July 20th is the 40th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee. Prof. Paul Bowman, an expert on both his life and cultural influence, has been kind enough to sit down with us to discuss Lee’s continuing significance. It is almost impossible to study the history or sociology of the Asian fighting arts in the west without addressing Bruce Lee’s ongoing legacy. Almost no one is better positioned to help guide us through this conversation than Paul Bowman. He is a keen social observer and is breaking new ground in the field of martial studies.
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Can you take a moment to introduce yourself and explain how a Media and Communications Professor from the UK ended up writing three books on Bruce Lee?
Paul Bowman (PB): I’d always loved martial arts. I did some Shotokan in my teens and Taekwondo and kickboxing in my early twenties. I worked as a doorman whilst doing my BA and my MA degrees and spent a lot of time with practitioners of Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Goju Ryu, kickboxing and Fung Sao kung fu. When I did my MA in Cultural Studies, I remember I would always try to get my head around the most complex theoretical arguments about ‘culture’ – arguments about ‘cultural relations’, say, or ‘political antagonisms’ – by thinking in terms of two opponents. When I went on to do my PhD – again on a very theoretical and very ‘wordy’ subject (it focused on the question of which paradigm would be best for a ‘political’ or ‘politicized’ cultural studies, and it ultimately became this book) – I found myself more and more drawn to questions of ‘antagonism’ and ‘conflict’.
Derrida and deconstruction are all about violence, power, domination, subordination, exclusion, and so on. At the same time, in discussions with other academics, I would often find myself suggesting that Bruce Lee was a very important cultural figure in terms of questions and issues to do with postcolonialism, race, ethnicity, cultural-hybridity, multiculturalism, globalization, and so on. And I remember that people would laugh – they would actually laugh! – and scoff – at the suggestion that Bruce Lee could be deemed important in culture.
I concluded that academics didn’t know enough about Bruce Lee – didn’t have any idea about the significance and effects he had, as the first global Asian (Asian-American) action hero superstar. They had no idea about the changes his movies precipitated in popular culture and film and media the world over. (By and large, they still don’t: A couple of years ago, when a film company flew me to NYC to take part in what became I am Bruce Lee, I was in a bar chatting with two academics and the barman. One of the academics, a Chinese professor of religion, simply could not understand why anyone anywhere would want to make a film about this trivial action star. The old barman, on the other hand, knew exactly why Bruce Lee was so important, and he conveyed it all to the professor much more clearly and succinctly than I could have. He said: man, we all loved Bruce Lee, because he was not white and he could kick everybody’s ass! Needless to say, perhaps, the barman was black.)
The day I handed in my PhD, well over a decade ago, I took up T’ai Chi Ch’üan. This was the first Chinese martial art I’d ever studied, and it rocked my world. Shortly after, I added Choy Li Fut and then some Xing-Yi. I kept working on cultural and political theory, but you can see in my second book (Deconstructing Popular Culture) that I was starting to try to work out how to think and write about martial arts and popular culture. Chinese philosophy was becoming more and more interesting to me again – especially the connections I could sense between Taoism and deconstruction. And eventually it took over and I decided to try to write a book about martial arts.
Being trained in cultural theory, film theory and media theory, and having only limited cultural and practical experience of martial arts, I knew I could not write a history book, or an ethnographic or anthropological or sociological type of study. I simply didn’t know how. But I did know about film and popular culture. So I decided to try to use a study of Bruce Lee as my ‘way in’ to writing about martial arts and culture more generally.
For me it was a labour of love. The proposal was rejected by loads of publishers, so I went with the first one to show an interest. I was delighted to be given the chance to write such an eccentric sort of a book. I genuinely believed the book would sink without trace. So did everyone else! I remember colleagues – senior and junior – dismissing the book out of hand (before they’d read it, of course), thinking that it didn’t connect with anything ‘proper’ or ‘serious’. Again, I found myself arguing about why Bruce Lee did connect with serious and worthy issues in culture and even politics.
When it (Theorizing Bruce Lee) came out, I found it attracted quite a lot of interest – and not just from academics. Martial artists started contacting me. Teri Tom, for instance, the star student of Ted Wong, who was arguably Bruce Lee’s number one student, contacted me to say she enjoyed the book and thought that it was doing important work. Then various media started contacting me, and from all over the world, too, wanting interviews and articles and so on. Which was nice. But I also found that academics were asking me to write more about Bruce Lee. So much so that in the end I had enough new material for another book – which is the story of Beyond Bruce Lee, which came out recently.
In the meantime, I popped up in I am Bruce Lee, which I think is why Bruce Lee Enterprises asked me to be the author of the glossy biography of Bruce Lee that they wanted to do – which became The Treasures of Bruce Lee.
KFT: You have now dedicated a lot of years of your life and professional career to studying Bruce Lee. How has your perception of him, both as an individual and cultural figure, changed over that time?
PB: Man, I think I must have thought and felt everything it is possible for a scholar and a fan to think and feel about Bruce Lee! I find him endlessly fascinating – which I think is always the way with your first ‘love’. You know, I was a boy when I first encountered Bruce Lee. I was reading the martial arts magazines as a teenager, and interacting with a wider community of practitioners from my 20s on. So I’ve encountered all the debates and all the controversies. At different times I’ve wholeheartedly bought into each of the very different ‘lessons’ of Bruce Lee (there is more than one ‘message’, depending on who you ask!); I’ve revered him for his genius and written him off as a one-trick pony; I’ve thought he was invincible within his size and weight category, and I’ve thought he was all show and talk with no substance. I’ve read diatribes against him and hagiographies worshiping and deifying him. So, as an academic, I’ve tried to stand back and take stock of these controversies and differences in order to try to make sense of why they arise and what that may mean. And I’ve enjoyed all of this – and even though I sometimes feel battle-weary, I am still surprised by the insights and positions that people have on matters relating to Bruce Lee.
Yesterday, for example, an advert for whisky came to light in my circle on Facebook. The advert is for the Chinese market and features a CGI enhanced Bruce Lee character, spouting elements of ‘Bruce Lee philosophy’ in order to sell whisky. Now, obviously, I felt compelled to comment on the link to this, and the next minute I was embroiled in discussions with people (including other people who have written books on Bruce Lee) who had opinions and information that had never occurred to me. So, yes, I’ve encountered and held many different positions on Bruce Lee, but the one thing that remains constant is my conviction that Bruce Lee is important. You can’t argue with this. Bruce Lee changed things. This is surely a large part of the reason why people keep picking up his image and using it for different ideological, cultural and economic purposes.
KFT: Your most recent book is titled Beyond Bruce Lee. What was your central message to the reader in choosing this title? Why should we, both as an academic and martial arts community, be interested in looking beyond the edges of Lee’s life and career? Can we do that without missing the man himself?
PB: If you can judge a book by its title (and I know I do this all too often!), I think I’m making two points with the title. The main title is Beyond Bruce Lee. With this I’m obviously saying ‘this book is different to Theorizing Bruce Lee!’ The subtitle is Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture. With this I’m trying to indicate what the ‘beyond’ might be: namely the contexts and intertextual connections, relations and associations between Bruce Lee and a whole host of other things. For obviously, Bruce Lee is more than one thing, with an impact in more than one context or realm of culture; so I’m running with ideas and connections about Bruce Lee, the way that ideas and connections about Bruce Lee run into and through culture.
And, yes, definitely, by doing this we miss ‘the man himself’. I didn’t know him. Did you? Yet we all think we did or do. But, really, we only have the texts – the films, the photos, the clips, the published notebooks, and so on. It is from these traces and disparate sources that we in a sense invent ‘the man himself’. – Those familiar with literary and cultural theory will see that my thinking here is very influenced by Roland Barthes.
KFT: Many discussions of Lee’s significance within the field of “cultural studies” tend to situate him quite strongly against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, nineteen sixties radicalism and the turn to towards consumer culture in the 1970s and 1980s. That all is fascinating and yet, unlike so much from that era, Lee is still fashionable today. My current students have only the foggiest idea what the Cold War was, let alone the nuances of radical racial and urban politics in the 1960s. They lose no sleep over Vietnam.
Does the long-running nature of Lee’s fame challenge any of these theories of his rise? And if they survive, how should we understand his continued presence in our current media and popular culture landscape?
PB: I think it’s generational. While there will doubtless be many people in the world who are still living under the cloud of the Vietnam War and ’60s politics on a day to day basis, you can’t expect everyone to do so. For a time the theme of the Vietnam War seemed to dominate American films. (Chuck Norris was always a Vietnam Veteran, wasn’t he?) But, like everything, it waned from public consciousness, and even cultural memory.
However, I think Bruce Lee is slightly different: he is not a trauma that you need to forget or to come to terms with. He is amazing to watch, and what Bruce Lee is able to do seems to be something that anyone could do with the right commitment to training their minds and bodies. So there’s a world of difference. Bruce Lee is a joy, a pleasure to behold. And the impact he had on the lives of kids and teenagers in the 1970s was not short-lived. People grew up in his wake, after having been blown away by Bruce Lee. So we are now living in a time when ‘the Bruce Lee Generation’ are fully mature and grown up, and producing their best works. I think we have been seeing this since the ’90s. This was the era of The Wutang Clan, The Beastie Boys, Tarantino, etc. The impact of Bruce Lee and other 1970s HK and Japanese films are palpable in their work.
Moreover, he’s present more and more in the fight choreography of Hollywood films. He’s still what people aspire to when they construct a fight scene. Listen to Jeff Imada discussing the fight choreography on the Bourne trilogy: he’s still citing Bruce Lee as an inspiration. Moreover, Imada himself is a case in point: a friend of Brandon Lee, trained by Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s friend and senior student. The fruit never falls very far from the tree and after Bruce Lee died, Hollywood scrabbled around for actors and choreographers who could come up with anything close to what Lee could do. Inosanto was there. Other Jeet Kune Do students were there. Even today, fresh people not directly connected with but inspired both by the literal moves and by the ethos of Lee’s Jeet Kune Do keep appearing, such as Gusto Dieguez and Andy Norman, who devised the Keysi Fighting Method that was used in Batman Begins and other Hollywood films.
Dieguez was a student of escrima/kali who studied under Inosanto, before obscuring that relationship and making statements about Keysi coming directly and totally ‘from the street’ and not from an ‘institutional style’. (Sound familiar?) In other words, even when people do not ‘remember’ or ‘commemorate’ Bruce Lee, we are still living in the effects – the wake – of his impact. And in more than one realm: Film making and martial arts are only the main ones – or maybe they’re not even the main ones: they’re just the most visible.
KFT: In reading your work one of the things that intrigues me is your treatment of the twin problems of “orientalism” and “cultural appropriation.” Clearly Bruce Lee’s legacy has been good for the martial arts on a commercial level, but has he been good for citizens of Asian descent living in the west?
More generally, do you think Lee’s work, both in the film and the martial arts, has helped to promote a real encounter with Asian cultures, or has it simply replaced one stereotype (the Chinese as the “sick men of Asia”) with another (the myth of “oriental invincibility”).
PB: A lot of people think he did good things for the ‘image’ of Asians. He certainly transformed one image of Asians in the West. Others think that his films simply put another form of stereotype about Asians into circulation. However, I think things are slightly more complicated.
The term ‘orientalism’, as I use it, comes directly from the book of that title by Edward Said. In that book, Said argues against the negative effects of stereotypical images of the Middle East specifically and Asia generally. His point is that Western/European/American/Euro-American or Eurocentric discourse, history, art and popular culture all trade in fictions about the East: these are stereotypes; images that have little, if any connection to reality. What Said means are the kinds of simple fictions that allow people to think and speak through crass generalities, like “All Asians are like this…”, “All Arabs are like this…”, etc. You know, the kind of thinking which produces statements about “the Chinese mind”, as if there were only one, or about “the Japanese character”, as if the acts of certain fighter pilots was a genetic predisposition that all Japanese people share! … Anyway: a lot of types of cultural studies and Asian American studies and identity studies, etc., get pretty hung up and strung out about matters of ‘image’. They are anti-stereotype. And for good reason. But the arguments tend to descend into searches for ‘better images’ or ‘more true/accurate representations’.
For a lot of reasons, I think the debate hits some dead ends – or at least leads you to get really angry with Hollywood all the time. However, Said himself made an alternative suggestion: instead of thinking in terms of ‘images’, he proposed, we should think in terms of ‘narratives’. Narratives are not snapshots, and they allow for more subtlety and even complexity. Quite how this translates into practical matters of, say, tackling racism, is a matter to be worked out. And it’s complicated by the fact that every narrative involves at least one image, and every image attracts a narrative…
But I think it’s demonstrably true that the images and narratives about Asian martial arts attracted millions of people around the world to try these arts out. And this is my area of interest. Because even if you find that the instructor down at the local dojo, dojang or kwoon is white and knows nothing about Japan, Korea or China, I firmly believe that you are still having some kind of encounter with that other culture. A culture is not a person. The culture is ‘present’ in its embodiment, in it being encoded into the kata, the forms, the terms and concepts, in some way. So, even if what is happening is ‘cultural appropriation’ – even if white guys are ‘stealing’ or ‘abusing’ oriental arts – I still think that more is happening than simple abuse or theft.
Consider the likelihood that the thing that drives most people to a martial arts class is probably a combination of fear or desire plus a belief or hope derived from martial arts films that this thing could solve a problem or fill a gap. This here – the fantasy relationship with a false image – is nevertheless the start of an encounter or relationship with something real. It becomes a point of connection, or possible connection.
On an anecdotal level: when I visited Hong Kong, I wanted to try some Hong Kong Choy Li Fut. I was taught by a British guy, who was taught by a British guy. My contact was a British guy (via Facebook). He took me to the club where he trained. There I met and interacted with the Chinese Sifu, some Chinese people and other Europeans. I even learned some Cantonese. It was an amazing experience. If I’d have been able to stay longer, I would have learned much more Cantonese, very quickly. This was because we had a connection, a thing shared in common, a common interest and shared purpose. At the same time, when I met academics living in Hong Kong, they knew considerably less Cantonese than my kung fu contact. This is because they didn’t have a connection with the culture and the people. They taught in English. They dealt with people who came to them to learn. So that’s much less of an ‘authentic’ cultural encounter – or rather, it involves the tide going in a different direction.
So I think that cinematic kung fu in the 70s and even the commodification of martial arts thereafter was a great thing. I know that’s controversial. But I know I have a strong basis for justifying such a view, and I can defend it.
KFT: Over the last few years it is become quite fashionable to point to Bruce Lee as the “father of the mixed martial arts.” What do you, as a student of cultural trends, make of this claim? What does it tell us about the evolving nature of Lee’s image in the west? Does it tell us anything at all about where MMA is at this moment in time?
PB: I think this is another instance of people reinventing Bruce Lee in their own image, or for their own ends. I think that Bruce Lee would have approved of MMA, because it claims to move away from formal style and into reality. However, he would have reminded everyone: MMA is a sport. Despite its own hype, it is a spectator sport with rules; rules that coax fighters towards the more dramatic and spectacular of moves and away from the slower, lower, more difficult to perceive grappling moves. So, yes and no. Yes, a bit; but in the end, no. There’s something of a Bruce Lee ethos in there. But it is a style of fighting, and a media style, at that. With no disrespect to MMA fighters – who could crush me at a stroke, I know – what they are training for is the ring, octagon or cage. And, as nasty, bloody and brutal as these contexts are, they are not ‘the street’ and they have artificial limitations imposed upon them.
Nevertheless, I personally think that MMA is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It is a kind of deconstruction of styles. And in this, it is very Bruce Lee. Moreover, I am currently fascinated by the differences between ‘Western’ martial arts discourses, which are about working out in the present what works (or invention), regardless of origin or tradition, and ‘Eastern’ martial arts discourses, which are still all about style and school and lineage and tradition.
KFT: Ethnicity is a critical issue when considering Lee’s impact on western popular culture. Many theorists have noted the immediate impact that Enter the Dragon had on African-American and urban media markets in the US. Lee was single-handedly responsible for an explosion of interest in the martial arts that is still being felt today.
However, some critics have questioned the political value of all of this. They note that these were communities with legitimate grievances. In fact, these grievances had led to mass political action in the 1960s. Yet martial arts practice, with its focus on self-cultivation and personal attainment, seems to have undercut the demand for greater community organization and radical political struggle. What are your thoughts on this? Was the “Kung Fu Craze” really a setback to progressive or radical political forces?
PB: I know the kind of arguments you mean. There are lots of ways one might answer this. I think I’ll answer it in two ways. First, theoretical; second by analogy. So, theoretical: This kind of question implies that we have an either/or situation. But, to cut to the chase, I think we have an and/and situation. Doing kung fu does not depoliticize you. You can do kung fu and work in politics. But the thrust of these arguments is that kung fu somehow sapped the political radicalism of the time and turned it into narcissism. Whilst I don’t disagree that martial arts were very quickly commodified and ‘existentialised’ (i.e., made to be ‘about’ finding your own ‘inner potentials’ and ‘inner peace’, and so on), I don’t agree that this meant sapping political energy.
I think that the situation is rather more that kung fu films resounded for certain constituencies – poor blacks and Hispanics in North America being one or two such constituencies. They also resounded for diasporic Chinese everywhere: in Jing Wu Men (Fist of Fury) Bruce Lee literally made the Japanese bullies ‘eat these words’ – the historical insult that China was ‘the sick man of Asia’. So the films resounded in different ways for different groups. And here comes the analogy: disco resounded in gay communities – indeed, disco arguably facilitated the coming together of gay communities. Did it sap their political energy? Or what about punk in 1970s Britain? Its talk of destruction and its general anger at the status quo resounded for the poor disenfranchised youth of the time. Did it depoliticize them? Not at all. – Interestingly, the anger of The Sex Pistols simply didn’t make any sense to US teens. But they still loved the music.
KFT: Bruce Lee was a true renaissance man. Obviously he was an incredible athlete, but he was also a filmmaker, a family man and even a talented dancer. Lee was also widely read and very interested in philosophy. What do you see as significant in Lee’s philosophy when you examine it? Has it had a real impact on the martial arts of the Western world?
PB: I see two or three strands to his philosophy. One is vaguely Taoist, another is vaguely countercultural, and another is about efficiency and experimentation. These don’t sit all that easily together, but in Lee’s writing, they work. What I mean by the Taoist style or impulse in Lee’s writing is summed up in his famous ‘be like water’ speech. But it is elsewhere too.
Now, he took this more or less directly from writers like Alan Watts, who were translating the lessons of Chinese and Japanese classics into English. So, in many respects, Lee is already working from a sort of ‘countercultural translation’ of Asian texts. But the point is, it’s already cross-cultural and both tapping into and feeding back into the countercultural ethos of the time and place he was living. Add to this Lee’s insistence on finding your own ‘way’ by experimenting and testing and not following leaders, and you might conclude that Lee was very of the 1960s zeitgeist. And I think that’s fair to say – and it’s no insult. He was a trailblazer, an innovator. And in terms of martial arts practice, yes, he really advocated what is now simply called ‘cross training’ – something that was radical at the time but that now seems natural.
But now the paradox: if Bruce Lee really does exemplify the zeitgeist, then can it really be said to be ‘him’ who is responsible, or is it not something about the times themselves? Where does the agency lie? What causes such tectonic changes in ethos, ideology and practice? What larger subterranean forces and process are at work? And what relationship with them does Bruce Lee’s work have? Cause or caused? These are questions, as you know, that some knowledge of history, political economy, globalization, international relations, technology, media and culture, and even academic philosophy can help to recast and to elucidate in remarkable ways.
KFT: One of the big enigmas for me is the disjoint between the Kung Fu fantasy that Lee projected on screen, and the Kung Fu fantasy (or perhaps vision) he attempted to live out in his own life. Individuals of a Japanese ethnicity usually don’t fair to well in his films, yet some of closest friends in Seattle were Japanese. His movies are stridently class conscious, yet he was perfectly comfortable working and socializing with the Hollywood elite. When teaching the martial arts he stressed simplicity and directness, yet that was not what he choose to portray on screen.
How should we as students of martial studies make sense of these opposing fantasies?
PB: Indeed, the Hong Kong films of Lee are strongly ethnonationalist. They were aimed at the Hong Kong market and they tapped into recent and ongoing historical events and traumas: the exploitation of workers, the recent wars between China and Japan, the plight of Chinese migrants in the diaspora. The first two films weren’t written by Lee. The third was, and in this one you see much more of his own universalist-egalitarian outlook – as in the scene where he tells the Chinese students of (Japanese) karate that it doesn’t matter what style you study as long as you ‘honestly express yourself’. So, Lee himself, I think, was not simply nationalist, in the way the Hong Kong films were.
When you translate everything over to California, it’s all recast. The ethnic and cultural politics and relations are completely different in the USA to Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. Think about the structure of American racism: all yellow people are just the same, just yellow people. So the context changes things. And then along comes the interest of Hollywood in the film that would become Enter the Dragon.
Now, the film had a pitch. Lee had a role to play. So he played a mystical monk. And this was a double-edged sword. It put Shaolin kung fu on the map, so to speak, but it introduced the stereotypes we were talking about earlier. Moreover, back in Hong Kong, the audiences hated the film, because although Lee was evidently meant to be playing a kind of 007, James Bond character, his role was received in Hong Kong as him playing a lackey of the British Imperialists!
I think everyone’s hopes and dreams about Bruce Lee are in a sense still organised by everything that Game of Death could have become. For in this film, as we know, Lee was fighting against styles as such, and in the name of a kind of universalist individualism.
KFT: I know that your book has only been out a short while, but what sort of reception has it received? Has anything surprised you?
PB: It’s hard for me to tell what is a reaction to what: I have two books out on Bruce Lee in the year of the 40th anniversary of both his death and the release of Enter the Dragon, so I am getting lots of requests from media all over the place to comment. But most of these refer to my 2010 book, Theorizing Bruce Lee and the film I am Bruce Lee. But also, the publishers of The Treasures of Bruce Lee are proactive in publicising that particular book, so I think they are actively pushing my name out there.
Meanwhile, I think that the publishers of my academic book, Beyond Bruce Lee, are happily riding the wave, so to speak. But that’s the book I am most invested in. That’s the one I care about. I care about its reception. And, yes, I’m happy to say, I’ve heard good things from people about what they think of it. It has already had some good reviews. Even the critical comments about it have been pitched at a very high level, which shows that people are doing me the honour of actually reading it and thinking about it. So I’m very happy with that. Every writer wants to be read – at least, I do!
KFT: Let’s say that you were new to the subject of Bruce Lee and you wanted to get to know him a little better. What would you choose as the five essential books or articles on Lee’s life and significance?
PB: His own ‘Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate’ would be up there – so you might want to find one of those edited collections of Lee’s writings (although it’s also available online). The books of Lee’s writings are problematic in the extreme, but they contain real gems, and I have enjoyed them all in various ways. Then, I think you’d want at least two opposing takes on his Jeet Kune Do; so Dan Inosanto’s book on Jeet Kune Do, on the one hand, and Teri Tom’s book, The Straight Lead, on the other, would ‘complement’ or counterpoint each other well. You’d also need a good ‘warts and all’ biography. My preference is for Davis Miller’s book, The Tao of Bruce Lee, and mainly because Miller is a truly great writer, who really conveys how exciting Lee was, and is – how amazing – and he doesn’t hide from the seamier sides of his life, or from the conjecture and evidence about his life and death.
As for number five, well, it depends where your interests lie: are you into film, or philosophy, or choreography, or cultural studies? You might want another biography to compare and contrast, or more on martial arts, or a bit of philosophy. For the lay reader and the non-academic, the Treasures book I just wrote is lovely because it is concise and is surrounded by so many amazing images and extras. But, really, with Bruce Lee, you want to watch him, don’t you, so why not just watch the films and documentaries like How Bruce Lee Changed the World?