Chinese martial arts film came to be known as " wu xia pian ," meaning "films of chivalrous combat." This genre may be said to begin in the popular Shanghai cinema with Romance of the West Chamber in 1927. Derived, like many early martial arts films, from a literary source, the film was a sophisticated entertainment in every respect, relying on fairly elaborate special effects and Beijing Opera–style fight choreography. The film's success spawned immediate imitators that drew upon the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), Chinese literary classics, and the popular martial arts fiction of the period to create a virtual tidal wave of stories of knights-errant and their derring-do. The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) set the pattern for the true martial arts genre with its story of warring martial arts factions, liberal use of special effects, and the presence of women warriors over the course of its (alleged) twenty-seven-hour running time. (The film was released serially.) Governmental dissatisfaction with the escapist and fantastic nature of the series put a hold on the production of martial arts movies in China, a situation further exacerbated by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the Pacific War.
The chivalric warrior re-entered Chinese cinema in postwar Hong Kong, with the unprecedented production of dozens of films starring Kwan Tak-hing (1905–1996) as the legendary doctor–martial artist–Cantonese hero Wong Fei-hung. He is South China's national hero. A historical figure who died in 1924, his students taught students who then became many of the central martial arts directors in the Hong Kong cinema. Rejecting the fantastic, effects-driven, and Beijing Opera–style fight choreography of Republican-era Shanghai, these films featured actual kung fu fighting styles and set the tone for a certain strand of martial arts film—the trained martial artist fighting for the underdog in realistic, if unspectacular, fight scenes.
Made in the Cantonese dialect and with increasingly lower budgets, the Wong Fei-hung films of the 1950s and early 1960s gave way to the bigger-budget, high-intensity cinema developing at the Shaw Brothers studios in the mid-1960s. Turning away from their literary costume pictures, the Mandarin-language studio hit pay dirt with the New Style wu xia pian of directors King Hu (1931–1997) and Chang Cheh (1923–2002). King Hu's Da zui xia ( Come Drink with Me , 1966) re-introduced the female knight-errant into Chinese cinema and, although it relied on Beijing Opera–style choreography, its level of violence and the dynamism of star Cheng Peipei (b. 1946) proved an immediate jolt to the genre. King Hu continued his career in Taiwan, making stylish swordplay movies like Long men ke zhen ( Dragon Gate Inn , 1967) and Hsia nu ( Touch of Zen , 1969), which slowly introduced acrobatics into the form, especially with the use of trampolines and a deft sense of eye-line matches and spatial contiguity. But it was the films of Chang Cheh, beginning with the Japanese-influenced Bian cheng san xia ( Magnificent Trio , 1966), that revolutionized the genre. Japanese cinema was an important precursor to many of the motifs introduced by Chang Cheh. Akira Kurosawa's (1910–1998) Sugata Sanshiro ( Judo Saga , 1943) pioneered the motif of warring martial arts factions, but it was banned after World War II by American authorities because of its nationalistic undertones. His Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954) introduced a kind of wu xia —gritty, realistic, sometimes grim—to international audiences with its story of heroic, self-sacrificing swordsmen. But it was the Zatoichi films, the Blind Swordsman series beginning in 1962, that set a standard for spectacular swordplay, not to mention the use of a hero with disabilities. Chang Cheh borrowed choreographic and visual motifs from the Japanese cinema and added to this mix a group of athletic young men with martial arts training to form a core of star players who appeared together in film after film featuring violent sword fights within stories of male camaraderie, brotherly revenge, and youthful rebellion. Wang Yu, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kwan-tai, and Fu Sheng lit up the screen with their intensity, fighting skills, and nascent sense of a new China on screen.
The previously understated sense of a new Chinese masculinity became overt with the appeal of Bruce Lee (1940–1973), whose success in the Hong Kong cinema outshone even that of Chang Cheh's hugely popular films. Rejecting the King Hu style of fight choreography and the big-budget aesthetics of Chang Cheh's Shaw Brothers epics, Lee brought a down-and-dirty look and a new fighting style to films like Tang shan da xiong ( The Big Boss , aka Fists of Fury , 1971) and Jing wu men ( Fist of Fury , aka The Chinese Connection, 1972). With both power and speed not seen before in martial arts cinema, and a magnetism comparable only to the likes of James Dean, Lee became an instant worldwide success that spread even to Hollywood and helped bring the genre to the fore with Enter the Dragon (1973).