Jet Li’s Reel-to-Real Kung Fu Hero Roles, Part 1

Jet Li in Shaolin Temple
Shaolin Temple / Emperor Motion Pictures

Dr. Craig’s Kung Fu Movie Lounge

The strength of the Chinese film industry has always been uniquely intertwined with its historical roots in the martial arts, extraordinarily translated into film through its lavish antiquity and brilliantly conceived fight sequences, which encompass outrageously brutal and visceral visions of pugilism and steel-slashing bewitchment. Like many major kung fu film stars, Jet Li has often portrayed real-life Chinese kung fu heroes.

I first met Jet Li in 1998 on the set of Lethal Weapon 4, and when it came my turn to speak with him, I used Chinese. A 10-minute time limit turned to 30 minutes as he excitedly shared his thoughts. “Many kung fu films are based on the wu xia xiao shuo (kung fu novels), things that were banned in China,” he said. “After Chairman Mao died and the Gang of Four ended, by 1976, the country changed a lot. At that time, we hear about Taiwan singers. In 1977, we can buy Liu Chia-liang and Jackie Chan films. I heard about Bruce Lee in 1974 after we traveled through Hong Kong after being in America.

“Chinese Connection was the first action film I ever saw. After that, I wanted to do film. I told my teacher this, and he said wait five years. Five years later, I was given my first script.”

Charismatic and highly skilled, Jet Li embarked on a film career that took off after he was discovered by director Chang Hsin-yen and cast to star in The Shaolin Temple (1982). It was China’s first kung fu movie since 1949. Taking three years to film, it inspired people to visit the real temple’s remains, forcing the government to warn the public that it was unnecessary for people in China to learn self-defense. Like many famous Hong Kong martial arts stars, Li counts among his best films those that have been based on Chinese martial arts legends of yore.

In Shaolin Temple, Jet Li plays Jue Yuan, one of a band of real Shaolin monks who rescued future Tang-dynasty Emperor Li Shi-min from his father’s evil Sui-dynasty enemies. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Li said. “I just followed the director’s orders and got paid one yuan ($0.20) a day for this film and the two other sequels.”

Ironically, I first saw this film in Taiwan in 1984 on a bootleg Betamax tape.
Jet Li

Shaolin Temple / Emperor Motion Pictures

In recognition of the monks’ bravery and martial arts skills, when Shi-min ascended to the throne as Emperor Taizong (A.D. 626-649) — as the film and history explain — he granted extra land to the temple and decreed that monks could eat meat and drink alcohol if they chose to.

When Sung-dynasty scholar Zhang San-feng joined Shaolin, he quickly became the best student. A few years later, left the temple to find his own way. While passing through the Wudang mountains, he was so overwhelmed by their beauty that he decided to become a hermit and live there. Then he developed the wudang school of martial arts.

As the legend goes, in 1365, Zhang saw a crane fighting a snake. The snake used soft, coiling motions to ward off the bird’s attacks, and the crane used its wings to fend off the snake’s strikes. Inspired, Zhang combined Taoist breathing exercises with these soft, fluid, coiling self-defense moves and created the internal kung fu style known as mien chuen(cotton fist), the foundation for tai chi chuan, which ultimately evolved into the five major tai chi styles: chen, yang, wu, sun and wu/hao.

Jet Li portrays Zhang in the Yuen Woo-ping–directed Tai Chi Master (1993), which follows Zhang’s beginnings at Shaolin Temple, why he and his pal Chin Bo were kicked out, and how Zhang invents tai chito overcome amnesia brought on by the brutal acts committed by the traitorous Chin, who became a vile military commander for the government. Zhang then uses tai chi to defeat Chin’s Shaolin kung fu.

After the second Manchu Emperor Yong Zheng (1723-1735) ordered Shaolin Temple to be burned, the two most famous fires being Sung Shan and Jiu Lian Shan, four groups of heroes arose from the ashes: the Five Ancestors of Shaolin, the Five Elders of Shaolin, the 10 Tigers of Shaolin and the 10 Tigers of Canton. Li played two of the most famous 10 Tigers of Shaolin — Fang Shi-yu and Hong Xi-guan.

Fang was the first martial arts hero to be prominently featured in Chinese film beginning with Fong Sze Yu’s Battle in the Boxing Ring (1928). Fang was born in Canton. At a one month old, his mother Miao Cui-hua, who was the daughter of Miao Xian and a student of Wu Mei, both of whom were Five Elders of Shaolin, bathed him in herbal oil, then dressed him in successive layers of bamboo strips, wooden rods and iron bars so his muscles and joints became as hard as iron. Although a short-tempered teen with an attitude, he was still a champion of the people and fought for righteousness.

However, it was these virtues that partially led to the historic hatred between wudang and Shaolin when at age 14, Fang killed wudang disciple Lei Lao-hu. It’s conjectured Fang died during the Jiu Lian Shan fire or shortly thereafter, but either way, he died in his early 20s and was famous for his flower-sword skills.

Both of Li’s version of Fang — seen in the Corey Yuen–directed Fong Sai YukI and II (1993) — were lighthearted, whimsical affairs based on his association with the anti-Ching Red Flower Society, a far cry from the true fighting zealot Fang was in real life and how he was often portrayed in early Shaw Brothers films.

Born in Canton, Hong Xi-guan had royal lineage through Prince Liang, 15th son of the Ming Emperor Chong Zhen. During the Ching reign of Emperor Kang Xi, Hong joined the Heaven and Earth Association rebels to overthrow the Ching and restore the Ming.

Conflicting stories abound regarding Hong’s life and his second wife Fong Wing Chun. According to one story, after Hong escaped the Jiu Lian Shan fire in Fujian province, he escaped Ching persecution by hiding in the Red Junks, boats that Cantonese opera troupes used while traveling between villages. Shaolin refugees sheltered by those actors would often be taught kung fu.

After his first wife Liu Ying-chun bore him a son, she died. Hong then married Fong Wing Chun, who was a white-crane kung fu stylist. When they combined her crane skills with Hong’s tiger-fist techniques, it was the birth of Hong’s patented tiger-crane style, known today as hong chia chuen (aka hung gar or Hong-family style). Though in many films, Hong’s character dies while fighting the Ching, he probably expired in 1821 at age 93 during a fight with a young female phoenix-eye-fist stylist.

Apart from Jet Li’s version of Hong in the Corey Yuen–directed The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) being influenced by Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub samurai films, it’s significant that it’s the only film that brilliantly features Hong’s Shaolin-pole expertise as he and his son traverse the countryside battling a Ching kung fu super villain.

Another important part of New Legend is how Hong must save five children and deliver them to Chan Kan-nam, head of the Heaven and Earth Association, at the Red Flower Pavilion because they have a secret treasure map tattooed on their backs. The kids were named Tsai De-zhong, Fang Da-hong, Ma Chao-xing, Hu De-di and Li Shi-kai — the Five Ancestors of Shaolin. It was Yuen’s homage to the Five Ancestors, while in reality, Tsai was the lineage beginning for Fang and Hong’s sifu, the Five Elder Zhi Shan.

“Because of their stories, these men are real and famous in our history,” Jet Li noted. “Yet nobody knows their real life and in many cases what they looked like. Like Huang Fei-hong, there are over 100 movies about him, and each film tells that he’s a master, has a good heart and he’s not just about beating or killing people. But I had my own vision for making films about some of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin.”

In Part 2 of this stroll down Jet Li’s hero-roles memory lane, we’ll learn about Huang Fei-hung and two homage films to Bruce Lee stemming from Chinese Connection.

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