The origins of Kung Fu cinema

Ren Pengnian

Ren Pengnian, from Kung Fu Cinema

I’ve just come across Electric Shadows, a blog on the history of the Hong Kong film industry and Chinese martial arts films. The blog, written by Jean Lukitsh, started a year ago, but has just started up again from scratch by re-posting its original posts (on the Kung Fu Cinema site). These feature a series, ‘The Origins of Kung Fu Cinema’, a genre which goes back rather further than you might think. Part 1, Shanghai Dawn, takes us back to the first years of the Chinese film industry and says that Robbery on a Train, directed by Ren Pengnian in 1919, may well qualify as the first Kung Fu movie. By 1925 there were around forty to sixty small studios making martial arts films in Shanghai. Part 2, Butterfly and Oriole, continues the history, focussing on the actresses Hu Die (Butterfly Wu) and Chin Tsi-ang (Chen Zhigong). Part 3, The Oriental Female Fairbanks, has more on Ren Pengnian and his actress wife Wu Lizhu (Wu Lai-chu) and their films of the 1920s and early ’30s (Chinese films continued silent for longer than in the West).

It’s a fascinating account of the kind of popular cinema from an earlier era which seldom makes it into film histories, with links to YouTube clips of silent Kung Fu films (none of Pengnian or Wu Lizhu’s films survives, alas).

Update: The series continues, still in the silent era, with part 4, Ambush on all Sides.

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