Two fighters are standing on the high platform looking each other in the eyes firmly holding their weapons, crowd in trans is standing around the platform waiting for a beginning of a match. The fight is ruthless, fighters can be barely seen under a silver screen from the weapons which is moving so fast . At the end one fighter is falling from the platform, with a sword in his chest, he lost a fight and his life.
This is usual scene in many martial movies and it is wildly believed it is true. There are many stories about death matches from the past and as a rule, ancestors who founded particular art won numerous death duels. But is there any truth to this stories or it is just another fictional thing taken from grated from the movies and became a part of “history”?
We know very little about martial arts history before Ching dynasty period .Martial arts were unavailable for common people and were reserved only for military forces. Also martial arts looked quite different from today , focus was on weapon training and fighting in organized groups , empty hands techniques , even if they exist ( mostly no one practiced that ) were rudimentary and used only as an quick introduction and preparation for weapon training. There is a good reason for that situation. Most of people were simple peasants who worked all day in the fields. Agricultural technology was on such a level that relied on manual labor and domestic animals as power source. Also food production was barely sufficient to support basic needs of the population. Famine was regular and a lot of people died from hunger during long Chinese history. It is obvious that majority of population simply had no time nor energy to practice martial arts. Of course, ruling class didn’t want to have their subjects ready and prepared for fighting. Martial art training was reserved for army not only because political reasons but also economical, weapons and equipment were expensive as well as food, living quarters ect. We also have to have in mind that average life span in China was quite short until recent time . It didn’t pass 40 years of age in 1950’s and it was significantly shorter in earlier periods. Spending time on mastering useless skills of empty hands fighting which has no value on battle field was something no one did. People learned what was useful on the field of battle, weapons skills, fighting in organized groups, use of shields and armor ect. In these condition death duels were impossible , there is no army in the world in any given which would allow any kind of duels or challenges , especially not death duels among soldiers ,that would lead to total anarchy and chaos .
Situation in martial arts changed in 19th century significantly. First , fire arms replaced old weapons in Chinese army. Training shifted to new direction and many of the old skills were simply abandoned and forgotten. On social level, although still feudal country China was under great influence of the western culture and old social norms and way life changed gradually in new direction. Martial arts were no longer reserved only for military. Civilians started to practice martial arts and with very specific reason, several groups of people practiced martial arts, bodyguards ,caravan escort ,bounty hunters and police. Of course they also practice mostly with weapons and martial styles were still not defined and formed in the way we know them today. From the middle of the 19th century, old martial styles changed focus and started to develop empty hands techniques. Also martial arts were something like sports cars are today, a sign of social status. Still, martial arts were marginal activity reserved for people who needed them for work and rich people who could afford them. Of course, civilians were not allowed to carry weapons and only people with government permission could carry and use weapons (body guards , bounty hunters …) . So were there any challenge matches or death duels? No, we have no records of such a thing for several reasons. First, these kind of things were forbidden by law and punishments for breaking the law were extremely cruel at the time. Second, people who put their lives on the line in every day work had no need to prove anything , they had a lot of opportunity to test their skills in life threatening situations on daily bases, if someone was stupid enough to challenge these people would probably shot at the spot or simply disappear . No one worked alone and people protected their own, their lives depended on that, challenging one member of the group ( caravan guard companies , bounty hunters or bodyguards groups ) was finger into the eye of the whole group . These kind of jobs were more than often family business and even when they weren’t, these groups operated in way similar to modern organized crime groups, challenging one of the members was something that would not happen lightly. People who practiced martial arts as a sign of social status had no desire to fight especially not to the death, first , they were not professional fighters , they had other occupations and martial arts were just a hobby , and also an opportunity to socialize with the members of the same class, even today , traditional martial clubs on Taiwan are more social clubs than martial training places , so they had no skill nor experience to participate in such a competitions . Second , just like today , people who have enough wealth do not go to fight in the cage , rich people from the past didn’t fight in any challenge matches , they had nothing to gain but they could lose a lot . They could lose their lives, health and if caught they could lose their wealth.
Before Taiping rebellion we have no records of any challenges or death duels. After Taiping rebellion when things settle down, social and political climate changed, martial arts changed and competition started. Competition started because new social establishment came to existence, for the first time in history martial arts schools, in a form we know them today started to operate and some of them gathered a lot of students. Although majority of the people still lived in a very poor condition, more people could earn enough to join martial schools and more people worked better payed and not so physically exhausting jobs. Those famous wooden platforms from Hong Kong action movies were actually competition grounds, something like octagon today. People fought for fame and money. Like every competition, these also had rules and although there were pretty brutal, they were not much different from today’s MMA competitions, even the rules were pretty much the same. Many people got seriously injured but there is no record someone was killed in any of these events.
After fall of the Ching dynasty and establishing the republic martial arts became an important part of social and more important cultural identity of new China. Martial arts were promoted and supported by the government. At this period , martial arts became serious business and like any other business people didn’t choose means to reach their goals. There was a lot of fighting between schools in this period but these fights were not challenge matches by any means but rather street fights where usually several members of one school would beat up a member of the other school , or there were mass street fights between members of different schools. Challenge fights form action moves, where anyone could just walk into the school and challenge a master to the fight never happened, such an action would most likely result in serious beating by the members of the school.
Challenge fights are excellent example how strong is the influence from popular media, Something invented for the entertaining purposes became so popular that people started to believe it is a part of the real history and today very few people would know the actual truth about challenge fights .