Bruce Lee is widely regarded as the most influential martial artist of the 20th century.
His films, especially the Hollywood-produced Enter the Dragon, elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, and sparked the first major surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West.
The Early Days
Bruce was born in the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco to a Chinese family. His father was Chinese, and his Catholic mother, Grace had a German father and a Chinese mother. Interestingly enough and as a result of being born there, he was an American citizen and did not have Chinese citizenship.
Bruce’s Cantonese given name, Jun Fan literally means “invigorate San Francisco”. At his birth, he was also named “Bruce” by a Dr. Mary Glover.
Bruce initially had the birth name Li Yuen Kam given to him by his mother, as at the time Lee’s father was away on a Chinese opera tour. This name would later be abandoned because of a conflict with the name of Bruce Lee’s grandfather. Bruce was also given a feminine name, Sai Fung (literally “small phoenix”), which was used throughout his early childhood in keeping with a Chinese custom that is traditionally thought to hide the child away from evil spirits. This is referenced in the Jason Lee Biopic ‘Dragon’, in which Lee’s father says that he was given a girl’s name in order to hide him from the family demon.
Education and family
In 1959, Bruce got into a fight with a Triad gang member’s son. His father became concerned about young Bruce’s safety, and as a result, he and his wife decided to send Bruce to the United States to live with an old friend of the family.
He first lived in San Francisco and moved to Seattle to work for Ruby Chow, another friend of his father’s. In 1959, Bruce completed his high school education in Seattle and received his diploma from Edison Technical School. He enrolled at the University of Washington as a philosophy major. It was at the University of Washington that he met his future wife Linda Emery.
‘I’m an actor don’t you know?’
Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was a famous Cantonese Opera star. As a result, Bruce was in a number of black and white movies from a young age.
In the 1960s Bruce attempted to start his acting career in America. He became famous for playing Kato alongside Van Williams in the TV series The Green Hornet which lasted for only one season from 1966 to 1967. He also played Kato in three episodes of the series Batman which was also produced by the same people as The Green Hornet. This was followed by guest appearances in television series such as Ironside (1967) and Here Come the Brides (1969). In 1969 he made his first major film appearance in Marlowe. In 1971 he appeared in four episodes of the television series Longstreet as the martial arts instructor of the title character Mike Longsteet (played by James Franciscus)
Not happy with the roles in America, he returned to Hong Kong. Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest offered him a film contract.
1971 saw his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) which was a huge box office success all over Asia. He went on to star in Fist of Fury (1972) which was an even bigger success at the box office and wrote, directed and starred in Way of the Dragon (1972).
Having met Karate champion Chuck Norris in 1964, he had Chuck play his opponent in the final fight scene at the Coliseum in Rome. This scene is widely considered to be the most epic and iconic encounter in movie history, and helped catapult Chuck Norris firmly into the limelight. Bruce was then offered the lead role in Enter the Dragon (1973) which was the first to be produced jointly by a Chinese and American studio. This was to be the film that would have shot Bruce to fame in America. Enter the Dragon went on to become one of the highest grossing films of the year and cemented Bruce’s status as a martial arts legend. It was made for US$850,000 in 1973 ($3.74 million in 2005 currency). To date, Enter the Dragon has grossed over $200 million worldwide.
Becoming the ‘learning-master’
It is believed that a young Bruce learned the fundamentals of Wu style Tai Chi Chuan from his father, Lee Hoi Cheun. Bruce’s Wing Chun sifu, Yip Man, was also a colleague and friend of Hong Kong Wu family teacher Wu Ta-ch’i.
Bruce started training in Wing Chun at the age of 14 under Hong Kong Wing Chun master Yip Man. Bruce was introduced to Yip Man in early 1954 by William Cheung. Like most martial arts schools at that time, Sifu Yip Man’s classes were often taught by the highest ranking students. One of the highest ranking students under Yip Man at the time of Bruce’s training was Wong Shun-leung, who is understood to have had the largest influence. Yip Man trained Bruce privately after some students refused to train with Bruce due to his ancestry. Bruce left before he had learnt the entire Wing Chun curriculum, but is was Wing that Chun formed the base for his own martial art, Jun Fan Gung Fu and the concept-based Jeet Kune Do.
Bruce began the process of creating his own martial arts system after his arrival in the United States in 1959. At first Bruce taught what he called the “Tao of Chinese Gung Fu” with Wing Chun at its core. To avoid disrespect to Wing Chun and to accurately name what he was teaching he called it Jun Fan Gung Fu (literally Bruce’s Gung Fu). This consisted mostly of Wing Chun, with elements of Western boxing and fencing. Bruce opened his first martial arts school, named the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle. Bruce also improvised his own kicking method, involving the directness of kung-fu and the power of taekwondo. Like taekwondo experts, Bruce used full hip and leg power. Like kung fu kicks, Bruce’s kicks were delivered very quickly to the target, without chambering the leg.
Jeet Kune Do originated in 1965 after he fought in a challenge match with Wong. Bruce believed that the fight had lasted too long and that he had failed to live up to his potential. His view was that traditional martial arts techniques were too rigid and formalistic to be practical. As a result he decided to develop a system with an emphasis on “practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency”. To achieve this aim, he adopted many training methods that are the main staple of modern combat athletes.
Bruce included all elements of total fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. He tried traditional bodybuilding techniques to build bulky muscles or mass. In his book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he wrote “Training is one of the most neglected phases of athletics. Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation.”
The core of his concept was the idea of “the style of no style”. He actually felt the system he called Jun Fan Gung Fu was too restrictive, and redeveloped it into what he would come to describe as Jeet Kune Do or the Way of the Intercepting Fist. This was something that he later came to regret, because the very concept because a system, exactly the opposite of what he envisaged it being.
There are only 3 certified instructors, Taky Kimura, James Yimm Lee (no relation) and Dan Inosanto. James Yimm Lee, died without certifying additional students. Taky Kimura, to date, has certified one person in Jun Fan Gung Fu: his son and heir Andy Kimura. Dan Inosanto continues to teach and certify select students.
1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships
There is one event that everyone is still taking about to this day. At the invitation of Ed Parker, Bruce appeared in the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed repetitions of two-finger push-ups (using the thumb and the index finger) with feet at approximately a shoulder-width apart. In the same Long Beach event he also performed the “One inch punch”.
This rocked the martial arts world far greater then, than it would do now and it’s hard for the modern martial artist to appreciate just how monumentous this was.
The Intellectual Master
Although Bruce is best known as a martial artist and actor, he majored in philosophy at the University of Washington. His books on martial arts and fighting philosophy are well-known both for their philosophical assertions both inside and outside of martial arts circles. His philosophy often mirrored his fighting beliefs, though he was quick to claim that his martial arts were solely a metaphor for such teachings. His influences include Taoism and Buddhism.
An example of this is;
“If I tell you I’m good, you would probably think I’m boasting. If I tell you I’m no good, you know I’m lying.”
Controversial even in death
On July 20, 1973, Bruce was in Hong Kong, due to have dinner with George Lazenby, with whom he intended to make a film. According to Bruce’s wife Linda, Bruce met producer Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. at home to discuss the making of the movie Game of Death. They then drove together to the home of Bruce’s colleague Betty Ting Pei. The three went over the script at her home.
A short time later, Bruce complained of a headache, and Ting Pei gave him an analgesic. At around 7:30 p.m., he lay down for a nap. After Bruce did not turn up for dinner, Chow came to the apartment but could not wake Bruce up. A doctor was summoned, who spent ten minutes attempting to revive him before sending him by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Bruce was dead by the time he reached the hospital. There was no visible external injury; but his brain had swollen considerably, from 1,400 to 1,575 grams (a 13% increase). Bruce was thirty-two years old.
Theories about his death included murder involving the triads, a curse on Bruce and his family, etc. The theory of the curse carried over to Bruce’s son Brandon Bruce, also an actor, who died 20 years after his father in a bizarre accident while filming The Crow.
Pallbearers at his funeral on July 31, 1973 included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Dan Inosanto, Taky Kimura, Peter Chin, and his brother, Robert Lee. To this day, over 30 years after his death, fresh flowers are found on his gravestone every day.
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Timeline of a legend
November 27 Lee Jun Fan (Bruce Lee) is born.
February Appears in his first film at the age of 3 months
Enters La Salle College, a catholic boys’ school in Hong Kong
Begins to study Wing Chun gung fu under Yip Man
Wins Hong Kong’s Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship
March 29 Enters St. Francis Xavier High School (also reputedly joins the boxing team)
April 29 Departs Hong Kong for the United States
May 17 Arrives in San Francisco
September 3 Arrives in Seattle and enters Edison Technical School
December 2 Graduates from Edison Technical School
May 27 Enters the University of Washington at the spring quarter
March 26 Returns to Hong Kong to visit family for the first time since
leaving for the US.
August Returns to Seattle and opens gung fu school
July 19 Establishes a gung fu school in Oakland, California
August 2 Performs at the International Karate Tournament in Long Beach,California
August 17 Marries Linda Emery in Seattle
Accepts challenge and wins right to teach gung fu to non-Chinese
February 1 Son, Brandon Bruce Lee, is born in Oakland
February 8 Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi Chuen, passes away.
March The Lee family moves to Los Angeles
June 6 “The Green Hornet” TV series
January 8 First appearance of the name “Jeet Kune Do”
February 5 Opens the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Los Angeles
May 6 Performs at National Karate Championships in Washington D.C.
June 24 Appears at All-American Open Karate Championship, Madison
Square Garden, New York
July First appearance of name “Jeet Kune Do” in English
July 14 Hired to appear in an episode of “Ironside” in Los Angeles
July 30 Performs at Long Beach International Karate Tournament
June 23 Attends National Karate Championships in Washington D.C.
July 5 Hired as the technical director for the movie “The Wrecking Crew”
August 1 Hired to play a bad guy in MGM movie “Marlowe”
October 1 Moves to Bel Air
November 12 Films an episode of “Blondie”
1969 April 19 Daughter, Shannon Emery Lee, is born
1970 Returns to Hong Kong with Brandon to visit family
1970-71 Works with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant on “The Silent Flute”
1971 Pitches a TV series to Warner Brothers called “The Warrior” (aka “Kung Fu”) begins to develop it.
July Films “The Big Boss”
December 7 Warner Brothers David Carradine, will star in “Kung Fu”.
1972 Films “Fist of Fury” Forms his own production company called “Concord”.
Writes, directs, choreographs and stars in “The Way of the Dragon”
Oct – Nov Begins filming fight sequences for “Game of Death”
1973 February Interrupts filming of “Game of Death” to film “Enter the Dragon”
July 20 Bruce Lee passes away in Hong Kong
July 31 Laid to rest in Seattle, Washington
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1941 Golden Gate Girl
1946 The Birth of Mankind
1948 Fu gui fu yun, aka Wealth is Like a Dream
1949 Meng li xi shi, aka Sai See in the Dream
1950 Xi lu xiang, aka The Kid My Son
1951 Ren zhi cue aka Infancy
1953 Qian wan ren jia
1953 Fu zhi guo aka Blame it on Father Father’s Fault
1953 Ku hai ming deng aka The Guiding Light
1953 Ci mu lei aka A Mother’s Tears
1953 Wei lou chun xiao aka In the Face of Demolition
1955 Gu xing xue lei
1955 Gu er xing
1955 Ai aka Love
1955 Ai xia ji aka Love Part 2
1955 Er nu zhai aka We Owe It to Our Children
1956 Zhia dian na fu
1957 Lei yu aka The Thunderstorm
1960 Ren hai gu hong aka The Orphan
1971 The Big Boss Fists of Fury Plays “Cheng Chao-an”.
1972 Fist of Fury The Chinese Connection
1972 The Unicorn Palm
1973 Way of the Dragon Return of the Dragon
1973 Enter the Dragon
1978 Game of Death
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The Green Hornet (1966-1967)
Batman (3 Episodes) (1966)
Ironside Episode: “Tagged for Murder” (26 October 1967)
Here Come the Brides Episode: “Marriage Chinese Style” (9 April, 1969)
Longstreet (four episodes) (1971)
The Pierre Berton Show (1971)
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