Huo Yuan Jia, the founder, was born in 1868, near Tianjin, in Xiaonan village (
). He was the fourth in a family of ten, his father a famous Kung fu practitioner whose job was to guard for merchant caravans travelling to Manchuria and back. His family had a long tradition of being practitioners of Kung fu, and when Huo, who was born weak and susceptible to illness (at an early age contracted yellow jaundice that was to stay with him periodically for the rest of his life), his father forbade him to practice Kung fu incase he tarnished the family by not attaining a high enough standard. So Huo was encouraged to follow scholarly pursuits. This was perhaps a blessing, as he in later life became renowned for his humility and educated judgement, however at the time it was a great hurt to his pride which was only fuelled by his continuously losing wrestling bouts with local eight and nine year old children at the age of twelve.
Refusing to accept his father's word Huo dug out a small hole in the wall of the training area where his father taught his brothers a form of Kung fu called "Labyrinth Style". Each day he quietly sat and watched, and each night he went to a date tree grove and practised secretly. This continued for ten years. In 1890 a stranger came to the house and on seeing a demonstration by Huo's younger brother, goaded him into a fight. The brother was beaten, but to the family's surprise Huo himself got up and defeated the stranger. Neighbouring practitioners also were defeated in local contests by Huo, and his name started to spread.
Working in unison with his father, they escorted a group of travelling religious men, and were affronted by a bandit who gave them a letter threatening the monks with attack from his 1,600 strong army. The following day, unpeturbed, Huo met the bandit leader's challenge, defeating him breaking both his arms in the process, and his many troops all dispersed. This feat soon became common knowledge, adding further to the growing fame of Huo. On his return he sold firewood to make a living, and was reputed to carry two hundred kilograms of wood on his back.
In 1896 he worked as a porter in medicine in a medicine shop in Tianjin, where he learned much about the world, for the shop owner, a doctor, had recently returned from Japan, and made him aware of the threat that the Japanese posed towards China. The "Boxer Rebellion" in 1898 helped to accentuate his growing realisation that China was a weak country being torn up and humiliated by foreign powers, both Western and Asian.
Huo's real fame as an expert in Wushu came when in 1901 he responded to leaflets advertising a challenge by a Russian wrestler who claimed to be unbeatable in China. On meeting Huo at the designated Xiyuan Park, where a boxing ring had been set up, the Russian wrestler took back his challenge. Overawed by Huo's humble yet indomitable spirit he said through an interpreter that he had to make such challenges in order to make a living and shortly after he openly stated this in a newspaper.
In 1909 a British boxer came to Shanghai and regularly trained in the Apollo Theatre, lifting huge weights, saying derogatory statements about the Chinese and generally attempting to intimidate anyone. Huo Yuan Jia was invited by the Wushu delefation to compete with this man. When the two men met, there could be no agreement on the rules with the Westerner used to punching only and that to be directed above the waist, as is the culture in Western boxing. Huo on the other hand believed anything should be allowed, as is the case in Eastern wushu arts. They met again and an agreement was made, that the first person to cause his opponent to fall to the floor was the winner. The day of the scheduled bout arrived, but the British boxer did not!
The teacher of the bandit that Huo defeated on behalf of the monks, Zhang Wen Dat, held a competition over the space of the month, inviting any contestants in the hope of luring Huo. Huo however, felt no need to prove himself, so did not enter. After the competition ended, Zhang who had still not attained his aim, encouraged by an entourage of friends in Shanghai, contacted Huo openly challenging him. Huo, feeling ill, allowed his top student Liu Zhengshen
to meet the challenge, and the two battled it out. No decision could be reached after a considerable period, and the next day the newspapers printed the result. Huo fearing that such coverage by the papers might attract a bad element, approached Zhang to suggest an end to "shake hands", but was rebuked by Zhang.
Following further derision from Zhang, Huo finally accepted his challenge and defeated Zhang with just two moves. Huo said to Zhang that although he was Chinese he had not learnt how to act humbly, (
). His disappointment in people like Zhang and his realisation that there was a new growth in the use of new technology like firearms led Huo to debate over practical uses of Kung fu, and he confided this to a friend. His friend Qi You (
) said to him that, as Chinese people, they should just do their best, in practice, physically and mentally therefore improving themselves spiritually, this being a timeless and most important aspect of Wushu, regardless of improving technology or unscrupulous people. These words inspired Huo, and with the encouragement of his friends, money from sponsors and the support from much of Shanghai's population he set up the Chin Woo Physical Training School at the North Gate of Shanghai.
The Chin Woo once established became very popular, and in its first summer its ranks swelled dramatically. Huo, still having bouts of Yellow jaundice started seeing a Japanese doctor for medication, and from this meeting Huo's reputation was soon known throughout the Japanese martial arts schools. Despite Huo's impressive reputation the Japanese Judo Association, based in Shanghai, remained unconvinced and invited Huo to a competition. The top ranked Judo teacher turned out to be Huo's doctor.
Huo's top student, Liu Zheng sheng (
) competed with a judo practitioner who could not even move him, in an example of bad sportsmanship Liu's opponent leapt to the floor feigning defeat and then attempted to kick Liu in the groin, Liu side-stepped and then defeated the competitor. This however brought shame on the club which prompted ten of the students to rush towards Liu's master, Huo. All were brought to the floor by attacks to the hand by Huo, leaving all including the Japanese teacher with broken hands.
Huo's illness had not improved, so he returned to the doctor for a new prescription. A few later on the 14th of September 1909, Huo became violently ill, and passed away. The Japanese doctor fled, and under such circumstances, Huo's medicine was brought by his students to be tested, and it was found to be a poison causing the lung tissue to break down.
Stories of such great men can be a blend of truth and overexaggerated feats, for example there is an alternative story of his death, that it was due to his yellow jaundice still so prevalent as an adult, that with his fighting prowess earned him the nicknamed "Yellow Faced Tiger" (
). However despite aspects of the story that may be disputable, what cannot be understated was the degree of pride that Huo gave to the people which multiplied so much when he opened the Chin Woo and what it stands for grew today, however cannot compete with the acute intensity that Huo generated in his period.
The reasons for Huo's popularity and hence the strong feelings for the Chin Woo must attribute much to the timing, as China had probably reached a very low point in its history morale. The Manchurians had founded their dynasty in 1644, only the second foreign power to rule China ever, and the first for nearly three centuries, this was the first insult to Imperial China with the majority of its ethnicity being Han. The Manchurians were slowly assimilated into the Chinese and over the centuries this insult was becoming forgotten.
Unfortunately the ever present threat of European greed tipped the balance and in 1839 the first Opium War started, completed three years later, with China being completely outclassed, something it was not used to. This was a huge psychological blow that devastated the people's mind aswell as the country as a whole, who were under the belief that Imperial China was simply blessed by heaven and could not be defeated. Following that was the second defeat, while all the time other European powers including Russia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands were looking hungrily towards China.
China perhaps became accustomed to suffering at the hands of the intimidating Europeans, but then in 1894 China suffered ultimate humiliation, defeat at the hands of the Japanese, Asians like the Chinese, who were considered little less than "fishermen" from an island. No psychological justifications could be made, they were not ghostly white or bigger in stature, but Asians, from a country that was traditionally subservient or at least respectful to China. China though was powerless to resist, previous wars, famines, floods and harvest failures meant China was drained. 1898 saw the "Boxer Rebellion" take a grip on the country, further provoking foreign powers, and further draining its resources.
When, at the turn of the century, Japan posed a more serious threat China was unable to put up a token resistance, and with each new year China's hatred of Japan increased. Japan had designs on making China part of it's colony, these intentions were felt by the Chinese people and it played a strong part on the actions of the Chinese government, which was weak and had become subservient to the whims of the Japanese.
This presented one of the problems to setting up a martial arts school for Huo, and it is directly due to the threat of the Japanese, that then and now the Chin Woo is a "Physical Education" or "Athletic School" not a "Martial Arts School". Huo needed to disguise the fact that this school was for learning of self defence, the building up of health and mind and instilling pride and partrionism back to its members and the surrounding community. So he opened it shrouding its main intent by supporting all physical exercises and activities. Martial Arts and activities of Chinese origin that generated pride to the country, always got priority, though its was not openly obvious.
The popularity of Huo and for what he stood for, was obvious by the numerous amount of members that joined at the outset, but the numbers grew and as a statement against the Japanese, but perhaps more accurately the Chinese government knew this, and rather risk certain defeat with braver actions, tried to manoeuvre itself into a better position with more cowardly co-operative means that the Japanese could recognise for what they were. The people however, wanted to fight for their dignity, despite their desperate situation, and this in Shanghai was reflected in the numbers joining Huo's ranks.
Huo's death caused a certain amount of despair, and the numbers of members depleted, but with the Japanese's insolent "21 Demands" in 1915 the students of Huo were spurred on. They bought a new building, reorganised the school, and renamed it the "Chin Woo Athletic Association". A great deal of work was put in by the members, books and magazines published and more classes were opened. The "forms", sets of standard moves that contain martial applications, (but whose main aim is to instil conditioning, spirit and discipline) were further improved and refined. It was from this new birth of enthusiasm, that new styles of Kung fu other than what Huo taught, were accepted under the mantle of the association, and in 1918 the Chin Woo opened an association in Nathan Road in Hong Kong.