Alright, I’ve wallowed enough. Time to get back in the saddle, as the title says. In more ways than one, really. The other day I was sating a profound desire for American Chinese food and was listening to the kitchen staff’s idle chatter. Time was, I could pick out at least a functional context from these scraps of conversation. Anymore though it is rapidly becoming an indecipherable mystery. I decided a while ago that Chinese language wasn’t where I wanted to go with my career, but that doesn’t mean its a skill that I want to let wither away either. Obviously not being in classes has helped things atrophy, with constant homework repetitions, but I also realized that I consume much less Chinese language media than I used to. I’m probably going to have to go back to square one to retrain myself completely, but I’m hoping that reviving my interest in mandarin television and film will also help prime my listening skills. This is a sort of segue into a discussion that I’ve wanted engage in for a while, simply because its kind of funny and weird doesn’t have a lot of parallels elsewhere. I would like to present for your consumption, the film canon of Chen Zhen.
Chen Zhen is a pop-culture icon and modern day folk hero in China. He is a kind of contemporary legend in both the martial arts and the broader spectrum of Chinese culture and history. He is also completely fictional.
Yes, Chen Zhen exists solely as a character in film. The thing is though, that he isn’t really the protagonist of a film ‘series’ per se, like James Bond or Rocky. Rather he is the central dramatic force of several film and television projects produced independently of each other over nearly forty years. In true urban legend fashion, the exact details of his exploits are somewhat different in each telling and have an array of apocryphal amendments. The portrayal you are probably most familiar with is this:
Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fist of Fury is the birthplace of the Chen Zhen character and it is irrefutably statistically proven that every martial arts film ever involving nunchaku contains at least one reference to the scene pictured above. Fist of Fury is arguably Lee’s most well-known film after Enter the Dragon, and Lee’s performance established Chen Zhen’s central story and iconography. Head student of a murdered Sifu, victim of racist imperialism, wears a white Mao suit (or Sun Yatsen suit, if we’re being true to the time period), uses nunchaku (an Okinawan weapon kind of out of step with broader narrative of Chinese nationalism but whatever its iconic), gets satisfying violent revenge against the invading Japanese thugs that assassinated his master, and goes out in a blaze of glorious martyrdom.
This is not necessarily the end of the story, however. In 2010’s Legend of the Fist – The Return of Chen Zhen it is revealed that the character survived his (spoiler alert) quixotic flying kick into a hail of gunfire and… well, returns. This time though he’s wrapped up in the intrigues of Shanghai on the eve of World War II, with the Japanese not-so-secretly planning to generally do bad things to China. Oh, he also dresses like Kato.
Yes, the character popularized by Bruce Lee wears the costume of ‘another’ character popularized by Bruce Lee. As goofy as the premise sounds, its actually a very enjoyable movie. Donnie Yen takes over the title role of Chen Zhen, having already cut his teeth punching out evil Japanese in his popular Ip Man films. He is a good fit in the part, comfortably following Lee’s easy charisma and athletic skill. Yen also manages to make the transition fluidly from the Wing Chun style used in the Ip Man movies, and which most western audiences probably associate him with, to the Mizongquan style appropriate for the Chen Zhen character. The film is as much a paean to Bruce Lee as it is to the character he helped create, but it works.
As fanciful as this sequel gets, its really not the end of the weirdness. I mentioned earlier about how there was an appropriate kung fu “style” for Chen Zhen to be using. Why does it matter if he’s fictional? Well, while Chen Zhen is fictional the murdered Sifu he is avenging in all of his incarnations ‘is’ a real person. Chen Zhen is the student of Huo Yuanjia, an actual Chinese folk hero, martial arts pioneer, and anti-colonial activist who lived in the latter nineteenth century and died in 1910. While never proven so, it has long been believed that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese, to the point that his remains were exhumed in 1989 to attempt to prove the assassination thesis. The debate will probably never be resolved, and Huo Yuanjia’s believed martyrdom forms the basis for the Chen Zhen mythos. Huo Yuanjia’s own life and exploits have been portrayed and embellished in movies and television over the years. Probably the most well known version is in the 2006 film Fearless, in which the central role is played by Jet Li.
For all that this film has its problems with historical accuracy (while still managing to at least be entertaining), it does not go all out and incorporate the Chen Zhen character. There is still a sort of narrative link there though. The themes of anti-imperialism and Chinese nationalism that permeate the Chen Zhen films are present here as well. It is possible for you to take Fearless, Fist of Fury, and Legend of the Fist together and find yourself with an effective trilogy of films. Films that were produced decades apart by different companies with different actors and without really intending to create any kind of “franchise” have created a kind of cinematic collaborative storytelling all based on a central popular myth. Also, now might be a good time to mention that Jet Li helped launch his film career starring in another unaffiliated movie titled Fist of Legend, which was a 1994 remake of (can you guess it?) Fist of Fury where he played the role of (ready for it?) Chen Zhen.
Yep. Getting too meta for you yet? There are still other works that I’m not going to discuss here, but the fact of the matter is that Chen Zhen is effectively a man-made myth. Somehow though that artificiality does not diminish his cultural presence. You talk about him less like he is a pretend character than an actual historical personage. In a way, he is. He is a unique specimen of the twentieth century zeitgeist, the ultimate urban legend. It is my belief that Chen Zhen’s film canon, and his legend, will only continue to grow and evolve. He has that precise alchemical mixture of mooring in true events, Shakespearean melodrama, and enduring cultural message that creates something more than the sum of its films. Also he does kung fu. That always helps.