Fighting his way from the gang-infested streets of Hong Kong to the big screen of Hollywood, Bruce Lee formed his own style with every move.
Bruce Lee, born Lee Jun-fan on November 27, 1940 in Chinatown, San Francisco, was a Chinese-American actor, director, and producer of action films and instructor and philosopher of martial arts. Through his short-lived career (Lee died suddenly at the age of 34), he single-handedly reshaped Western views of Chinese martial arts and representations of Asians in cinema.
What started as a survival skill became a popular art through Bruce Lee’s dedication to his practice, which he relentessly improved and shared through his teaching and movies.
Growing Up in War-torn Territory
Bruce Lee was born in America while his father was on tour as a Cantonese opera singer.
His parents returned to Hong Kong when Lee was only 3 years old, and they soon found themselves under occupation by the Japanese. This state of war lasted for almost 4 years.
There was also political conflict within China, as refugees were fleeing the Communist regime for Hong Kong, which was a British colony at the time. The mix of immigrants made the streets of Hong Kong a dangerous place for a young boy. Even though Lee’s parents were quite wealthy, his mother coming from one of the most affluent clans in Hong Kong, he grew up in a rough neighborhood, a battleground of rival gangs.
Lee would get into fights all of the time, so he started training to improve his defenses.
Fighting to Fight and Teach
Lee confronted racial tension even within his own community of practice. Some students of martial arts refused to fight with him because of his mixed ancestry (Lee's mother was half-Caucasian, half-Asian).
This exclusive mentality would follow Lee abroad when his parents, desperate to keep him out of trouble, sent him to live with his older sister in San Francisco. At this time, his entanglement in street fights had escalated to the point of death threats.
When Lee arrived in the U.S. in 1959, he was 18 years old and had $100 in his pocket.
He finished high school, then technical school, and in 1961, he enrolled in the University of Washington, where he studied philosophy and psychology, among other subjects.
Lee's education informed his approach to his martial arts practice and teaching.
He invented his own style, Jun Fan Gung Fu ("Bruce Lee's Kung Fu") and opened his own school by that name in Seattle.
Three years later, he dropped out of college and moved to be with his mentor, James Lee, then living in Oakland. There, they founded a second studio and James introduced Bruce to the American championship fighting circuit, where he became famous for his "2 finger pushups," among other amazing feats.
As Bruce Lee was making inroads with the champions of the West (including Ed Parker, American martial artist and organizer of the International Karate Championship, and Tae Kwondo Master Jhoon Goorhee), he received an ultimatum from the Chinese martial arts community demanding that he stop teaching non-Chinese students. He was challenged to a single fight with Wong Jack Man and if he won, he could continue teaching; if he lost, he would have to close his school. Accounts are conflicting in details, but the indisputable fact is: Bruce Lee's Kung Fu school stood the test.
Defining his own style
Bruce Lee adapted his own system to the dynamics of street fighting called "Jeet Kune Do," emphasizing "practicality, flexibility, speed, snd efficiency" and different methods of training. With this "style with no style," Lee was breaking with tradition to create a style outside of limiting parameters.
After his fight with Wong Jack Man, Lee focused on total fitness conditioning: muscular strength and endurance, cardio endurance, and flexibility, as well as mental and spiritual preparation and nutrition to optimize his performance.
He also turned his attention to movie production, but again faced prejudicial limits. Hollywood companies like Warner Brothers did not buy into Lee's vision of the Western martial arts action film and did not want to feature him in leading roles because of his ethnically marked accent.
Lee returned to Hong Kong for creative freedom, to play more than a supporting role in his own films.
Sadly, his career was cut short by his mysterious death, attributed to cerebral edema, possibly due to an allergic reaction to a muscle relaxant he had reportedly taken for sudden seizures. His death remains a controversy.
Lessons from the Kung Fu Master
Lee's story of success shows us to what extent we are always building skills through our experiences, drawing on our struggles as sources of insight and individual vision, which we can develop to mastery with an unshakeable commitment to our own style.
Photo by: J McFarlane