Jet Li in The Shaolin Temple (1982)
Charismatic and highly skilled, Jet Li’s film career took off after he was discovered by director Chang Hsin-yen to star in The Shaolin Temple (1982), China’s first kung fu film since the Communist takeover in 1949. Taking three years to film, the movie inspired millions to visit the real temple’s remains forcing the paranoid government to warn the public that it was unnecessary for people in China to learn self defense.
Yet the film still led to the eventual resurgence and reopening of the Shaolin Temple doors in China.
In Shaolin Temple, Jet Li plays Jue Yuan, one of a band of real Shaolin monks that rescued future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shi-min from his father’s evil Sui Dynasty enemies. The film spawned two sequels. Jet once shared with me, “Had no idea what I was doing, just followed the director’s orders and got paid one yuan (20 cents) a day for all three films.”
In recognition of the monks’ bravery and martial skills, when Li ascended to the throne as Emperor Taizong (A.D. 626-649), the film and history explain that he granted extra land to the temple and decreed that a monk could eat meat and drink alcohol if he chose to.
When Sung Dynasty scholar Zhang San-feng joined Shaolin, he quickly became the best student and a few years later left the temple to find his own way. While passing by the Wu Dung Mountains, he was so overwhelmed by their beauty that he decided to become a hermit and live there where he developed the Wu Dung (translation: what martial arts should be) school of martial arts.
As 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 mien chuen (cotton fist), the foundation for taiji (tai chi) that ultimately evolved into five major taiji styles…chen, yang, wu, sun and wu/hao.