It was just around 25 years ago that a new movie called SHAOLIN TEMPLE, starring an unknown young martial arts champion from China, dazzled kung fu movie fans around the world with an electrifying display of competition-level wushu. This standardized approach to traditional fighting styles incorporates acrobatic elements like jumps and flips. For audiences outside of China, the film was an introduction to the impressive “national sport”. For many in the audience, it was also the first movie from the People’s Republic of China that they had ever seen.

Fans of Chinese martial arts films in the late 1970s and early 1980s were living through a Golden Age, with the kung fu epics of Lau Kar-leung and the Five Venoms in continuous production at the Shaw Brothers studio, and Jackie Chan’s sensational early films with director Yuen Wo-ping setting the standard for kung fu comedy. I worked as a movie projectionist at the Star and China theaters in Boston between 1979 and 1986. We showed double features on each screen, and programs changed every week. The ticket price was in the $3-5 range for the whole double feature. These were classic Chinatown grindhouse operations, with an audience that was maybe 90% Asian and 10% “other.” Films from Hong Kong and Taiwan, made quickly and cheaply with an eye to satisfying the demand, dominated the circuit. It was a market that would suddenly contract and almost disappear with the coming of videotape technology and the opportunity for film pirating on a vast scale.

SHAOLIN TEMPLE was the first martial arts movie shot on the grounds of the real Temple.

At the height of this Golden Age, a consortium of three Hong Kong film companies -The Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd., the Chung Yuen Film Co., and the Feng Huang Motion Picture Company of Hong Kong, which would all soon merge into a new entity, the Sil-Metropole Organization – had the idea of taking advantage of a new openness on the part of the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping, and producing a kung fu film in China, using gorgeous locations and historic landmarks. The Shaolin Temple was already an iconic image in the genre, thanks to its role in the development of the popular Hung Gar fighting style. The original Temple had managed to survive the anti-feudal excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and the filmmakers obtained permission to shoot on site, allowing for an unprecedented degree of historical authenticity. Great Wall studio director Chang Hsin Yen (Zhang Xinyan, Cheung Yam-yim), a veteran of the early Wong Fei-hung films starring Kwan Tak-ying, was tapped to helm the project.

According to an article from China Sports magazine in May 1982, the film was originally cast with an eye for acting ability first, and martial skills second, perhaps to ensure a more professional product. But when, after months of pre-production, shooting began in 1979, an outcry was raised by Japanese investors who demanded real kung fu onscreen. The original cast was dumped, a year of work went down the drain, and the production team committed to a cast of real-life martial artists.

Under the Communist government, film was seen primarily as a propaganda medium, and it appears that no true kung fu or wuxia films were made in China during the Mao era. This attitude contributed to the mass exodus of entertainment professionals from China to Hong Kong in the years following the Revolution. But at the time SHAOLIN TEMPLE was made, the Chinese government was taking its initial steps towards developing markets, including an entertainment industry. The film would be the first domestic blockbuster of the post-Mao era, as well as an international success.

Jet Li and Hu Jianqiang were among the real-life champions recruited for the film.

Without a homegrown stunt industry, the logical source for martial arts performers in the PRC was the wushu teams. Sports education and professional athletics had been organized along the Soviet model in the 1950s. Government-sponsored training centers identified talented children and provided full-time instruction for those with the potential to excel. Unlike Eastern European schools for Olympic athletes, the Physical Culture Institutes also recruited wushu coaches from the best traditional schools and standardized a curriculum based on “kung fu”. Regional teams of the best young athletes competed for a chance at the national games. Competition wushu is characterized by speed and clarity of movement, but it also requires extreme flexibility and a mastery of aerial techniques that move the art into gymnastic territory.

In 1980, when the SHAOLIN TEMPLE producers suddenly needed real martial artists, preferably young and photogenic, it was inevitable that 17 year old Li Lianjie, the future Jet Li, would catch their eye. Li had trained under the formidable wushu coach Wu Bin at the Beijing Physical Culture Institute. Five times national champion (1975-1979) as a member of the Beijing Wushu Team, Li’s distinctive combination of grace and power had already marked him as exceptional. As a preteen, he traveled extensively with wushu demo troupes, even meeting with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1974.

SHAOLIN TEMPLE made Jet Li (Li Lianjie) an international star.

Li Lianjie was cast as Zhang Xiaohu (Little Tiger Zhang), one of the Thirteen Chivalrous Monks of Shaolin. In the old story that forms the basis of the plot, the future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shihmin is saved by Shaolin Monks from the murderous attack of renegade general Wang Renze. The death of Zhang’s father in the opening scenes of the film sets the stage for his first fight against the villainous Wang and his henchmen, played by wushu coaches Yu Chengwei, Pan Qingfu, and Ji Chunhua. Shandong coach Yu Hai was tapped to play a martial monk based on the legendary Shaolin kung fu master Jinnaluo. A number of high-ranking wushu competitors played the young monks, including groundboxing champion Hu Jianqiang and broadsword champion Sun Jiankui (who also provided comic relief with his drunken stick form). For the sole female role, a nationwide search for a suitable actress led to Ding Lan. In an interesting cross-cultural twist, additional action roles were filled by Japanese Shorin (Shaolin) Kendo practitioners Yamazaki Hiromichi, Sakuyama Kichiei, and Atsumi Shinichi.

Action choreography for the film was handled by Pan Qingfu and Yu Hai, in association with Shenxi coach Ma Xianda and Shandong swordplay expert Wang Changkai. The aim of director Chang Hsin Yen and the action team was to bring real kung fu to the screen, with no camera tricks common to the time, like using trampolines for jumps or undercranking to give the illusion of speed. By drawing on the specialties of the cast, the action sequences of SHAOLIN TEMPLE demonstrate some of the best pure wushu technique ever recorded. In the unforgettable group training scene, Hu Jianquan (Wu Gin-keung), who took the National All-round Championship title in 1981, executes the breakdance-like groundboxing techniques while Sun Jiankui (Suen Gin-fooi) sizzles through a broadsword form, and rope dart expert Liu Hualiang and nine-section whip champ Du Chuanyang show off their respective skills. The older performers acquit themselves well too. Yu Hai (Yue Hoi), as the Shaolin master, anchors the film as its moral center while showing his rock-solid mantis boxing technique. Main villain Yu Chengwei (Yu Cheng Hui, Yue Sing-wai), another Shandong-based master, is a brutally elegant figure with his mesmerizing drunken swordplay. Ji Chunhua (Gai Chun-wa) is seen using his favorite eagle claw techniques in the film’s opening fight, while Pan Qingfu’s punches testify to a lifetime’s practice of iron fist.

Shooting began in Henan Province in July 1980, with Li, delayed by yet another wushu tour, joining the production in September of that year. In February of 1981, cast and crew relocated to Hong Kong for six weeks of interior scenes, shot at the Clear Water Bay Studio in Kowloon. Li Lianjie and the other actors boarded at a guest house on the studio lot, and were awakened every morning in the predawn hours by a loud noise. It was Pan Qingfu, honing his iron fist technique by punching the metal gate of the guest house! While in Hong Kong, the troupe visited the Shaw Brothers studio, observing directors Lau Kar-leung and Sun Chung on the sets of their current productions. Lau would eventually direct Li’s third movie, MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN.

After the sojourn in Hong Kong, production shifted back to Henan and the Purple Cloud Cave in Hangzhou, with a wrap in September 1981. Post-production was completed in Beijing shortly after, and SHAOLIN TEMPLE premiered in Hong Kong early in 1982, to universal acclaim. KIDS FROM SHAOLIN, also directed by Chang, and MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN followed in 1984 and 1985, reuniting much of the original cast.

Many of the SHAOLIN TEMPLE wushu actors have continued to work in film and TV. Yu Chengwei starred in the classic swordplay film YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER, and Pan Qingfu can be seen, playing himself, in IRON AND SILK (1990). Yu Hai and Ji Chunhua are familiar faces in both the Hong Kong and mainland entertainment industries. Hu Jianqiang also made a number of movies and is now the grandmaster of the Shaolin Wushu Center in Hartford, Connecticut (he just opened a branch in LA earlier this year), where he hosts a major tournament every spring. Pan Qingfu runs a wushu school in Kitchener, Canada. Recently, many alumni of the “Shaolin Temple crew” reunited for major roles in the big budget multi-episode TV adaptation of SEVEN SWORDS OF MOUNT HEAVEN, with Yu Chengwei, Yu Hai, Ji Chunhua, and Sun Jiankui all credited as actors or martial arts directors, and with Chang Hsin Yen in the producer’s chair.

According to a recent blog post by Bey Logan, SHAOLIN TEMPLE will be an upcoming DVD release from the Dragon Dynasty line.

A slightly different version of this entry was originally posted in October 2007.

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