Honoring the Legends Behind Chinese Martial Arts Films

An exploration into what makes Chinese martial arts films great, as well as how the genre has developed over the years.

As part of a deeper dive on film genre theory, and the many ways filmmakers can use these different genres and subgenres to inform their film and video production projects, we’re taking a look into the high-flying world of Chinese martial arts. Undoubtedly, you’ve probably seen many examples of Chinese martial arts in the classic films of actors and stunt performers like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan

You’ve probably also seen the influences of Chinese martial arts stretched far and wide across mainstream film and television over the years, with movies like The Matrix and Kill Bill, and shows like Charlie’s Angels and Cobra Kai.

But, where do these Chinese martial arts traditions originate? Let’s explore the early days of “kung fu” cinema and how this action subgenre has developed over the years, as well as peek into what it might hold for the future.

The Wuxia Origins of Martial Arts Cinema

For those unfamiliar, Chinese martial arts is the proper term for what is often colloqualized as “kung fu,” which itself is an all-encompassing term for all manner of fighting styles developed in China. The origins of the Chinese martial arts of hand-to-hand combat date back thousands of years and can be traced throughout Chinese history.

Martial arts have long been a staple component of Chinese self-defense, folklore, and entertainment—most notably told through “wuxia,” which are fantasy stories traditionally told about martial art heroes. Wuxia would go on to become a popular genre unto itself in Chinese literature, stage productions, operas, and eventually, television and film.

From Classic Kung Fu to Karate 

Looking specifically at the history of Chinese martial arts cinema, wuxia legends would give way to modern kung fu films, which became popular in the 1960s and 70s. The most important figure in kung fu cinema is, undoubtedly, the great Bruce Lee, who’s famous for bringing Chinese martial arts and kung fu culture to western audiences.

However, while Bruce Lee (whose career was cut tragically short before he could fully reach international stardom) made inroads in Hollywood with his martial arts stunt work and kung fu films, Chinese martial arts would only grow from there. 

A kung fu craze (called “Chopsocky”), along with the impressive martial arts and charismatic performances by Lee, would galvanize a whole new generation of audiences and performers, as kung fu cinema brought about a wave of popularity for Chinese martial arts and the budding trend of karate in both the U.S. and overseas.

Karate culture, along with traditional Chinese martial arts cinema, would go on to launch the careers of Chinese martial artists like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, while further developed by western practitioners like Chuck Norris, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, and notably David Carradine with his aptly-titled show Kung Fu.

Intricate Filmmaking and Stunt Work

So, what makes Chinese martial arts and kung fu cinema so exciting and unique? While many of the filmmaking tropes can be found in similar action genre films like westerns and thrillers, the most impressive elements to these kung fu films are indeed the martial arts themselves.

Starting with Bruce Lee, and continuing on in the same legacy by other Chinese martial artists, kung fu films are notable for their intricate fight scenes and choreography—which, in the 1970s, were a stark contrast to more staged fight and action sequences.

Chinese martial arts cinema has also always been about finding new and creative approaches to filmmaking, as well as developing experimental styles and techniques to help create more spectacular productions. 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, is a perfect example of how Chinese martial arts was able to almost single-handedly shift the direction of mainstream action cinema with its new adoption of high-flying stunt work and fantastical fight scenes.

Notable Filmmakers and Films

Along with the aforementioned Bruce Lee (who really is a central figure in Chinese martial arts history), there have been a wide array of amazing Chinese martial arts actors, stunt performers, and filmmakers, alike. 

Releasing slightly before Bruce Lee’s breakout kung fu classic Enter the Dragon, Lieh Lo starred in King Boxer (a.k.a. The Five Fingers of Death) and was actually the first Chinese martial arts film to be widely distributed in the U.S. and abroad.

Building off of the success of Lee, performer, director, and choreographer Sammo Hung would be a central figure for launching the careers of notable martial artists like Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock.

After Lee, Jackie Chan could also be considered one of the most important names in Chinese martial arts history. After getting his start as a stunt performer on several of Lee’s films, Chan would become a star himself with his blend of comedy and action, including films like Drunken Master, Police Story, and Rumble in the Bronx.

Outside of China, martial arts films and kung fu cinema would find new stars nearby, with Japanese performers like Sonny Chiba and Shô Kosugi. Meanwhile American and international action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and Wesley Snipes would quickly adopt karate stylings for their own films, as well.

The legacies of Lee and Chan continued further with new generations of Chinese martial artists like Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Vincent Zhao, and Jing Wu. These actors would help to usher in a new era of kung fu cinema remaining true to its Chinese martial arts roots while simultaneously embracing many of the international elements of mainstream blockbusters, with films like Once Upon a Time in China, Romeo Must Die, Ip Man, and Wolf Warrior.

The Future of Chinese Martial Arts

So, what does the future of Chinese martial arts hold? At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to see any major motion picture blockbuster and not see elements of traditional and modern Chinese martial arts contained within—from the Marvel superhero movies to the latest iterations of the Star Wars franchise.

Chinese martial artists have also found new ways to shift the genre by combining it more distinctly with other styles, as Chinese actor, performer, and director Stephen Chow has found with his genre-crossing martial art films like Shaolin Soccer (sports), Kung Fu Hustle (slapstick), and CJ7 (sci-fi).

Meanwhile, many of the latest generations of Chinese martial artists—like Donnie Yen—are still very much in the prime of their careers, with several of their biggest films becoming franchises onto themselves, with more recent examples like Ip Man 4.

Ultimately, though, Chinese martial arts will continue to evolve as part of the greater filmmaking lexicon—both internally and externally—while new performers and filmmakers will undoubtedly follow, finding new ways to traverse both martial arts and filmmaking alike.

Cover image from Enter the Dragon via Warner Bros.

For more genre studies and action filmmaking advice, check out these articles below.

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