My previous translation of an article on Pei Xirong sparked my interest  in the 1929 Leitai tournament in Hangzhou, which seems to have been the largest bare-hand Leitai competition in recent history. The following translation draws on several sources, mainly here and here .

Gate to the Zhejiang Guoshu Carnival in Hangzhou

“In early 1929, the vice-dean of the Central Martial Arts Academy, Li Jinglin, wrote to the heads and gatekeepers of various martial arts from around the country, intimating that he wished to organise an ‘All-China Martial Arts Gala’, in order to inspire more Chinese people to learn martial arts. His proposal was eagerly received. On 3 May 1929, the Zhejiang provincial government decided that in November of that same year, they would hold a ‘Zhejiang Guoshu  & Entertainment Gala’ (popularly dubbed the ‘National Leitai Tournament’) in Hangzhou. Guoshu (lit. ‘national art’) was a common umbrella term for Chinese Martial Arts in the Republican era.  In August of that year, the Zhejiang Guoshuguan was established and took on the responsibility of organising the tournament. The Organising Committee was set up on 11 Oct. Chen Tianshen, at the time a Guoshu Guan student, wanted desperately to take part, but was too young, and so instead was allocated to help out the organising committee.

On 9 November, the promotional activities for the Leitai tournament reached a crescendo, with decorative archways being erected in front of Qinghua and Qingtai hotels located in Hangzhou city centre. Red silk banners reading ‘Guoshu & Entertainment Gala Hostel’ were strung up in front of the archways whilst Chen and his kungfu brothers distributed flyers on the streets. The next day, participants from all over the country started pouring into Hangzhou. The oldest entrant was Ruan Zenghui from Fenghua at 68 years old, whilst the youngest was Lin Biao, from Wenzhou, aged only 7. The original number of performers swelled from 270 to 345 people whilst there were 125 entrants for the free-fighting competition. All the while, ‘fans’ from all over the country poured into Hangzhou, filling its hotels to bursting.

The venue for the tournament was the  old Futai Yamen (a yamen was equivalent of a court / county hall in Imperial China) next to Tongjiang bridge. A concrete leitai platform 4 feet tall, 56 feet long and 60 feet wide was specially built for the event…..

…The gala’s opening ceremony was originally supposed to be held in the afternoon of 15 November, but was postponed to the next morning because of rain. That day, the old yamen, which had lain dormant for so long, was a blaze of colour and awash with people: group representatives, reporters and guests filled the hall. The moment the bell sounded and military marches started to play, the whole crowd came to their feet and saluted in silence.

The Leitai tournament was divided into two halves: the ‘performance’ days from 16-20 Nov, in which places or winners were judged; and the ‘free-fighting’ stage, which ran from 21-27 Nov, at the end of which rankings would be announced.

The gala was a huge event for Hangzhou, with hordes of people wanting to watch the fights, with the result that tickets became a hot commodity. There were two kinds of tickets to the Leitai tournament: a ‘one-bout only’ ticket was 5 jiao (about 7  cents) whilst a ‘General Ticket’ allowing the holder to watch 10 bouts cost 4 yuan (about 60c). Seeing as a pound of pork at that time only cost 1.5 jiao, the tickets were relatively expensive for the time. The audiences every day numbered in the tens of thousands of people.

General Li Jinglin

In order that judging should be fair, the organisers put together a committee of 29 judges which included such famous names as:

Li Jinglin – Head Judge, master of Wudang sword
Sun Lutang – Vice-Chairman of Judging Committee
Chu Minyi – member of the Kuomintang Central Committee and a keen taiji practitioner
Liu Baichuan – master of northern Shaolin, famous for his kicks
Du Xinwu – master of the Ziranmen [Natural Gate] school
Yang Chengfu – Yang style taijiquan
Wu Jianquan – Wu style taijiquan
Jiang Xinshan – cousin of Li Jinglin, bagua student of Cheng Tinghua’s son Cheng Haiting
Zhang Zhaodong – Xingyi/ Bagua
Shang Yunxiang – Xingyi, student of Li cunyi
Liu Caichen – studied taiji from Quan You, xingyi from famous master Geng Jishan
Huang Bonian – Bagua
Han Huachen – famous master of Bajiquan
Xu Yusheng – Yang style taiji
Ma Yutang – Xingyi, student of Li Cunyi

The committee also engaged the services of 37 ‘inspectors’, which also included some of the brightest names in martial arts:

Chu Guiting – learnt xingyi from Li Cunyi, bagua from Huang Bonian & taiji from Yang Chengfu
Tian Zhaolin – Yang style taiji
Tong Zhongyi – expert in shuai jiao & liu he men [6 harmonies boxing]
Gao Zhendong – studied xingyi under Ma Yutang
Li Xingjie – Xingyi, Li Cunyi’s student
Chen Weiming – Yang taiji
Ye Dami – Yang taiji
Li Shuwen – famous master of Bajiquan
Wan Laisheng – Ziranmen
Fu Jianqiu – Bagua/Xingyi
Geng Xiaguang – Xingyi, Geng Jishan’s son
Han Qichang – Meihuazhuang, or plum blossom boxing
Zhao Daoxin – Yiquan, Wang Xiangzhai’s disciple
Cheng Yougong – Bagua, Cheng Tinghua’s son

On the first day of the gala, the judges, ‘inspectors’ and entrants performed over 500 bare-handed and weapons routines coming from over 30 different styles, including Wudang, Shaolin, Xingyi, Bagua, Taiji and many more. The displays included internal and external gongfu as well as ‘light skill’ and hidden weapons. Li Jinglin and his wife performed a 2-person taiji sword routine.

2-man Wudang sword performance at the tournament

The third day marked the start of the free-fighting tournament. The tournament operated on an elimination basis, with bouts decided by drawing lots. Contestants were not allowed to attack the eyes, throat or groin – anyone breaching these rules was disqualified. The atmosphere during tournament was very tense, but at the end of the first day, more than half of the entrants remained in the competition. This was because of a flaw in the rules: in the event of a draw, the original rules stipulated that both contestants could progress to the next round. At the end of the first day, the judge’s committee changed the rules so that in the event of a draw, both contestants would be out. After that, the competitors didn’t hold back and many people were hurt, mostly with head injuries. The judges’ committee instituted a new rule in response, stating that contestants were not allowed to continually attack the head. As a result of this new rule, the third day saw more attacks to the lower half of the body and the overall skill level on display rose substantially. However, the atmosphere of the tournament still remained tense.


There were several people from Tianjin competing in the Hangzhou Leitai tournament, one of whom was Zhao Daoxin. Zhao had originally studied Xingyi Bagua under Zhang Zhaodong and then later studied Yiquan under Wang Xiangzhai. Zhao, only 20 at the time and at the beginning of his martial arts career, managed to achieve 13th place, and out of the top 30 ranked fighters, the vast majority were around 30 years old.

A young Zhao Daoxin

Zhao Daoxin was famous in Tianjin’s martial arts community. He was known for the ferocity  of his attacks, and was called ‘the Lu Xun of martial arts’ for his willingness to experiment, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Lu Xun was one of the first writers to write in modern standard Chinese, and is often considered the father of modern Chinese literature. In the 1980s, Zhao Daoxin (by that time already in his 80s) taught what he had learnt to Zhang Hongjun. Based on Zhao’s teaching and his own hard training, Zhang went on to become a nationally famous San Da fighter. He inherited Zhao’s ‘heavy’ punches and kicks.

When asked about Zhao’s participation in Leitai tournaments, Zhang Hongjun showed this reporter a portion of Zhao’s diary summarising his understanding of kungfu and his thoughts on the 1929 tournament:  ‘No foreigners dared to enter the contest. Those ‘orthodox inheritors’ of traditional martial arts, regardless of whether they were lofty monks or local grandmasters, were either kocked out or scared out of the competition.Even though, at registration, every competitor identified themselves as belonging to a traditional style, every one of them engaged in secret auxiliary combat training of their own device.’…….

…..At the Hangzhou Leitai tournament, there were no weight classes. The 240-odd competitors were divided into 4 groups. All the contestants wore Chinese -style jacket and trousers made of grey cloth, with either a red or white sash tied around the waist to differentiate them. Before the start of the tournament, the contestants’ names were replaced by numbers, which were then placed in wooden balls. The wooden balls were then placed into a larger copper globe. Under the watchful eyes of the supervisors, the wooden globe was shaken and the order of bouts determined by the sequence in which the wooden balls rolled out of the globe. Thus, the first day of the tournament commenced, with the first competitor to be knocked down or admit defeat judged the loser.

On the second day, the judges had to change the rules because of the number of drawn matches. For example, the bout between Wen Zhenfei and Wang Pu lasted 10 minutes, with neither side winning; in the Han Qichang v Gao Shouwu bout, the bout was still drawn after 60 rounds.

Han Qichang demonstrating Plum Blossom Boxing (Mei Hua Zhuang)

Gao and Han were then given a 3-minute break, after which they resumed, with neither side able to gain the other hand; it was only after a final short intermission that Gao Shouwu was able to win with a kick – but by that point both contestants were both so tired they could barely catch their breath. In response, the judging committee changed the system to: fight 4 minutes – 2 minute break – resume. If no-one could win within 10 minutes, the match was declared a draw and there was to be a rematch the next day. The judges also declared that, where contestants ignored a referee’s whistle/instructions to stop, they would be disqualified.


For the duration of the tournament, Hangzhou, lost its  customary scholarly air to be replaced by a more martial spirit. The fisticuffs in the ring drew yells of approval from the audience. Such a large-scale tournament drew the attention of not just Chinese people, but also some Japanese and Russian martial artists came to watch. A dozen or so Americans brought their cameras to the tournament and took photo after photo of the contestants. Even though the rules at that time allowed anyone (including foreigners) to enter the tournament, no foreigners dared to enter, because of the lack of protective equipment (no gloves, no headgear) and the lack of restrictions of techniques – only eye gouges, strangling and groin attacks were barred.

Zhang Hongjun said “What does it mean to have gongfu? The 1929 Leitai tournament in Hangzhou is a classic example of how we should understand the term ‘gongfu’.”

In the tournament, Cao Yanhai – a student of the Central Guoshu Institute who eventually placed fourth – met the iron palm master Liu Gaosheng. Liu Gaosheng was famous in Shanghai for his mastery of iron palm and Ziranmen (Natural Gate); he was the head trainer of security guards for Shanghai’s 4 largest department stores and had close to 3,000 students, and was one of the favourites to win the tournament. Liu was not only a master of iron palm, he was also adept at  hard qigong. Meeting such a tough opponent in the first round put Cao under pressure. At the beginning of the bout, Liu immediately launched a palm strike at Cao. Cao took the strike, thinking to gauge Liu’s power, only to find that half his body went numb – he could barely withstand it!

Picture of one of Cao Yanhai’s bouts

Fortunately,Cao was calm under pressure and didn’t crumble. He took a deep breath, shook himself and hurriedly changed his tactics. Instead of taking Liu on head-on, Cao evaded as much as possible, trying to use sweeps and low kicks to attack Liu’s legs. This tactic helped Cao to go on the offensive. In the second round, Cao saw his opportunity and laid Liu out with a punch, winning the match. The next day, Zhao asked Liu how he could have lost: Liu was so vexed he punched the ground, breaking a brick in half, saying “Dammit, dammit”.

Purely from looking at the results, Liu Gaosheng’s gongfu was no match for Cao Yanhai; but Cao Yanhai could not split a brick – how can we explain this result? The reason is, Cao Yanhai often sparred, so he was good at adapting his tactics. Liu, on the other hand, rarely fought: day-to-day practice only involved testing his palm strikes, which of course most normal people could not withstand. In the bout, even though Liu’s palm strikes were devastatingly powerful, he could not hit Cao, instead being knocked down. Thus, one should not mistake hard qigong for combat skill. In a real encounter, the winner will be he who reacts faster, hits harder. Li Jinglin, the Wudang sword master, head of the Central Guoshu Institute and organiser of the 2 Leitai tournaments, once said “If I were to be knocked down, I should respect my opponent’s gongfu: we should recognise that ‘whoever can knock me down has gongfu’”.


As the tournament progressed, the bouts became more and more exciting, with the crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. No longer did we see protracted battles of attrition: some of the matches were over within a couple of exchanges of blows. In the final stages of the tournament, the match between Ma Chengzhi and Han Qingtang was a standout. Ma and Han met in the 6th round of the tournament, by which point there were only 10 competitors left. Han Qingtang was from Shandong and was one of the representatives of Northern Shaolin of the era. He was particularly skilled at Praying Mantis and Taizu Long Fist. He moved to Taiwan after Liberation, where he taught longfist and qinna to many students.

Rare picture of one of Ma Chengzhi’s bouts

At the beginning of the bout, Ma advanced on Han, with Han adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. When they were about 3 or 4 feet apart, Han, thinking that Ma would keep advancing, launched his attack, only to find that Ma had already switched legs and use xingyi’s horse shape to ‘counter-attack. Thus, Han found that he had not made any substantial contact but instead moved right into Ma’s strike. Han was knocked back several steps, but did not go down. Having recovered his balance, Han once again adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, whilst Ma slowly approached. Han then retreated, thinking to lure Ma into attacking. As soon as Ma followed, Han launched kick & punch combos. Ma didn’t retreat or block, but rather ducked into xingyi’s bear shape, advanced, evaded Han’s attack and punched Han in the jaw. Han instantly went down. After the match, Han praised Ma’s movement, saying “He’s like a shadow, constantly changing his angles of approach, I couldn’t even see him, never mind hit him.”

One may win by brute force; but one may equally win by fighting ‘cunningly’ (qiao da). In the 7th round, Ma Chengzhi met his kungfu brother Hu Fengshan – both were students of Sun Lutang. Because the two were kungfu brothers, they had often practiced together and were familiar with each other’s fighting style. Hu eventually won by trapping Ma’s foot and punching him in the face. Perhaps such a tactic is not what us enthusiasts imagine when we think of kungfu. As Zhang Hongjun points out ,this illustrates the variability of real combat: hitting hard & blocking hard can injure your opponent so he cannot go on, whilst fighting ‘cunningly’ can also win. Kungfu fans might think that this kind of ‘cunning’ tactic is underhanded or not very satisfying, but this is what real challenge fights are like.

On 27 Nov, after several days of intense fighting, the final placings were decided. Wang Ziqing, a coach from the Central Guoshu Institute came first; Zhu Guolu was second, and Zhang Dianqing third. Coincidentally, the top 3 fighters all came from Hebei province: Wang, 30 years old, from Baoding city; Zhu, 29, was from Dingxing county; and Zhang, 25, was also from Baoding. When the news reached Tianjin, Tianjin’s ‘Da Gong Bao’ reported the tournament with the tagline ‘Hebei takes the Top 3’, causing celebrations in Tianjin’s martial arts community.

The 3 eventual winners: Wang Ziqing, Zhu Guolu, Zhang Dianqing

The most remarkable thing of all was that the top 3 fighters remained unmoved in the face of the lucrative prize money on offer, but instead divided up the prize money amongst all the competitors.”

The final rankings of the Hangzhou tournament were:

  1. Wang Ziqing (skilled at shaolin & shuai jiao)
    2. Zhu Guolu (xingyi and boxing)
    3. Zhang Dianqing (fanzi quan, shuai jiao, yiquan)
    4. Cao Yanhai (originally studied Mizong quan. Learnt Tongbei from Ma Yingtu, pigua from Guo Changsheng, later studied under Sun Lutang)
    5. Hu Fengshan (originally studied xingyi under Tang Shilin., later became Sun Lutang’s disciple)
    6. Ma Chengzhi (originally shaolin,later studied xingyi under Sun Lutang)
    7. Han Qingtang (praying mantis, taizu long fist, especially expert at qin’na)
    8. Wan Changsheng (learnt Cha quan from Ma Jinbiao)
    9. Zhu Zhenglin (learnt Tai Yi Men under Yang Mingzhai)
    10. Zhang Xiaocai (learnt Cha Quan under Ma Jinbiao)
    11. Gao Zuolin
    12. Yue Xia (bagua under Zhao Weixian)
    13. Zhao Daoxin (Yiquan)
    14. Li Qinglan
    15. Shang Zhenshan


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