Bruce Lee Myths
More mythology than fact surrounds this enigmatic figure from martial arts films.
by Brian Dunning
December 6, 2016
There's one thing you learn early on when researching Bruce Lee, and that's that he's revered with a sort of bizarre mystique by nearly everyone who writes about him, more than 40 years after his death. He's often exalted as some kind of superhuman, endowed not only with unique physical prowess, but also an otherworldly enlightenment. Others go the opposite direction, claiming that nearly everything said about him is false, and that he was little more than a bad actor who was good at pushups. Consequently, a whole subculture has arisen obsessed with the mythology of Bruce Lee. Today we're going to see which are true, and which are bullshido.
Before delving into the facts and fiction of the many myths surrounding Bruce Lee, it's probably useful to give some basic background information about him to keep everything in proper context. He's best known as the seminal martial arts film superstar who died tragically young at the age of only 32, and whose son Brandon Lee followed in his footsteps all too well and died at 28 just as his own film career was beginning.
Bruce Lee was born Lee Jun-fan in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1940, but grew up in a wealthy neighborhood in Hong Kong, the son of privileged parents. His father was an opera star, and used his connections to get nearly twenty movie roles for young Bruce. But he showed little interest himself. He was not exactly a model child. He ran with street gangs and got into a lot of fights, and studied the fighting martial art of Wing Chun in an effort to no longer get beaten up quite so badly. The one thing he excelled at in school was cha-cha dancing, which hinted at his extraordinary skills controlling his body. The fighting and poor conduct at school got to the point that his father sent him back to the United States to live with family. In college he split his time between studying drama and teaching his own version of street fighting techniques. As he met more people in the American martial arts community, he began giving demonstrations at competitions. As he was not an adherent to any particular formal martial art, he did not compete himself; indeed, he described his own system as "the style of no style". But he did become well known for his truly ridiculous physical condition, his ability to strike at prepared opponents before they could react, and above all, his amazing speed. He did a lot of boxing and weight training. Inevitably, his demonstrations and connections led him back to the entertainment industry. He did some television and then starred in five Hollywood features, before his sudden and unexpected death cut everything short.
So with this biographical information in hand, let's look at a few of the many myths about Lee that have been floating around for more than 40 years:
Bruce Lee was actually an expert in (insert some martial art here) but was not an expert in (insert some other martial art here).
This is the core of a lot of the popular debates about Lee. It seems everyone's either trying to claim him as one of their own, or pooh-pooh him. He did study Wing Chun, but never completed his training. He also trained privately and informally with friends and colleagues throughout his life.
The truth is that he was not a master of any martial art. He was probably pretty good at a few, and may have even been competitive; but would have been unlikely to win any tournaments against professional masters of those disciplines. That wasn't what Lee did. The techniques he taught were largely of his own devise, and the techniques demonstrated in his movie fight scenes were flamboyant stagecraft more than they were formal styles.
Bruce Lee was a "paper dragon".
A term meaning "All bark and no bite" or "All hat and no cattle" or that kind of thing. This is a bit of an unfair charge, since Lee was not known to make the kinds of claims that we associate with bullshido masters. He didn't claim to have forbidden knowledge from a secret temple or anything like that. He did what he did, did it very well, and never claimed to do anything different.
Chuck Norris, a legitimate fighting champion who became a movie star thanks to Bruce Lee casting him in his movies, only had complimentary things to say about Lee's skills. To this day, people constantly ask Chuck Norris who would have won in a fight between himself and Lee, and he's always said that he was a professional disciplined fighter and Lee wasn't. He never disrespected Lee who was no longer alive to speak for himself. Many other champions in various disciplines have echoed these sentiments. Gene LeBell, Ray Mancini, and Stephan Bonnar have all gone on record saying Lee was a supremely gifted athlete, but who shouldn't be expected to have won fights in formal disciplines that he didn't practice.
Filmmakers sped up the film to make Bruce Lee look faster than he was.
Well, different directors do different things, and it's likely that this has happened at some point. One thing I couldn't find a reliable example of was the film being sped up only to make a move of Lee's look faster. It simply wasn't necessary. However, sometimes when there are guys flipping each other or spinning around in the air, a lot of shots like that are sped up to make the movements appear more violent. But it's never to make Lee's punches or kicks look faster. Indeed, often his attacks are shown in slow motion; at normal speed, a lot of his moves are imperceptible blurs at 24 frames per second.
If you want to watch Bruce Lee scenes to evaluate his speed, I recommend turning the sound off. The legendary martial arts movies' sound effects definitely skew your perception.
Bruce Lee was inhumanly fast.
He was fast. But if you watch his fight scenes with the sound off, nothing looks impossibly fast. Where this myth comes from is the stuff he would do at live demonstrations, which it must be stressed, were thoroughly practiced specific moves. The words "stunt" and "trick" come to mind, but that's not to take anything away from them; they were extraordinarily performed stunts and tricks that would be beyond the capabilities of many of Lee's peers. This next myth is a good example of his most famous live demonstration:
Bruce Lee had an incredible one-inch punch.
One of his signature moves, which you can find plenty of on YouTube, was a one-inch punch with which he could break a piece of wood or knock someone down. One inch just doesn't seem to be enough distance to build up enough speed to deliver a high-energy blow. He actually did perform this a lot, and it looks quite impressive; so much so that it was borrowed for a couple famous scenes in the Kill Bill movies.
But this is one place where Bruce Lee the showman blurred the line with Bruce Lee the martial artist. To prepare for the punch, he would hold his hand with fingers extended straight out, touching the target. If you do this yourself and then wrap your fingers back into a fist, you'll see the distance is much more than one inch, almost six in some people, depending on the size of your hand. With his amazing speed, it's impossible (for all practical purposes) for an audience member to see that the one-inch punch isn't really as advertised. And of course, whenever he did this to a person on camera, the person was a trained participant; we don't know whether this would have actually knocked down a prepared defender.
However, let that not diminish the athleticism involved. It was not just a punch with his arm. In a single explosive movement so fast it can scarcely be seen, Lee first extended his legs and rotated his hips and upper body, moving his shoulder forward, then firing the final blow with his elbow. It had a lot of energy behind it.
Bruce Lee's true cause of death was a dim mak, the touch of death.
As we discussed in Skeptoid #189 on bullshido, there are various nonsense claims of touchless knockouts and single touch death blows. Some myths claims Bruce Lee was given one of these a few weeks before his death, and gradually succumbed.
Not only is this claim completely free of either evidence or plausibility, it's also at odds with his known cause of death. As an active athlete, Lee often had various aches and pains, and had also had dangerous allergic reactions to painkillers. In 1973, at the Hong Kong apartment of a friend, he complained of a headache and she gave him some of her Equagesic. Lee suffered an allergic reaction to the meprobamate it contained, went into cerebral edema, and died. There has never been any serious controversy about this clear medical finding.
Bruce Lee and his son were both killed for revealing martial arts secrets in their films, or killed by organized crime.
Again, nonsense claims that are unevidenced and at odds with the facts. Brandon Lee, as discussed in episode 237 on Hollywood myths, died on a movie set in an accident with a gun loaded with blanks. It was thoroughly investigated and nobody was at fault.
And, as we know from both their careers, neither had any special martial arts knowledge that anyone would kill to protect.
Bruce Lee's actual connections to organized crime were nonexistent. They were merely speculations by obsessive fans desperate to attach some cosmic significance to his childhood street fights, or to magnify the significance of his teaching martial arts to Americans into some offense against the Chinese underworld. It's never been more than hype.
So with so many myths proving goofy and unfounded, why then is there such a devoted fascination with Bruce Lee? He did indeed have remarkable physical abilities. He had a genuine dramatic and acting background. He even had the experience and temperament to get into a real-world street fight with anyone. But it was the timing with which his uncommon combination of skills were presented to Western audiences that made him immortal. The early 1970s were the height of his film career and early death, and they came just at the zenith of the Western esotericism movement, the fascination with Eastern culture and mysticism and enlightenment that was the primary driver of New Age culture — it's a facet that's been found in so many Skeptoid episodes. Unwittingly, Bruce Lee was one of the central ambassadors of this Eastern invasion. In such a context, his film roles were not just action fighting, they were also demonstrations of the perceived superiority of Chinese wisdom. Viewed in such a light, at such a time in the 1970s, it became nearly impossible to see Bruce Lee as anything other than a demigod-like figure endowed with supernatural abilities. It would have been truly remarkable indeed if his cult-like image had not emerged.
So go turn on Enter the Dragon, sit back and enjoy a master at work. You need not cloud the experience with woo, supernaturalism, or myth. Bruce can hold his own against any of them.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Bruce Lee Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
6 Dec 2016. Web.
24 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4548>
References & Further Reading
Bishop, J. Bruce Lee: Dynamic Becoming. Dallas: Promethean Press, 2004.
Dorgan, M. "Bruce Lee's Toughest Fight." Official Karate. 1 Jul. 1980, Magazine.
Herkewitz, W. "The Science of the One-Inch Punch." Popular Mechanics. Hearst Communications, Inc., 21 May 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a3093/the-science-of-bruce-lees-one-inch-punch-16814527/>
Lee, B., Little, J. Bruce Lee Letters of the Dragon: The Original 1958-1973 Correspondence. Rutland: Tuttle Publishing, 2016.
Lee, G., Lee, R., Lee, A. Bruce Lee: The Untold Story. Hollywood: Unique Publications, 1989.
McMaster, W. "52 Weird Facts You Didn't Know about Bruce Lee." Martial Arts Action Movies. Wade McMaster, 16 Sep. 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2016. <http://www.martialartsactionmovies.com/52-weird-facts-you-didnt-know-about-bruce-lee/>
Pleasant, P. "Five Bruce Lee Myths That Never Die!" iampleasant.com. P.V. Pleasant, 3 May 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2016. <http://www.iampleasant.com/2015/05/five-bruce-lee-myths-that-never-die/>
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