The Forgotten Pioneer
It must have been ten years ago that I noticed the change, there were people that were now coming for Wing Chun lessons who had never heard of Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was the most famous student of Wing Chun, indeed it was he who put Wing Chun on the map. Being a pioneer he took the best of his first style, tested it found the gaps that any system has and developed it into something new.
Almost every boy growing up in the seventies had a poster of Bruce Lee on their bedroom wall. If you were old enough, or looked old enough to get into the cinema then you went to see his films and for some of us once you had seen a Bruce Lee film the world was never going to be the same again!
The Film Star
Bruce Lee in his short film career made four films before his tragic death in 1973. These four films were to create an explosion of interest in the martial arts that lifted them from an obscure foreign practice into being a part of main stream western culture that they are today.
The message in those four films that every teenager understood was that armed with this art form developed by wise monks, the little guy could beat the crap out of the big guys and look really good doing it!
The Bruce Lee films that he completed in his lifetime were, The Big Boss, Fists Of Fury, Enter The Dragon and Way Of The Dragon.
My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.
~ Bruce Lee
Behind the dramatic action of these films, were fight scenes were lifted to a whole new level, was a more subtle message. Little wise sayings, particularly in Enter The Dragon, hinted at the huge wisdom hidden in the martial arts. Bruce Lee studied philosophy at university in America for three years and was as passionate about this side of martial arts as he was about the fighting. Bruce Lee triggered a flood of new martial arts students and for a few he triggered a life long interest in philosophy, which means love of wisdom.
The Non Traditionalist
There has never been, in the martial arts before or after, anyone with the clarity and courage to see through challenge and question the traditional views. Bruce Lee was forever looking for new and better ways to improve his martial skills, he borrowed from boxing and experimented with protective equipment from base ball to allow for more realistic full contact sparring. The philosopher that influenced him the most was, I believe, Jiddu Krishnamurti who was himself a person who rejected tradition and found his own path.
Occasionally there are people who are just born with physical gifts that are just way above what is normal, Bruce Lee was such a person. I asked a person who had seen him give a demonstration was he really that good? We had never before seen and will never again see anyone who can move that fast, was the answer to my question!
Bruce Lee was a perfectionist who trained like fury, his nick name as a child translates as Never Sits Still and that extra energy was channelled into his work outs. It does seem that he was born with the gift of being a natural athlete.
In mainland China Bruce Lee was seen more as a martial arts movie star rather than a martial arts master. We know that Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are not cowboys, they are however gifted in portraying the essence and glamour of the cowboy legend.
Born into an acting family the young Bruce Lee had a passion for acting, by the time that he was a young man he had appeared in about twenty films. Success is being in the right place at the right time, some of Bruce Lees students were Hollywood film stars, reading his philosophy this can’t have been a lucky coincidence!
His incredible screen presence and the raw energy in his fight scenes marked his films in a class of their own, way ahead of the standard kung fu films with there stilted unrealistic moves.
Athlete, actor, philosopher, a man with incredible insight and determination, Bruce Lee became an embodiment of the fury of the Chinese people of Hong Kong suppressed by the Japanese and the British. He exploded onto the silver screen, a superhuman figure expressing an ancient art in a new and original way and changed the image of the Chinese as the sick men of Asia forever. The sleeping dragon that had been China was waking up and Bruce Lee was its first roar.
He took the serene, wise, but a bit too quiet and boring monk played by David Carradine in the TV series Kung Fu, cloaked it in animal magnetism and showed that a philosopher could seriously kick ass with incredible style.
Before Bruce Lee there was a bit of judo after him there was pop songs and every body was kung fu fighting!
Karate, very much a minority activity received a huge boost that the Japanese teachers did not ever admit. My former karate instructor Henry Reeves has said that each new Bruce Lee film caused an enormous boost in his class numbers and in other karate clubs across the country. Henry said he died in seventy three, the films stopped coming and by seventy six it was all over. Yes the kung fu craze was over but the seeds were planted and for some of us it was just the start.
Serving food late at night to members of the public became less risky for Chinese takeaways. Even to a drunk, especially a drunk swaying against the counter that guy behind the counter looks like that Bruce Lee fella, could it be a cousin?
Martial arts today do a huge service to our young people in vast numbers all over the western world. In this modern world of health and safety the rough and tumble of the judo mat or learning to hold your own sparring in karate can be character building for a child. I am old enough to remember people saying that they should bring back National Service to give young people some military discipline. Standing in a row and drilling moves in a karate class over and over again is as near to the parade ground as most of today’s youngsters are likely to get or as close as you would want your child to get.
I am not saying bring back the cane but now that things have gone to the other extreme and teachers are hit by pupils in classes that are out of control. It’s funny that the one subject, martial arts, where the teacher can hit students, in a controlled way of course, have excellent discipline!
Part of the mystic of this super fit hero was his sudden death. Samuel Kwok told me that he was in Hong Kong on that day and the papers were immediately full of wild stories and speculation. That final unnerving twist in the incredible tale of one of those few people who makes the world a more enlightened place leaves us all to wonder. The all too rare man who is always questioning and looking to improve things, both physically and mentally gifted, is only mortal after all with a brief existence like all of us.
The good die young and when our icons die so suddenly they reflect back to us our fragility. A young American president a glamorous princess a martial arts movie legend, the unfinished stories.
It’s thirty years this year since Bruce Lee died. We now have recent films about his teacher Yip Man that have high lighted his first style Wing Chun. As Bruce Lee himself said “my style is no style”, he was more than any style, his Legacy is vast yet different for every one.