‘Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting’ – Shaw Brothers and Chinese Cinema

Perhaps you’ve seen the famous fighting scenes of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, know who Bruce Lee is, and have watched a kung fu movie at least once in your life – but do you know the Shaw Brothers enterprise? It’s the production company that gave martial art its worldly success on the big screen. Shaw Brothers made everybody go ‘kung fu fighting’, creating a unique Chinese cinema.

Sir Run Run Shaw, also known as Shao Yifu (邵逸夫), was the last living founder of the Shaw Brothers and one of the most influential figures in Asia’s entertainment industry. He passed away on January 7 2014 at the age of 107, becoming an instant trending topic on China’s social media.

Many voices state that Shaw Brothers globalized ‘Chinese cinema’. What’s on Weibo gives you a short history of the Shaw Brothers enterprise, an overview of the internationalization of Chinese cinema, and will answer the question how, if at all, Shaw Brothers represents Chinese cinema.

Shaw Brothers

The history of the Shaw Brothers enterprise traces back to the 1920s, when film was becoming a thriving business in Shanghai. Runje Shaw, the oldest son of a Ningbo merchant family of ten children (of whom seven survived), started in the entertainment business when he bought a bankrupt theater in 1923 and successfully modernized it.

This initial success brought about the 1924 establishment of one of China’s most outstanding film enterprises: Tianyi [Unique], run by four of the Shaw brothers, including Run Run, the youngest. Tasks were divided and the brothers spread across Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore to run the company.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Tianyi produced (silent) films that were different from those of other companies that simply copied Hollywood film formulas. In being distinctively different, Tianyi met its audiences’ need to identify with their own Chinese values (Chung 2007, 668-675; Davis 2011, 45). The brothers focused on the reinforcement of China’s traditional morality and cultural values, and kept away from mimicking western films. The Second World War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao in 1949 left little room for business opportunities, and Run Run set up the Shaw Brothers enterprise in 1958 British Hong Kong.

u=3717590278,3200134244&fm=23&gp=0A young Run Run Shaw

The company established its own Movie Town in 1961, becoming one of the most flourishing film studios in the world. Although films were initially produced in the Cantonese language, Shaw Brothers turned Mandarin into the official language by the mid-1960s. Through the use of Mandarin and the adaptation of folklore and martial arts subjects, they created a new representation of Chinese culture to the world, leading to a true kung fu craze (Fu 2008, 8). Kung fu soon dominated film industries in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and made it overseas as an international popular formula and style of action (Siu 2008, 74).

This kung fu craze was warmly welcomed by Hollywood, that was pestered by financial losses. Warner Brothers worked together with Shaw Brothers to launch a “kung fu invasion”; these films attracted mainstream US audiences and brought in huge profits, especially because they were made at low costs (Sundiata 2008, 200). Shaw Brothers went on to produce nearly a 1000 movies, becoming the longest running studio in Chinese-language film (Davis 2011, 41).

373_111213154314_1Run Run Shaw at the heyday of Shaw Brothers with crew

Chinese Cinema

The Shaw Brothers enterprise is often mentioned as being tantamount to Chinese cinema. The term ‘Chinese cinema’ is somewhat problematic, since it does not disclose to which geographic or cultural regions it applies. Chinese cinema is incredibly diverse. As Gary Xu (2007) says: “(…) we understand Chinese cinema not as a coherent whole but as the filmmaking practices and films of mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora. Tensions abound in this cinema of different regions, nations, cultures and even languages” (4).

The diversity within Chinese cinema is intrinsically entangled with China’s history and politics. During the Mao years from 1949 to 1976, and particularly during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, the cinema of the People’s Republic of China was state-owned and heavily controlled. Since it was a stable and dominant cinema, Chris Berry (2004) chooses to call this a “classical cinema” (27).

Modern-day Chinese cinema is a product of this so-called classical cinema, the postsocialist cinema and all the transnational cinematic practices that occurred over the twentieth century. Where does this place Shaw Brothers?

Shaw Brothers: An Imagined China

Shaw Brothers largely built its film oeuvre during tumultuous historical times and outside of the People’s Republic of China. Can it, in this way, be considered a ‘Chinese cinema’ at all?

During the 1960s, Run Run Shaw repeatedly told of his global ambitions in interviews; the Shaw Brothers had clear goals in terms of cultural nationalism. Not only did they want to serve Chinese audiences with a Chinese-flavored popular cinema, they also wanted to “bring the East into the West” and allow China into the international cinemas (Fu 2008, 7; Davis 2011, 41).

The Shaw Brothers enterprise was clearly focused on profit and took on the challenge to please an extremely varied audience across multiple regions, cultures and political situations. The company served the interests of the British Hong Kong government by creating a romanticized cultural China on screen, that was free from the radical maoist politics of the Mainland (Davis 2011, 44). It also adhered to various censorship policies by making different versions of the same film: a ‘mild’ one for the Southeast Asian markets, a ‘moderate’ one for Hong Kong and a ‘hot’ edition for the audiences in America, Europe and Japan (Chung 2007, 675). In this way the company could maximize its profits and keep its audiences, and their governments, happy.

In order for Shaw Brothers to reach its cultural ambitions and maximum profits, it needed to stick to a non-political and pro-cultural film formula; it was inspired by China, but did not refer to a specific time or place. Shaw Brothers focused on Chinese popular tradition with martial arts, woman warriors, and the narrative of a suffering hero on his journey to revenge.

Shaw Brothers created a China that audiences everywhere could imagine themselves to be part of. This ‘imagined China’ worked perfectly since different ethnic Chinese audiences around the world “(…) found in Shaw Brothers film a China forever in the midst of all the political turmoil and personal displacements and with which they could continue to identify despite their life in diaspora” (Fu 2008, 14). This ‘imagined China’ full of rage and vengeance by a loyal protagonist against his vicious enemy also hugely appealed to non-Chinese audiences. And so the Shaw Brothers created their own happy end: they turned Chinese cinema into a global popular product across a transnational market and obtained the revenues they hoped for. Shaw Brothers made everybody go ‘kung fu fighting’, creating a unique Chinese cinema.

kill_bill_i-1Scene in Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino, who was greatly influenced by Shaw Brothers

Although the kung fu film may not represent the totality of Chinese cinema, it did bring a part of Chinese cinema to the global industry and influenced many (western) filmmakers in their work. It undoubtedly also paved a smoother way for other Chinese filmmakers who hit the international cinemas.

The last of the Shaw Brothers has passed away, but he leaves behind a great legacy. Shaw Brothers made history. Not just by giving their Chinese cinema a worldwide stage, but by creating the China-flavored, transnational kung fu film: the Chinese rebel within the international cinema that will live on for many more years to come.

And, for your enjoyment, a scene from One Armed Swordsmen (Du Bi Dao 独臂刀, 1967):

 

A Selection of Shaw Brother Classics:

Big Drunk Hero (Da Zui Xia 大醉俠, 1966)

One-Armed Swordsman (Du Bi Dao 独臂刀, 1967)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaolin Sanshiliu Fang 少林三十六房, 1967)

The Chinese Boxer (Long Hu dou 龙虎斗, 1970)

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtisan (Ai Nu 愛奴, 1972)

Five Fingers of Death (Tianxia Diyi Quan 天下第一拳, 1972)

Blood Brothers (Ci Ma 刺马, 1973)

The House of 72 Tenants (Qishier Jia Fangke 七十二家房客, 1973)

Blade Runner (Yinyi Shashou 银翼杀手, 1982)

An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty (Chaochang Haofang Nu 唐朝豪放女, 1984)

References
Berry, Chris. 2004. Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China. The Cultural Revolution After the Cultural Revolution. New York & London: Routledge.
Chung, Stephanie Po-Yin. 2007. “Moguls of the China Cinema. The Story of the Shaw Brothers in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore 1924-2002.” Modern Asia Studies 41(4): 665-682.
Davis, Darrell William. 2011. “Questioning diaspora: mobility, mutation and historiography of the Shaw Brothers film studio.” Chinese Journal of Communication 4(1): 40-59.
Fu, Poshek. 2008. “Introduction,” in China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema, Poshek Fu (ed), 1-27. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Klein, Christina. 2007. “Kung Fu Hustle: Transnational Production and the global Chinese-language Film.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1(3): 189-208.
Siu, Leung Li.”Embracing Glocalization and Hong Kong-Made Musical Film,” in China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema, Poshek Fu (ed), 74-94. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Sundiata, Keita Cha-Jua. “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and Challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity”, in China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema, Poshek Fu (ed), 199-221. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Xu, Gary G. 2007. Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Plymouth: Rowman&Littlefield.
Top Image: “A scene from director Chang Cheh’s 1971 Shaw Brothers Studio movie, ‘The New One-Armed Swordsman.'” Wall Street Journal, 2014.

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[box type=”bio”] koetse.148x200About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies (China track, Leiden University). Her interest in modern Chinese society and social media have resulted in the launch of What’s on Weibo. Contact: manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]