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Martial arts superstar Jet Li before (left) and now. The kung fu action movie star is suffering from spinal problems and hyperthyroidism. Photo: Facebook

Is this the same Jet Li we all know? Martial arts legend battles illness and injuries as fans express shock

The 55-year-old action star, who starred in Lethal Weapon 4 and Expendables 2, is suffering from hyperthyroidism and spinal problems, drawing concern from netizens

Jet Li

Fans of martial arts superstar Jet Li Lianjie are praying for his health after shocking recent photos revealed the extent of his hyperthyroidism and spinal problems.

The Hollywood icon, who starred in Lethal Weapon 4Romeo Must Die and more recently Expendables 2, revealed five years ago he has been suffering from hyperthyroidism.

A recent photo of him visiting a temple in Tibet has been widely circulated with many people taken aback by Li’s frail appearance. The photo also showed he had to be assisted while he walked.

Last year, the 55-year-old Beijing-born actor spoke about his illness after a long absence from the public eye at One Foundation’s charity dinner in the Chinese capital. 

Jet Li with fellow action star, Jackie Chan in 2008. Photo: AP

The actor then said he had been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid in 2010 and although he took medication that kept his illness in check, the condition kept coming back. 

Hyperthyroidism causes changes in a person’s metabolism and heart rate and is usually treated through medication. Li says his strong belief in Buddhism as well as meditation and scripture reading help stabilise his condition.

The action star also said a few years ago that he was unable to perform stressful physical activities due to his condition. 

He revealed he had been warned by doctors in 2013 that he “would end up in a wheelchair” if he continued making physically-demanding action films. 

Jet Li poses with a wax figure of himself during a promotional event in Hong Kong in 2010. Photo: AP 

He said at the time: “I’m just a regular guy. I’m not Wong Fei-hung. I’m not Huo Yuanjia [kung fu heroes he has portrayed on film]. I’m just like you.”

The star of the breakout Chinese classic Once Upon a Time in China said he was also suffering from leg and spinal problems and that he was unable to stand straight for too long, his poor health the result of decades of demanding film roles, stunts and injuries. 

He has been making films since he burst onto the scene as a former national wushu champion while in his teens in the late 1970s.

Li suffered his first major injury at 18 when he tore his knee that required seven-and-a-half hours of surgery. He also sustained a serious back injury at 23.

Jet Li in “Fist of Legend” in 1994. Photo: Handout

Netizens were shocked by his recent appearance in Tibet after the photo made the rounds on social media, drawing many comments, mostly of concern for his well-being.

“He was so active before and now he looks like an old man”, said one Chinese netizen. 

“His kung fu is real and his films were great. Pity he’s suffering from this illness”, said another.

“I couldn’t even recognise him”, added another netizen.

One social networker said ageing was a natural process and affects everybody but Li had aged far too much having lived a tough life as an action movie star.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Jet Li battles illness as fans pray for his health