What It Means to Understand Bruce Lee

The martial-arts legend looms so large in pop culture that the mundane details of his life feel like a rare treat.

Getty / The Atlantic

In the fall of 1963, Bruce Lee had ambitions of opening kung fu schools across America. The starting point was the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Lee’s home base in Seattle, a 3,000-square-foot space close to the University of Washington campus, where he was a lackadaisical student. At the institute, the itinerant thoughts of a failing philosophy major found structure. His dreamlike musings became gym mantras: Using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation. The space was his holistic workshop as well as his residence. He slept in a windowless room in the back; there was no light switch near the door, which meant a lot of stumbling around in the dark to find your way. Even then—before the Hong Kong films that made him a global icon—there was barely a wall between Lee and the myth he was creating.

Lee is the most influential martial artist in modern history, just one facet of the legend he became after his untimely death in 1973 at age 32. Nearly five decades later, the world is still reckoning with the momentum he generated in his brief life, and with the ways culture has reinvented him. In a sense, Lee’s widespread impact—in realms as disparate as political protest and video games—is simply a reflection of his life’s vision. To the world, he preached formlessness, a concept popularized via his famous “Be Water” response in an interview with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton. He’d come to that epiphany young; punching the sea once in frustration, he was inspired by how it coolly neutralized his assertion. “I wanted to be like the nature of water,” Lee once wrote. But that philosophy also presents a particular irony in how people understand him: When they reach for him, do they grasp the man or the symbol he became?

Bruce Lee Family Archive

Over the past year, Lee has been refashioned in a number of ways: In Cinemax’s Warrior, as the protagonist of his own television concept, realized at last; in Ip Man 4: The Finale, as a youthful embodiment of how kung fu’s traditional barriers of entry were broken; infamously, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as a jive-talking prop; and, in the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Be Water, as the product of enduring discrimination across two worlds.

Each depiction capitalizes, in some way, on Lee’s indestructible legacy, but it’s not always clear when it’s the man or the myth being examined—and whether that line may have been lost at some point. Bao Nguyen’s Be Water is the most reverential of the lot, and the only one that explores Lee from an explicitly Asian American perspective. The documentary traces the contours of Lee’s body of work through a lens of injustice, going back to contextualize the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and using traumatic scenes from wars waged against Japan and Vietnam, respectively, to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, as key historical moments in Lee’s chronology. Racial bias and othering are ever-present, educational backdrops that show how meaningful it was for Lee to transcend the perceived constraints of his cultural identity—too Asian in American society, too American in Hong Kong. But Be Water also traps Lee in allegory, occasionally diluting his personal narrative in favor of symbolic weight. “The fact that Bruce chose to marry a Caucasian person was an expression of how he felt about America,” Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce’s widow, says in the documentary with scholarly detachment, as if she weren’t talking about herself.

The documentary briefly outlines the political landscape of Lee’s youth in Hong Kong, which toggled between British and Japanese occupation, but it only vaguely examines how he processed his anger as a child. “Kids there have nothing to look forward to,” Lee once said. “The white kids have all the best jobs and the rest of us had to work for them. That’s why most of the kids become punks.” Lee became a street fighter. “We used chains and pens with knives hidden inside,” he told Black Belt magazine in 1967. “Then, one day, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t have my gang behind me if I got into a fight. I only took up kung fu when I began to feel insecure.” Before finding the way of no way, he was wayward.

Be Water left me wondering about other, more granular details of Lee’s story. The documentary touches on his talents as a dancer (his former girlfriend Amy Sanbo calls him “a kinetic genius” in it), and Lee’s mastery of cha-cha is well cited, but one would have to dig through comprehensive biographies, such as Matthew Polly’s 2018 book, Bruce Lee: A Life, to learn that he was taught by a Filipina woman who ran a dance studio in the Hong Kong nightlife district of Kowloon. Or that he won a cha-cha championship at 18 by dancing with his 10-year-old brother, Robert, as a way to sidestep any retribution from picking only one of his romantic interests as a partner. Without cha-cha, his form of martial arts may not have resonated as much as it did in the States (where his parents forced him to move, in response to his repeated delinquency). According to Polly, Lee wanted to take up northern-style kung fu, known for its airborne theatrics, in an attempt to appeal to a broader Western audience. Lee sought guidance from Master Shiu Hon Sang, who accepted the request—on the condition that Lee would teach him how to dance.

Bruce Lee Family Archive

But even the smaller details of Lee’s life can be woven into his myth. It’s impossible not to see in his inclusive style as an educator a response to the discrimination he’d faced when first seeking to learn kung fu from the master Yip Man, which the school’s other students protested because of his mother’s Eurasian ancestry; or to the breadth of mentors he had across martial arts and dance. His very first kung fu student in the U.S. was Jesse Glover, a black judo practitioner whose personal experience with police brutality had catalyzed his devotion to martial arts. Glover used to stalk Lee outside of Ruby Chow’s, a restaurant where Lee briefly served as a waiter, and start kicking telephone poles to try to impress his future instructor. Their teacher-student relationship was symbiotic, as was the case for many of the students Lee taught. The dynamic was similar to the one he had with Master Shiu Hon Sang, only this time, Lee was the master teaching kung fu, in exchange for learning what it meant to be American.

A big part of Lee’s legacy is the philosophy he developed called Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist. But even that—a treatise on the limitations of stylistic purity, often argued to be the foundation of modern mixed martial arts—found a life of its own. Lee’s attempt at a unified theory of self-expression was quickly branded a style too, becoming a template for learning how to fight “like Bruce Lee,” capitalizing on a rush of momentum Lee had generated through his Hong Kong movies. An entire cottage industry was created after his death to essentially clone him through impersonation—Bruce Le and Bruce Li were the two most prominent imitators in film. Finding oneself is hard, it turns out. Retracing Bruce Lee’s steps is easier.

The path has diverged, many times over. Lee’s ubiquity unsurprisingly lends itself to fan fiction; Quentin Tarantino has been publishing his own for nearly two decades. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a patchwork of references, drawing from Lee’s final years both on- and offscreen: Uma Thurman’s character, the Bride, dons a near replica of the yellow jumpsuit Lee wears in Game of Death, which was still in production when he died; the titular villain, Bill, is played by David Carradine, who starred in Kung Fu, a series that Lee’s family has claimed was stolen by Warner Bros. from a concept that Lee had developed himself. But where Kill Bill borrows Lee’s iconography as a validation of the style that he made popular, Tarantino’s more recent evocation of him is purely transactional.

The controversial five-minute Bruce Lee scene from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood borrows Lee’s identity as a time stamp for the mid-1960s. During a break on the set of The Green Hornet (the short-lived 1966 TV action series that the real-life Lee starred in), a haughty Lee, played by Mike Moh, riffs on Muhammad Ali’s style and notes similarities to his own. A crew member asks a hypothetical: “If you fought him, who would win?” Lee dodges the question, but he’s pressed. “What would happen?” “I’d make him a cripple,” he responds. (The real Lee pored over Ali’s philosophies and analyzed his matches down to every punch. Be Water includes a frame-by-frame stylistic comparison to show how much Lee learned from Ali, as if it were a direct response to Tarantino at the behest of Lee’s estate.) Cliff, the Green Beret turned stunt actor played by Brad Pitt, cracks up at the notion of Lee defeating Ali in a fight. The two spar; Lee knocks Cliff off his feet first, then Cliff tosses Lee into a prop automobile, leaving a dent. The two seem equally matched, but they are not. Cliff is a main character in the story; Lee is a device set up to calibrate Cliff’s strength.

In response to backlash regarding the scene, Tarantino said: “If you ask me the question ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?,’ it’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character, so he could beat Bruce Lee up.” However, by transposing Lee’s actual arc and likeness to his story, Tarantino directly summons the Lee mythology the way he would a work of public domain. Within the scope of the movie, Lee is almost as fictional as Cliff is.

Bruce Lee Family Archive

But not all of Lee’s recent reincarnations over-index on his mythology. A month before Once Upon a Time was released in 2019, a sign was spotted at a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong: Be Water! We are formless. We are shapeless. We can flow. We can crash. We are like water. We are Hongkongers! Lee’s most famous words have become an organizing principle for those of his homeland, a way of circumventing the police through waves of high-concentration rallies that can quickly and spontaneously disperse and regroup all across the city. As protests began all across the U.S. in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black lives that have been lost as a result of police brutality, Hong Kong protesters, now yearlong veterans, offered advice on how to stay one step ahead of police: “Be Water” was a common, essential refrain. It’s taken five decades and countless mediums, but it’s hard to imagine a sounder tribute to Lee’s idea of formlessness, which has once again made a voyage from Hong Kong to the U.S.

And what about Bruce, the man? I found myself retracing his steps myself one night on YouTube, watching an old, low-res video of Glover, Lee’s former student, taking the viewer on a tour of the Seattle the pair once knew. We see the sidewalk where Glover first tried to grab Lee’s attention; post-workout Chinese-restaurant haunts where Lee placated his insatiable appetite for oyster-sauce beef; buildings where they used to train, now long demolished. The camera pans to a patch of grass, where Glover deadpans, “This is where Bruce used to come over and send me flying around my apartment.” The version of the city that Glover, who died in 2012, remembers in the clip had already been lost for decades. But the mundanity of the video was comforting, and, in a way, revelatory. Glover created a sense of order and routine in his recounting of his friend’s life; it’s frankly a bit boring—something Bruce Lee would never deign to be. His mythology, immortalized in film, writing, and martial arts, will always stand at the forefront of the popular imagination, but there, in the video of places and spaces that no longer exist, I finally caught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the back.