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Bruce Lee in a scene from The Way of the Dragon (1972). The martial arts legend would have turned 80 years old on Friday. Photo: Criterion Collection

Bruce Lee at 80: the martial arts legend and his legacy jeet kune do, the unique way of fighting he developed

  • The martial arts superstar, who would have turned 80 on Friday, refused to stick to one fighting technique as was the norm, and looked to mix styles
  • Lee developed a mix called jeet kune do, and wanted its practitioners to continually adapt their fighting style – an idea summed up in his ‘be water’ philosophy
Bruce Lee

The best-known legacy of Bruce Lee, who would have turned 80 this Friday is of course his movies. But the martial arts legend also developed a unique way of fighting called jeet kune do, a Cantonese term which translates as something like “the way of the stopping fist” or more poetically, “the way of the intercepting fist.”

There are many distinct styles of fighting in kung fu – hung gar, wing chun, and tai chi to name a few of the more famous ones. But the best starting point for understanding jeet kune do is realising that Lee never wanted it to be a style.

Lee’s intention was quite the opposite, in fact. He developed jeet kune do because he thought that the idea of a rigid fighting style was too limiting.

Way before mixed martial arts, martial arts styles had rules and traditions that could not be broken, even if success in combat mandated otherwise.

Ip Man (left) and Lee practising wing chun.
Martial artists adhered firmly to the techniques of their chosen style, and that “system” became more important than the man, as Lee put it. Lee thought this was ridiculous, and referred to it as “the Classical Mess”.

“Jeet Kune Do favours formlessness so that it can assume all forms, and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles.

“As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilises all ways and is bound by none, and likewise, uses any techniques or means that serve its end,” Lee wrote in Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

Lee intended the jeet kune do practitioner to continually adapt his fighting technique to the needs of the moment while in combat, and for the practice of jeet kune do itself to be continually in flux – a philosophy of action encapsulated in his famous “be water” speech.
He emphasised footwork, footwork, footwork, and more footwork. He was trying to get us to be more mobile
Jerry Poteet, a former student of Bruce Lee

The martial arts legend even went as far as commissioning a miniature gravestone featuring the words “The Classical Mess” to remind himself of the problems that arise from sticking rigidly to traditional forms and styles.

Lee began to develop jeet kune do in Los Angeles in 1967. The Green Hornet, the US television show in which he played Kato, had been cancelled, and Lee had opened the Jun Fan Gung Institute in Los Angeles’ Chinatown to make a living by teaching kung fu.

According to Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life, Lee encouraged a group of friends and students from martial arts teacher Ed Parker’s school to train with him instead.

His aim was to assemble some opponents to try out his new way of fighting: “Bruce’s goal was to improve his students’ skill level to the point where they were good enough to spar with him,” Polly writes.

Lee in November, 1971. He died in July, 1973. Photo: SCMP
Jeet kune do was radically different to the kung fu of the past in the way it took techniques from many different Eastern and Western styles. Wing chun, which Lee had learned in Hong Kong from Ip Man, was one of the foundations.

Wing chun is a fist-oriented style that utilises fast punches at close range. This attack oriented-style suited Lee, as he was small, and could not absorb the blows of an opponent as a larger fighter could.

Jeet kune do practitioners were intended to block an opponent’s strike before it hit home – the “stopping fist” of the name – and wing chun provided the groundwork for this.

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“Even as my father was creating the art of Jeet Kune Do, he continued to always practice the basic Wing Chun exercise called chi sao, which translated as ‘sticking hands’,” writes Shannon Lee In her book Be Water, My Friend .

“The drill claims to cultivate lightning-quick reactions and the ability to almost read your opponents’ mind,” Shannon writes.

Lee also incorporated arnis (escrima), the traditional martial art of the Philippines which includes stick fighting, and ju-jitsu, a Japanese fighting style which uses the force of an opponent against him, into jeet kune do.

Shannon Lee, daughter of the late kung fu star Lee, stands in front of a promotional poster for Lee’s memorial exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum to mark the 40th anniversary of his death. Photo: AP

Lee, who was an admirer of heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, and often wondered if he could beat him in a fight, also took a lot from Western boxing.

Boxing is often said to be more effective in a street fight than kung fu, and there is a direct power to it, as shown in the bouts featured in the 2010 film Ip Man 2.

Lee was interested in the agile footwork of Western boxers as well as their punches, as can be seen in the fight sequences of his films, in which he rarely stops moving. “He emphasised footwork, footwork, footwork, and more footwork,” former student Jerry Poteet told Polly. “He was trying to get us to be more mobile.”

One less obvious martial art also played a big part in the development of jeet kune do – fencing. Lee’s brother Peter was an expert fencer, and Lee learned fencing from him.

Again, it was all about being one step ahead of the opponent. “From fencing, he began by looking at the footwork, range, and timing of the stop hit and the riposte, both techniques that meet attacks and defences with pre-emptive moves,” writes Shannon Lee.

Lee in action on a film set in October, 1971. Photo: SCMP

Although jeet kune do was created for fighting, as with the martial arts styles that preceded it – and in a tradition that Lee did not break with – it had a philosophical angle.

Jeet Kune Do is the enlightenment. It is a way of life, a movement towards will power and control,” Lee wrote.

Happy birthday, Bruce.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How a unique style of martial arts was born