Who taught Bruce Lee kung fu? He was born to be a fighter, but the martial arts superstar also trained with the best
Despite coming from a relatively affluent family, Lee started to run with street gangs in Hong Kong when he was 12 and would never back away from a fight. It was through a gang member that he found Ip Man’s wing chun classes
In a special series commemorating the 45th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death on July 20, 1973, we aim to set the facts straight – as well as exploring some little known trivia – about the life of the martial arts legend.
Bruce Lee didn’t enter the world magical kung fu powers – he had to study and learn martial arts, specifically under the school of wing chun, just like anyone else.
However, according to his former wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee was a born fighter who liked to pick fights as a teenager. Despite being from a relatively affluent family – his father Lee Hoi-chuen was a Cantonese opera star who appeared in films and also rented out property – he started to run with street gangs in Hong Kong’s Kowloon area when he was 12.
By the time he was 15, Lee was a ringleader who, his brother Robert said, would never back down from a challenge. “You never had to ask Bruce twice to fight,” Robert recalled. Lee confirmed this in an interview with Blackbelt magazine in 1967: “I was a punk and I went looking for fights,” he said. “We used chains and pens with knives hidden in them.”
Lee reportedly preferred to use his fists in fights, which were often the result of trying to outstare other gang members, Cadwell says. He and his friends would also go “Limey bashing” – that is, picking fights with expatriate British schoolboys who they felt were overly privileged.
Lee’s aggressive behaviour led to him being expelled from La Salle College in 1956, and he was sent to St Francis Xavier’s College, which was a tougher institution.
According to Cadwell, Lee decided to learn martial arts because he was being bullied himself, although it has also been reported that he wanted to learn some new techniques to gain an edge in street fights. Lee himself says he took up kung fu when he started to feel “insecure”.
Lee found a sifu, or master, through a street-gang member called William Cheung, who took him to a wing chun school run by Ip Man, who had begun teaching the style in Hong Kong around 1950.
Although Lee studied wing chun at Ip’s school, he was mainly taught by Wong Shun-leung, as Ip himself only taught advanced students, not beginners. Lee quickly became devoted to wing chun and practised diligently.
According to Mathew Polly’s informative biography Bruce Lee: A Life , Ip encouraged his students to pick fights on the streets to improve their skills.
But he also taught his students the philosophical foundations of kung fu, and told them about Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Lee’s oft quoted line “be water” comes from a concept taught to him by Ip.
Ip’s philosophical ideas were an important influence on Lee’s Jeet Kune Do way of fighting later in his life. “My instructor would say, relax, calm your mind, forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement,” Lee said.
“Let your mind be the basic reality, do the counter movement without any deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment … Remember never to assert yourself against nature, never go in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.”
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