In the summer of 2022, I was asked to write short bios of who I thought were the top 100 martial artists of all time. After jotting down a list of 100, I noticed 50+ of them had a historical tie to the Shaolin Temple. Since part my martial arts lifestyle is strongly attached to martial arts cinema and martial arts cinema history, the idea of Shaolin Studios was born.
This is the 11th and final chapter of what has been a journey filled with extensive research and I appreciate the flexibility afforded to me by blackbeltmag.com. Shaolin became the first institutionalized martial art school in the world. It’s important to remind new generations that the fount of many a martial art movie arose from the fount of martial arts, the Shaolin Temple.
Though the Shaolin suffered other major crises during each dynasty and the modern era, such as being wrongly implicated to be teaching boxers during the Boxer Rebellion; and that 90% of one temple was burned down by a traitorous Kuo Ming Tang general, such events have never made it to the silver screen. Yet a story about a child practicing martial arts who affected the history of Shaolin Temple in a way that no other has done before, I felt was worth writing about.
The Last Kung Fu Emperor of China
The Chinese people are made up of five races: Han (the Chinese), Man (Manchus), Mong (Mongolians), Hui (Muslims) and Tsang (Tibetans). When the Manchus took over China and established the Ching Dynasty, that made the Han and Manchus bitter enemies.
In history, after the brutal 13-year reign of the Manchu Emperor Yong Zheng, known for razing and burning the Shaolin Temples and slaughtering many monks, his fourth son, Hong Li, became Emperor Chien Lung, the fifth emperor of the Ching Dynasty (fourth to rule over China) and he ruled China for 60 years (1736-1796). Due to his expertise in martial arts, Chien Lung was also known as the last kung fu emperor of China.
Chien Lung’s contribution to martial arts film is enormous. He recognized what his father did to the Shaolin was tragic and wrong, and he took it upon himself to rebuild and revitalize the return of Shaolin and Shaolin martial arts. Chien Lung was also a Chinese Opera buff and after becoming emperor he eventually invited all the top opera troupes to perform in Beijing. After choosing what he considered to be the top performers from each troupe, he then commissioned the creation of a Beijing opera school, and those performers became the teachers.
Who’d have thought that 170 years later Beijing opera performers would become the backbone for Hong Kong's amazing stuntmen that included many of the best fight choreographers in martial arts cinema like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and the father of wire-fu Ching Siu-tung.
In the 1970’s, Shaw Brothers made four films based on the life and times of Chien Lung, with Liu Yong starring in all four as Chien Lung. Liu was the first actor who received the brunt of Bruce Lee's first iconic and intensely furious, death blow punch seen in The Big Boss (1972).
One of the famous legends of the last kung fu emperor Chien Lung was that he secretly visited the area of Chiang Nan in southern China six times dressed as a commoner because he wanted to blend in and learn about how his subjects felt about him. On an interesting quantum entanglement note, one of the greatest warrior Kings of England, King Richard I (aka Richard the Lion Hearted; 1157-1199), during his reign only spent six months on British soil and during those periods, Richard would don peasant clothes six times to walk among his subjects.
One of Chien Lung’s trips is the focus of Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung (1977), where during this excursion Chien Lung wanted to understand the whole subculture of tea.
Yet also in this film, we bear witness as to how Chien Lung learned to defend himself while growing up in the cold Mulan lands of Heilongjiang province in northern China and as a young teen saved his grandfather Emperor Kang Xi’s life from a ferocious black bear during a hunting trip.
Though he had no direct impact on improving any specific Shaolin martial skills, Chien Lung helped maintain Shaolin’s popularity and cultural significance during the Ching dynasty as the temple and its martial arts continued to flourish during his reign.
A Fatherless Impoverished Son Born 1963, impoverished as a child, father died when he was two, at age nine, Jet Li (Lee Lian-jei) began his martial arts flight and by 1982 he became one of the most important Shaolin martial artists since the Ten Tigers of Canton by instigating one of the largest revivals of Shaolin martial arts in history against overwhelming odds and at a critical time in China’s history.
Jet Li is a descendant of a creed bent on the subterfuge of intellectuals and philosophers, a government that outlawed martial arts, and who zealously destroyed Shaolin Temples and executed Shaolin monks who refused to enter re‑education camps.
Yet Li broke down these fabled walls of scourge to become Communist China's first actor to conquer the shores of Hollywood. He derisively accomplished this feat by excelling in the cultural contraband of martial arts, philosophy and cinema.
Li was raised during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was a time when Shanghai movie star wannabe Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) was at the peak of her relentless, wholesale house cleaning of the arts. Li began practicing wushu as Madame Mao organized the dreaded "Gang of Four."
Although terms like wushu and kung fu can be considered as synonyms for Chinese martial arts, the Chinese government reinstated wushu as a sport in the early 1950s, eradicating the combative and philosophical aspects of the arts. During wushu's auspicious beginning, movements were performed with hands held as tight fists, representative of the hammer striking out against the nail of capitalism. Charismatic and highly skilled, Jet'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 public never stopped visiting and as the world became privy to wushu and Jet Li, global interest about Shaolin and wushu exploded.
In Shaolin Temple, Jet plays Jue Yuan, one of a band of real 13 Shaolin monks that rescued future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shi-min from his father's evil Sui Dynasty enemies. 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 explained that he granted extra land to the temple and decreed that a monk could eat meat and drink alcohol if he chose to.
Though two non-related sequels were shot, Shaolin Temple led to the eventual resurgence and reopening of the Shaolin Temple doors, and most importantly the film’s underlying impact reinstated the cultural and historical recognition and significance of the Shaolin Temple in China, yet this time on a global level.
In 1973, at age 16, my life’s goal was to go to Song Shan Shaolin and learn Chi Gong. The irony of life is that in 1980, I learned Chi Gong in the Song Shan area of Taipei, Taiwan. Far out.