Updated: Nov 14
In this Shaolin Studios penultimate chapter, where like many major film studios with cinematic historical foundations see new studios evolve from the original ashes to keep the films and stories alive with contemporary plots, it’s important to remind new generations that the fount of many a martial art movie has arisen from the fount of martial arts…the Shaolin Temple.
When it comes to the Temple Burnings, vital source material is based on the Annals of the Hung League (anti-Ching brotherhood pact created by the Five Elders of Shaolin at the Red Flower Pavilion in 1736) and an old manuscript copy of the Annals of the Heaven and Earth Society in the British Museum. Regarding the Ten Tigers of Canton, they’re filled with contradictory information in regard to the members’ names and existence. Adding to the confusion, other surviving documents from these secret societies corroborate or disagree with these worlds of Shaolin legend lists as reality or fictional non-fiction passings, where perhaps each list includes members of their own respective societies included into the Ten. Also, one Tiger’s name can be represented by two Tigers, thus a space for adding a new name. And this has been done in film.
One of the most famous of these films is Chang Cheh’s Ten Tigers of Kwantung (1979; TTKT) that is missing two tigers: Tan ji-yuin: and a reputed major Shaolin hero that has appeared in other films, Lu A-tsai. In 1979, one of the hottest Shaw Brothers actors was Alexander Fu Shen, who was predicted to overshadow rival film studio, Golden Harvest’s Jackie Chan. Though Fu Shen played Tan Ming, a nonsensical character that is not on any 10 Tiger list, it is my conjecture that he was playing the combined caricatures of Tan Ji-Yuin and Lu A-Tsai.
Ten Tigers of Shaolin (1978)– The Big Fib The second most famous film, for all the wrong reasons, is the English title Ten Tigers of Shaolin (1978; see poster above). Though made before TTKT, Ten Tigers of Shaolin mostly features little known actors playing the various 10 Tigers of Canton roles, yet the main star, Bruce Leung Xiao Lung (from Brucexploitation films), portrays a frivolous character perhaps based on Lu A-Tsai. It’s unclear and I’ve never seen the Chinese version, so I don’t recognize the characters names based on the English dub. Chang’s film far outshined this version of the tale. Though the Chinese title of Leung’s rendition translates as 10 Tigers of Canton, when English dubbed films were being bought, the distributers changed the name to Shaolin, because back then, titles with Shaolin were more attractive. We were all pathetically duped, not by accident, but on purpose.
Before the listing the remaining six of the 12 Tigers of Canton, it’s a good time to address the hanging question from Ten Tigers of Canton Part I, “Why are there only 10 Tigers of Shaolin or 10 Tigers of Canton, wouldn’t it be better if there were 20, 50 or an army of them?” Answer: The famous Chinese idiom, Shi Chuen Shi Mei (Mandarin Chinese) states that 10 is Perfect and 10 is Beauty. To reiterate from Part I, based on available information, details on several of the Canton Tigers is unfortunately extremely limited.
Lu A-tsai was a Manchu, who orphaned at an early age and raised by an abusive uncle, ran away from home, and became a servant at age 12. Living a tough and torrid life, his fortunes changed when he met Shaolin monk Li Bai-fu at a Cantonese opera performance in Canton and became Li's disciple. Lu trained with Li for seven years learning the powerful Flower Fist style before being introduced by Li to one of the Five Elders of Shaolin, Zhi Shan, at Jiu Lian Shan Shaolin.
After several years under Zhi Shan and perfecting the rare 8-Diagram Pole skill, (created during the Sung dynasty by Yang Wu-lung that could be used with a spear), Zhi sent Lu to learn Hong Jia-chuen (Hung Gar kung fu) from its founder Hong Xi-guan (a Ten Tiger of Shaolin), to help Hong set up his new martial arts school and to help spread the art in Canton.
In the Liu Chia-liang directed Challenge of the Masters (1976), Chen Kuan-tai playing Lu is seen teaching the secret 8-Diagram Pole skill to Huang Chi-ying's son, Huang Fei-hung to prepare Fei-hung to fight a skilled spear-wielding villain.
Another version of Lu's travels indicates that after escaping the Jiu Lian Temple burning, Lu fled to Canton where he met his first, last and only student, Chi-ying. When Lu was on his death bed, and Chi-ying sought his advice on how to defeat the powerful rugged fighter Big Kam, who was an expert of the Left-Handed Fishing Pole, while propped up by pillows in bed and using a pair of chopsticks to represent cudgels Lu taught Chi-Ying the 8-Daigram Pole technique. In the balance, if Chi-ying lost he would have to end his medical practice and close his martial arts school. Lu died at 68 at his home Lei Shan lodge never knowing the outcome of the duel.
Two film notes of interest; years later Chen Kuan-tia played Hong Xi-guan, in Executioner of Shaolin; and Gordon Liu played Yang Wu-lung in The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983).
Perhaps a reason why in Chang’s TTKT had Fu Shen play the combo character Tan Ji-Yuin and Lu A-Tsai under the pseudo name Tan Ming is that Chang may have had some kind of sensitivity issue in the 1970s using a Manchu fighter as a Shaolin hero.
Tan Ji-yuin Born in Canton, aka Tan Ji-her, his nickname was Three Legs Tan for the three kicks he used during combat: the No shadow kick, something akin to what Jet Li as Huang Fei-hung does in Once Upon a Time In China (1991; OUTIC), at one time in Hollywood being referred to as the Hong Kong kick; the Ground Tiger Tail Kick; and the Beautiful Dragon kick.
Chen Chang-tai Played by Lo Meng, a regular in the Five Weapon Guys films, yet mostly known for his role as the Golden Arm Kid in Kid with the Golden Arm (1979), Chen Chang-tai, aka Tie Zhi-chen, specialized in the martial art Iron Finger thus he was nicknamed Iron Finger Chen.
Huang Chi-ying Portrayed by Wei Bai (Snake in The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)), Huang Chi-ying was born in Xi Chao, Canton and grew up as child street performer. During a performance, he saw Zhi Shan's student Lu A-Tsai, who made Huang his first, last and only student. After training under Lu for 10 years, Huang became a martial arts instructor and taught the General of the Canton's Infantry Regiment. He earned little as a teacher and so to make ends meat, he opened the herbal medicine clinic Bao Zhi Lin. No body argues that Huang passed on his knowledge of medicine to his only son Fei-hong, yet whether he taught Fei-hong martial arts or not, it is debatable.
Although a constant character as Fei-hong’s dad in Tsui Hark's OUTIC films (1992-94), and in the Liu Chia-liang (the head of Hong Kong’s Hung Men back then) directed Challenge of the Masters (1978), A-tsai trains Fei-hong in Liu's typical fashion, where training is seen as a way of physical and spiritual development, which is most prominent in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). Donnie Yen's portrayal of a young Chi-ying in the Yuen Woo-ping directed Iron Monkey (1993) is arguably the best film revealing Chi-ying's combative performance.
On his deathbed, Lu taught Chi-ying the 8-Diagram Pole technique so Chi-ying could defeat the arrogant and feared fighter Big Kam. Although learning the eight basics of pole wielding overnight and during the duel Kam was trying to kill him, Chi-ying used great restraint, easily defeated Kam without hurting him and thus gained great respect and admiration within the country's kung-fu circles. It was this same conscientious approach to life and martial arts that Chi-ying passed onto Fei-hong, one of the most respected martial artists in martial art history.
As a student of Lu A-tsai, Huang Cheng-ke, not related to Chi-ying (last name is a different character) is oft portrayed as a specialist of the Nine Dragon Fist.
Although most historians agree Huang Fei-hung was not a Ten Tiger of Canton, he probably would’ve replaced his father if the Ching’s killed Chi-ying. Though he never become a Ten Tiger, Fei-hung is a compelling and important figure with strong ties to the Ten Tigers, so it seems appropriate to discuss his martial arts history and cinematic contributions here.
Born in 1847, in Xi Chiao village, Nanhai county in Canton province, folk hero Huang Fei-hong was the true reflection of the Confucian code. Apart from his phenomenal fighting skills, Huang was renowned for his chivalry, righteousness and "bone-setting" healing abilities.
As a child, Huang was a martial arts street performer, then a martial arts instructor for General Li Fu-ling's 5th Regiment of the Cantonese army and the Cantonese Civilian Militia. He devoted all of his time to running his father’s Bao Zhi Lin Chinese herb clinic.
Though a practitioner of Hong Chia kung-fu, Canton's best lion dancer hence nicknamed The Lion King, and an expert of Iron Wire Fist and No Shadow Kick, he was renowned for using the weapon Fei Tuo, a metal weight attached to a rope, which may have been developed through his Chinese medicine background from a weighing device similar to a Western plumb-bob scale.
Later in life he married Muo Gui-lan, a teenage bride that was bestowed to him in return for saving her father's life. However, deeply saddened by Bao Zhi Lin’s destruction during the Republican Revolution, Huang slowly passed away and died in 1924 at age 77.
After his death, he became the subject of a legend, people revering to him as a crusader for justice, a man of benevolence and a teacher of morality and ethics. The irony about Huang is that although his character has appeared in more films than any one individual in world cinema (110+ films and TV shows to date), very little is actually known about the real man.
Serialized Fei-hung kung fu novels appeared in seven newspapers and in 1949, filmmaker Wu Pang seeking to revive the deteriorating Cantonese cinema in Hong Kong made a film about the legendary patriot that starred Cantonese opera performer Kwan Tak-hing who went on to make 85 period films as Fei-Hung that featured realistic fight sequences, many choreographed by Yuen Xiao-tian (Yuen Woo-ping's father). This was the official start of the gung-fu pian (kung fu films) that of course hit a worldwide stride with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Fei-hung has also been portrayed by Gordon Liu in Challenge of the Masters (1976) and Martial Club (1980), Jackie Chan in Drunken Master (1979), then after a lull in the character there was a rebirth in 1992, with Jet Li in Tsui Hark's OUTIC .
As is common in many martial arts films where actual weapons or techniques remain secret, when Tsui had Li do Huang's patented No Shadow Kick, we’d see Li flying sideways through the air kicking his legs like riding a bicycle, nobody knows what the no shadow kick looks like. It also was so fast that it didn’t leave a shadow.
A final note on the history burnings, there exists a book called Evergreen, which was written during the Ching dynasty, the Manchu side of the story noting that the Shaolin were not heroes but violent rebels who were justly executed, thus also removing their names of Shaolin heroes long forgotten. It’s worthy to note that Tibet vehemently supported the Chings for 270+ years, a major error by that country because as we see now, Tibet is still paying that price today.
Why? It's something all martial artists need to recognize and address whether they’ve fought in the streets, martial art schools or full contact combat sports, they need to know how it relates to their physical, emotional, and mental injuries that come with combat; intergenerational trauma (I.T.).
According to the Chi Whisperer, I.T. refers to the passing down of traumatic experiences and their emotional and physical fallouts from one generation to another. This topic has gained significant attention in recent years recognizing that past and current traumatic events, like wars, genocide, slavery, natural disasters, pandemics, fighting and abuse, all have profound impacts on generations to come at the individual and community levels. Chi, something martial artists know, is key in healing intergenerational trauma, thus certainly this is a topic worth discussing later.