As an ethnic Chinese who grew up in the Western world, Bruce Lee movies were and in many ways, still are one of the greatest forms of escapism. Bruce Lee movies were a relief from the hum drum message that you were part of a small and vulnerable minority that should be grateful to embrace the Western world. Here was a small Chinaman who could kick the crap out of bigger (often stronger) and more numerous opponents because he had the secret of “Chinese” Kung Fu.
As well as being a great fighter, Bruce Lee was a genius at selling himself as the hero of the downtrodden Chinaman. He evoked a sense of racial pride in us. The small Chinaman could win because he had an ancient Chinese secret.
The truth was rather different. While Bruce Lee sold his “Chinese” heritage, he was in actual fact an open-minded thief who would happily adapt techniques and skills from other cultures that suited him and worked best for him. He summed things up – a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick no matter what style of fighting you practice. He was willing to experiment until he got things right. If a boxing punch worked better than a Wing Chun punch at range, he’d use a boxing punch.
The man intrigued people. American fighters like Joe Lewis (the White Karate Champion not the black boxer) and Chuck Norris who had mastered ancient Japanese martial arts like karate and Tang So-Do rushed to be his students. Why would the reigning tournament fighters of their day even bother trying to be students of a street punk who had never fought in the ring.
I think part of the reason was because Bruce Lee had a philosophy of being adaptable and of using whatever he could to kick the crap out of people who were intent on killing him. This Wing Chung man learnt Filipino Martial Arts (Eskrima) and made the nuchuks his own (nunchuks are not Chinese). While known for his one-inch punch and kicking ability, there is a video where he happily instructed his students to bite the opponent.
The man understood that fighting was like life. You need to play the cards you have rather than wish you had others. The man was short sighted and one leg was shorter than another. His build was skinny (word has it that he used to watch Mohammad Ali matches and get frustrated that he was trapped in a weak Chinese body.) Yet, he devoted himself to the study of close quarter combat (starting in Wing Chun and later on borrowing from Karate, Eskrima and Boxing). He worked with what he had – short sighted so you learn to fight close quarters; one leg shorter than the other so you get your side kick working for you. You’re skinny so you focus on speed rather than on brute force (Chuck Norris is recorded to have commented that the man never stopped moving).
Bruce Lee was also a proponent of the best technique being what worked best for you. As mentioned earlier, he started in Wing Chung, which is about close quarter combat. It suited him because it played to his strengths and not to his weaknesses. His short sight would have precluded him from being any good at Tae Kwon Do.
Human beings often take pride in being at the top of their game. The world is filled with masters of this and that. The truth is that while we do admire masters of an art, life is often broad based and constantly changing. Those who fail to change or try to hark back to a golden age often get the stuffing kicked out of them. We become as a former president of Bennet & Coleman said, “Prisoners of our own business model.”
One of my favourite examples of the need not to be trapped by your own style or your mastery of your style can be seen in the Hong Kong movie Ip Man, the Legend is Born. The most prominent scene for me is when the young Ip Man meets Leong Bik, his fellow Foushan resident in Hong Kong. The young Ip Man takes pride in the fact that he knowns “Authentic” Wing Chun. He gets the stuffing kicked out of him by Leong Bik (played by Ip Chun, son of Ip Man), who practices something that looks like Wing Chun but isn’t because it’s not in the traditional definition of what “Authentic” Wing Chun should be. The young Ip Man complains “That’s not Wing Chun” as he ends up sprawled on the floor. The old man tells him “What comes from my fist is Wing Chun” and he points out that the rules can be changed.
Have a look at the following clip:
Moral of the story – know your craft but innovate and experiment. Don’t be afraid of change. The fighters that became stuck to their craft have inevitably lost out to those who were willing to change and use what worked best for them.