Before I discuss Jackie Chan, I need to discuss David Carradine. Carradine was what I'd call a martial actor, not a true martial artist. By his own admission, he didn't begin studying kung fu in earnest until he had already been doing the series "Kung Fu" for at least a season. Carradine was a dancer by training, and it's well known that dancers can often transition to martial-arts performance for cinematic purposes because they already possess the requisite strength, speed, flexibility, and balance. But this doesn't mean that every dancer is a secret martial artist (not unless he or she is trained in capoeira), and Carradine, while he may have begun training in actual kung fu much later in life than most dedicated practitioners, never really became the real deal. This makes him the perfect example of a martial actor versus someone like Chuck Norris, who was and is an actual martial artist (Norris's background is mainly in Korean martial arts like tangsudo).
Jackie Chan is actually a graduate of the Beijing Opera (well, technically, the China Drama Academy, which is directly descended from the Beijing Opera). He's famous for having developed his skills alongside other martial-arts stars like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The school has traditionally taught elements of theater, acrobatics, and martial arts in an integrated syllabus, but training at the school is not the same as singular dedication to a martial art with a tough master. There's no doubt that Chan has proved, again and again on film, his physical prowess, but what we see is mostly acrobatics, and video evidence of Chan's martial prowess is fairly rare. So I've had my doubts that Jackie Chan can really be called a bona fide martial artist. He's a far superior performer compared to David Carradine, whose movements were graceful but generally lacking in strength and power. To my mind, the difference between Carradine and Chan is one of degree, not kind: both were/are martial performers, not actual martial artists.
But I'm open to being convinced otherwise, and I just stumbled across a YouTube video that shows a very interesting demonstration. The video is a clip from a German TV show in which a lovely young German lass—a taekwondo practitioner—attempts to break four bricks with her fist while holding an egg, which she must not break. Performing such a stunt requires a high level of comfort with what Koreans call kigong and the Chinese call qigong or qigung, i.e., harmonious manipulation of vital energy. Jackie Chan is on stage but off to the side, sitting with an interpreter and another guest, no doubt adding to whatever nervousness or pressure the poor girl must be feeling. The girl expertly breaks two sets of four bricks, but in both cases, she also breaks the egg inside her fist, thus failing to perform the stunt. At this point, the host calls Jackie over to help out; Jackie comically breaks an egg seemingly by accident when he fumbles with the egg carton, then he switches his second egg for a third egg, thus adding to the humor. What happens next is nothing short of incredible: Chan casually breaks three stacks of four bricks apiece, one after another in rapid succession, and the egg emerges from this series of strikes utterly unscathed.
I was floored. This was a real demonstration of kigong, and in my mind, I had no choice but to recognize Jackie Chan as more than a mere martial actor. Here—watch the video for yourself:
Wikipedia tells me that Chan did more than study at the Beijing Opera: he has studied other martial arts on the side, including certain varieties of Chinese kung fu and Korean hapkido. I've long respected Chan as a performer, and but after having watched this humbling video demonstration, I can now also call him the real deal.