As the various systems of martial arts developed over the centuries, it was generally considered “unladylike” for women to actively participate in such activities or the grim business of war. There were exceptions of course along with legends of warriors such as Boudica, Mulan and Joan of Arc. The folklore origins of Wing Chun kung fu tells of a Shaolin Nun called Ng Mui, who taught a 15-year-old girl named Yim Wing-Chun how to defend herself. Ng Mui took her Shaolin martial arts knowledge and created a fighting system that Wing Chun could learn quickly and use without having to develop great strength.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that it became really acceptable for women to publicly practice fighting arts. By 1900, girls as young as 12 years-old were topping some bills in French Savate contests. In 1917, the Chin Woo/Jingwu school established in Shanghai by the famous Master Huo Yuanjia began a Woman’s Training Programme that placed an emphasis equal to the men’s training.
In the 1920’s, “Guoshu” or “national art” was established by the new Chinese Republic, giving women a platform to demonstrate their martial arts skills. With two major world wars taking place, women around the world began to take on roles previously dominated by men. The Communist Revolution in China led to the development of “wushu“, and became enormously popular among female practitioners. Elsewhere around the world, women began to practice arts such as Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Karate and Aikido for self-defence. In the modern era sports such as kickboxing and Muay Thai became popular forms of fitness training, with many female celebrities such as Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie and Ellie Goulding taking to the pads.
As the popularity of martial arts for not only training but also onscreen entertainment increased, so did the prominence of women in the screen arts. As early as 1966, Cheng Pei-pei broke Asian box office records as the lead in the movie “Come Drink with Me”. Angela Mao-ying blazed a trail in the early 1970’s in films such as “Hapkido” and “Lady Whirlwind”. She even appeared opposite the biggest martial arts icon of all time, Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon“. By the 1980’s, stars such as Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock showed they could perform stunts and action that was just as hard-hitting as their male counterparts. Today, MMA stars like Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate garner ratings and fight for purses that not even professional women’s boxing is matching.
Although there may still be some way to go before there is true gender equality, here is our Top 10 of Female Martial Arts Stars who we think have set the pace…
- Cheng Pei-pei
Cheng Pei-pei was the first female martial arts superstar following her defining role in the 1966 King Hu wuxia film classic “Come Drink with Me”. Originally trained as a dancer, Cheng’s transformation into an action star saw her play expert martial arts and sword fighters in television and film productions throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Her early successes in the aforementioned “Come Drink with Me” and films such as “The Golden Swallow” and “That Fiery Girl”, paved the way for other female stars to emerge in the Chinese film industry. In 2000, Cheng won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Ang Lee’s worldwide smash hit “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“.
- Cynthia Khan
Taiwanese actress Cynthia Yang Li-tsing originally trained as a youngster in dance but soon took up taekwondo at which she excelled. In 1987, she made her film debut in “In the Line of Duty 3”. The film was a box office success and started her long career. Sequels and other films followed, many of them in the “girls with guns” genre. She most notably featured alongside Donnie Yen in “In the Line of Duty 4: Witness“, directed and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping. Her screen name is a combination of the names of established Hong Kong stars Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh (then known as Michelle Khan), whom she replaced in the “In the Line of Duty” movie series.
Thai actress Jeeja Yanin stormed into martial art movie fans sights with her debut in 2008’s “Chocolate“. She was discovered by master action director and choreographer Panna Rittikrai. Using a similar method to the one he used to launch the career of Tony Jaa with “Ong Bak“, he forged the movie around many months’ preparation of fight choreography and action scene rehearsal, playing to Jeeja’s strengths in ballet, gymnastics and taekwondo. The results were some of the most hard-hitting and intricate fight scenes performed by a young female action star. Jeeja went on to star in films such as “Raging Phoenix” and “The Kick“. Following a break from film work to start a family, she has recently returned to the screen with roles in “Never Back Down 3” and “Hard Target 2“.
Aged 21 Gina Carano took up the martial art of Muay Thai. Coached by the legendary Master Toddy, she soon became a hit on the Muay Thai tournament circuit. After achieving a pro-Muay Thai record of 12 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat, Carano received an offer from Jamie Levine to participate in the first-ever sanctioned female MMA bout in Nevada, which she won with a second-round knockout. Her popularity in subsequent headlining events led to her being called the “face of women’s MMA”, although Carano herself rejected the title. In 2008 Carano was ranked 5th on a list of the “Top 10 Influential Women”, having brought female MMA athletes to the fore. In 2009 she appeared in Michael Jai White‘s “Blood and Bone“, followed by her leading role in the thriller “Haywire“, in which she got to showcase her fighting skills for movie audiences. She has since gone on to appear in the films “In the Blood“, “Fast and Furious 6”, “Deadpool” and “Kickboxer: Vengeance“.
Julie Kitchen’s martial arts story is genuinely inspirational. Following the birth of her twin daughters in February 1999, at the age of 24, Kitchen joined the Touch gloves Gym in Penzance, Cornwall to lose weight. It was to be the start of what would become a glittering pro-kickboxing and Muay Thai competitive career. Kitchen won her professional debut in March 2002 against Diane Fletcher from Liverpool, England. During her career she faced fighters from fifteen different countries and was the first British woman to win a WBC title. Kitchen’s 14 World Titles earned her the nickname “The Queen of Muay Thai”. Having retired in 2012 with a 61-fight record that included 51 wins, she now works as a sports commentator with her own daughters becoming successful fighters in their own rights.
Rousey was the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo (bronze), which she won at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Her judo skills served her well when she turned her hand to professional MMA. Rousey won 12 consecutive MMA fights, six in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), before suffering her first loss, to Holly Holm in November 2015. Although a controversial figure in the sport, her bouts brought women’s MMA onto a par with some of the best-selling male MMA events. She has more recently taken up acting and has appeared in action roles in “The Expendables 3” and “Fast and Furious 7“.
- Kara Hui
Shaw Brothers star Kara Hui got her big break in 1976’s “Challenge of the Masters”. Under the guidance of legendary action director Lau Kar-leung She appeared in many Shaws’ classics including “Invincible Shaolin”, “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”, “Dirty Ho”, and “Return to the 36th Chamber”. Her defining role was as the lead in 1982’s “My Young Auntie” for which she won the Best Actress Award at the 1st Hong Kong Film Awards. Hui would go on to win another two Best Actress Awards at the 29th and 36th Hong Kong Film Awards. Still active today, in recent years she has appeared in the martial arts horror movie “Rigor Mortis” and opposite Donnie Yen in “Dragon/Wuxia“.
- Angela Mao
Taiwanese actress Angela Mao Ying Mao trained in traditional Opera for 8 years before taking up Hapkido, Wushu, Taekwondo and other forms of martial arts to prepare for her various movie roles. She shot to fame in 1972 with her films “Deadly China Doll”, “Hapkido” and “Lady Whirlwind”, but was paid just US $100 for her role as the sister of Bruce Lee’s character in the film “Enter the Dragon”. Mao retired from films in 1992 to devote herself to her family, moving to New York City in 1993, where they run three restaurants.
- Michelle Yeoh
Originally trained as a ballet dancer before suffering a back injury, Michelle Yeoh caught the eye of production company D&B Films after appearing in a commercial with action star Jackie Chan. In 1985, she was cast alongside American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock in the cops and gangsters action film “Yes Madam/Police Assassins“. Yeoh’s ballet skills allowed her to pick up the martial arts fight choreography quickly, leading to her performing most of her own stunts. She soon developed a reputation for matching her male co-stars kick-for-kick and stunt-for-stunt, most notably opposite Jackie Chan in 1992’s “Police Story 3: Supercop“. Her ability to perform action and deliver drama led to her being cast opposite Pierce Brosnan for the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”, where she again made her own mark in the action scenes. She is probably best known to international audiences for her role in the worldwide smash hit “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“.
In terms of pioneering and trailblazing for women in the world of martial arts, there are few that have achieved as much as American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock. Rothrock was a five-time World Champion in forms and weapons between 1981 and 1985 and holds seven Black Belts in various martial arts disciplines, including Tang Soo Do, Taekwondo, Eagle Claw, Wushu, Northern Shaolin, and Pai Lum Tao Kung Fu. She was one of the first Caucasian women to train in Mainland China in the 1980’s, at a time when it was still fairly unique even for Western men to train there!
Her martial arts skills and versatility brought her to the attention of Golden Harvest.
In 1985, Rothrock made her leading role debut alongside Michelle Yeoh in the Hong Kong box office smash “Yes Madam/Police Assassins”. Rothrock’s success led to her staying in Hong Kong to make popular action hits such as “Millionaires Express“, “Righting Wrongs/Above the Law”, “Magic Crystal” and “Inspector Wears Skirts/Top Squad”. Her popularity in Hong Kong action films is a feat rarely replicated by other Westerners, with perhaps only her regular co-star Richard Norton coming close. Returning to her native USA, Rothrock carved out a successful career with films such as “China O’Brien”, “Martial Law”, “Rage and Honour” and “Blonde Justice”. She continues to teach martial arts and appear in movies, including “The Martial Arts Kid“.
Who is your favourite female martial artist? Kathy Long, Zhang Ziyi, Amy Johnston, Moon Lee, Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate – there are so many more to choose from. Let us know your favourites in the comments below, chime in onthe conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and stay tuned for more exclusives coming up. Meantime, feel free to see our other martial arts Top 10’s!