This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994). Based on research by Sek Kei. Edited, with additional material, by Rolanda Chu and Grant Foerster
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Hong Kong’s martial arts madness in legend, history, and, oh yeah, the movies
Martial Arts: A Little Background
The use of Chinese martial arts for military strategy and as a subject for scholarship dates back at least as far as the Zhuzi Baijia (the various schools of thought from pre-Qin to early Han Dynasty), and is recorded in military texts of the Warring States period.
Traditional Chinese theories of natural science and religion, along with legends, customs, and pictographic symbols, have been incorporated into Chinese martial arts, extending their range beyond mere military or self-defense purposes into a form of knowledge.
Throughout the evolution of martial arts, emphasis has been placed on self-strengthening, therapeutic exercise, and performance. Music, dance, and acrobatics combined with martial arts occupy an important place in Chinese theater. Even non–martial arts actors have been required to train in martial arts in order to develop and refine their body movements. The martial arts have also been adapted into ceremonial Chinese celebrations, such as lion dancing and dragon dancing, and are common elements in street theater performance.
Chinese Historical Eras
BC 1500-1100: Shang or Yin Kingdom
» 1100-722: Early Chou Period
» 722-481: Ch’un Ch’iu Period
» 481-221: Warring States Period
» 221-206: Ch’in Dynasty
AD 206-BC 221 AD: Han Dynasty
» 221-265: Three Kingdoms (San Kuo)
» 265-315: Tsin Dynasty
» 316-589: Northern and Southern Empires (Nan Pei Chao)
» 589-618: Sui Dynasty
» 618-907: T’ang Dynasty
» 907-960: Five Dynasty Period (Wu Tai)
» 960-1127: Sung Dynasty
» 1127-1280: Kin and Southern Sung Dynasties
» 1280-1368: Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty
» 1368-1644: Ming Dynasty
» 1644-1911: Ch’ing (Manchu) Dynasty
» 1911-present: Republic
The Chinese film industry was founded soon after the turn of the century, when traditional values – under siege by Western culture – faced annihilation. Interest in authentic martial arts, both as cultural component and daily practice, was in decline. Early cinematic depictions instead relied on stagebound, artificial, inauthentic elements, informed by the supernatural – characters were sword sorcerers, threw magic darts, possessed palm power, and pretended to fly with the obvious help of wires. The first major success in the genre was Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (1928), but authentic Chinese martial arts were largely missing from the screen until the Cantonese film industry of Hong Kong produced the first Wong Fei Hong film in 1949.
The Wong Fei Hong Films
Wong Fei Hong was a famous martial artist and doctor of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republican China. Although Wong died in 1924, he is lovingly remembered as a legendary folk hero – largely because of the success of the Cantonese films that have maintained the legend.
Between 1949 and 1959, at least 62 Wong Fei Hong films were produced. They rejected the fantastic, stage-driven elements of the earlier martial arts films in favor of proper martial arts forms, genuine weapons, and authentic Chinese styles. Kwan Tak-hing, who played Wong in all these films, and Shek Kihn, who played his arch rival (best known to Western audiences as Bruce Lee’s nemesis Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon), were both trained martial artists. The Wong Fei Hong films’ use of true martial arts established the role of the martial arts instructor as an indispensable member of the production team. Aside from their tremendous success, the series helped document, promote, and preserve authentic Chinese martial arts.
Wu Xia Pian
The Mandarin term wu xia pian originally referred to the genre of martial arts films. “Wu xia” means chivalrous combat, and “pian” means film. While the Wong Fei Hong films, with their righteous values and moralistic messages, typify the classic wu xia pian, the term would eventually, through popular usage, include post–Wong Fei Hong films that contained gratuitous violence and non-chivalrous combat. The unarmed combat film would not be distinguished from swordplay and armed combat films until much later, with the advent of the kung fu film in the 1970s.
Mandarin vs. Cantonese
During the Sino-Japanese war and the subsequent civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, mainland Mandarin film talent (much of it centered in Shanghai) relocated to Hong Kong. With their combination of ambition and superior filmmaking ability, the Mandarin émigrés rapidly superseded their Hong Kong Cantonese counterparts, and their success helped Hong Kong compensate for the loss of mainland China as a market.
It’s important to understand the Mandarin/Cantonese distinction. The terms refer to different dialects of the spoken Chinese language. The signification of the written language is, however, universally recognized among all dialects. Thus in the early days of Chinese silent films (with Chinese text), no differentiation existed between dialects. With the advent of sound, the recorded voice had to be in either the Cantonese or the Mandarin dialect. Despite the aural differentiation, Chinese subtitles allow both markets access to the films. Cantonese and Mandarin cinema share the same market and should be understand as “competing studios” rather than as cinemas from different countries.
Mandarin Martial Arts Film
Hong Kong’s Mandarin-dominated cinema had traditionally disdained the violence of the wu xia pian (including the Cantonese Wong Fei Hong films) and prided itself on the wen yi pian, or “literary arts films, ” melodramas or adaptations of novels and plays. By the 1960s, Hong Kong society had become a hybrid of new and old ideologies and East/West cultures. Filmgoers demanded fresher subjects – demands to which Mandarin filmmakers responded by creating a new kind of martial arts film that incorporated special effects and other innovations.
The new genre was launched by films such as Li Hanxing’s Enchanting Shadow (1960), which included blaring sound effects to create suspense, and Yue Feng’s The Swallow (1961), which used a trampoline to impart the illusion of weightless leaps by actors. This film also utilized a number of shots printed in reverse motion.
By 1966, this genre had reached maturity with King Hu’s Come Drink with Me, made for Shaw Brothers Productions (the Shaw Brothers were part of the Mandarin-speaking Shanghai filmmaking talent that relocated to Hong Kong). This film captured the elegance of ancient Chinese martial artistry through inventive cinematic techniques. Chang Cheh’s Magnificent Trio, appearing the same year, showed the influence of Japanese Samurai films. By 1967, the martial arts genre dominated the cinema of Hong Kong. King Hu and Chang Cheh continued to excel as directors of the genre with, respectively, Dragon Gate Inn and The One-Armed Swordsman.
The Mandarin martial arts films set the tone for much of Hong Kong’s present-day historical and fantastic films, using settings far removed from today to provide an uninhibited romantic vision of the world of martial arts. In addition to their cinematic innovations, King Hu and Chang Cheh provided new codes of behavior for their characters. Moving away from Wong Fei Hong’s Confucian attitudes, the films tended toward the Buddhist and Taoist. While earlier wu xia pian presented complex relationships and a careful causality of events, the Mandarin martial arts films emphasized sword-based combat, romance, and the fantastic, with fights erupting on the slimmest excuse. Full of bloodshed, the presentation of the duel was the highlight of the films, and the martial arts swordsman hero was a key element in the formula.
The Cultural Revolution
The resurgence of the martial arts film in the 1960s coincided with China’s Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong also experienced violence and social upheaval, and the fights onscreen mirrored those on the city’s streets. In 1967, even the Cantonese-produced Wong Fei Hong films returned to join in the struggle, to protect “the moral and the orthodox.” This historic series ceased production again around 1970 and Cantonese cinema waned substantially soon after.
1970s, Bruce Lee & the Kung Fu Film
In the 1970s, the wu xia pian changed its emphasis from bloody swordplay to unarmed combat. Fighting styles therefore came to depend less on cinematic technique and more on plausibility. While this represented a return to more credible, authentic martial arts, the terms were much different than in the early Wong Fei Hong films.
Training, victory, and vindication were new themes. In The Chinese Boxer (1970), directed by and starring Wang Yu, torturous training leads the hero to a victory over Japanese judo and karate experts. Lo Wei’s 1971The Big Boss portrayed the struggles of a Chinese individual in a foreign land (Thailand) and focused on the theme of asserting personal respect, dignity, and identity. The Big Boss marked substantial changes to the genre – set in the present rather than the historical past, the presentation of martial arts incorporated many different forms including Thai and Western boxing, and judo. This mix would be standard for subsequent films. Most importantly, The Big Boss introduced Bruce Lee to the martial arts genre.
As an exceptional martial artist, Lee’s ability to synthesize various national martial techniques sparked a new trend in unarmed combat martial arts films. His talent shifted the focus from martial arts director to martial arts actor.
The term “kung fu films” came into general use along with the films of Bruce Lee and was used to refer to unarmed combat films. While wu xia pian is Mandarin, “kung fu” is from Cantonese vernacular. The kung fu film is thus unique in Hong Kong cinema – with the term itself in the local dialect, the genre was named as the territory’s very own. Even on this cultural level, Bruce Lee can be credited with bringing the martial arts film and Hong Kong cinema to international prominence.
Martial Arts Films After Bruce Lee
While the Cantonese cinema directed its energies toward television and comedy, Mandarin cinema sought new ideas for the genre after Bruce Lee’s death. One development was the exploration of traditional Chinese martial arts techniques. Films in this vein drew heavily on Guangdong heroes and the Shaolin tradition, enriching them for the cinema with Northern opera techniques and acrobatics. The series began with Heroes Two (1974) and continued successfully with Men from the Monastery (1974) and Shaolin Martial Arts (1974), among others. These films introduced martial arts techniques in vivid detail; Heroes Two began with a brief documentary explaining the three fist styles introduced in the film, an innovation attributed to martial arts director Lau Kar Leung.
The Martial Arts Instructor as Film Director
Most professional directors were not actually familiar with martial arts techniques, and even the great films of director King Hu and Bruce Lee required the help of martial arts directors such as Sammo Hung and Han Ying Chieh. With the emphasis on martial arts techniques as the new backbone of the genre, contributions from actual martial artists became increasingly significant. Martial arts instructors soon not only arranged fight scenes, but planned shots, essentially taking over the role of director in some cases.
Southern-Style Kung Fu: Lau Kar Leung
Lau Kar Leung began martial arts training with his father at age nine, and at sixteen began playing roles in the Cantonese Wong Fei Hong films. Lau pioneered the exploration of authentic martial arts techniques and training procedures, and he became the first instructor to make the jump to director. With the growing popularity of the comedy genre in television and the films of the Hui brothers, comedy seemed an inevitable addition to martial arts. Lau’s Spiritual Boxer (1975), which showcased Southern techniques, followed by Karl Maka’s The Good The Bad and The Loser (1976), heavily influenced by Western cinema, are regarded as the first kung fu comedies. The Shaolin-derived kung fu styles in Lau’s films are prime examples of the practical combative aspects of Southern style kung fu.
Northern-Style Kung Fu: Yuen Woo Ping
The Northern style kung fu comedy developed about the same time as its southern counterpart. More acrobatic and performance oriented, Northern style fighting originated in the Peking Opera. Although the first film to utilize comedy elements in the Northern-style stage tradition was Sammo Hung’s directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk (1977), it was Yuen Woo Ping’s films that marked the true birth of this style.
Like Lau Kar Leung, Yuen Woo Ping’s early work was on the Wong Fei Hong films; also like Lau, he was a martial arts instructor-turned-director. Yuen combines Northern-style fighting with other major fist forms to create new forms for the kung fu comedy film. His debut Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (1978) broke box-office records. With the even more popular Drunken Master (1978), Yuen helped launch Jackie Chan’s career. The versatile Yuen also wrote, directed, and starred in The Fearless Hyena (1979) and The Young Master (1980).
Novel Thrillers: Chu Yuan & Tsui Hark
Prior to the success of the Northern comedies of the 1970s was a brief wave of adaptations of Gu Long’s martial arts/thriller novels by director Chu Yuan. Chu’s immensely popular swordplay films such as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) were a mix of romance and fantasy set in the remote past. The fad spurred other Gu novel adaptations, and ended as the market became oversaturated. Television – more adept at translating the novels through detailed serials – easily filled the void.
In 1977, a television adaptation of Gu’s The Gold Dagger Romance brought critical acclaim to newcomer Tsui Hark. Tsui’s first feature film, the 1979 Butterfly Murders (also from a Gu novel), introduced a technically innovative style of martial arts film, even including character models based on Star Wars.
The Eighties: Jackie Chan
In the 1980s, Jackie Chan infused new life into the kung fu film with Project A and Project A II, followed by the Police Story and Armour of God series. With their breathtaking mix of authentic martial arts techniques with comic and adventure elements, Chan’s films represent the high point of the modern kung fu style. While these films are rightly valorized as “Jackie Chan films, ” they are also unquestionably rooted in classic kung fu models.
Jackie Chan recently released Drunken Master II (1994), which takes audiences through martial arts film history by revisiting the 1979 kung fu comedy Drunken Master in which he also starred. The new film is directed by Lau Kar Leung, who pioneered the comedy kung fu genre in the 1970s.
Both Lau and Yuen Woo Ping are still directing major Hong Kong martial arts productions in the 1990s. The genre remains popular and prestigious, with both the Taipei Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards including honors for best martial arts direction in their annual ceremonies.
The martial arts film has had an enormous impact on many genres of Hong Kong film, its influence extending into the internationally popular action thrillers of John Woo. Today, well-known western directors such as Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino have expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the genre, and while its influence has extended far beyond the physical boundaries of Hong Kong, the genre remains a unique creation of Chinese history and culture.