Matthew Polly is perhaps the best known and most popular author writing on the martial arts today. His first two books took us on a whirlwind tour of life in the Shaolin Temple and MMA training for the octagon. His latest project is a painstakingly researched biography of the famed actor and martial artist, Bruce Lee. This book has already generated a lot of public discussion. I don’t think that I am going out on a limb when I assert that this volume is likely to go down as the definitive Bruce Lee biography. I am thrilled that Matthew was willing to drop by Kung Fu Tea, and talk in some detail about both Lee’s life and the process of biographical research. Enjoy!
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Lets start our conversation at the end, which is where your biography begins as well. Bruce Lee dies. And the cause of that death has inspired huge amounts of speculation over the years. Not to be out done, you advance your own, well-reasoned and very plausible, argument that Lee essentially died of heatstroke. I find that interesting as it’s the sort of thing that could actually happen to anyone. It is tragic whenever someone dies from an event like this, but it also strikes me as essentially an accident. It is like hearing that someone was hit crossing an intersection. We tend to avoid ascribing moral weight to random events. As such, I suspect that some readers might not be satisfied with such a “common” cause of death.
So lets talk about the significance of Lee’s death. Why does it still matter to people, 45 years later, how Lee died? And ultimately does having an answer change anything about our assessment of either his life or career as a martial artist?
Matthew Polly: There are two things everyone I’ve met on this journey knows about Bruce Lee: he was an expert at kung fu and there was something fishy about his death. Linda Lee has written that the question she gets asked the most is: “How did Bruce die?” His death is tied up with his legend in the public mind. We have a special place in our culture for celebrities who die young at the peak of their powers (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe). And part of Lee’s iconic status rests on that fact that we were never able to watch him grow old. More importantly, people find it difficult to let someone go if the cause of death remains a subject of controversy (JFK). It’s a wound that people keep picking at. It matters in Bruce’s case specifically because it remained a mystery for so long.
This made it particularly hard for Bruce Lee biographers over the years, because they had to end their books on an open question. Maybe it was an aspirin allergy? Or maybe it was the Triads? Or maybe it was a curse? Maybes are not a satisfying conclusion to a story.
How someone dies, particularly if they die young, makes a difference in how we understand their story. Suicides, like Robin Williams, cast a pall and force the biographer to look back into a life for clues of depression, etc. A murder would raise questions like: “Was Bruce reckless? Did he offend the wrong people?” Heat stroke can be random, but there are risk factors associated with it. In Bruce’s case, they were lack of sleep, weight loss, and having his armpit sweat glands surgically removed a few months before his death. He collapsed once and nearly died of heat stroke on May 10. Instead of taking a break or a vacation, he dove back into work. If the heat stroke theory is correct, then Lee’s relentless drive for perfection made him vulnerable and fate did the rest. His story becomes a parable of someone who paid the ultimate price to achieve his ambitions. So yes, how someone dies can very much change the way we perceive their life.
KFT: Let me now toss out another impossible question for you. You are no stranger to the world of professional martial arts. You lived at the Shaolin Temple before it was cool. You trained in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and fought in the octagon. In your assessment, how good of a martial artist was Bruce Lee? Or is that the sort of question that those of us who never had a chance to touch hands with him can never know the answer too?
Matthew Polly: This is everyone’s second favorite question about Bruce after “why did he die.” You can never know for certain how good someone is unless you can exchange with them in person, but you can make some general observations even about people you have never met. The important factor is to break the “martial arts,” which is a huge category, into what I consider to be its four subsets: 1) no-rules combat (warfare, street fighting); 2) combat sports (boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, MMA); 3) stage combat (kung fu movies, Pro Wrestling, Peking Opera); 4) spiritual combat (Zen, Taoism, the quest for enlightenment).
As to the first category, Bruce’s mother style of Wing Chun was primarily a stripped down street-fighting art form, as was Lee’s later invention of Jeet Kune Do. Wing Chun appealed to him because street fighting was Bruce’s favorite extracurricular activity. By all accounts, he was excellent at it. He certainly put in enough practice. One of the main reasons he had to leave Hong Kong is because the police told his mother if he didn’t quit picking fights they were going to throw him in jail. I would say he was an elite street fighter, particularly for his size.
As for the second, Bruce had very limited experience with combat sports: he competed in one boxing tournament as a teenager. He didn’t like the rules associated with combat sports. I think he could have been very good if he chosen to pursue a particular combat sport, but he didn’t, so he wasn’t.
It is the third category where I believe Bruce was the best the world has ever seen. His legend rests almost entirely on his performances in four kung fu flicks, which were so magnetic, graceful, and ferocious that they inspired millions of young boys and girls to take up the martial arts. I know, because I was one of them. Jackie Chan is a more acrobatic performer and Jet Li has mastered far more techniques, styles, and weapons, but no one has ever seemed deadlier on screen than Bruce Lee.
As for the fourth, Bruce Lee was a seeker. He was deeply invested in the spiritual side of the martial arts. It’s one of the qualities that makes him so fascinating. In my view, he was on the path and headed in the right direction, but when he died, at the age of 32, he still had a ways to go, as do most young men. If he had been granted another 30 or 40 more years of life, I think he would have found the inner peace he was looking for.
KFT: I wonder if I could get you to say a few words on genre. Obviously, your voice and personal experience comes through in all of your books. But as I think back on them they are different works. American Shaolin really strikes me as a story of place. Tapped Out, while a personal journey, is also an exploration of a practice and a fighting culture. So why, for your third act, did you choose to journey into the realm of biography? That must have called for a very different approach to researching and actually writing a book?
Matthew Polly: The reasons for the shift were largely practical. While training MMA for my second book, Tapped Out, I ended up with a broken nose and cracked ribs. For my next project, I wanted to find a topic that didn’t involve me getting punched in the face.
My first two books were written from a first person perspective in a gonzo style. I wanted to be the P.J. O’Rourke of martial arts writing. For a biography of Bruce Lee, I had to reinvent my prose style and switch to third person. It took several drafts, and each one involved editing myself out of the main text and sublimating my sense of humor. A lot of the first person storytelling and jokes were removed to the end notes, which I think of as the DVD extras. As I rewrote and rewrote over a three year period, I would remind myself, “This is not about you; it’s about Bruce. He has an amazing life story. Don’t get in the way of it.”
I also feel it is important for the prose style to match the subject. Bruce preached simplicity, directness, and economy as the tenets of his martial arts style. I tried to keep those principles in mind when writing about him.
KFT: Biography, as a genre, is something that has acquired a sort of checkered reputation among both academic historians and literary critics. Roland Barthes rather famously characterized it as “A novel that dare not speak its name.” And others have gone even further in asserting that by forcing us to find significance in the random occurrences of a life based on our foreknowledge of how it is going to end, all biography is a type fictional (if often very well researched) writing. One simply cannot package and tell another human being’s story without utterly transforming it.
I have certainly written a fair number of biographical sketches in my own academic work (including a short treatment of Ip Man), so I have my own thoughts on this issue. But I was wondering how you would respond to these charges. Can we capture not just the events, but the texture, of another human being’s life? Or, in some ways, is all of this asking the wrong question?
Matthew Polly: Once when I was sitting in Princeton’s student union I overhead a Comp Lit grad student say to some young coed he was trying to impress, “Clarity is hegemonic.” That was the moment when I realized I was never going to become an academic. In my opinion, if you can’t express an idea in a way that an intelligent, educated person can understand, then you don’t really understand the idea yourself. I would like the months of my life back I wasted trying to decipher the writings of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida. Perhaps biographies resemble novels, because so many novels are just biographies with fancier prose and more imaginative plot lines.
Secondly, who says a life is a random occurrence of events with no causal connections and no meaning that can be derived from knowing how it ends or how it began for that matter? That kind of argument strikes me as a kind of flippant nihilism. Of course, adapting any human experience—a life, a war, a social struggle—into a book or a film involves the use of elements associated with fiction, like compression and scene setting and themes. The question with biographies is not: “Does this one exactly capture the life,” but “how close to the truth does it get?” There have been over a dozen biographies written about Bruce Lee. If you read all of them, as I have several times, it is pretty obvious which ones are better representations of his life and which ones are worse.
KFT: I once had a conversation with Charlie Russo (who has written extensively on the history of the Chinese martial arts in the Bay Area) about getting good research interviews. I personally have always believed that my prior experience as a martial artist gives me a degree of insight into what sorts of questions are interesting, or what answers might be plausible. Still, I am aware that being enmeshed within the complex social world of the martial arts has probably closed certain doors to me.
I have always been impressed with Charlie’s ability to open doors and get interviews. I suspected that as a non-practitioner he might be able to more credibly explain that he is just looking to tell a neutral story of a neighborhood. What was your experience? What was one time when you benefited from your extensive martial arts background, and when may it have complicated things?
Mathew Polly: First off, let me say that I love Charles and adore his book Striking Distance. It is one of the few well-written, well-researched books about Bruce out there. Charles and his book were extremely helpful in my research and I relied upon his work a great deal in covering the Bay Area period of Lee’s life. Every Bruce Lee fan should buy his book.
But to address the question, my experience is that the type of person who prefers to tell his story to a non-expert is usually a con artist. Honest people prefer an expert, because they don’t have to explain as much. So for example, Wong Jack Man and his students, like Rick Wing who wrote Showdown in Oakland, have been trying to sell a lie for fifty years—WJM really won that fight with Bruce Lee. They even got Hollywood to go for it with Birth of the Dragon (2016), which is nearly as inaccurate a depiction of the match as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). Anyway, I got Rick Wing to agree to an interview with me until he found out about my background as a martial artist and then he backed out of it. I’m still amused by the irony that Rick tucked tail and ran from me just like his master Wong Jack Man did from Bruce.
For almost everyone else, my background as a fairly serious martial artist and a reasonably successful martial arts author was a benefit. They knew they weren’t wasting their time with some fanboy who was going to write something that no one was ever going to read. I’m proud to say that my Bruce Lee biography is the first one ever put out by a major New York publishing house (Simon & Schuster). My background also proved particularly useful in an interesting way with Betty Ting Pei. She’s deeply into Buddhism and the fact that I had lived in a Buddhist Temple in China was a connection she brought up repeatedly during our series of interviews.
KFT: A lot of the press coverage of your book has tended to dwell on its discussions of the more sensational aspects of Lee’s life, such as his drug use or various extramarital affairs. But one of the things that didn’t seem to come up all that much in your discussion were the persistent accusations of plagiarism that have followed Lee through the years. Obviously, some of this stuff is difficult to deal with as one rather doubts that Lee ever intended to have his private notebooks published after his death. Yet the college philosophy paper articulating his now famous “be like water” philosophy, in which Ip Man helps him to overcome difficulties in his Wing Chun, is clearly dependent on a published work by Alan Watts on hitting, and then overcoming, a conceptual wall in Judo. I guess that raises two questions. First, how do you deal with a massive amount of misattribution within discussions of Bruce Lee’s philosophy. And second, what insight, if any, can we can gain about Lee’s personality from his rather liberal appropriation of Alan Watts?
Matthew Polly: James Bishop, who dedicated a large portion of his book, Bruce Lee: Dynamic Becoming, to the subject of misattribution and plagiarism in that college essay, has already emailed me repeatedly on this topic. When I was at lunch recently with Richard Torres, who teaches JKD and knows his Bruce Lee history, he pulled out Alan Watts’ book with the appropriated sections underlined. And now you bring it up. In journalism that’s called the rule of threes.
Clearly in retrospect, I should have either cut the college essay or addressed the “similarities” in the main text or at the very least an endnote. I let it slide because I had written earlier in the book that Bruce was a terrible student who often paid classmates to do his homework for him. I also happen to believe that, while Bruce borrowed language and imagery from Watts, he was genuinely trying to describe a similar spiritual epiphany. But the issue still bothers me, and if I have a chance to release an updated version I will address it more directly.
The misattribution topic is different as you noted. For readers who may not be aware, Bruce wrote down quotes he liked in his private notebooks without including the names of the writers, because he knew who they were. After he died his notes were published and these quotes from authors ranging from Chairman Mao to St. Augustine were misattributed to him. They now seem to live in perpetuity as “Bruce Lee Quotes” on the internet. My view is this was not Bruce’s fault, so I dealt with it in an endnote.
What does the fact that Bruce cheated in grade school and plagiarized at least one essay in college tell us about him? As I repeatedly pointed out in my book he was a hyper-competitive person who was not above bending the rules to achieve his goals. One of the anecdotes I tell is how Bruce asked Chuck Norris to gain twenty pounds so Norris would be fatter and much slower than him on film. I got into a debate with John Little, who fact-checked the book for me, about this story. He doesn’t believe it ever happened. My response was: “Come on, John, we both know Bruce would do whatever it took to win. That was a core tenet of JKD, which he explained to the protagonist of Longstreet when Lee taught him he should bite in close-quarters combat. He repeated the lesson when he bit Robert Baker in Fist of Fury.” Children are taught not to bite from an early age. Students are taught not to cheat. Bruce didn’t like rules or being told what to do. He liked the win. It was both a character flaw and strength. He never would have become the first Asian American male actor to star in a Hollywood movie if he hadn’t possessed such a relentless drive to succeed.
KFT: Martial arts were personally very important to Bruce Lee, and they consumed a huge number of hours within his unfortunately short life. And yet when I read your biography I constantly got the sense that they are slipping into the background, that something else was always taking priority. Lee’s passions notwithstanding, most of this book seems to be about things not directly related to the martial arts (e.g., his acting career, family struggles, etc…).
As I thought about this I started to wonder whether this was a reflection of who Lee was. Was Lee basically a professional actor (from childhood) who had an interest in martial arts? Or is this difficulty in capturing his personal discipline more of a reflection of the essential limitations of contemporary biography as a genre?
When we tell the story of someone’s life, things are supposed to happen. Events move towards an inevitable endpoint (ergo Barthes’ prior objection). And yet the reality of serious martial arts training is that outwardly, very little appears to happen at all. Every day in the gym looks similar to the one before, and the one that will come afterward. Structure and consistency is one of the things that makes martial arts training attractive to some people. But does that sort of monotony also tend to marginalize an aspect of someone’s life when we tell their story?
Matthew Polly: The answer to this question is fairly simple: it is a reflection of who I think Bruce Lee was based on my research. I have a lot of experience writing about the tedium of martial arts training and finding ways to make it interesting to readers. I dedicated exactly as much space to it as I felt it deserved in proportion to his other interests. This is a prime example of the legend not corresponding to the reality. Bruce Lee was an actor first, who became obsessed with the martial arts and then merged his two passions to become a martial arts actor as an adult. His father was an actor. Bruce faced his first movie camera at two-months of age. By the time he was 18 he had appeared in nearly twenty films—none of them kung fu flicks. He didn’t take up the martial arts until he was 16. He only taught martial arts in America, because he didn’t believe he could get an acting job as an Asian in Hollywood.
The second a Hollywood producer called him he dropped martial arts instruction like a hot potato and only took it up again after the Green Hornet was cancelled and he couldn’t get another paying gig. Even then, he focused primarily on teaching celebrities in the hopes that they would help advance his acting career, which they did. And as soon as his film career caught fire he closed down all his martial arts schools. When Bruce wrote down his “Definite Chief Aim” in life, the first line was: “I will become the first highest paid Oriental superstar in the United States.” He never mentioned any goal associated with the martial arts. Because people only watch his last four films and not his first twenty, they believe he was primarily a martial artist. But Bruce was an actor who became a great martial artist. Chuck Norris was a great martial artist who became an actor. Chronology matters. It is one of the main reasons Bruce is more convincing on film than Chuck.
KFT: I wonder if you could talk a bit about your research methodology for this book and maybe give a bit of advice to graduate students or amateur scholars who are reading this. My training is in the field of Political Science, and while we interview politicians for our research projects, we rarely ever use the things they tell us as primary sources of data. Our baseline assumption (well supported by years of experience I might add) is that they will just lie to us about any important or controversial topics. And, in a sense, I guess it is understandable. The line between studying politics and becoming involved in politics can be pretty thin. Our basic rule of thumb when doing research is something like “contemporaneous documentation or it didn’t happen.”
For better or worse, most regular people don’t document their home life, emotional states or career choices, basically all of the things that we really want to know about in a biography. Occasionally we get lucky and find letters, but you had to do a lot of interviews for this book. How did you structure your interviews with an eye towards get reliable responses and (just as critically) how did you go about assessing the credibility of the resulting data?
Matthew Polly: Someday you’ll have to explain to me how you got from Political Science to Wing Chun. But to get to your great and complex question, here’s a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way. First, as with any investigation, be it a biography or Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, the key is to gather all the documentation first and become an expert in it. That way you know when someone is telling you something new. Then you can isolate the new material and poke at it until you decide if it is true or false.
Second, if you know a subject cold you can gauge the overall veracity of the person you are interviewing. For example, when Sharon Farrell recounted her affair with Bruce Lee to me, she didn’t have any contemporaneous documentation, but she described Bruce Lee with such specific details that I realized either she knew him intimately or she had read every single book ever written about him, like I had, because her account tracked perfectly.
Third, the more often a person has been interviewed the more likely they are to lie. Average folks don’t generally lie to journalists, and, when they do, they are usually bad at it, because they lack the practice. I found that the most unreliable sources were usually the people who had been interviewed the most about Bruce Lee, because they had their “stories” down cold.
Fourth, people will lie and tell the truth in the same interview. You shouldn’t throw out the entire interview just because you discovered one lie in it, but you have to be more careful about the rest of it. I interviewed one person who was a pathological liar but everyone else only lied when it was in their self-interest. When in doubt be most suspicious of self-serving tales.
Fifth, lying is an art form but so is lie detection. Cops are good at it because they spend a lot of time interviewing liars. The more people I interviewed the better my antennae got.
Sixth, the bigger concern for biographers, in contrast apparently to political scientists, is not with lies but with inaccurate memories. People are generally pretty good at remembering emotional moments—an argument or a fight or a sexual encounter—but they are terrible about time. There are at least a dozen people who claim they talked to or met with Bruce Lee on the day before he died. That’s because they talked or met with Bruce in the weeks or months before he died, and the shock of his death condensed the time frame in their minds.
Finally, the single most important thing for a biographer to reconstruct is the person’s timeline. I repeatedly had to go back and rewrite sections because I figured out someone had told me a true story but got the year wrong. As I argued above, chronology matters.
KFT: You must have read a lot of what has been written about Bruce Lee over the years in your research for this book. Did you notice any patterns in what he meant to his fans or admirers? Has the social meaning of Bruce Lee as an icon or image changed over time? As you talk to readers of your book, what role does he occupy in the social imagination today?
Matthew Polly: I didn’t focus a lot of my attention on fans’ reactions to Bruce Lee, but my general impression is that Bruce Lee as an international icon has meant different things to different groups. To white Westerners like myself he was the Patron Saint of Kung Fu. He was the reason we started studying the martial arts. Martial arts improved our lives, so we view him as an inspirational, missionary figure.
To Asian-Americans, he gave them their first badass archetype, so he became like the demigod of war. (Over time, as Bruce has remained the only iconic Asian-American, and no one else has been elevated to join him in the pantheon, the image of the Chinese kung fu master has begun to be seen as more of a burden or an annoying cliché.) African-Americans saw him as a non-white guy beating up white people in his films, so he was adopted by the hip hop community as a racial empowerment figure. In Eastern Europe he became a figure of anti-communist resistance. The first statue ever erected to Bruce Lee is in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The scandals surrounding Bruce’s death soured the Chinese public on him in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the rest of SE Asia. I have a Taiwanese friend who told me when he was growing up Bruce Lee was dismissed for not being Chinese enough. His reputation didn’t turn around until the mid-2000s. Why? Mainland China had no idea who Bruce Lee was until they started to open up in the 1990s. The government decided to reclaim Bruce, like they did Confucius, as a Chinese hero. In 2008, state run TV (CCTV) did a 50-part, highly fictionalized, series about his life, which became the biggest TV hit in the country’s history. Suddenly Hong Kong became very interested in revitalizing Bruce’s image as mainland tourists flooded down to get their picture taken next to his statue in Hong Kong harbor.
My real expertise is in how Bruce Lee has been portrayed in the media—magazines, books, TV, and film. He is a fascinating figure because no one outside of SE Asia knew who he was. Enter the Dragon was released a month after his death, so his fame was almost entirely posthumous. At first there was a rush to simply explain who he was. The first two biographies about him were very thin but they contained the best reporting of all of them up until Russo’s and mine. Alex Ben Block wrote the first one in 1974 and it sold 4 million copies. His take was about like mine: Bruce was an actor who became a great martial artist. He was a bit cocky, egotistical, and self-centered but he was also a loyal friend and progressive figure on race.
What you can see is Bruce’s legend grows over time from these fairly accurate biographical studies until he became almost superhuman. Driven by the marital arts magazines, he goes from being a great martial artist to an invincible fighter, from a young man with a serious interest in philosophy to an enlightened Zen master. This culminates with the 1993 release of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which adds perfect husband and father to the image. Then John Little released a series of books culled from Bruce’s extensive archives of letters and notebooks, which contained all those misattributed quotes we discussed earlier. By the late 1990s, he borders on a semi-religious figure, St. Bruce.
This causes a reaction and skeptics like George Tan, Davis Miller and Tom Bleecker seek to tear down this impossibly inflated image. Message boards on the internet are set up to debate “How Good a Fighter Was Bruce Really?” “How Did He Die?” “Where Is the Lost Footage to Game of Death?” And then it goes relatively quiet for about a decade. My goal was to avoid these fights over Bruce’s legend as much as possible and get back to what the first biographers were trying to figure out: Who was Bruce Lee really as a human being? I came to a similar conclusion only with a much longer bibliography.
KFT: My final question is about Matthew Polly. And I am going to cheat a bit by giving it two parts. You dedicated a lot of time to this project over a number of years. How has studying the life of Bruce Lee changed you as a martial artist or writer? And as one of the most reliable and popular authors to write on the martial arts, what sorts of projects are on the horizon? What should your readers be waiting for?
I’m much more interested in other people’s stories than I am in my own. That may also be a function of age. When I was younger I wanted to sort out what was going on inside my head, but I had an absolute blast figuring out what made Bruce tick. As for now, I haven’t decided if I’m going to write another book about the martial arts or a martial artist or perhaps a biography of a famous person in a totally different field. One of the main reasons people think of Bruce Lee primarily as a martial artist is because he died before he could branch out into different genres besides chopsocky. I’m convinced he would have tried his hand at comedies, thrillers, rom-coms, and dramas. If I were to die tomorrow, my short Wikipedia page would list me as a martial arts author. If not the next book then the one after, I’d like to branch out as well.
KFT: Thanks for dropping by and giving us another glimpse into Bruce Lee’s life and the process of writing about the martial arts. I am sure that I speak for all of the readers when I say that I hope you have at least one more martial arts volume left in you. But in any case, we hope to have you back on Kung Fu Tea soon. Seriously, I can think of half a dozen topics that we need to chat about!
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read: Bruce Lee: Memory, Philosophy and the Tao of Gung Fu