Bruce Lee and the Bowdlerization of the Martial Arts in America

brucelee“Amateurish martial arts are a source of serious wounds.”

– Miyamoto Musashi

The martial arts in the United States originally derived from the Far East.  Their presence here, among Asian-Americans and their Western students, predates Bruce Lee and his films.  And yet, the popularity of the martial arts exploded after Bruce Lee’s famous films in the 1970s.  But to what extent did this popularization and valorization of the martial arts in America have on the expectations and stereotypes of Asian-American culture?  How did this phenomenon influence the promulgation of the martial arts themselves?  To explore this shift in cultural, racial, and gender expectations and stereotypes, I take Bruce Lee and his films as a point of origin.  My primary sources thus include films, documentaries, and interviews with the man himself.  Below we shall find a sampling.  Interspersed with these primary sources include secondary and scholarly works that examine Bruce Lee and the martial arts in the context of Asian-American culture.  In no way do I mean to smear Bruce Lee nor deny his continuing influence on the martial arts, media, and every facet of culture (Asian and otherwise) in this country.  However, I do intend to critically analyze his contributions, with meditations upon samples of Asian-American literature.

But before reading further, I would ask that you, in the spirit of the martial arts, pause to reflect upon the epigraph.  What did Musashi, the famously undefeated swordsman, mean by “serious wounds”?

Ego, or the wound of the Asian-American psyche

lostinterview(Primary Source)

Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview first aired in 1994.  It comes from the The Pierre Berton Show, a Canadian/American talk show, and an interview that Berton holds with Lee in 1971.  They describe it as “lost” because the footage went missing until its rediscovery 20 years later.  In this 25-minute interview, Berton questions Lee about the martial arts, his teaching of the martial arts (especially to several famous celebrities), and Lee’s own acting career.  Naturally, the shortness of the show frames a condensed interview.  But that plays well into Lee’s personal style of honest expression and modest self-promotion.

This interview remains so poignant and important to Americans and Asian-Americans because it presents the only televised interview in English for Bruce Lee, all others being artifacts of Cantonese/Chinese media.  In this show, Lee demonstrates his famous and winsome charm juxtaposed against his bold passion for the martial arts.  However, the interview also reveals some of the limits of Lee’s contributions.  Throughout the interview, he percolates the discussion with fortune cookie-styled aphorisms.  One of his most famous sayings includes “All types of knowledge ultimately leads to self-knowledge”.  Lee declares “To me, ultimately martial art means honestly expressing yourself.  Now, that is a very difficult thing to do.”  Indeed.  Bruce Lee also takes this opportunity to express his disdain for traditional styles and schools of the martial arts.  “Style is a crystallization”, he exhorts.  No one would argue that rigidity and staidness are hallmarks of ugliness and inefficiency both.

However, a “style” does not denote rigidity and staidness inherently; instead, a style presents a framework.  Frameworks are hermeneutical functions of the human mind.  The subjective brain, no matter how cosmopolitan one’s personal experience, requires some sort of framework.  By eschewing the traditional Chinese frameworks, Lee would be required to supplant the tradition with his own.  However, he wants to detach from “style” completely: an abstract ambition that he attempted to make reality with his philosophy of jeet kune do.  Within his own lifetime and a very short time, jeet kune do began to crystallize into its own style.  He shut down his few schools on the West Coast in dismay, though permitted his most trusted senior assistants (like Dan Inosanto and Taky Kimura) to continue teaching in very small “high quality” venues.  Lee admits at the end of the Berton interview: “Because I don’t want to sound like ‘Confucius say…’, but under the sky, under the heaven, there is but one family.  It just so happens that people are different.”  In short, Lee learned that in lieu of Chinese traditions, his American (and Asian-American) students created American traditions.  Of course, not only by its newness but by the inherent iconoclastic American mindset of “rugged individualism”, those traditions embraced a know-nothing kind of anti-intellectual, self-deluded autodidactic arrogance.  The notion that an amateur, who can count the number of years of experience in the martial arts on one or even two hands, understands the martial arts well enough to teach him or herself through bungling observation of others rather than traditional pedagogy, seems to me to be a distinctly American assumption.

But truly, this interview exposes Lee’s inscrutability.  Hidden by his charm and confidence, we might detect a kind of self-doubt – not in himself, but in the nature of others.  Those others might be his students or fans; in many ways, they remain one in the same.  But Lee masks this unknowable nature with clever aphorisms.  Even his most famous advice, couched in metaphor, deriving from his study of philosophy and the martial arts, comes to us through the filter of Hollywood.  Lee said: “Empty your mind.  Be formless, shapeless—like water.  Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.  You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.  You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.  Now, water can flow or it can crash.  Be water, my friend.”  This came from an episode of the television series Longstreet, in which Lee had a minor supporting role in which he effectively portrayed himself.  Consider, for a moment, how this sort of inscrutability may juxtapose against Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “unknowable” as written in Dictee: “The memory is the entire.  The longing in the face of the lost.  Maintains the missing.  Fixed between the wax and wane indefinite not a sign of progress.  All else age, in time.  Except.  Some are without.” (Cha 38).  She relates here the passage of time, and how all things are subject to time except those that are never given a chance to exist.  She laments that loss of the unknowable, but bows her head in acknowledgement of its unknown un-existence.  It becomes evident that the inscrutability does not remain solely between East and West, but through a dystopic dialectical outcome of both.

As both Cha and Lee represent (Cha more consciously than Lee might have ever admitted), the East in the West becomes lost.  It does not merely become assimilated; the East does not become the West.  But neither does it remain the East.  Is it even Asian?  Is there cultural identity left at all?  Without style, without a framework to learn the martial arts, can it even be called martial arts?  Must it be left to us as meaningless scraps that we can seize simply by claiming to do so?  As Musashi warned, such directionless-ness can inflict serious wounds.  The wounds would not be merely physical, as bad martial arts in a real-life combat situation would inflict.  The wounds may also clearly become cultural.  Upholding tradition is not relevant.  Psychological identity is, and no one is so cosmopolitan that they have no cultural identity.  Even free-verse poetry isn’t free.  Comparing Lee’s complaints about the martial arts might be similar to those poets who dismiss traditional forms of verse like blank verse and sonnets.  But even those literary critics who criticize sonnets the most admit that they could not criticize it until they first understood it, first wrote dozens of their own.  Lee is like that literary critic; his emulating students and fans are like those young poets who skip the sonnet altogether, and never learn its use, its beauty, or its lingering effectiveness as a poetic form.  Lee promotes (inadvertently, I think), a deracinated variety of the martial arts that produces ineffective philistines—both aesthetically and efficaciously.

Re-Valorization, or the great white hope after failure

orientalobscene(Secondary Source)

The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era by Sylvia Shin Huey Chong explores the extreme violence that America tends to associate with Far East Asia.  Through this text, Chong analyzes the effect of the Vietnam War on the American public from the perspective of film and motion picture media.  It sinks violence itself deeper into the soul of the American public.  Hollywood advances this with a number of action films that re-imagine and effectively re-stage the war itself, such as the second Rambo sequel and Uncommon Valor.  It fantasizes America’s defeat in the war to the point where American media begins to fetishize a kind of “oriental” violence, recoiling in horror and gazing starry-eyed at the same time.  Tales of inflicting or suffering extreme violence become synonymous with the lived experience of the “yellow barbarians”.  She talks about Bruce Lee and how his films bring a new angle to the fetishizing of “oriental lore”.  By sublimating violent elements of how America perceives Asian culture, they might placate their own egos.  The goal then becomes transforming into Bruce Lee, to supersede him even, for the “Great White Hope” to now become a master practitioner of kung fu.

Whether by coincidence or a masterful grasp of Americans’ changing tastes in film, Bruce Lee’s rise to stardom did not accompany the resolution of the Vietnam War by accident.  It nails home the fact that a grudging respect for the martial arts began throughout all of America.  Before Bruce Lee, martial arts in America remained limited to Japanese methods (namely judo and karate), and primarily only World War 2 vets practiced and taught.  Such sub-cultures at the time were banished to the corner of society.  With the results of the Vietnam War, the notion that our “John Wayne-esque” military heroes could not vanquish the “pajama-wearing Yellow Peril” suggested that maybe there was something to that “pajama-wearing”.  For many Americans, the fetishizing rarely extended beyond the pajamas, and they received their fill at the box office.  Others yearned to try it themselves, to become the pajama-wearers that defeated John Wayne’s best.  After Bruce Lee’s success in Hollywood, a martial arts craze exploded across the country.  Everyone wanted to be a black belt all of a sudden.  Many people simply called themselves “black belt” with minimal training and effort, over time draining all meaning and worth from the rank.

It reminds me of an essay by this author that explores a key scene in Full Metal Jacket: when the two main protagonists are visiting the capital and try to pick up a hooker.  Her famous “me love you long time” becomes the subject of Chong’s neo-colonialist/feminist analysis in that essay.  But this scene does not end with the pair leaving with the prostitute.  It ends with a couple of young local men robbing them of their camera.  They cruise off with their loot.  But before they do, one puts on a display of kung fu-like bravado to scare off the two Marines.  They stand there dumbfounded, more shocked than scared, and the thieves escape.  The Marines walk home empty-handed, complaining about how they’re treated, but also marveling at the young Vietnamese man’s “moves”.

This shows how even the martial arts are Americanized and bowdlerized.  They become a spectacle, something “cool” but nothing to seriously examine.  Or if an American does decide to seriously examine the martial arts, they plunge in fully, immersing themselves entirely in the mystical violence and exotic philosophy of the martial arts.  They try to become Bruce Lee.

Aggrandizement, or the insistence of the wise sifu

warriorsjourney(Primary Source)

We use the documentary entitled Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey as a primary source here to evaluate the approach his closest associates take to explicate the life and contributions of Bruce Lee.  Footage of his films and outtakes intermingle with interviews with his wife, two of his most famous students, Taky Kimura and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and fellow martial artist Ji Han Jae.  Warner Home Videos released this documentary film in 2000 as a second major documentary, because at this point, his associates recovered the footage from Lee’s final incomplete project The Game of Death, and attached it to this documentary.  Much of the documentary preluding the main footage segment provides an overview of Bruce Lee’s early career and rise to stardom.  Married to his career rise, the interviewees, particularly his wife Linda, at length describe Bruce Lee’s philosophy regarding the martial arts.  Bruce Lee’s film career then becomes conjoined to his martial arts project in life.  He studied philosophy in an American university (where he met Linda) and the critical thinking that such a liberal education encouraged caused him to question the martial arts themselves, which remained so central to his life.  His early death came so suddenly that conspiracy theories to this day abound, even though he passed in a way similar to a few other actors, like Heath Ledger.

However, as a primary source, we must detach from the documentary’s content, which tends to both humanize and valorize the legend himself.  Its production and marketed audience perk our interest more.  The film repeatedly echoes Bruce Lee’s twin goals of creating a cosmopolitan acceptance and higher understanding of the martial arts and an acceptance of non-white actors in mainstream Hollywood media.  The film yet clearly speaks to the American audience, however.  Even as it pays homage to Bruce Lee’s desire to disassociate from the rigidity of tradition, it elevates the American tradition of iconoclasm and rebel-without-a-cluelessness.  In that sense, Lee’s bowdlerization of the martial arts becomes a distinctly American enterprise.  The film transforms Lee himself into an American; the heavy amount of screen time that his Caucasian wife grabs aids in this endeavor.  This documentary bows to Lee’s admirable goal of eliminating bigotry from Hollywood, but only by first transforming Lee into the classic American rebel.  Not only does he become the beloved iconoclast that throws off the “useless mystique” of the martial arts, he becomes the everyman’s manly man.  Consider this narration from the film:

“Lee is his own best example of the potency of his beliefs.  He’s detected his own weaknesses and limitations, and by the application of intellect and dint of hard work, he alone has overcome them, raising his physical ability to a level that borders on the phenomenal.  He routinely performs one-finger push-ups on one hand, executes elevated V-sits for extended periods of time.  He can cannonade an opponent several feet back from a punch he delivers from only one inch away, and his side kicks have so much power that, in the words of one recipient, they feel like being hit by a car.”

How better to appeal to young American men who already idolize Bruce Lee by portraying him outside their favorite films as still larger-than-life?

Thus, we can see how Hollywood and media claim and assimilate non-American culture and make it American.  Instead of changing American culture to accommodate the new phenomena, it changes the phenomena itself to fit better into American culture.  This requires a kind of “dumbing down” and rendering superficial the content of the alien culture in order to appeal to the palate of the American consumer.  It encourages and accentuates even as it juxtaposes hyper-masculinity of sub-cultures against the machismo of mainstream American culture.  Thereby do the martial arts become a spectacle of violence, no different than traditional Western boxing except with kicking.  Consider Peter Bacho’s portrayal of one of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do schools in America (prior to Lee shutting them down) in his anthology Dark Blue Suit.  This takes place in the short story “The Second Room”.  “But unlike Killer and our other tormentors who beat beginners for sport, Roy never did.  He didn’t have to.  Unlike our predators, he’d long since faced the pain and fear of the prize ring to become a man with nothing to prove.”  (Bacho 46).  The cliché of the “man with nothing to prove” creates Bruce Lee’s stand-in in that story, because the “man with nothing to prove” does have to prove something, or else there would be no narrative, no conflict, and no resolution.  No great quest.  No life project.

And like the bowdlerization of the martial arts that Bruce Lee encouraged, and which sold over so well in America, Roy’s character represents the Americanization of the non-America.  A British ex-pat now dedicated to mastering the martial arts from a Chinese “style-less” style.  Where did the “Asian-” go in this story?  To satisfy white America, it disappeared entirely, “immigrant” culture homogenously swallowed up by (Anglo-derived white) culture, just as Teddy Roosevelt insisted it should be.

Assimilation, or the price of the politics of respectability

masculinities(Secondary Source)

A slightly older scholarly work by Jachinson Chan elaborates how popular culture influences Asian-American stereotypes and expectations.  Chan entitled the work Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee.  Chan examines Lee through a literary analysis that other authors applied previously to James Bond.  In that sense, we examine Bruce Lee as a persona who transcends national limitations and represents a dialectical sum between Eastern and Western ideologies.  And yet, how much did he really contribute to this idealized dialectical outcome?  “Asian-Americans rarely embrace him as one of their own, viewing him as a movie star from Hong Kong who then made it big in America, and in that course shared few of their struggles” (Chan 75).  But Chan goes further to demonstrate the complexity of his relationship on the international stage, and how he did alter American perceptions of Asian men during his heyday in the early 1970s.  But Chan points out that “as he broke one set of barriers for Asian American men, he unwittingly created another stereotype…the chop socky, kung fu fighting Asian American” (Chan 91).

Though Chan’s text dates back to the turn of the millennium, much of what he addresses remains true today.  Asian American men continue to face hurdles in the media, rarely given primary roles in films and television series.  Because the martial arts themselves have undergone such a bowdlerization and conventionalization, any assumption that Asian American (men especially) are “chop socky kung fu masters” bears little impact.  It might be assumed as much as the assumption that an Asian American consumes only rice for breakfast, but it rarely causes any pause for fear or respect that the martial arts once commanded.  In that sense, the mystique of the martial arts has been pushed back.  It has become as customary as Chinese New Year’s: something outsiders may or may not appreciate as a spectacle, and rarely understand except as something “different”, but that is all it is.  The martial arts have been boiled down to a kernel of otherness that many assume Asian Americans carry but present no threat to Western ideology, such as the hyper-masculine phallic infatuation with firearms for the purposes of (imagined or real) combat and defense.  Indeed, many American action film stars employ both, such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Jet Li and Jackie Chan may carry on Bruce Lee’s tradition, and indeed have carried it a bit further with high-production quality films.  But genre restrictions of “chop socky, kung fu fighting” protagonists still hamper both stars.  Their even rarer female counterparts like Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang suffer similarly.

The masculinities that Chan describes juxtapose against the portrayal of most Asian American women in turn.  Indeed, without that hyper-masculine caricaturizing, which the chop socky genre inflicts upon Asian American men, Asian American women might likewise transcend racial and gender barriers.  Consider Sylvia Chong’s essay “Me No Love You Long Time” and her analysis of the stereotype of Asian women in films like Full Metal Jacket.  She exhorts us to examine the portrayal of Asian women as whores and perpetrators or victims of extreme violence (e.g., Lucy Liu’s type-casting as a promiscuous sadist).  This promulgates a bigoted racial and sexual binary in mainstream America.  Chong laments, “In the face of such threats, no wonder many turn to the politics of respectability” (Chong 262).  It seems that for both Asian Americans and the martial arts to be ever truly accepted in America, they must drop as much of the “Asian” as white America will allow, and take back-of-the-bus crumbs without complaint.

Spectacle, or the lionheart with nunchaku

enterdragon(Primary Source)

In 1973, Warner Brothers Studios released Enter the Dragon.  It became a box-office bombshell and it catapulted Bruce Lee into overnight prominence.  Though Robert Clouse directed this martial arts masterpiece, Lee choreographed all the fight scenes (and, as expected, fight scenes dominate the bulk of the film).  We even see Lee’s influence on the script.  That ensures that the messages conveyed coincide with Lee’s own philosophies on the martial arts and life itself.

Its release also happened to coincide with the winding down of the Vietnam War.  This connection gives us the “old war buddy” rapport between John Saxon and Jim Kelly’s characters, but also (as discussed in the annotation of Chong’s work) correlates to America’s desire for a revival of pride through violent heroism after the end of a disastrous campaign in the Far East.  Thus, in the film’s narrative, Kelly’s character Williams falls to the villain Han.  But Saxon’s character Roper avenges Williams by defeating Han’s champion Bolo.  He employs a distinctly jeet kune do style of Western boxing combined with a few short kicks thrown in for good measure.  Roper even uses a desperate bite attack, as Lee was known to recommend if all else fails (shown in Lee’s guest appearance on the series Longstreet).  Saxon was one of Lee’s celebrity students in real life, so Saxon needed little additional on-set training.  Of course, Lee’s character Li handles Han himself.

And that final duel, while an echo of his performance in his earlier battle in the Hong Kong film The Big Boss (released as Fists of Fury in the USA), becomes a spectacle of spectacles.  Indeed, the entire premise of the film is an illicit and potentially lethal martial arts tournament held on an island in the South China Sea.  Spectatorship becomes part of the narrative.  The story transports we the audience to the fighting arena.  Yet, in the end, the story disconnects spectators.  The final duel transforms into an entirely private affair between Li and Han within the palatial estate.  The fight carries into a room of mirrors, a trophy hall where Han kept a number of military artifacts from around the world.  The mirrors reflect hero and villain as they fight to the death.  Li remembers his Shaolin abbot’s teachings from the beginning of the movie: “The enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”  Li applies this wisdom literally and breaks the mirrors to throw off Han’s cunning attempts to ambush the hero.

While an obvious plot device, Lee’s hand in the script and choreography cannot be denied.  Indeed, it has been often admitted.  So, why the jejune jump from Buddhist-Shaolin abstraction to literal and concrete application?  The non-sequitur feels ham-handed at best, if typical of all action films.  One possibility seems to me that, if martial arts films were meant to be Lee’s vehicle for spreading his martial philosophy, we cannot be overly generous and assume Hollywood editors spoon-fed we the audience that sort of insipidness.  We must assume Lee himself became lost in the connection between theory and praxis.  And in that disconnect, I find the hollowness of much of Lee’s rhetoric and optimism.  Whether born on the back of the rebellious anti-institutional 1960s, the self-actualizing exercise craze of the 1970s, or the boohoo-we’re-still-the-best wounded American ego following Vietnam craze that was only starting to take off (and would be far more prominent in the 1980s, long after Lee’s death), Lee’s idealism can never seem to find purchase in reality.

This film, while entertaining, exposes the raw inability to synthesize the “Asian” and the “American”.  Attempts to do so, even by Asian-Americans themselves (like Lee), seem to fall tragically short.  Indeed, from this failure, it might be extrapolated that attempts to synthesize any “immigrant” culture to “American” fails.  Always, it results in the subjugation of one or the other (rather than a true synthesis) at best, and more often an unintelligible mix that leaves everyone scratching their heads.

This does not mean that Eastern and Western cultural elements cannot be fused.  And sometimes, such fusions create something new: evidence of dialecticism at work.  Take GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, for example.  The vibrant graphic novel, a medium of decidedly Western origins, becomes a colorful and avant-garde expression of Asian-American family drama.  It tells the tale, with all the in-your-face boldness of drawn shapes and colors of the comic genre, of surviving the war-torn years of 20th-century Vietnam.  It gives us a rediscovery of family and cultural pride by a 2nd-generation Vietnamese-American.  And Tran wrote it in English, using American comic book conventions (with a few deliberate exceptions, like the page of real family photos).  It includes narrative lines that frame the realities of immigration, like “That Vietnam is not the home I left or the country young men devoted their lives fighting to reunite.  Disgusted with what Vietnam became, such just left.  Others chose self-exile.”  These poignant words caption vivid scenes.  Yet, how many other examples of that fusion really satisfy, and how many yield a superficial shell of fusion?  Like Chinese fortune cookies, they taste bland and carry vacuous messages of pretend-wisdom.  But for the average American palate, after a plate of perhaps too spicy food, the gratuitous pabulum proves welcome.

Does the spectacle of Bruce Lee carry greater importance, or is it just fancy showmanship?

Deconstruction, or the annihilation of fantasy

theorizingbruce(Secondary Source)

The book Theorizing Bruce Lee establishes a major and in-depth evaluation of Bruce Lee.   Such analysis not only feels appropriate, but Lee himself, as a student of philosophy during and after his college education, would likely have approved of the project.  But would Lee approve of some of the threads that Bowman plucks out of the tapestry?  More relevantly, would Leeists – those infatuated with the myths of the man, star-struck by his charming and honest personality and talented martial ability – take slight to such a detailed analysis?  Yet, it must be done.  Lee stood as a man of principled honesty.  He would not want myths and misunderstandings to linger.  Bowman examines Lee from almost every angle, every aspect of his life, including his family.  He leaves no dark alley or shadowy nook uninspected.  In so doing, the author gives us readers a greater and more appreciative understanding of how the martial arts have influenced and been influenced by Western culture, American tropes of violence and combat, and the fantasies surrounding all of it – all of which Bruce Lee himself became an icon and spokesperson.

In one of Bowman’s more severe moments, he examines Lee in context of American culture in the early 1970s.  Bowman writes, “If what Bruce Lee preached once seemed radical and emancipatory but now seems saccharine and ideological, can he in some sense be called to account for what ‘the concept of self-actualization’ has since become?  Indeed, did he actively contribute to this discourse in the first place?  Or was he himself already some kind of expression of an emergent discourse?” (Bowman 200).  He discusses a kind of Althusserian approach to ideology, juxtaposed against Derridean acknowledgement of context: that one cannot understand a historical context without changing context in the process of the examination.  Thus, was Lee really an anti-institutional icon of the martial arts, disposing of “styles” and showing us all the path to individual self-expression and autodidactic mastery?  Or did he generate such a view only once in America, subject to free-thinking and free-wheeling West Coast university education of the 1960s?  He seemed content enough in his formal education in Wing Chun back in Hong Kong, under the famous Yip Man, before moving to America.  Did Lee change the West?  Or did the West change Lee first?

One thing remains certain: Lee did not only challenge the traditions, the crystallization of styles, in the martial arts.  He also challenged the pedagogical methods by questioning the use of withholding style “secrets” for years (decades, sometimes) until a student has demonstrated total loyalty and trustworthiness to the master.  Of course, one thing the celebrity nature of his own teaching methods reveals is that Lee never learned any secrets.  Like the Angry White Man advertising “techniques of lethal killing power that your sensei doesn’t want you to know!” in a rag like Black Belt magazine, Lee may very well have represented the impatient drop-out who, outraged that his teacher would not simply trust him with dangerous secrets in a short stretch of time, proclaims to the world that “there are no secrets!”  He began training in the martial arts at age 16.  He ceased formal training within three years – still an adolescent – when he moved to the USA, where he trained on his own thereafter.  Honing his body into as close to physical perfection as he could, Lee mitigated for his lack of sophistication with mastery of the simplistic.  In real combat, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as Bowman attests.  Too many myths about the martial arts spring up about borderline mystical powers that are, suffice to say, ridiculous.  Indeed, in traditional Okinawan karate, masters were said to train a single technique (e.g., a straight punch) for years at a time.  Fancy spinning and leaping kicks and complex grappling are always the hallmarks of spectacular sportsmanship, not realistic combat.

In Lee’s condemnation of traditional pedagogy and organization, however, we find a rebellious and almost puerile rejection of realistic human experience.  Styles may calcify and we can agree that this presents problems, but styles also emblemize hermeneutic frameworks by which the novice may learn without the distractions (and delusions) of somehow expecting to “express oneself honestly”.  Furthermore, Lee’s desire to marry a Western sense of empirical objectivity (“science”, he calls it) to the Eastern body of subjective artfulness gives us a peek into the intelligence and ambition of Lee’s optimistic hopes.  However, such a union proves forced, like so many arranged marriages always are.  Consider Anil’s Ghost, when Anil – a Western-trained forensic anthropologist – visits Sri Lanka on behalf of the UN, searching for human rights violations.  Consider Palipana’s remarks to Anil: “’There has always been slaughter in passion’, she heard Palipana say.  In the dark he continued speaking: ‘Even if you are a monk, like my brother, passion or slaughter will meet you someday.  For you cannot survive as a monk if society does not exist.  You renounce society, but to do so you must first be a part of it, learn your decision from it.  This is the paradox of retreat.’” (Ondaatje 103).  The relationship between East and West, science and art, reality and fantasy, and all other binaries we can imagine, remains a divergent dialogue of push-and-pull, a contest of energies and ideas.  There is never a synthesis.  It may be impossible to achieve without subjugating one under the other so profoundly that the subordinate is all but destroyed, and at best left as a memory.

Works Cited

Bacho, Peter. “The Second Room”, Dark Blue Suit. University of Washington Press, 1997.

Bowman, Paul. Theorizing Bruce Lee. Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2010.

Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview. Perf. Bruce Lee, Pierre Berton. Pierre Berton Show, 9 December 1971.  Film.

Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey. Dir. John Little. Perf. Bruce Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto, Ji Han Jae, John Little, Linda Lee Cadwell, Taky Kimura. Warner Home Video, 2000. Film.

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. University of California Press, 2001. Orig. Tanam Press, 1982.

Chan, Jachinson. Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee. Routledge, New York & London, 2001.

Chong, Sylvia Shin Huey. The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era. Duke University Press. Durham & London, 2012.

Chong, Sylvia Shin Huey. “Me No Love You Long Time”. Asian-American Literary Review, (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War. Vol 6, Issue 2. Fall/Winter, 2015. 255-263.

Enter the Dragon. Dir. Robert Clouse. Perf. Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly. Concord Production Inc., Warner Bros, 1973. Film.

Musashi, Miyamoto. The Book of Five Rings. Trans. Thomas Cleary. Shambhala Publications, 1993.

Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. Vintage International Press, 2001.

Sporkguy, “Enter the Dragon: Nunchuk Scene”. Youtube, 7 June 2007. Web.  17 April 2016.

Tran, GB, illustrated by GB Tran. Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. Villard Books, 2010.


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