I’m too young to remember anything about Bruce Lee during his short 33 years of life. However, with his 70th birthday this year, media has come back again to revisit the life and death of this global icon once again. I’m a fan of him, not a crazy one that collect his memorabilia all over the world or going to learn kung fu after watching his movies, but I do appreciate his success as a person for what he was able to accomplish in his lifetime. It is undisputable that he is really an unprecedented figure that has both substance and credential to become a very unique global icon since his death in 1973. However, just playing as a devil’s advocate, I would like to share about my feeling about who he is (based on public records available) and what the media/world views about him.
Is Bruce Lee really a true Chinese hero?
Chinese media all these years loves to proclaim that Bruce Lee is a Chinese hero, who stood up for fellow countrymen against foreigners and telling them that Chinese is not the ‘Sick man of the Orient’. Well….. I don’t think that is really the case.
Firstly about the ‘Chinese’ part, few Chinese media would point out that Bruce Lee is not ‘pure’ Chinese in blood. His mom is a Eurasian of half Chinese, half German. So, Bruce Lee is actually ¾ Chinese, and ¼ German. He was born in San Francisco while his dad, a stage artist, was performing there on tour. His mom travelled along and gave birth to young Bruce in the hospital there on Jackson Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. So, he is a natural born U.S. citizen of Chinese decent. Certainly, he was also a legal resident of Hong Kong, a British colony then. As such, I don’t see how much more (if not less) Chinese he was compared with many other Hong Kong residents at that time.
In terms of being a ‘hero’, before he went to the States for college, he was an average student with poor discipline. Namely, he got in fight with others in many occasions. He was also an actor on silver screen, mostly in drama movies. He was very into martial arts and learnt dancing as well. So, he was actually very ‘normal’ teenager and had done nothing heroic at that time. During his time in the States, he became a college student, practiced and even taught martial arts to anyone willing to learn and pay. He then became an actor, fighting his way into the Caucasian Hollywood establishment, and finally got a part on Green Hornet. In spite of the mask that partially hidden his Asian identity, his role of Kato shined in that short-lived TV series. He showed his martial art skill in the Long Beach Karate Competition in California, though he didn’t compete in that tournament himself. His impressive skills later attracted Hollywood stars to become his students. He married a Caucasian girl and had 2 kids. He wrote a book that portrait his martial art practice as well as his created martial art philosophy – Jeet Kune Do. He had fought his way on his personal career path, becoming an ambassador of Chinese martial arts. His willingness to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese stirred up criticisms among traditional Chinese Kung Fu masters. However, he was later highly regarded as a bridge of marital art culture between the East and the West. All of the above definitely qualified him as a successful person in more than one aspect. But, what he did was still nothing really heroic from my point of view.
After he went back to Hong Kong, he became a real martial art superstar on screen. Breaking down the traditional image and mold of old martial art stereotypes in movies and did 3 ½ movies before his tragic and mystery death at the age of mere 33. He did portrait some heroic characters in his movies. However, perhaps he is a very good martial art practitioner in real life, many people and the media kinda mix up with the roles in his movies with the real person himself. His early and sudden death escalated his status and magnified his imagery in the public consciousness to an unprecedented level. The combination of his experience, background and success are so unique that it had been failed to be replicated all these years since his death. His iconic and legendary status and the mix-up of his movie characters with his real self have been further solidified rather than diluted across the globe as time goes by. Besides the commercial factor, the most important reason why he is regarded as a Chinese hero is that most Chinese people really want him to be a Chinese hero.
There are plenty of heroic figures throughout the long Chinese history. Nevertheless, besides being recorded in texts, sculptures, or on painting, their heroic stories are seemed to be too remote for modern day Chinese to relate to. In these days and age, people are more prone to modern media, i.e. audio and visual for information. Other Chinese famous figures in relatively modern times who might have done heroic acts, do also came with more controversial political background and other debatable elements for what they have else accomplished or associated with. Therefore, it was actually really hard to come up with heroes that are widely agreeable and accepted among most Chinese. But, Chinese people who are no different from most other ethnic groups do love to have heroes of their own to be looked up to. Somehow, Bruce Lee fits the bill. He was a handsome, strong and charismatic young man. What he did on screen was very direct, simple and matches our natural instinct: just physically beat the shit of the bad guys. There were no complicate, difficult to understand, political sensitive motive behind his motives. His short life also indirectly stopped him from doing anything in real life that might contradict his image.
Bruce Lee’s legacy was captured by media and became easier access for millions. We can find thousands of his clips on YouTube and hundreds of websites dedicated to him. Also, with CG technology is getting better and better, artists use his image to create imaginary clips of what Bruce Lee can do but never actually did. His early death at his physical prime was able to leave him that forever young and fierce image in our mind.
I think that Bruce Lee’s public image will live on for foreseeable future, definitely way pass our lifetime.