowly climbed the stairs to the fighting area where his final opponent of the day was waiting to finish their match. Even though he was suffering from the effects of poisoned tea, he bravely continued for the national pride of China. For years foreign powers had occupied China’s key city but now to further humiliate the Chinese people they began issuing fighting challenges to anyone who was willing to fight. Adding further salt to the wound, they began calling the Chinese the “sick men of Asia” when nobody answered their challenge. One day, out of the blue, Hou Yuanjia accepted the challenge and fought his way into the hearts of the Chinese people and into the pages of history.

The movie Fearless tells the life story of Hou Yuanjia who lived in Tianjin China during the late 1800s and early 1900s. As usual, Hollywood knows how to make a good story even better and more exciting with only about .002% of the facts. Fearless portrays Hou Yuanjia as an only child born to his parents, and his father as the leader of a successful martial arts school. However his father is reluctant to teach his son due to health issues, and he also wants him to focus on academics rather than martial arts; but Hou Yuanjia is stubborn and secretly watches his father and trains to become a great master in order to defeat any and all opponents. Years later when he is an adult, Hou Yuanjia has become the self-proclaimed champion of Tianjin and a local celebrity. One night a young man tells him that he has yet to defeat another local master, and after a series of events Hou kills him in a fight. When he returns home, he is to find that his mother and daughter have been murdered by the master’s godson. In despair, Hou leaves town and wanders throughout the countryside before collapsing near a small village. He ends up staying there, learning patience, the value of hard work, and “stopping to smell the roses.”

After spending a few years in the village, he returns to his home town where he is shocked by the change; it is filled with foreign peoples, from military powers to religious missionaries. After being reunited with two of his previous students he goes to see an old friend in order to ask for money in order to starts answering challenges. His friend sells his very successful restaurant in order to help Hou Yuanjia open the Jinqu Sports Federation where all styles of ‘wushu’ (martial arts) are practiced and where people have a place to strengthen their minds and bodies. After opening the Jingwu Sports Federation, Hou Yuanjia accepts a challenge from the Foreign Chamber of Commerce in which he must defeat four different masters from four different countries. After defeating the first three, the fourth match ends in a draw. As the two fighters are preparing for the next round, Hou Yuanjia drink a cup of poisoned tea and dies from its effects just as he wins the last match for the national pride of China.

Fearless is an exciting story that has you on the edge of your seat for the majority of the movie; it’s such a shame that some of the most exciting and intriguing parts are pure fiction, thought up by the writers of Hollywood to make it more interesting for people with short attention spans.

Hou Yuanjia was born the fourth child out of ten children and due to his frequent illnesses, his father Hou En Di was reluctant to teach him kung fu, forcing the young Hou Yuanjia to watch secretly from the bushes as his father taught others kung fu. While growing up, Hou Yuanjia worked in his hometown of Tianjin selling firewood and later on worked as an assistant at the Tianjin Huaiquing Pharmacy where he met and befriended the owner Nong Jinsun. (In the movie Nong Jinsun owns a successful restaurant rather than a pharmacy). For the next ten years Hou Yuanjia worked and practiced kung fu in secret until he began fighting with his local peers and defeating them. Once his skills were discovered by his parents, his father officially accepted him and taught him all that he knew about kung fu. However, these fights may have been public but not to the extent that they are portrayed in Fearless with death warrants being signed by both parties before each match. Secondly, Hou Yunjia never killed anybody or left his hometown for years before returning to fight his way to fame; that part of the movie is purely fictional. During the time of Hou’s famous fights, the last Chinese Emperor was close to abdicating his throne. As a result, the economic state of China was collapsing and in its weakened state, foreign powers swept in an attempt to sway the now weak Chinese market in favor of their respective countries.

The legend of Hou Yunjia’s foreign fights has been retold both in Asian and American films so many times that it is hard to know where the facts end and where the legend begins. The problem is that not much is actually known about his fights; much could have been a story concocted by the Chinese Media. The turn of the century was a time for pop journalism for both the East and the West when exaggerated stories were the norm and when journalists knew that any story with a racial aspect would add “fuel to the fire”.

Another thing which we are uncertain of is whether or not the “fights” were actual fights rather than a fighting exhibition or “worked matches.” These “worked matches” were scripted and had a predetermined winner and were often associated with gambling and fraud. An exhibition fight had rules but neither fighter was trying to kill the other: they were simply showing their skills and different fighting strategies; all in all, real fights were rare in China. If these fights did happen, then the fighters that fought against Hou Yuanjia had names that made them impossible to trace by historians and difficult to verify. There is only evidence of at least one foreign fight actually taking place; this was between a Russian fighter claiming to be the strongest man in the world and Hou Yuanjia. Hou easily won this match, which is how he became famous.

As for the Jinwu Sports Federation, it does still exist today with branches throughout Asia, Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, as well as a branch in Hawaii. It was started by Hou Yuanjia and his good friend Nong Jinsun as a place where China’s general public could learn the fighting style that he himself practiced. It was not a place for all styles of wushu as the movie would have us believe; however, it does maintain a standard of strong martial arts instructors which Hou himself began with the opening of the school. Sadly the school did close down after Hou’s death for a year but was reopened on March 3, 1910 by Hou’s younger brother and his son.

The biggest controversy surrounding the legend of Hou Yuanjia concerns his death. In the movie, the Foreign Chamber of Commerce, fearing that they might lose to Hou Yuanjia, poison his tea as a “safety measure.” Throughout his life, Hou Yuanjia suffered from health problems (mainly asthma). And during his life he received traces of arsenic which in turn could have lead to his early death at the age of forty one. In the year 1989, the tomb of Hou Yuanjia and his wife was moved; black spots were discovered on Hou’s pelvic bones which were confirmed to be evidence of arsenic. Although this was confirmed by autopsy, we will most likely never know if Hou was maliciously poisoned or if he willingly took the arsenic which was believed by many Chinese to possess healing properties.

The life of Hou Yuanjia has inspired movies and television series throughout China. Even though not much is known about him, that fact hasn’t stopped Hollywood from coming up with ways to fuel legends that already surrounded his life and death. Fearless which was directed by Ronny Yu went on to win Best Action Choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping in the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards as well as the award of best actor for Jet Li and a Film of Merit award in the 13th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. Although this movie is loosely based on historic fact and outlines many issues that are still being debated about, it is an extremely entertaining movie to watch.