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Photo of the Day: The Shaw Brothers and the Birth of Chinese Cinema

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This week’s photo theme is Unsung Heroes of Kung Fu — we’re shouting out lesser-known legends of kung fu cinema to expand your mind beyond Jackie, Jet, and Bruce.

There’s no better way to kick this theme off than with the Shaw Brothers themselves.

The Shaw Brothers are probably the single most important phenomenon in the founding of a Chinese film identity. As the eldest sibling, Runje Shaw did the dual jobs of managing the early studio in Shanghai, and also directing their movies. His younger brothers Runde, Runme, and Run Run handled accounting, distribution, and odd jobs. That was in 1925, when the Shanghai-based studio was still called Tianyi Film Company.

Runje used to run a theatre, but made the jump to film after watching colleagues of his achieve early success with the medium. His first movies were immediate hits — 1925’s A Change of Heart hit big at the box office, and the same year’s Swordswoman Li Feifei is considered the earliest Chinese martial arts film. Runje had a knack for bringing Chinese culture to the silver screen, from imperial costume dramas to traditional myths.

Right before the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, Tianyi Film Company moved equipment and operations to Hong Kong, and Shaw Brothers Studio was born in earnest. The rest is kind of history — Shaw Brothers became the most iconic name in Chinese or Asian cinema anywhere, and built the identity of the classic “kung fu flick” from the ground up. Thank you Shaw Brothers, for your contributions to the genre. Pictured is a spread of characters from the studio’s films.

More kick-ass articles:

Alamo Drafthouse Bringing Classic Shaw Brothers Films to the US

WATCH: Jet Li Talks Kung Fu Film Collaboration with Jack Ma, 10 Years in the Making

Saving Southern Shaolin: Preserving the Ancient Art of Qigong

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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