Martial-arts schools played a major role in late imperial Chinese history: the Boxer Rebellion, the notorious anti-foreigner crusade that lasted from 1899 to 1901 and led to the fall of the Qing dynasty, was spearheaded by one such school. Despite the rebellion's total failure, it became a powerful symbol of Chinese nationalism; and hardly coincidentally, most examples of the emergent silent-era martial-arts film (known as wuxia pian, literally "chivalrous combat films") were fiercely patriotic in the Boxer spirit. Mingxing, the same company that launched Shanghai's progressive cinema movement in the 1930s, was also responsible for the earliest documented martial-arts film (actually a series of films), the now-lost The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple. The immense popularity of this long-running serial, and the many other martial-arts films that followed in its wake, flew in the face of officially sanctioned opinion. Patriotic sentiments aside, the films' outré special effects and bevy of louche women led to a ban on the genre from the Guomindang (Nationalist) government as promoting "superstition and moral decadence." The Communists would continue this policy for much the reason, claiming that wuxia films promoted the worst aspects of feudal China.
In the late-1940s, with anti-wuxia policies in place both on the Communist Mainland and Guomindang-controlled Taiwan, talent from both the world of filmmaking and that of the martial-arts schools began a migration to Hong Kong, which had begun to rebuild the studio complexes destroyed during the war and would soon become the undisputed centre of martial-arts cinema worldwide. Beginning in 1948, the fantastic popularity of the series of Hong Kong films based on (and considerably embroidering) the life of the real-life martial-arts guru Wong Fei-hung inspired a boom in martial-arts film production, driven by the Shaw Brothers studio and its rival Golden Harvest, that would reach its peak in a roughly ten-year period from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. While directors like King Hu (Come Drink With Me) and Chang Cheh (One-Armed Swordsman) took the fantasy-heavy, swordplay-focused wuxia film to new heights, it was an offshoot of wuxia that would bring the martial-arts film to the world: the unarmed combat-based kung-fu genre, exemplified in the films of the great director Lau Kar-leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) and finding its global figurehead in the one and only Bruce Lee.
The eighties and nineties saw several major evolutions in Chinese cinema's unique contribution to the action genre as the craze for the "classic" martial-arts film began to wane. Once touted as a successor to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan instead found global superstardom as the clown prince of kung fu, blending the often solemn martial-arts template with slapstick and low comedy while taking the genre's incredible physical displays to eye-popping new heights. Prolific Hong Kong New Wave leader Tsui Hark would take the wuxia film into a lavish new era with such ambitious epics as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and re-energize the classic kung-fu film with the masterful Once Upon a Time in China. Blending Chan's populist comedy with Tsui's outrageous flights of fancy, the Tsui-produced A Chinese Ghost Story and Jeffrey Lau's two-part A Chinese Odyssey brought fantasy and the supernatural into the martial-arts mix. Finally, at the turn of the century martial-arts cinema returned to the Mainland that once spurned it: following Ang Lee's global success with his King Hu-inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a series of baroque, Mainland-produced wuxia epics emerged, with the best among them — such as Zhang Yimou's Hero and Feng Xiaogong's The Banquet — garnering significant domestic and international success.
Concurrent with and intrinsically related to the rise of the wuxia and kung-fu genres was the Hong Kong gangster and crime thrillers, which refracted the martial-arts films' themes of loyalty, brotherhood and patriotism through a dark, distorting lens. As evidenced by Patrick Lung Kong's long neglected 1967 milestone The Story of a Discharged Prisoner, the gangster film originally had its roots in Hong Kong's socially progressive cinema, stressing the connection between crime and poverty and holding out some hope, however faint, that these social ills could be healed. In the 1980s, however, the genre began to evolve in a considerably darker, more nihilistic and hyperbolic direction, in such films as Johnny Mak's startlingly bleak Long Arm of the Law and, most famously, John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. A loose remake of Discharged Prisoner infused with the influence of Leone, Peckinpah and Kurosawa, A Better Tomorrow made "heroic bloodshed" the new byword of Hong Kong action cinema with its outrageously stylized, over-the-top gun battles. The decades to come have seen several other innovative directors take the genre to exciting new places: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak reinvigorated Hong Kong cinema as a whole with their 2002 hit Infernal Affairs, while the great Johnnie To took a considerably more cynical and sardonic look at Woo-style blood-brothering in a series of hard-edged crime films that culminated in his 2005 diptych Election and Election 2.
— Noah Cowan