Greetings from the University of Cardiff where I am currently attending the 2015 Martial Arts Studies conference. This is the third guest post by Sascha Matuszak in his ongoing series here at Kung Fu Tea. I thought that for this update we would do something a little different. While his first two essays looked at historic figures and texts, this piece examines one of the most important popular culture events in the modern history of the Chinese martial arts. Indeed, its hard to imagine what the 1980s and 1990s would have been like for folk martial artists in mainland China without Jet Li’s hit film, The Shaolin Temple. Why? Read on….
‘The Shaolin Temple’ and the Cultural Significance of the ‘Star Wars’ of Chinese Cinema” by Sascha Matuszak
Right when Return of the Jedi was about to hit theaters across America, bringing the epic Star Wars trilogy to a resounding close, China was experiencing its own Star Wars-esque craze following the 1982 release of The Shaolin Temple.
Chinese had been force-fed propaganda screeds for decades, featuring impossibly brave Communists and sneering, evil Japanese invaders, or at best kitschy musicals on the resplendence of Mao Zedong and how gloriously red the east was, and always would be. By the 1980s, Chinese were glassy-eyed followers of a defunct cult. Mao had died in 1976, taking the insanity of the Cultural Revolution with him. Suddenly, a short Sichuanese veteran of the rebellion, Deng Xiaoping, was talking about opening up and reform, about making money instead of weaving together red sashes and smelting pig iron in a backyard furnace.
Right at that critical point in time, a classic kung fu flic was released, and it blew a billion minds. The Shaolin Temple was filmed in and around an ancient Buddhist temple, the cast were almost all national wushu champions or opera troupe vets, and the director hailed from Hong Kong, an adventurous territory flaunting shiny, once-forbidden baubles. It was a raucous plot, thick with violence and rebellion and religious undertones. There was dog meat, righteous drunkenness, and every kung fu move you could dream of. Not a single red flag, Communist trope, or ode to Mao.
It hit China like a Super Star Destroyer into a beleaguered Death Star.