Be Like Water: The Inspiring Legend of Bruce Lee - Objective Standard

To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities. — Bruce Lee


You may not recognize the names Hélio Gracie, Masahiko Kimura, or Gene LeBell, but virtually everyone knows of Bruce Lee—and for good reason. Lee was one of the most skilled and dedicated martial artists of all time, and although many martial artists throughout history have sought to build their crafts on a philosophic base, Lee was one of very few to do so in a generally rational manner. To this day, thousands of people—even those who have little interest in practicing martial arts—visit his grave each year, hoping to be “imprinted with some of his wisdom,” as Lee’s student Dan Inosanto put it.1

Born in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, Lee spent only the first few months of his life there before his parents moved back to their home city of Hong Kong. At the time, Hong Kong was a chaotic place, to put it mildly. It was populated by British expats and by many different Asian ethnic groups, and racial tension between these groups was high. The triads, an organized crime syndicate, were active in the area and already had infiltrated the police force. These factors made the streets of Hong Kong dangerous places where fights, shootings, and theft were common.

“I was a punk and went looking for fights,” Lee told Black Belt magazine in 1967. “We used chains, and pens with knives hidden inside.” He topped out at 5'8" and roughly 130 pounds in his teen years—not exactly an intimidating figure. Yet he consistently emerged victorious in street fights, many of which were predicated on racial conflict. Among other street ruffians, he developed a reputation for being a “dirty” fighter; he didn’t hesitate to blind his opponents with dirt, employ groin strikes, or use other tactics widely considered to be unfair or cowardly. His footwork and striking also were incredibly aggressive; whereas most street fighters would circle one another cautiously and wait for obvious openings, Lee would charge forward relentlessly, seemingly without regard for his own safety.2

Lee’s fights became so frequent and serious that he nearly was expelled from school. In 1953, he was arrested when members of his gang stole from a local store. Although Lee was innocent of that crime, being detained by police scared him and helped him begin to realize that his poor choices eventually would land him in serious trouble.3

After his arrest, Lee’s parents sent him to study under Ip Man, a renowned master of Wing Chun, a style of Kung fu. They reasoned that if Lee were so drawn to fighting, he may as well do it under the supervision of a responsible instructor. Ip Man agreed. He often told his students that he preferred them to fight one another in a respectful fashion so that they might learn to control their aggression and thus stay out of trouble.

Ip Man was something of a recluse. He taught many groups of aspiring martial artists but typically retired to his private chambers immediately after each class. Throughout his entire life, he took fewer than six students under his wing for one-on-one instruction. Lee was one of them. Ip Man was fascinated and impressed by Lee’s grace, speed, ferocity, and unusual techniques but worried about his temper.4

In 1959, when Lee was eighteen, his aggression got him into very serious trouble indeed. He defeated and seriously injured a stranger in a street fight. Only afterward did he learn that his opponent was the son of a powerful triad boss—a man who surely would want revenge. Lee’s parents sent him back to San Francisco, partly to keep him safe from the triads and partly in the hope that if he could escape the violent people and situations he’d become so entangled with, he might finally begin to calm down.5

Fortunately, Lee’s parents turned out to be right on both counts. Lee had always been strong willed; he wanted to do things the way he thought they ought to be done, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it. In the United States, Lee no longer encountered violent people and situations on an almost daily basis and was able to express his strong opinions in safer, more productive ways. He trained alone, six days per week, for hours every day, and he began to think seriously about what he wanted to do with his life.

‘Man, the Living Creature, the Creating Individual, Is Always More Important Than Any Established Style or System.’

In a general sense, Lee had always known what he wanted his central purpose to be: He wanted to be a master of martial arts. But he found that purpose difficult to define precisely. He frequently had butted heads with Ip Man and other students over what he saw as the rigid, stale traditions common to all established martial arts. Now that he was thousands of miles from Hong Kong’s violent street gangs—and from Ip Man’s inflexible teaching methods—he finally was free to create his own system of martial arts.6

The very concept of “systems” was one to which Lee would grow increasingly antithetical throughout his life. As he began to spend more and more time creating his own techniques and mixing them with some that he had taken from Wing Chun and other schools, it became clear to him that every established martial art suffered from the same critical flaw: an emphasis on tradition and rote memorization over actual combat effectiveness.7

Prior to the 1960s, martial arts were largely unknown in the West, apart from Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, both of which are Japanese disciplines that revolve around competitions and exposition matches. Such competitions usually are based on one of two scoring systems: Fighters either score points by striking certain parts of the opponent’s body or are evaluated by a panel of judges who collectively decide which fighter most likely would have won had the fight been real.8

Lee held that events regulated in this way were incompatible with the true essence of martial arts, referring to them as “organized despair” and “dry-land swimming.” He believed that, if people were going to put in the time and energy to study a combat art, they should study it primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) for the purpose of combat. American martial arts tournaments in the 1960s were light- or non-contact competitions. Many martial artists agree that Lee was the first modern practitioner to introduce and insist on full-contact sparring (with protective gear—he didn’t advocate purposefully injuring his training partners).9

Gradually, the martial arts community began to adopt Lee’s thinking on this matter. Full-contact leagues exist today largely because of his influence, and full-contact sparring now is widely regarded by martial arts experts to be the preferred method of learning effective self-defense techniques.

As Lee’s fame grew, prominent American martial artists began paying close attention to him. Chuck Norris, who won his first Karate world championship title in 1968, trained with Lee for several years, as did other world champions such as Joe Lewis. To this day, Norris cites Lee as one of his greatest inspirations and as someone who significantly influenced his growth as a martial artist.10

In 1967, eight years after moving to the United States, Lee formally announced the creation of his new martial art and christened it Jeet Kune Do, which means “way of the intercepting fist.” By that time, he had opened three schools, in Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Whereas virtually every other martial art was formulaic in structure, teaching students to respond to attack A with defense B, Jeet Kune Do emphasized the critical importance of lightning-fast strikes and counterattacks that change constantly and are based on many factors.11

By its nature, Jeet Kune Do was extraordinarily difficult to practice. A practitioner of traditional combat styles such as tae kwon do, Karate, or Aikido automatizes certain techniques and need only select one from a short list of options based on the incoming attack—a difficult skill that requires intense training and repetition but still is far easier than Jeet Kune Do. Lee’s “system,” in his view, was effective precisely because it was not actually a system but simply a “way.”

His opponents never knew what to expect. Throughout dozens of repetitions of the same drill, Lee would employ different techniques every time. He had honed his reflexes and muscles to incredible levels, and as a result, it seemed as though he could freeze time and leisurely select from hundreds of possible responses to an attack—or even invent moves on the fly that his sparring partners had never seen before.12

This incredible degree of adaptiveness was what Lee sought to capture when he chose the name “way of the intercepting fist.” He trained with a single goal in mind: Learn to intercept and redirect any attack, regardless of whether it comes from a boxer, a wrestler, or a practitioner of Muay Thai. He often told his students:

Empty your mind [of distractions]. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.13

Lee didn’t only upend the martial arts world with his philosophy of combat—he also openly challenged centuries of deeply ingrained racism. Virtually all Chinese martial artists of the time refused to teach non-Chinese (or at least, non-Asian) students. But Lee cared only about his prospective students’ character and dedication, not their race. He constantly received threats and hate mail, and racist traditionalists did their best to sully his reputation.

Soon after Lee opened his school in Oakland, a local Chinese Kung fu teacher by the name of Wong Jack Man challenged him to a high-stakes fight. The challenger and his supporters would “allow” Lee to continue teaching non-Asians if Lee won, but if he lost, he would have to stop doing so. Lee accepted the challenge—and won a decisive victory. The racially motivated vitriol against him and his schools subsided somewhat after that but never dissipated entirely.14

As Lee and Jeet Kune Do grew increasingly popular, rumors began to circulate in martial arts circles that his “style” was composed of secret techniques that were uniquely and mysteriously effective, as many other schools were thought to be. These rumors dismayed Lee greatly. People were missing the most important point he wanted to make: Rigidly defined martial arts styles are problematically divisive and largely unhelpful toward becoming a good fighter. Realizing that most others couldn’t or wouldn’t see the unique value of his ideas, he closed all three of his schools in 1970. After that, he taught only a select few individuals. He regularly told them, “You can’t teach [others] only what I taught you. You must teach what you’ve learned, which will include more than what I taught you.”15

The general air of mysticism around martial arts annoyed Lee, especially as more people began trying to shoehorn it into his own teachings. He explicitly emphasized that nothing about martial arts was magical or mysterious; in terms of its combat effectiveness, it was simple physics. (Lee read Isaac Newton extensively and cited him often to his students.) He recognized that martial arts properly includes a spiritual component but that it is not mystical in nature—it is the same sort of spirituality that people can cultivate by reading a great work of literature or studying a beautiful painting.16

On August 13, 1970, Lee severely injured his fourth sacral vertebra during a workout. Doctors told him that he must remain bedridden for six months, and that even if he followed that advice, he may never be able to kick again. Lee heeded their warnings and confined himself to his bedroom for the full six months, which surely must have been agonizing for him. He showed remarkable resolve and an admirable willingness to think long range. Although his injury periodically would flare up throughout the remainder of his life, it healed well enough to allow him to continue doing what he loved.

‘What You Habitually Think Largely Determines What You Will Ultimately Become.’

While Lee rested his body, he trained his mind more intensely. He read extensively, particularly about philosophy. He had studied the subject in college at the University of Washington, and by the mid-1960s, he had realized that philosophy and martial arts had much in common. In particular, he noticed that both were supposed to center around the pursuit of truth but were stifled by tradition and in desperate need of fresh ideas.17

As he had done with martial arts, Lee began to construct his own philosophy using a mixture of old and original ideas. He drew heavily on the works of philosophers such as Miyamoto Musashi and Jiddu Krishnamurti but took great care to differentiate their ideas from his own. In a 1974 television interview, Krishnamurti said, “You have to be a light to yourself, not the light of a professor or an analyst or a psychologist or the light of Jesus or the light of Buddha. You have to be a light to yourself in a world that is utterly becoming dark.”18

Although Lee was no longer alive in 1974, he undoubtedly had heard Krishnamurti say similar things before. Based on Lee’s words and actions throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, he appears to have taken this sentiment to mean, “Although you can and should look to others for information, you must ultimately decide for yourself what is true.” Lee made no mention of Ayn Rand that I can find, but it seems likely that he would have appreciated at least some aspects of her philosophy of rationality and independence.

In the last few years of his life, Lee began to focus more explicitly on acknowledging and correcting his previous errors. At first, he had thought that Wing Chun was the “true way.” Then he thought he’d gotten it right with Jeet Kune Do. After recovering from his injury, he said in an interview, “I do not believe in styles anymore. I do not believe there is such a thing as a ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’ way of fighting. . . . Styles tend to separate men, because they have their own doctrines, and then the doctrines [become] the gospel truth that you cannot change.” Lee was concerned with one thing only: What works? He said, “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”19 In other words, use techniques that correspond to physics and, more fundamentally, to reality.

Lee summed up his mature philosophy thusly: “Having no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.” Many people have misinterpreted these words to mean “Anything goes; any way I choose to fight, or to live my life, is valid.” But Lee meant that one should be active minded and guided by reality, constantly ready to adapt to new information, and should avoid defaulting to a set of learned behaviors—whether in a fight or in life more generally.

Indeed, Lee was big on introspection and on being guided by reality, not by emotion or whim. He recognized that this is far from easy, but that it is nonetheless necessary in order to achieve anything meaningful. He explained this in a 1971 interview:

To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, that is very difficult to do. It is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky . . . or I can show you some really fancy [moves]. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself . . . now that, my friend, is very hard to do.20

By the time Lee closed his schools in 1970, he already had decided to try using movies to communicate his philosophy to the world. He had appeared in more than twenty films as a child and young teen, most of which had low budgets and little circulation outside of China, but he hadn’t starred in anything like what he intended to make on his own. Most martial arts movies of the time were packed with offensive stereotypes of Asians and ridiculous, over-the-top fight scenes, and Lee refused to participate in such movies. He decided to make more serious, philosophically oriented action films, with the aim of helping people to understand the physical, mental, and spiritual value of martial arts.

Although Lee had directed many of the films he starred in prior to 1970, only his last five generally are considered to be representative of his mature vision as a filmmaker and martial artist. They are The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, The Game of Death, and Enter the Dragon. One particularly memorable scene from Enter the Dragon shows a wise, calm, and respectful Lee—a man who bears little resemblance to the arrogant Hong Kong street brawler he had been twenty years earlier.

In that scene, Lee is sailing from Hong Kong to a smaller island to participate in a martial arts tournament. A cocky passenger from New Zealand begins to bully and intimidate the smaller Chinese men on the boat. He notices Lee standing by himself and asks him, “What’s your style?”

Lee shrugs and responds, “My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.” Confused by this, the New Zealander demands a demonstration. Lee refuses, but when the bully threatens further violence, Lee agrees to spar with him. He points out that their boat is quite small and suggests taking a rowboat to a nearby island so that they will have more room to fight. The bully agrees and enters the rowboat first, at Lee’s invitation. Instead of following, Lee unmoors the rowboat and hands the guide rope to another passenger, isolating the troublemaker.21

This theme of employing violence only as a last resort is one that Lee would revisit again and again in his final five films. He believed that the audience should enjoy the spectacle of masterfully executed fight scenes but that this was a secondary goal. More important, he wanted viewers to understand that his heroes preferred to coexist peacefully with others and would use violence only when it was unavoidable.

Enter the Dragon was Lee’s final complete film and was released just days after his death in 1973. At the time, Lee was working on The Game of Death, which marked the first time in history that American and Chinese studios had collaborated on a film. Serving in eight different roles—director, producer, writer, lead choreographer, set designer, director of photography, cinematographer, and actor—Lee shot approximately 110 minutes of footage for The Game of Death, but his personal notes indicate that he considered only about thirty minutes of that footage to be usable. The film was “finished” after his death in a manner that most people who knew him consider to be disrespectful and untrue to his vision, using cut footage from older films that is jarringly out of place, vague look-alikes, and even cardboard cutouts of Lee.22

Many people are of the opinion that real martial arts don’t look good on camera. A fight between two expert combatants doesn’t look anything like the buttery smooth, hyper-stylized choreography we typically see in Hollywood movies. Lee recognized this and invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in choreographing his fight scenes in a way that would appeal to most viewers while staying largely true to the essence of his craft: real-world combat effectiveness. He often would reshoot the same scene over and over for days to get just a few minutes of usable footage.

As of this writing, the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey is the only known source containing all of the footage that Lee approved for inclusion in The Game of Death. The full depth of Lee’s skill and maturity as a fighter is breathtaking to watch, particularly for those who have studied martial arts and can follow the logic of his movements. His footwork seems simultaneously graceful and choppy; he flows comfortably between radically different cadences and alters his speed constantly, confusing his opponents as thoroughly as he mesmerizes viewers. Several traditional martial artists—men with decades of experience in their respective styles—appear on-screen alongside Lee, but they are bumbling and clumsy in comparison to him.23

In the early 1970s, Lee was the most sought-after actor in the world. His movies have shattered box-office records more than once (Enter the Dragon, alone, earned $90 million worldwide—the equivalent of $525 million today). Eastern and Western audiences alike could tell that something was different about him; his passion and sincerity were obvious on the big screen, and it was clear that he took his craft—and life in general—very seriously.24

Tragically, we will never see The Game of Death in its entirety as Lee intended it to be, nor will we get to marvel at the true grandmaster that he surely would have been today. On July 20, 1973, he died in his sleep of cerebral edema at the age of thirty-two. The exact cause of the edema is still uncertain and hotly debated, but coroners and pathologists who investigated Lee’s death suggested that he may have had a fatal reaction to an unusual painkiller he took because of his spinal injury.25

As I sit at my desk writing this, there’s a sticky note on my monitor that’s been there for years. On it, I’ve written one of Lee’s lesser-known quotes—one that’s contributed significantly to my growth as a martial artist, as a writer, and as a person:

It is not daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away the unessential. The closer to the source, the less wastage there is. The height of cultivation should move toward simplicity. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation. The process to simplify is that of a sculptor who continuously chisels away all the inessentials until he creates a masterpiece.

I’m deeply saddened by the knowledge that Lee didn’t live even as long as I now have. When he died, the world lost an incredible martial artist and a fiercely independent thinker—a man who has been an inspiration to millions and who will inspire millions more for generations to come.

Although many martial artists throughout history have sought to build their crafts on a philosophic base, Bruce Lee was one of very few to do so in a generally rational manner.
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Endnotes

1. John Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, Warner Home Video, October 22, 2000.

2. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

3. “Bruce Lee’s Journey from Street Tough to Cinema Legend,” Newsweek, December 12, 2017, https://www.newsweek.com/street-fighter-bruce-lees-tough-childhood-lead-fame-743061.

4. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

5. Newsweek, “Bruce Lee’s Journey from Street Tough to Cinema Legend.”

6. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey; “Bruce Lee Biography: Heart of the Dragon,” Biographics, February 28, 2018, https://biographics.org/bruce-lee-biography-heart-dragon/.

7. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

8. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

9. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey. A competitor in a noncontact competition is expected to come very close to landing a hit on his opponent without actually doing so; his precision and control are judged heavily.

10. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

11. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

12. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

13. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

14. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey; Biographics, “Bruce Lee Biography: Heart of the Dragon.”

15. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

16. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

17. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey; Biographics, “Bruce Lee Biography: Heart of the Dragon.”

18. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

19. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey; Bruce Thomas, Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit (Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd., 1994), 44.

20. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

21. Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon, Warner Bros., August 19, 1973.

22. Lee, Enter the Dragon; Adam Augustyn, “Bruce Lee,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, February 26, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bruce-Lee.

23. Little, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.

24. Tristan Shaw, “1973: When Kung Fu Ruled the American Box Office,” SupChina, July 12, 2019, https://supchina.com/2019/07/12/1973-when-kung-fu-ruled-the-american-box-office/.

25. “Biography of Bruce Lee,” BruceLee.com, May 14, 2018, https://brucelee.com/bruce-lee.

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