Yen is credited by many for contributing to the popularisation of the traditional martial arts style known as Wing Chun. He played Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man in the 2008 film Ip Man, which was a box office success. This has led to an increase in the number of people taking up Wing Chun, leading to hundreds of new Wing Chun schools being opened up in mainland China and other parts of Asia. Ip Chun, the eldest son of Ip Man, even mentioned that he is grateful to Yen for making his family art popular and allowing his father's legacy to be remembered.
Yen is considered to be one of Hong Kong's top action stars; director Peter Chan mentioned that he "is the 'it' action person right now" and "has built himself into a bona fide leading man, who happens to be an action star." Yen is widely credited for bringing mixed martial arts (MMA) into the mainstream of Chinese culture by choreographing MMA in many of his recent films. Yen has displayed notable skills in a wide variety of martial arts, being well-versed in T‘ai-Chi Ch‘üan, Boxing, Kickboxing, Jeet Kune Do, Hapkido, Taekwondo, Karate, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Wing Chun, and wushu. Seen as one of the most popular film stars in Asia of the early 2000s, Yen was one of the highest paid actors in Asia in 2009. Yen earned HK$220 million (US$28.4 million) from four films and six advertisements in 2013.
Yen was born in Guangzhou, China. Yen's mother, Bow-sim Mark, is a Fu Style Wudangquan (internal martial arts) and Tai Chi grandmaster, while his father, Klyster Yen (甄雲龍), is a newspaper editor. When he was two years old, his family moved to Hong Kong and then to Boston when he was 11. His younger sister, Chris Yen, is also a martial artist and actress, and appeared in the 2007 film Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon.
At a young age, under the influence of his mother, Yen developed an interest in martial arts and began experimenting with various styles, including t'ai chi and other traditional Chinese martial arts. Yen then started kung fu when he was nine. Yen focused on practising Wushu seriously at the age of fourteen after dropping out of school. His parents were concerned that he was spending too much time in Boston's Combat Zone, so they sent him to Beijing on a two-year training program with the Beijing Wushu Team. When Yen decided to return to the United States, he made a side-trip to Hong Kong, where he met action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yen finally started taekwondo at around the age of sixteen.
Yen also came from a family of musicians. His mother is a soprano, in addition to being a martial arts teacher in Boston, while his father is a violinist. From a young age, he was taught by his parents to play musical instruments, including the piano. He also knows hip-hop dancing and breakdancing.
Yen's first step into the film industry was in 1984 when he landed his first starring role in the 1984 film Drunken Tai Chi.
After filming Drunken Tai Chi and Tiger Cage (1988), Yen made his breakthrough role as General Nap-lan in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which included a fight scene between his character and Wong Fei-hung (played by Jet Li). Yen had a starring role in the film Iron Monkey in 1993. Yen and Li appeared together again in the 2002 film, Hero, where Yen played a spear (or qiang) fighter who fought with Li's character, an unnamed swordsman. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.
In 1995, Yen starred as Chen Zhen (Cantonese: Chan Zan) in the television series Fist of Fury produced by ATV, which is adapted from the 1972 film of the same title that starred Bruce Lee as Chen Zhen. Yen reprised his role as Chen Zhen in the 2010 film Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.
In 1997, Yen started the production company Bullet Films, and made his directorial debut in Legend of the Wolf (1997) and Ballistic Kiss (1998), in which he played the lead character. At age 34, Yen almost went bankrupt. Films produced by his own production company and directed by him were critically acclaimed but did not do well at the box office. Yen was forced to borrow money from loan sharks and his production crew to get by.
Yen later went back to the United States, where he was invited to choreograph fight scenes in Hollywood films, such as Highlander: Endgame (2000) and Blade II (2002). His choreography and skills impressed the directors, and they invited him for cameo appearances in both movies.
In 2002, Jet Li was filming the movie Hero and insisted to the director that he wanted Yen to play the role of Sky, his adversary, due to Yen's martial arts ability. Li personally invited Yen back from Hollywood to star in the movie, marking the second time the two actors appeared onscreen together since Once Upon a Time in China II ten years earlier. In 2003, Yen played the antagonist against Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights.
Yen choreographed most of the fight animation in the 2004 video game Onimusha 3, which featured actors Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jean Reno. Yen continued to be active in Hong Kong cinema in the 2000s, starring as Chu Zhaonan in Tsui Hark's wuxia epic film Seven Swords, and as Ma Kwun in Wilson Yip's brutal crime drama film SPL: Sha Po Lang in 2005. Both films were featured at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Later that year, Yen co-starred with Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue in Wilson Yip's Dragon Tiger Gate, an adaptation of Wong Yuk-long's manhua series Oriental Heroes. Yen also worked as action choreographer in Stormbreaker, starring Alex Pettyfer. Yen continued to work with Wilson Yip in Flash Point (2007), in which he starred as the lead character and served as producer and action choreographer for the film. He won the award for Best Action Choreography at the Golden Horse Film Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in Flash Point.
In 2008, Yen starred in Ip Man, a semi-biographical account of Yip Man, the Wing Chun master of Bruce Lee. Ip Man marked Yen's fourth collaboration with director Wilson Yip, reuniting him with his co-stars in SPL: Sha Po Lang, Sammo Hung and Simon Yam. Ip Man became the biggest box office hit to date featuring Yen in the leading role, grossing HK$25 million in Hong Kong and 100 million yuan in China.
In August 2011, while Yen was on a vacation with his family in the United States, he reportedly received an invitation by producer Avi Lerner to star in The Expendables 2. It was stated that Yen was considering the offer, had many films at hand, and would wait until deciding whether the script appealed to him. Later on, Yen revealed to the Hong Kong media that he had rejected the role.
In 2011, Yen revealed that he was venturing into other genres of movies and had taken up two comedy roles in a row, in All's Well, Ends Well 2011 and All's Well, Ends Well 2012, and would be working with Carina Lau in the former and Sandra Ng in the latter. Both films obtained huge critical and box-office success and proved that Yen's versatility as an actor.
Yen took a six-month break in the second half of 2011 after the filming of The Monkey King 3D, explaining that he wanted to spend more time with his family and be with his children more often during their growth.
In 2012, Yen returned to the movie industry and commenced the filming of Special ID, in which he played the main lead, an undercover cop, and also took on the role of action choreographer. In 2013, it was reported that Donnie Yen would be playing the lead role for The Iceman Cometh 3D, a sci-fi action film dealing with time travel and which was filmed in 3D. Yen confirmed that MMA would be used in both of the abovementioned films.
In February 2013, the Weinstein Company confirmed that it had purchased the rights to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel and contacted Yen to play the male lead. In March 2013, Hong Kong magazines surfaced photos of Harvey and Bob Weinstein traveling to Hong Kong to meet with Yen and persuade him to accept the offer. It was reported that Yen was considering the role and quoted as saying, "The first is that my schedule this year is very packed. The second is that the first film is already such a classic. I am afraid of the pressure, that the original cannot be surpassed."
In May 2013, during the annual Cannes Film Festival, the Weinstein Company announced that Yen would play the lead role of Silent Wolf in the Crouching Tiger sequel, titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, alongside leading female action star Michelle Yeoh reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien, and with director Yuen Woo-ping, Yen's mentor. It was revealed that the movie would be filmed in both English and Mandarin to appeal to the international market.
It was also revealed during the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II press conference that the Weinstein Company had obtained rights to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, was planning a remake and was negotiating with Yen, George Clooney and Zhang Ziyi to star in the film. Donnie Yen declined the offer due to scheduling conflicts for the filming of Ip Man 3.
In late March 2015, Ip Man 3 was announced. Yen reprised his role as the titular character, Bruce Lee's martial arts master, Ip Man. Retired boxer and former Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was confirmed to join the cast. Donnie Yen mentioned that he was a big fan of Mike Tyson, watched many of his professional Boxing bouts, and was excited to work with him. Mike Tyson stated during a press conference that he was a huge fan of Donnie Yen and has watched the first two Ip Man movies more than three times each and was honored to be invited for the final installment of the trilogy.
Principal photography for Ip Man 3 began on March 25, 2015, and the finished movie was released in December 2015 in parts of Asia and around the world in early 2016 to generally favorable reviews.
In 2016, Yen co-starred in the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One as Chirrut Îmwe, the Zatoichi-like blind transient warrior. On February 12, 2016, it was confirmed that Yen would replace Jet Li in the role of Xiang in the upcoming action film XXX: Return of Xander Cage.
For the promotion of xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Paramount focused marketing efforts on Donnie Yen in China and most parts of Asia, placing him at the front of the film posters ahead of Vin Diesel, and shared clips and reviews of Yen's performance in the movie on popular Chinese Social Media Site Weibo. Paramount's efforts worked very well in China. xXx was number one in its opening weekend with $61.9 million, and crossed the $100 million mark in just six days with $22.2m coming from Valentine's Day alone after rave reviews praising Donnie Yen’s performance sweeps through Chinese social media, driving moviegoers to the cinema.
Yen's performance in both Rogue One and xXx: Return of Xander Cage received extremely positive responses from critics and general audiences. For Return of Xander Cage, many media sites including Variety, Los Angeles Times, Screen Anarchy and Budomate praised Yen's performance and credited him as the highlight of the movie and stealing every scene he is in. In the case of Rogue One, other than praises from critics, Yen's performance was also applauded by audiences worldwide. In an official poll on the Star Wars webpage, which more 40,000 people voted, Yen's character Chirrut Îmwe was voted as audiences' favorite Rogue One character.
Yen describes himself as a mixed martial artist. He learned Tai Chi from a young age under his mother's tutelage. He then wanted to learn Taekwondo in his teenage years, earning a 6th Dan in the process. At the time, the Beijing Wushu Team had a scout in the United States and invited Yen over to Beijing, China, where he began training at the Beijing Sports Institute, the same facility where champion-turned-actor Jet Li trained; this is where the two of them crossed paths for the first time.
Upon his return to the United States, Yen won gold medals in various wushu competitions.
Yen later went on to discover and seek knowledge on other martial arts styles; he would later obtain black and purple belts from Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, respectively, and went on to study the art of Parkour, Wrestling, Muay Thai, Kickboxing and Boxing under various trainers. His exposure to mixed martial arts (MMA) was heightened when he went back to the United States from 2000 to 2003. While making his Hollywood debut, he also took time off to learn the various martial arts forms. Yen's progress was evident when he returned to Asia, where he implemented his newfound knowledge of MMA, showcased in films such as SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005), Flash Point (2007), and Special ID (2013).
Near the end of 2007, Yen added a new martial arts system to his arsenal. He was offered the role of Wing Chun grandmaster and mentor of film star Bruce Lee, Ip Man, in a 2008 film named after the grandmaster. He worked hard and studied Wing Chun under Ip Man's eldest son, Ip Chun, for 9 months before tackling the role. Ip Chun has since praised Yen for his effort, his skills as a martial artist, and his ability to grasp the full concept of Wing Chun much faster than anyone else he has taught.
Yen believes that combining many martial arts together will produce the most effective and harmonious style. Yen has said, "When you watch my films, you're feeling my heart." He believes in practical combat, and in his opinion, MMA is the most authentic type of practical combat. He has mentioned that he would have competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship if he did not have a recurring shoulder injury.
Donnie Yen was a rebel when he was young due to the huge expectations and pressures from his parents, as his mother is the founder of the Chinese Wushu Research Institute in Boston, and his father was a scholar and a musician. Yen joined a Chinatown gang in Boston, MA, in his early years. He was a very curious teenager who sought to exchange martial arts knowledge with people from different martial arts backgrounds, which led to him gaining profound knowledge in practical martial arts and having a reputation as a street brawler.
One reported occasion confirms Yen as being an efficient martial artist. According to news reports by Hong Kong news channels in the late 1990s, Yen was at a nightclub with his then girlfriend, Joey Meng. Inside the nightclub, Joey got harassed by a troublesome gang that had taken an interest in her. Yen warned them to leave her alone, but they persisted to cause trouble. As Yen and Joey left the club, the gang followed and attacked Yen. According to the news, Yen beat up eight members of the gang who were later hospitalized.
Malaysian Martial Arts Star Michelle Yeoh has said that Donnie Yen is the fastest guy she has worked with. Other martial arts stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li have also stated that Yen may be the best fighter in terms of practical combat in the Asian cinematic universe.
World class fighters, such as former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Cung Le and former World Boxing Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson, who have worked with Donnie Yen in the films Bodyguards and Assassins and Ip Man 3, respectively, have both claimed that Donnie Yen is an incredible martial artist and would do well in authentic combat. While filming Ip Man 3, crew members were afraid that Mike Tyson, who had been a professional boxer, would forget the choreography and throw real punches to injure Yen. However, it was ultimately Yen who fractured Tyson's finger while using his elbow to block Tyson's punches.
Donnie Yen was considered as one of the premiere action choreographers in the world, having been invited by Hollywood to choreograph blockbusters such as Blade II, Highlander: Endgame, and Shanghai Knights. In Asia, he is the action choreographer for most of his movies and has won multiple awards for his action choreography.
Yen's most famous works include films such as Flash Point and SPL: Sha Po Lang. He has mentioned that the main differences in filmmaking in Asia and Hollywood are with regards to freedom and control. In Asia, the action choreographer takes over the scene during the fight scene. This means that for action scenes filmed in Asia, the choreographer becomes the director and is in full control over camera placements, camera angles, and the relationship between the drama and the action; therefore the main director is not needed at all. While in Hollywood, on the other hand, Yen explains that the action choreographer simply choreographs the actions with the director, who still maintains full control of such settings and camera angles.
Yen's work as a choreographer won him "Best Action Choreography" awards at the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards and the 2008 and 2011 Golden Horse Film Awards.
Yen was the fight choreographer for the 2010 film Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. For this film, Yen mentioned that he included Jeet Kune Do elements as a tribute to Bruce Lee, who played Chen Zhen in the 1972 film Fist of Fury. Furthermore, he incorporated many MMA elements in the film, coupled with the utilisation of Wing Chun. Yen also stated that the concept behind Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do is similar to that of MMA, hence the incorporation of many forms of martial arts was a necessity in the film.
He won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography 4 times, being one of the most frequent winners of this coveted award. He has won awards for his choreography in films such as The Twins Effect, SPL: Sha Po Lang, Flash Point, and Kung Fu Jungle. Although uncredited, Donnie Yen was also action co-choreographer for Hong Kong Film Award winners such as Ip Man, Ip Man 2, and Bodyguards and Assassins.
In his prime, Donnie stood at 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 165 pounds. Donnie Yen is known to be a very well-built and muscular actor. Within the Hong Kong cinematic industry, Yen is renowned for his physical fitness, strength, and speed achieved through his use of a strict and disciplined fitness regimen to build up strength and fitness.
However, despite his muscular build, Yen has gained tremendous attention for his dedication to his roles and for the lengths to which he goes to achieve the physical build and appearance of the characters he plays. In 2007, Yen lost over 30 pounds to reach the weight of 120 pounds to better portray the slender Ip Man and the techniques of wing chun, which focuses on techniques and not strength. He did so through a very strict regimen of limiting himself to one meal per day.
In 2010, still fresh off Ip Man 2, Yen was cast as Chen Zhen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, which was originally portrayed by Bruce Lee. He had to regain his muscular physique for the role and took 6 months through a very delicate and dedicated diet routine. Focusing on high-protein drinks and vitamin and mineral supplements, he managed to hit 165 pounds for the role. He maintained this bulk and physique while filming The Lost Bladesman, in which he plays Guan Yu, a Chinese general known for his size and spear-fighting abilities.
In 2015, Yen reduced his muscular physique yet again to reprise the role of Ip Man in Ip Man 3 and for his role as the blind warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For his role as Xiang in XXX: Return of Xander Cage opposite Vin Diesel, Yen rebuilt his physique.
In 2011, Jacob & Co unveiled Donnie Yen as brand ambassador.
In January 2016, Resorts World Sentosa named Yen and his wife, Cissy Wang, as brand ambassadors and spokespersons. The Marketing campaign launched in March, when Television commercials and print media allowed audiences to experience RWS "through the eyes of Donnie and Cissy."
In October 2014, Donnie Yen was invited to be a guest speaker in front of a crowd of 20,000 youths for We Day Vancouver, where he spoke about the hardships he faced growing up and how he overcame difficulties to become the reigning martial arts star.
In 2015, Yen visited refugee camps in Thailand, bringing donations and gifts for the refugees. Donnie Yen is also an ambassador for the international charity known as Free the Children.
In December 2015, Yen established a charitable fund known as "Yen's Honour Protection Fund." The purpose of the fund was to empower more celebrities to use the law as a shield to protect and defend their own honor and reputation. Yen said that "[It seeks] to assist and render help to everyone who needs it, most importantly to heal and repair the hearts and dignities which have been affected." This fund was established in response to a lawsuit victory Yen won against Geng Weiguo (also known as Tan Bing), who intentionally slandered and defamed Yen to attack his reputation by fabricating lies in order to portray him as an evil and hideous person and hiring netizens to threaten Yen's family.
Yen met his first wife, Leung Zing Ci (梁靜慈), in 1990. The couple began dating in 1993. After three months of dating, they married secretly in the United States in November 1993. The marriage ended in less than a year. After their divorce was finalized, Zing Ci realized that she was pregnant with their son, Jeff, who was born in 1995.
Yen later married former beauty queen Cissy Wang after three months of dating. The couple have two children, Jasmine and James.
Yen has stated that he is a big fan of the MMA organization Ultimate Fighting Championship and has watched almost every UFC event available. In various interviews, he has mentioned that he would have loved to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship if he did not have a recurring shoulder injury.