Return of the dragon

Barry C Chung

Decades after his death, Bruce Lee and his message remain as relevant as ever

Barry C Chung |

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Back in the 1970s and 80s, many Chinese kids wanted to be just like Bruce Lee. The martial arts movie star had put kung fu on the world map - and he looked mighty cool doing it.

Decades later, Lee remains unrivalled as a cultural icon, and his legacy transcends time. Despite his tragic death aged only 33 in 1973, he is still one of the most readily recognisable Chinese men on the planet. Lee's films have a strong nationalistic current running through them. They feature Chinese underdogs who refuse to give in to superior force.

Yet despite the enduring popularity of his films, few people know about Lee's views on martial arts.

More than just a perfect fighting machine, he was a deep thinker who sought to apply spiritual insights to his training methods. He took centuries-old martial art systems and reinvented them with his own improvements.

As a troubled teen growing up in Hong Kong, Lee had an aggressive streak, which often landed him in trouble. In order to channel his energy into a more controlled form, he decided to learn wing chun, a type of kung fu that traces its origins to an abbess of the famous Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty.

In wing chun, punches are delivered in short, rapid-fire bursts directed straight at an opponent. By overpowering an opponent's central defences, you prevent him from striking straight back at you. He can only attack you from either side, not directly in the middle.

A famous wing chun technique is the so-called "inch punch", which allows a practitioner to deliver a crushing blow from within a very short distance between fist and target. The most skilled fighters can deliver a surprise punch with a lightning-fast thrust of an almost straight arm.

Once he had mastered all the techniques of the old system, Lee sought to incorporate other fighting techniques into what would become his own unique style - a hybrid system he called jeet kun do, or "way of the intercepting fist".

Many experts consider Lee's jeet kun do as the basis for modern mixed martial arts. In his new fighting style, Lee wanted to break down the strict boundaries of traditional martial art systems. He sought to fuse their best features into a whole new system by keeping what he saw as the most effective techniques from the various traditions, and ignoring the rest. Lee's mix-and-match approach enabled him to fit various moves into his unique new fighting style.

In many ways, he pioneered a bold move to modernise and democratise ancient martial arts. Back then, most Chinese masters of kung fu, or sifus, refused to teach the art to foreigners. Only ethnic Chinese students were allowed to learn from them. The sifus thought teaching foreigners would hurt the integrity of old traditions.

But Lee disagreed. He thought the ancient Chinese art form should benefit everyone who wanted to learn it. He recruited students from all races and walks of life.

He stressed that Chinese martial arts should and would earn a global following. Lee proved to be a true prophet. Martial arts are more popular than ever - as is Bruce Lee himself, almost four decades after his untimely death.

Lee would have turned 70 this year. A biopic, Bruce Lee, My Brother, made by his older brother Robert and starring up-and-coming star Aarif Lee, is sure to foster a revival of Lee mania in his hometown.

Bruce Lee, My Brother opens on Thursday