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A beginner’s guide to Kung Fu films - Part I June 24, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Articles , trackback

Part One: Definitions and a very brief history lesson.

New to Kung Fu movies?  Don’t know a Wong Fei-Hung from a Fong Sai-Yuk?  Wouldn’t know one end of a three-sectioned staff from another?  Fear not, for after watching far too many of these films, I now offer some background information to hopefully help with the viewing experience.  If it’s not in here, it isn’t worth mentioning.  Or it’s something I’ve forgotten.  Or something I never knew in the first place and was blissfully ignorant of.  In seriousness, this is all done tongue-in-cheek and should not be taken in the least bit seriously, apart from the bits that actually give out useful (and accurate) information, but I’ll try to keep this to a minimum.  Firstly, some general points…

Kung Fu movies have probably been around since the dawn of film technology, but the modern day Kung Fu movie was born in 1970 with the release of The Chinese Boxer and died of natural causes around 1984.  Its death came about as a result of several factors including the demise of the Shaw Brothers film studio and the popularity of modern day action movies like the ground breaking Police Story.  Kung fu movies originate in Hong Kong, or at a push, China.  Any movie not originating from these territories claiming to be a Kung Fu film should be treated with suspicion.  Kung Fu films do not feature kickboxing, karate or ninja.  If you see a DVD cover depicting flying stars or a man with a black mask over the lower part of his face, this is not likely to be a Kung Fu film.  If you see a DVD cover with Steven Segal on the cover, run like hell.  If in doubt, look for words like “Shaolin”, “Drunken”, “Monkey”, “Dragon”, “Fist”, “Snake”, “Chamber”, “Duel”, “Master” and “Warriors”.  Films containing these words are almost certainly Kung Fu movies and therefore can be approached with confidence.  What’s more, it has been scientifically proven that all films with those words in are classics of the genre. 

Another distinction that must be made is the difference between Kung Fu and Wuxia (or Wuxia Pian) films.  Wuxia films are also have ancient origins and were all the rage immediately before Kung Fu came in vogue in 1970.  The difference is Kung Fu films generally feature unarmed combat (or combat with traditional Chinese weaponry) and the fighting is more or less grounded in reality.  Wuxia Pian, on the other hand, is more fantasy-based, with combatants able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, run across bamboo forests and glide gently to the ground from atop a mountain.  They are also armed with swords and are usually bound to a strict code of chivalry. 

Kung Fu movies are generally set in an unspecified point in the 19th Century.  There are many exceptions to this rule; for example, many films are set in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD), which was another exciting (read: bloody) time in China’s history, but most of the time you’ll be stuck in the 19th Century.  A lot of films deal with a specific point regarding Dynasties, and here is probably the most important point of all:

Overthrow the Qing!  Restore the Ming!

This should be your mantra.  It’s surprising how many fans (and I’m talking hardcore fans, here) forget which way round this goes.  The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) was the last Dynasty of China, and as Dynasties go, it was considered a bit of a stinker.  There are many reasons for this, but the main one was that the Manchu people, who were the conquerors of the Han people, were not actually Chinese.  In other words, the Qing Dynasty was headed by foreigners called the Manchu who overthrew the Ming Dynasty ruled by the indigenous Han people.  The Qing were also supposedly responsible for burning the Shaolin Temple and thus spreading Shaolin martial arts across China when the monks fled.  This theme is the basis of many, many Kung Fu films.

In many films you will see the Manchu depicted as evil, corrupt, stupid or incompetent (or all of the above).  The Manchu are easily identifiable by their distinctive uniforms and their little round hats.  When killed, they invariably become hopping vampires and torment the Han afresh from beyond the grave.

By comparison, the Han people are depicted as righteous, hardworking, honest and immune to corruption.  They wear the universally identifiable peasant garb and have long hair in pigtails.  Cutting this hair is a deeply humiliating experience and is always done at some point by the order of an evil Manchu lord.  However, paradoxically, this always seals the corrupt lord’s fate: you can guarantee several cans of whup-ass will eventually be opened upon said Manchu.  The Manchus are too stupid to ever realise this is going to happen.

OK - I'm sorry I made fun of your hats!

The above picture is a typical scene from a film based on the struggles of the Chinese patriots against the evil Manchu lords.  This particular Chinese patriot is about to be executed by the Manchu.  In a typical twist, the commander on horseback has been given buckteeth in order to make him more foreign and ridiculous.

It’s worth mentioning that the Ming was never restored.  You wouldn’t know this from all the victories the hardworking Han patriots win over the Manchu in literally countless Kung Fu films during the seventies and early eighties.  It’s a little like watching a series of American Civil War movies in which the South always win.  The Qing Dynasty was eventually overthrown in the early 20th Century by Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionaries (another good source for dozens of films) and China decided to do away with Dynasties altogether and become a republic.

The corpse of the Kung Fu movie came kicking back to life, much to everyone’s surprise, in 1991 with Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China and suddenly it was fashionable to make period films again, and they are still popular to this day.  But while the “New-Wave” Kung Fu films certainly have their merit, they do seem a breed apart from their 70’s ancestors, and should be considered almost like a separate genre.

Coming soon: Part II – Legends of Kung Fu.  Until then, remember: Overthrow the Ming!  Restore the Qing!  Oh, hang on…


1. paulwjm - June 30, 2007

Here’s a question for you then: which movie/year featured the very first filmed martial arts fight?

2. Cal - June 30, 2007

I don’t think anyone can say with absolute certainty (unless you know different?), but here’s a good article on the subject: http://www.kungfucinema.com/blog/electric_shadows/index.php?entry=entry070601-120922

3. paulwjm - June 30, 2007

Looks like it was “Robbery on a Train” about 1920 according to that article - that’s pretty amazing, I didn’t think the roots went as far back as that.

4. Cal - June 30, 2007

Yeah. Sadly, though, the survival rate for films from this era is even worse than films from the west, and not a lot seems to have survived. In fact, anything pre-1960’s is very hard to come by, which is pretty diabolical when you come to think about it…

5. CMa - September 14, 2007

Hey Cal,
I was wondering what the difference was between Kung Fu and Wuxia- and you cleared it up for me- thanks! I knew Wuxia was more fantasy based but wasn’t sure about Kung Fu. I liked your funny comment - if Steven Segal on the cover- run like hell! Can we add Chuck Norris to that list Please?!! hehe! Thanks again- good informative review!

6. Cal - September 17, 2007

Thanks. I’m no fan of Chuck Norris either (apart from his performance in Way of the Dragon). I watched one of the Delta Force films once and it was one hell of a painful experience. I grew a BEARD during that film.

7. sandrar - September 10, 2009

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

8. Cal - September 11, 2009

Thanks Sandra! Hope you stick around - enjoy your stay!

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11. chris talton - February 24, 2010

here’s one that no one can answer! who is the guy or guys that overdubbed the 5 venoms.particularly the guy who spoke for centipede(lu feng).he also performed hundreds of overdubs and provided the voice for some bruce documenteries during the 70’s.this specific guy had a real rough voice.

12. Shawn "Masterofoneinchpunch" McKenna - November 16, 2010

Where in the world is part 2?

On a side note I was thinking about mapping a ton of different MA films according to time period (and then keeping it up). Is there a place (or post) like this already out there? Is this of interest to anyone you think?

13. Cal - November 16, 2010

I know :) ! I had big plans for this series of articles, but got sidetracked, then thought no one cared and forgot about it. Reading the article again I was surprised how much fun it was to do, and actually had a laugh re-reading it (especially about the dead Manchu coming back as hopping vampires). I think the second part was going to focus on Wong Fei-Hung, Fong Sai-Yuk, San Te etc, but I can’t honestly remember now. I’ve got a few articles in mind for future as I’m getting a bit bombed out reviewing films and want to kick back with something a bit more fun. I’m planning another tongue-in-cheek article analysing action heroes’ character names and why we have, for example, a John Matrix but not a Darren Wankling.

On your suggestion for a timeline, I’d personally LOVE that, especially for the Wong Fei-Hung films. I don’t know how it could be done though, and if I’d be any good at contributing, but I’ve often wanted something like that myself. If you’ve any ideas how to set something like that up, I’d be interested in helping.

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