Alibaba always puts on a spectacle on Singles Day, its annual online shopping extravaganza—and this year founder Jack Ma’s martial arts obsession is a part of it.
Ma’s appearing in a 24-minute martial arts film, Gong Shou Dao, alongside Jet Li, Tony Jaa, and other movie stars, that’s premiering as part of the shopping festival countdown. The film stems from Jack Ma’s lifelong love of martial arts that has informed both his professional life and personal life. And it marks another step in his ongoing effort to revitalize the ancient practice and take it global.
“Business, even if you die, I may not win.”
“I use Tai Chi philosophy in the business,” Ma said at Davos in 2015 (link to video). “Calm down—there is always a way out. And keep yourself balanced. Business is a competition, and competition is fun. Business is not like a battlefield—you die or I win. Business, even if you die, I may not win.”
The opening ceremony, which is televised and starts in the evening of Nov. 10, will also feature the sorts of celebrities that usually characterize the countdown, such as Pharrell Williams Katy Perry, and tennis pro Maria Sharapova. They, along with the film, will help kick off what is expected to be a $24 billion orgy of spending this year.
Ma’s appreciation for Chinese martial arts and Tai Chi—a graceful, meditiative variant—stems from his long-held admiration for the work of Louis Cha, a Hong Kong-based writer who published under the pen name Jin Yong. Epic adventures roughly akin to the works of J.R.R Tolkien in the west, Jin Yong’s serials mesh Chinese history with elaborate fight scenes, military maneuvering, and ragtag camaraderie.
In Alibaba’s early days, nearly two decades ago, many people adopted nicknames after characters from the books. Ma dubbed himself Feng Qingyang, after an elderly swordsman from the Jin Yong book The Smiling, Proud Wanderer. In a 2010 interview (link in Chinese), Ma said he admires Feng for two reasons—”First, he is a teacher,” Ma said (Ma himself taught English before starting his first company). Second, “His basic style of swordsmanship I think is especially good—a style of formlessness, formlessness itself as a style,” he added, referring to how a fighter with no recognizable style makes for an unpredictable opponent.
The company’s values, meanwhile, are dubbed the “Six Vein Spirit Sword,” taken from the Jin Yong novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. In the novel, the Six Vein Spirit Sword is not an actual sword, but a manual. At Alibaba, each “vein” represents a company value—customer first, teamwork, embrace change, integrity, passion and, commitment.
Ma is known for his public showmanship, a rare quality among China’s business moguls. Gong Shou Dao is hardly the first time he has performed martial arts in public—below is a clip of Ma practicing Tai Chi at an event held by Chinese business magazine Yingcai.
To this day, Ma remains committed to the world of Tai Chi and Chinese martial arts. Earlier this year he offered a six-class course for entrepreneurs to learn the practice. He also chimed in on an online debate about the merits of Tai Chi over mixed martial arts. And he continues to read martial arts novels to keep motivated.
“Kung Fu, you start to think about it as something you cannot do. But if you have some luck, if you continue to practice, if you got a good master, if you got a good team, you can [become an] expert,” he told Charlie Rose at Davos. “When I’m busy, when I’m tired, I read Kung Fu books.”
Ma’s dedication to practicing martial arts is somewhat unique in China. The art form and its history are ubiquitous in Chinese film, television, and video games. Yet when it comes to actually doing them, they’re mostly enjoyed by the elderly and a handful of hobbyists. Young people in China, meanwhile, have gravitated towards Brazilian jiu-jitsu, mixed-martial arts, and other combat sports with more international appeal (paywall).
Ma wants to change this. And by releasing Gong Shou Dao on Singles Day, by now a major media event in China, he’s drawing attention to his passion project—revitalizing Chinese martial arts.
Ma has long maintained a friendship with Jet Li, Gong Shou Dao’s producer. The two of them met in 2007 (link in Chinese) when Li was invited to a meeting held by China Entrepreneur’s Club, a group of China’s wealthiest businessmen that includes Ma. The two later took a three-day trip to Hainan, an island province of China, to discuss charitable giving, philosophy, and Tai Chi—and their conversations persisted throughout the next decade.
Their mutual love of martial arts led them to found Taijizen in 2011. An institution dedicated to popularizing Tai Chi in the modern era, Taijizen offers courses in various types of Tai Chi at schools across the country, as well as classes for calligraphy, tea, and traditional Chinese music. Overseas, viewers can watch training videos on the company’s YouTube page. A promotional video for Taijizen shows a montage of busy Chinese white-collar office workers, followed by Jack Ma singing the praises of his practice. “For the past 10 stressful years, I believe I’ve been able to be passionate about my work, to never be afraid of competition, and to constantly pursue innovation because of my practice of Tai Chi,” he says.
Li and Ma’s film, which Ma financed personally, builds on Taijizen’s initiatives. Specifically, they intend to introduce a new style of martial arts they call GSD (gong shou dao, like the movie’s title, whose three Chinese characters mean “Kung Fu,” “defence,” and “principle”). Ultimately, they hope GSD will earn Chinese martial arts a place in the Olympics. Of the combat sports fully recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), three originate in Asia—judo and karate are from Japan, while taekwondo is from Korea. Muay Thai, which recently earned provisional recognition, originates from Thailand.
In early 2017, Alibaba inked a deal with the IOC to power the organization’s cloud computing infrastructure during the games up until 2028. Li says he hopes the GSD style that appears in the film can become a much-needed standard for traditional Chinese martial arts—a sprawling category—that would help it win inclusion.
With this in mind, Gong Shou Dao‘s release on Single’s Day is both ironic and fitting. Ma is using a day that has come to symbolize modern China’s crass commercialism and nascent global soft power as a vehicle to promote a traditional Chinese art. Tai Chi, after all, is all about balance.