Pulling Punches9 min read

Yifu Dong reviews a new biography of Bruce Lee

Today it takes most people quite a bit of imagination to see traditional Chinese martial arts – kung fu – as an effective style of fighting. Back in my Beijing secondary school, my classmates and I learned kung fu routines alongside calisthenics, as part of daily exercises. We swung our fists and kicked our legs simply for the sake of stretching. On Chinese TV, kung fu dazzles, but everyone knows what happens in real life when half a dozen enemies encircle a solitary fighter. In recent years, Chinese mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters challenged kung fu masters, and almost every fight ended within seconds with the man of tradition lying on the floor, or bleeding, or both. Even Shaolin Temple, a soi-disant holy site of kung fu in Henan province, has evolved into a commercialized tourist trap.

It wasn’t until I watched kung fu movies such as Ip Man, and read about Bruce Lee’s life, when I realized that kung fu did not earn its global recognition without reason. In fact, it was Bruce Lee who almost single-handedly popularized the martial arts genre, transforming the fists and kicks from the Chinese tradition into a global craze. Yet although Lee is one of the most recognized Hollywood actors in the world, no definitive biographical account of his life existed in English until nearly half a century after his death in 1973, at the age of 32.

One reason for such a prolonged absence is that Bruce Lee’s Hollywood fame is almost entirely posthumous: when American moviegoers first became enraptured by his performance, in the 1973 blockbuster Enter the Dragon, Lee had already died (of heatstroke, according to this book, although the cause of death is still moot). Since Bruce Lee was more famous dead than alive, books and documentaries about him tend to focus on Bruce Lee the kung fu icon instead of Bruce Lee the person. Another important reason might simply be the usual neglect of ethnic minorities in Western mainstream publishing.

Bruce Lee only achieved the superstardom that he deserved in the United States after his death”

Thankfully, Matthew Polly’s new biography Bruce Lee: A Life fills in this vacancy. A crystallization of primary materials totaling over 2,500 pages, this sprawling volume is a genuine attempt to do justice to Bruce Lee’s short life. Smoothly narrated and clearly structured, the book offers a detailed account — sometimes a little too detailed — of Lee’s life that should thrill movie lovers and martial arts buffs alike. Although parts of the book may sound didactic, Polly, having studied Chinese kung fu and written about spending two years learning kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in his bestseller American Shaolin, expounds authoritatively on Bruce Lee’s unparalleled mastery of the martial arts, which served as the foundation for his successful acting career.

Born in San Francisco in 1940 while his parents were on a performance tour aiding China’s war effort, Bruce Lee grew up as a child actor and street fighter in Hong Kong. A troubled student, as a teenager he focused on winning duels and earning street cred — an antithesis to the model minority narrative — and later learned the Wing Chun style under the legendary Ip Man. Due to poor grades and disrespectful behavior (it’s said that he once pulled a knife on a teacher), Lee eventually flunked out of his high school. Ashamed of his failures, Lee’s family sent him packing to California to claim his US birthright citizenship and start a new life. It was there that Bruce Lee further practiced martial arts, studied philosophy, opened kung fu schools, and transformed himself into a transcendent master of the martial arts.

Offscreen, Lee was best known for his original style of kung fu called Jeet Kune Do (截拳道), or “the way of the intercepting fist.” Derived from the defensive-focused Wing Chun style, but mixed with other styles of martial arts from both East and West, Jeet Kune Do was not just a set of moves but also a system of philosophy. Bruce Lee conceived it as a “formless form” of fighting: by embracing formlessness, he believed he could vanquish opponents without showing any weakness. Ironically, people today inevitably regard Jeet Kune Do as Bruce Lee’s unique form of martial arts. On screen, Lee preferred actually hitting his co-stars to shooting the fights from special angles, often going out of his way to make the action realistic and entertaining. Although he rarely used weapons in his own kung fu, he wielded nunchakus – a weapon of Okinawan origin, two sticks connected by a short chain – to great effect for a few of the most famous scenes in his movies.

But Bruce Lee is more than just Jeet Kune Do and the lightning spins of his nunchakus. Today he lives on in the popular imagination as a pioneering Hollywood actor who succeeded in an environment hostile to racial minorities. However, Hollywood was where Bruce Lee also suffered most of his disappointments. Some of his failures were cold, routine movie business, such as when a producer dashed Lee’s hope of starring in a TV show by instead green-lighting the wildly successful Batman series. Others were the results of Hollywood’s ugly exclusivity, the most egregious example being the 1972 series Kung Fu, where Lee and other fellow Asian actors lost the lead role to a white actor.

With his boundless talent, though, Lee managed to shine even in marginal roles. His first notable gig, as the sidekick Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet, earned him respect as a martial arts phenom even as the show itself received lukewarm reviews. When even marginal roles were hard to find, Lee, with his charm and ego, simply mingled with the elites of both Hollywood and the martial arts world, teaching actors and actresses the martial arts and providing opportunities for martial artists to fight on the screen.

Lee’s childhood hometown of Hong Kong delivered his eventual breakthrough, where he starred in three smash hits: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and The Way of the Dragon (1972). With his wild success in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee made a triumphant return to California, finally landing a lead role as a kung fu fighting protagonist in Enter the Dragon (1973). Yet despite possessing peerless talents and acting at a superstar level for most of his adult life, Bruce Lee only achieved the superstardom that he deserved in the United States after his death.

The book poses the question of whether Bruce Lee’s life is more triumph or tragedy. Despite Lee’s untimely death, Polly argues that he died doing what he truly loved, and afterwards accrued more fame than he could have imagined. Yet Polly’s meticulous illustrations of Lee’s struggles as a Hollywood actor also paints his life as a tragedy full of unreasonable rejections, undeserved failures and unrealized potential. One cannot help but speculate what level of success Lee could have achieved had Hollywood been less racially exclusive. And if Bruce Lee had been granted a lead role in Hollywood earlier in his career, perhaps he would not have died of heatstroke on a humid summer day in Hong Kong.

The detailed account of Lee’s life should thrill movie lovers and martial arts buffs alike”

Lee’s posthumous eminence inevitably led to a debate about his identity: namely, to where does his legacy belong? Those in his native city of Hong Kong and many Chinese-speaking regions see Bruce Lee as a pan-Chinese national hero, yet few know that he was actually three-eighths European (including one-eighth Jewish). The fact that Lee was a US citizen, and achieved worldwide fame because of his development in America, also does not fit into the mold of Chinese nationalism.

More recently, as the divide between Hong Kong and the Mainland widens, more and more people in Hong Kong see Bruce Lee as a local hero. In massive recent protests against the extradition bill, protesters in Hong Kong quoted Bruce Lee’s dictum “be water, my friend” as an encouragement to one another. Being water – shapeless yet resilient – is the core philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. However, while it may be true that Bruce Lee would have had sympathy for the people of his native Hong Kong and their struggle against the mighty, he is more than the hero of one city.

Across the Pacific, Asian Americans regard Lee as one of the most prominent Asian pioneers in Hollywood. Yet Lee succeeded not because of but in spite of being Asian American. He used his success in Hong Kong as a leverage to convince Hollywood of his value – a card most Asian American actors cannot play. The continuing lack of consistent Asian American representation in Hollywood speaks to the fact that Bruce Lee did not and could not break into Hollywood on behalf of Asian Americans; he conquered a worldwide audience only on behalf of Bruce Lee.

As much as Bruce Lee might have desired or sought to represent his fellow Chinese and Asian Americans, he expressed an almost post-racial attitude whenever he was asked about his identity. “I think of myself as a human being,” he said in the now famous Lost Interview in 1971, his only English-speaking TV interview, “because under the sky, there is but one family.” As Polly illustrates in one telling example, the first commemorative statue of Bruce Lee was not erected in his native Hong Kong but instead appeared in 2005 in the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where people belonging to various religions and ethnicities decided that Bruce Lee, known for his fights on the movie screen, would deliver peace and bridge the city’s bitter divisions.

The value of focusing on Bruce Lee’s life rather than just his kung fu, after all, is a portrayal of him as a human being with highs and lows, triumphs and struggles. All of the details that Polly’s biography provides, of how Bruce Lee navigated the boundaries of mixed identity and challenging environments, shed light on how and why he will remain a transcendent icon of the martial arts for ages to come. ∎

Header: Still from Enter the Dragon (1973).