A Modest Proposal

Numerous commentators have noted that this is a tough time to be a bronze statue. Icons of the 18th and 19th century slave owning class are vanishing from the public landscape in the United States, while a deeper reevaluation of public art is occurring across the Western world. Political symbols (which includes statuary) are selected and displayed precisely because they seek to stabilize some aspect of the social order. That is their essential function. In a time when the economy is crumbling, and many governments are seen as having failed to protect their citizens on the most basic levels (either through disease prevention, racial injustice or growing authoritarianism), it is hard not to see the emergence of literal iconoclasm as anything other than the first step along the road to some sort of revolution.

Revolutions take many forms and are typically multifaceted. Some are primarily political in nature. Others are focused on economic, social or cultural goals.  A few revolutions succeed and are remembered in history books, but most are smothered in their infancy by elite or middle-class groups who have too much to lose. In short, it is impossible to say how all of this turns out. Economists, as a field, seem addicted to forecasting the future. Political Scientists, such as myself, are more humble in wielding the powers of prognostication.  As a great American philosopher once noted “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Still, we can safely make certain observations about the present. The first would be that the current moment is fascinating precisely because these upheavals are not being felt in a single nation or state. While there is always a local proximate cause, and they may be very different from place to place, the end result is still pictures in my newsfeed of protesters in the streets decrying police brutality from Hong Kong to London to New York City. The global currents that bound us together in times of economic expansion are just as efficient when it comes to transmitting the tremors of upheaval.

We seem to be in the midst of a truly global political moment. Still, what defines such an era is not so much the statues that are toppled, but those that are erected in their place. As such I would like to make a (somewhat out of character) prediction. If Bao Nguyen’s recent 30 for 30 documentary “Be Water” is any guide, at least a few of the new statues should be images of Bruce Lee.

I would further like to go on record as happily supporting any such move.  Seriously, let’s start a petition!

Of course my motivations are far from civically minded. As a student of Martial Arts Studies I am in favor of more statues of martial artists as a matter of general policy. Further, the Wing Chun historian in me is thrilled by the notion that at least some of these statues would feature a biographical plaque (as is typically the case) that would mention Ip Man. How cool would that be?

Beyond my own parochial motivations, there is something about Bruce Lee that feel right for the current moment. Afterall, he is an undeniably political figure who seems capable to unifying many disparate social groups. In an era characterized by violent partisan division that is no mean feat. Lee’s mystique is built on an appeal to our common humanity bridging the gap between East and West, tradition and innovation, old and young, immigrant and native. Nor does it hurt that he produced a much-loved body of work that has a lot to say about the dangers of imperialism and structural racism.

Statues are a type of political performance art. In the modern, literate, world their goal has never actually been to remember the past.  That is what we have historians, books and document archives for.  Rather, they function as political symbols to rally those of us living in the present around a specific vision of what the future should be. Simply put, as a unifying icon Bruce Lee might be able to succeed where other symbols have failed.

While this is clearly a tongue in cheek proposal, Bao Nguyen’s recent documentary on Lee seems to provide some support for my position.  I might even go further. While ostensibly a biographical discussion of the Bruce Lee the man, what this two-hour film actually provided was a visual monument to a set of shared myths, stabilized in an attempt to elevate a social icon. Critics of the project (and there have been many) might note that the film turned out to be just as hagiographic, and disturbingly one sided, as many of the statues that we are now pulling down. Still, this documentary, released at this moment in history, might also give us a chance to reevaluate how it is that individuals end up on pedestals, and the functions that we ask them to serve.  When the myths in question swirl around a famous martial artist, it is a topic that deserves some thought.


The restaged Bruce Lee exhibit at the Win Lake Museum. Source:


A Quick Review

Today Bruce Lee is the most biographically studied, and best understood, martial artist ever. That was not always the case. While he still lived the only generally available information on Lee was the promotional material produced by the various TV programs and film studios, along with some scattered writings and interviews in the pages of Black Belt magazine. This material, much of which was essentially advertising copy, was supplemented by biographical material provided by his wife and associates in the years after his death. Then, at regular intervals, a small army of researchers added to the pile of known facts and (mostly) credible accounts.

At this point so much work has been done that it is very difficult to imagine any new troves of documents will be discovered or important interviews collected. While future writers will continue to evaluate and recast this material (perhaps deciding which accounts should be granted the most credibility), the canon of basic research materials has now been assembled. Anyone wanting to know about Bruce Lee’s development as a martial artist must read Charlie Russo’s important historical study Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of the Martial Arts in America. Likewise, those interested in his films, or a highly detailed (warts and all) biography, must acquire a copy of Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life.  If you haven’t read either of these books, and you are interested in Lee, stop what you are doing and do so now.

Still, one has to wonder what impact actual historical research can have in the face of much-loved myths that have now been in circulation for decades? Myths persist because they have some sort of personal or political meaning for us, whereas pure historical facts do not. While the churn of history can be fairly chaotic, our myths embody a certain moral logic. Simply put, myths are socially useful in ways that real life rarely is. Nowhere is this more clear than in the stories we tell about martial artists. And when large communities embrace a myth it is often important that we as scholars seek to understand why.

On my first viewing of Be Water, I was struck by how little impact any of the recent scholarship seems to have had on Bao Nguyen’s final narrative.  So much has been learned about the evolution of Lee’s film career and martial arts in the last few years, yet this was a documentary that could have been produced decades ago.

Rather than stepping into the world of Polly and Russo, or even examining Lee’s continuing impact on current martial artists, athletes or musicians, viewers were transported back to the heady days of the 1990s when it was still possible to walk up to a newsstand and find Lee’s bloodied face staring back at you from no fewer than three different magazine covers.  The production seemed strange in that practically every interview, every photograph, every account covered well tread ground.  No sooner would a segment begin than anyone with even a passing interest in Lee’s life would know exactly how it was going to end. After the jarring (and in the opinion of many writers racist) vision of Lee presented in Tarantino’s Once Upon in Hollywood, perhaps audiences were meant to find this exercise in nostalgia comforting? Yet it is uncanny to watch a new production and be gripped with the feeling that you have seen it all before.

This is not to say that there was nothing surprising about Be Water.  On my second viewing of the documentary I sat down with a notebook and made a list of all of the themes or topics that various segments touched on. The elements on the list felt expected, they were the sorts of things that needed to be there. More interesting was what was missing.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is ostensibly about sports history, but this documentary was almost devoid of any substantive discussion of Lee’s career, training, or innovations as a martial artist.  We learned a few bare facts about his practice in Hong Kong, as well as his early efforts at opening two kung fu clubs in Seattle. After that the trail goes cold. Linda mentions his one-time dream of starting a string of martial arts schools.  There is some grainy 8mm footage of him doing private lessons with celebrities while living in LA.

Yet very quickly any discussion of Lee’s physical practice of the martial arts is sublimated into an account of the difficulties that he faced in getting Hollywood to put his ideas on film. Lee’s struggle to convince a generation of martial arts students to create a new type of athletic physicality to support their practice was ignored as the narration turned instead to Lee’s attempt to become a different type of Asian leading man on film. In reality these subjects cannot be separated. The highly muscled physique which had such an impact on his fans did not appear by magic.  But where did it come from? What trends was Lee responding to, and attempting to embody, in his personal training? How did he understand himself as a martial artist, an athlete or a physical being?  Those questions were never really addressed.

Other critical topics in Lee’s martial arts development were passed over all together.  James Yimm Lee and the Oakland years were almost totally omitted, which means that we never hear about Bruce Lee’s experiments in body building or his growing dissatisfaction with his Wing Chun training, the central catalyst for the creation of Jeet Kune Do. Wong Jack Man makes no appearances in this version of Lee’s life, and hence audiences are not asked to carefully consider how frequently Lee fought or tested his ideas in a practical sense.  Nor is any consideration given to Lee’s repeated clashes with certain elements of the martial arts establishment.

This is not to say that the image of Lee wasn’t presented in a political or socially meaningful way. Lee’s life was largely explored in terms of racial struggle. His challenges and triumphs are put forward as the quintessential immigrant story, and a lens through which to understand America’s contentious racial politics in the 1950s through the 1970s. This discussion allowed Lee to be understood as primarily a progressive figure within the tapestry of American political struggle.

This is all true and if Lee did nothing else, he would have earned his statue.  There is a reason why so many Black and Hispanic youth were drawn to his films, and then found a sense of liberation in the training hall. Still, in the West martial artists have always struggled to be taken seriously. It is just too easy to wonder about individuals who devote themselves to something as seemingly trivial and strange as Kung Fu.  One wonders whether this documentary, in an attempt to elevate Lee, did not also fall into the trap of minimizing the impact of martial arts on his life in favor of staying focused on his “respectable” career in TV and film. After all, what more authentic expression of the American dream can there be than the struggle for wealth and fame?

Matthew Polly, on the other hand, might argue that this is exactly where we should place our attention, as it was where Lee focused his own energy and dreams. Given Lee’s extensive acting career in both the first and last decades of his life, Polly has argued that he is best understood as a film star who had a passing interest in the martial arts during his difficult middle years. Neither Charles Russo or myself are entirely sure about this characterization of Lee’s personality as it seems to discount just how important the Seattle and Oakland years were to his development as a person. Still, for those most interested in Lee’s Hollywood ambitions Polly provides a treasure trove of new data, none of which appears in Be Water.

Even this aspect of Lee’s career is reduced to a collection of old chestnuts which most fans can recite from heart. This is perhaps most obvious in the discussion of the Kung Fu TV series and Lee’s supposed loss of the part to David Carradine. Polly’s detailed account of this episode complicates the assumed relationship between the hit show and Lee’s initial ideas for The Warrior.

The substitution of familiar myths for actual biography was a problem throughout Be Water. While alluding to the fast lives of movie stars in the 1970s, the documentary makes no mention of Lee’s frequent drug use or his marital infidelities. The documentary quotes Lee’s philosophical writings at length without acknowledging that those taken from his college papers were sometimes plagiarized, while other lines in his personal notebooks (never meant for publication) are often unattributed, or slightly modified, quotes.  We are told in flat tones that Lee “got in trouble” while a child in Hong Kong, but we never learn the violent details of what he did to get himself thrown out of one of the best schools in the city.

The end result is a picture of Lee that is both strangely flat and 20 years out of date. A casual viewer of this documentary would have little idea of the contributions or controversies Lee bequeathed the global martial arts community at the time of passing. That is very odd given that this documentary occurred as part of an ESPN series ostensibly focused on the history of athletics. Worst of all, viewers are left with few clues as to the cultural, literary and physical resources that Lee turned to as he engaged in an epic struggle for self-creation during a time of unprecedented social upheaval.  This was an exploration of Lee as a myth, not a person.


Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.


Walk On

Nevertheless, it might still be the case that Bao Nguyen has given us the perfect myth for the current moment in history. At a time when political leaders are seeking to exploit racial divisions within the American landscape, and legal means of immigration have been brought to a virtual halt, it is hard to ignore the political subtexts in any retelling of Bruce Lee’s life.  At a time of increased political tension and generalized mistrust between China and the West, it is tempting to see Lee as a figure capable of bridging the even growing cultural and political gap. Perhaps “Bruce Lee, the first Asian American Superstar” is useful to a degree that “Bruce Lee, innovative martial arts teacher” is not?

Still an honest accounting of Lee’s political legacy would have to confront both his martial practice and that of his many followers. It is easy to forget that nunchucks were made illegal in many parts of the United States during the 1970s precisely because of the discomfort that the martial arts craze among non-white students caused local political leaders. Alternatively, the “Be Water” inspired demonstrations among Hong Kong’s protesters makes liberal use of Lee’s image and tactics, much to the consternation of the government and security forces. If we have learned anything about Lee in the last decade it is that it is not possible to understand his films, cross-cultural appeal or career as a martial arts practitioner in isolation.

It is impossible to examine every aspect of a legacy or life in two hours.  Choices must be made. I am sure some really interesting stuff was left of the cutting room floor. But it is worth considering what was systematically excluded from this project to create a subject worthy of being placed on a pedestal here and now. Perhaps that means that each generation is destined to get the version of the Little Dragon that they deserve?

Yet that is also a problem.  A vision of Lee that is entirely plastic, totally capable of being remolded to meet the social or political demands of the day, misses some of Lee’s most important and most human lessons. Lee’s short life illustrated that people are capable of immense feats of self-creation.  Yes, sometimes we conform ourselves to the situations we inherit, but in others we cut a channel through the rock or smash onto the shoreline. Martial artists today are once again faced with a challenging social environment, and they must discover new ways of using their tools to shape it and find a place in it. Lee is a worthy role model in that sense as well. We only see iconic statues in their moment of triumphant.  More helpful to individuals are portraits of real people who have struggled.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America