Bruce Lee: Diversity, Stereotypes, and the Open Mind

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

To understand Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973) is to know him not only as a martial performer but also as a Chinese-American immigrant in the fifties and sixties. Lee's heritage, cultural clash, and labeling as an outsider informed not only his thinking but in how he saw the martial arts — which were to Lee an expression of life. Though Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, what mattered wasn't his birth certificate or that he was an American, but rather what people saw on the surface, another "Chinaman" — that "American" meant a standard look and sound. Hollywood treated him no differently, even taking one of his ideas and casting a white actor: David Carradine. That show was Kung Fu.

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.
— Bruce Lee

Lee would not allow himself to be an Asian minstrel performing to white expectations and Hollywood would not accept an Asian man as a lead. This was a time in Hollywood when white actors in yellowface still portrayed “Orientals.” Whether it be race or styles, Lee believed these were arbitrary social constructs made by man, and he decided these limiting beliefs were not for him.

In one of his most famous interviews, Lee said:

You know what I want to think of myself, as a human being. Because, I don’t want to sound like — as Confucius say — but under the sky, under the heaven, man, there is but one family. It just so happens, man, that people are different.

Now in this context, reconsider the meaning of Lee's most famous quote, given in that same interview:

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.

Frustrated with Hollywood, Lee moved to Hong Kong to create his own success. Lee decided if he were to be an outsider, he would make his outsider message so large, that it could not be ignored by the West.

To grow, to discover, we need involvement which is something I experience every day. Sometimes good, sometimes frustrating.

When an interviewer asked Lee about teaching martial arts to actors, Lee explained what he was really teaching through the martial arts:

All types of knowledge ultimately mean self-knowledge. … They want to learn to express themselves through some movement. Be it anger, be it determination, or whatsoever. Therefore, he is paying me to show him in combative form the art of expressing the human body.

The interviewer then asked Lee if that wasn't in a sense, acting?

It might sound too philosophical, but it’s unacting acting or acting unacting. … So what I’m saying, actually, you see, it’s a combination of both. I mean here is natural instinct and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony. Not, if you have one to the extreme, you’ll be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, you become, all of a sudden, a mechanical man. No longer a human being. So it is a successful combination of both, so, therefore, it’s not pure naturalness or unnaturalness.

This was Chinese Taoist philosophy in application. Lee spent much of his time reading books and listening to tapes on philosophy. Philosophy, not martial arts, was Bruce Lee's area of study in college. In martial arts, Lee was only classically trained from 1957 – 1959. Though impactful, it was a very short period. Much of Lee's knowledge came from self-study.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.
— Matsuo Basho

Being like Bruce Lee is not about moving like he did, but reading what he read, and delving into the philosophies that formed his mind. Not only to parrot sound bites but to understand where these ideas were coming from. This is what Lee tried to do, often playing the same philosophy tapes he would listen to in front of his students (from Alan Watts to Jiddu Krishnamurti). This is why the followers of Bruce Lee are unable to reach others like Lee; they are teaching his moves without the deep philosophy. Becoming copies of copies, mechanical teachers who imitate philosophy without understanding it, turning Lee's words into clichés, rather than reading what Lee read to grasp the meaning. Becoming like the tape recorder Lee used rather than like Lee.

Lee was eager, both physically and mentally. The problem of the world today is that people are divided in their eagerness, physical or mental but not both. Lazy in one or the other or both, but rarely enthusiastic for both.

The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.
— Sir William Francis Butler

Lee constantly looked for ways to apply philosophical concepts to martial arts, where martial arts could act as a conduit for philosophy. The most famous and controversial being that there were no styles, just as there were no categories of people. (Remember, this was a time of civil rights where equality itself was a controversial idea.) Whether it be political or martial arts establishment, this threatened their institutional source of power. If it were only about fighting, people would not have been as upset. The idea of mixing styles for effectiveness already existed. What threatened people was that Lee was not talking about fighting, he was using fighting as a metaphor to speak about everything: from interracial couples, teaching all walks of life, treating people equally, and challenging American identity. But that is the nature of Taoism, not ways, but one Way. Not classifications but one broad understanding.

Lee wasn't talking about the blending of styles or the mixing of people but that these categories were illusions, that they did not exist. To say you were mixing them would be an admission of natural divisions, which Lee did not believe in. We make speak differently but all languages are just dialects built from grunts.

We cannot dismiss that Bruce Lee lived in a time where signs that read "No Chinese or dogs allowed," were common. And this was during the height of the sixties, the progressive era, in San Francisco, the progressive city. Back then, Bruce Lee was not Bruce Lee — in the era he lived in, he was was not treated with the same respect he is given now. He faced constant discrimination. It's easy to retroactively assume he must have been as beloved as he is now, but the reason he is beloved now is because of what he overcame then. Think about this, interracial marriage was only legalized in the US in 1967. Bruce Lee began dating Linda Emery in 1961. Not only was that shocking and unacceptable, it was more so that it was an Asian man with a white woman. Though a white man with an Asian woman has gained acceptance, the opposite is still uncomfortable for some. It was only worse back then. The two married in 1964, three years before it was federally recognized. He was not only an outcast in white America, but also in the Asian community. These events shaped his beliefs.

We know Lee's physical prowess but forgot his message, his underlying life philosophy. (Turning most of his quotes into inspirational workout platitudes.) Lee believed in evolving to a higher consciousness, and that meant thinking beyond petty differences.

On social constructs and illusory divisions amongst groups, Lee said:

You see, actually, I do not teach, you know, karate, because I do not believe in styles anymore. I mean I do not believe that there is such thing as, like, a Chinese way of fighting or a Japanese way of fighting, or whatever way of fighting because unless a human being has three arms and four legs, there can be no different form of fighting.

And just as there can be no different styles, "unless a human being has three arms and four legs," there can be no different types of people. Not Chinese, Japanese, or American, only human beings, one family under heaven.

The key to Bruce Lee's world view on human constructs and arbitrary divisiveness can best be explained by this quotation:

But, basically, we only have two hands and two feet. So styles tend to, not only separate man because they have their own doctrines and the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change. But, if you do not have styles, if you just say, ‘Here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely?’ Now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization. That way is a process of continuing growth.

If you asked him what political party he belonged to, he would probably say, "I do not believe in styles. Styles tend to separate man. But if you do not have styles, you can just say, here I am as a human being." We all buy into arbitrary doctrines about ourselves, others, and the way we ought to live our lives.

On being a human being, Lee said:

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.

So why is there such confusion over Bruce Lee's philosophy? It traces back to his usage of the term "martial arts." There is how we generally mean it, a militaristic art of combat, and there is Lee's definition of martial arts:

To me, ultimately, martial art means honestly expressing yourself. Now it is very difficult to do. I mean it is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling and then feel like pretty cool and all that. Or I can make all kinds of phony things, you see what I mean? And be blinded by it. Or I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself and to express myself honestly, that, my friend is very hard to do. And you have to train. You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it, it’s there! When you want to move, you are moving and when you move you are determined to move. Not taking one inch, not anything less than that! If I want to punch, I’m going to do it, man, and I’m going to do it! So that is the type of thing you have to train yourself into it — to become one with it. You think [snaps his fingers], it is.

Having a closed mind is like being trapped in a repeating closed loop. Lee said:

Because one does not want to be disturbed, to be made uncertain, he establishes a pattern of conduct, of thought, a pattern of relationship to man, etc. Then he becomes a slave to the pattern and takes the pattern to be the real thing.

You cannot think beyond your programming — your patterns — and if you cannot, then you are not really thinking. You are a "mechanical man." Then what is living? Lee said:

Real living is living for others.

Perhaps we only focus on Lee's martial arts moves and isolate it only to that domain (martial arts icon rather than cultural) because his life philosophy, to this day, makes people uncomfortable. (Some reading this now will feel that way.) But after Enter the Dragon, he became a symbol for civil rights activists, especially in the black community.

Lee saw himself as a cultural bridge between the East and West. According to Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee's closest friend: "He told me that he could educate people about the East more in films than in books."

And on his stardom, Lee said:

Well, let me say this — first of all, the word ‘superstar’ really turns me off, and I’ll tell you why. The word ‘star’ man, it’s an illusion. It’s something that the public calls you.

Lee did not want to be a superstar but rather an educator. To look past the skin or any preconceived notions and judge a person on the basis of his or her character.

I do not look upon myself as a star. I really don’t. I mean believe me, man, when I say it.

Not only enduring after his death, Lee's legacy only continues to grow, inspiring people from all walks of life. And that was always his goal.

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