Given the bad reputation of Chinese martial arts films in general, plus the undeniable fact that many of these - including this one - use genre conventions originally developed for the popular stage (what has been called "Chinese Opera" is actually more analogous to American Vaudeville), it is only with considerable effort that an admirer if these films can persuade Americans to watch these movies, let alone appreciate them fully. But the point really is, that the directors of these films use what they have to portray the culture in which they live in a manner as completely cinematic as can be found in any national film tradition.
All this is a warm up to this: The One-Armed Swordsman is as masterful a film as Kurosawa Akira's Yojimbo.
I make this specific comparison because each film was made within a genre to which the film contributes genre-shattering innovation, while at the same time maintaining certain essential conventions that keep it safely within the genre. Thus Kurosawa's renegade ronin is a tough, cynical, manipulator of the various villains of the film, in a way even the most tragic hero of the Japanese samurai film (chambara) of the time could never be; nonetheless, he still manages to kill everyone at the end, much like all the other chambara heroes.
Similarly, Chang Cheh's One-Armed hero follows genre convention by performing super-human feats of skill (like leaving the imprint of his hand on a rock with a single blow), but just as a character, he is completely new.
The typical wu xia film of the time generally had an aristocratic hero; if he had no personal problems to deal with, he always wore white. If he had personal problems, he would drink heavily and dress like a mendicant monk. He was in utter thrall to whatever worthiest female was in his immediate vicinity; his cause was always to uphold the right, protect chastity, and further the well-being of the Chinese people as a whole. His one real defect (as a "type") was that he really liked fighting, which usually got him into trouble with those with similar enjoyments.
Chang Cheh's Feng Kong (as played by Wang Yu in what is his finest role) is not an aristocrat, but an orphaned son of a servant; he doesn't wear white, he wears black; remaining loyal to her father (his former teacher) he grows to hate the young lady who chopped off his arm (I certainly would) and grows attached to the dead warrior's daughter (with whom he sleeps without marriage) only after she has nursed him back to health - but he remains determined to control his own fate nonetheless. The future of the Chinese people doesn't interest him. Eventually, he abjures fighting and goes off to become a farmer.
As can be discovered from various interviews, Chang Cheh, in filming what is still his most completely realized vision, was perfectly aware that he was making such innovations. In fact, in terms of traditional Chinese culture alone, The One-Armed Swordsman comes across as a radical Confucian demand for recognition of merit above social status; and of the need for social stability over and against any desire for personal revenge.
Furthermore, Chang Cheh pulls this off in a manner utterly consistent with the social trends of the 1960s - Feng Kong is portrayed as an "angry young man" - the representative of an entire generation fed up with many of the myths of the old culture to which they have been indoctrinated. He is brazen, energetic, honest, and more than a little suspicious of old prejudices (which have never favored him anyway). And having been told that he was not "born worthy", he sets out to proves that he can learn self-sufficiency without the benefit of institutional education. He doesn't need to start a revolution - he IS a revolution.
Of course, if the general quality of the film as a whole were not utterly top-notch, this message would be meaningless. But the camera-work, supporting performances by the other actors, staging and direction, and most of the editing are all "world-class" - as good as anything coming out of Hollywood that decade, and better than any Hollywood film of the decade's latter half.
Let the genre conventions be what they are, and pay respect to one of the best films of its type - and perhaps one of the finest films ever made, world-wide.