In celebration of the growing popularity of martial arts cinema, Black Belt asked me to devise a list of the top 20 martial arts film stars. In reality, this list could have been different for each decade since the 1970s because in years past, one could reflect only on names with which the audience might be familiar. But today’s kung fu film fans are more sophisticated and aware of not only who the biggest martial arts stars of today are but also who the legends of yesteryear were. So this ranking promises to stand the test of time. The actors were chosen based not on their martial arts abilities but on their impact on the history and development of the genre.
Martial Arts Film Star #20: David Carradine
Only two Americans have influenced the essence of the martial arts in the West. Bruce Lee is one—we’ll deal with him later—and David Carradine is the other. Carradine’s original Kung Fu TV pilot and series, which ran on ABC from 1972 to 1975, is the only show that truly tried to reflect the soul and spirit of Shaolin Temple. It focused on living in peace, healing and learning the martial arts so one doesn’t have to fight—all of which are lessons modern students would do well to concentrate on.
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Martial Arts Film Star #19: Lo Lieh
Born as Wang Li-da in Indonesia, Lo Lieh moved to Hong Kong at age 10. After he signed with Shaw Brothers Studios, his rugged looks made him one of kung fu film’s earliest perennial villains. Ironically, the movie that brought him fame was King Boxer (1972), the first Chinese kung fu film released in America (as Five Fingers of Death). Starring in more than 180 movies—sometimes shooting 10 at the same time—Lo was originally targeted to play monk Bai Mei in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but he passed away before it began.
Martial Arts Film Star #18: Alexander Fu Sheng
Born in 1954 as Zhang Fu-Sheng, Alexander Fu Sheng owed his start to director Chang Cheh when he was cast in Police Force (1973). Starring in 39 kung fu films, he later took on roles with more comic appeal and was supposed to be Shaw Brothers’ answer to Golden Harvest’s Jackie Chan. But on July 7, 1983, while shooting 8-Diagram Pole Fighter, Fu Sheng died in a car crash. In an ironic twist, he lived in Bruce Lee’s house in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and died almost 10 years after Lee did.
Martial Arts Film Star #17: Ti Lung
Born as Tan Fu-rong and trained in wing chun, Ti Lung was a competent tailor before being cast with longtime cohort David Chiang in Dead End (1969). He attained superstar status with Blood Brothers (1972), which was co-directed by John Woo. After the trio broke up, Ti’s status was cemented with The Sentimental Swordsman (1977) and The Deadly Breaking Sword (1979), making him one of Shaw Brothers’ perennial heroes. Although replaced by Jet Li for Once Upon a Time in China (1991), Ti co-starred in Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II.
Martial Arts Film Star #16: Wang Lung-Wei
A veteran of more than 85 films, Wang Lung-Wei is one of the few actors who have no martial arts background but can look like a real master. His history in boxing helped him quickly pick up martial arts movements while rehearsing. A master of portraying cold-faced, ruthless characters, Wang exhibited superb screen-fighting abilities that made him a powerhouse villain and a favorite heavy. Three Evil Masters (1980), My Young Auntie (1981) and Martial Club (1981) are his must-see films.
Martial Arts Film Star #15: David Chiang
David Chiang (born as Jiang Wei-nian) was a child actor before hooking up with Shaw Brothers in 1966. After he appeared in Dead End and The Wandering Swordsman (1969), director Chang Cheh introduced him to his friend Ti Lung, and they made a string of blockbusters that included Vengeance (1970), Duel of Fists (1971) and The Water Margin (1974). The three became known as the Iron Triangle. Although Chiang starred in more than 80 kung fu films, fans of the genre recognize him best as the Chinese hero who appeared alongside Peter Cushing in the Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).
Martial Arts Film Star #14: Shintaro Katsu
Born as Toshio Okamura, Shintaro Katsu is best-known for playing a blind nomadic gambler and masseur named Zatoichi, whose humble facade hid a swordsman with a breathtaking quick-draw. From 1962 to 1989, Katsu made 26 Zatoichi feature films, with new installments coming out bimonthly in 1964. Katsu also produced the manga-based Lone Wolf and Cub film series (aka Shogun Assassin), which starred his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. A remake of Zatoichi starring Takeshi Katano was made in 2003.
Martial Arts Film Star #13: Chen Kuan-Tai
Prior to pursuing a career in film, Chen Kuan-Tai was a Hong Kong fireman and the 1969 light-heavyweight champion of the Southeast Asian Chinese Martial Arts Tournament. A kung fu practitioner since the age of 8, he was the first martial arts champ to enter moviemaking. He began as a stuntman in Kuan Tak-hing’s Huang Fei-hung movies, then made his mark in Boxer From Shantung (1972), which was co-directed by John Woo. Chen starred in more than 80 films, struck gold directing Iron Monkey (1977) and won critical acclaim for his role in Killer Constable (1980).
Martial Arts Film Star #12: The “Five Venoms”
Although based on five actors (really six) from the Shaw Brothers classic The Five Venoms (1978), the “Five Venoms” is a group of actors who worked together to make 20 of the most intricately choreographed weapons films ever. The actors were Philip Kwok, the leader, usually playing a good guy; Chiang Sheng, noted for humor and using double weapons; Lo Meng, the muscle-and-fists fighter; Sun Chien, the kicker; Lu Feng, usually a villain; and Wei Bai, who worked mostly behind the camera because of Tourette’s syndrome.
Martial Arts Film Star #11: Michelle Yeoh
Born in Malaysia with the name Yang Zi-chong, Michelle Yeoh trained in ballet at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her physical prowess brought her opportunities to star in The Heroic Trio (1992), Wing Chun (1994) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The Hong Kong stunt biz is a male-dominated industry, so when action-directors Ching Siu Tung, Stanley Tong, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan say Yeoh is the best stuntwoman-fighter in the film industry, that about says it all. Ironically, she doesn’t practice the martial arts.
Martial Arts Film Star #10: Sonny Chiba
Born in 1939 as Sadao Maeda, Sonny Chiba studied Noh (classical Japanese drama) and was a contender for Japan’s Olympic gymnastics team until he injured his back and began practicing karate under Mas Oyama. Joining Toei Studios in 1961, he used his muscle-bound body to become its answer to Bruce Lee. Chiba’s ultrabrutal The Streetfighter (1974) was the first movie released in America with an X-rating for violence. Its success spawned three sequels. Capping a career that spans 40 years and 140 films, Chiba co-starred in Kill Bill as Hattori Hanzo, a character he once played on Japanese television.
Martial Arts Film Star #9: Jimmy Wong Yu
Born in 1942, Jimmy Wong Yu was originally named Wong Zheng-quan. After making plans to further his civil-engineering and business background while studying abroad, on a lark he auditioned at Shaw Brothers Studios. Out of 5,000 hopefuls, he was one of three who made the grade. At a time when romances and musicals overshadowed action films, director Chang Cheh cast Wong Yu in a macho, heroic bloodshed film titled One-Armed Swordsman (1967), and it shot him to stardom. In The Chinese Boxer (1969), he launched a new type of movie that blended the “rival school” and “crippled hero” motifs. He’s renowned as the first star to do all his own fights and stunts.
Martial Arts Film Star #8: Cheng Pei Pei
Born in Shanghai, Cheng Pei Pei trained as a ballet dancer. She was abandoned at age 15 and forced to fend for herself and her younger sister. Shaw Brothers discovered her in 1963. Cheng was groomed to play male characters in opera films until a young director named King Hu chose her to star in a new-wave swordswoman film titled Come Drink With Me (1965). It set new standards for all wu xia movies to come. (Director Ang Lee admitted that it was the inspiration behind Crouching Tiger and the reason he cast Cheng in it.) With Cheng’s subsequent success, she was dubbed the first “Queen of Kung Fu Films.”
Martial Arts Film Star #7: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui
Born with the Chinese name of Xian Qi-xi and the English name of Louis Sin, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui skipped school to practice the martial arts under the renowned Liu Zhan. Later, in honor of Liu Zhan’s skills, Gordon changed his name to Liu and was adopted into the family. He initially planned to become a policeman, but at the bequest of his kung fu brother, noted director Liu Chia-liang, Gordon Liu became an actor for Shaw Brothers in 1974. With his landmark role in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) playing real-life monk San Te, he quickly built a name that symbolized the Shaolin priesthood. The West knows him best for his roles as head of the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Bai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2.
Martial Arts Film Star #6: Toshiro Mifune
Born and raised in China, Toshiro Mifune was a Japanese recon pilot during World War II. Then in 1946 he applied for the job of camera assistant at Toho Studios. During the interview, he was asked to laugh and act drunk. One of the interviewers was Akira Kurosawa, who upon witnessing the performance, hired Mifune. He ended up using him in 16 samurai masterpieces, including Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). His poker-faced stare, which gave audiences the impression that he was constantly on the brink of rage, made him the most recognized face in samurai filmdom. That reputation was cemented early on with his portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi in Samurai (1954).
Martial Arts Film Star #5: Kwan Tak-Hing
In 1949 filmmaker Wu Peng revived the dying Cantonese cinema of Hong Kong by casting Cantonese opera star Kwan Tak-Hing to play legendary folk hero Huang Fei-hung. Born in 1906, Kwan was dubbed the “Patriotic Entertainer” for raising funds in the United States for the Chinese war effort against Japan. A master of the white crane and hong styles of kung fu, he was also an expert lion dancer and calligrapher. Over the course of 85 films, his name became synonymous with Huang Fei-hung, and his movies were seen as the official start of the gung fu pian (kung fu film genre).
Martial Arts Film Star #4: Sammo Hung
At age 10, Sammo Hung enrolled in a Beijing opera school, where he learned the skills that would eventually see him through more than 140 movies. He’s the man Jackie Chan calls “big brother” and regularly seeks council from. Many believe Hung’s films (Magnificent Butcher in 1980, Prodigal Son in 1981) feature better choreography than Chan’s. Hung later branched into muo shan shu (Chinese voodoo) moviemaking, where productions such as Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1981) and Dead and the Deadly (1982) mixed slapstick comedy with startling brutality. Although many Western fans know Hung as the portly monk who battled Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, his CBS series Martial Law was rated No. 1 in its time slot for two seasons.
Martial Arts Film Star #3: Jet Li
Born in 1963 and raised during the Cultural Revolution, Jet Li is the first Communist Chinese film star to make it in Hollywood. His first effort, The Shaolin Temple (1979), was the first kung fu movie made in China since Mao Zedong outlawed the traditional martial arts in 1949 and ordered the destruction of the real Shaolin Temple. Although Li’s a public figure in China, his belief in Tibetan Buddhism and a way of life frowned upon by his government has led him beyond the political quagmire and put him on a more philosophical path.
Martial Arts Film Star #2: Jackie Chan
With his mind-numbing stunts performed with little regard for personal safety, Jackie Chan is one of the few martial arts actors who have literally sacrificed their bodies for film—all in the name of creating martial arts set pieces that no one else dared attempt. Others now emulate Chan, but he did it without the forethought of consequence, and he wasn’t copying anyone. Twice when the Hong Kong film industry was dying from its own copycat mentality, Chan rose above the standard fare and created new directions in choreography. He wound up establishing a new genre: wu da pian, or movies that combine gymnastics, martial arts and death-defying stunts.
Martial Arts Film Star #1: Bruce Lee
The No. 1 spot on this top 20 list is occupied by Bruce Lee because he accomplished the impossible: He not only gave the Chinese people and nation an identity, but he also made Asian-American kids proud to be Asian. In the end, he inspired more people to practice the martial arts than anyone else in history. He also broke down racial barriers under the banner of using the martial arts as a path to brotherhood and self-expression. If it wasn’t for Lee giving Hong Kong movies and martial arts cinema legitimacy around the world, the martial arts film industry would not have the impact—or the box-office dollars—it has today.
(Dr. Craig D. Reid is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and fight choreographer with more than 20 years in the business. For more martial arts movie wisdom, check out his book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors).