Guest Author - Caroline Chen-Whatley
Anyone who has watched Martial Arts movies is probably familiar with the name Chen Zhen. It was the feature character in Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury and reprised in the 1994 film Fist of Legend with Jet Li. It has spawned off many smaller sequels starring a variety of Martial Artist, including another world-renowned star, Donnie Yen.
But is Chen Zhen a real person?
The story of Chen Zhen is of a young Chinese man who is caught in the turmoil of 1937 Shanghai. Chinese history is not taught much in the West, if at all. Most are familiar with the rise of communism and Mao Zedong and the eventual falling of the "silk curtain" with President Nixon making a historical trip to China. Some may have even watched or read about Piyu, the Last Emperor of China.
But beyond that, the Western world is somewhat naïve to all that has happened in China's history, particularly around the 1930s-40s. In the Western world, we were concerned about World War I and then World War II. We had seen the Great Depression and witnessed many atrocities done to fellow humans.
China's landscape during this period of time was very different from the straight-laced Mao suit of the People's Republic of China. It was a world of growing economic importance. Shanghai was major trade center to the East. Many countries found themselves heavily invested in this foreign city and it was not uncommon to have a high population of Caucasians occupying the city.
Unfortunately, despite all the advances of the Chinese culture and all the wonderful things they had to offer the West, they were still seen by these foreign countries as being inferior. This was during a time when many countries believed in the supremacy of the White Man and it was their duty to educate and rule over all others. Many other nearby countries, like India, were finding themselves under the rule of these foreign countries… mostly with the concept that it would somehow better them.
China was, and still is, a country rich in resources. Its vast lands held many needed and desired products from silks to spices to labor. Even neighboring Japan looked with envy at all China had to offer. Many people who view China today don't realize how colorful and vibrant and modern China was during this time period.
During this time in China, the ruling imperium was growing more and more out of touch with what was happening beyond the gilded walls of the Forbidden Palace. The economy was very strained. There were people who prospered greatly, able to work in an environment where there was little government and a large influx of foreign money. Corruption was high. China was becoming more and more influenced by these foreign powers, and not in a positive manner. Many saw a need for change. But what government and by whom?
During this time, there were many emerging thoughts that fragmented the country even further. Some believed it was a good thing to allow the foreigners to come in and take over, after all look at how they restored order in other Asian countries. Some even felt it would be better to allow China to fall under Japanese rule, at least then it would stay with an Eastern country and not the White Man. Others felt the country should structure itself closer to the capitalist French. Still others looked to the North and saw how every man, even the poorest, had equity in Russia.
History tells us what the eventual outcome becomes. But this turmoil sets the stage for Chen Zhen and his heroic efforts.
Unfortunately, as real as the setting is (and it is very real), the character and events surrounding the story are fictional. The character was created by Ni Kuang, a noted Chinese novelist and screenwriter.
So, NO Chen Zhen is not a real person.
The character Chen Zhen has become a cultural hero, showing the strength of the Chinese despite all other external forces working against them. It is one of many characters that have been created for film with the intent to inspire pride, not unlike King Arthur or Robin Hood or William Wallace. Bits and pieces are based on things that may have happened in some form or another during this time period. But as an entire story, it is fictional.