Martial (con) artist Ma Baoguo KOed by People’s Daily

A master-turned-farce with a lesson for everyone: Rat's tail soup

“Young people lack martial ethics” “I urge you to rat’s tail soup”.

These phrases, or “年轻人不讲武德” and “我劝你耗子尾汁” in Chinese, are the latest internet memes that have captured Chinese social media, splashing across millions of smartphone screens and gaining a firm foothold in the Chinese lexicon in a matter of days.

But as the memes slowly lose steam, the man who generated them, 69-year-old martial art practitioner Ma Baoguo (马保国), is sinking from public view in a much more dramatic fashion.

In a scathing commentary published Saturday,the People’s Daily called out Ma by name, labeling him as a “showboat” and a “charlatan”.

“The words and deeds of Ma Baoguo, speaking plainly, is a farce,” the commentary said.

The commentary didn’t stop at attacking Ma, but also took a swipe at the forces that elevated Ma to public view.

“What do the people behind Ma want to achieve? Any clear-eyed person can see it’s all about business interest. What’s the goal of internet platforms that promote Ma? It’s about nothing but traffic, which translates into interest. However, whether it be an internet platform or capital, the one prerequisite for marketing selling points is to follow public order, well-conscienced traditions, and correct values, otherwise, it would just be a cheap and flimsy business game.”

According to Ma’s autobiography on his official Weibo account, Ma was born into a martial arts family in 1951. His grandfather and father both practiced martial arts.

Ma said he lived in the UK between 2002 and 2007, allegedly accompanying his son who studied there. Ma taught martial arts during his time in the UK, at the same time maturing his own martial art theoretics, a style of Taichi called the Hunyuan Xingyi.

Ma continued to promote his signature Taichi style after returning to China, accepting pupils and uploading videos of himself demonstrating almost comical Taichi moves or telling wild stories as testaments of his martial arts abilities.

Ma remained off the social media radar until May this year, when he took part in a recorded fight in Zibo city, Shandong province. In this 30-second-long fight, he was knocked down twice before being knocked out.

The video soon went viral, but it wasn’t until November when Ma rose to national fame, fueled by a January video showing Ma recounting an encounter with two “young men”. 

In the 2’47” long segment, Ma said he was approached by two young men who wanted to learn some moves. Ma said as he engaged one of the men, he first landed a punch on the man’s nose, but only lightly as “tradition demands”. As Ma pulled back the punch, the young man unexpectedly went on the offensive, catching Ma by surprise.

“I did not duck and his left fist brushed against my right eye,” Ma said, adding his eye watered a bit but recovered after two minutes.

Toward the end of the segment, Ma seemed to swell with emotion, accusing the young men of not following martial ethics and urging them to “keep a check on themselves”, though speaking with a slight accent, the phrase “keeping a check on oneself” sounded like “rat’s tail soup”.

The video has received nearly 29 million views, with 100,000 comments, the vast majority taking a ridiculing tone against the self-fashioned master.

Ma’s fortune - or misfortune, depending on your view - runs against the backdrop of a series of busts for con-artists pretending to be martial arts masters such as Ma.

Once a little known yet lucrative business model, the scams gained public attention with the help of social media platforms. Ironically, self-promotional videos made by the so-called masters became the biggest source of memes and jokes.

For now, it seems that the People’s Daily has decided that letting Ma’s memes live out the rest of its lifespan can be detrimental to social norms and values. The message was quickly captured by social media platforms including Bilibili, which pledged to take steps to dampen the fervor.

A statement issued by Bilibili Saturday said it would “strictly restrict, verify and manage videos related to Ma”.

A search Sunday on Bilibili with the keyword Ma Baoguo only yielded a few dozens of videos, all of which echoed People’s Daily’s message, while a more precise search still showed the 29-million-view segment.

People’s Daily’s call was applauded by many Internet users -- its post on Weibo denouncing Ma garnered 162 thousand likes. But not all comments supported the paper’s position, with some of the most upvoted expressing displeasure.

The paper is making too big a deal out of “a joke people are enjoying”,  it should “rat’s tail soup”, one comment said.

This newsletter is penned by Yang Liu, who will be a regular contributor to Pekingnology.