Half a century after his tragic early death, Bruce Lee remains the best-known martial artist in the world. Today, his spectacular global legacy rests on a handful of films released in the early 70s. This body of work and his work as a martial arts teacher make Lee utterly unforgettable.
Bruce Lee knew Wing Chun Kung Fu and many other martial arts. He tapped into multiple traditions to develop his own unique martial art form, Jeet Kune Do. Influences on his fighting style include boxing, fencing, judo, karate, taekwondo, Thai, and kickboxing, to name a few.
Early Training in Wing Chun Kung Fu
Bruce Lee’s career as a martial artist started early in his childhood in Hong Kong. He began training with the Wing Chun Kung Fu master Yip Man as a 13-year-old. What he learned in the succeeding years created the foundations for a lifetime of innovation.
A relatively young martial art, Wing Chun was a particularly modern take on the Kung Fu tradition. It had developed in urban centers and focused on unarmed close-quarters fighting.
Wing Chun focused on responding to surprise attacks as opposed to staged combat. It focused on structure instead of strength or speed and was open to people of any body type. The simplicity of the style profoundly impacted Lee and influenced his outlook on fighting techniques.
Experiments in Style
As a teenager in Hong Kong, Lee encountered a range of traditions that influenced his fighting technique. These include forms as diverse as boxing, fencing, cha cha dancing, and even street fighting.
While boxing, fencing, and dancing all involve choreographed movement, street fighting confronted him with unorthodox fighting techniques. These frequent fights were why his parents sent him back to America when he turned 18.
When Lee returned to America, he supported himself through college by teaching kung fu. Later, he made an initial foray into Hollywood with the role of Kato in The Green Hornet. Throughout this time, Lee continued to develop as a fighter. He befriended fighters from many different disciplines, including karate, judo, and Thai kickboxing, and exchanged ideas with the best of them.
Jhoon Rhee, the ‘father of American taekwondo,’ taught him aspects of kicking from his discipline. Similarly, Dan Inosanto, a fellow trainer at Lee’s school, taught him fighting elements from the Filipino martial arts. This included the use of Nunchakus, which Lee would later make famous in the 1972 film Fist of Fury.
Jeet Kune Do
For Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do was the culmination of a lifetime of learning and thinking about martial arts. Lee did not describe Jeet Kune Do as a style of fighting. Instead, it was an attitude to fighting.
At heart, Jeet Kune Do encouraged constant evolution by incorporating aspects of other styles. It required fighters to eliminate outgrown elements of their style. It aimed to be responsive and to avoid being restricted by a strict code of rules and norms.
To learn more about Bruce Lee’s thoughts on martial arts, you can explore the audiobook The Warrior Within on Amazon.com.
The apex of Lee’s style demonstrated clarity of thought regarding his attitude to fighting. Ultimately, Bruce Lee did not privilege one martial art over the other. Instead, he thought of fighting as a holistic discipline, open to any tradition.
Watch this video by Dan Lok to all about footwork drills in Jeet Kune Do:
Who Was Bruce Lee?
Bruce Lee was a Chinese-American pioneer of martial arts and martial arts filmmaking. Some people think of him as a fighter, while others claim he was an actor and a performer. The truth is that Bruce Lee was both, and much more.
To truly understand the significance of Bruce Lee, we need to look at his unique circumstances. This specific history made him who he was as an individual, an icon, and a fighter.
A Bridge Between Cultures
Born in San Francisco, Bruce Lee was an American citizen and mostly taught in that country. However, he grew up in British Hong Kong and returned to it to make the films that established his reputation. Most notably, he was predominantly, but not exclusively, of Chinese ethnicity.
This complicated heritage put Lee in a unique position to move between cultures. It made him open to the beauty inherent in different traditions and predisposed him to cross-cultural dialogue. His unique identity also played a crucial role in the evolution of his fluid individual fighting style.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of his birth also placed numerous obstacles in Bruce Lee’s path. At the start of his career, neither Hollywood nor the Chinese martial art purists accepted him with open arms. Because of his fluid identity, Lee had to fight every inch of the way to become a global star.
Thus, the circumstances of his birth contributed significantly to the philosophy behind Bruce Lee’s fighting style. It also explains something about the nature of his massive global appeal.
A Born Performer
The fourth child of opera singer parents, Bruce Lee was intensely charismatic and a born performer. As a child actor in Honk Kong, he had appeared in more than 20 films before he turned 18.
Lee was determined to be the biggest global movie star at a time when Hollywood had no room for Asian-Americans. Faced with relentless hostility, he returned to Hong Kong to make his dreams come true. He even wrote and directed several of his films.
The showman aspect of his personality impacted Bruce Lee’s fighting style in significant ways. He was always interested in the visual presentation of his art. Finally, this presentation also considerably impacted the nature of his appeal to global audiences.
A Philosopher at Heart
Bruce Lee also had a profoundly philosophical approach to the formal aspects of martial arts. Lee had studied Philosophy at the University of Washington and read widely.
A wide range of thinkers from across the world influenced Bruce Lee. Everything from Taoist ideas to the writing of spiritually-minded teachers like Alan Watts and Jiddu Krishnamurti influenced his thinking.
Eventually, these meanderings molded Lee’s thinking on developing aspects of a unique fighting style. He believed that adherence to a rigid system was detrimental to a fighter’s style. Based on these ideas, Bruce developed a discipline that would transcend the limitations of form.
Great Ambition and a Rigorous Approach
A striking feature of Bruce Lee’s rise was his dedication to the fighting and cinematic arts from a young age.
Bruce Lee was absolutely sure that he wanted to be a global martial arts and film star. He built his life around making this dream come true. Notes from his diary reveal the brutally rigorous work ethic that he followed.
His overarching ambition, combined with his rigorous approach, made Bruce Lee a natural lifelong learner. To perfect himself, he constantly modified his technique by incorporating or dropping elements of its style. This was another reason for the hybridity of Bruce Lee’s unique fighting style.
Bruce Lee trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu. Later, he incorporated elements of several other traditions into his fighting style. Influences on his technique include boxing, fencing, judo, karate, taekwondo, Thai kickboxing, Filipino martial arts, and cha cha dancing.
In the end, Bruce Lee was a true original. He thought deeply about the different forms of martial art. Before his early death, he incorporated aspects from many of them into a unique form, which he called Jeet Kune Do.