The Tai-ji, Inner Alchemy and Kungfu Practice of
Master YUEN Hong-chau

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The Dao of Bruce Lee

I. Experiencing Dao Through Martial Arts

    Looking at the relationship between martial arts and Dao from the history of the Daoist religion, it is not difficult to find that the two are very closely related. For instance: Zhongli Quan was a general, who fought relentlessly in numerous battles; Lü Dongbin mastered the art of the sword at three levels: physical sword (you xing jian or有形劍), celestial sword (fa jian or 法劍) and mind sword (xin jian or 心劍); Wang Chongyang was the top scorer in military service examination (wu ju or 武舉), who, after achieving the top score in such examination, changed his name to Xixiong (世雄) and his courtesy name to Dewei (德威), meaning he wished to conquer the world with martial arts and be the savior of the people; Zhang Sanfeng was even regarded as the founder of Taiji Quan. Gentlemen who practice Dao are often very good at Chinese medicine, fortune telling, astrology and face reading. Undeniably, this is the reality of the “Dao among all things”, and the Daoists are only “unifying martial arts with Dao”, “unifying literature with Dao” and “unifying medicine with Dao”. They do not do so intentionally, they only give expression to the existence of Dao through different cultural activities, thereby complying with nature. Bruce Lee’s martial arts is world famous, but he was only experiencing Dao through martial arts, using the practice and manifestation of “kung fu” (martial arts, gong fu or 功夫) to physically experience and justify that Dao exists in such activities, and it is on such basis that Bruce Lee was able to more fully express his Dao, thereby reaching the pinnacle of his art of boxing, which he called “The Way of Intercepting Fist” (Jie Quan Dao or more commonly known as “Jeet Kune Do” or 截拳道).

II. Martial Arts Resembles Water

    When discussing the spiritual quotient of martial artists, Bruce Lee used “water” to describe the ultimate state of martial arts. He said, “Be water, my friend. It is just like water. When you pour it into a cup, it becomes the cup; when you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” To use “water” as a metaphor for Dao was in fact an important subject under Lao Zi’s discussion of Dao. Dao De Jing (《道德經》or Lao Zi) says: “Great benevolence is like water, which benefits all things yet competes with nothing, and hence is closest to Dao.” It also says: “Nothing is softer and more vulnerable than water in this world, yet nothing can beat water in attacking the strong.” Water can beat other things because it has got properties that are closest to Dao, and one of them being “softness” (rou or 柔). “Softness” means water itself has no fixed shape, it can adapt to the environment, taking the shape of other things. If we analogize human nature to such character, that means “no attachment” (wu zhi or 無執), which is an ability to disintegrate oneself and to accommodate all external changes, just like being “receptive as an echoing canyon” (xu huai rou gu or 虛懷若谷) as with Dao. Such degree of softness cannot be found in other tangible substances. The elevation in the philosophy of martial arts achieved by Bruce Lee is like the “enlightenment” (wu or 悟) before “attaining immortality” of a religionist in general. One day, Bruce Lee was facing the dilemma that his martial arts training was not making any progress. Yip Man (Ye Wen or 葉問) deemed that he was too tense and told him to relax and not to train anymore and that he should go home and think about it carefully. Bruce Lee stayed at home and stopped training for a whole week, but he still couldn’t figure out why, so he went out to sea for relaxation. He was rowing a boat and got angrier as he thought about his training, so he hit the water with his fist, and it was such action that made him realize: “Water, isn’t this most essential thing the essence of martial arts? Water just helped me prove the principles of kung fu... ... water, the softest substance in this world. This is it, I must follow the nature of water.” So, Bruce Lee turned his philosophy of martial arts into water, which has no fixed shape, and hence his martial arts also has no fixed shape; the softness and vulnerability of water can destroy anything strong, “the world’s softest can harness the world’s strongest”. If the art of boxing can be the softest, it can be the toughest. Water can carry a boat as well as overturn a boat, which is exactly the situation that Bruce Lee found himself in. “Water”, “boat” and the “force of hitting water”, plus Bruce Lee himself, all of a sudden merged into one entity, illuminating on the phenomenon of being “closest to Dao”. The principles of Bruce Lee’s martial arts started with this “be water” and entered into the supreme manifestation of martial arts that complies with “Dao”.

III. No Way As Way

    The so-called “The Way of Intercepting Fist” (Jie Quan Dao or Jeet Kune Do or 截拳道) is only a concept related to boxing techniques, it is not a way of boxing nor a school of boxing in itself. If we use traditional “kung fu” philosophy to interpret different schools of “kung fu”, each school should have its own techniques and characteristics that identify its own art of boxing. For example, Wing Chun Boxing (Yong Chun Quan or 詠春拳) has its own set of movements and boxing approach, which emphasize more on close combat with straight punches and opt for the “clamping the goat stance” (er zi qian yang ma or 二字鉗羊馬) as the basic stance which apparently will protect the lower torso; Choy Lay Fut Boxing (Cai Li Fu Quan or 蔡李佛拳) also has its own set of movements and punching characteristics, which emphasize more on free steps and quick attacks, using to the greatest extent possible the turning torque from twisting the waist to reduce the possibility of being hit, hence the basic stance leans towards one side of the body and punching movements are mostly wide open with big steps. Bruce Lee’s “The Way of Intercepting Fist” (Jie Quan Dao or Jeet Kune Do or 截拳道) has no fixed set of movements nor characteristics of individual boxing techniques, the characteristic of which is no characteristic, just like the two slogans engraved in the emblem of his martial arts school: “Having no limitation as limitation; Using no way as way” (以無限為有限,以無法為有法), which means the art of boxing should not be restrained by a set of movements nor certain individual form, it should transcend the techniques and styles covered by any set of movements, i.e., an art of boxing which has no fixed style, and it is better to refer to it as a concept of the art of boxing than a school of boxing. This is obviously a major characteristic that he created by converging Daoist philosophy with the principles of martial arts and is also a major reform of traditional martial arts. What is meant by “having no limitation as limitation; using no way as way” ? This originates from Lao Zi’s (老子) thought that “inaction leads to all actions” (wu wei er wu bu wei or 無為而無不為). Lao Zi’s interpretation of “being” (you or 有) and “non-being” (wu or 無) is the most thorough and the most expressive among the scholars of Confucianism in early Qin. “Non-being” and “being” have to be discussed together, they are two different states of Dao; the concealed (yin or 隱) is “non-being”, whereas the apparent (xian or 顯) is “being”. The “being” with respect to all things has a “non-being” behind it, all superficial appearances in the phenomenal realm are “beings”, but there have to be “non-beings” to support such “beings”. If the relationship between the two is to be explained from the point of view of ontology, then “non-being” is the beginning (ben or 本), whereas “being” is the end (mo or 末). Lao Zi said, “Being is for facilitation, non-being is for application.” The changes in all things that we see are all because of the application of “non-being”. When we are in between “being” and “non-being”, we will be able to adhere to the middle way and comply with Dao. In response to such interpretation, Zhuang Zi (莊子) put forward an easily understood interpretation: “Are there really two opposites of things? Or are there really not two opposites of things? Where neither has found its corresponding opposite, which can then be referred to as the Pivot of Dao.” --The Adjustment of Controversies (Qi Wu Lun or 〈齊物論〉) What is the “Pivot of Dao” (Dao Shu or 道樞)? Zhuang Zi continued to say: “Where neither has found its corresponding opposite, which can then be referred to as the Pivot of Dao, which, being at the center of a circle, can respond to endless situations.” When the development of things hinges on the relativity of an interdependent cause-effect relationship, if a Man finds himself on either side, he will definitely be involved relatively and the same relative relationship will emerge, which is the “corresponding opposite” (ou or 偶), and he will only be able to respond to endless situations by placing himself in the “center of a circle” (huan zhong or 環中) in order to transcend and be detached from all polarity treatments. This positioning of disintegrating polarity treatment is the position of Dao, which Zhuang Zi referred to as the “Pivot of Dao” (Dao Shu or 道樞) and which Lao Zi referred to as “mystical profoundness” (xuan or 玄) or “one”. “Inaction” appears at such position where there is no polarity treatment, and since it is positioned in the “center of a circle”, therefore it is able to “respond to endless situations”. Since it is able to “respond to endless situations”, therefore it can “lead to all actions”. The “no way” of Bruce Lee finds its meaning on such positioning of “inaction”. It not only transcends all assertive boxing approaches, but is also able to “respond” to all boxing approaches; it is “unlimited” in itself and therefore it is able to “respond” to all “limitations”, able to be “a square in a square, a circle in a circle”, hence the saying: “Having no limitation as limitation; Using no way as way”. In terms of a boxing approach which remains so despite transcending all boxing approaches, Bruce Lee obviously attempted to place his boxing approach above all martial arts, elevating his own martial arts to the position of “Dao”, creating successfully the ultimate state of martial arts, which is “unifying martial arts with Dao”. However, if a boxing technique is able to respond to endless situations, then what kind of a boxing technique it is in reality? Bruce Lee practiced different kinds of boxing techniques since he was a kid. Apart from Wing Chun Boxing (Yong Chun Quan or 詠春拳), he had practiced Taiji Quan, Northern Shaolin, Taekwondo, Western boxing, etc. From the memoirs of Cho Tat-wah (Cao Dahua or曹達華), a veteran black and white kung-fu movie actor, Bruce Lee once wrote to his wife and asked her to find him all kinds of martial arts books in Hong Kong and send them to the U.S. Therefore, it is evident that Bruce Lee really had the determination and perseverance in studying the philosophy of martial arts, which is absolutely beyond common martial arts fanatics. In terms of the practice of punching techniques, Bruce Lee not only mastered very quickly all kinds of traditional “kung fu” which he deemed practical and effective, he also made use of the training gears in the West, such as weight-bearing apparatus and sand bag, on the premises that they can enhance the efficacy of traditional “kung fu”. This means that behind the “inaction” of the so-called being able to “respond to endless situations”, it is in reality an arduous road. Just like the butcher described in the “Fundamentals of Nourishing Life” (Yang Sheng Zhu or 〈養生主〉) by Zhuang Zi, without practicing for nineteen years and without the experience of blunting countless cleavers, such butcher absolutely could not have the “magical skill” of “maneuvering its blade without hindrance”. This can demonstrate Bruce Lee’s arduous journey of “attaining immortality” and is a good example of the cultivation of Dao for those desperate in achieving “instant” success: a self-reflection on whether or not instant enlightenment can facilitate becoming an immortal or a Buddha.  

IV. From Arts to Dao

    Bruce Lee studied philosophy, and his love for Daoist thinking perhaps is related to his research in philosophy at college. When he was at college, he wrote an article on Dao and the principles of “kung fu”, entitled “Enlightenment”. He said, “Kung fu is a kind of special skill, a kind of fine art, and not a kind of physical activity. It is a kind of precise and wonderful art which requires coordination between intelligence and skills. The principles of “kung fu” just cannot be learned, just like any kind of science, it requires substantive proof from research and has to be deduced from practice. It has to comply with nature, just like a flower, blooming from the thinking that is devoid of emotions and desires. The core of the principles of “kung fu” is Dao--which is self-initiation of this universe.” From his point that “kung fu” is not a kind of physical activity but a fine art, he was not merely an ordinary martial artist. In his times, very rarely a “coach” would think like that, because “fighting” is a kind of physical activity and defeating an enemy may require some skills, which, to the martial arts veterans in the same period who emphasized on “fighting”, no element of art exists. In the 1950s, the coaches in Hong Kong were generally not referred to as martial artists, that was because the majority of them did not receive any higher education. Internal Boxing (Nei Jia Quan or 內家拳) was attaching to a backdrop of philosophical theories, like Tai Ji, the Eight Trigrams, and “circulating qi with intent”, therefore, there were still some masters within the circle who were good academically and in martial arts; but what about External Boxing (Wai Jia Quan or 外家拳)? The majority of the fighters in the 1950s and 1960s were active in the triad society. They talked about fighting and killing, not philosophical theories, and the coaches too only taught boxing not the theories, and the majority of the boxing masters were teaching at social organizations like trade unions of restaurants, trade unions of hawkers and clansmen associations, and most of their pupils came from the grassroots with limited education, therefore, it was not necessary to teach them the theories of martial arts nor the philosophy of life. The “Dissection of a Cow by a Butcher” (Pao Ding Jie Niu or 〈庖丁解牛〉) in “Zhuang Zi--Fundamentals of Nourishing Life” (Zhuang Zi-Yang Sheng Zhu or 《莊子‧養生主》), which was included in the curriculum for secondary schools, was not that popular despite in an environment of universal education, not to say the “Dao” referred to by Bruce Lee, which originated from the “Dao” manifested through the “advancement of techniques” in the “Dissection of a Cow by a Butcher” (Pao Ding Jie Niu or 〈庖丁解牛〉), which, in the 1950s, seemed hard to understand unless one is college-educated. In Bruce Lee’s manifestation of martial arts, he was truly moving towards the direction of unifying with Dao. Martial arts is like the art of the cleaver of a butcher, when the techniques reach their pinnacle and merge with intelligence, the state of art of “sensing with your mind and not seeing with your eyes” like the maneuvering of the cleaver by a butcher can be achieved, that is “unifying martial arts with Dao”. In discussing martial arts, Bruce Lee was able to mention “the core of the principles of kung fu is Dao--which is self-initiation of this universe”, which, honestly, is of such superiority that no ordinary martial arts theory can attain. In simple terms, such saying means the “Dao emulates nature” (Dao fa zi ran or 道法自然); “kung fu” is a skill erupting at the right time by the physical body in a natural manner, and when the objective of punching is achieved following one’s mind, that is “Dao”. Bruce Lee called it “The Way of Intercepting Fist” in English, meaning it is a way using intuition to make a natural response and applying the fastest and most effective way of interception and attack. From such name, aren’t we able to notice that Bruce Lee already invoked the concepts of two great philosophers: one being Lao Zi’s “the Dao emulates nature”, and the other being Confucius’ aloof image of “at seventy yet following one’s mind without transgressing the norm”?

V. Having Caught the Fish Then Forget About the Trap

    Bruce Lee’s philosophical thinking of martial arts is fully reflected in the movie “Enter the Dragon” (Long Zheng Hu Dou or《龍爭虎鬥》), which, apart from intentionally characterizing Bruce as a secular disciple of Shaolin Temple with superb martial arts skills, also enshrines supreme martial arts intelligence. In the early part of that movie, there was a scene of coaching Dong Wai (Dong Wei or 董瑋). One of the essentials of “kung fu” is to rely on one’s basic instinct to make the fastest and most effective response. Bruce Lee told Dong Wai to look at his finger tip, but Dong Wai’s response was indeed too slow, because Dong Wai only saw the finger tip without seeing the moon pointed at by that finger tip. “Finger pointing at the moon” (yi shou zhi yue or 以手指月) is in fact a common metaphor in Chinese religious philosophy, and was especially common in Neo-confucianism (Li Xue or 理學) and Buddhism (Fu Xue or 佛學) during the Song and Ming Dynasties. It expresses such relationships as “beginning (ben or 本) and end (mo or 末)”, “temporariness (jia or 假) and emptiness (kong or 空)”, “essence (ti or 體) and function (yong or 用)”, “means and aim”. Such debate was apparent among the debates on Metaphysics during the Six Dynasties, an example being the theory of “meaning beyond words” of Wang Bi’s (王弼) “creating an image to fully express an idea, which, having been expressed, has no relevance to such image”; it can also be found in the so-called “all forms are beyond words, all forms be detached from the mind” in “The Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith” (Da Cheng Qi Xin Lun or 《大乘起信論》), and later as frequently expressed by Zen masters: “Cutting the path of language, ending the soul-searching journey.” Whereas, such concepts can be traced back to “Lao Zi” (《老子》), “Zhuang Zi” (《莊子》) and “Yi Xi Ci Zhuan” (《繫辭》). In “Lao Zi” (《老子》), there is “the Dao that can be described is not the eternal Dao”; in “Zhuang Zi--External Things” (Zhuang Zi-Wai Wu or 《莊子‧外物》), there is “a trap is for the fish, having caught the fish then forget about the trap”; in “Yi Xi Ci Zhuan” (《繫辭》), there is “the sages create images to fully express their meaning, they create the trigrams to fully distinguish the innate tendencies and countertendencies of things, they attach phrases to such trigrams to fully express what they want to say. ” It can be said to be unprecedented that Bruce Lee had elevated “kung fu” to such state. In the eyes of Bruce Lee, “kung fu” skills do not seem to be the end of the philosophy of martial arts, more importantly, it seems, is that behind “kung fu” there is the implication on life. When he explained in public why he founded “The Way of Intercepting Fist” (Jie Quan Dao or Jeet Kune Do or 截拳道), he mentioned the relationship between the finger and the moon: “To understand Jeet Kune Do is like a finger pointing out to the moon, please do not take the finger to be the moon nor fix your intense gaze on the finger, otherwise you will miss all that heavenly glory. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the ‘light’ that illuminates the finger and all, as to how much you can get, or how far-sighted you are, you have to work hard yourself in order to fathom it and to get there.” Obviously, Bruce Lee’s “finger” refers to the form of martial arts. Styles and the different schools of punching techniques can only be regarded as a means, they are not themselves the ultimate of martial arts. The so-called “light” is a never-ending road. The ultimate of martial arts seems impossible to be defined nor described under such interpretation, you have to master it through your own efforts and intelligence, that is how much you can gain. The ultimate state of martial arts is to transcend martial arts itself, the non-martial arts state of “having caught the fish then forget about the trap” if expressed in another way is “Dao”. When Bruce Lee said this, he had already accomplished the highest attainment in martial arts, i.e., not using martial arts as a means of punching technique, and had also transcended the level of punching techniques to perfection, attaining the ultimate state of “unifying martial arts with Dao”. Only in such state could Bruce Lee develop the theory for the art of boxing, which is “having no limitation as limitation, using no way as way”.

VI. Transcending Life and Death

    Perhaps, the matter of life and death to someone who has “attained immortality” and has exhausted all means to study the meaning of life and realized the value of existence is not a matter of great significance. Zhuang Zi could “bang on a basin and sing” (gu pen er ge or 盆鼓而歌) when facing the demise of his wife, and Lao Zi told people to be rid of “their bodies” and all “big calamities” in life could be eliminated. From Bruce Lee’s “kung fu”, as displayed in a few movies that captured the hearts of millions, we seem to be able to see in between the techniques and intelligence, and in between enlightenment and practice, a full stop for speech, i.e., the end.

    The “kung fu fever” in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s was mainly dominated by the traditional Southern School of Martial Arts, such as Wing Chun Boxing (Yong Chun Quan or 詠春拳), Choy Lay Fut Boxing (Cai Li Fu Quan or 蔡李佛拳), Dragon Style (Long Xing or 龍形), Hong Boxing (Hong Quan or 洪拳), Chu Family Praying Mantis (Zhu Jia Tang Lang or 朱家螳螂), etc., whereas in terms of the techniques used inside the boxing ring, different kinds of fighting approaches and blocking hands (zhuang shou or 樁手) emerged as a result of different schools of Chinese martial arts (guo shu). Later, the organizers of boxing competitions brought in foreign boxers for commercial reasons, which indirectly raised the quality of boxing-ring competitions. Thai boxing, which was then regarded as invincible in the boxing ring, was as a result invited to compete in the boxing ring. Since the training of Thai boxing is, as a matter of fact, a boxing-ring fighting approach for two people fighting against each other by directly applying the toughest tools of the physical body: fists, elbows, legs and knees, and which, together with strenuous physical and toughness training, often makes Chinese “kung fu” look stupid and hence be easily defeated in such boxing-ring competition. Of course, the significance of Chinese “kung fu” training is mainly for actual street fighting, if Chinese “kung fu” is to compete inside a boxing ring, then the most suitable boxing-ring pattern for Chinese “kung fu” is not for two people, with two boxing gloves and four pieces of boxing-ring ropes, but a boxing-ring fighting approach that requires the signing of a death contract, uses no protecting gear, applies no rules, and is of the “Thundering Tiger Style” (Lei Lao Hu Shi or 雷老虎式)! Since Thai boxing was introduced to Hong Kong, it has been regarded as the most powerful fighting approach. The “Big Boss” (Tang Shan Da Xiong or 《唐山大兄》) was shot in Southeast Asia, in which, a scene was written by Bruce Lee, where he was confronted with a gang of hooligans alone after dropping his jade necklace in the ice factory. He made a firm stance and yelled twice: “Come on! Come on!” One of them was holding a knife and moved forward first to attack, Bruce Lee immediately kicked twice in lightning speed, the first kick hit the knife, while the second one already hit the face before that knife hit the ground, and the enemy hit the floor without even making a response. Bruce Lee’s footwork was already well known for being heavy and hard, but these two kicks were fast! In fact, Bruce Lee borrowed the ankle bouncing technique in Thai boxing to deliver his second kick instantly. This is a good example for illustrating that Bruce Lee’s attitude in the philosophy of martial arts is like water: “What is your most powerful kung fu? I will fight you with your best kung fu.” This movie is for defeating the Thais with Thai-style fighting approach.

    The “kung fu” of the Japanese are Judo and Karate, whereas the Kendo and two-section staff of the Japanese are very outstanding. The theme of Bruce Lee’s second movie “Fist of Fury” (Jing Wu Men or 《精武門》) is about Japanese “kung fu”. To prove that the Chinese is not the “sick man of East Asia”, he played Chan Chun (Chen Zhen or 陳真) who entered into a Japanese martial arts dojo and first used very simple and effective Judo techniques to pin the interceptors to the floor, displaying his excellent “kung fu” but without being too confined by the limits of traditional Chinese martial arts. Following that was a sequence of group fighting, under the circumstance that two bare hands couldn’t fight more than twenty people, Bruce Lee drew out his two-section staff, the Japanese’s best act, demonstrating such techniques that were more beautiful and more practical than those of the Japanese. With respect to the design of this scene by Bruce Lee, I only think that he just wanted to say: “What is your most powerful kung fu? I will fight you with your best kung fu.”

    What he wanted to express after that were Western boxing, Taekwondo, Karate and Kick Boxing, which have long been followed by Westerners. The “Way of the Dragon” (Meng Long Guo Jiang or 《猛龍過江》) is a movie designed in response to Western martial arts. There was a scene in which Bruce Lee banished the foreign thugs for the restaurant in the alley at the back of that restaurant. What is interesting is that, although he was fighting in the name of Chinese “kung fu”, the “kung fu” he used to knock down the foreign thugs was not the Triangle Stance (San Zhan Bu or 三戰步), Sinking Bridge and Darting Finger (Chen Qiao Biao Zhi or 沉橋標指) nor Turning Back Fist (Zhuan Shen Bian Chui or 轉身鞭搥), but the kicking techniques of Taekwondo loved by Westerners: “Little Dragon Asking for Direction” (Xiao Long Wen Lu or小龍問路) and “Black Dragon Wagging its Tail”(Wu Long Bai Wei or烏龍擺尾). In the tussle between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the arena, while Chuck Norris had the upper hand after a sequence of beautiful leg striking, Bruce Lee applied those improved footwork which originated from Western boxing, skillfully dispelling such swift and fierce leg striking, and Chuck Norris, without any other alternative, was knocked down by Bruce Lee applying the same leg striking, and in the end, Bruce Lee further destroyed Chuck Norris using the catching and locking techniques of Chinese “kung fu”. This scene not only manifested Bruce Lee’s excellent “kung fu”, but more importantly, it wanted to tell the viewers that martial arts could not be confined by forms. Bruce Lee could accept and accommodate the superb skills of others, and through strenuous training and practice, he proved once more: “What is your most powerful kung fu? I will fight you with your best kung fu.”

    In “Enter the Dragon” (Long Zheng Hu Dou or《龍爭虎鬥》), Bruce Lee played an intelligent secular disciple from Shaolin Temple. “The best martial arts in the world is from Shaolin Temple”, which is, as a matter of fact, implied in traditional “kung fu”. Bruce Lee was most likely playing such role towards such direction, however, we may be able to notice that, in the design of the previous movies, Bruce Lee seemed to have defeated the martial arts that were considered the most powerful in the world. After defeating foreign martial arts, isn’t there remaining one rather challenging Chinese “kung fu” that is yet to be defeated? This time, the competing target he chose was not foreign martial arts, but Shaolin martial arts which is considered to be the most powerful and most authentic Chinese “kung fu”, doesn’t it reflect that he wanted a complete reform of traditional “kung fu”, a rude awakening for the self-complaisant traditional martial arts? Bruce Lee therefore portrayed himself as an intelligent martial artist, using religious spiritual cultivation to express the ultimate state of martial arts. Shaolin martial arts symbolizes a deep-rooted historical origin, and Bruce Lee challenged Shaolin martial arts, which, in terms of the general practice of martial arts, is supposed to be a big taboo, nevertheless, Bruce Lee had to break away from the old to establish the new in order to spread the real state of “kung fu”. What is worth noticing is that, Bruce Lee chose Shek Kin (Shi Jian or 石堅) as his opponent, which in fact concealed another symbolic implication, that is, among the general public in Hong Kong, Shek Kin represented one of the kung-fu stars who was most skillful in authentic “kung fu”, and his traditional “kung fu” training was with the Guangzhou Jin Wu Martial Arts Association (廣州精武會), therefore he was through and through a master of martial arts. Shek Kin was famous for playing the bad guy in nearly 300 “Wong Fei Hung (Huang Feihong or 黃飛鴻) movies” , everybody knew him; and his martial arts had penetrated into the hearts of the people and his image in the martial arts world was very outstanding. Bruce Lee wanted to challenge traditional “kung fu”, he of course would think of Shek Kin because Shek Kin was a symbolic figure, if he could defeat Shek Kin, that means he could defeat traditional real “kung fu”!

    As a master who seeks the ultimate state of martial arts, he of course was not like a common martial artist and could not be so shallow as to treat martial arts as a kind of extrinsic, applicable value. Under such direction, the real enemy is no longer the ice factory owner in the “Big Boss” (Tang Shan Da Xiong or 《唐山大兄》), nor the Japanese in the “Fist of Fury” (Jing Wu Men or 《精武門》), nor the world champion in the “Way of the Dragon” (Meng Long Guo Jiang or 《猛龍過江》), but his own people, or even himself! It seems that Bruce Lee, who had defeated the most powerful martial arts in the world, has to fight himself this time. Then, let him first fight his own people: Shek Kin. Apart from being equipped with excellent Shaolin “kung fu”, Shek Kin also had a strange weapon: a steel hand. This steel hand has significant implication because traditional martial artists in general consider the ultimate state of martial arts is to have magical skills like “iron gown” (tie bu yi or 鐵布衫), “golden shield” (jin zhong zhao or 金鐘罩) and “iron palm” (tie sha zhang or 鐵砂掌), which is virtually knife-proof or gun-proof and able to attack like crushing the earth. Without doubt, the steel hand was designed under the concept of “iron palm”, however, it was more lethal than the “iron palm”. In “Enter the Dragon” (Long Zheng Hu Dou or《龍爭虎鬥》), Bruce Lee “knocked down” gradually in various ways anything that stood for traditional martial arts, including, among others, Taiji push hand, darting, Northern School’s somersaulting skills, and tassel spear. In the end, it was the most powerful enemy who remained a mystery in such movie, which was himself! Bruce Lee, through the reflection of the mirrors, brought out the factitious side of all phenomena, in which it was full of metaphysical implications and was similar to “all phenomena arise from conditions and are empty in nature” (yuan qi xing kong or 緣起性空) of Buddhism, thereby illustrating the illusiveness of the fighting targets in response to the discussion between the master and his pupil in the prelude of the movie. There was a scene in the prelude in which Bruce Lee was asked by the master what was meant by supreme martial arts, and he replied confidently, “The ultimate state of martial arts is to make the skills invisible, knocking down your opponent naturally without thinking!” Such thinking is in fact “The Way of Intercepting Fist” (Jie Quan Dao or Jeet Kune Do or 截拳道). The master supplemented, “The enemy is a shadow, hidden behind which is the real enemy, provided that you can destroy the enemy’s shadow, you will then be able to destroy the real enemy.” If Bruce Lee was only a shadow, hidden behind which was the real Bruce Lee, then if he was to defeat his own real enemy, he must first defeat his own shadow! This is essentially a paradox. Unfortunately, such implication after all became a reality! In reality, Bruce Lee really played very seriously this game of life and death. The next plan was to make the movie “Game of Death” (Si Wang You Xi or 《死亡遊戲》) and to shoot the “game of death” of his own life.

    Bruce Lee’s movies have to be watched together in order to discover that he wanted to express his martial arts philosophies and state of “kung fu” through such movies. Most importantly, it is his intelligence in making such movies, just like what he said, “It is a kind of precise and wonderful art which requires coordination between intelligence and skills.” If you only watch one of Bruce Lee’s movies, you will not be able to see this kind of “intelligence in the philosophy of martial arts”, he wanted to defeat the masters of martial arts who were considered the best in the world, however, what is worth noticing is that, he did not use his own “fixed” “kung fu” but used the “kung fu” that you consider to be inherent and most powerful to defeat you. He practiced the Daoist-style intelligence in the philosophy of martial arts, reaching the ultimate state of “inaction leads to all actions”.

    The pinnacle of martial arts is not defeating an external enemy but to transcend life and death. The ultimate victory in martial arts is to defeat such polarity as “opponent and self”, “shadow and real self” and “life and death”, disintegrating the skills into something invisible. If expressed in the language of Lao Zi, that is the state of elevating from “two” to “one”. The “Game of Death” (Si Wang You Xi or 《死亡遊戲》) was intended to manifest the ultimate state of martial arts, i.e., transcending life and death. Therefore, Bruce had to fight himself in order to manifest such concept, which affirmed the end: Bruce had to die! And it is because of his death, his philosophy of martial arts can live forever in this world, and the ultimate state he attained in the philosophy of martial arts can aptly become the bequeathed teaching for later generations. Bruce Lee combined and practiced one of the sayings of Lao Zi: “To die, yet to be immortal, is longevity.” Did he or did he not knowingly use his own life to make this “movie”? The “Game of Death” (Si Wang You Xi or 《死亡遊戲》) , an extremely ironic movie; the “game of death”, an extremely ironic life!


Author: Hong-chau Yuen (Hong Kong)

This paper was published in “Tao Mind” (《道心》) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Taoist Association, 2003), Issue No. 26, pp 61-66.

Translated by: Joanna S. Y. Yau, MCIL (U.K., H.K.), NAATI accredited (Australia), HKTS (Life Member)

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