Category Archives: Martial Arts

November 27, 1940 (a Wednesday)

Bruce Lee

On this date, Chinese-American martial artist, actor, filmmaker, writer, and philosopher (Bruce) Lee Jun Fan was born in the hour of the Dragon (between 6:00 and 8:00 am) in the year of the Dragon (according to the Chinese zodiac) at the Jackson Street Hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Today, a plaque in the hospital’s entry commemorates the place of his birth.  His father was in San Francisco while on tour with the Cantonese Opera at the time, so Bruce Lee was actually raised at the family home in Hong Kong.  It was there at the age of 13 that Bruce began his first formal training in martial arts with Master Yip Man, who taught the Wing Chun style of gung fu (or kung fu).

One of Bruce’s recollections of his many training experiences with Yip Man is personally significant to me. It is from an essay he wrote for one of the courses he took while a student at the University of Washington (I have added emphasis to relevant parts):

About four years of hard training in the art of gung fu, I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness – the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing expenditure of one’s energy. All these must be done in calmness and without striving. It sounded simple, but in actual application it was difficult. The moment I engaged in combat with an opponent, my mind was completely perturbed and unstable. Especially after exchanging a series of blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only one thought left was somehow or another I must beat him and win.

My instructor Professor Yip Man, head of the Wing Chun School, would come up to me and say, “Loong [Bruce], relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.”

That was it! I must relax. However, right there I had already done something contradictory, against my will. That was when I said I must relax, the demand for effort in “must” was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in “relax.” When my [frustration grew], my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.”

The following week I stayed home. After spending many hours in meditation and practice, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea, I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched at the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me. Wasn’t this water, the very basic stuff, the essence of gung fu? …That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water…I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.

Master Yip Man essentially guided Bruce to the spiritual aspect of gung fu, an aspect which back in the late 1950s was, and still is, for the most part omitted by martial arts instructors teaching in the United States.  Not only was Bruce attracted to the spiritual aspect of the martial art, he pursued it with great fervor. It was the single factor, even above and beyond his physical prowess and expertise, which made him incredibly unique, and subsequently highly sought after.

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In 1959, at the age of 18, Bruce returned to the United States, invoking for the first time his citizenship from having been born there, to further his education.  After a brief sojourn in San Francisco, he moved to Seattle where he enrolled in 1961 in the University of Washington, majoring in philosophy.  It was here that he began to train students in the art of Chinese gung fu.  With the help of several local television appearances and public demonstrations, Bruce began to give instruction to all Americans — regardless of race, creed, or national origin. Even while growing up in Hong Kong, Bruce had experienced his fair share of prejudice and discrimination.  This led him to become involved in the martial arts for both mental and physical self-preservation.  He often spoke to his friend, Taky Kimura, of the way the British officers looked down upon and mistreated the Chinese.  From this background, Bruce swore to use the martial arts as a tool to express his ultimate desire: to create equality among the peoples of the world.

Bruce Lee

In Seattle, Bruce met his future wife, Linda, and opened his first school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute.  He later opened a branch in Oakland, California.

For historical reasons, Chinese in the early 1960s, particularly in America, were reluctant to disclose the secrets of their martial arts to Caucasians. In fact, it had become an unwritten law that the art should be taught only to Chinese. Bruce considered such thinking completely outmoded.  So in 1964, the elders of the San Francisco Chinatown community nominated Wong Jack Man, a local gung fu expert, to challenge Bruce to a contest. For both fighters, the stakes were high: if Bruce lost, he would be duty-bound to either close his school or stop teaching Kung Fu to Westerners; if Wong lost, he would be similarly bound to stop teaching indefinitely. When the time for the fight came around, Wong, intimated by Bruce’s fearsome reputation, tried to delay the match and then to impose restrictions on the techniques which could be used. Bruce was furious and insisted that the fight be a “no-holds-barred” contest. When the match finally took place, Bruce defeated his opponent quickly and easily using his refined Wing Chun technique.  From that point forward, the San Francisco martial arts community never again dared to threaten Bruce directly.

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Despite his ease of victory, Bruce was still concerned that he took too long to defeat his opponent in the Oakland fight.  He quickly began to develop new ideas about martial arts and training based on many of his own experiences, leading him to create his own art called Jeet Kune Do.

Bruce Lee’s name in Chinese.

Interestingly, John Little states that Bruce was an atheist. When asked in 1972 what his religious affiliation was, Bruce replied “none whatsoever.”  Also in 1972, when asked if he believed in God, he responded, “To be perfectly frank, I really do not.”

On January 6, 2009, it was announced that Bruce’s Hong Kong home (41 Cumberland Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong) will be preserved and transformed into a museum by philanthropist Yu Pang-lin.

References:

  • Bruce Lee and John Little, The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art, (Tuttle Publishing, 1997), p. 16.
  • Linda Lee, Jack Vaughn, and Mike Lee, The Bruce Lee Story, (Black Belt Communications, 1989) pp. 37-39, 51-53.
  • John Little, The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee to Better Understand the World around You and Achieve a Rewarding Life, (Contemporary Books, 1996) p. 128.

July 21, 1553

Warrior-Monks and Dwarf Pirates

Shaolin monk in contemplation.

On today’s date, 120 Buddhist temple monks met an approximately equal number of “Japanese pirates” in battle.

The so-called Japanese pirates, wakou or woku, were actually a confederation of Japanese, Chinese, and even some Portuguese citizens who banded together. (The pejorative term wakou literally means “dwarf pirates.”) They raided China during the Ming Dynasty for silks and metal goods, which could be sold in Japan for up to ten times their value in China.

By 1550, the Shaolin Temple had been in existence for approximately 1,000 years. The resident monks were famous throughout Ming China for their specialized and highly effective form of kung fu (gong fu).

Thus, when ordinary Chinese imperial army and navy troops proved unable to eliminate the pirate menace, Nanjing’s Vice-Commissioner-in-Chief, Wan Biao, decided to deploy monastic fighters. He called upon the warrior-monks of three temples: Wutaishan in Shanxi Province, Funiu in Henan Province, and Shaolin.

According to contemporary chronicler Zheng Ruoceng, some of the other monks challenged the leader of the Shaolin contingent, Tianyuan, who sought leadership of the entire monastic force. In a scene reminiscent of countless Hong Kong films, the eighteen challengers chose eight from among themselves to attack Tianyuan.

First, the eight men came at the Shaolin monk with bare hands, but he fended them all off. They then grabbed swords; Tianyuan responded by seizing the long iron bar that was used to lock the gate. Wielding the bar as a staff, he defeated all eight of the other monks simultaneously. They were forced to bow to Tianyuan, and acknowledge him as the proper leader of the monastic forces. Zheng narrates these events in his account (written around 1568):

Tianyuan said: “I am real Shaolin. Is there any martial art in which you are good enough to justify your claim for superiority over me?” The eighteen [Hangzhou] monks chose from amongst them eight men to challenge him. The eight immediately attacked Tianyuan using their hand combat techniques. Tianyuan was standing at that moment atop the open terrace in front of the hall. His eight assailants tried to climb the stairs leading to it from the courtyard underneath. However, he saw them coming, and struck with his fists, blocking them from climbing.

A Shaolin monk soars through the air in a kung fu stance.

The eight monks ran around to the hall’s back entrance. Then, armed with swords, they charged through the hall to the terrace in front. They slashed their weapons at Tianyuan who, hurriedly grabbing the long bar that fastened the hall’s gate, struck horizontally. Try as they did, they could not get into the terrace. They were, on the contrary, overcome by Tianyuan.Yuekong (the challengers’ leader) surrendered and begged forgiveness. Then, the eighteen monks prostrated themselves in front of Tianyuan, and offered their submission.

The monks fought the pirates in at least four battles. The second battle was the monks’ greatest victory: the Battle of Wengjiagang, fought in the Huangpu River delta in July, 1553. They chased the remnants of the pirate band twenty miles southward for ten days, killing every last pirate. Monastic forces suffered only four casualties in the fighting.

During the battle and mop-up operation, the Shaolin monks were noted for their ruthlessness. One monk used an iron staff to kill the wife of one of the pirates as she tried to escape the slaughter.

Although it seems quite odd that Buddhist monks from Shaolin and other temples would not only practice martial arts, but actually march into battle and kill people, perhaps they felt the need to maintain their fierce reputation.  After all, Shaolin was a very wealthy place. In the lawless atmosphere of late Ming China, it must have been very useful for the monks to be renowned as a deadly fighting force.

References:

  • Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2008) pp. 69-70.