Bruce Lee, an everyman hero for the globalised age
According to a new biography, the Chinese icon also had English and Dutch-Jewish blood, and as an action star admired the whole world over he would have felt at home today
You may be surprised that Bruce Lee had English and Dutch-Jewish blood in him. I was.
That’s according to a review in The New York Times, citing a new biography of Hong Kong’s greatest kung fu star, by Matthew Polly.
But that makes sense. Though he was claimed by Chinese everywhere and Hongkongers in particular as one of their greatest sons, the many personal characteristics, whether from nature or nurture, that came to define Lee weren’t especially Chinese.
Certainly, many Chinese throughout the ages have had attributes such as aggressiveness, humour, individualism, disregard for authorities and traditions, arrogance, and a thirst for fame. But those were not usually advertised as Chinese virtues or values.
When he was once mowing the front lawn of his luxury mansion in the United States, a white guy asked how much he charged for the service. Lee replied that he was doing it for free, but added that after he was done, he was taking the lady inside the house to bed.
Such alpha-male humour was more typical of a Chinese American anger at the implicit racism in the question than of a traditional Chinese.
One of his most iconic fight scenes had him single-handedly beating up dozens of Japanese black belts. The cinematic feat would not be repeated until The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, used a katana to chop up a comparable number of Japanese fighters in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
In his films, Lee routinely beat up Japanese and Western villains. That played into the fantasy of many Chinese of besting foreigners at a time when they suffered a deep-seated cultural inferiority complex.
But Lee was neither a nationalist nor a racist. His Jeet Kune Do, or the Way of the Intercepting Fist, incorporated lessons he learned from the Okinawan, Korean, Japanese, and Western boxing and fencing traditions.
Wing chun, the style of kung fu he paid most tribute to, was developed for women, according to Chinese folklore. He was a champion dancer of the lindy hop and cha-cha.
When he was in college, he studied Hegel. After he became famous, he often explained his style of fighting like some kind of Zen philosophy. We Chinese saw Lee as one of us, but many foreigners embraced him as one of them.
Lee was a cultural mutt ahead of his time. He would have been perfectly at home in today’s globalised world, with all its cross-cultural conflicts but also multicultural tolerance and mutual copying.