In his short yet tremendously inspiring life, Bruce Lee managed to revolutionize the world of martial arts and transcend cultural differences between East and West. With his iconic one-inch punch and spontaneous agility, his idiosyncratic demeanor became an inspiration to people from all areas of life. But his contribution to the world went far beyond physical discipline, Bruce Lee introduced a philosophy to live by.
He believed that the creating individual is far more important than the established system and that we have the power to develop profound self-knowledge in order to lead better lives. Here’s the story of a man who once said that “the key to immortality is to live a life worth remembering.” It’s safe to say he’s locked himself in the hearts of many.
On the 27th of November, 1940, the year of the dragon, a boy by the name of “Sai Fon” was born. Bruce’s mother gave him a name that was considered feminine and translated to “Little Phoenix.” She had previously lost a son in infancy, so she hoped this gentle name would mislead the spirits into thinking he was a girl and provide him a peaceful life.
Born in a hospital in San Fransisco, nurses and doctors decided on the name Bruce, which was more suitable for an Anglo-Saxon environment. It wasn’t until his teenage years that his family began calling him that as well. Bruce grew to become a vigorous kid, more like the creature of the year he was born in, and less like a little phoenix.
Lee’s family moved back to Hong Kong a few months after his birth. His father was an opera singer and a part-time actor, and from a young age, Bruce found himself tagging along with him to different sets. He quickly felt at home in front of the cameras, and at nine years old, landed a role in a 1950 Hong Kong film called “Kid Cheung.”
He played the lead role of an orphan boy who sells comics at a little stall, and in order to survive, he needs to constantly fight off gangs and thieves. He devoted himself fully to the character and his natural charisma was hard to miss.
Before becoming the father of mixed martial arts, Bruce was swaying his way across dance floors to Cuban music. He developed a huge passion for Cha Cha and even kept a personal notebook where he jotted down the instructions for numerous steps. The hours he put into studying and perfecting moves paid off and he became Hong Kong’s champion of Cha Cha in 1958.
Bruce the dancer may come as a surprise at first, but when you think about his high kicks and incredible muscle control, it makes sense that he would have such an acrobatic background. It’s interesting to see how his years as a dancer surreptitiously shaped his path towards becoming a martial arts master. Like the rules of Cha Cha, he took his fights to be a back and forth exchange of graceful power.
Is there anything this fighter was afraid of? According to his siblings, yes, water. As a joke, Bruce pushed his older sister Phoebe Lee into a pool, and she reacted by pulling him underwater and holding him there until he said he was sorry.
The event was pretty traumatic, and he vowed never to go near a pool or open water again. An odd thing to consider once you recall his saying, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land, no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”
The streets of Hong Kong were tumultuous during WWII, full of violent encounters and devious gangs. This required Bruce, like many others, to develop a streetwise mentality in order to fight off bad company. He often found himself in battles with classmates and because of his frequent quarrels, his parents finally decided to enroll him in a martial arts school at the age of 14.
He began training under Yip Man, a grandmaster from the Wing Gung Fu tradition, who introduced him to philosophical notions like finding your power and delivering it efficiently. Bruce thrived in training, but the parents of the kids enrolled with him seemed less content. Bruce was a quarter Caucasian, and that seemed to pose a threat in their eyes. They coerced Yip Man into expelling him, and although he conceded, he didn’t give up on Bruce completely. He continued training him in private until he turned 18.
In addition to acting, dancing and martial arts, there was another craft Bruce took up during his adolescence – boxing. During the mid-1950s, the British presence in Hong Kong wasn’t too favorable towards martial arts, and boxing was the preferred style of fighting. Needless to say, Bruce took it upon himself to throw in a few punches.
Being the high-strung kid that he was, he entered the ring to let off some steam and ended up having an official match against the Inter-School Individual Boxing Champion, Gary Elms. It was an odd battle indeed, with Bruce throwing Kung Fu hits in the air and his opponent sticking to rigid boxing rules. Who won? Bruce Lee. However, he quit boxing shortly after because he felt unsatisfied with its fixed nature.
Although Bruce never stuck with boxing, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was one of his biggest sources of inspiration. Lee’s students often said that he would advise them to pay attention to Ali’s clever footwork which he referred to as “dancing legs.” He claimed that moving around like that makes it harder for your opponent to predict your next move.
Bruce would set up a mirror next to him as he would watch Ali perform on screen, that way he could move along with him and study his way of fighting. Although there was a lot of talk of them battling eachother, they never got into a fight. But Bruce was so impressed by this fighter that when he was asked who would win between the two, he answered Ali.
Bruce’s fights on the streets never fully subsided, and as he grew older, his parents feared for the trouble he could get himself into. In hopes of a brighter future, they sent him back to his birthplace, San Francisco, to live with an old friend of his father’s. He began taking on part time jobs like waitressing and dishwashing.
He ended up moving to Seattle where he earned his high school diploma and began teaching a bit of martial arts in parks around the area. Slowly taking stock of his new surroundings, Bruce was compelled more than ever to make an impact, despite the hardships of being a foreigner.
During those years in the US, Bruce was drafted by the army, but due to his medical issues, he was deemed unfit and received a 4-F classification. Apparently, this Kung Fu Master had an undescended testicle, a sinus disorder, and poor eyesight.
His eyesight was so bad that he was one of the first people who rushed to try contact lenses. But he felt they were too uncomfortable and ended up sticking to his thick “coke bottle” glasses. In addition to helping his eyesight, those old taped up glasses were a way for him to ground himself by remembering his financially poor background.
He enrolled in the University of Washington, where he majored in Drama and took courses in Philosophy that covered both Western and Eastern traditions. The insights he gained from those disciplines fell beautifully in place with the philosophy of Wing Kung Fu, and his classmates urged him to share his growing knowledge with them.
He began teaching Kung Fu to his friends, and as more people joined, he decided to make it official. While still a student, Bruce Lee opened his first school of martial arts called the “Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute” in 1963. Its first location was a small carport, then a basement, then finally a location on the university campus.
One student in particular caught his eye, Linda Cadwell, the woman who would later become his wife and the mother of his children. Their romance began with kicks and punches, as she was taught how to grasp tightly and throw him over. She recalls how during one of the classes, after tumbling across the grass and laughing, he casually asked her out for dinner.
Linda was delighted, but interracial couples weren’t widely accepted at the time and her parents didn’t show many signs of approval. Bruce never staggered though, and their resistance was an obstacle for him to take on and overcome. They married on August 17th 1964, and had two children together, Brandon and Shannon Lee.
The newlyweds moved to Oakland California, where Bruce opened another Kung Fu school and continued teaching martial arts to larger crowds. As word of his classes spread, many Asian masters were wary of the fact that he was sharing his knowledge of Kung Fu with non-Asians, so much so that they arrived at his school to challenge him to a match.
He rose triumphant from those battles, but beating them took around three minutes, and being a perfectionist, he knew it could do it in less. He began to take a good, hard look into the nature of Kung Fu, scrutinizing it from every angle in order to reach a deeper understanding of its nature. Religiously studying his own art led him to important insights which would serve as the foundation of his newly founded philosophy.
Although he was trained within the traditional framework of Jun Gung Fu, he knew that, in truth, fighting is never one dimensional, and the rules you apply to one battle, are not the same ones you should apply to the other. He concluded that anyone who commits himself to solely one discipline, be it Judo or Boxing, is in risk of not being spontaneous enough when the time comes to take real action.
Thus, began his famous teaching of formlessness, shapelessness, and the striving towards becoming as fluid as water. He would remind people of the stiff tree trunk that’s easily cracked, as opposed to the bendy but intact bamboo. Viewing martial arts in such a humanistic light, he believed everyone should gain access to it, and that it held within it the power to combat racism in the world.
Bruce damaged a nerve in his back while working out which left him unable to train for six months. During that period, he read and wrote extensively, focusing on keeping his mind active in a period where his body needed resting. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to perform martial arts again, but, of course, Bruce was set on proving them wrong.
When he felt it was possible to put his body back into action, he set up an exhausting regime with the sole purpose of pushing his body to discover its true limits. He would do 10,000 punches and 5,000 kicks a day. He would run four miles, and then go on an eight-mile cycling ride. We’re seeing a pattern here: tell Bruce that something can’t be done, and not only does he do it, but he takes it to a whole other level.
Uniting different philosophies and fighting styles, Bruce founded a style of martial arts that he called “Jeet Kune Do,” known in English as “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” Lee made it clear that Jeet Kune Do wasn’t anything the world had experienced before, and that it was a simplistic and effortless way of fighting. In fact, by learning Jeet Kune Do, the student comes to realize that the less technique one has, the better fighter they can become.
Bruce preached what he taught, and in the many competitions he fought, he displayed novel and skillful moves that never ceased to amaze the people watching. He became well known for his one-inch punch, a short distanced powerful blow that threw his opponent to the other end, leaving them startled and completely dumbfounded. His ability to generate all his body weight into one precise point of impact was completely electrifying.
In the mid 60’s, Hollywood producer William Dojer was in search of an Asian actor to star in his new series “The Green Hornet.” Bruce’s audition was beyond impressive, and his fervor and skills landed him the part of Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick and fighting chauffeur. Although Kato was considered a secondary role, Bruce was determined to make his presence on screen unforgettable.
The show premiered in 1966, and for the first time in history, Kung Fu appeared on cable TV. He moved meticulously on screen, delivering lightning fast blows, to the point where he was told to slow down, because some of his moves were too fast for the speed of the motion camera.
Unfortunately, “The Green Hornet” wasn’t very successful, and the show was cancelled after one season. He was 27 at the time, with a family to provide, and he could not allow himself to fall into despair. After only finding acting gigs sporadically, he decided to put off looking for on screen jobs, and began working behind the scenes instead.
He was hired as a fighting coordinator, training celebrities to properly embody the way of martial arts. He quickly became known as one of the hottest coaches in Hollywood, and his list of students included Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and James Garner. He was described by many of them as a down to earth and incredibly professional man with a healthy sense of humor.
Despite his success as a teacher, he was determined to return to the screen. Irritated over Hollywood’s racial barrier, he flew back to Hong Kong and on arrival, was completely taken by surprise when realized he couldn’t cross the street without a flock of people enthusiastically surrounding him. To his delight, he discovered that “The Green Hornet” was a huge success in Asia.
His time in Hong Kong was fruitful as he steadily established himself alongside film producer Raymond Chao. He starred in several of Chao’s films, including “Fist of Fury,” where the world was first introduced to the infamous “Nunchaku,” a weapon never before seen on TV and one that Bruce intelligently used to slash away his opponents. The films he starred in during that time broke all box office records.
Describing Bruce Lee as an “active person” feels like an understatement. He was a lightning fast hybrid of a cat and monkey that flew all over the place. Understandably, he sweated, a lot. Tired of being shiny and slippery, he opted for a surgery that removed sweat glands from his armpits and chest.
It’s considered a short operation that involves a small incision, and only takes a few hours to complete. It’s a common surgery that’s performed for people with medical issues or restless people like Bruce Lee who seem to be in constant movement.
Bruce’s success in Asia never took away from his desire to conquer bigger screens, but he learned time and time again that Hollywood’s racial barriers were terribly hard to overcome. During that time, Chinese actors were usually casted for comical, silly roles or stereotypical characters who were never more than the sidekick.
He even mentioned working with Warner Brothers on a Kung Fu themed movie, only to work backstage, because they claimed he was “too Chinese” to be casted as the lead role. Instead, they hired a White actor, covering him with make-up so he would look “moderately Chinese.”
Even though Bruce had not yet broken into America’s consciousness, work with Raymond Chao in Hong Kong provided him plenty of space to express his mastery of martial arts, as well as cinematography, music production and script writing.
He was unfathomably pedantic, repeating the same scene over and over until he achieved the perfect shot. He wanted to show the world the true force of martial arts, without any unnecessary special effects or fake movements. We’re sure glad that he did.
As he was working on his film “Game of Death,” he finally received his long-awaited call from Hollywood, offering him to star in the film “Enter the Dragon.” On set, things proved to be quite difficult and Bruce was straining himself more than ever, both physically and mentally.
Although he spoke English, his accent made it difficult at times to pronounce certain letters and the overall differences between his Chinese crew and the American crew meant that there were quite a few conflicts. The making of “Enter the Dragon” was a difficult endeavor, but one that turned Bruce into a worldwide sensation.
The scene between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in “Enter the Dragon” is unforgettable. It starts out slow, with fierce gazes thrown from both ends of the room. During the first half of the fight it looks like Bruce is losing, but then he changes tactics and starts bouncing around rapidly dodging and building up momentum and waiting for the right moment to strike. But in real life, this scene wasn’t their first match.
Chuck and Bruce first met in 1962 at a restaurant in Chinatown. Bruce was talking to people claiming that Kung Fu is way deadlier than Karate and insisting that he could break someone’s arm with a single hit. Chuck Norris came up to him and dared him to strike one. Bruce hit a few times, followed by Chuck slapping him in the face. They laughed it off and became good friends.
Despite being incredibly fit and healthy, he collapsed in 1973 during a dialogue on the set of “Enter the Dragon.” He was rushed to the hospital where he complained of severe headaches and dizziness. After several checkups, he was diagnosed with edema, a swelling of the brain due to excess fluid.
He received treatment and was able to recover sufficiently to return to work. After a brief stay at the hospital, Bruce arrived on set ready to tackle everything as regularly as before. People knew he was straining himself, both physically and mentally, but Bruce never made a big deal of it.
With the completion of “Enter the Dragon,” he resumed to his unfinished work – “Game of Death.” This name is ironically too sad, for this was the last film he appeared in. On July 20th, 1973, Bruce went to Chinese actress Betty Ting Pei’s house, where he complained about having a severe headache. Betty then provided him with a prescription pill by the name of “Equagesic.”
He went to rest in the adjacent room and after a few hours, Ting Pei checked up on him only to discover she could not wake him up. He was rushed to the hospital looking pale and faint. Sadly, at the young age of 32, and two months after his previous collapse, Bruce passed away. It came as a shock; how could a man, in the peak of his life, fade into an endless sleep just like that?
An autopsy revealed the answer to his tragic death – a second cerebral edema, possibly caused by an allergic reaction to the pill. But this answer seemed too simplistic and unsatisfying to many skeptics who were certain other forces caused his death. Rumors spread of a curse, a spell placed by the old spirits of Kung Fu masters furious at Bruce Lee for sharing Eastern secrets with the rest of the world.
The rumors died down as the years passed, but they freakishly resurfaced in March 31st 1993, with the tragic death of his son, Brandon Lee, on the set of the film “The Crow.” He was accidently killed after the misfiring of an unchecked prop gun. But before spiraling into speculations of supernatural forces, it’s better to say that life isn’t always intelligible to us, and leave it at that.
Four weeks after his death, “Enter the Dragon” was released to cinemas and became one of the biggest films that year. A truly iconic movie, it showcases the life of a highly crafted Shaolin Master and communicates all of Bruce’s philosophy in its legendary scenes. Bruce choreographed the fighting scenes himself and the actors were authentic black belts.
Although Bruce’s void was filled by some awkward special effects and body doubles, it still managed to entice its viewers. It became an immediate attraction to people across the globe, and although the production cost less than one million, it managed to gross more than $300 million worldwide!
Bruce was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington, alongside his son, Brandon Lee. His daughter, Shannon Lee, manages the “Bruce Lee Foundation,” which honors his legacy by continuing his teachings and providing financial help for families who don’t have the means to gain access to the enlightening world of martial arts.
Shannon also wrote the book, “Be Water, My Friend”, where she sheds light on her father’s powerful teaching along with some entertaining untold stories about him. Over the course of the book you can find little gems of wisdom that are applicable to everyday life, all of them lessons from the dragon himself.
Bruce Lee paved the way for countless martial artists and fighters that rose to stardom after his death. Randy Couture, Mike Tyson, and Jackie Chan are only a few of the people who were deeply moved by Lee’s work. His influence went beyond the ring of fighting, and into cinematography as well. He has changed for life the way Martial Arts is portrayed in movies.
Bruce Lee’s life story is a huge wake up call to anyone struggling with self-doubt. He constantly recreated himself and remained open to learning more and more, regardless of whether he was waitressing at a restaurant or filming a movie. Despite the racial prejudices he encountered in both Asia and the US, he never stopped believing that “Under the sky, there is but one family.”