Cheng Pei-Pei is the first female action hero (and the first female martial arts star). Here’s what you need to know about the Queen of Kung Fu.
Cheng Pei-pei, known by many as the Queen of Kung Fu, is the first-ever female action hero. The Chinese actress appeared in a number of martial arts movies while working in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately starring in two of the most influential kung fu films ever made: Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Names that often come to mind when talking about female martial arts stars are Michelle Yeoh, Enter the Dragon’s Angela Mao, Kara Hui, and Cynthia Rothrock. When it comes to female action heroes, there’s Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, and more. While action and martial arts movies have a tendency to be centered around male characters, there’s a long list of actresses who have taken the spotlight as the main protagonist in movies that focus on action – and it begins with Cheng Pei-pei.
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In the 1960s, Hong Kong actress Cheng Pei-pei was contracted to Shaw Brothers, the most well-known studio in the kung fu industry. She received her big break in 1966 when she starred in Come Drink with Me – a movie from celebrated director King Hu – in which she played Golden Swallow, a young swordswoman who took it upon herself to rescue her brother from a gang of vicious bandits. In several scenes, a stone-faced Golden Swallow single-handedly took down numerous opponents with her sword skills. Since Cheng wasn’t actually a trained martial artist, Come Drink with Me utilized her dance background to give her some well-choreographed fight scenes.
The action sequences in Come Drink with Me were huge in more ways than one. Not only did Come Drink with Me make Cheng Pei-pei the first female action hero, it created the standard for what a martial arts movie should be going forward. Seeing a woman – or anyone, for that matter – effortlessly defeating over a dozen opponents in such an impressive fashion was unprecedented at the time and is certainly a sight to behold, even today.
Following its success, Cheng starred in several more kung fu movies with Shaw Brothers, such as The Lady Hermit, The Jade Raksha, The Shadow Whip, and The Dragon Swamp. She also made Golden Swallow, which served as a sequel to Come Drink with Me. In many of these movies, Cheng played the lead character and for several years remained the top female kung fu star. During this time, she often worked with Lo Lieh, who had a reputation as the first international martial arts superstar.
Cheng took a long break from acting in 1974 to move to the United States and focus on her family, but she eventually returned to the big screen. In 2000, she made another important mark on the genre with her role as Jade Fox in the critically-acclaimed hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that was partially inspired by Come Drink with Me. Cheng Pei-pei still acts today, and continues to take supporting roles in movies, with her latest appearance being in Disney’s Mulan, where she played the Matchmaker.
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