Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee

LEE, BRUCE (1940-73) Chinese-American martial arts pioneer and film star. Lee was born in a San Francisco Chinatown hospital on November 27, 1940. His father, Lee Hoi Chuen, a famous actor in the Cantonese opera, and his mother, Grace, were touring with the opera company. The fourth of five children, he was named Lee Jun Fan. The name Bruce was bestowed upon him by a nurse at the hospital, though he did not use it until he began the study of English at age 12. Because he was born in the Chinese year of the dragon, at the hour of the dragon, he later adopted the name Lee Siu Lung (Lee Little Dragon) in acting. He returned with his parents to Hong Kong at the age of 3 months, having already made his stage debut in the arms of his father. In grammar school, he learned to read and write the Chinese language. He attended St. Francis Xavier and LaSalle College and appeared in several films as a child, the most notable of which was The Orphan, in which Lee played a rough-edged, street-wise juvenile delinquent. His charismatic, intense screen presence was already evident, but as a young man Lee did not plan on an acting career. At 13 he began the wing chun style of gung-fu under Yip Man. The five years that followed were his only period of formal instruction in the martial arts. In later years, when his art took on innovative and expanded dimensions, Bruce acknowledged his debt and gratitude to Yip Man for having initiated a process of discovery that was to continue the rest of his life. When he was 18. Lee went to the U.S. to further his academic career. He left Hong Kong in April 1959, disembarking in San Francisco with but a hundred dollars. Having been the Hong Kong cha-cha champion in 1958, he at first gave dance lessons. After a few months, now in Seattle, he lived and worked in a Chinese restaurant and enrolled in Edison Technical School to complete his high school requirements.

Bruce Lee Linda Lee
Bruce Lee practicing gung fu with his wife Lina.

He continued to practice gung-fu and soon acquired a small group of students with whom he trained in various garages, parking lots, and other open spaces. A basement in Seattle Chinatown provided the site of his first official gym. Bruce was soon accepted at the University of Washington, where he majored in philosophy. In his three years of study, he began to integrate philosophical tenets with the martial arts, examining such concepts as the Chinese yin/yang principle and its application to physical combat. In an essay entitled The Tao of Gung-Fu, he wrote: “Chinese gung-fu is a subtle art of matching the essence of the mind to that of the techniques in which it has to work.” In these years he began an intense examination of his art and its impact on his developing “self.” While at college, Lee met Linda Emery, a student in his gung-fu class; they were married in 1964 and would later have two children, Brandon and Shannon. In 1964 they moved to Oakland, Calif., where Bruce opened a gym with his friend and long-time practitioner, James Lee. Difference of opinion on how the Chinese martial arts should be taught soon arose among gung-fu sifu in San Francisco, and a challenge was issued by them. Although Lee was victorious in this encounter, he began to feel trapped by the limitations of the wing chun style and its emphasis on hand techniques. He commenced a more complete exploration of combat—Eastern, Western, ancient, and modern — to find what was personally appropriate. Lee ruffled a good many traditional feathers with his eclectic methods and insistence that any particular style binds and confines the adherent. He disdained the use of rank or belt, feeling that the process of understanding oneself cannot be measured in numbers of techniques one has learned. Lee’s personal development resulted in the “way,” which is identified with his name, jeet kune do. Since jeet kune do is not a formalized body of knowledge or technique, it cannot be classified as a style. Rather, he taught it as a vehicle of self-discovery and personal liberation through rejection of mechanical routine and conditioned limitations. Lee was an exceptional teacher because he could adapt his discussion of martial arts and life situations to the listener’s ability to understand. Through his writings and teachings, he was largely responsible for the dispelling of myths that have shrouded the oriental fighting arts and their greater acceptance by the American public.

Lee plays Kato in the Green Hornet television series

In August 1964 Lee was invited by Ed Parker to give a demonstration at the International Karate Championships in Long Beach. A spectator at this tournament was Jay Sebring, hair stylist to many Hollywood personalities. A client of Jay’s, William Dozier, was a producer looking for an oriental actor to play the part of Charlie Chan’s Number One Son for a planned TV series. The result of these coincidences was that in 1966 20th Century Fox signed Lee to play Kato in the Green Hornet television series. The public was intrigued by the practical nonmystical presentation of the oriental martial arts and the wide range of flexibility and tools that they provided over the traditional boxing and wrestling techniques more frequently depicted in movies and TV. The high visibility of his Kato role, combined with Lee’s unique physical abilities and spontaneous nature, engendered interest in the martial arts. From 1967-71 Bruce was featured in several TV shows and movies. He established a Los Angeles branch of the Jun Fan Gung Fu School, where Dan lnosanto, his senior student, assisted. Lee also gave private lessons to well-known personalities ranging from Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Steve McQueen. During these years Bruce studied constantly to refine his art; he wrote articles for martial arts publications that trace the evolution of his thinking. He collected an extensive library of books relating to all types of combat, physical fitness, philosophy, and self-improvement. His writings fill several volumes, which were edited and published as The Tao of Jeet Kune Do after his death. At some point he decided his art—without curricular maxims and formalized approaches—could not be reproduced in a chain of schools and instead focused on success in the film industry. In 1971 Bruce returned to Hong Kong to make two films, The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury) and Fist of Fury (The Chinese Connection). These films were so successful, breaking all previous box office records in Hong Kong, that in 1972 he formed Concord Productions with Raymond Chow and wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his third film, The Way of the Dragon (a.k.a. Return of the Dragon). He immediately went into production on the Game of Death with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but this film was incomplete at the time of Lee’s death. His last film, Enter the Dragon, was a co-production with Concord and Warner Bros. Bruce would not live to see the finished product, which premiered at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, in August 1973. This film is revered as a classic martial arts picture, as is evidenced not only by its financial success, but by the fact that in the eight years since its release it has not been shown on television and continues to draw crowds when it is reissued in theaters around the world. Lee died suddenly on July 20, 1973.

Enter The Dragon
His biggest movie: Enter The Dragon

The official verdict was death by misadventure caused by hypersensitive reaction to a headache-tablet ingredient. More than 20,000 aggrieved fans gathered at his funeral in Hong Kong. He was buried in Seattle, Wash., in a peaceful and natural setting overlooking the University of Washington where he spent many a carefree and simpler day. In the years since his death, Lee’s picture has appeared on the covers of hundreds of martial arts magazines. Worldwide merchandizing, numerous fan clubs, museums, honorary exhibitions, and many attempts to duplicate his success story and to replicate his image all attest to his legendary status. But his achievements have been most appreciated by the martial arts community. Through his physical prowess, his intense study and application, his desire for excellence, and his emphasis on quality, he elevated the ideals of those whose lives he touched.

Further reading:
The Legend of Bruce Lee, Alex Ben Block, 1974;
Bruce Lee, The Man Only I Knew, Linda Lee, 1976.