Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese Wushu Association Symbol

The Chinese Wushu Association, the primary governing body for Chinese-style martial arts in that nation, has released a statement declaring martial arts practitioners should refrain from calling themselves "masters" or the head of a style. The organization also seemed to indicate that practitioners should not participate in staged public fights.

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What Robin Hood is to Great Britain, Wong Fei-hung is to China: a folk hero with a reputation of standing up for the poor and downtrodden. However, while Robin Hood is a fictional character, Wong (the family name is first) is a real person. He was born in what is now Guangdong Province in China, and lived from 1847 to 1924. Wong was an exceptionally skilled martial artist. As a child, he learned Hung-Gar from his father, and later went on to train with several other masters and open his own school.

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In addition to appearing in three Bruce Lee classics, Tony Liu portrayed in four films a Chinese emperor who had a great impact on the way the martial arts evolved in China and around the world.

This blog post will test your knowledge of kung fu films, challenge your understanding of who’s had the greatest impact on the development of Chinese martial arts movies and maybe even cause you to examine your kung fu film “nerd quotient.” My first question is, What ever happened to Tony? Tony the Tiger? No, but he was g-r-reat! Tony Jaa? Too much of a suit-and-Thai guy to be linked to Chinese cinema. How about To Ni? Nah, he was a background actor often seen in old films but rarely credited. My question refers to the first actor to bear the brunt of Bruce Lee's iconic death blow: Tony Liu, aka Liu Yong.

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Find out where the Five Venoms came from, how they evolved in subsequent fight films and why they ruled drive-ins and cable television in the 1970s and '80s.

We all love martial arts movies. Right now, let's test your knowledge of one part of this vibrant genre: kung fu films. Your first task is to name the Five Venoms. For extra credit, tell me how many films the actors who played them made together. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I bet most of you didn’t get the answers right. If that’s the result of a lack of interest in Chinese martial arts movies, all I can say is you don’t know what you’re missing. If it’s the result of the confusion that was created by the way the movies were marketed in the United States, you have a valid excuse. But let's continue. It all started in 1978 when cameras rolled to make a Shaw Brothers kung fu film titled The Five Venoms. It also would be known as The Five Deadly Venoms and Five Poisons, the latter being a direct translation of the movie’s Chinese title. Now here’s the rub: Five Venoms actually featured eight venoms. So if there really were eight venoms, why are only five reflected in the title? The answer is complicated — and confusing. The five venoms and the actors who played them were Scorpion Gai Ji (Sun Chien), Toad Liang Shen (Lo Meng), Centipede Zhang Yiao-tian (Lu Feng), Snake Qi Dong (Wei Bai) and Gecko Meng Tian-xia (Kuo Chue). The other three venoms didn’t have associated animals. They were Yang De (Chiang Sheng), the head of Venom House (Dick Wei) and the bookkeeper (Ku Feng). The actors who portrayed the five venoms appeared together in only three other films: The Kid With the Golden Arm (1979), Invincible Shaolin (1978) and The Brave Archer II (1978), the last of which was shot before Five Venoms. Yet an additional 16 movies were released in America under the banner of “films that featured the five venoms.” Keep reading to find out how that came to be. Read all about the Five Venoms and the other films mentioned in this article in Dr. Craig D. Reid's book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors. Order it now on Amazon.com! In the late 1970s, kung fu films were on the decline. After all, the king of martial arts cinema — Bruce Lee — had died in 1973, and no one had been able to fill his shoes. Furthermore, drive-ins — the outdoor theaters where kung fu films ruled — were waning. Then out of nowhere, cable TV appeared. Scores of just-launched channels began searching for programs to attract audiences, and they were willing to accept movies that network-TV execs would never deem acceptable. Cable distributors decided the solution to this problem lay with the studio that started the kung fu craze in the USA: Shaw Brothers. They immediately began asking which English-dubbed offerings were available. At the top of the list were Five Venoms, Golden Arm, The Master Killer and Chinatown Kid. Each one wound up getting lots of cable-TV airtime in the afternoon and late at night, but it was Five Venoms that had the biggest impact. Download a free guide titled “Jim Kelly: Martial Artist and Co-Star of the Bruce Lee Movie Enter the Dragon — A Vintage Interview.” Just click here! American video distributors quickly keyed into that popularity and began buying rights for films that featured those kung fu stars. The sixth venom actor, Chiang, became a replacement for one of the original five, Wei Bai. So the first follow-up film that was advertised as featuring the five venoms — Crippled Avengers in 1978 — was conveniently renamed Return of the Five Deadly Venoms. Wei suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder that causes uncontrollable motor and vocal tics. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to control the outbursts on camera. Consequently, his last appearance with the four venoms was in Golden Arm, and even by then, his martial skills were fading. It was fortuitous that Wei used a sword during his fights in Golden Arm because it minimized the direct body contact he had with the stuntmen. That, in turn, lowered the frequency of tics on the set.

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Western critics loved this film about Bruce Lee's teacher even though most of them probably missed the numerous nods to the true martial arts lifestyle.

The Grandmaster (2013) is the first and only kung fu movie to come from Hong Kong film auteur Wong Kar-wai, but by no means does it suffer because of that. In fact, Western critics loved The Grandmaster — even though most probably didn’t grasp its full meaning. Wong is no noob when it comes to filmmaking. His resume includes Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). So when he conceived of The Grandmaster as an authentic depiction of wing chun kung fu that features purposefully hidden martial arts nuances, it’s safe to say he knew what he was doing. You can’t blame the reviewers for failing to notice those concealed treasures. The truth is, anyone who’s not a martial arts practitioner likely won’t appreciate the subtleties of the film. Zhang Zi Yi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; House of Flying Daggers) as the daughter of Gong Yu-tian. Before Wong Kar-wai started shooting the movie, he devoted several years to research, roaming around China in search of old kung fu masters. He even lived with a few so he could learn about and actually experience the traditions of the martial arts. During that time, many of those masters shared stories that otherwise would never have been told.

Have you read Bruce Lee: Wisdom for the Way? It’s a must for all martial artists. Order your copy here — it’s on sale!

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