A promotional poster for the Japanese release of "Shaolin Temple" staring Jet Li.
A promotional poster for the Japanese release of “Shaolin Temple” staring Jet Li.

***I am very happy to welcome Rob Argent back to Kung Fu Tea.  This is the second post in his ongoing series introducing some of the essential Kung Fu films which have helped to define the genera.  In his previous post he discussed a film that helped to launch Bruce Lee onto the global stage. Today’s piece will instead look at the movie that signaled the start of the 1980s “Kung Fu Fever” in Mainland China.  It also introduced Jet Li it audiences around the world.  I find that current western viewers are not as familiar with this film as they once were, but if you are interested in either the modern history of the martial arts or Chinese popular culture, this is one movie that you need to see.****


Since the late nineteen twenties there has been an abundance of martial art related movies, ranging from outlandish fantasy (known in China as Wuxia), through gritty hard hitting drama to high concept action pieces. The majority of these have originated from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with the former generally focusing on historically orientated titles and the latter producing more modern, explosive fare. In this series I will be looking at a number of iconic Kung Fu films that, for one reason or another, had a significant effect on the way we watch martial arts on the cinema screen. Some of them are well known and have created certain expectations about the genre, while others are lesser known titles that have provided a different take on how to portray martial artists and their practices. However, all of them are based on Kung Fu first and foremost; different styles are on display, but Chinese martial arts are the centerpiece of each production. Welcome back to “Essential Kung Fu Cinema,” where we’re looking at Jet Li’s debut starring role, 1982’s Shaolin Temple.


A still of Jet Li from Shaolin Temple.
A still of Jet Li from Shaolin Temple.


Plot Summary

Based on traditional Chinese stories, the film tells the tale of how the Chan Buddhist temple on Mount Song rose to prominence during the change from the Sui to Tang Dynasties. As the population of China is enslaved by their leader, a peasant worker witnesses his father’s death at the hands of the newly appointed Emperor for daring to stand up to his tyranny. Initially fleeing to the safety of a nearby holy temple, Jue Yuan (played by Li) is taken in to recover and hide from reprisal. Over time he is eventually accepted by the monks and joins in with their rigorous Kung Fu training, mastering numerous armed and unarmed fighting skills alongside his religious studies. In time he leads them out of seclusion to provide hope for the downtrodden, before challenging the reigning elite to restore peace and prosperity to the nation.


The temple in flames.
The temple in flames.


Finding The Temple

Before the release of this film, the Shaolin Temple was often portrayed using a generic wooden backdrop on Shaw Brothers Studios sets, or assembled from previously existing layouts for other, unrelated locations. Anyone who has seen the American TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine will remember that the temple was featured heavily in the many flashbacks that ran through each episode. What they may not realize, however, was that the temple shown in that series was actually a lightly altered version of medieval England’s mythical Camelot, a castle that is almost a Western mirror, with similar historical connotations, to the Shaolin Temple itself.

It wasn’t until 1982, when the initial Kung Fu craze of the seventies had been subsumed by other cultural trends that filmmakers shot inside the real temple. Director Chang Hsin Yen’s team maked the most of this opportunity, placing scenes across the whole of the site to really capture the scale and diversity of the area. Fights took place in iconic locales such as the Pagoda Forest and main gates, filmed there simply because they could and no one had done so before. Suddenly the legendary temple took on a very real feel for the audience, who weren’t seeing generic rooms and dusty courtyards but the actual grounds themselves. Whilst other productions may have had access to various other temples that could replicate a similar look, this title broke the mold by abandoning the traditional sound-stage setting and having an entirely authentic shooting environment.

This respect for authenticity was applied to the casting schedule too. Initially the movie was to feature actors chosen for their screen experience, along with some Chinese Opera players to help perform the more demanding action scenes. This was not uncommon at the time, as the opera houses were known for producing prodigious acting talents from a young age; both Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan came from this background, which proves that the method works. However, after years of establishing itself as the preeminent producer of high quality cinematic action scenes, Hong Kong’s film industry was ruthlessly demanding of its workers. Unsatisfied with the look and feel of the combat that was committed to camera, Chang Hsin Yen recast the main roles with dedicated martial artists to improve the picture, a move that Chinese moviegoers would appreciate. A young Wushu trained actor named Jet Li landed the lead role, launching the actor into the Eastern showbiz spotlight – without this picture and its respect for using proven martial artists, there is no doubt that Li’s career would not have been as successful as it currently is.


When it opened in Mainland China's the films traditional themes and level of violence shocked audiences who had been accustomed to the much stricter censoring regimes established during the Cultural Revolution.
When it opened in Mainland China’s the films traditional themes and level of violence shocked audiences who had been accustomed to the much stricter censoring regimes established during the Cultural Revolution.

More Than Just One Man

Starting with a typical revenge fueled plot-line, the story then raises the stakes considerably by escalating from one man’s tale of vengeance to a religious order’s fight for freedom from tyranny. It is during this second part of the film that the temple itself is put at risk, an idea based on historical fact as there were many occasions through time when various Emperors had ordered that their military turn on the Shaolin monks for fear of their abilities and what they represented. In essence, the writers of the movie had taken one person’s tragedy and contrasted it with the fate of the nation; something that wasn’t prevalent at the time, when most martial arts tales focused on an individual’s path to either redemption or revenge. Balancing the dark nature of this plot were comic touches and scenes depicting the day to day life of the monks. Jet Li’s portrayal of a layman taking up the Buddhist vows gives the film chance to introduce the audience to the study of sacred texts alongside the harsh physical training that accompanied it. Whilst not the most faithful of stories – this is after all a Chinese blockbuster movie and not a documentary – it takes the time to show the temple in all of its glory, along with the Buddhist beliefs that the monks attempt to show Jue Yuan to help him control his desire for revenge.

Jue Yuan’s inner conflict provides a great hook for the script, and whilst it doesn’t necessarily dwell on him being torn between his attempt to honor his father and his oaths to his new found family and friends, it still makes the viewer question whether or not he is still prepared to kill his enemies when given the chance. Given the nature of the storyline it is quickly explained why this lowly peasant farmer has such exceptional martial ability, but in other films there is rarely a justification for why the leading character is able to fight as well as they are. A cursory mention of a previous master, or a training montage shot across what appear to be different seasons might be included, but in doing so most movies would fail to acknowledge that as a martial artist’s studies continue, they realize the danger and risk that comes with fighting, and would often prefer to avoid confrontation when possible. This might often result in less action on the screen, but it is a side of the martial world that movie makers seldom choose to focus on, and yet Shaolin Temple makes the time to highlight the struggle between one’s desires and one’s duties.

A promotional poster for the Shaolin Temple, early 1980s.
A promotional poster for the Shaolin Temple, early 1980s.


Bringing Kung Fu Back To The Fore

It is hard to emphasize just how big the first Shaolin Temple movie was when it hit cinema screens in China back at the start of the eighties. At the time, the industry’s obsession with all things Kung Fu related had significantly waned, suffering from years of pale imitations of past classics partly due to the explosion of small independent companies and also the general moviegoer’s over familiarity with the genre. Exploitation films were as big as on the other side of the world, and the rise of the smaller production houses that more varied pictures could be created. In all honesty, it seemed implausible that Shaolin Temple could be anything more than a typical fight film that appeased the style’s hardcore following, but nothing more than that.

Steeping the story in traditional tales and setting it in an older time also seemed to go against the approval of the reigning Communist Party, who were still keen to play down old folklore and superstitions following the Cultural Revolution. And yet despite all of this, a storyline about resisting the ruling class and adhering to religious doctrine, complete with violence and revenge, managed to become as big as the Star Wars films had been in America only a few years before. But while Jue Yuan’s seemingly anti-establishment actions seemed like a call to arms against those in charge, seen from another viewpoint it can be taken as an example of strong leadership against corrupt authorities, backed with a strong sense of brotherhood and honor; the Communist Party would have liked to have cast itself in a similar light to help cement its reputation amongst the people, and the film was shown across the country to critical and commercial acclaim.

Across the nation, children and adults alike witnessed Jue Yuan’s tale and wanted to emulate his training, desperate to find someone or somewhere that would teach Kung Fu like the kind they had seen on screen. Despite being more focused on dramatic flourishes and looking good than practical self defense, Wushu rose in popularity seemingly overnight, even though a real life equivalent of the movie character would have instead practiced something like one of the many Southern styles such as Wing Chun or Choi Lei Fut. The authorities’ reasoning that everyone in the population was protected by the state wasn’t convincing enough, and still people flocked to Kung Fu schools to find excitement and action – of course, what they found was often very different from what they expected, and the training montages of the Shaolin Temple film were a world away from the long, slow process of body conditioning and relentless repetition of forms that are required to advance in any art.

Following the release of the movie, Jet Li went on to huge success, first within China with high budget martial arts titles such as Once Upon A Time In China and Fist Of Legend (a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist Of Fury, made to cement Li’s reputation as the spiritual successor to Lee) before filming Hollywood action movies like Kiss Of The Dragon and Unleashed, which have over time given him the chance to demonstrate his acting skills as much as his fighting ones. He currently enjoys a mix of both genres across the world, often moving from historical Chinese epics (Fearless, Hero, The Founding Of A Republic) to out and out crowd pleasers (The Expendables, Cradle To The Grave). Meanwhile, director Hsin-yan Chang, himself an established director prior to this picture, continued to make similar Kung Fu productions on the big screen before taking the helm of the successful Seven Swords TV series. In fact, this is comparable to many of the cast and crew of Shaolin Temple; at the time the Chinese TV industry was considered more important and influential than the film industry, so many took their chance to move across to the other medium. This also explains why Jet Li is the only actor from the piece to be recognized by the majority of Western viewers.


Tourists at the front gates of the Shaolin Temple.
Tourists at the front gates of the Shaolin Temple.  Source: Wikimedia.

From The Ashes

The real Temple has also benefited hugely from the movie’s acclaim. The incumbent Abbot was quick to capitalize on the growing interest in Kung Fu and opened up the temple grounds for part-time students, even going so far as actively pushing for nearby schools to be closed down, as well as clamping down on any other schools that were using the Shaolin name without any prior connection to the temple. This aggressive enterprising led to the regeneration of the site, with its new revenue helping to maintain and expand both the existing buildings and to reach out with better funded marketing, a move which has courted controversy by toeing the line between being pragmatically commercial and culturally ruthless.

Amongst the countless martial movies that you will see lined up either on a shop shelf or in an online catalog, Shaolin Temple may not be the first to stand out. It’s fortunate enough to feature a well known star that most people will recognize but may look dated and old fashioned compared to newer, flashier fare that will no doubt sit next to it (and its recent remake starring Jackie Chan won’t be far away either), but this is a major milestone in the history of the genre. When the interest – both of filmmakers and moviegoers – was flagging, this film reignited that fascination with all things Kung Fu. Much in the same way that the Shaolin Temple itself has undergone many hardships, only to come back stronger than before, so too has the Kung Fu movie.  This film is a great example of why.


About the Author:  Rob Argent is a  freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature.  He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan.  He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.

If you would like to read more about the “Shaolin Temple” click here