Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist

By Stephan Berwick

What defines a contemporary martial arts master? Is it technical skill? Knowledge? Fighting ability? Performance? Versatility? Internal energy? Physical foundation? Creativity? Traditional skills? A modern approach? If anything, today's martial artist should be well rooted in classical technique, but able to cut across disciplines, with a capacity to evolve. Maybe today's martial arts master can be defined as Donnie Yen.

Long a global cult hero to movie and martial arts fans in the know, Kungfu Magazine interviewed Boston's Donnie Yen in Hong Kong, on the eve of his nomination as best director by a major Japanese film festival for his last action film noir - the self-produced, stylish assassin film, Ballistic Kiss. As an action film director, movie star, and pioneer martial artist, Yen has never publicly discussed his approach to martial arts. But the secret to his rise as one of Hong Kong's most creative directors is largely based on his unique approach to martial arts, and it is about to gain Yen a wider audience with his Hollywood debut as the costar and martial arts choreographer in the new Highlander film. His odyssey from martial arts pioneer, to action film star, to filmmaker forged him into, quite possibly, the only martial artist with the potential to pick-up where Yen's hero, Bruce Lee, left off.

"For me," insists Yen, "the ultimate skill is creative movement. If your foundation is precise and based on traditional skills, then you should work to be able to free-form your movements for any situation." For a jazz master, the practice of free-form, improvised music represents the highest form of music. But the ability to play at this level demands diligent practice of the basics and an ability and willingness to enter the uncharted zone of creativity.

In this vein, the author notes that one of America's early martial arts pioneers, Ed Parker required black belts in his system to create their own master-forms, based on traditional Kenpo technique, to graduate to the advanced levels of his American Kenpo system. Also, contemporary martial arts like modern Chinese Wushu place extreme emphasis on basic technique training as a foundation to create highly difficult routines, performed by, arguably, the most dramatic martial arts performers today. Yen, as a unique product of American and traditional and contemporary Chinese martial arts, is an example of how boxing disciplines can evolve. More so, Yen may very well be one of the few martial artists poised to lead such an evolution.

Neoclassical Martial Arts
Based on new and old, Western and Eastern, the combat versatility exhibited in Yen's films was evident throughout his comprehensive martial arts training. Yen began training under his mother, Bow Sim Mark, the first person to teach modern Wushu in America. A highly accomplished master of both traditional and contemporary Wushu, Master Bow trained her son in the well-organized, contemporary Wushu movements based on traditional Long Fist boxing. When just out of high school, Yen's excellence prompted the Beijing Wushu team to invite him to China for advanced training, after their historic first-ever U.S. tour. Yen returned in triumph, easily winning championships in America, becoming one of Inside Kung Fu magazine's youngest Hall of Fame members.

"Yeah, I had a lot of success, but it wasn't just due to my China training. It was crucial, but it wasn't the reason why I went from tournament wins to very tough action movies by the time I was nineteen," Yen maintains. "At eighteen, I was beginning to experiment with other martial art styles and I really got into weight training and hardcore bag training as well. Essentially, I wanted to develop my fa jing so that it was evident in any martial art movement I practiced, regardless of style. (Fa jing is a fundamental traditional Chinese martial art practice that can be defined as a flexible, explosive delivery of focused striking energy while relaxed.) This explosive power is at the core of most martial arts - especially Chinese styles."

Fa jing is the hallmark of Donnie Yen the actor, film maker, and martial artist. Yen points out that fa jing, at its core, is not necessarily unique to Chinese martial art masters. "Just take a look at Mike Tyson at his best. He always remained relaxed until the last moment. His blows were always extremely explosive and really focused. They were powered from a solid base of strong, kung fu-like legs, and guided by his waist. Almost pure kung fu in its essence." He recalls, "When I was a child I spent years undergoing heavy leg and waist training from my mother. With that athletic foundation I developed all of my tools so that I would be able to handle the physical demands of explosive energy. Let me tell you, it really prepared me for my first film under the Hong Kong director Yuen Wo Ping, who is a perfectionist."

Often considered the last of the great, classic Hong Kong kung fu films, Drunken Taiji was Yen's introduction to the highly precise and extremely athletic choreography of Yuen Wo Ping. He notes, "Yuen Wo Ping is totally into precision and authenticity in movement. No matter what style of martial art he put in his films, a performer couldn't survive his production unless his basic movements were like steel that could be forged in any way. Yuen forced me to get to the essence of my martial abilities." Director Yuen made Jackie Chan a star in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow. Years later he hand-picked Donnie Yen to be his next big discovery.

Versatility in Martial Arts

Yen's long association with Yuen Wo Ping, (recently featured in Kungfu magazine's coverage of his work on the sci-fi hit, The Matrix), resulted in two highly celebrated martial arts masterpieces of recent years, Once Upon a Time in China II and Iron Monkey. These films were turning points in Yen's career as his martial skills were highlighted to a degree that led him to become an action director and now founder of Bullet Films. "For years I designed my own fight scenes," says Yen. "Tiger Cage was my first real experience as a choreographer. I worked hard to develop a new kind of screen fighting that combined Chinese martial art with Western boxing. I still get great reactions from my fans on this film. It was really a turning point for me. That's when I knew I wanted to direct, but best of all it confirmed my vision of what a martial artist should be both in film and in life."

When asked to elaborate, Yen continues, "I came to a point where my martial arts training achieved two things, versatility and explosive speed. After my second film, I returned to the states and taught Wushu, while training in Western boxing, Muay Thai, and Tae Kwon do. I then traveled to Xi'an, China for renewed training in contemporary and traditional Wushu. I chose Xi'an, because that was the home of Zhao Chang Jun, probably the greatest Wushu athlete China ever produced. This guy was the most explosive Wushu stylist I ever saw. He confirmed my training approach which is based on using the extreme athleticism typical of modern Wushu, to build fa jing in a variety of movements, no matter what rhythm is followed."

Martial Arts Jazz

On the topic of rhythm in martial arts, Yen is especially vocal. He explains, "Building a basic rhythm and finding your own rhythm represents the highest level of martial arts skill. Most martial artists focus too much on trying to imitate robotic movements that are supposed to be effective training tools for conditioning and combat if they adhere to the theory of a given style. I often disagree with this approach for an advanced martial artist. As much as I love classic martial arts theory, most of which is very valuable to fighters, building high levels of skill demand versatility and an ability to improvise like a jazz musician or actor. Being able to move in and out of styles, movements, and rhythms with ease is the highest skill."

The jazz metaphor aptly describes Yen's martial arts ability. Some of his recent movie fight scenes reveal an astounding ability to improvise without requiring much choreography. Yen's first large-scale project as an action director and one of his biggest screen roles as a leading man was in the Hong Kong TV series remake of Bruce Lee's, The Chinese Connection. Yen's work in this popular TV series was full of creative martial arts performances that featured a number of improvised, free-flow fight scenes. "For certain scenes, I told the actor or stunt person to just keep up and don't stop until I do. Then I would find an internal rhythm, like a musician or modern dancer, and just express myself - always keeping it explosive and continuous with a controlled fury."

Crossing Cultures in Martial Arts
Whether he knows it or not, Yen may be the only martial artist today that easily bridges the gap between numerous martial styles and the diverse cultures that interpret them. "I've never limited my expression," explains Yen. "My mom taught anybody who came to her school, so early on I was exposed to a variety of cultures and martial arts." Indeed, Yen has found expression as a pianist, break dancer, and martial artist. Chinese culture, American urban culture, and traditional martial culture comprise his unique and powerful approach to martial arts. "Hey, if a technique proved effective for fighting or looked amazing in performance, I'd master it. Over time I had a lot to work with and I now feel comfortable in almost any martial art realm," he adds.

"If I can give any advice to talented martial artists, it would be to perfect your foundation and explore other dimensions of hand-to-hand combat. Specialize, but don't limit your overall skill to just one style. You'll be richer for it. And always strive to be able to perform in any given situation, without depending on warm-ups and loose clothing, in any environment. When you get to that point, your martial art will be more interpretive than technical. You'll be a fluid artist with the reflexes of a tiger."

Donnie Yen's Five Rules of Martial Arts Mastery

  1. Turn your basic movements - regardless of style - into perfect jewels.
    If you accomplish this, you'll have a good chance of becoming an advanced practitioner sooner than you may expect. Like good Wushu or even Western boxing, extreme basic training is the only real secret for excellence.
  2. Train your body athletically.
    Probably the most lacking aspect of modern practitioners, your overall physical condition, regardless of style - internal or external - is crucial to sustain long periods of often painful training.
  3. Emphasize "fa jing" in your techniques.
    Top Western boxers exhibit fa jing as much as top Asian martial artists. Start with traditional Chinese styles to learn this crucial use of energy.
  4. Strive for versatility and a wide exposure to different disciplines.
    After some years developing a specialty, force yourself to obtain at least intermediate skill in a few other styles completely different from yours.
  5. Train for both combat and beauty of movement.
    Contrary to popular belief, a serious practitioner can achieve excellent fighting ability while looking fantastic. Always remember that top Western boxers are as engaging to watch as contemporary Wushu athletes. Don't be scared of one or the other.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

About Stephan Berwick :
Stephan Berwick is a Washington, DC based martial artist who was mentored by Bow Sim Mark and studied under Zhao Chang Jun and Bai Wenxiang in China with Donnie Yen. After working in Hong Kong films for two years for Yuen Wo Ping, he became a disciple of Chen Taiji Master Ren Guang Yi. Mr. Berwick can be reached at or at 703-820-4319.

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