Played by Jet Li and Jackie Chan, who was Wong Fei-hung for real? Tracing the life of the martial arts legend


Wong Fei-hung is the most famous of all the exponents of southern-style Chinese martial arts, and his exploits have passed into legend. There have been around 100 films about him, 77 of which feature actor Kwan Tak-hing, who became synonymous with Wong during the 1950s and 1960s .
Radio plays, pulp novels, newspaper story serialisations, and television series have been devoted to his life. At one point, no less than seven newspapers were running serialised novels about Wong at the same time.
The martial arts master became known to international audiences in the 1990s when he was played by Jet Li Lianjie in Tsui Hark’s supremely successful Once Upon a Time in China film series .
In spite of his status as a folk hero, very little is known about Wong and his life. Indeed, much of Wong’s history has been coloured by the fictional exploits attributed to him. As a line in American director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend,” and this has certainly occurred in Wong’s case.
“Wong Fei-hung was much revered in his lifetime, but little is actually known about him,” said Woshi Shanren, who wrote novels about the martial artist in the 1940s and 1950s. Even the sole photograph purported to be of him turned out to be a picture of one of his sons.
In-depth research by Yu Mo-wan, published in a 1981 essay, The Prodigious Cinema of Wong Fei Hung, did establish some basic facts about his life. Since then, other facts have come to light.
Wong was born around 1847 in or near Foshan in China’s Guangdong province. His father, Wong Kei-ying, was one of the famed Ten Tigers of Canton, a collective name given to the best martial artists in Guangdong in the mid-19th century.
The Ten Tigers were all said to trace their lineage back to the Buddhist fighters of the Southern Shaolin monastery. If such a place existed, it was said to have been in Fujian province, southeast China, and was a counterpart to the original Shaolin Monastery in northern Henan province.
Wong Kei-ying is said to have studied under the legendary Luk Ah-choi, a former abbot of the Southern Shaolin monastery and an expert in northern-style “flower” kung fu. and the southern hung ga style. Luk saw Kei-ying performing martial arts and acrobatics on the street as a child and offered to teach him. (Wong Fei-hung himself later became one of the Ten Tigers, possibly when he was in his twenties, but he was not one of the original members, as is sometimes said.)
Wong Kei-ying became known for his prowess in hung ga kung fu, and taught martial arts to the military. Notably, as his wages were low, he also worked as a physician – a herbalist and possibly an expert in bone-setting (dit da) – and founded the Po Chi Lam apothecary in Guangdong.
Wong Fei-hung inherited his father’s medical skills as well his martial arts prowess, and would run a Po Chi Lam apothecary later in his life.
Wong Fei-hung was taught kung fu – mainly hung ga style – by his father from around the age of five, and would travel to different villages in Guangdong with him to perform kung fu in the streets and sell medicine to make a living. The tale of how Wong initially became famous during one of these sales expeditions with Kei-ying is narrated in an article by hung ga grandmaster Frank Yee.
When he was around 13 years old, Wong angered another martial artist, Hung Gwan-dai, who was also giving a demonstration in the street, because his exhibition was drawing a bigger crowd. Hung Gwan-dai challenged Kei-ying to a fight, but Kei-ying instructed his young son to take up the challenge instead.
A pole fight ensued, and the young Wong quickly beat the challenger by using the eight-diagram pole technique, a long-pole system that is a favourite of hung ga exponents. This match made Wong Fei-hung famous all over Guangdong.
Wong also became well-known for his skill at lion dancing, something demonstrated in the films about him. “Wong Fei-hung, who was one of the province’s best lion dancers, was known around Guangzhou as the ‘King of the Lions’,” writes Yu Mo-wan.
Wong went on to distil and formalise the hung ga system, which had been invented by Hong Xiguan, another Shaolin hero. “He was an expert in the Hung school of Shaolin martial arts, and an expert in the Iron Wire Fist, the Five Forms Fist, the Tiger Vanquishing Fist, and the Shadowless Kick,” writes Yu. The Shadowless Kick is a side kick, popularised but probably not invented by Wong, in which a fighter kicks his opponent three times in succession while in the air.
Wong was married four times, and had four known children, but there is only information about his fourth wife, Mok Kwai-lan. Mok, who married the ageing Wong in 1915 when she was 23, was a renowned martial artist in her own right. She practised mok ga, a Shaolin style that emphasises close fighting techniques, and Wong incorporated some elements of that into hung ga after they met.
Mok outlived Wong by many years, dying at the age of 90 in 1982. She moved to Hong Kong in 1936, where she ran an apothecary and a bone-setting operation, and taught hung ga. She had married Wong so late in his life that she could not provide much information about his personal history, researchers have said. The TVB television series Grace Under Fire was loosely based on her life.
There is a famous, but possibly apocryphal, story about how the two met. In 1911, Wong was giving a kung fu demonstration when his shoe flew off and hit the watching Mok in the face. A furious Mok picked up the shoe, broke through the crowd, and slapped Wong in the face, saying that he should be more careful, because next time he might make a similar mistake with a weapon and injure a member of the audience.
The two met again after Mok’s uncle, who was also her guardian and martial arts instructor, sought out Wong to apologise for her behaviour. Romance bloomed, and Mok and Wong married.
Like his father, Wong also trained the army in martial arts. He worked as the martial arts instructor for the 5th Regiment of the Guangdong army, and later the Guangzhou Civilian Militia. Towards the end of his life, he taught martial arts, and ran a Po Chi Lam apothecary in Guangzhou, and another in Foshan.
According to Yee, Wong became impoverished when his house and apothecary burned down during anti-government riots in Guangzhou in 1924. Wong became ill and died in either 1924 or 1925 or perhaps even 1933. He is reputed not to have lost a single fight in his life.
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here .
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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