Throw on a Shaw Brothers movie and watch Kuo Chui, David Chiang, Lu Feng or any of the early kung fu legends, and you’ll see choreography that’s almost mesmerizing. From those early days of Kung Fu Theater sprang an entire generation enthralled with martial arts that incorporated not only the moves but also the spirit and style into something entirely unique. Personifying this scene is RZA, a founding member of and the man behind the Wu-Tang Clan.
Since forming the group in 1992, RZA has mixed references and samples from old-school kung fu movies into his music, and for him, it’s not just kitsch. With an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts philosophy and an academic approach to its appreciation, RZA has branched out from music into film. Cutting his teeth with work on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Kill Bill, he’s most recently been involved in The Man With the Iron Fists, a collaboration with Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth that harkens back to the days of ultraviolent grindhouse cinema.
In this exclusive interview, RZA talks about what martial arts mean to him.
What sparked your interest in kung fu? Was it the old movies?
Yeah, I got into martial arts by watching movies and falling in love with them and of course trying to imitate and emulate what I saw on the screen. We’d all go buy magazines and books.
Who were some of your favorite actors?
One of RZA’s favorite actors: Jim Kelly in Black Belt Jones (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
What was it about kung fu that drew you in and made you so passionate about martial arts?
First, it was just the action and ability to fight without weapons and stuff like that, but then the spirituality of it resonated with me as a teenager.
Where did the crossover between hip-hop culture and kung fu come from?
I think the crossover came from the movies that we all watched on the silver screen or on Kung Fu Theater. Also, you know, dancing — kung fu in a way has a dancing pattern to it. In the movies, you see the guys flipping and stuff, and I think it just had a natural resonance. We were fascinated by what we saw on the big screen, and then we’d try things out in our neighborhoods. In my neighborhood, a lot of guys would get old mattresses and do flips on them. We would watch Bruce Lee and go home and make our own nunchaku.
When did you start formal training?
When I was about 11 years old. There was a guy [who] was a brown belt in karate, and I had a buddy named Jose [who] was really good. He’d take us out to Silver Lake Park in Staten Island and show us karate moves and things like that when I was young, but I can’t say I officially joined as a disciple of the martial arts until I met sifu Shi Yan Ming from the USA Shaolin Temple and I was ordained as a disciple of Shaolin.
One of RZA’s instructors: Shi Yan Ming, as featured on the cover of the February 2001 Black Belt
What is training with Shi Yan Ming like?
He’s pretty intense. He trains in many styles, and for me, after reading so many books on martial arts, I didn’t want to get stuck in any one form. I like what Bruce Lee taught about [being] “like water and using all forms,” so what I learned from him was the basic studies of chi kung, which is essentially the root of martial arts. I use that as my foundation principles for whatever I want to learn.
There was a book called The Tiger/Crane Form of Hung Gar Kung Fu — I had that book for years, and I would always try to pick moves out of the book and never would do them right. For [The Man With the Iron Fists], I went and got a hung gar master who showed me the proper way to do the form. Now I can say I know hung gar.
One of RZA’s inspirations: this book by Bucksam Kong (cover of revised edition shown)
How have you incorporated martial arts philosophy into your own work and life?
Martial arts principles and philosophies are part of my everyday life. Whether it’s the way I conduct my business, socialize with my friends or play chess, I’m always thinking in a martial way. If you would say, for instance, pa kua says to practice the “walk of the circle” yet hsing-i says you practice in a straight line — I’ve realized that in life you can’t always walk straight through something. Sometimes you got to walk around it, you know what I mean? (laughing) Faced with a situation, you got to be able to apply any principle based on the situation, so it’s not only a principle thing. Sometimes you do have to go in a circle to figure out things, and sometimes it’s a straight path.
How did the concept of The Man With the Iron Fists evolve?
The concept started around 2005 when I sat down to focus on not just writing the story but writing the screenplay.
How did you start working with Eli Roth?
We met at Quentin Tarantino’s house, actually; we used to watch movies there together. But we really didn’t become cool or acquainted until I was on the way back from Iceland. I had a long flight with him, and I told him about the movie The Man With the Iron Fists. He loved the idea, and we became buddies.
How did you balance writing, directing and starring?
“Be like water.” (laughing) It was no easy job. I think martial arts principles are part of what it takes—many different styles, and different styles are tools for different occasions.
What was it like working with the actors?
Cung Le was great, man! He has all these training techniques that he shared with us and got me in shape. Corey Yuen is a treasure for action directors, and he was a valuable resource to have on the set with us. He was able to take the ideas that we would storyboard and bring them to life. He had a lot of ideas, and I would talk to him and he would bring them to life.
(Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
The Art That Inspired the Artist
The Tiger/Crane Form of Hung Gar Kung Fu — the book that RZA says was so inspirational for him during his youth — was written by Black Belt Hall of Fame member Bucksam Kong in 1983. It recently went out of print but soon will be transformed into an e-book. (In the meantime, copies may be available on Amazon.com. For information about Bucksam Kong’s hung gar kung fu DVDs and video downloads, click here.