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Bruce Lee, JKD, and Wushu

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BRUCE LEE, JKD, AND WUSHU: ANALYZING THE WAY OF THE INTERCEPTING FIST

By: Matthew Lee
Written October 11th, 2014

“Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation.”
— Bruce Lee, Actor, Martial Artist, and the Founder of Jeet Kune Do

Recently, I was asked to write about Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist), also abbreviated as JKD, and Bruce Lee’s views on the effectiveness of traditional martial arts. The thing is, anyone who has done any amount of research on either of these two things knows that they are irrevocably linked; they have a cause and effect relationship. Bruce sought to find a way to further evolve the practice of martial arts in the contemporary environment, which he undoubtedly did. His influence on the martial arts world today is indisputable, which as earned him a place of respect among many modern martial artists, and has become a frequent topic of discussion in various martial arts communities. However, what is very rarely discussed is an objective view of Bruce Lee’s views, including their shortcomings. So, I will be writing about my own opinion about Bruce Lee’s views on the value of traditional martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, and how they relate to Wushu. By referring to Wushu, I am referring collectively to Chinese martial arts, which will include, but not be limited to, modern Wushu.

Before I begin to talk about Bruce’s development of Jeet Kune Do, let me start by first outlining his training background. According to Bruce’s friend and student, Dan Inosanto, “When Bruce arrived in the US he (already) had training in Wu Style Tai Chi, sometimes in Hong Kong called Ng-ga. And he of course had training in western boxing. He had training in fencing from his brother, that’s Epee, that goes from toe to head. He had obviously trained in Wing Chun. And the other area was the training he had in Buk Pai or Tam Toi, he was twelve sets in Tam Toi. And I believe he had trained with a Choy Li Fut man.” Of course, virtually everyone who knows about Bruce Lee has heard about his training in Wing Chun (咏春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”) under the Ip Man lineage. To be specific, Bruce trained under William Cheung and Wong Shun Leung, who was a renowned street fighter in Hong Kong, having an undefeated record in unsanctioned “bei mo” (比武;bǐwǔ, literally “compete martial”) fights. It is interesting to note that Bruce also participated in these kinds of contests, as well having had a reputation of frequently getting into fights, both in school and on the street during his youth in Hong Kong. Earlier, Bruce had received instruction in Wu (吳; Wú) Style Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) from his father, a famous opera actor. Another obvious influence of Bruce’s martial arts training, as we can also see in his films, is that of Western style boxing. In fact, not many people are aware that not only was Bruce an avid fan of boxing, but that he also did in fact fight competitively, having won the 1958 Hong Kong Inter-School Amateur Boxing Championships. The “Buk Pai” and “Tam Toi” that Dan Inosanto refers to are Cantonese pronunciations of Mandarin “běipài” (北派; literally, “northern school”) and “Tan Tui” (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), which Bruce learned under Siu Hon Sang; his supposed reasons for learning such styles were his desire to teach in America and a need for “showy moves”, in the words of the biography Bruce Lee by Rachel A. Koestler-Grack, to do so. Indeed, the fast and high kicks which can be seen in his movies can be attributed to his strong, albeit short training in Tan Tui. As mentioned, Bruce also had experience in Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), though the exact nature and extent of this experience is unknown. Additionally, Bruce apparently learned épée fencing from his older brother, Peter Lee. Later on, Bruce allegedly exchanged and learned jujutsu from Gene LeBell. As we can see, Bruce Lee’s training background was very wide. Bruce even learned one of his most favorite techniques, the sidekick, from Jhoon Rhee, dubbed the “Father of American Taekwondo.”

But Bruce’s understanding of martial arts goes beyond these aforementioned styles. In Bruce’s first published book, Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense, Bruce lists the various Chinese martial arts styles like “Ying Yee”, “Bart Kuar Clan”, “Lost Track School”, and “Ch’a K’ung”, many of which are clearly Cantonese-derived pronunciations of Mandarin Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíngyìquán, literally “shape-will fist”), Baguazhang (八卦掌; bāguàzhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm), Mizongyi (迷蹤艺; mízōngyì, Lost Track Skill, also known as 迷蹤拳; mízōngquán, Lost Track Fist) and Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), respectively, as well as southern styles such as “Hung K’ung” (洪拳; Hóngquán, Hong Fist, also known as 洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family/Hung Gar), “Choy Ga” (蔡家; Càijiā, Cai Family/Choy Gar), “Fut Ga” (佛家; Fójiā, “Buddhist Family”), “Mok Ga” (莫家; Mòjiā, Mo Family/Mok Gar), “Li Ga” (李家; Lǐjiā, Li Family/Lei Gar), and “Lau Ga” (刘家; Liújiā, Liu Family/Lau Gar). Based on these mentions alone, it is clear that Bruce had an understanding, or at least an awareness, of the various styles of Chinese martial arts. It is the collection of all these styles that became the foundation of Bruce’s martial arts knowledge. However, his views and opinions on these styles are another matter.

Bruce Lee Sparring 2

Throughout his training, Bruce observed that the training of traditional martial arts styles, namely that of traditional Chinese martial arts, was very limiting. From his perspective, there was an abundance of traditions and doctrines that could not be questioned and had to be followed, and an apparent lack of live training and “practical” training. When reaching these limitations, Bruce constantly felt frustrated. But it was not until the infamous challenge match with Wong Jack Man that Bruce would finally start reshaping his training and martial arts practice into what we now know as Jeet Kune Do.

Bruce Lee’s development of Jeet Kune Do was taken from what Bruce deemed the most efficient and practical ideas and fighting styles that he studied. Before he officially coined the term “Jeet Kune Do”, Bruce Lee named his practice “Jun Fan Gung Fu”, with “Jun Fan” (振藩;zhènfān) being the Cantonese pronunciation of his Chinese birth name. The concept of Wing Chun’s “centerline” and trapping, the directness and simplicity of boxing, and the additional footwork of fencing, as well as its idea of the “stop hit” formed the basis of most of the initial Jun Fan Gung Fu practice. According to Dan Inosanto, Bruce “also borrowed from French Savate.” Essentially, Bruce Lee’s practice of Jeet Kune Do actualized the idea of combining the best elements of different styles to make the most efficient mix. Bruce Lee’s JKD maxim is, “Research your own experience”, “Absorb what is useful”, “Discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.”

The practice and idea of Jeet Kune Do has drawn comparisons to modern MMA (mixed martial arts), which is the practice of combining to create the most “efficient” and “practical” fighting method. Donnie Yen, who considers Bruce Lee his mentor, is also a fan of MMA, and asserts that this kind of practice is the most authentic form of fighting. Such parallels have been drawn to the point where UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) President Dana White dubbing Bruce Lee “the father of mixed martial arts.” The main thing that distinguishes JKD and MMA is the fact that modern MMA is a sport, and thus has rule and regulations, whereas Bruce was mainly concerned with “no rules.” However, Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, states that her father would have loved to have watched mixed martial arts. Dan Inosanto also affirms that Bruce no doubt would have loved BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu), a prominent style of grappling in MMA, as well, and would have undoubtedly picked it up if he were still alive.

However, it is important to understand that Bruce did not want Jeet Kune Do to be seen as a standalone style in and of itself, as styles are “crystallization[s]” and have “limitations.” There are various branches of thought within Jeet Kune Do that try to maintain a specific method or technique in practice, which is what Bruce was trying to counteract with Jeet Kune Do, and fundamentally contradicts what he was trying to achieve. Even sport MMA can be said to have a standard formula of Muay Thai with BJJ; relatively few fighters in competitive MMA have a training background that deviates from this combination. Of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee has said, “a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it.” Thus, based on what the man himself says, I can only infer that Jeet Kune Do is purely and simply a philosophical idea of fluid adaptation and evolution “like water” (see what I did there?), and that, as he himself says, “Jeet Kune Do is a name, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not be carried on one’s back.” But this does not mean that Bruce did not have specific methods in his practice.

A notable trait of Bruce’s practice that was radically different from traditional martial arts styles was the fact that he did not teach forms. As Bruce Lee said, forms training was like “dry land swimming.” Bruce’s biggest gripe with preset methods like forms and other traditions was his observation that real fighting was unpredictable and constantly changing, and that these training methods were an inaccurate and ultimately useless method of simulation for the real thing, in this case, “real fighting.” Rather, he advocated the practice of full-contact sparring, which he was doing years before the official development of American kickboxing. Again, as stated before, Jeet Kune Do’s focus was efficiency, practicality and combat realism, which Bruce’s emphasis on “alive training” and sparring attempted to bring out. Thus, the specific use of technique was not based on, but on simplicity and efficiency. Much like Wing Chun, hand techniques were restricted to the upper body, and leg techniques to the lower body in Jeet Kune Do for efficiency. Dan Inosanto states that Bruce avoided extraneous techniques such as high kicks, while they were put to good use in his films, he would “seldom use” in actual sparring and fighting unless he was “playing around” with his opponent.

On other arts, which he did not study yet still had an opinion of, Bruce was outspoken with his criticisms on what he saw as the stylistic limitations of each art. On Karate, he believed that the practice too restrictive, and that the point sparring seen in Karate tournaments was not an accurate representation of real fighting. And on traditional Chinese martial arts, Bruce was quoted as saying, “It looks good, but it doesn’t work.”

Modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, can be said to the closest embodiment of this observation. Modern Wushu is standardized into two practices; Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of choreographed forms and routines for performance and competition, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of full-contact sparring, also known as Sanda (散打;sàndǎ, free fighting). Indeed, Taolu can be interpreted to be what Bruce says to be “really fancy movement.” Given Bruce’s stated opinions and viewpoints on certain practice of martial arts, it is my observation, as well as the observation of a friend, senior, and coach of mine, that Bruce would have hated modern Wushu Taolu. However, there is a possibility that he would have liked Sanshou, given its context of full-contact sparring and similar emphasis of fighting efficiency with Jeet Kune Do, albeit exclusively in Chinese martial arts.

Bruce Lee Sparring 3

But as great as Bruce was, it is also important to acknowledge that his understanding of these styles, including the Chinese martial arts, was not complete. Firstly, it is important to understand that, as great as Bruce was in his training of Wing Chun, his understanding of the style was not complete. This was mainly due to Bruce’s own circumstances, which was a combination of Ip Man’s other students pressuring the Wing Chun Grandmaster to disallow instruction to Bruce under the pretense of his partially non-Chinese (Bruce was part German on his mother’s side) heritage, as well as his forced emigration back to his birthplace of the US after legal trouble in Hong Kong from his frequent fighting. But although, prior to his departure from Hong Kong, the remainder of Bruce Lee’s experience was overseen by William Cheung and Wong Shun Leung. Dan Inosanto also points out that although Bruce may have studied other methods and styles, such as Muay Thai, and extracted what he found to be useful, he also did not possess a mastery or high level of understanding of them.

Another example is that in his famous 1971 interview on the Pierre Burton Show, Bruce called Taijiquan, “more of an exercise for the elderly…” While this observation is not untrue, Taijiquan is much more than just that. Based on my personal, albeit limited experience having practiced traditional Chen Style Taijiquan, I can say that Taijiquan is very much a martial art, and is traditionally trained with this purpose in mind. Although it is true that forms and fighting are two different things, as I said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, traditional Taijiquan still has a martial focus. I also said in “‘Traditional’ In Modern Wushu: Clarifying the Distinction”, the forms in traditional Taijiquan have a martial application or purpose for virtually every movement. And then there is the additional practice of push hands (推手; tuīshǒu), which is a sensitivity drill, and while it is different structure and appearance, it is not unlike sticking hands (魑手; chīshǒu, literally “sticky hands”) of Wing Chun in focus and purpose.

Perhaps the biggest source of misunderstanding is the use of the term “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu) to denote Chinese martial arts, more well-known by its Western variant, “kung fu.” Bruce, being the sole source of Chinese martial arts’ popularization in the West, and arguably the world, also coined the term “gongfu” to refer to the general practice of Chinese martial arts. As I’ve established multiple times in previous write-ups, “gōngfu” in Chinese literally means “skill” achieved through effort and/or hard work over time, not Chinese martial arts. Wushu is in actuality the more literal term for martial arts (武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method). And while “wǔshù” and “gōngfu” can be synonymous to refer to Chinese martial arts, the fact is that they are not mutually exclusive. On this basis alone, anyone can have “gōngfu” in cooking, calligraphy, and farming, not just Chinese martial arts. But in the context of historical use, “gōngfu” has been used by traditional Chinese martial arts practitioners to refer to traditional Chinese martial arts, whereas “wǔshù” is used to refer to modern Wushu. However, this does not change the fact that this lingual mistranslation still exists to this day.

Although the majority of Bruce’s statements and observations about traditional martial arts, including that of Chinese martial arts, seem to hold true, he may have given them too little credit, because he did not possess a full understanding of them. First of all, MANY traditional martial artists who have trained for and experienced fighting recognize that forms and fighting are not the same thing. In fact, many such martial artists, including Wushu masters, advocated sparring, hence the creation of such methods as Sanshou. Furthermore, not only do these masters acknowledge that forms and fighting are two different areas of training, but many such masters today stress the need for change and adaptability to today’s fighting environments. Even the idea of mixing styles together to further evolve practice has existed in traditional Chinese martial arts way before Bruce Lee’s version. Bruce Lee’s philosophy of Jeet Kune Do was no doubt revolutionary to modern martial arts, but it is not new.

In modern Wushu, the standardized disciplines of both Taolu and Sanshou can be said to be literal “mixed martial arts”, albeit not in the same sense as modern MMA today. For Taolu, the main style of forms are Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), and Taijiquan , all of which are compiled from traditional styles of northern Wushu, southern Wushu, and traditional Taijiquan, respectively. Changquan is standardized from Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), Huaquan (華拳; huáquán; Flower Fist), and Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán; Red Fist). Nanquan is based off of Hung Gar, Choy Gar, Lei Gar, Lau Gar, and Mok Gar, and Choy Li Fut. Taijiquan is based off of the five recognized traditional Taiji styles of Chen (陈; Chén), Yang (杨; Yáng), Sun (孙; Sūn), Wu, and Hao (郝; Hǎo, also known as 武; Wǔ). Sanshou take its historical roots from the Whampoa (Huangpu) Military Academy’s hand-to-hand combat program, which was formulated from a combination of efforts from traditional Wushu masters, as well as Soviet advisers; the goal of its creation was revitalize and modernize Wushu sparring by researching and using modern combat methods. In the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Jet Li Story” by Martha Burr, Jet’s training as a modern Wushu Taolu athlete and performer is likened to “Bruce Lee’s philosophy of taking what is useful from the different martial arts and finding your own way and your own individual expression”, as he had gained experience “from all the wushu masters he encountered, including Beijing opera actors and dancers.” Perhaps the most prominent and appropriate example of combining styles to make a new, evolved system of practice in Chinese martial arts is Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist). Ma Style Tongbei’s practice is essentially a combination of the traditional Wushu styles of Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist), Piguazhang (劈挂掌; pīguàzhǎng, literally “chop-hanging palm”), Tan Tui, Chuo Jiao (戳脚;chuōjiǎo, literally “poking feet”) and Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), which Jet Li learned, taking each style and integrating them into one (interestingly enough, one of the Ma Style Tongbei’s masters, Ma Mingda, is the head of the Bruce Lee Research Association in Guangdong, China). The only difference is that between these examples of Chinese martial arts and the idea, or at least the interpretation, of Jeet Kune Do as well as that of mixed martial arts today, is that Jeet Kune Do and mixed martial arts today seem to lack a solid foundation to build upon, that traditional practices like Chinese martial arts have.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely LOVE Bruce Lee’s philosophy; it speaks volumes not only about the practice of martial arts, but that of living out real life and real life situations. Mixing it up, evolving and not limiting yourself to one style is a great training mentality to follow. However, blindly following this mentality without a concrete start in one thing can be counterproductive to the aspiring martial artist, especially without something to work on, some form of solid foundation built from prior experience. After all, we as humans have a finite capacity for initially learning new things, and trying to absorb so many things at once can work against oneself if one does not have a base to start with. A strong, even sometimes traditional, martial arts foundation, can even help one who is trying to jump into this philosophy with no experience at all. Even Bruce Lee himself is an example of this, having had a solid foundation in Wing Chun, and then later adding Western boxing and fencing to his framework. However, many that attempt to follow in Bruce’s footsteps often miss and lack a similar kind of foundation that he had to make everything work so well. Dan Inosanto himself has even backtracked to train in Wing Chun under various instructors, for the purpose of better understanding the root and foundation of Bruce Lee’s JKD. As Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, a two-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Wushu Games double medalist, has said on his “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Guangxi Express” with an analogous rhetorical question, “…how can you hope to…create some sort of jazz music (Zixuan) if you don’t even know your scales and can’t play on key?” Before we can go and branch out, it is best that we have some form of solid foundation or specialization in something, regardless of style, to work off of beforehand. And while specific styles may indeed have their fair share of limitations and shortcomings, we certainly need to be able to absorb a complete foundation first, before we can advance and evolve on our own. It is this kind of completeness that Chinese martial arts and other traditional styles have to offer. What Bruce’s approach and outlook on martial arts would have been like, had he had access to a more complete knowledge of traditional martial arts, is unknown. Had Bruce Lee possessed this kind of knowledge about traditional martial arts, I believe that it is highly possible that he would have gone back and explored more of what these traditional styles, including those of Chinese martial arts, had to offer.

There is no denying that Bruce was a progressive in martial arts. He helped to revolutionize the way martial artists today think about their practice, so his influence even today cannot be refuted. Many readers may believe that I am attempting to pick apart Bruce Lee and his philosophy simply because I may disagree with some of his observations about Chinese martial arts and Wushu, but I can say with a straight face that this is not at all my intention. Bruce Lee was, and always will be, my first childhood hero, and—even between the two other most prominent Chinese martial arts actors, Jackie Chan and Jet Li—I have always gone back to Bruce, because his image and influence was always unwavering and never-ending. Rather, I am attempting to address Bruce Lee’s viewpoints and philosophy with my own experience and objectivity. At the end of the day, Jeet Kune Do is a concept. It is essentially the message of “finding what works for you,” and is ultimately not restricted to Bruce’s own opinions and observations. Bruce’s combination of Jeet Kune Do is what it is, simply because it was an amalgam of his own experiences and what worked for him. If you, reader, can take nothing else away from this, at least take way the observation that in order to take Bruce’s own philosophy to the next level, we should take his open-mindedness and apply it to other areas that he may have overlooked. It is in this way that I feel we as martial artists can continue Bruce’s work, and it is with this kind of attitude that I approached this write-up. This is how we can, in Bruce’s own words, find what works for us and “honestly express ourselves.”

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.