The strength of the Chinese film industry has always been uniquely intertwined with its historical roots in martial arts, extraordinarily translated into film through its lavish antiquity and brilliantly conceived fight sequences, which encompasses outrageously brutal and visceral visions of pugilistic marvelry and steel-slashing bewitchment.

Like most major kung fu film stars, Jet Li has oft portrayed real life, Chinese kung fu heroes.

The legends surrounding the Shaolin Temple are important parts of Chinese (real) history and Chinese kung fu cinema (reel) history. Many screen adaptations of these whispered tales of gore and lore, focused on the Sung Shan and Jiu Lian Shan Shaolin Temple burnings, the fabled heroes that emerged from these arsonous acts and the Wu Dung martial arts school. Yet Jet Li’s first movie went further back in time…

jet li films the shaolin temple

Jet Li in The Shaolin Temple (1982)

jet li films the shaolin temple poster

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.

Jet Li in The Shaolin Temple (1982)

Jet Li in Tai Chi Master (1993)

jet li films Tai Chi Master poster

Jet 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 taiji to 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 taiji to defeat Chin’s Shaolin kung fu.

After the second Manchu Emperor Yong Zheng (1723-1735) ordered the Shaolin temple burnings, four groups of heroes arose from the ashes: the Five Ancestors of Shaolin; the Five Elders of Shaolin; the Ten Tigers of Shaolin; and the Ten Tigers of Canton. Jet Li played two of the most famous 10 Tigers of Shaolin, Fang Shi-yu in Fong Sai Yuk I and II (1993) and Hong Xi-guan in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994). All three films were directed by Yuen Kwei (Corey Yuen).

Jet Li in Tai Chi Master

Jet Li in Fong Sai Yuk I and II (1993)

jet li fong sai yuk one poster
jet li fong sai yuk two poster

As a one-month-old child, Fang Shi-yu’s mum 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 short tempered and a teen with an attitude, he was still a champion of the people and fought for righteousness.

However, it was these same virtues that partially led to the historic hatred between the Wu Dung and Shaolin when at age 14, Fang killed Wu Dung disciple Lei Lao-hu. It’s conjectured that Fang either died during the Jiu Lian Shan Temple fire or shortly thereafter, but either way he died in his early ’20s and was famous for his flower sword maneuvers. Both of Jet’s Fang films dealt with Fang’s association with the anti-Ching Red Flower Society.

jet li fong sai yuk poster

Jet Li in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994)

Jet Li The New Legend of Shaolin poster

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

After his first wife Liu Ying-chun bore him one son, she died. Hong then married Fong Wing Chun who was a white crane 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 kung fu or Hong Family style).

Though in several films, Hong’s character died while fighting the Chings, it’s thought that he actually died in 1821 at age 93 during a fight with a young female Phoenix Eye Fist stylist.

Of particular significance of Jet’s Hong portrayal in New Legend, this is the only film to date that brilliantly features Hong’s Shaolin Pole expertise as he and his son traverse China battling a Ching kung fu super villain.

Jet Li The New Legend of Shaolin
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