Martial Arts Cinema during the 1920s and 1930s

In the 1920s, martial arts films started to emerge from the costume drama tradition and soon gained popularity in the market (Zhang 2004, p. 41; Lee 2003). According to Li and Hu (1996, p. 239), 227 martial arts films were produced between 1928 and 1931. The popular demand for martial arts films was due to a new nationalism that had booming since the 1910s. With the accumulation of resentment caused by the Qing government’s corruption and its powerlessness in defending against foreign aggression, the growing ethnic nationalism among the Han Chinese finally sparked uprisings against the Qing government in the late 1900s. The Han nationalists successfully overthrew the Manchu monarchy in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912. This growing sense of nationalism was reflected in Chinese cinema. Film-makers called for the promotion of a “national spirit” innate to China and urged their colleagues to use the national cinema to preserve and promote a sense of national consciousness among the general public (Zhang 2004, p. 57).

Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (Shichuan Zhang 1928) was one of the best-known martial arts films of that period (Szeto 2011, p. 13; Zhang 2004, p. 40). It was based on the story of a group of Chinese of Han ethnicity who were martial arts masters fighting against the rule of the Manchu regime. Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery is a legacy of the anti-Manchu movement. It created several anti-Manchu superheroes who fought to protect Confucian-based social values and norms. It struck a chord with the Han audiences, who were eager to proclaim their independence after more than 250 years of Manchu rule and celebrate their ethnic and cultural identities.

For decades, the nation had experienced political turmoil and social upheaval as a result of wars, massacres and corrupt government. Thus, martial arts films provided an imaginary world that helped people escape from this harsh reality (Lee 2003). The heroes and heroines that featured in these films had supernatural skills in martial arts, and were portrayed fighting against evil lords and endeavouring to preserve traditional virtues such as honesty, righteousness, altruism, etc. Elements of immortality and supernaturality can be seen in martial arts films such as Red Heroine (Yimin Wen 1928), which is the only martial arts film made between 1927 and 1931 that still exists in its entirety (Fowler 2010, p. 152). The leading character, Yun Mei, opts to stay in her besieged village with her paralyzed grandmother rather than running away and is subsequently kidnapped by the local gang of bandits. She is rescued by a mysterious martial arts master and then trained and transformed into a heroine with supernatural martial arts skills like flying. She attacks and defeats the head of the gang, successfully claiming revenge for the villagers. Such “justice over evil” endings provided “alternative routes of escape from existential crises” in Chinese society (Zhang 2004, p. 41), which contributed to the prevalence of martial arts films in Chinese National Cinema in the 1920s and 1930s.

However, religious fanaticism and superstition were incorporated in martial arts films to an extreme extent and this had an obviously negative social impact (Gu 2011a). For instance, some young viewers followed the examples of the films’ heroes and heroines by leaving home to seek immortality in the mountains (Zhang 2004, p. 41). It was feared that the public’s acceptance of the martial arts masters’ ability to challenge any suppression and unfairness could lead to anarchic sentiment, which could in turn threaten the government’s consolidation of the newly founded Republic (Gu 2011a and 2011b). In addition, after the establishment of the Republic, the government changed its nationalist agenda from one of anti-Manchuism to the promotion of “five races under one union” (Lu et al. 2014). These circumstances led to the issuing of a ban on all films featuring martial arts in 1930-31. Then, the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1931 and Japan’s occupation of various parts of mainland China (including Shanghai) caused major film studios such as Tianyi (the precursor to Shaw Brothers), together with their filmmakers, to gradually move from the mainland to Hong Kong. Slowly, the centre of the Chinese film industry shifted to Hong Kong, where martial arts films then experienced a revival (Szeto 2011, p. 13; Lee 2003). This shift meant that Chinese National Cinema could no longer be considered a geographically based concept, as discussed earlier, but the continuance of the martial arts film tradition remained a means of connecting together the divergent (e.g., Hong Kong and Taiwan) and isolated (i.e., mainland China) Chinese cinemas.

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