Two Encounters with Bruce Lee: Finding Reality in the Life of the Little Dragon

 

Bruce Lee Graffiti.  Source: Wikimedia.
Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.

 

 

John Little (ed.) 2000. Bruce Lee: The Celebrated Life of the Golden Dragon. Rutland: Tuttle Publishing.

 

Tommy Gong. 2014. Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist, 2nd edition. Black Belt Books, a Division of Ohara Publications, inc.

 

 

“Remembering” Bruce Lee, for the First Time

 

It seems that at some point every martial artist must encounter Bruce Lee. Many individuals can tell dramatic stories about the first time that they saw him dominate the action in the Green Hornet, or that hot summer night in 1973 when he flew right off of the drive-in movie screen. These moments are often discussed with a sort of awe and reverence that is reserved for religious experiences. Indeed, that is precisely what Bruce Lee became for a generation of martial artists. He was a prophet of the idea of self-liberation; an embodied promise that a more meaningful life could be forged through the martial arts.

Of course prophecy is a risky occupation. This is especially true for natural born iconoclasts who are then hoisted onto pedestals by their followers.

Unfortunately I had no glorious first encounter with Bruce Lee. The first time I ever gave him any serious thought was when I saw a VHS copy of “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (1993) a number of years after its initial release. At that point I was an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester.

It was a decent film and I found its portrayal of Lee to be engaging, but it didn’t inspire me to go on and learn more about him. At that time my interests lay firmly in the Japanese and Korean arts. I was much more likely to seek out a Samurai drama than a Kung Fu film.

After I discovered Wing Chun, some years later, all of this changed. As a student of this art (the only style that Lee ever formally studied and subsequently did much to popularize) one is practically mandated to have an opinion on all things related to Bruce Lee. Slowly I began to work my way through the various biographies, articles and interviews that I could find.

It quickly became apparent that Lee was an individual who elicited a range of strong emotions, especially among the generation that come of age in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was either the savior of the martial arts, or the poster child for everything that was wrong with the era. While discussing Lee I saw more than one perfectly reasonable and sane martial artist become a little unhinged.

Due to my background in the social sciences I found this range of reactions to be even more interesting than the actual historical details of Lee’s life. After all, Lee had died before I was born, yet somehow his image still had a powerful effect on a wide range of people. I began to pay closer attention to the ways that he was discussed and started to realize how far reaching his influence on popular culture had really been.

While I had never immersed myself in the “mythos” of Bruce Lee, I had grown up in a world where the Asian martial arts were everywhere and easily accessible. I had studied Tae Kwon Do, watched Ninja Turtles on television and dreamed of Japanese swordsmen. Popularized versions of Asian philosophy were ubiquitous, and everyone knew that they were somehow (deeply, mysteriously) connected to the martial arts. I came to realize the extent to which I had grown up in a post-Bruce Lee world, but had never actually encountered him for myself.

 

 

Two Ways of Reading Bruce Lee, One Challenge

 

In the following post I would like to review two popular books. The first of these is titled Bruce Lee: The Celebrated Life of the Golden Dragon.  Authored by John Little, an individual who has done much to shape the current thinking on Lee, this volume was first published by Tuttle press in 2000. Designed to complement Little’s short biographical documentary “Bruce Lee: In His Own Words,” this volume has recently been reprinted.

I will also be taking a look at Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist by Tommy Gong. This title was just released by Black Belt Books, an imprint of Ohara Publications. This same company owns and produces Black Belt magazine which carried a number of early pieces by and about Lee. Perhaps the most important of these was Lee’s (1971) plea to “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate.”

I initially decided to pair these two books because they appeared to be very different types of projects and I thought that they might complement each other. Little’s volume provides readers with a glossy collection of pictures that would make a nice addition to any martial artists’ coffee table. He purposefully kept editorial comments to the minimum in this book, allow its central theme to emerge through both the images and excerpts of a few surviving interviews with Lee that he arranged and presented to the readers. His goal was very much to allow Lee to explain the significance of his ideas in his own words.

Tommy Gong’s project attempts to do something very different. His is really two distinct tasks married together under one set of covers. His book is structured around a much more traditional biographical project that relies on historical judgments to interpret the meaning of the various events that make up the subjects life.

This becomes complicated when discussing the peripatetic Lee. His short life contained more than one strong thread. In particular Gong knew that his readers would be interested in the development of Lee’s understanding of the martial arts as combative systems and not just his more visible life on film. Working with materials gathered from both Lee’s private papers and the Jeet Kune Do Nucleus group he assembled an intellectual history of the evolution of Lee’s fighting style (sometimes at a very technical level) that he then interwove throughout the main biographical discussion.

For all of their differences in terms of goals and writing styles, I found that the two books shared some uncanny similarities. Perhaps this speaks to the discourse that has grown up around Lee within popular culture and the social function that he continues to play. While they adopted radically different strategies, both authors were driven by an urge to uncover the “real” Bruce Lee. Of course pinning down the “real” Bruce Lee is just as elusive as discovering the “real” Marline Monroe or the inner secrets of Abraham Lincoln’s soul.

John Little attempted to accomplish his task by allowing his readers to experience Lee on an almost sensory level with as few intervening filters as possible. His book really does work best after viewing the accompanying documentary “Bruce Lee in His Own Words.” Using a large glossy format (which displays the various photographs beautifully) Little assembles a number of images focusing on Lee’s early life and childhood, his professional career and lastly his family life.

It is hard to choose which of the pictures are the more enjoyable. One gets a real sense of Lee’s personality and the rhythm of his life from his early and later family photographs. The professional shots are interesting as they overwhelmingly focus on Lee’s work as an actor rather than as a self-defense instructor. In fact, a large percentage of the shots focus on the period of time when he was filming “Enter the Dragon.”

The dramatic background of these shots gives everything a sense of dynamism that martial arts fans will appreciate. Of course it is also nice to see a number of more candid “behind the scenes shots” as Lee was working on the film. These images were accompanied by various excerpts that had been gleaned from Lee’s writings and interviews. Perhaps the most prominent source, and one that helped to structure the visual presentation of the book, was Lee’s extensive 1971 interview with Pierre Berton.

Much of this material focused on Lee’s philosophy of the martial arts, acting and living. It becomes clear through the course of the interview that he saw these elements of his life as being very closely linked. Still, the discussion tends to shy away from the technical aspect of his performance of the martial arts focusing instead on a more theoretical discussion of what that practice means.

The use of the Berton interview to structure and provide a sense of flow to Little’s visual essay gives the entire project a philosophical feel. What is more, it is undeniably Lee’s personal philosophy that is on display. All of his major metaphors and ideas make an appearance somewhere in the collection.

The end result is a book that is almost anti-textual. One suspects that Little’s aim was to allow readers to experience Lee, to be both visually and audibly in his presence, without really being aware that they were reading a book at all. At times this project comes close to doing exactly that.

Has he then succeeded in revealing the “real” Bruce Lee by allowing the martial arts virtuoso to speak for himself? This is a more difficult question. Clearly Lee did not actually set the agenda for this conversation. Rather it was Little who sorted through a mass of material deciding what to include, what to emphasize, and what to save for another day. All of my training in the social sciences and history tells me that it is a mistake to ever think that the raw facts can simply “speak for themselves.” That only “happens” on newspaper editorial pages.

Facts take on social meaning once someone looks at them and decided that they are “data” and not extraneous noise. How that data is curated, framed arranged and presented to the reader in large part determines what its meaning will be. Whether curated by John Little or Pierre Berton, we are still seeing just certain elements of Lee’s life. We see in this collection a young man with a remarkably philosophical bent, but not the incorrigible prankster or doggedly loyal friend that defined other elements of Lee’s life.

Readers might appreciate a little more background on how these editorial decisions were made or the sources that were drawn on. I was a bit surprised when looking over the book to realize that none of the quotes mentioned their source, nor did most of the photos contain captions identifying who exactly Lee was posing with. On the other hand the timeline at the start of the book was a useful reference for readers attempting to sort out the various movements of Lee’s life.

Any editorial policy employed in a project such as this one will inevitably introduce elements of distortion into our view of the subject. In the case of Little’s work, his greatest emotional accomplishment also contributes directly to one of the oddest aspects of this project. The text that accompanies the pictures is overwhelmingly drawn from a handful of Lee’s later writings and interviews. The end result is a flattening of his development as a martial artist and a person.

Readers are visually exposed to images of Lee growing up in Hong Kong, establishing himself in the states, moving on to Hollywood and later returning to Hong Kong. Yet overwhelming the voice that we hear is that of Lee’s mature philosophy as it existed in 1971-1972. On one level readers can think of this as Lee’s own explanation of himself at a single given point in time. Yet in turning away from a stronger editorial hand we are also deprived of the ability to see how rapidly Lee evolved as a fighter, a thinker and an individual in only a few years.

While Little succeeds at creating an engaging experience of Lee’s presence, he does so at the expense of constructing a static master. His “once and future” Bruce Lee is an individual who visually moves through the seasons of life, yet always speaks with the fixed voice of philosophical wisdom. This is a paradoxical image of an individual who by his own admission was always maturing, but never mature.

 

Bruce Lee statues as the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.  Source: kungfu.chinese.cn
Bruce Lee statues as the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Source: kungfu.chinese.cn

 

Tommy Gong, martial artist and student of Ted Wong (who in turn was a student of Bruce Lee), also intends to reveal for readers the “real” Bruce Lee. If Little attempted to do this through an almost Zen like reliance on experience and feeling over argument, Gong’s tool set as an author is much more conventional.

His understanding of Lee is built on a framework of sequentially presented biography. The basic outlines of this material will already be familiar to anyone who has read the existing historical literature on Lee. Plowing new biographical ground was never really Gong’s purpose. Certain elements of Lee’s life, such as his controversial death in 1973 or the details of his tense relationship with his father, receive little attention in Gong’s story.

For Gong the “real” Bruce Lee was first and foremost a martial artist. This was his passion in life, and everything else that we normally discuss, from his acting career to his thoughts on teaching and personal philosophy, were basically addendum to it. While Gong pays sufficient attention to Lee’s life as a family man (and includes a number of interesting interview quotes from Linda) the real emphasis of his work, and his most original contribution, is on Lee’s technical development as a martial artist.

If one were to sum up Gong’s approach to understanding Lee in a single word, it would have to be “evolution.” On this point the contrast with Little’s vision of Lee’s is striking. Gong draws on a wide variety of sources (using at times a fairly heavy editorial hand) to try and draw out the subtle technical development of Jeet Kune Do, and then to map these back onto Lee’s biography.

In these two volumes both Little and Gong focus on Lee’s martial arts, but it seems that even there they see things a bit differently. Little (relying on the Berton interview) paints a picture of Lee’s practice that is highly philosophical. In contrast Gong draws on the work of the Jeet Kune Do Nucleus project, and even scientific discussions of biomechanics, to present an image of someone who was actually much more interested in applying his insights to the problems of daily training than a purely abstract quest for self-realization.

To the best of my knowledge no other author has constructed such a detailed intellectual history of the development of Jeet Kune Do and then sought to integrate it so completely into the overarching flow of Lee’s biography. It is quite satisfying to watch these two strands of his carefully constructed argument come together. An understanding of technique becomes the tower that Gong stands upon to view the totality of Lee’s life.

Of course the towers that we create (be they specific hypotheses, research methodologies or even working assumptions) both reveal and obscure the landscape. While Gong’s vision of Lee privileges discussions of growth and development it still seems oddly constrained, as though we are viewing only a single aspect of Lee’s life. In that sense this work has some unexpected resonances with Little’s prior efforts.

Unless one has the privilege of writing for their own blog, word and page limits are a reality of modern publishing. Every author has to make hard choices about what elements of a story to include and what to let fall by the wayside. When Gong decided to focus on the technical development of Jeet Kune Do as a means to understanding Lee as a martial artist, he set the limits of what his book could see.

There is little discussion in this text of the final year of Lee’s life or the circumstances surrounding his death. Nor for that matter are we given much of a glimpse into Lee’s rocky relationship with his father, his conflicts with Ruby Chow, his links to his Wing Chun classmates or his evolving appreciation of Ip Man. One could argue that Gong is justified in excluding all of these elements as they did not directly bear on the development of Jeet Kune Do. Yet they are relevant to understanding Lee as an individual, and it is hard to think of a martial arts system that is both more personalized in nature and closely tied to its founder than JKD. In short, there may be a number of additional ways of understanding Lee’s development as a martial artist that need future exploration.

I was also surprised that the circumstances of Lee’s Oakland challenge fight were not explored in greater detail. By all accounts this event was absolutely critical in accelerating Lee’s move away from Wing Chun and it encouraged rapid change in his training methods. Gong’s discussion of this event relied heavily on interviews with Linda Cadwell. These appear to have been both interesting and credible. Still, given the controversy surrounding this fight I was surprised that Gong did not explore other common theories or views.

The choice to focus on issues other than Lee’s conflict with his father, his behavioral problems and frequent fights in Hong Kong, the Oakland fight and even his economically lean years in LA, all serve to create a “sanitized” image of Lee. I do not mean to imply that Gong is covering up Lee’s failures. Rather it seems that his telling of Lee’s story cleans up a lot of the blood and anger that other biographers have noted. This is a very cerebral and balanced portrait of Lee which fits well with what is a largely technical discussion of the evolution of a martial arts system. Is this the “real” Bruce Lee? Again, it is impossible to say.

Gong deserves a measure of credit for bringing these elements of Lee’s personality to the surface. They were clearly there. Every human being is complicated and many discussions of Lee tend to dwell only on his more “energetic” characteristics. When looking at the disciplined and focused way that Jeet Kune Do came together through the development of actual training programs and class curriculums, one begins to see the other side of the coin.

The production values that went into Gong’s books were generally very good. When opening the box I was surprised to see an 8.5 by 11 book. Given that many Jeet Kune Do students may be interested in the volume’s technical diagrams, this was probably a good choice. It also allowed the author to display a large number of very interesting photographs.

Once again, the contrast with Little’s book could not be more illuminating. While his volume presents readers with page after page of high drama glossy photography, Gong tends to go small, focusing on quirky historical artifact, personal snapshots and documents in Lee’s own handwriting. As visual archives the two works complement each other quite nicely and Bruce Lee collectors will certainly appreciate what both of these books bring to the table.

Still, the academic in me cannot agree with a few of the choices that were made. Given the historical and highly detailed nature of this text (which Jeet Kune Do fans will find themselves going back to time and again) it is almost unforgivable that this book does not include an index. The carefully interwoven nature of Tommy Gong’s argument certainly deserved one.

Secondly, truly significant books do not just make their own arguments. Rather they seek to shape the debates and literature that will follow in their wake. This volume would have a much better chance of influencing the work of future researchers if it offered more detailed, transparent and robust citations.

Certain sources are identified in footnotes, and others are mentioned in the text itself. The author also includes a note in the preface saying that all of the other unsourced materials that he drew on came from the Bruce Lee Enterprise Archives. This is only somewhat helpful. Typically such archival resources are documented with notations including box and folder numbers so that future researchers can go back and pick up where their predecessors left off. One rather doubts that this will be the last book that the Lee estate ever supports. Robust citations help to encourage the development of better and more cohesive conversations.

In most cases the citation issues were merely an annoyance. In a couple of places they led to more substantial puzzles.

For instance, on page 108 Tommy Gong asserts that the book Wing Chun Kung-Fu by James Yimm Lee (Ohara Publications, 1972) was actually written by Bruce Lee in or around 1968. After later giving up on the Wing Chun system, Lee decided to shelve the project. Yet when his close friend James Yimm Lee needed help covering his final medical expenses (he died of lung cancer caused by chemicals employed in his career as a welder) Bruce asked his contacts at Ohara to rush the book into production. They were to list James Lee as the author and to send him the advance on the royalties. Gong asserts that James was named as the author of the book as Bruce did not want to be associated with the project after having decided to distance himself from the Wing Chun system.

This is a remarkable story. The only supporting source that seems to be listed is an intertextual mention of a conversation that the author had with Ted Wong (who helped in the photography for the project). If true this account has some pretty important implications.

To begin with, it would mean that the single most influential book on Wing Chun ever produced (and possibly the best selling English language book on the Chinese martial arts) was actually written by Bruce Lee. Better yet, it was written by someone who was trained by Ip Man (and his senior students) in the 1950s, who could faithfully relate what his system was actually like (at least up through Chum Kiu).

It would also substantially diminish the memory of James Yimm Lee. James was an important pioneer of the Chinese martial arts in post-war America in his own right. By depriving him of his single most important accomplishment (which was already obscured by Bruce’s shadow) his contributions will be even less visible to future generations.

Without the citation of more evidence it is hard to know what to make of this claim. Gong’s assertion that Lee wanted to distance himself from the project is strained when one notes that cover of the 1972 book actually lists him as the “technical editor.” Further, Black Belt magazine heavily promoted the book within its pages by using images of both Bruce Lee and Ip Man (see page 22). If Bruce Lee was really looking to distance himself from the Wing Chun system, this seems like a very poor public relations strategy.

Further, all of the photography in the book features James Yimm Lee, rather than Bruce. Given that Bruce was never camera shy, one wonders why this was the case if the book was originally intended to be one of his publishing vehicles. The spartan no-nonsense text of the book also seem to resemble the earlier literary efforts of James Yimm Lee rather than the more expansive historical and technical discussions that Bruce Lee committed to paper in his manuscript the Tao of Gung Fu (1964-1965).

Of course one can also make the argument that much of the text of this book did originated with Bruce Lee. That would solve certain other mysteries. It is interesting to compare the introductory discussion of the history of Wing Chun provided in the 1972 volume (p. 13) to the earlier 1968 discussion of the same system that appeared in the Black Belt article “Martial Arts in Red China Today” by Antony DeLeonardis (p. 23). This article, one of the first extensive treatments of the Chinese martial arts to appear in an English language periodical, contained short profiles of a number of styles including Wing Chun.

The resemblance between the 1968 and 1972 passages is so close as to raise questions of plagiarism, except of course that they had the same publisher and likely the same author as well. Given how few individuals in the US were familiar with Wing Chun in 1968, I suspect that the notes on this style (and possibly all of the others) came directly from Lee. Is this evidence for Bruce Lee’s authorship of the 1972 volume, or is it simply an indication that James Yimm Lee took very close notes on Bruce’s standard historical discussion (also used by the Black Belt article) for inclusion in the later project?

It is an interesting question with important implications for our understanding of what has probably been the most influential Wing Chun book ever written in any language. Unfortunately the way that this incident was sourced and discussed does not allow us to draw a firm conclusion on the question.

 

Another individual sharing a moment with the image of Bruce Lee, LA Chinatown.  Source: Huffington Post.
An individual sharing a moment with the image of Bruce Lee, LA Chinatown. Source: Huffington Post.

 

 

Conclusion: Searching for Bruce Lee

 

The volumes by John Little and Tommy Gong initially set out to be two very different works. One is a sumptuous visual companion to a short documentary, the other a more standard biography. Little encourages readers to experience Lee’s “presence” by allowing him to “speak in his own words” with minimal editorializing. Gong offers a highly nuanced discussion of Lee as a martial artist which depends almost exclusively on his interpretations of a wide range of documentary sources and interviews, many of which are not available to the average reader.

Little relies on a handful of late discussions, mapping these back onto a wide range of images taken over the course of Lee’s life. The end result is a text that does a remarkable job in supporting the documentary “Bruce Lee: In His Own Words,” but also one that crystallizes its subject, preserving him at a single moment in time.

Gong’s emphasis on the technical evolution of Jeet Kune Do leads him to also explore the simultaneous development of Bruce Lee as an individual. Change and development is the watchword of this text, but only up to a certain point. The perspective that informs his view of Lee also becomes the horizon that limits the scope of his discussion. Both of these books exceeded my expectations in terms of their value as visual artifacts, and even casual Bruce Lee fans will want to have both.

The reprinting and release of these books clearly indicates that Lee is still exerting a strong effect on both popular culture and the world of the Chinese martial arts. The conversations that he promoted about the nature of realism in the martial arts continue to this day in traditional Kung Fu schools, MMA training gyms and internet forums around the world. These same ideals of “realism” have even become a lens through which we attempt to interpret and understand the significance of Lee’s life. They have emerged as an unspoken, and poorly defined, standard against which we judge his various biographers.

It is not always clear what defines “realism” or how we can best obtain it. This is a topic that has the potential to open vast philosophical debates. It has already received a lot of attention within the realms of martial arts, film and cultural studies. It should be no surprise that many of the same issues apply to biographical writing. The continuing enthusiasm for the quest to find “the real Bruce Lee” demonstrates just how many martial artists in the current generation are still seeking an authentic encounter with the Little Dragon to call their own.

 

 

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If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Paul Bowman visits Kung Fu Tea and helps us to see Beyond Bruce Lee.

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. alan says:

    best book to read on bruce, is by bruce thomas =fighting spirit 🙂

  2. Glen Smith says:

    The reason Bruce ‘distanced’ himself at that time from Wing Chun, can be summed up in one word, “Racism”. Yea, I know, but stay with me. I respect and like Bruce.. that being said, Bruce freely admitted to having anger issues and it is no secret that he was arrogant. When he was told by the ‘local’ China town MA community spokesman to stop teaching non-Asians or close his schools and get his butt kicked, he gladly accepted.
    This kind of news travels fast and Bruce was informed that back in HK, his master was taking allot of heat because of him teaching WC to the public. Respect for Ip and Wing Chun was why he immediately distanced himself by changing the name of his teachings from WC to Jun Fan [BL’s Chines name] with added tweaks from Praying Mantis and Silat.
    A victim himself of racism he then realized its power and its repercussions. Fellow sihings in HK demanded Ip stop teaching Bruce, once it was discovered he was 1/4 German. Ip secretly continued to have WSL and W Cheung teach Bruce until he left for America.
    It’s strange to me that very few MA’s know that China [1987?] officially recognized and accepted ‘Jun Fan’ [NOT JKD] as a unique Gung-fu style. He and Ip remained close until the end, which greatly irritated the eldest son, even down to this day.

  3. Abbie R.Hale says:

    He is a legend. No one’s name is more synonymous to martial arts than Bruce Lee. He is one of the greatest martial artist of all time and has great influence on martial arts. Try to check this article that I have read. http://www.exploretalent.com/articles/top-10-greatest-martial-artists-time/ . It shows some great martial artist like Bruce Lee.

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