Bruce Lee (Chinese: 李小龍; born Lee Jun-fan; 27 November 1940 – 20 July 1973) was a Chinese American, martial artist, actor, martial arts instructor, philosopher, and filmmaker. The founder of Jeet Kune Do, Lee was the son of Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-Chuen. He is widely considered by commentators, critics, media and other martial artists to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time, and a pop culture icon of the 20th century. He is often credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in American films.
Lee was born in Chinatown, San Francisco on 27 November 1940 to parents from Hong Kong and was raised in Kowloon with his family until his late teens. He was introduced to the film industry by his father and appeared in several films as a child actor. Lee moved to the United States at the age of 18 to receive his higher education, and it was during this time that he began teaching martial arts. His Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, sparking a surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West in the 1970s.
The direction and tone of his films changed and influenced martial arts and martial arts films in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
He is noted for his roles in five feature-length films: Lo Wei‘s The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972); Way of the Dragon (1972), directed and written by Lee; Warner Brothers‘ Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978), both directed by Robert Clouse. Lee became an iconic figure known throughout the world, particularly among the Chinese, as he portrayed Chinese nationalism in his films. He initially trained in Wing Chun, but later rejected well-defined martial art styles, favouring instead the use of techniques from various sources, in the spirit of his personal martial arts philosophy, which he dubbed Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist). Lee held dual citizenship of Hong Kong and the United States. He died in Kowloon Tong on 20 July 1973 at age 32.
Bruce Lee was born on 27 November 1940, at the Chinese Hospital, in San Francisco‘s Chinatown. According to the Chinese zodiac, Lee was born in both the hour and the year of the Dragon, which according to tradition is a strong and fortuitous omen. His father Lee Hoi-chuen (李海泉) was Chinese, and his mother Grace Ho (何愛瑜) was half Chinese and half Caucasian. Grace Ho was the daughter of Ho Kom-tong and the niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, both notable Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists. Bruce was the fourth child of five children: Phoebe Lee (李秋源), Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), Peter Lee (李忠琛), and Robert Lee (李振輝). Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old.
Lee’s Cantonese birth name was Lee Jun-fan (李振藩). The name homophonically means “return again”, and was given to Lee by his mother, who felt he would return to the United States once he came of age. Because of his mother’s superstitious nature, she had originally named him Sai-fon (細鳳), which is a feminine name meaning “small phoenix”. The English name “Bruce” is thought to have been given by the hospital attending physician, Dr. Mary Glover.
Lee had three other Chinese names: Li Yuanxin (李源鑫), a family/clan name; Li Yuanjian (李元鑒), which he used as a student name while he was attending La Salle College, and his Chinese screen name Li Xiaolong (李小龍; Xiaolong means “little dragon”). Lee’s given name Jun-fan was originally written in Chinese as 震藩, however, the Jun (震) Chinese character was identical to part of his grandfather’s name, Lee Jun-biu (李震彪). Hence, the Chinese character for Jun in Lee’s name was changed to the homonym 振 instead, to avoid naming taboo in Chinese tradition.
Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors at the time, and was embarking on a year-long opera tour with his family on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Lee Hoi-chuen had been touring the United States for many years and performing at numerous Chinese communities there.
Although many of his peers decided to stay in the United States, Lee Hoi-chuen returned to Hong Kong after Bruce’s birth. Within months, Hong Kong was invaded and the Lees lived for three years and eight months under Japanese occupation. After the war ended, Lee Hoi-chuen resumed his acting career and became a more popular actor during Hong Kong’s rebuilding years.
Lee’s mother, Grace Ho, was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful clans in Hong Kong, the Ho-tungs. She was the niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, the Eurasian patriarch of the clan. As such, the young Bruce Lee grew up in an affluent and privileged environment. Despite the advantage of his family’s status, the neighborhood in which Lee grew up became overcrowded, dangerous, and full of gang rivalries due to an influx of refugees fleeing communist China for the then British Crown colony of Hong Kong.
After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s first introduction to martial arts was through his father, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Wu-style t’ai chi ch’uan.
The largest influence on Lee’s martial arts development was his study of Wing Chun. Lee began training in Wing Chun at the age of 13 under the Wing Chun teacher Yip Man in 1954, after losing a fight with rival gang members. Yip’s regular classes generally consisted of the forms practice, chi sao (sticking hands) drills, wooden dummy techniques, and free-sparring. There was no set pattern to the classes. Yip tried to keep his students from fighting in the street gangs of Hong Kong by encouraging them to fight in organized competitions.
After a year into his Wing Chun training, most of Yip Man’s other students refused to train with Lee after they learned of his mixed ancestry, as the Chinese were generally against teaching their martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Lee’s sparring partner, Hawkins Cheung states, “Probably fewer than six people in the whole Wing Chun clan were personally taught, or even partly taught, by Yip Man”. However, Lee showed a keen interest in Wing Chun, and continued to train privately with Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung in 1955.
Leaving Hong Kong
After attending Tak Sun School (德信學校) (several blocks from his home at 218 Nathan Road, Kowloon), Lee entered the primary school division of La Salle College at the age of 12. In around 1956, due to poor academic performance (or possibly poor conduct as well), he was transferred to St. Francis Xavier’s College (high school) where he would be mentored by Brother Edward, a teacher and coach of the school boxing team.
In the spring of 1959, Lee got into yet another street fight and the police were called. From all the way to his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating up the son of a feared triad family. Eventually, Lee’s father decided for him to leave Hong Kong to pursue a safer and healthier avenue in the United States. His parents confirmed the police’s fear that this time Lee’s opponent had an organised crime background, and there was the possibility that a contract was out for his life.
The police detective came and he says “Excuse me Mr. Lee, your son is really fighting bad in school. If he gets into just one more fight I might have to put him in jail”.
In April 1959, Lee’s parents decided to send him to the United States to stay with his older sister, Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), who was already living with family friends in San Francisco.