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Bruce Lee Podcast

Aug 29, 2018

How did Bruce Lee become a philosopher? Bruce wrote an essay on why he got interested in philosophy and what he hoped to do with it.

Bruce Lee majored in philosophy at the University of Washington.

At the beginning of this essay Bruce addresses the question people kept asking him after the completion of Big Boss:

“What was it that made me give up career in the States and return to Hong Kong to shoot Chinese films?”

Bruce writes:

“Perhaps the general feeling was that it was all hell to have to work on Chinese films since the Chinese film industry was still so underdeveloped. To the above question I find no easy explanation except that I am Chinese and I have to fulfill my duty as a Chinese.”

“The truth is, I am an American-born Chinese. That I should become an American-born Chinese was accidental, or it might have been my father’s arrangement. At that time, the Chinese inhabitants in the States, mostly from the province of Kwangtung, were very much homesick: nostalgia was held towards everything that was associated with their homeland.”

“In this context, Chinese opera, with its unmistakably unique Chinese characteristics, won the day. My old mam was a famous artist of the Chinese opera and was popularly accepted by the people. Hence he spent a lot of time performing in the States. I was born when he brought my mother along during one of his performance trips.”

“Yet my father did not want me to receive an American education. When I reached my school age, he sent me back to Hong Kong—his second homeland—to live with his kinsmen. It could have been a matter of heredity or environment; I cam to be greatly interested in the making of films when I was studying in Hong Kong. My father was then well acquainted with lots of movie stars and directors. They brought me into the studio and gave me some roles to play. I started off as a bit player and gradually became the star of the show.”

“That was a very crucial experience in my life. For the first time I was confronted with genuine Chinese culture. The sense of being part of it was so strongly felt that I was enchanted. I didn’t realize it then, nor did I see how great an influence environment can have on the molding of one’s character and personality. Nevertheless, the notion of “being Chinese” was duly conceived.”

It was being a child actor that really immersed Bruce in Chinese culture and being around Chinese artists fed his creativity.

“From boyhood to adolescence, I presented myself as a troublemaker and was greatly disapproved of by my elders. I was extremely mischievous, aggressive, hot-tempered, and fierce. Not only my “opponents” of more or less my age stayed out of my way, but even the adults sometimes gave in to my temper. I never knew what it was that made me so pugnacious. The first thought that came into my mind whenever I met somebody I disliked was, “Challenge him!” Challenge him with what? The only concrete thing that I could think of was my fists. I thought that victory gained by way of force was not real victory.”

As a kid, Bruce was filled with an intense energy and did not know how to handle it except by challenging others. But later on he came to regret those actions.

“When I enrolled in the University of Washington and was enlightened by philosophy, I regretted all my previous immature assumptions.

My majoring in philosophy was closely related to the pugnacity of my childhood. I often ask myself these questions:

  • What comes after victory?
  • Why do people value victory so much?
  • What is “glory”?
  • What kind of “victory” is “glorious”?

When my tutor assisted me in choosing my courses, he advised me to take up philosophy because of my inquisitiveness. He said, “Philosophy will tell you what man lives for.” When I told my friends and relatives that I had picked up philosophy, they were all amazed. Everybody thought I had better go into physical education since the only extra-curricular activity that I was interested in, from my childhood until I graduated from my secondary school, was Chinese martial arts. As a matter of fact, martial arts and philosophy seem to be antithetical to each other. But I think that the theoretical part of Chinese martial arts seems to be getting indistinct.”

“Every action should have its why and wherefore; and there ought to be a complete and proficient theory to back up the whole concept of Chinese martial arts. I wish to infuse the spirit of philosophy into martial arts; therefore I insisted on studying philosophy.”

Bruce could see that there was a fissure between martial arts and philosophy teachings. Growing up, Bruce was likely too young to appreciate the philosophy his sifu Yip Man shared with him while teaching him martial arts. Now with some distance and age Bruce wanted to bring philosophy back into this martial arts practice.

“I have never discontinued studying and practicing martial arts. While I am tracing the source and history of Chinese martial arts, this doubt always comes up: Now that every branch of Chinese gung fu has its own form, its own established style, are these the original intentions of their founders? I don’t think so.”

This bold statement is likely why Bruce Lee received criticism from the Chinese gung fu establishment; they did not appreciate him questioning their methods. 

Bruce was clear with his intention to infuse philosophy into martial arts. He recognized that the wholeness of the art was being compartmentalized and made less distinct by the different styles.

“Formality could be a hindrance to progress; this is applicable to everything, including philosophy.”

People can be very rigid about philosophy. It becomes one school of thought versus another, creating arguments over which philosophy is right. Arguing about who is better hinders growth and progress.

“Philosophy brings my jeet kune do into a new realm in the sphere of martial arts, and jeet kune do brings my acting career to a new horizon.”

The philosophy is like water, it cannot be contained to one area. Bruce realized that if he applied philosophy to one area of his life, like martial arts, he could apply it to other parts such as his acting career.

Bruce moved from needing to win to questioning what it was to have victory and why people find it important. He remained present in his life and because of his naturally inquisitive nature was able to shift easily through needing victory to asking what comes after victory. Bruce remained curious about everything he did in his life. He was able to reflect on his experiences, see how he learned from them, and acted according to what he had learned.

Pause, breathe, and ask: Why am I doing this?

What is happening next for you that you are really excited about?

This is about going deep under our superficial layers and see what is really driving us.

What Bruce Lee is modeling in this essay is: be curious about this philosophy and energy that is you.

Take time to reflect on your life and energy. What do you see?


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