Martial Arts Pictures in Hong Kong and Taiwan from the 1950s to the 1970s
After World War II, Hong Kong served as a refugee area, accommodating people mainly from Canton and Shanghai (Harrison and So 1996). The refugees came from the commercial centres of China and they brought with them the capital and labour forces that enabled Hong Kong to build itself into a wealthier and more successful commercial centre. Due to nationalisation and ideological censorship in mainland China and Taiwan, in the 1950s Hong Kong remained the only place with the appropriate resources, talent and freedom to produce the martial arts films (Szeto 2011, p. 14; Klein 2004; Zhang 2004, pp. 113-124, 189-223). The stories of Wong Fei-hung continued to dominate in martial arts cinema (Green and Svinth 2010, p. 530; Zhang 2004, p. 177; Li 2001, p. 517). In the 1960s, the martial arts film genre entered its golden era (Klein 2004; Zhang 2004, pp. 177-180). The martial arts tradition in Hong Kong continued to develop, while film directors in Taiwan, ruled by the KMT, chose to adopt this genre in order to avoid any sensitive political issues due to the Cold War and in order to cope with the oppressive political atmosphere (Lee 2003).
Two Chinese cinemas, i.e., Hong Kong and Taiwan, seemed to find common ground through the development of martial arts pictures. The ‘new style’ martial arts films, by directors such as King Hu and Zhang Che, developed a film aesthetic grounded in traditional Chinese arts, e.g., painting and opera (Berry and Farquhar 2006, p. 53; Zhang 2004, p. 178). Both King Hu and Zhang Che were born and brought up in mainland China. The education they received throughout their childhood was built upon Chinese culture and traditions, which had a strong influence on the martial arts films they later produced. They left mainland China, which had become a war zone in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War and then the civil war between the KMT and the Communist Party. Zhang Che moved to Taiwan immediately after he left mainland China, while King Hu went first to Hong Kong and later to Taiwan. Both made significant contributions to the development of a new martial arts film style in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, contemporary, world-renowned directors such as Ang Lee from Taiwan and Zhang Yimou from mainland China have acknowledged the positive influence on their work of new-style martial arts films and have even paid tribute to King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) in their own films, i.e., in the bamboo combat scenes in Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers (2004).
In the 1970s, Bruce Lee brought the sophistication of these new-style martial arts pictures to international audiences. Bruce Lee’s trilogy masterpieces, Fists of Fury (Wei Lo 1971), The Chinese Connection (Wei Lo 1972) and Return of the Dragon (Bruce Lee 1972), marked a great success for Chinese martial arts cinema. Interestingly, these three films, as well as The Chinese Boxer (Yu Wang 1970), which topped the 1970 Hong Kong box office list, and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (Woo-ping Yuen 1978), portrayed martial arts masters as national heroes who sought to restore Chinese people’s confidence and dignity by defeating Japanese karateists or Western fighters, who represented the imperialist powers. As Li (2001) pointed out, Bruce Lee’s masculine body betokened a Chinese national identity that railed against imperialism and colonisation. This masculine, physical embodiment of nationalist discourse can said to be rooted in the antiimperialist nationalism that had been emerging in Hong Kong since the late 1960s.
Considering the territory a colonial “sweatshop,” the British government ignored the fact that Hong Kong factory workers had been suffering under terrible working conditions without basic labour rights (Cheung 2009, p. 1). Eventually, a labour dispute erupted in a plastic flower factory and large-scale demonstrations against colonial suppression broke out in Hong Kong in May 1967 after hundreds of workers refused to accept newly introduced work regulations (ibid). At the same time, the Hong Kong leftist camp was influenced by the Cultural Revolution that had begun in mainland China a year earlier and consequently joined the workers in the protest, leading to more clashes with the police and damage to the social order. This labour dispute soon turned into an anti-colonial campaign cross the territory (Yep 2012). After the 1967 riots, the colonial government finally implemented long- awaited reforms to address social problems, calming the unrest in order to restore social order in Hong Kong. For example, in terms of language, despite the dominant and official status of English in Hong Kong, the government was forced gradually to acknowledge the status of a local language, Cantonese (Tsou 1996, p. 138), which paved the way for the success of Cantonese- language TV programmes (including martial arts TV series) in Hong Kong, which also enjoyed great popularity in mainland China. The use of dialects may have fortified a feeling of regionalism. For example, the Cantonesespeaking martial arts films that appeared during British colonial rule have helped establish a Hong Kong identity distinct from that of mainland China. Nevertheless, the adoption of a particular Chinese dialect in martial arts films actually reaches beneath the level of the nation state, namely, it explores the development of a national cinema in-depth rather than merely in horizons.
This anti-colonial sentiment expressed in martial arts films such as Return of the Dragon indeed shows that “[...] to be nationalistic and anti-colonial, one’s imagination turned to kung fu [or martial arts]” (Li 2001, p. 519). The storyline of using Chinese martial arts to fight against foreigners actually employed filmic discourse to represent the tension between being colonised and maintaining Chineseness in Hong Kong, while also reinforcing the spread of anti-imperialist nationalism. In other words, martial arts films produced in this period “situate this sense of Chinese nationalism in some dramatized tension and confrontation with colonialism” (Shu 2003, p. 53). This ‘national’ nature represented in martial arts films is built upon the desire to retain Chineseness through a confrontation between ‘China’ and ‘foreign’ (yang), regardless of whether ‘foreign’ referred to ‘dongyang’ (the Japanese) or ‘xiyang’ (Westerners) in the Chinese nationalist framework (Li 2001).