Ni Kuang, the prolific Hong Kong writer behind the Wisely series of sci-fi novels as well as over 300 film screenplays including the classic martial arts films One-Armed Swordsman and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the Bruce Lee hits Fist of Fury and The Big Boss, has died. He was 87.

The South China Morning Post reported that Ni died Sunday at his home in Hong Kong. Local media reported that the cause of death was skin cancer. In a double blow to Hong Kong’s cultural landscape, Ni died on the same day as legendary director and screenwriter Alex Law.

A giant of Chinese literature, Ni’s shadow looms large over the genres of science fiction, wuxia fiction and martial arts, but he also wrote extensive non-fiction pieces, newspaper columns, satirical pieces and dabbled in the romance and detective genres. It has been reported that Ni wrote more than 300 novels in addition to all the screenplays he completed during his life. He created scores of memorable characters among them the adventurer Wisley, the martial artist Chen Zhen, Dr. Yuen, the first modern Chinese superhero Inframan, and Fang Kang the “one-armed swordsman” portrayed by the late Jimmy Wang.

Born in Shanghai in 1935, Ni was one of eight children in a middle-class family living in the French Concession area of the city. He was an avid reader in his youth, devouring Chinese classics such as Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber and Water Margin. As a teenager he became a cadre of the Chinese Communist Party, working as a prison guard among other roles. In 1957, he offended a CCP official and made a dramatic escape from Inner Mongolia, where he was stationed, back to Shanghai where he paid people traffickers to smuggle him to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, Ni worked as a laborer, and by chance entered a writing competition in a local newspaper. His writing career began in the popular-at-the-time wuxia genre, period action stories featuring sword-wielding warriors and supernatural elements. Ni switched to science fiction in the early 1960s, creating the first Wisely story in Diamond Flower, in 1963. The Wisely stories set in the near future of Hong Kong, with the wealthy protagonist Wisely traveling the world solving mysteries and encountering all manner of people, villains and even aliens. In all, Ni wrote 150 Wisely stories, and the series were adapted for radio, television and the big screen numerous times, with several actors playing Wisely including Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Samuel Hui.

From left: ‘Fists of Fury’ (1972), ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’ aka ‘Master Killer’ (1978) and ‘The Big Boss’ (1971).
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Ni began his screenwriting career in 1967 when he was invited by director Chang Cheh to write the script for the wuxia film One-Armed Swordsman. The film was a huge hit, leading to Ni becoming one of Hong Kong cinema’s most in-demand writers. He was closely associated with the Shaw Brothers Studios, penning several of their biggest hits during their golden era.

Ni’s most famous film work was uncredited. He created Bruce Lee’s character of Cheng Chao-an and the story for The Big Boss (1971) but the eventual writing credit was given to director Lo Wei. Ni was also the writer of the Lee film Fist of Fury (1972), creating the character of Chan Zhen and providing the story, but once again Wei took the credit. Chan Zhen would become an enduring character and be played by numerous actors in film and TV including Jet Li and Donnie Yen.

Notable other Ni-written films from the 1970s include the superhero film The Super Inframan (1975), the kung fu classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) which would influence the American rap group the Wu-Tang Clan.

Ni’s film and television output slowed in the late 1980s and the 1990s. A vocal critic of communism and the CCP, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 in anticipation of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China. He returned to Hong Kong in 2006.

At the 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards, Ni received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

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