Even more than three decades after his death, Bruce Lee remains one of the most influential popular culture icons in America and abroad. In 1999, Lee was named one of Time magazine’s "100 most influential people of the century." Moreover, his Hong Kong produced films The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Way of the Dragon (1972), all broke box office records throughout Asia and his only Hollywood produced film, Enter the Dragon (1973), is recognized as one of the most profitable films ever made. While it is difficult to contest the actor’s popularity and influence, there has been very little academic examination of Lee’s impact on American popular culture and his contribution to the growing movement of Chinese-American self-awareness.
The decade from 1964 to 1974 was highlighted by an unprecedented amount of cultural, political, social, and personal movements in the United States, which resulted in a wholesale reassessment of nearly every aspect of American society. Propelled by the early successes of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, other groups began to question the established order and push for societal changes that addressed their own concerns. Organized movements calling for equality for women, students, Latin Americans, and Asian Americans, were among the more prominent of these groups that garnered national headlines and brought issues of race, culture, and gender to the forefront of American consciousness. It is with these issues as a distinct backdrop that Bruce Lee arrived on the stage to bring his image and his message to the American movie going masses.
Lee’s definitive statement from his second Hong Kong produced martial arts film, Fist of Fury (1972), that the “Chinese are no longer the sick men of Asia” epitomizes one of the key messages he was seeking to promote throughout his life: that Chinese Americans were not the weak and subservient individuals that the American media stereotypically portrayed. Instead, Lee wanted to represent a strong, masculine, and dominant Chinese-American hero that was proud of his cultural heritage and openly embraced both his American and Chinese background. As a Chinese-American icon, Lee did more than any other actor in the period to advance the cause of racial equality for Asians living in the United States. As such, this paper will posit that Bruce Lee’s mass appeal during the 1970’s was influential in changing the way Chinese Americans were represented by the American media and perceived by the public at large.
This study will draw attention to Lee’s continued influence in the fields of American philosophy, combat sports, masculinity, fitness, and cinema, in order to illustrate the extent to which the man the media dubbed "the Dragon" enmeshed himself into popular culture. While there have some studies discussing Lee’s role in the development of Asian cinema, the body of work is far from exhaustive and only briefly discusses his place in a broader historical framework. In addition, biographers of Bruce Lee, such as Robert Clouse and Tom Bleecker, have typically been either friends from the past or, in the case of John Little, extreme fans.
In order to fully comprehend how and why Bruce Lee was able to exert such influence, it is first essential to understand the Chinese-American experience prior to Lee’s emergence as a recognizable figure. While the earliest officially recorded Chinese immigrants arrived on American soil in 1820, the California gold rush of 1849 caused a dramatic increase in Chinese immigration on the Pacific coast of America. Moreover, the use of Chinese-American labor for the construction of the Central Pacific Railway in the 1860s also contributed to a continued influx of immigration stemming from China. In the first few decades of immigration, the Chinese were tolerated and viewed as a necessary part of the workforce. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 105,613 Asians in the U.S. by 1880, with the majority of them originating from China and settling on the West coast. This growing Asian presence resulted in a steady incline of fear, disdain, and racial discrimination towards immigrants from China. From 1850-1880, Chinese immigrants were the target of overt racism, which resulted in limitations on immigration, the denial of naturalization, and extreme acts of violence. In 1876, the New York Times reported on an anti-Chinese rally of 25,000 people in San Francisco, where Chinese-Americans made up one-fourth of the city’s total population. The article noted that the committee leading the rally put forth the argument that the Chinese were inassimilable due to their racial and cultural distinctness, language, manners, and customs. Furthermore, the nativists accused the Chinese of spreading foreign diseases and attributed heightened unemployment to the Chinese immigrants’ ability to underbid Caucasians in the labor market due to the latter’s willingness to survive with lesser food and housing. According to Amy Uyematsu, author of the article "The Emergence of Yellow Power," during the peak of anti-Chinese protest in the 1880s “whites were stoning the Chinese in the streets; cutting off their queues, [and] wrecking their shops and laundries.” There are numerous newspaper articles from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries detailing rallies, demonstrations, and legislative proposals which were aimed at limiting and eventually stopping the immigration of Chinese. While other immigrant minority groups have also faced persistent racism, no other group in U.S. history has been as targeted for immigration regulation as the Chinese.
So great was the perceived threat of the "yellow" presence that President Chester A. Arthur was finally persuaded to sign an amended version of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which essentially prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the country for a period of ten years. Anti-Chinese immigration was extended with the Geary Act of 1892 and finally made permanent in 1902. Between the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its eventual repeal in 1965, the Chinese-American experience was marked by continued anti-immigration policies which only furthered negative stereotypes. Furthermore, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 stated that any individual that was not eligible for citizenship could not own land or property. Since Chinese were legally ineligible to naturalize and become citizens, this law essentially prevented most Chinese immigrants from owning land or property in California. These steps taken by the state of California provided a precedent which other parts of the country could follow and further contributed to racial stereotyping and discrimination against Asian groups in America.
When discussing the Chinese issue on the West coast, the Boston Globe referred to the Chinese as the “almond-eyed foreigners” and stated that they are employed mostly for laundry tasks and as cooks. Although this is obvious racial stereotyping, the commentary does contain some truth. As the late historian and ethnographer Ronald Tataki states, 58% of Chinese in the 1920s were employed in the service sector, with the majority working in restaurants or laundry shops. Nonetheless, this type of racial typecasting was prevalent throughout the Western world at the time and was represented in this way through newspapers, cartoons, magazines, and films.
It is impossible to comprehend the racial stereotyping of Chinese Americans without first understanding the notion of "yellow peril" which was an underlying factor in the representation of Chinese individuals in various media outlets at the time. According to Kent A. Ono and Vincent N. Pham, authors of Asian Americans and the Media, yellow peril imagery is characterized by the depiction of Chinese Americans as threatening to negatively "Asianize" American society and culture. Historian Michael Richardson also notes that the yellow peril idea is representative of the racist fears of other cultures and of the belief that the U.S. will be overwhelmed by the tempting, obscure, and occult forces of the East. Furthermore, Gina Marchetti, professor of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, asserts that Chinese people were often portrayed as “physically and intellectually inferior, morally suspect, heathen, licentious, disease-ridden, feral, violent, uncivilized, infantile, and in need of guidance.” For instance, as Ono and Pham note, pre-World War II cartoons from recognizable magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and The Wasp depicted Chinese Americans as opium addicts, degenerate gamblers, and, almost always, with animal-like features. Driven by the yellow peril mindset, these animalistic depictions were almost certainly meant to dehumanize Chinese Americans, which then provided a moral justification to mock them and promote the vast array of stereotypes.
With the enactment of draconian immigration legislation and the widespread representation of Chinese-American individuals based on the aforementioned stereotypes, Chinese Americans were effectively backed into a corner and made a collective effort to turn inward within their respective communities. Jachinson Chan, author of Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee, argues that this combination of exclusion laws and discriminatory depictions prevented Chinese-American men from gaining respected employment in the U.S. As such, Chinese men were essentially emasculated and could only find jobs in such places as restaurants and laundry establishments, which were deemed "feminine" work by mainstream America. Subjected to these circumstances, many Chinese Americans developed a new form of resistance that would earn them the moniker as “the silent minority,” which eventually evolved into the stereotype of Chinese Americans as the quiet and submissive "model minority." They silently resisted anti-Asian policies and attempted to allow time to quell the stereotype-based fears that were overwhelming the country. In the face of restrictive laws, the Chinese-American population worked diligently within their own communities to make a respectable living and disprove the negative labels that had been bestowed upon them. They insisted that their children concentrate harder than anyone else on education in order to earn the most money possible in the future and erase some of the stereotypes that plagued their generation. According to Carl Jung, chairman of the psychology department at Cal State University in 1974, this silent protestation “was how the Chinese were able to survive and try and beat the white people at their own game.” Nonetheless, new stereotypes emerged to replace the old ones.
An article in the Los Angeles Times from 1932 titled “Chinese Are Part Jewish” contended, through questionable anthropological studies, that Chinese business acumen did not come from hard work and education but rather from the blood ties they shared with Jews who fled Roman persecution and ended up in China. Although it should be noted that this report surfaced during the Great Depression, a period which led to an increase in anti-Semite sentiment in the U.S., the article is indicative of mainstream America’s hesitance to accept Chinese Americans prior to World War II. While Chinese Americans were still grappling with the issue of racial misrepresentation, the pre-war era of exclusion gave way to a period of considerable good will, which was the result of time, quiet strides, and the emergence of China as an effective ally in World War II. Nonetheless, the post-war era did not provide an instant and consistent acceptance of Chinese Americans as the 1949 Communist victory of Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War hindered the progress that had been achieved prior to the newly minted People Republic of China’s entrance into the Cold War framework. Darcy Anne Robards Coover effectively sums up Chinese-American status from 1930 to 1960 as she states that “in three decades, the prevailing mainstream American image of Chinese Americans had shifted from reviled alien to brave ally, and finally to mistrusted Red.” Even though Chinese Americans had to contend with yet another negative label placed upon them, the group still managed to preserve its symbolism in America as the model minority.
Despite the fact that the quiet strides made by the Chinese-American community seemed to cultivate a positive label, it can be argued that the growing notion of model minority was one that actually created an equally damaging stereotype. In particular, this perception that Chinese Americans were polite, quiet, and submissive removed any agency from these individuals by typecasting them with attributes that conveniently countered the aforementioned concept of yellow peril. According to Frank Chin, a prominent Asian American author and playwright, “the stereotype serves to restrict Chinese American achievement to the relatively non-aggressive world of academia.” Nevertheless, by the 1960s this perceived harmlessness of the Chinese community allowed the college educated Chinese Americans to establish themselves in higher paying jobs and integrate themselves more fully within middle and upper-class America. This good will and toleration, combined with the increasing pressure of the Vietnam War, eventually produced the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965, which essentially nullified the anti-Asian immigration laws that were previously in place. As a result, the Asian population in America more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1970 to 3.7 million in 1980. While the general Chinese-American population eventually gained a moderate level of acceptance in the 1960s, they continued to be mocked and misrepresented by the Hollywood film industry, which continued to portray their race in a stereotypical and demoralizing manner.
Just as the pre-war print media illustrated Chinese Americans within the aforementioned parameters of yellow peril, Hollywood films prior to 1970 continued to exacerbate racial stereotypes towards them as well. The archetypal representation of Chinese Americans came in the form of the villainous character Dr. Fu Manchu. This character was imagined by English author, Sax Rohmer, and appeared for the first time in 1913 in his novel The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. The first American theatrical portrayal of Fu Manchu was The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), which was followed by eight other films that further developed the iconic Chinese-American villain, and finally ended with The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). It should be noted that Sax Rohmer himself described Fu Manchu as “the yellow peril incarnate in one man,” and is represented “as a sexual threat to White women and a political threat to Western civilization as he attempts to rule the world." Although the Fu Manchu has doctorates in law, medicine, and philosophy from Harvard, Edinburgh, and Christ College, his character is never portrayed with positive qualities and his evil and sinister nature is understood as innate, as Michael Richardson explains. While traditional cinematic interpretations of Fu Manchu have examined his character in terms of the difference between East and West, the character’s portrayal also seems to contain a subtle critique of the idea of model minority. In his evaluation of the character, Jachinson Chan states that “Dr. Fu Manchu is cat-like, calm and implacable but will strike you at any moment for no apparent reason.” Based on this representation, it is possible that Hollywood filmmakers were, perhaps unknowingly, countering the perception of the gentile and unthreatening notion of model minority. In any case, just as Fu Manchu represented the embodiment of Yellow Peril, the character of Charlie Chan epitomized the stereotype of model minority.
Charlie Chan, a character created by American novelist Earl Derr Biggers, sharply contrasted Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. From 1926 to 1958 over forty films featuring Chan were produced. Chan was a Hawaiian detective who was intelligent, kind, and was portrayed as someone who assimilated into the American way of life through his transition from working-class immigrant to middle-class professional. His character was representative of the American minority who successfully immersed himself into white America by working diligently and conforming to a life of relative economic comfort while raising a traditional family. In essence, Chan’s image fit perfectly into the framework of model minority and was represented as such in novels, films, and television episodes for over three decades. While the figure of Charlie Chan provided a more positive portrayal of Chinese Americans, the fact that the Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and other Asian characters in Hollywood were almost always performed by white actors was another challenge that Chinese Americans faced when trying to define what it meant to be such.
The widespread use of white actors in the role of Asian characters is described by film scholars as "yellowface." Ono and Pham state that “yellowface is a systematically manufactured way to maintain white dominance and Asian and Asian American subordination.” The earliest films depicting the character of Charlie Chan, The House Without a Key (1926), The Chinese Parrot, and Behind That Curtain, all stared Asian actors in the role of Charlie Chan and were not well received by the American audience. This use of Asian actors likely led to the character’s heavily limited role in the three films, notably appearing for only ten minutes at the end of Behind that Curtain. It is only after Warner Oland, a Swedish born actor, accepted the role of Charlie Chan did filmmakers provide the character with a central part in the films, which subsequently resulted in greater approval from the American audience. Ironically, the character of Dr. Fu Manchu was also played by Warner Oland until Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, both Caucasian actors, took over the portrayal of the character after 1932. Film scholars, such as Ono and Pham, also argue that yellowface was mostly used for the general enjoyment of the white audience, as exemplified by the lack of success by the early Charlie Chan films. One of the most recognizable uses of yellowface in Hollywood as a tool for non-Asian amusement was the character of Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Despite the previously discussed portrayal of Chinese Americans as yellow peril and model minority, Mr. Yunioshi perpetuates more generalized stereotypes. Ono and Pham describe his character as “inept, buck-toothed, puffy cheeked, and sexually depraved."
The extensive use of yellowface was prevalent in Hollywood films and television well into the 1970s. Nonetheless, unlike Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and Mr. Yunioshi, Bruce Lee’s emergence in the early 1970s challenged the preconceived notions of Chinese-American race and masculinity. Lee’s martial arts films provided an innovative and powerful depiction of Chinese Americans. This representation countered the image of physical and intellectual inferiority that was prevalent before and during his rise to prominence. He had such a profound impact on people from various races and cultures during his lifetime, and more so after his untimely death, that the person of Bruce Lee has been transformed into a symbol of social justice representing the power to fight against oppression from outsiders.
Although Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940, he spent his formative years in Hong Kong, where he trained in the Chinese martial art system of Wing Chun and was well known as a child actor. However, Lee returned to America in 1958 to pursue philosophy at the University of Washington. Contrary to popular belief, Lee biographer Tom Bleeker explains, Bruce Lee did not complete his degree and dropped out in 1964 due to his inability to accumulate enough credits to advance beyond his freshman status. During his time at the university, he began to instruct his unique style of Chinese Gung Fu, or "Kung Fu," and, with the help of several friends, opened three schools in Seattle (1963), Oakland (1964), and Los Angeles (1967), which were reserved for a small and select group of students.
Lee was first "discovered" by a Hollywood agent in 1964 at the Long Beach International Karate Championships. Subsequently, in 1965, Lee was offered a role as Charlie Chan’s son in a prospective television series entitled Number One Son. The series never materialized, and Bruce was instead cast as the driver-turned-sidekick Kato in the television show The Green Hornet, which only ran for one season from 1966 to 1967. Nevertheless, his opportunity on The Green Hornet allowed Lee to challenge the way Chinese Americans were being portrayed on American television. When accepting the role as Kato, Lee wanted assurance that he was not going to be depicted as the stereotypically submissive chauffeur. This is made clear in a letter written to executive producer, Bill Dozier, on June 21, 1966, which stated: “true that Kato is a house boy of Britt, but as the crime fighter, Kato is an ‘active partner’ of the Green Hornet and not a ‘mute follower.’” Although the show was not a huge commercial success in America, it did develop a cult following and provided Lee with the chance to showcase his unique martial arts skills to the American public, which led to a relative amount of fame. Furthermore, his work on The Green Hornet and his personal martial arts instruction of such prominent Hollywood figures such as Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Roman Polanski gave him highly placed connections he would need to begin his steady ascent in the business. Eventually the racially prejudiced politics of Hollywood led Bruce Lee back to Hong Kong where he made a name for himself and transformed his person into a legend. Ultimately, he became one of the most recognizable Asian men in the world and a staple of American popular culture in the 1970s. However, before attaining iconic status, Lee needed to face and challenge the many racial barriers that affected him both in Hong Kong and in America.
During his formative years in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee was a relatively well-known child actor appearing in over twenty films between 1940 and 1958, John Little reminds us. Nonetheless, he was never exempt from racism, even in his home country of China. According to William Cheung, one of Lee’s closest childhood friends and one of the few living grandmasters of the Wing Chun fighting system, the young Bruce Lee faced discrimination due to the fact that he was a quarter German and three-quarters Chinese. Cheung states, “At that time, the Chinese people did not accept someone like that. He didn’t belong to Caucasians or Chinese.” The racism he experienced in China, compounded with the subtle, and sometimes overt, racial discrimination he felt in America, arguably convinced him that the Asians needed to be portrayed as strong individuals that could overcome the lingering stereotypes that plagued them. In a rare interview with the Washington Star in 1970, Bruce Lee emphatically states, “It’s about time we had an Oriental hero, never mind some guy bouncing around the country in a pigtail or something. I have to be a real human being. No cook. No laundryman.” It is evident that Lee wanted to drastically change the Hollywood depiction of Chinese-Americans that was driven by the previously discussed stereotypes.
While his role as Kato in The Green Hornet placed Lee in the spotlight, racism was always a persistent barrier. A blatant example of this racial ignorance was the way in which he was informed of the cancellation of The Green Hornet. Executive producer Bill Dozier sent Bruce a note that simply said “Confucius say, Green Hornet to buzz no more.” Furthermore, in 1971 Lee had collaborated with Warner Brothers to develop a new television series which he would star in entitled The Warrior. However, American producers were fearful of how audiences would receive an Asian actor in a lead role and their racial discrimination led them instead to cast a Caucasian, David Carradine, and re-name the series Kung Fu. Although this was a discouraging turn of events, Bruce Lee used this as motivation to build his star in Hong Kong cinema before eventually returning to Hollywood in 1973. Lee’s disappointment and frustration with Hollywood’s racial barriers were clearly visible in a later interview in which he recalls the following: "At this moment, I found that it was meaningless to go on shooting [in Hollywood roles]. This is not to say that I could not play my roles well. The truth is: I am a yellow-faced Chinese, I cannot possibly become an idol for Caucasians, not to mention rousing the emotions of my countrymen. Because of this, I decided to come back to serve the Chinese film industry."
Little did Lee know, he would in fact become an idol for Chinese and Chinese Americans, minorities of all types, and ironically for many Caucasians as well. Lee’s close friends and students, who were around prior to his emergence as an international star, confirm that he was determined from the beginning to become famous, breakdown stereotypes through films, and make Chinese Kung Fu a household name. In a private letter to Ted Ashley, chairman of Warner Brothers films, Lee confirms his friends’ assertions when writing on March 2, 1972, “the way I look at it, and honestly feel it, is that this Chinaman will definitely invade the States in a big way, one way or another.”
Bruce Lee’s early goals became a reality as actors, bodybuilders, mixed martial artists, and many others have cited "the Dragon" as a significant influence. In recent years, Lee’s personal philosophy has contributed to the rise of a new European phenomenon known as parkour free-running, which is described in the film How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009) as “the art of expressing yourself physically as you move across urban spaces.” The pioneers of free-running claim Bruce Lee’s philosophy is one of their strongest influences due to the emphasis it places on mimicking the qualities of water, thus having the ability to adapt to any given situation by going through obstacles and continually moving to find a way around them. Bruce Lee’s philosophy also stressed the idea that one must adapt what is useful, remove what is unneeded, and create something unique. This core feature of Lee’s system was easily adaptable to almost any field or specialization, which subsequently allowed this simple message to have such a profound impact on individuals from various walks of life. Shi Yan Ming, a 34th generation shaolin monk who established a temple in Manhattan after defecting from China in 1992, even goes so far as to describe Bruce Lee as a minor prophet, stating that “what he brought to martial art and…what he brought to Asian culture in American society, to be accepted by all people, is something that prophets do.”
While Lee’s philosophy was far reaching, it was his films and what they represented that created a new identity for Chinese Americans. To many, the appearance of Bruce Lee provided an instant role model and a source of inspiration. In 1999, Time named Bruce Lee one of the 100 most influential figures of the century and provided this assessment of his impact: “He was the redeemer, not only for the Chinese but for all the geeks and dorks and pimpled teenage masses that washed up at the theatres to see his action movies.” Although Lee undoubtedly provided a new image of masculinity for Chinese-American men to aspire to, he also symbolized a non-white, heroic figure for all minorities. According to Jerry Poteet, one of the few students to train directly under "the Dragon," Lee was always striving to provide hope to the underdog. Leon Jay, son of Bruce Lee’s close friend Master Wallay Jay, also asserts that the impact of his films was felt immediately. Before Enter the Dragon, it was "hey, chink" and after Bruce’s movies came out it was like "hey, brother." He changed a lot of people’s perspectives.
While Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong films The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Return of the Dragon were record-breaking hits in Asia, it is the 1973 Hollywood produced Enter the Dragon that propelled Bruce Lee to iconic status in America and solidified his place in American popular culture. Even though this film represented the first time an American and Hong Kong studio co-produced a motion picture together, Lee’s appearance as the first Chinese American in a starring role was not well received by critics. Respected movie reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, gave Enter the Dragon a dreadful half-star rating, describing it as “one of the most hateful films in years.” Nonetheless, the film, which was produced on a one million dollar budget, was a colossal success, and was recognized in 2009 by the New York Times as one of the most profitable movies ever made, with an eventual box office tally of over $200 million. Furthermore, the film’s success was also driven by its mass cultural appeal with Jim Kelly representing African Americans, John Saxon representing Caucasians, and Bruce Lee representing Asians. In addition, Enter the Dragon was the first English language martial arts film made which also contributed to the public’s appeal for a style that had never been seen before on screen. According to David West, author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Films, “the inherently alien nature of Eastern martial arts and their absence from the surrounding cultural landscape” contributed to the instant popularity of Lee’s films. Unlike places like Japan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries, America did not have any indigenous martial art. Whereas boxing was transported from England and Ireland in the early nineteenth century and slowly made its way into public consciousness, Bruce Lee essentially introduced martial arts to mainstream America instantaneously.
Bruce Lee not only introduced martial arts to the world, he also revolutionized it by creating his own fighting system called Jeet Kune Do, which he described as “the style with no style." His new fighting system was arguably the forerunner of what is known today as mixed martial arts, which is best recognized by the organization the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). The founders and fighters of the UFC unanimously agree that Bruce Lee was one of the godfathers of mixed martial arts. Lee emphasized constant evolution via cross-training by absorbing what was useful and rejecting what was not. When asked what kind of black belts he possessed, Lee replied “I don’t have any belt whatsoever. That is just a certificate. Unless you can really do it – that is, defend yourself successfully in a fight – that belt doesn’t mean anything. I think it might be helpful to hold your pants up, but that’s about it.” The notion that anyone with dedication can be a master appealed to the masses and became the basis of his message. His form of martial arts included various aspects taken from karate, kempo, boxing, tae kwon do, judo, jiu-jitsu, kung fu and other forms of unarmed combat. According to Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s premier student, “when Bruce Lee advocated cross-training, it was ridiculed, it was violently opposed. Now it is accepted as being always true, the thing to do.” Fiaz Rafiq explains that Lee’s methods were decades ahead of his time, and he was condemned by his elders as breaking sacred tradition by teaching his art to non-Chinese. In the opening fight scene of Enter the Dragon, the Jeet Kune Do founder is seen applying a grappling technique called an arm-bar and using smaller gloves that are now used by mixed martial artists. Former UFC Champions Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz agree that this particular scene exemplifies the fact that Bruce Lee was merging techniques the same way as modern day mixed martial artists. Lee’s emphasis on cross-training was thirty years ahead of its time and only now are elite athletes able to appreciate the influence Bruce Lee had on the development of their sport.
Bruce Lee’s impact was not simply confined to philosophy and martial arts; he also had a marked influence in the realm of strength and conditioning. Bodybuilding luminaries such as Dorian Yates, Franco Columbu, Shawn Ray, Bill Pearl, and Arnold Schwarzenegger have all stated that Bruce Lee’s physique was extremely influential. According to the aforementioned bodybuilders, Bruce Lee’s abdominals and back muscles were incredibly unique due to his perfect symmetry and definition, which was extremely different from the training for sheer bulk that was prevalent at that time. He represented a new way of training that influenced bodybuilders to train for definition and symmetry as well as size and bulk. Franco Columbu, two-time winner of the premier bodybuilding event Mr. Olympia, has stated that Bruce Lee is “the legend of all legends.” The elite bodybuilder argues that Lee’s style and physical presence allowed future athletes to become actors because people admired his movement and strength.
Bruce Lee revolutionized the depiction of unarmed combat in action films, laying the foundations for future action stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and, more recently, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. In the audience at the premiere of Bruce Lee’s first kung fu film, The Big Boss (1971), was a 24-year-old assistant director named John Woo. He was so impressed with Bruce Lee’s unique portrayal of a strong and inspiring Chinese figure that Woo has stated “that night, we found our true hero. And from that night, Bruce Lee became a legend." John Woo has gone on to become one of the most respected action movie directors in Hollywood with hits such as Hard Target (1993), Face/Off (1997), Mission Impossible II (2000), Red Cliff (2008), and Red Cliff II (2009). Although these films do not deal with the same themes as Bruce Lee's, they do contain a similar style of martial arts inspired action. Woo describes Bruce Lee as having a profound impact on his work and is appreciative of the doors Bruce Lee was able to open for Asians in American cinema. The acclaimed director proudly states that “whatever he did on screen, he did it for us and he spoke for us, and let the whole world know we are not weak anymore, we are strong.”
Unfortunately, "the Dragon" vanished as quickly as he had emerged. On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee passed away in his sleep from a brain edema only a few days before the release of Enter the Dragon, spurning one of the largest public gatherings in Hong Kong’s history. On July 25, 1973, a gathering of over 10,000 people, which required over 120 policemen to contain, gathered to pay their respects to their idol. Bruce Lee’s obituary in the New York Times was surprisingly short and concentrated on negative film reviews from critics rather than celebrating his achievements. In contrast, the Chicago Tribune was neutral and the Los Angeles Times was more celebratory of Lee’s accomplishments and focused on the opportunities he had on the horizon. It is important to note that media on the West coast was likely much more sympathetic and interested in Bruce Lee due to the large representation of Asians that were within their sphere. While his death was a tremendous shock to his fans, his untimely passing transformed "the Dragon" into an international phenomenon and likely contributed to his lasting legacy. Dolph Lundgren, an action star in the 80s and 90s, reasons that “because he died young, [it] added mystique to his character. He lives on forever as a young man. Something that happened to James Dean and a few other[s].”
Prior to 1994, Bruce Lee’s “personal papers, notes, letters, essays, rough drafts of screenplays, choreography notes, poetry, art work, reading annotations, and daytime annotations” had been unavailable to researchers. John Little, Bruce Lee aficionado and Associate Publisher of Bruce Lee magazine, is the only person ever given complete access to all of the aforementioned documents. As a result, Little has compiled and edited five comprehensive volumes on Lee, which serve as the only wide-ranging and accessible primary documents written by the martial artist and philosopher. While Little’s volumes provide important insight into Bruce Lee’s personal and professional life, it is important to note that his compilations cannot be accurately confirmed or verified due to the editor’s exclusive access to the original documentation. John Little has stated, “I have kept my own thumbprint off of the body of the text… It is only Bruce Lee’s words that you will be reading.” However, the editor’s bias when choosing which writings, articles, notes, or words to include or leave out must not be overlooked. As an avid Bruce Lee fan, Little likely paints Lee in the best possible light and may have edited out negative or questionable remarks made by Lee in order to preserve his image. Joe Lewis, who trained under "the Dragon" and is recognized as one of the greatest karate fighters of all time, vehemently denounces Little’s representation of Bruce Lee. Lewis states, "[John Little] wrote stuff about Bruce Lee that’s not true. He claims to be the world’s foremost authority on Bruce Lee which I find strange because I need to make this clear: he never met Bruce Lee, he never saw Bruce Lee spar, he never saw Bruce Lee train… John Little’s books are full of nonsense, full of what I would call ‘intentional deceitful comments’, you got me?"
While it is not a requirement for historians to have met or witnessed the historical figure they are examining and presenting, Lewis’s strong condemnation simply confirms the obvious necessity for further access to Bruce Lee’s personal documents. Furthermore, Greglon Lee, who is the son of one of Bruce Lee’s closest friends, James Lee, has stated that his father has over 80-120 letters, and he witnessed Bruce Lee writing at least two letters per day to different people. Although this seems like an irrelevant fact, John Little’s book, Letters of the Dragon: Correspondence, 1958-1973, only contains reproductions of 126 letters. Based on the evidence that Bruce Lee’s main form of communication with personal and professional contacts were in written format, it is highly likely that Little has kept some unflattering or potentially tainting correspondence out of publication. While Little has portrayed Lee in the best possible light, Bruce Lee biographer Tom Bleecker has dedicated a complete book to exposing the darker side of "the Dragon."
Tom Bleecker’s biography entitled, Unsettled Matters, is an attempt to highlight the negative aspects of Bruce Lee’s life that are rarely presented to the American public. Interestingly, Bleecker had access to the same personal files and documents as John Little due to the assistance he provided Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, with the redaction of Lee’s authorized biography in 1975. Eventually, the relationship between Bleecker and Linda Lee evolved from co-authors to romantic couple and finally developed into marriage in 1988. The marriage was short lived and Bleeker states that Unsettled Matters is the true biography that should have been printed in 1975. From the very beginning of his work, Bleeker contends that Lee’s upbringing in Hong Kong likely meant he had direct dealings with the Triads, an organized crime unit that controlled nearly every industry in the city at that time. Bleeker characterizes Lee as cocky, pompous, easily agitated, and someone who was constantly looking for confrontation, which led to the creation of an overwhelming amount of enemies. Essentially, the author hypothesizes that because Bruce Lee was born with the medical condition cryptorchidism, which is characterized by a lack of androgen hormone and slow physical development, Bruce Lee was addicted to perfecting his body and this contributed to an increased dependency on the use of anabolic steroids. He argues that these steroids, which at the time were not well studied and did not have the negative stigma of today, contributed to his reported mood swings, violent behaviour, and sexual promiscuity. Although Bleecker does provide a compelling case, his work takes on a conspiracy-theory tone throughout. The author is very selective with his references and seems to have an agenda when writing about Lee. Furthermore, the complete second half of the book is dedicated to the aftermath of Bruce Lee’s death and proposes foul play theories ranging from poison-laced marijuana to Triad issued assassination to Linda Lee as a co-conspirator in his death. While his interpretation of Lee’s life and death adds an interesting wrinkle to the iconic image of Bruce Lee, his work loses credibility when the reader begins to take into account his fractured relationship with Linda Lee, his conspiracy-theory level of analysis, and his visible resentment towards Bruce Lee’s commercialized status in America.
In Bleecker’s concluding analysis, he contends that Lee’s international popularity is simply a result of shrewd business tactics put forth by Linda Lee and her lawyers. His position on this matter is clear as he states in his concluding thoughts, “we have great martial artists in this country who have to one degree or another stood in Bruce’s shadow for the past twenty-nine years and all in the name of commercializing one man for the financial gain of a handful of individuals.” Even if, for the sake of argument, the allegations put forth against Bruce Lee are to be accepted, and the American public was privy to this information at the time of his death, it can be argued that his overall impact on American popular culture and beyond would not have been any different. While Lee’s contribution to the evolution of Chinese-American identities would likely not have been affected by the exposure of his personal troubles, his overall impact on American popular culture was arguably contingent on certain historical factors that allowed his image to reach iconic status in the U.S.
Just as representations of Chinese Americans prior to Bruce Lee’s emergence played a key role in dictating his success, Lee’s popularity cannot be separated from historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon Administration’s public dialogue with the People’s Republic of China. According to Bruce J. Schulman, author of The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, “the civil rights revolution [during the 1960s] breached the previously insurmountable wall of racism in American law, politics, education, and economic life.” The Civil Rights Movement along with the race riots and the subsequent minority movements led to a national identity crisis that revealed the injustice and corruption that was prevalent in America’s domestic and foreign policy. As Vijay Prashad has written, minority groups were rising up and voicing their discontent with the American system, which effectively resulted in what we understand today as multiculturalism. In particular, the Yellow Power movement worked in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement to contest the aforementioned stereotypes that hindered the Chinese-American community. In 1969, Amy Uyematsu of UCLA wrote, “Yellow power and black power must be two independently powerful, joint forces within the Third World revolution to free all exploited and oppressed people of color.” There was an increased emphasis being placed on the discovery and understanding of cultural identity within all of these groups. As Bruce Lee was struggling to find his place in America, the movements of the 1960s were struggling with the contradictions presented by the Vietnam War.
Throughout the later stages of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War social movements, the press and the general public began to voice their concern about the growing disunity the conflict was creating. Disillusioned by the lack of results stemming from the civil rights inspired minority movements and the United States’ so-called "Longest War," many Americans turned away from mainstream white culture and thrust themselves into the emerging counter-culture. David Dresser, professor of film studies at the University of Illinois, contends that “those subcultural, disillusioned, disaffected audiences who had opposed the Vietnam War or those who were more radically and generally alienated from the white mainstream culture found Bruce Lee [films] liberating." Based on the tumult of the 1960s and the early 1970s, it is easy to see how Bruce Lee’s image as a non-white, oppressed, working-class hero in his films would have appealed to a wide range of people in society at this time. While youth and middle-aged Americans were embracing the novelty of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, others began to immerse themselves in the hippie culture and Asian culture. When speaking about America’s fascination for Asian culture, President Richard Nixon’s visit to Communist China in 1972 generated fresh interest in anything Chinese.
Although Bruce Lee’s profound influence within a short period of time is extraordinary, the importance of steps taken by President Richard Nixon cannot be overlooked when speaking of Chinese influences on American culture in the 1970s. In 1971, during one of the only surviving English video recorded interviews with Bruce Lee, he acknowledges the importance of the Nixon Administration’s policies towards China: "Once the opening of China happens... it will bring more understanding! More things that are, hey, like different... It’s a very rich period to be in. I mean like, if I were born, let’s say 40 years ago and if I thought in my mind and said 'boy, I’m going to star in a television series in America,' well, that might be a vague dream. But I think, right now, it may be."
It is arguable that Bruce Lee could not have achieved and maintained the level of success he did without the constant media attention that was being placed on Nixon’s dealings in the Far East and, more specifically, on Lee’s ancestral country of China. Prior to becoming President of the United States, Richard Nixon stated in the magazine Foreign Affairs that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” This assertion foreshadowed Nixon’s policy towards China and his goal of opening dialogue with the People’s Republic of China who had willingly alienated themselves from the West since the early 1950s. On January 20, 1969, President Nixon delivered his first inaugural address and reconfirmed his dedication to opening discussions with China: "Let all nations know that during this administration our lines of communication will be open. We seek an open world - open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people - a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation."
Between 1969 and 1971, American news publications were regularly speculating about the status and nature of Sino-American communications and their possible outcome. For instance, Time magazine reported on August 1, 1969, that America’s Asian allies should be pleased with Washington’s willingness to ease tensions with China. Furthermore, on December 26 of the same year, Time published yet another article, “World: China: on the Verge of Speaking Terms,” which claimed that “the Nixon Administration is anxious to draw China out of its ‘angry, alienated shell.’” Nixon’s overt references to China’s “angry isolation” did not go unnoticed by Chinese officials. The constant media attention revolving around Nixon and China, as well as Nixon’s April 14th, 1971, statement regarding changes in trade and travel restrictions with the People’s Republic of China, prompted Chinese leaders to finally take steps towards dialogue with the United States. Although Richard Nixon’s statements on trade and travel were relatively insignificant in terms of international business, they provided intriguing possibilities and served their purpose as a symbol of an extended American hand being presented to the clenched fist the Chinese had held for nearly a quarter of a century.
The Nixon Administration’s persistence finally paid off in April 1971 when a group of fifteen American table tennis professionals were offered the opportunity to tour China for a week with all expenses paid. The invitation to the table tennis players and two other American journalists made national headlines and was labelled by the media as “The Ping Heard Round the World.” Chinese Premier, Chou Enlai, encouragingly claimed that the actions of the Nixon Administration and the Chinese officials “have opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people.” This strange diplomacy via the avenue of sports allowed Nixon to pursue dialogue by secretly assigning his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, the task of initiating private dialogue with Chinese leaders and negotiate a presidential visit to the People’s Republic of China. Kissinger’s meetings eventually resulted in President Nixon’s July 15, 1971, official acceptance of an invitation to visit the leaders of China in order to normalize relations and exchange views on issues of concern. As a result, the instant media blitz that accompanied this announcement brought a large amount of attention and interest to a part of the world that had been virtually closed up to outsiders for over twenty years.
Juxtaposing the shockingly fast rise of Bruce Lee from 1970-1973 with the Nixon administration’s policy of normalization illustrates just how much Lee’s star likely benefited from the heightened interest in culture stemming from the East. A study examining American public opinion towards the People’s Republic of China between 1954 and 1991 revealed that American perceptions of China reached a plateau in mid-1973, according to Matthew Hirshberg. Ironically, the worldwide release date of Enter the Dragon, the film that propelled Bruce Lee to iconic status in America, was July 26, 1973. Therefore this independent study, which has no relation to the field of film or Bruce Lee, seems to illustrate that Lee’s emergence on American movie screens could not have come at a more opportune time. As Michael Kulma explains, another independent study found that the total number of government, news, and editorial paragraphs discussing China during Nixon’s presidency outnumbered the combined amount during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford presidencies. Although it is impossible to quantify how much of an impact Richard Nixon’s foreign policy towards China had on Bruce Lee’s popularity in America, it can be argued that without such efforts by the President, Bruce Lee may not have been as embraced by the American people. Sally Kao, president of the Bruce Lee Fan Club in 1973, writing only five weeks after Lee’s death stated, "With Lee and Nixon opening the doors to China, the possibility of a leading man played by a Chinese is no longer a fantasy. Lee paved a new path for the Chinese to follow that many dared not tread. He has given the Chinese new hope and strength."
This study has shown that Bruce Lee’s rise to iconic status in the United States was not only due to his stereotype-shattering performances, charismatic personality, appealing philosophy, fighting ability, and embodiment of masculinity, but also because of the historical circumstances that shaped the context of his emergence. The struggles faced by Asian Americans in the first half of the century were characterized by a comprehensive anti-Asian immigration policy that perpetuated racial discrimination in the United States. However, the "model minorities" eventually came to be tolerated and somewhat integrated until the eventual repeal of the anti-Asian immigration laws in 1965, which represented a shift in American views towards immigrants and a new openness to other cultures. With this backdrop in mind, President Nixon embarked on an innovative task to pry the reclusive Chinese government out of its shell of isolation and open the door to China. The highly publicized process brought even more interest and curiosity towards Eastern culture. It is within this perfect storm of historical circumstances that "the Dragon" entered and dominated American popular culture.
From guest contributor Joel Richer