The trouble with articles about Bruce Lee is that nobody every seems to look at him as a whole man.
Some take him as the serious practitioner of the martial arts, some take him as the film star – entertainer par excellence, a few have tried to probe the family side of the man.
What does not seem to have happened is a realistic appraisal of all these three rolled into one PLUS the fact that although he was so Americanised and seemingly a modern man, he was Chinese.
Therein, I think, lies the answer to everything that Bruce Lee did, thought and achieved (and he achieved a lot in those few precious years).
To recap on his early life, Bruce Lee was born of Chinese parents while his father’s opera company was touring America. There seems to be some mystery as to whether that fact gave him American citizenship – the American Embassy here disclaims all knowledge and yet it is normal practise to be able to claim citizenship of a country in which you are born. That fact is the reason why many lucky people have dual nationality.
Was it because it went against the grain for his father to take advantage of his son’s birth place? If the family were from Hong Kong, did that make Bruce Lee British?
But citizenship aside, we must not lose sight of the fact that all his early upbringing, his culture and his judgement values were conditioned by a Chinese cultural background.
We must not forget that no matter how much his father loved him, no matter how lovable he was as a child, there is always a great gulf between a Chinese father and his children. He loves them but his first demand is their respect. To help keep that position, he seldom unbends as a father and distance from his children is the price the father pays.
Now that is possibly fine in the traditional Chinese family where the feeling of security is based on standards which we here could never accept. But what happens if the children take their education away from the home and in a country as modern as America?
I believe that the results can be many and varied and I feel that in Bruce Lee, they set up a force, an urge never to be ignored again. Never to feel cut off from the people he loved and the people whose open affection and respect he needed.
Now how not to be cut off from people without boring them to death is the problem. It isn’t enough to sit around mooning and proclaiming your love and loyalty – people get fed up with that. But establish yourself as ‘somebody’ in your own right and people will put up with almost anything from you.
If you become top of your own particular tree (and he sure did that), then you get their respect, behave in a lively, boisterous fashion and you will have their affection, too.
But it was a long, hard road.
‘Awareness has no frontier, it is a giving of your whole being without exception.’
That is a quote of the Master himself from his Tao. On the surface it is to do solely with the dedication to the martial arts. Underneath, it is a philosophy garnered together after years of hard work and blows.
Bruce Lee was what we would describe as a ‘cocky’ child. He was clearly quick witted but that is not always to a child’s advantage – at least, not if he displays that quality too often.
He could see through things, detect the flaws in the reasoning. Unfortunately he would be the first to say so and this did not endear him to many of his elders.
If you are intelligent and your intelligence tells you you are right, it comes hard when you have to fight to defend your reasoning. I think it makes a man bitter. It is bad enough having to fight for an unjust cause, absolute hell when the other man cannot see your point of view, insults you because of it and so forces you to fight.
Some of us come from hard backgrounds. Shortage of money, comfort and so on. That was not Bruce Lee. He came from a comfortable home where they never had less than two servants. He had no need to prove anything but that split between the East and the West made it impossible for him to accept his good fortune. Conversely, it is probably true to say that it made him almost impossible to deal with on a Western level.
‘To meditate is to realise the true imperturbability of one’s Nature.’
It is a good line, is it not? But was Bruce Lee imperturbable? I think not. I think that his striving for perfection was the true sign of his inner self – not just that he was restless but that he was unsure. Now never has an ‘unsureness’ produced such a Master though there is the sadness of his early death. Perhaps if he had lived to a great old age, he would have mastered those inner doubts, in fact I am sure of it.
Then what a teacher you would have seen!
It has to be realised that as a boy from a Chinese background, perfection would have been his natural aim in any case. That East/West split made it all the more frantic.
And then there were the movies.
What man with a family he loved would turn down the chance to earn money on the grand scale so that he could provide for them, give them a comfortable home and luxury? Not me, for sure. But if that fame and money is to come because of some skill I have which is truly part of my life, then it must hurt a little.
It must hurt even more when you, and your friends, know that you are a true master fighter and not a glorified stuntsman, and then you find that other martial artists whom you do not know but whose respect you would like to have call you a fraud.
Of course the camera can stop; of course a scene can be reshot till it is perfection. It is like a piece of gold which you can shape and reshape until you are happy with the result. BUT YOU MUST HAVE THE GOLD IN THE FIRST PLACE.
In any case, while we are on that subject, those films were not the sort which had budgets to allow take after take after take — they were rehearsed and the cameras rolled and you got it right or you got fired.
The other, and greater irony, which many people will not realise, is that Bruce Lee did not make millions from the films which entertained millions. By the time he knew his own commercial value, he was already only a few months away from death.
‘The Classical man (i.e. the martial artist set in his ways) is just a bundle of routine ideas.’
I can see what he means but there could be better ways of putting it. What he was saying was that he had looked at, investigated and studied many art forms, taken from them and rejected things from them and MOVED ON.
He could not see why others would not do the same thing. He would not see it, either, and his statement made him many bitter enemies.
So it seemed like arrogance but that is judging him by Western standards and I choose to think that when he said that, he was thinking in the perfectionist, probing, searching way of the Eastern mind. The Eastern mind which has tolerances and philosophies we could never understand and yet in other ways seems so unbending.
And yet he also had that part of his mind which was Western, at least in a surface form. And so he drove himself, sure of only a few things in a world which would have been difficult even without that split.
He flew high. He mixed with people of vast talent and wealth taken from the films, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and yet although his films made more money and drew more people and he was equally as famous, he was not rich. His friends who loved him and wanted to learn from him tried to soften this galling fact. Tried to buy him presents, help him settle his finances but he refused them.
It was not pride as we would know it — it was simply the man himself. He had made it on his own as a martial artist once he had received his training from Masters, and he was determined to make it on his own in films.
He, James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant came up with an idea for a film ‘The Silent Flute’ and they presented it to Warner Brothers. The studio liked the idea but did not want to invest a great deal of money in the venture so it was decided they would shoot the film in India. Bruce Lee hoped that this would be his breakthrough into financial stardom but the deal fell through. It was a bitter blow!
Bruce Lee, one of the biggest draws in box office history and still scratching around in the fifth league earnings-wise. Is it any wonder he drove himself on and on?
When he hurt himself through overtraining, he would not take to his bed, when he was exhausted he kept right on going, and when he had pains or headaches, he took pain killers.
There have been many great ‘stars’ of the cinema and other worlds who have died young. Sometimes through their own carelessness, sometimes through the inefficiency of the medical profession and sometimes through neglect. Many, many stars but few with such a claim to their position based not only on sex appeal but on true skill in the chosen art. The difference between them and Bruce Lee is that they, at least, snatched some of the rewards due to them for their labours before they died.
Bruce Lee, the enigma and the open book, the showman and the dedicated artist, the thinker and the extrovert, died suddenly and it all seems to pointless and so sad.
A legend in his own lifetime, a man of achievement and yet a man greatly frustrated.
But this is sure, if anyone brought a new broom to the cobwebby cupboards of martial arts thinking, then it was this man. And if any one man can be named as responsible for causing the growth of all the arts through all the world, then it was this man.
That has got to be a fitting epitaph.