The Cult of Bruce Lee

18 Feb

In the martial arts, there is nothing more “sacred” than Bruce Lee. There is no way to objectively discuss him, every conversation that is anything but blind praise sets the internet on fire. Yet, as part of the Truth project, here I go again!

First, for everyone whose knee jerk reaction to any discussion of Bruce Lee is to respond “he made the martial arts popular”; while it may be true, it isn’t that simple either. Bruce Lee was of course a man trying to promote himself and build an acting career. He wasn’t above playing to biases and misconceptions. Some of the biggest misconceptions about the martial arts originate with Lee, his writings and his movies.

Bruce Lee quotes and memes flood the internet. He is, pardon me in this, credited as a deep thinker. The reality is Lee was a philosophy major. He was exposed to a lot of thought that certainly effected him, but wasn’t necessarily his own! Lee took famous Buddhist teachings, such as “At First, I Saw Mountains As Mountains And Rivers As Rivers” and paraphrased them to make his points about his view on martial arts. While other people’s ignorance, especially his family posting his personal notes without annotation after his death, isn’t directly Lee’s responsibility, it is still true that 50 years after his death people still are being corrected on the origins of much of his so called “thought”.

Just as much of “Bruce Lee thought” is not actually his own, much of his technical material also has other sources. As stated, Lee is not responsible for his family publishing his personal notes without annotation after his death, but the clear result was many were not credited. “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, the title itself absurd and demonstrating a complete lack of basic understanding of both martial arts and Chinese language, initially failed to credit boxer Edwin Haislet and fencer James Castello as sources of both illustrations and text. At my last review, it still doesn’t credit the French Savate book that Lee also copied, nor the illustrations taken from both a Judo text and Gene LeBell’s grappling book.


Of course, if you really want to see violent reactions on the internet, ask questions about Bruce Lee’s actual, personal martial arts skills? I don’t know, and honestly I am not making a claim one way or the other. However, it would be naive to not recognize that certain people owe their fame, the success of their schools and the success of their seminars to the fact they were associated with Lee. It is not unreasonable to suggest that these people are NOT the most unbiased, reliable source. “Bruce Lee was just a man, he was a good martial artist, but nothing special, now pay me $350 for my Bruce Lee seminar“….

Was Bruce Lee really the god of martial arts some of his fans make him out to be? He was, truth be told, famous for being a movie star, not a martial artist, not a “fighter”. Did he drop his hands because in film, you want to see the star’s face? Perhaps? But we certainly have a lot of footage of him training with bad form, hands down. Is it “blasphemy” to discuss this? I wasn’t even aware there was a church of Bruce Lee ™?

From an objective viewpoint, the video we have of Lee hitting a bag at his house is full of technical errors. To be clear, it wouldn’t even merit discussion if it were not constantly displayed as evidence of Lee’s skill (?). The justifications presented when the technical mistakes are brought up borders on the absurd. Isn’t it fair to just ask, WHY? Why must people present Bruce Lee is the Jesus of the martial arts world?

Was Bruce Lee a “fighter”? Not at all in any conventional sense. He made his living making films, and teaching martial arts privately. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, except that certain fans must make it out differently. We are frequently told that Lee lectured on the deficiencies of traditional martial arts and was challenged by someone who did Karate. Lee beat the man. Is it wrong to point out; we don’t know who this man was, we don’t know how much training he really had, we don’t know if he had any skill at all. There is a big difference between “Bruce Lee vs the 5th Dan Karate master” and “Bruce Lee vs the guy who took six months lessons at the YMCA”, is there not?

Bruce Lee engaged in an amateur boxing tournament while in Hong Kong. We certainly know boxing influenced Lee. But the tournament is often offered as yet again evidence of fighting skill? Again, we don’t know very much about this event, so it doesn’t really tell us all that much. I will say, Golden Gloves tournaments are organized in many cities in the US, but winning them in certain cities like NY, Chicago and Detroit mean a lot more than winning them in other cities. Which is to suggest that we not put too much weight on a small event held in Hong Kong that we have no footage of nor know much about.

Where we do have footage, the oft cited “rooftop fights” we have learned that legends grow in time often out of proportion with reality.

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