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?
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.