8 Ways Bruce Lee Changed The World

The martial arts megastar's short life but long legacy...

 

For tonight's DVD Club, we're watching classic martial arts action flick/James Bond knock-off Enter The Dragon.

Join us on Twitter at 8pm.

But how did the film's star, Bruce Lee, become such a universally recognised icon, despite completing only four movies and dying at the age of 32? 

1. He was the first action hero.

Before Lee, on-screen combat was stiff, polite and unconvincing.

His training in multiple martial arts and background in dance (he was a champion cha cha dancer) inspired a more fluid, realistic approach.

He wanted on-screen fights to look both brutal and elegant - a theme that's fuelled action movies ever since (see Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Matrix...)

American filmmakers also lapped up the concept of a lone figure who at first seems like a regular guy but, when pushed, transforms into a one-man army.

No Bruce Lee, no Bruce Willis.

Next: Martial Arts For All...[page-break]

 

2. He made martial arts open to all.

Lee's peers and tutors back in his native China frowned upon martial arts techniques being taught to outsiders.

But when he lived in Seattle in the '60s, Lee opened a kung fu school and openly taught his own system, Jeet Kune Do ('The Way Of The Intercepting Fist'). Pupils included Steve McQueen and James Coburn.

Lee rejected the rigid, classical styles of individual martial arts and conceived Jeet Kune Do as a system that would work in a real fight - a blend of the best bits of boxing, fencing, judo and kung fu.

He called it "scientific street fighting" - see it demonstrated below (and, if you must, in the free-for-all brawls of Ultimate Fighting Championship).

Before Lee, these techniques were arcane and esoteric. Today, you could be enrolled in a class within minutes of finishing this article.

Next: Cool Philosophy...[page-break]

 

3. He was the first self-help guru.

Lee was more than just a fighter - he was a thinker who encouraged students to adopt mental discipline as well as physical excellence.

Much of his philosophy relates to the simplicity and directness of Jeet Kune Do ("Be like water - adjust to the object") but a lot of his thinking can be applied more generally and has been adopted - and distorted - by the self-help industry...

"Simplify. Hack away at the unessential. Spend too much time thinking about a thing and you'll never get it done."

"To hell with circumstances. Create opportunities."

"Do not look for a successful personality and seek to duplicate it. Have faith in yourself."

Next: Anti-Racism...[page-break]

 

4. He kicked down racial barriers - literally.

There's a fantastic moment in Lee's 1972 film Fist Of Fury, where he's stopped from entering a public park by a guard who points to a sign above the gate...

'No Dogs And Chinese Allowed.'

Lee duffs up a few mocking Japanese fellas before leaping up, dislodging the sign and shattering it with an almighty flying kick.

Later, Lee marches into a rival Japanese dojo and returns a provocative 'gift' - a sign which reads 'Sick Man Of Asia' (a lingering Second World War slur).

He smashes that sign, too, ripping out the paper and forcing a couple of students to eat it.

Back in the '60s/'70s, when cross-cultural attitudes weren't so enlightened, Lee's superstardom packed far-reaching power behind an uncompromising message: regarding one race as 'inferior' to another is stupid.

Next: Free-Running...[page-break]

 

5. He's the grandaddy of free running.

Lee's Jeet Kune Do philosophy - fluid expression paired with efficiency of movement - is pretty much the guiding principal behind free running/Parkour.

A lot of Lee's philosophy was inspired by Zen Buddhist ideas around transcending conscious thought ("The self is the greatest hindrance to the execution of all physical action").

Parkour/free running practitioners aim to travel from one point to another in the smoothest, most efficient way possible - to achieve a kind of physical flow.

Visit any Parkour gym/school and you're guaranteed to see a poster of Lee, who would have surely applauded the style's grace and dynamism.

Next: Working It Out...[page-break]

 

6. He invented working out.

Before Lee, work-out gyms were all about Arnie-like bodybuilders - a competitive, fetish-like obsession with beefcake bulk.

With typical focus on practicality, Lee realised that the ideal male body would be strong and muscular, but also sleek and streamlined - built for power and speed.

The now-universal idea of going to the gym to look and feel good - and maybe build a bit of muscle tone - is pure Bruce.

Thing is, he also drank liquidised steak to boost his protein levels.

Best stick to the pec-deck.

Next: Father Of Hip-Hop...[page-break]

 

7. He's the spiritual father of hip-hop.

The base elements of hip-hop all have roots in Lee's free-flowing, fluid philosophy (freestyle rap, scratching) and legs-flailing physicality (breakdancing).

But he was also a huge inspiration as an ethnic icon - an 'outsider' whose presence and potency offered a startling image of non-white empowerment. (Wu Tang Clan's RZA: "I believe that Bruce Lee was a minor prophet").

Lee has been referenced, riffed on and sampled in countless hip-hop/hip-hop inspired tracks.

Most recently, his yellow-jumpsuited Game Of Death image (also nicked by Tarantino for Kill Bill) has been directly lifted for Gorillaz' Game Of Death video...

Next: Superheroes & Comic-Book Crossover...[page-break]

 

8. He shaped superhero culture.


For Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee, "Bruce Lee was a superhero without a costume. He was the first to make westerners aware of that type of fighting and way of life."

Marvel produced plenty of Lee-inspired comic series (The Hands Of Kung Fu, Iron Fist...) and Lee's instantly recognisable, superhuman-like qualities have seeped into many other areas of pop culture (try finding a fighting videogame without a Lee-like character).

And, inevitably, his bankable, iconic allure hasn't gone unexploited by advertising...


Don't forget to join us for tonight's DVD Club where we'll be watching Enter The Dragon from 8pm.

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Comments

    • RobBuckley

      Jun 9th 2009, 12:47

      That's true to a certain of the US and Chinese martial arts. But there was a long tradition in the UK and Australia, for example, of Japanese martial arts such as jiu jitsu and judo being taught openly in classes available to everyone. Jiu Jitsu practitioners used to tour music halls in the 19th century and both men and women were taught techniques.

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    • alowe

      Jun 9th 2009, 13:55

      Fair point. So was Lee's Seattle school the first outside China? I had a quick rummage around whether Chinese martial arts were taught secretly in the US/UK/Australia before Lee but couldn't get a solid answer.

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