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Chinese Martial Studies, Current Events, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Southern China

Taming the Little Dragon: Symbolic Politics and the Translation of Bruce Lee.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of "Enter the Dragon."

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

My Definite Chief Aim

I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting in 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.

               -Bruce Lee, Jan. 1969

A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.

            -Bruce Lee paraphrasing educator Amos Bronson Alcott.

oOo

Introduction: Bruce Lee as Symbol

It is hard to overstate Bruce Lee’s influence on the development of the traditional Asian martial arts in the western world.  Certainly some people practiced various disciplines before his time.  Yet in his brief tenure as both a movie star and promoter of the martial arts he opened these styles to a broader range of individuals than anyone had imagined possible.  This was all the more remarkable as martial reformers in China had been trying to modernize and ignite the martial arts as a mass phenomenon since at least the 1910s.  By in large they failed to do so, even when they enjoyed considerable government backing.

How did one individual, working in Hollywood and Hong Kong, manage to accomplish what had eluded so many others?  Even more interesting is the fact that the Kung Fu explosion that Lee ignited actually burned the fastest in the west.  This week is the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death.  It seems like the proper time to stop and reflect on some of these critical questions.

I myself am not a Bruce Lee expert.  I was born too late to have any memories of his impact on popular culture.  And while most of my research does focus on the southern Chinese martial arts, my main period of interest is actually 1850-1950.  While a critical subject, Lee has always been slightly tangential to most of the questions that I ask.

Still, this is not a topic that I can easily overlook.  One of the reasons that I study 19th century manifestations of globalization in southern China is to understand more about our current era of economic, social and cultural exchange.

Lee remains as critical to the global image of the Chinese martial arts today as he did the moment Enter the Dragon was released (which is also enjoying its 40th anniversary this month).  Lee’s body of work is still serving as a cultural bridge, encouraging encounters between groups of people that might not otherwise think very much about each other.  It is hard to imagine that any other figure could have been so gripping, or would have fit that era quite so well.

Yet it is not enough to simply describe the past.  The 1970s were the start of our current era of globalization, but this phenomenon has not been a constant force over the last 40 years.  It accelerated rapidly as both the economies and societies of the western and eastern hemispheres underwent fundamental transformations.  The Hong Kong of the 1950s is almost unrecognizable from our modern vantage point.

Many of the social triggers that Lee tripped in the 1970s were unique to that era.  His early films in Hong Kong tapped into a vast reservoir of anti-Japanese animus and class tensions.  These were palatable forces that shaped life in the city.

Meanwhile his American audiences were drawn to different aspects of his film and television career.  Many social theorists have noted that Lee’s appearance coincided with an era in which the US was struggling to come to terms with its defeat in the Vietnam War.  Lee’s personal philosophy was eclectic, drawing on elements as diverse as Chinese Daoism, New Age gurus and Alan Watt’s seminal writings on Zen Buddhism.  This unique blend of outlooks seemed almost tailored to appeal to both counter-culture and libertarian strains in American thought.  Further, the inherent radicalism of Lee’s message and his violent on-screen appearance (usually in the service of social justice) made him immediately relevant to larger discussions of race and ethnicity in America.

The social landscape of the current era is very different.  The basic legacies of the 1970s, when 1960s radicalism was transformed into something safer and more commercial, are still very much with us today.  I think you can still see some of these discussions (particularly as they relate to race, gender and equality) as the foundations that our current social edifices are built on top of.  And yet the actual issues and discursive terrain of the current era are unique.

Most of the students I teach now do not remember very much of the pre-9/11 era.  I find myself having to give quick historical lessons so that we can discuss important events of the Cold War in my international relations classes.  I can assure you that none of my students lose sleep over the Vietnam War.

In fact, not much from the 1970s is still sought in the current era.  Most of the popular culture of that decade has been discarded without a second glance, but Bruce Lee survives.  He has been a near permanent fixture on the covers of martial arts magazine for the last two decades.  He has inspired more movies, documentaries, books, magazine articles and other tributes than any other martial artist in the world.  How has he maintained this degree of social relevance?  In an era when everything else has changed, why is Bruce Lee still cool?

Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming "Game of Death."

Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming “Game of Death.”

The Evolution of Bruce Lee

Lee is remembered in many ways.  That is really the crux of our problem.  To some he was a martial artist and reformer, to other he was a fitness guru.  Some focus on his philosophy (making him perhaps the first martial artist to arise as a “public intellectual” in the west) and of course there seems to be an entire cottage industry devoted to reducing his arguments and interviews to decontextualized, almost random, “thoughts of the day.” He was also a dedicated actor and film maker.

In fact, in Bruce Lee’s life acting came first.  His father was a well known star of both stage and screen.  While the two were never close its not surprising that Bruce would have enjoyed early exposure to the family business.  He appeared in about 20 films as a child star and achieved a certain level of fame early in his life.  Kung Fu came later.

If there is one thing that unites Lee’s diverse fan-base it is his sheer physicality.  The most iconic images of Lee, such as the sparing match at the Shaolin temple in Enter the Dragon, focus almost entirely on his physical form.  Fashion may come and go, but muscles are timeless.  The dedication and drive behind that degree of physical perfection stands out no matter what decade we happen to live in.

Calm and emotional, still and violent in turns, this image has become a potent symbol for what the individual can achieve and become.  It is this symbol that gives meaning to Lee’s various statements.  His image is the engine that generates the fictive power behind his Kung Fu fantasy.

Paul Bowman has argued in his recent work that Lee cannot simply be read and deconstructed as a text.  My background is not in the same sort of social theory, but I largely agree with his conclusions.  Turning to the language of social anthropology, Lee became more than just one more commercial product because he became a powerful symbol of wish fulfillment.

The interesting thing about symbols, as Victor Turner argued, is that they are by definition multivocal.  Every symbol can be read in more than one way.  In a ritual the color red can mean: war, blood and death.  Or alternatively it could be interpreted as: Blood, birth and life.

The individual who perceives the symbol becomes part of the interpretive process and is transformed (to some degree) by what they feel.  And while a symbol might be interpreted in a specific way in a given context, it still draws emotional power from the vast range of unstated possibilities that always rest just beneath the surface in our subconscious mind.

This may seem somewhat complicated but it is actually something that most of us are familiar with.  Classic stories and parables (such as the creation myths for many Chinese martial arts) never seem to get old.  That is because these stories are often rich in abstract symbolic elements (“Why is it important that Ng Moy fled to White Crane Mountain?”) and every time we encounter these story elements we read them slightly differently.  The story may not change, but the reader certainly does.

Lee’s sheer charisma and physicality appeared in the popular consciousness at a time when people were actively looking for alternate ways of understanding their lives and achieving personal transformation.  Further, Lee himself seems to have been aware of the multivocality of the symbols that he was creating.  He consciously crafted not one but multiple Kung Fu myths.

I should stop and point out that in the current context I am using the terms “myth” and “fantasy” in their most positive aspects.  While these words are often used to denote something that is “not true,” anthropologists and psychologists are most interested in how myths open a space for “mental play.”  This allows individuals to imagine themselves in different role and therefore to undergo actual self-transformation.  Again, as Victor Turner pointed out, there are definite reasons why myths so often accompany rituals and “rites of passages.”  All of these things are just different ways in which the multivocal power of symbols can be harnessed in a social setting.

This brings us back to Lee’s somewhat paradoxical public image.  His films (produced in Hong Kong) were rife with anti-Japanese animus, yet in real life some of Lee’s closest friends were Japanese?

Western theorists often focus on the issue of race when analyzing Lee’s films, but the much more obvious concern is class and social justice.  Nor was this simply confined to his on-screen characters.  By all account Lee could not stand to see the little guy get knocked down.  And yet he associated freely and easily with Hollywood’s elite, including many of the most powerful and famous individuals of his time?

When teaching Jeet Kune Do, or writing about the martial arts, Lee was a relentless missionary for the simple, the direct and the utilitarian.  He never missed an opportunity to excoriate the “classical mess” which he perceived in the stubborn traditionalism of the other Japanese and Chinese styles.  Yet on screen Lee never used a front kick where a spectacular flying sidekick could be worked in.  On the one hand Lee was a stubborn advocate for simple utilitarianism; on the other he was busy creating the sorts of camera wizardry and visual illusions that would take the traditional Hong Kong action films into the twentieth century.

We even see this in the two quotes at the top of this post.  When discussing the ideal teacher Lee’s concern is not to smother the individuality of the student.  Yet at the same time he relentlessly drives himself to accomplish career goals that depend to selling a uniform and commercialized vision of the martial arts to a vast number of people.  Nor was Lee much of a romantic about what it took to succeed in the unforgiving entertainment industry.

It would be beyond pointless to ask which of these quotes, or which Kung Fu fantasy, represents the “real Bruce Lee.”  They both did.  Identities are complex, careers have many aspects to them, and a single symbol can power many projects.

Different individuals in the west seem to have various strategies for dealing with the almost dialectic tension between Lee’s multiple, sometimes contradictory, contributions to popular culture.  Some individuals focus only on one aspect of his career, be it his films, his life philosophy or his “serious” martial arts writing and thought.  Other individuals adopt a more hybridized view.

I must admit that I am always a little unsure how to react when I hear students attempting to relate a quote form one of Lee’s movies or TV performances to a practical hand combat problem.  The obvious question is whether that quote is really Lee the “martial artists” speaking, or whether it was Lee the “script writer and advertising genius.”

This sort of tension is inescapable when you think about Lee (or are surrounded by a lot of people who think about him constantly).  It makes you really wrestle with what he was attempting to say and ask the more fundamental question of whether he really had anything to say at all.  Was Lee an original thinker, or was he simply a product of his times?

Yet if Lee was just the vectored sum of the nascent forces of globalization, why did he succeed with such style when so many others failed to launch?  After all, the Hong Kong film industry had been trying to go global for a long time before Lee showed up.  For whatever reason, it just wasn’t clicking.  He was the missing ingredient.

It is this sort of emotional investment on the part of individuals that makes the “Bruce Lee symbol” function.  His work established a sort of dialectic, and we find ourselves caught in the middle.  Can I really improve Wing Chun’s footwork by looking to western fencing and boxing?  Was there really a fully functioning branch of the Shaolin temple in Hong Kong during the 1970s?  Lee’s brilliance was to appeal both to our romantic and modern yearning, often at the same time.

If he had not sculpted himself into a “master symbol,” none of this would have been possible.  If his career had depended solely on unified and coherent texts, easily accessible to any member of the audience, this would not have been possible.  Lastly, if Lee had decided that he would focus on only the Chinese or American audience, this would not have been possible.

It was his ability to put the audience member or martial arts student in the middle of all of this, to make them the interpretive key, that really insured his success in the 1970s.  Once this symbolic discourse was launched, the process never stopped.  New fans, surrounded by MMA and social media, still encounter Lee as a striking, almost primal figure, and are forced to ask, “What do I make of this?”

Bruce Lee.  Detailed portrait.

Bruce Lee. Detailed portrait.

Teaching Bruce Lee Mandarin: the Opportunities and Perils of Cultural Translation.

Casual students of the traditional Chinese martial arts are often surprised to discover that Bruce Lee did not always have a huge following on the mainland.  He is an icon in Hong Kong, he is pretty popular in Taiwan yet he has had less of following in the PRC.

There are a number of reasons behind this.  The Cultural Revolution was certainly a factor.  The state strictly controlled all media and movies showing any sort of violence or sex were strictly forbidden.  Nor were films shot in capitalist countries ever played.  Lastly, Lee’s films were all produced in Cantonese (his mother tongue), a dialect that is pretty inaccessible to anyone outside of Southern China.

While Lee launched a Kung Fu revolution in the global market, that same transformation would not hit the shores of mainland China until 1983.  Inspired by the success of the Kung Fu Craze in improving China’s international image, and grasping the obvious possibilities for creating a new sense of national pride following the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government decided to allow their own Kung Fu films.  The result was Jet Li’s now legendary movie, The Shaolin Temple.

It is hard to understate the impact of this film on Chinese popular culture.  After years of bland carefully censored material, audiences were shocked and electrified by everything they saw on the screen.  It is difficult to guess what had the bigger impact, the graphic portrayal of violence, or the warm embrace of China’s traditional (e.g., feudal) past.

While Bruce Lee introduced the Shaolin Temple to the world, it was Jet Li who reminded the Chinese of people of its existence, literally putting it back on the map.  In purely historical terms it seems unlikely that Li’s film would have ever been made if not for Enter the Dragon’s prior success.  Still, it is important to remember that this is probably not the way most mainlanders perceived things.

In the 1980s Lee was not well known, and to the extent that he did gain recognition it was often somewhat mixed given his association with the west and, to be totally honest, Cantonese culture.  This has started to change in recent years.  Some positive media about Bruce Lee has been produced and there are even a few JKD schools in mainland China promoting his martial philosophy.

Today many Chinese people feel pride in what Lee was able to accomplish.  Yet by in large not many individuals actually know very much about his life or martial arts career.  Once again, we see Lee being appreciated primarily as a physical symbol.  Ironically, this is a symbol that now appears to be ready for a wider introduction into a new market where it remains somewhat obscure, China itself.

And so we come inexorably to the Bruce Lee controversy of the moment.  Recently the Lee estate entered into a marketing agreement with Johnnie Walker, a brand of Scotch Whisky owned by Diego.  The firm wished to expand their share of the mainland market.  This is the sort of consumable luxury good that is doing quite well in China right now, meaning that the upside potential of this move is large.

As such they went all out in a marketing campaign for their Blue Label Whisky.  Rather than using any of the existing Bruce Lee footage (which they decided was overexposed) they employed a complex mixture of traditional acting and CGI to create a digital image of Lee as he might appear today.

You can watch the original spot, released in China, here.  The add is beautifully rendered.  Typically CGI has trouble generating realistic human features, but many of the individual scenes in this advertisement are genuinely impressive (a couple still need some work).  The entire production has a sumptuous and modern appearance.

It begins with Lee standing on the rooftop deck of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Causeway Bay.  The scene is set at night, and he is looking at the lights of the city and across the bay (somewhat nostalgically) at Kowloon.  Intermittently black and white images of his earlier interviews and life are projected on surrounding buildings or played across the screen.

Lee walks through the area, back into the hotel while discussing his philosophy of success.  This appears to be a newly composed speech based on his famous “be like water” discussion on the Longstreet television series.  While the verbal discussion focuses on individuality and passion, the visual cues, from the handmade leather shoes to the fine architectural details, all say one thing, wealth.

It is hard to read this add as anything other than an extended meditation on material success.  In fact, if you did not already know who Bruce Lee was, there would be no reason to guess that he was a martial artist (or even an actor).  I would probably have guessed that he was a nouveau riche real estate developer from Shanghai or Beijing.

This is a bit ironic as Lee never really managed to achieve the sort of material success in his life that he coveted.  It is nice to think that he was on the cusp of great success when he died, but you never really know.  There are lots of great actors who never get rich.  Hollywood is a risky place.  But nothing is impossible in the land of digital wish fulfillment.

The producers of the advertisement realized that they had some additional issues that needed to be finessed.  Claims that the spot was really meant as a “tribute” not withstand, the entire thing is a blatant advertisement for hard spirits.  Yet Bruce Lee was not much of a drinker.  He had a reputation for abstaining from alcohol (and supposedly even coffee) as part of his strict health and diet regime.  Secondly, the real Bruce Lee was a Cantonese speaker, but the advertisement was aimed at the mainland market.  As such the spot was written and recorded in the more standard Mandarin ( Putonghua) dialect.

When this advertisement was first released a large part of the internet serving Hong Kong literally exploded.  Viewers in the city were enraged.  That anger quickly spread to the west where a number of Bruce Lee fans and martial artists have expressed a fair degree of disgust.

The objections of these western fans can be directly linked to the dialectic we discussed above.  Those who see Lee primarily as a martial artists and health advocate hated the fact that he was advertising a product that, if he had lived, he probably would not have consumed or recommended.  While there is evidence that Lee drank from time to time, one suspects he probably would not have recommended the practice in general.  For many viewers this seemed to be a clear case of selling out Lee’s martial integrity to make a quick buck.

More philosophically minded critics were less concerned with what was being sold.  They tended to focus on the inherent disjoint between telling people to trust in their individuality, to follow their passions, while at the same time telling them to consume the same mass produced faux status symbol as everyone else.  It is hard to deny that there is a certain logic to both objections.

Yet in a sense this is not a radically new situation.  Lee created multiple Kung Fu myths, the rational and the romantic, the individual and the mass media market, which were never consistent with one another.  At the end of the day one cannot train every individual to be an iconoclast and make 10 million 1969 dollars as a celebrity figure at the same time.  Free thinkers do not need idols and it is dangerous to stand on a pedestal in front of iconoclasts.

The Johnnie Walker add started by inducing a feeling of nostalgia, at least for the Western and Cantonese audiences who had some real history with Lee.  Nostalgia is a strong emotion and it is often tinged with pain.  It makes things personal.  The actual product pitch at the end of the spot was just too abrupt.  It jarred the viewer out of a space that they thought was their own and inadvertently exposed to the conscious mind the fundamental contradictions that had been hiding beneath the surface all along.

It is interesting to note that audiences in Hong Kong also hated the advertisement, but for an entirely different set of reasons.  Most of them have no problem with a martial arts master drinking.  Kung Fu in the west, because of its counter-culture associations, is often practiced along with other healthy behaviors such as not smoking or eating a balanced diet.

That is not always the case in China where (as often as not) the health benefits of Kung Fu are seen as a way to continue to smoke and drink copious of alcohol well into ones old age.  Such figures are not at all uncommon in the Chinese martial arts.  In fact, they are an easily identifiable type.  Many fewer Hong Kong citizens were put off by the presence of alcohol itself.

For them Lee represented yet another Kung Fu fantasy, one that reflected their status as doublely colonized individuals.  Hong Kong’s citizens were in a genuinely precarious situation in the 1960s.  On the one hand they were subject to British rule and all of the humiliations that go along with the imperialist project.  On the other hand Cantonese language and culture does not get a lot of respect in mainland China.  The individuals of southern China have never been masters of their own destiny.

In fact, since 1949 there had been a massive influx of northern refugees into the already crowded city.  Some of them complained bitterly in the local newspapers that all of southern China, and Hong Kong in particular, was a blighted cultural wasteland.  Clearly it was these northern, Mandarin speaking visitors, who would need to “do something” about that.

When his movies came out (all of which favored Cantonese speaking underdogs defeating the imperialists and bullies of the world with nothing but their bare hands) he added yet another symbolic aspect to his personal mythology.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that he co-opted a larger preexisting narrative.

Some of the very first modern martial arts novels to be published in southern China in the 1890s prominently featured local martial artists standing up to aggressive outsiders (usually from the north) who sought to disparage the south.  The ethnic, linguistic and economic subtexts in Lee’s film quite intentionally (and successfully) tied his image to this tradition of fierce regional loyalty.  In this context Lee’s pure physicality became a symbol of regional value and pride.  In Bruce Lee Hong Kong had given China, and indeed the entire world, something that no other place could, their own hero.

Needless to say very few people in Hong Kong were happy to hear Lee speaking Mandarin (especially with that accent).  The advertisement is an homage to the wealth and achievement of not just Lee, but of the city itself.  The Hong Kong skyline and Crown Plaza Hotel actually get almost as much screen time as Bruce Lee does himself.  And why not?  The Causeway Bay area is one of the most exclusive shopping districts in the world, with real estate prices and rents higher than just about anywhere else on the planet.  If one must reimagine Bruce Lee as a real estate developer, this was not a bad place to do it.

Yet by transforming Lee into a Mandarin speaker the advertising company managed to not just appropriate Hong Kong’s favorite son, but also the city’s glamor, its hard won success and its very sense self.  The question of mainland investors driving up real estate prices and dominating the local commercial landscape is already a very sensitive issue in Hong Kong right now.  In fact, studies show that the emotional identification between local residents and the mainland has been dropping for years.  Fears of meddling in the local political councils and even the school curriculum have exacerbated the situation in the last year.  This was a bad time to symbolically reimagine Bruce Lee as a northern.

Still, I would not hold my breath waiting for a retraction of the advertisement or a heartfelt apology, at least not from Johnnie Walker (the Lee estate likely has more to lose on this one.)  This was an advertisement aimed pretty squarely at nouveau riche real estate developers in northern China.  These are individuals who probably have some feeling of pride in Lee’s accomplishments, little understanding of his actual martial legacy and no positive association with Cantonese language or culture.  In effect the challenge was to reimagine Bruce Lee as one of them, or at least as a figure they could more easily identify with.

Of course they focused on luxury over martial integrity.  Of course they transformed Lee into a Mandarin speaker.  What sort of advertising agency would not do these things?  And by all accounts it worked beautifully.  The advertisement has proved to be very popular and effective across mainland media markets.  It plays well to economic and cultural narratives in current Chinese popular culture.  These may even become new aspects of the ever growing Bruce Lee mythology.

Vintage Japanese language poster for Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet.

Vintage Japanese language poster for Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet.

Applying J. Z. Smith to Bruce Lee: When does a symbolic system work?

It should be remembered that this is not the first time that Bruce Lee has been cinemagraphically resurrected to sell an unlikely product.  Five years ago (on the 35th anniversary of this death) Nokia produced what appeared to be a black and white home-movie showing Bruce Lee on the set of the Game of Death, playing ping pong against a determined opponent armed only with a pair of nunchucks.

Parts of this footage were initially released without any indication that it was part of an advertising campaign.  As we all know the footage went viral.  There was much debate online as to its authenticity, followed by whether such a feat was even possible.  It was very engaging because it was the sort of skill that seemed just on the edge of possibility.

Eventually it became clear that the film was a fiction and part of a clever advertising campaign to convince individuals in mainland China that they needed the latest Finnish cellphone (globalization at its finest).  At the end of the day the words “I told you so” were heard on many internet discussions.  Yet most people liked the short film and no one was swearing terrible oaths of vengeance against Nokia.  In fact, the film was popular enough that they ended up expanding their initial advertising campaign into a global effort.

This was also a clear attempt to use Bruce Lee’s image to sell products that he never bought himself.  But it did not have the same polarizing effect on audiences as the later Johnnie Walker Campaign.  Further, it was basically accepted by consumers in all three media markets (the west, Hong Kong and on the mainland).  It may be possible to learn one last lesson about how symbols work, and what sorts of fantasies generate the most fictive power, by taking a very quick look at these two different advertising campaigns.

While discussing ritual J. Z. Smith, the important student of Comparative Religion, noted that symbols are often used as a compact representation of a more complex reality.  In this case the simpler your symbol the better.  One of his many discussions of this point used the various monuments of Washington DC as an illustration.

The Vietnam War Memorial is about the most abstract, and simplest, monument that one can build.  From a distance it looks like a black gash or scar on the landscape.  Approaching the monument you see that it is a list of names of fallen service men and women.  It could not be simpler, but it has a profound emotional effect on many of its visitors, even those who are not veterans.

Juxtapose this now with the Korean War Monument.  That remembrance features large bronze statues of a number of figures, dressed in winter gear and carrying their weapons, presumably out on some sort of patrol.  Of course mostly uneventful patrols is what most soldiers spend most of their time doing.  It is all very realistic.  Further the artist went to great lengths to get the period details of the weapons, uniforms, helmets and gear exactly correct.

Clearly a lot of work went into the planning and execution of this monument.  But for many individuals it simply does not have the same emotional and transformative power as the Vietnam Memorial.  Smith claims that the problem is that it is too detailed; it is just too accurate.

The end result is that anyone who is not a soldier has a hard time identifying with it.  And those individuals who were soldier often get stuck on the details, noticing how canteens were different in the 1950s than in the 1980s.  But this was not meant to be a monument to canteens or rifles.

By contrast the abstraction of the Vietnam Memorial gives the mind no place to hide from the central message of the monument.  This is what makes it such a powerful symbol.  One is forced to confront the message and by extension the grim reality of human sacrifice and loss.

J.Z. Smith concludes that good symbols are like maps.  When evaluating a map details are critical.  It needs to have enough detail to tell us where we are, and to show us where we want to go.  But beyond that extra detail just clutters the image and gets in the way.  It becomes an impediment to comprehension.

This is why any modern train or subway map is usually simplified to the point of abstraction.  The sorts of maps that were produced for the New York City subway in the 1940s were highly detailed masterpieces.  They look wonderful framed on an office wall, but they were terribly confusing to actually use.  By having too many details they became useless as abstract representations of reality.

Symbolic systems become the most useful when you leave out the non-essential.  Extra facts and social signs just function as a barrier stopping people from becoming part of the interpretive process.  Abstract representations of a principle are generally more successfully than baroque ones.

We can now return to our two advertising campaigns.  Both used a resurrected Bruce Lee to sell a product.  But there can be no doubt which is the more abstract.  The Johnnie Walker advertisement is beautiful because of its details, but it is those same details that become the symbolic barriers keeping viewers out.  Did they use the best quotes?  Does he speak it in the right language?  Is this a whisky he would actually drink?  Hmmm, was that last digitally rendered smile really realistic, or just vaguely unsettling?

In comparison the Nokia add had no dialogue at all.  The way it was shot there was no visual detail at all other than the suggestion that Bruce Lee was wearing his famous tracksuit while playing ping pong with a set of nunchucks.  The entire focus of the viewer was directed to the star’s amazing physicality.  This was the master symbol that Lee presented to his audiences.  Its silent abstraction demands that viewers focus intently on the image to determine if it is real and, in any case, what it all means.

The same fundamental contradiction is still here.  We are still using the image of former celebrity to sell a product totally unrelated to his life and career.  It might be one thing to have him sell tracksuits, but cellphones?

Nevertheless, in the Nokia advertisement all of these latent anxieties stay in the background.  I don’t think J. Z. Smith would be at all surprised to discover that as similar as these two campaigns were, one was an almost universal success, whereas the other has already proved to be terribly polarizing.  It turns out that with Bruce Lee, like any other good symbolic or mythological system, the devil really is in the details.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Taming the Little Dragon: Symbolic Politics and the Translation of Bruce Lee.

  1. HI Ben. I’ve traveled all over mainland China and speak Chinese with no difficulty and I can tell you from experience that Bruce Lee IS extremely big in the mainland; the real issue is that WuShu, WuGong, GongFu, ShuaiJiao etc. are just not that big. As a subdivision of Chinese society as a whole there are huge numbers involved in martial arts, but that’s really a factor of the enormous population. 1 out of 100,000 people in China interested in martial arts is still a lot of people.

    Posted by Shannon Gao | July 17, 2013, 3:15 pm
    • Hi Shannon.

      Thanks for stopping by. I agree that he is a well recognized media personality (that is why you would want to use him in an add in the first place) but I think you would also have to agree that he became well known in China later than he did in either the West or Hong Kong.

      Still, I could be wrong. I only have the social histories I have read to go on. As I mentioned I wasn’t actually alive when a lot of this was going down.

      I am in total agreement with your main point. And I think it is a very important and is well worth remembering. It actually bears on another conversation that I was just having on a different thread.

      The martial arts have always constituted a minority subculture or activity. I think Chinese martial studies is at its best when it tied to another discipline (anthropology, history, film studies, economics ect….) and uses its its insights to try and say something about broader intellectual questions.

      In this case I thought Bruce Lee was really interesting as the controversy over his two adds seemed to be a supporting piece of evidence for J. Z. Smith and his discussion of how ritual and symbol works. So even if you don’t care about Bruce Lee, and you don’t care about the TCMA, you still might want to pay attention to these questions as it might tell you something about a set of questions that you are interested in.

      Posted by benjudkins | July 17, 2013, 4:39 pm
  2. The author (BENJUDKINS) of this post should be commended in that it joined a growing numbers of writers in pushing the discussion of Bruce Lee towards a more serious direction. Although I found most academic works, such as those of Dr. Paul Bowman (of Cardiff University), somewhat ivory-towered and inaccessible, it is still a healthy development to counterpoint some of the craziness and zealots on cyberspace. Of course, Bowman’s more popular works sanctioned/endorsed by the Bruce Lee estate (Foundation, Enterprise, LeeWay, etc.) have a decidedly different flavour, trying to be more affable for public consumption.

    I also wrote about Bruce Lee in a similar vein, including a non-scholarly cultural prospective, in a series of Chinese language articles since 2008, on the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly, and more recently on the master-insight website (www.master-insight.com/content/column/2631). I must declare that I am neither a sinologist nor a professional scholar in Chinese studies.

    This “Taming the Little Dragon” post contains several factual errors, I will only talk about one here. The last sentence of the second paragraph in the section “Teaching Bruce Lee Mandarin: the Opportunities and Perils of Cultural Translation” (underneath the third photo of the piece) said “… Lee’s films were all produced in Cantonese (his mother tongue), a dialect that is pretty inaccessible to anyone outside of Southern China.” This statement is dead wrong.

    The three Lee’s CMA (Chinese martial art) movies released in Hong Kong in 1970s were all in Mandarin, not in Cantonese! This post’s writer tried to use some Cantonese-Mandarin dynamics to prove some points. If cursory research was done about Hong Kong of this timeframe, and its film industry in particular, this error could have been avoided. But, that might also change the argument/exposition of the piece.

    I lived in HK (Hong Kong) during the above-said timeframe (born and raised there). SB (Shaw Brothers, 邵氏兄弟) and Cathay (國泰/電懋), both SE Asian Chinese money heavyweights, were the top dogs in Mandarin movies in HK during the 1950s and 60s. But, Mandarin movies were only the third-fiddle – Hollywood first, Cantonese movies second. Sure enough, by mid-1960s, SB would indeed morph into the juggernaut as they would become later, first crushing Cathay (pardon the pun), and then completely KO the Cantonese film industry.

    Eight months prior to Lee’s fateful return to HK in 1971, the last Cantonese movie of that era was released, and after that, for a period of about 2.5 years (during the entire time Lee lived there before his death), production of Cantonese movies completely vanished. Virtually all CMA movies of that era – SB, Golden Harvest, and others – were in Mandarin, not Cantonese. Only in recent years, the re-released DVD of many of such movies (including all of Lee’s) would add a Cantonese dubbed soundtrack.

    The Cantonese-Mandarin dichotomy is/was for real, but not necessarily that significant, with regard to Lee, or to HK in general, especially during his lifetime. Even in Mainland China (PRC) today, the entire GuangDong province (Canton) and a large part of the neighbouring GuangXi still speak Cantonese (or at least one of the three functional languages – local dialect, Cantonese, and Mandarin). This likely translates into a population of more than 100 millions. I traveled quite extensively in PRC, for work and leisure, and speak/understand four dialects including Cantonese and Mandarin, so it’s my first-hand experience that such Cantonese-Mandarin dichotomy is/was not a big deal.

    The current tension between HK and PRC is more political in nature, and not necessarily Cantonese v Mandarin, linguistically or culturally. During Lee’s time, such dynamics was basically nonexistent – because PRC was still closed off from the outside world, and the Mandarin-speaking new arrivals in HK were small in number (but significant economically). Rather than the Cantonese-Mandarin contention, in my view, Lee’s struggle in HK was more a Chinese v American thing, and that should also explain a lot about his somewhat unconventional behaviour and decisions.

    To me, Bruce Lee was not as complicated as many had made him out to be. He was not a philosopher per se, did not major in philosophy at the University of Washington (dropped out not even halfway through his degree program majoring in drama, but likely took some philosophy courses), though he definitely read a lot throughout his life. He had quoted the work of a lot of philosophers and thinkers (but seldom credited their sources), and he was a typical pragmatist – very American in nature – incorporated or absorbed whatever he found useful.

    Lee’s philosophies and teaching methods, especially in martial art, were only works-in-progress, basically unfinished, and typical of a person in his early thirties. Had he lived longer, and had ample time to digest, metabolize, formulate, experiment, and articulate, many of the Bruce Lee discussions we see today would have been unnecessary. Nonetheless, Lee is a very interesting subject in many respects, including culturally, Chinese, American and overseas Chinese. And the discussion of his martial art – Jeet June Do – seems to be endless, and at time, pointless.

    Posted by Bill Fung | March 31, 2015, 6:41 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Chinese Martial Arts in the News: July 22, 2013: A Bruce Lee Round-up, Taiji in Popular Culture and Rumors of Trouble at the Shaolin Temple. | Kung Fu Tea - July 22, 2013

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday Kung Fu Tea! Top posts and quick thoughts on my first year of martial arts blogging. | Kung Fu Tea - July 26, 2013

  3. Pingback: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part II) | Kung Fu Tea - August 10, 2013

  4. Pingback: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part III). | Kung Fu Tea - August 16, 2013

  5. Pingback: A Year in the Chinese Martial Arts: The Top Events and Stories that Shaped 2013, Part II | Kung Fu Tea - December 30, 2013

  6. Pingback: From the Archives: Taming the Little Dragon – Symbolic Politics and the Translation of Bruce Lee. | Kung Fu Tea - May 29, 2014

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