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Lau Kar-leung: Wushu Masters You Should Know

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LAU KAR-LEUNG: WUSHU MASTERS YOU SHOULD KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written June 20th, 2016

“Although Lau Kar-leung was not a ‘master’ of ‘Wushu’ in the sense of modern Wushu, nor was he directly involved with Wushu in mainland China, he was nevertheless a great contributor to Chinese martial arts, which the term Wushu semantically defines in general.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This is the third edition of a segment of write-ups entitled “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This series is dedicated to the recognition of great Wushu masters who have made great contributions to Chinese Wushu.  Sections of each edition will be divided into the individual’s background history, perspectives on Wushu, and why they are worthy of recognition.  These Wushu masters are not to be confused with modern Wushu coaches, athletes and champions.  This specific edition will recognize Lau Kar-leung.

On June 25th, 2013, Lau Kar-leung passed away.  He had been suffering from cancer, specifically lymphoma, for the last twenty years of his life, and died peacefully in the morning.  This year will mark the third anniversary of his death, as is the case with the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda.  Lau Kar-leung was a true contributor to Chinese martial arts.  Anyone who is a martial arts enthusiast or kung fu movie fan, even if you are not a Wushu practitioner, should know who this man is.  This is why his death is so that much more a loss for everyone in the Chinese martial arts community, practitioner and kung fu movie fan alike.  This is why I have decided to write about him, to pay respect to this great master, and even help spread recognition of this man to those Wushu practitioners that may not know of him.

In an effort to recognize such Wushu masters, I have decided to start a segment I’d like to call, “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  In this context, the use of the term “Wushu master” does not refer simply to coaches, athletes and champions of modern Wushu, who have only represented Wushu in the sport, performance and competitive sense, and will instead only be reserved for those who have actually earned the title in a complete traditional martial arts sense, as I have found in my personal research of Wushu.  Although Lau Kar-leung was not a “master” of “Wushu” in the sense of modern Wushu, nor was he directly involved with Wushu in mainland China, he was nevertheless a great contributor to Chinese martial arts, which the term Wushu semantically defines in general.  As a result, I have decided to make a special case and extend this segment to honor him, and I feel it would be irresponsible of me to ignore this opportunity to pay respect to this man.  This is a special edition of “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This is Lau Kar-leung.

Background History

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Lau Kar-leung was born in 1934 in Guangdong province, China, and was a master of the traditional southern Chinese martial arts system of Hung Gar (洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family).  The Lau family is well-known for their lineage of Hung Gar.  His lineage of Hung Gar directly descends from the famous Wong Fei-hung, as he trained under his father Lau Cham, who was a student of Lam Sai-wing, who in turn was a student of Wong Fei-hung.  He is best known as the director and actor of many classic kung fu movies.  In some of his films, he is sometimes credited as “Liu Chia-liang”, a Romanization of his name in Mandarin, “Liú Jiāliáng” (刘家良).

At the beginning of his career, Lau Kar-leung started out as an extra.  He would later earn his fame and recognition as a fight choreographer and director for the aforementioned classic kung fu movies produced by the famous film production company Shaw Brothers.  These are the kinds of movies that embodied the chop-socky, anti-Qing themed, and hilariously bad dubbing stereotypes of kung fu movies.  However, such films held a certain charm to them from a retrospective standpoint, in the same way many people look at other old classic films from decades past, and a memorable quality due to their authentic Chinese martial arts content.  Such examples of his work include, but are not limited to, such hits as Challenge of the Masters (陆阿采与黄飞鸿; Lùācǎiyǔhuángfēihóng, Luk Ah Choy And Wong Fei-hung) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十六房; Shàolínsānshíliùfáng, also known as Master Killer or Shaolin Master Killer) starring Gordon Liu, and Drunken Master II (醉拳二; zuìquánèr, Drunken Fist 2) starring Jackie Chan.  Any true martial arts and kung fu movie fans and enthusiasts would know this man as a magnate of kung fu movies and Hong Kong cinema.  The summation of this solidifies Lau Kar-leung as a master and contributor of Chinese martial arts.

Perspectives on Wushu

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Given his clear traditional Chinese martial arts background, you would naturally think that Lau Kar-leung would instinctively be against modern Wushu.  However, this is far from the case.  Those who know about Lau Kar-leung’s extensive work would know that he has openly worked with exponents of modern Wushu.  The first and most historic example of this is his work as the director of the film Martial Arts of Shaolin (南北少林; nánběishàolín, literally “North and South Shaolin”), the third film that featured the memorable The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolínsì) cast, starring Jet Li.  More recently, he directed the movie Drunken Monkey (醉马骝; zuìmǎliú), which eponymously showcased the drunken monkey style of his family’s traditional Chinese martial arts system, and starred Wu Jing.  He has even publicly encouraged and celebrated in person the Wushu performances of Jet Li and Wu Jing, on separate occasions.  Perhaps this can be attributed to his need to be open to all kinds of martial arts practice being used in movies as a filmmaker promoting Chinese martial arts, or simply an open-minded attitude as a martial artist.

From a semantical perspective however, it is worth noting that in his interviews, he, as well as his god-brother Gordon Liu, have used the term “mouseot”, a Cantonese version of the Mandarin term “wǔshù”, to refer to Chinese martial arts.  Today, Chinese martial arts has been mistranslated worldwide as “kungfu”, which itself is a Romanization and mispronunciation of “gongfu” (功夫; gōng​fu)  in Chinese.  Gōng​fu in fact means “skill”, whereas Wushu is the more literal and accurate term for Chinese martial arts, however gōng​fu has still been used by traditional Wushu practitioners, dubbed “traditionalists”, to distinguish it from the term “Wushu”, which generally refers to modern Wushu, though as previously established, Wushu can be used to refer to all Chinese martial arts (perhaps the translators of Lau Kar-leung’s interviews were aware of this, and decided to use the term “kungfu” to avoid the current semantical and political confusion).  In any case, Lau Kar-leung was clearly open-minded enough to work with modern Wushu, and stands as a great example of someone bridging the gap and strengthening the relationship between modern and traditional Wushu.

Why This Person Matters

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So why does this person matter?  Well, as established, his movies have helped to spread awareness of Chinese martial arts.  But if one takes the time to really think about it, his work in kung fu movies has also in fact contributed to sharing the ideas of Chinese martial arts culture in general, and transmitting them to a movie audience.  First and foremost, the classic training scenes in his movies, aside from being and an interesting, if not amusing storytelling device, demonstrate the theme of skill achieved through hard work over a long amount of time, a true representation of the idea of gongfu, and its very definition.  Of course, talking about Lau Kar-leung’s movies would be incomplete without his accurate presentation of traditional Chinese martial arts, which were indeed real Chinese martial arts using real martial artists, lending an unequaled sense of authenticity in martial arts to his movies, and allowing audiences to see what real traditional gongfu looked like.  Second, despite being clear fictional works, his movies have included characters that are in fact real life famous Chinese martial arts masters and heroes, such as the aforementioned Wong Fei-hung, Hung Hei-gun, and San Te, further educating audiences about the great folk heroes and historical figures in Chinese martial arts culture and history.  But most importantly, his movies exude the ideas of Wude (武德; wǔdé, martial ethics).  Most masters and experts who look at Wushu from a philosophical standpoint often decry old kung fu movies due to certain themes of revenge and killing, however with Lau Kar-leung’s work, this was not always the case (if anything, this generalization can be given to Bruce Lee).  In fact, many of the plots in Lau Kar-leung’s movies involve demonstrating respect and compassion over aggression and violence.  In this way, Lau Kar-leung has not only spread awareness of Chinese martial arts, but he has also promoted better understanding of them, by conveying the deeper culture of Chinese martial arts, not just their surface appearance or movements.  And it is in this way that Lau Kar-leung has earned and cemented a place of respect in all the Chinese martial arts community, including the Wushu one.

To me, Lau Kar-leung is a real Wushu master in every sense.  His passing is a loss to all the Chinese martial arts community, not just the Wushu one, and his memory and influence should be recognized and respected by us all.  Though various tributes have been made and written to Lau Kar-leung, none have talked about his interaction with modern Wushu.  I hope those Wushu practitioners who have read this have learned something about Lau Kar-leung and his example as a contributor of Chinese martial artist.

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a three-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and most recently Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.