The Life of Bruce Lee – Learning From Legends

By on January 28, 2019

In my first ‘Learning From Legends’ video, I looked at the life and lessons of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had planned to cover Houdini next, but there was a huge number of requests to cover the life of Bruce Lee first – and so here we are.

Life of Bruce Lee

I’ve discussed Bruce Lee a few times on this channel. And to be honest, there is so much content out there recounting the life and biography of Bruce Lee, that I’m not sure I have a lot to contribute to that discussion. I recommend Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit for those interesting in a detailed biography, and apparently the recent Bruce Lee: A Life is also a very good read.

Instead then, I’m going to take a look at some of the highlights and most interesting points from Bruce Lee’s life. Using this information, we’ll try and deconstruct what made him the global icon he became. Not just his philosophy, his training, or his martial arts – but his decisions, actions, and demeanour. What can we learn from Bruce Lee the man?

Oh, and if you want to be involved in helping to choose the next legend to be covered in this series, then you can head over to the Patreon page where I’ll be running a poll.

The Early Life of Bruce Lee

At this point, the key points in Bruce Lee’s life are well documented. He was born in Chinatown, San Francisco on November 27th, 1940 on the hour and year of the Dragon, while his family was touring the United States. However, he moved back to Hong Kong shortly after, where he would be raised by his parents Lee Hoi-chuen and the part-European (either German or British) Grace Ho.

Early life of Bruce Lee

Lee actually began appearing in movies from a very young age, having been introduced to the industry by his Father (one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors at the time). In fact, his very first film appearance was at the age of 3 months when he was a stand-in for a baby in the film Golden Gate Girl during the family’s short time in the US. In Hong Kong, he continued appearing in around 20 different films as a child actor from 1946 onwards. During his childhood, he also enjoyed dance – going on to win a cha-cha competition – and poetry.

It’s very interesting to note Bruce’s early interests at this point, as they foreshadow and help to explain some of his subsequent accomplishments. Acting from a young age in particular would have likely helped Bruce’s confidence, outgoing nature, and charisma. Acting classes – or alternatively stand up comedy – are fantastic options for those seeking to become more dynamic and engaging, or to overcome social anxiety.

Bruce Lee poetry

Of course, there’s also a chance that his cha-cha background helped lay the foundations for his physicality, footwork, and rhythm. Dance actually has a lot in common with martial arts – requiring full control over the body, and the rote memorization of complex sequences of movements. As a poet, we see that Bruce truly was an artistic soul from a young age. His daughter Shannon, speaking of his poetry, would later describe him as the ‘consummate artist’.

Bruce’s Martial Arts Tutelage Begins

As he got older, Bruce Lee reportedly began getting into fights with local gangs – though the seriousness of these fights is debated (with some reports likely being embellished). Nevertheless, this motivated Bruce to begin training in Wing Chun Kung Fu in 1957 (making him 17), under the tutelage of the famous Ip Man.

Bruce Lee Ip Man

Reportedly, Bruce’s mixed heritage meant that other students were reluctant to train with him. At the time it was unpopular to train non-Asians in martial arts. This, combined with Lee’s obvious passion for the subject, led to rare one-to-one training from Yip Man. Bruce was also coached in boxing at his primary school by Brother Edward, and would go on to win the school tournament.

At various other undefined points in his life, Bruce Lee also had other forms of martial arts training. Danny Inosanto reported that he already had experience in Wu Style Tai Chi, when he arrived in Hong Kong. Reportedly, he also had fencing training from his brother.

Bruce Lee fencing

Of particular note here, is the fact that Bruce Lee began his training at age 17 – and only trained consecutively for two years before moving to the US. This hopefully just goes to show that you don’t have to start training as a young child in order to become highly adept in any physical regimen. It’s never too late to be what you always wanted to be!

Also interesting is the wide range of different fighting styles that Bruce Lee trained in. Throughout his lifetime, he reportedly supplemented this training with other styles including Choy Lee Fut, Hsing-I, Jujitsu, and Judo. He was constantly learning and gaining more knowledge from different fields. It only makes sense then that Bruce’s ideas would go on to inspire Mixed Martial Arts.

Bruce Lee MMA

And it’s also refreshing to see just how Bruce avoided the temptation to become wed to a single style or set of ideas. Too often we become jealously protective over one style or another, as it becomes a part of our identity – and this doesn’t just refer to martial arts. All this accomplishes is to limit our own ideas and growth.

Many would dismiss the martial practicality of Tai Chi for instance. But it is much wiser to realize that you can learn something from everything. He would even go on to incorporate bodybuilding and other forms of physical training – as is often discussed on this channel.

“Absorb what is useful, reject what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”

Subsequent to this though, it would be Bruce’s own dedication, practice, and passion that would ultimately elevate him to the level of physical excellence he achieved. As he famously said:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

This was Bruce’s approach to everything, and he was superhumanly committed to his art.

Coming to America and Developing His Philosophy

In 1959, the decision was made to send Bruce to America to make a better life, and possibly to put an end to the brawling. At the University of Washington, Bruce Lee studied dramatic arts, psychology, and philosophy among other subjects.

Contrary to popular belief, according to a university alumni publication, Bruce’s official major was drama – not philosophy. Nevertheless, Bruce Lee was very passionate about the latter, and is only now recognized for his many philosophical writings. He was also a prolific reader, with an extensive personal library that informed many of his own ideas and musings.

One of the books that was most influential for Bruce was the Tao Te Ching – which also went on to inspire many other schools of thought including Buddhism, Confucianism, Legalism, and others. It is one of the most translated works in history.

A central concept of the Tao Te Ching and one that struck a particular chord with Bruce, is that of ‘Wu Wei’ or ‘non-action’. This is essentially spontaneity and flow – going ‘with nature’ and not overthinking. Not only would this influence Bruce’s personality (which was also very informed by the 60s), but also the development of his martial arts – which were all about reactive, instinctual movement taking the shortest and most uncomplicated route possible to the target.

This is something that truly set Bruce Lee apart as a man and as an artist. Bruce Lee used his personal philosophy to inform everything from his decisions in life, to his movements. By having guiding principles that he expressed even through his art, he was able to accomplish a kind of holistic unison through everything he did. In that way, you can argue he found a ‘life purpose’, he believed 100% in everything he did because it was all born out of his own interpretation of the best way to live.

If you haven’t given thought to your own personal philosophy, this is something that is very much worth doing. What do you believe is the purpose of existence? The best way to live? Your role in the world? And how does your work and your behavior align with that?

Around this same time, Bruce Lee would meet his future wife, Linda Lee Cadwell – also a student at the college – who he married in August 1964. They went on to have two children: Brandon and Shannon Lee in 1965 and 1969 respectively.

Life of Bruce Lee: Family

Martial Arts School

Also during this time, Bruce Lee founded his own martial arts school: Jun Fan Gung Fu, which taught his own interpretation of Wing Chun. In 1964, he dropped out of college in order to move to Oakland with James Yimm Lee, with whom he set up the second Jun Fan martial arts studio.

It was through his martial arts that Bruce would meet many of his celebrity friends. But it was through the Long Beach International Karate Championships where he would ultimately make the biggest splash. It was here that he famously demonstrated his ‘one inch punch’ and two-finger push-ups.

Bruce Lee two finger push ups

This was 1964. At this point he had been training for 7 years in numerous styles – not a long amount of time by most standards – and yet these displays of pure physicality, his charisma, his ability to package and sell ideas like these, and the speed and precision of his strikes… were enough to make him instantly unforgettable. In 1967, he returned to demonstrate his ‘unstoppable punch’ against bitter Karate champion Vic Moore.

Of course, Bruce Lee’s showmanship also ruffled some feathers. In 1964 Bruce had his infamous and controversial ‘private match’ against Wong Jack Man – a direct student of Ma Kin Fung. Bruce Lee reports that he was challenged to the match in order to settle a dispute with the Chinese community – of whether he should be teaching non-Chinese people martial arts. As a victim of discrimination himself, Bruce Lee was keen to smash cultural barriers and share his art with the world.

The match was witnessed by Linda, James Lee, and William Chen. Reports here are very hazy though, and it’s not entirely clear what happened. Ultimately though, Bruce Lee would continue to teach whoever he chose.

Birth of the Dragon

“Bruce” fighting Wong Jack Man in Birth of the Dragon

Potentially inspired by his experience, Bruce Lee began to develop his fighting style further through 1967 giving birth to the now famous Jeet Kune Do. Jeet Kune Do translates to ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist’ and teaches students to dispel with the ‘classical mess’ of traditional martial arts, to combine styles, and to ultimately focus on direct strikes, honest self-expression, and adapting to situations on the fly.

Bruce further continued to develop himself physically as well, incorporating more weight training methods, endurance training, flexibility, and more. He had this to say on the matter:

“Training is one of the most neglected phases of athletics. Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation. … JKD, ultimately is not a matter of petty techniques but of highly developed spirituality and physique.”

Again, Lee is breaking down traditions, established norms, and attempting to find deeper, core truths. He would later go on to say that he regretted introducing the name ‘Jeet Kune Do’ – as it formalized his approach into a style: an approach the core tenant of which was to do away with formalized rules and restrictions.

I am reminded here of the saying “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” In other words: Bruce Lee did not see his way as the ‘one true way’, but rather felt that there was no such thing.

It is very clear once more, to see how this fighting style was an expression of Bruce’s philosophy, and of the man’s core being.

Of course, I’m also a big fan of Bruce’s decision to incorporate physical training into his martial arts – and to experiment with entirely new strategies in that domain too. In my video on Bruce Lee’s training I likened him to Goku. He wasn’t just interested in performing set routines, he wanted to find exciting new ways to push the limits of human performance.

Superstardom

Bruce Lee got his first big break in his acting career as Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet, following the 1964 exhibition, which was seen by television producer William Dozier. He went on to appear as a guest on several other TV shows.

Bruce was later advised by producer Fred Wintraub to return to Hong Kong in order to create a feature film that he could use as a showcase for US decision makers. Fortunately, The Green Hornet was already successful in Hong Kong, where it was actually known as “The Kato Show”.

Bruce Lee Life and Success

Lee’s first movie was The Big Boss in 1971, which was a huge success across Asia. This was followed by First of Fury (1972) which broke box office records, and Way of the Dragon (1972) over which Lee was given complete creative control. This film also served as Chuck Norris’ big break. Immediately following these successes, Bruce went on to begin filming his intended magnum opus: Game of Death. Bruce Lee had become known not only for his screen presence and visceral fight scenes, but also for lacing his philosophies into the script. In Game of Death, Bruce Lee would fight using a free and flowing style that would allow him to adapt to each opponent and neutralize them. Even his weapons – nunchaku and a green bamboo whip-  would be expressions of this concept.

However, production was paused while he travelled back to the US to star in Enter the Dragon – the film that finally made him a superstar in the US – though not before his untimely death on July 20th, 1973.

Bruce’s success can be attributed to many things. As we saw with Arnie in the previous video, Bruce was a man who did not just talk about his goals but would simply get to work enacting his plans. He did not wait for years before he set up his martial arts school. Nor did he wait to be ‘noticed’ in Hollywood, and instead opted to take matters into his own hands. If you have something you want to achieve, you must not wait and hope – and certainly don’t procrastinate or make excuses. The sooner you start working toward that goal, the more contacts, experience, and notoriety you will gain.

Bruce was truly a Polymath, as a philosopher, an author, a martial artist, an actor, a director, and more. His passion for his craft ensured he had the energy to pursue every facet of these interests.

Also, like Arnie he knew how to promote himself. Creating elaborate moves that would be memorable, and speaking in quotable soundbites. Self-promotion is something we are often taught to shy away from, but if you want to be successful, it is an invaluable tool in your arsenal.

And of course, there was his dedication. Bruce augmented natural skill with self-discipline and endless hours of practice, honing himself into a force to be reckoned with. If you are skilled enough, or if you truly stand out, and you put yourself out there – then it is just a matter of time until you are seen by the right people. Make your own luck.

Death

Bruce died following cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) possibly triggered by – or exacerbated by – a common painkiller. The circumstances surrounding his death are controversial. Many rumors and theories speculated that Bruce’s death was some kind of cover-up, vendetta, or even deception. It is possible that Bruce Lee was also using cannabis at the time, which he was known to do.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter suggests that Bruce’s ‘exceptionally strong drive and ambition’ likely played a part – the implication being that he may have worked himself to death. Author Matthew Polly speculates that the edema may have been triggered by a combination of over-exertion and heat stroke – especially as Bruce Lee had recently had the sweat glands removed from his armpits in 1972 for aesthetic purposes on film.

While dedication and commitment to a goal are truly admirable traits, it is also important always to know your limit.

Bruce Lee: Legend

What’s important to remember here then, is that Bruce Lee was also just a man. He was not perfect, and neither are any of the icons that I’ll be discussing in this series. Many were quick to point out Arnie’s bad behavior in my last video, but it is only right that we do the same for Bruce Lee. He himself would not want it any other way. Our job is to take the positive from these life stories and not to hold anyone on a pedestal.

Legacy and Myth

As with many stars who die young, and as with many disruptors who challenge the status quo, Bruce Lee quickly went on to attain cult status as a global icon. He is revered by many as one of the greatest martial artists ever to have lived, he is credited with popularizing martial arts in the West, and with smashing Asian stereotypes in Hollywood.

Bruce Lee Legend or Myth

But there are critics who say the opposite. Many commenters on my channel are keen to dismiss Bruce as ‘just an actor’. Several have stated that Bruce Lee ‘wouldn’t stand a chance against a modern MMA fighter’.

Whether the latter statement is true is up for debate of course. But there is absolutely no denying Bruce Lee’s talent or power. If you know anything about martial arts, then you only have to witness one of his kicks to know that he was supremely skilled, and incredibly fast and powerful.

Footage of Bruce sparring with a student has also recently emerged online (wonderfully restored over at Beardy’s YouTube channel), and while it isn’t a flawless performance, it definitely demonstrates the principles Bruce preached in highly effective action in an un-staged arena.

Bruce Lee Physique

Likewise, there is no denying that his physique was one of the most striking of the time – another testament to his will and dedication. And performing three finger push-ups is no mean feat.

There are many rumors regarding Bruce’s strength. Danny Inosanto, Joe Lewis, and Jesse Glover describe Bruce being able to lift barbells of 70-125lbs and hold them out in front of him with straight arms. It has been said that he could puncture a can of soda with a single finger. And those who experienced his one inch punch say that it left them winded and injured.

Is any of this true? I find it suspect that there is no video evidence of these skills. Bruce certainly wasn’t shy of filming himself, or of self-promoting. If he could jab a finger through a cola can, wouldn’t we have seen it? And lifting that much weight with straight arms is an incredible feat.

Bruce Lee Power

But then again, both these feats are possible and have been accomplished by others. The stories are corroborated by more than one witness. We know from his training with overcoming isometrics that he could generate a lot of power for his small size, and we know from his two finger push-ups that he had very powerful fingers. So, who knows.

It is interesting to note though that the ‘one-inch punch’ was not really delivered from an inch, but rather from the length of Bruce’s outstretched fingers – likely around 4-5 inches!

We can’t know for certain how Bruce Lee would perform against modern fighters because we’ll never have the opportunity to set-up such a match. The fact that he inspired the fighting method that so many of them use though should count for something, and it is certainly disingenuous to describe him as anything other than a visionary, skilled fighter.

None of this is really the point though. The point is that Bruce was magnetic enough, and obviously talented enough, that he was able to smash through prejudices, open closed minds, and change the status quo. Were it not for Bruce Lee, we likely wouldn’t have had Jackie Chan, The Karate Kid, martial arts classes all around the world, The Matrix, or such exposure to Chinese culture and philosophy. It is no surprise that he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Bruce Lee Life Of

And it’s only fitting that we pay homage to the life of Bruce Lee here on the Bioneer, where our goals and interests share much in common with the Dragon.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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