The Bruce Lie

Showdown in Oaktown (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 1)

Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote:¹

[A]ll wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.

Late in 1964, in a small martial arts studio in Oakland, with few eyewitnesses, Bruce Lee (李振藩) lost a fight to Wong Chia Man (黃澤民—in all printed accounts I have seen, his name is given as Wong Jack Man, but those who knew him used the name I have given here) and ever since Lee and his heirs have been fighting to change the memory of that encounter.² Wong responded by asking for a rematch with more people to judge the outcome but the Lees chose the fight they could win instead.

So for over half a century, Bruce, and after him, his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and his daughter, Shannon Lee Keasler, have used their money and influence and his stardom and celebrity to feed the public lies about what happened.

I was pleased to see that Birth of the Dragon at least purported to present a balanced view of events; Wong’s portrayal in the officially endorsed biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was absurdly one dimensional, as was Linda’s version of events in other accounts. I heard from a friend who was a student of Wong’s when the film was released that the Sifu would say, “I am the monster,” referring to the shadowy figure of the Demon of Fate that stalks Lee in the film. Unfortunately, the new film scored a solid 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the plot was nonsense with a coat of whitewash, so I’ve opted to skip it (after the fight, they team up to battle a crime boss?).

Instead, let’s begin with the events that led up to the fight. Cadwell claims,³

It became an unwritten law that the art should be taught only to Chinese. Bruce considered such thinking completely outmoded and when it was argued that white men, if taught the secrets, would use the art to injure the Chinese, he pointed out that if a white man really wanted to injure a Chinese, there were plenty of other ways he could do it. ‘After all, he’s bigger.’ However, Bruce soon found that at first his views were not shared by some members of the Chinese community in San Francisco, particularly those in martial arts circles.

She goes on to state that Wong’s pupils were all strictly pure Chinese.

That this is pure bullshit I can proclaim from personal knowledge: Peter Ralston, the Caucasian who taught me, was an early student at The Chinese Physical Culture Association (精武體育㑹—精武体育会 in simplified characters—which transliterates as Jing Mo Tai Yook Woey⁴). And I’ve run across many other non-Chinese students of Wong’s; he remained a central figure in the martial arts community of the Bay Area for 45 years. To give her the benefit of the doubt, the story could have been what Bruce told Linda, but it’s still categorically false.

Even Wong has admitted that early on, his students were mainly Chinese, but rather than the result of exclusionary policies, it was because while interest in the Chinese martial arts had already begun to spread, the Japanese martial arts such as Judo (柔道) and Karate (空手) were best known to Westerners at this time and also because of his school’s location within the enclave of Chinatown. The fact is borne out by the tales Ralston would relate of how he would join the other students in making fun of any “white barbarians” who visited the school.

Lee already had a school in Seattle but that was the small time. San Francisco was the epicenter of Asian martial arts in the US, with its large and diverse population of Asians and an interest in Eastern philosophies that the Beat Poets had rekindled and which was to fully flower in the Summer of Love. So Lee left Seattle in the hands of one of his students and opened another school on Broadway in Oakland and tried to gain recognition.

His opportunity came in late August of ’64, when Hong Kong starlet, Diana Chang Chung-wen (張仲文), came to the US to promote her latest film, Between Tears and Smiles (《故都春夢》). Lee, presumably connected via the Hong Kong movie scene, acted as her escort. When her film was screened in the Sun Sing Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he took the opportunity to try to make a name for himself and his kung fu school. This included, by most accounts, some incendiary words about more traditional schools, and an open challenge to come fight him.

His loudmouthed braggadocio did get the attention of the leaders of the local martial arts community, who settled on Wong, another newcomer, as the guy to shut Lee up. The choice made a lot of sense: both were 23 and they,⁵

[…] shared a symmetry between them: the quiet ascetic and the boisterous showman, traditional against modern, San Francisco vs. Oakland, Northern Shaolin against Southern.

And this seems a good point to fill in some backstory.

Lee was born in 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His father was an actor in Chinese opera and film, and his mother was a half-Caucasian from a wealthy Hong Kong family. They returned to Hong Kong, and Bruce became a child actor because of his father’s connections. His was a family of wealth and privilege, with two maids and a chauffeur.

The mythmaking stretches back to Lee’s high school days, when he was clearly a troublemaker, starting a gang called The Eight Tigers of Junction Road (八虎聯合道), getting kicked out of La Salle College for his poor academic record as well as behavioral difficulties, and switching to St. Francis Xavier’s College—both high schools despite their names—which he also didn’t finish.

In 1957, Lee did begin studying Wing Chun (詠春), which he promptly began using in street fights. His parents sent him to the US in order to keep him out of jail, though there is a thin and likely apocryphal claim that he had beaten up the son of a powerful Triad and fled to avoid retaliation (there are many other such tales). His brother’s recollection makes no mention of any specific incident:⁶

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 any case, he finally completed his high school education in Seattle. Despite him and others in his coterie claiming that he majored in philosophy at the University of Washington, he was a drama major and a dropout at that.

And even though he had received only two years of training in some combination of Western boxing, Wing Chun, and Wu style Tai Chi Chuan (吳氏太極拳) at best, Bruce decided he knew enough not only to open a school, but to name it after himself in 1959: the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. I say “at best” because he was a full-time student, a cha-cha dance champion, and appeared in film roles—20 by the time he was 18, so when did he have time to study martial arts? The famous master of his Wing Chun school, Yip Man (葉問), is known to have not considered Lee a serious student.

What Lee taught was his own version of Wing Chun. It’s difficult for me to think of his school as anything but disreputable—he was simply not qualified. I think a good characterization of Lee is a flim-flam artist cashing in on the martial arts craze that was sweeping the US.

He was not some savant who combined a deep study of philosophy with day-and-night martial arts discipline; he was a high-school and then college student, who also worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. But just as he knew enough to become a street bully in Hong Kong, he knew enough to pass himself off as a martial arts instructor in Seattle.

He had not yet started engaging in a rigorous physical regime, which was to include a great deal of weightlifting. The flashy moves of the martial arts showman were far in the future. It’s noteworthy that because of the citizenship conferred by being born in the US, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War in 1963 but was passed over 4F because of his congenitally poor eyesight. You can see the earpiece of his glasses, which he could not be without, protruding from his suit jacket pocket in the picture with Chung-wen. In his second Hong Kong action film, Fist of Fury (《精武門》), he wore his real glasses as part of his onscreen costume. This is the central problem of the Lee-Wong fight: the revisionists want to place the myth of Lee there, as well as turning the clock back—way back—on that legend.

Turning to Wong, he was born in Taishan (新寧, located in the province of Kwantung (廣東), formerly Romanized as Canton, not far from Hong Kong). in 1941, and raised in a very different way. Unlike Lee, he began his training in the martial arts at the age of eight, learning Northern Sil Lum Chuan (北少林拳) from Yim Shan Wu (嚴尚武), the top disciple of Gu Ruzhang (顧汝章). The origins of this style come from the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan (河南), in the person of Monk Zhao Yuan (朝元 和尚), a member of the Ming (大明) royal family who became a monk when they were overthrown by the Qing (大清) in 1644. Sil Lum is the Cantonese rendering of the more familiar Shaolin. As with my previous article about martial arts, I apologize for the combination of Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as the sometimes odd Romanizations; I’m using these terms as I learned them.

After distinguishing himself in his studies, Wong went on to be taught personally by a cadre of Great Grandmasters. Dedicated study for 15 years with these martial arts luminaries allowed him to finally become the first person to complete the Northern Shaolin program of studies since WW2.

In martial arts schools, rather than diplomas, the images of the masters who make up that school’s lineage hang on the walls. It is from the pictures at Cheng Hsin (中心), Ralston’s Oakland school that I know Wong and Gu. Gu was a distinguished student himself, sent south to spread the art in Canton, and famed for his powerful Iron Palm (铁掌功) technique. All this is the martial arts heritage that Wong represented when he came to San Francisco Chinatown in 1964.

Lee himself had been discriminated against because he was one quarter Caucasian, with other students of Yip Man refusing to train with him. But this was pretty far from the mission of Jing Mo, founded by Huo Yuanjia (霍元甲) , who was was portrayed by Jet Li (李阳中) in Fearless (《霍元甲》—note the Chinese name is simply the name of this famous martial artist). One of the main goals of Jing Mo was to spread the Chinese martial arts both within China as well as internationally and to do away with the secrecy and insularity that had prevailed in the past. Ironically, Lee played a fictitious student of Huo’s, named Chen Zhen (陳真), in his 1972 film Fist of Fury. For anyone who knows anything about the history of the Chinese martial arts, the Lees’ attempt to tar Wong with a brush of race-based exclusionism holds zero water.

If you’re thinking things aren’t looking so great for Bruce Lee about now, I agree. And that night in the Fall of 1964 did not go well for him either, which I’ll dig into in subsequent articles.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: Enter the Tycoon

Part 3: Fists of Flim-Flam

Part 4: Urban Lee

Part 5: The Littlest Dragon

Part 5 Addendum A: Kato’s Comeuppance

Part 5 Addendum B: The Row over “Hollywood” Continues


Notes

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, 2016.
  2. The details given here are from Michael Dorgan, “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight”, Official Karate, July, 1980.
  3. The Linda Lee Cadwell-penned bio, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, 1975 is my main source for the Lees’ version of events.
  4. Note that Wong chose an idiosyncratic version of this name, which typically ends with 會 including a character in Jing Mo, that was beyond my ability to decipher in the image of his school, which reads right to left
  5. The quote comes from Charles Russo, “Bruce Lee Vs. Wong Jack Man: Fact, Fiction And The Birth Of The Dragon”, Fightland Blog, 2016.
  6. Bruce Lee: the immortal Dragon, 2002.

Whither the Wanax?

Contributing factors in the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC, Part 2)

An oft-bypassed attraction among the hill towns of Tuscany is the Museo archeologico nazionale di Siena. One enters this museum via the 12th-century hospital of Santa Maria della Scala—itself an interesting attraction as one of the oldest still-extant such facilities—then, proceeding down a series of irregular stairs and ramps beneath this edifice, you arrive in Roman antiquity. And so it goes, as you travel downwards you are also travelling backwards in time, through Etruscan passages and artifacts, all the way down and back to the Bronze Age. The very word Tuscany derives ultimately from the name of these pre-Roman people who once dwelt in the region.

You may have noticed my reference to Troy VII in Part 1. This nomenclature is used by archaeologists to designate a specific stratum of ruins. These are similar in effect to geological strata where there are repeated periods of deposition, but with human habitation the cycles are much more rapid. These sequences generally reflect repeated destruction and rebuilding on the same site.

The pattern is widespread, especially among Late Bronze Age (LBA) civilizations. The siting of the city still has all of the advantages it was originally chosen for, indeed more, as it is now higher, as it sits on a pile of rubble, which also doubles as a convenient quarry, so it is rebuilt on that same spot. The manner of the destruction is immaterial: earthquake, fire, famine, warfare, etc. Much as the King of Swamp Castle says of his home in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ‘em! It sank into the swamp, so I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, and then it sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!

Although Swamp Castle’s is a more compressed timeline, when an LBA city was brought down by some calamity, there was not only rebuilding, but improvement—the civilization would learn from its mistakes, put forth greater efforts, and often return better than ever.

For a more recent example, in 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome blazed for six full days, reducing 10 of its 14 districts or 70% of the city to smoking rubble. Though Nero was blamed for the blaze by many historians, he was actually away at Antium when the fire broke out. In any case, the Romans rebuilt, changing the opus incertum building method out for opus reticulatum because they found that concrete buildings faced with brick as used in the latter were more resistant to flame. Opus incertum was another faced-concrete method, but used stone for the purpose. At high temperatures, the Romans found, stone burns, while brick does not.

And this is what’s remarkable about the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC); there is no recovery from the calamities that cities typically take (more or less) in their stride.

Taking another example of urban resilience, one of the earliest demographers, John Graunt studied the population statistics of London in 1663, concluding:¹

Let the mortality be what it will, this city repairs itself within two years.

Which is to say that despite London’s background death rate being much higher than that of the countryside, to say nothing of its frequent outbreaks of plague, actual dips in population were quite temporary. By contrast, in the LBAC according to Jack Davis:²

The area of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos remained, as a whole in fact, severely depopulated for nearly a millennium.

Another thing I mentioned previously was the international communication that took place in the LBA. In order for this to be carried out scribes needed to be multilingual, but at least in the Near East of the time, Akkadian spread from Anatolia to Western Syria, Western Iran, the Levant, Egypt and Cyprus. It’s no accident that the peak of Akkadian’s use as an LBA lingua franca corresponded to that of trade in the region from 1600–1200 BCE.

And along with trade, diplomatic communication was also carried out in Akkadian. A large number of tablets found in Amarna, Egypt from the rule of Akhenaten (c. 1353–1336 BCE) contains correspondence from other royal courts including Cyprus, Elamite Iran, the Hittite Empire, the Mitanni, the Assyrians, the Kassites, as well as many smaller kingdoms of the Levant, and even as far as the Persian Gulf.

While it was extremely useful in this role of communication across many cultures in the Near East, the language itself had some significant flaws: The writing system of Akkadian is actually a borrowing itself, from Sumerian, which is both the oldest known written language as well as a language isolate. For Akkadian this was a recipe for a highly complex system as well as a defective script.

One issue was that there were a great many homophones. For example, the simple, one-syllable word gu could mean nine different things: bird, cord, eat, entirety, force, neck, legume, square, or voice, and this was far from uncommon. The way that these words were represented somewhat helped to sort out which meaning was intended:³

Remember I said “somewhat”—actually, you can see that many of these are written in exactly the same way, and that the sign for eat and square is that for voice with another element inserted, and the one for bird, is essentially similar to that for entirety, force, neck, and legume, but with a second, unpronounced symbol added. Of all of these examples, only the word for cord is truly unique.

Coming at it from the other direction is no better, the voice version of gu was also used to write kag, mouth, and zu, tooth. And indeed, there were often many ways to write a single word; below are the many ways in which ngesh’gana, meaning “pestle” could be written, and it’s far from a unique case:

Consider for a moment the challenges involved in deciphering this language. the syllabogram ngesh, which appears as the first sign in each version of the word above, was also used as a determiner—an unpronounced pictogram meaning “tree” and signifying a tool or weapon. Essentially for every symbol, you’d have to decide if it was a pictogram or syllabogram, what word is being indicated, and how—or whether—to pronounce it.

Add to this the fact that this system was then adopted to represent Akkadian, a Semitic language unrelated to Sumerian, and cuneiform goes from being a complicated script to a complicated, defective script. I mentioned that Sumerian was a language isolate, which means that it has no known linguistic relatives, though there have been many attempts to link it to others.

Defective script is a technical linguistics term meaning that the written signs used do not adequately represent the language as spoken. Many of the written elements began to change in order to represent the phonetic values of Akkadian, for which a syllabary was particularly ill suited.

Looking back at Sumerian gu, the homophony disappears in Akkadian: cord is , eat is akālu, entirety is nagbu, force is emūqu, neck is kishādu, voice is rigmu, while bird, legume, and square have vanished. This is not to say that Akkadian has no words for these things, just that they did not use ones based on the various forms of gu.

Add to this the fact that several other languages in the region adopted cuneiform, including Amorite, Eblaite, Elamite, Hattic, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, and Urartian, and the scribe also has to determine which of these several languages they are reading ahead of the tricky process of decipherment. The Amarna letters also are remarkable for the fact that the Akkadian used is heavily flavored by the local language, with many “Canaanisms” appearing in the texts. That is, the Canaanite language proper did not exist yet, but the texts show some of the elements that would come to characterize that language—its proto language.

Furthermore, many of these kingdoms, notably Egypt, had an entirely different language and scripts that they used domestically. Egyptian hieroglyphics and hieratic script date from 3200 BCE, making the fact that the Amarna Letters were written in cuneiform Akkadian an interesting discovery confirming its use as a lingua franca in the region. The biblical confusion of tongues starts not to seem like much of an exaggeration. In fact, the story seems ultimately to come from the Sumerian epic, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, in which Enki is featured as the confuser of languages.

This level of complexity led to another thing I referred to in Part 1: a professional scribal class. It would have been nearly impossible for anyone not trained from a very young age to gain literacy. Few rulers, and indeed few at court in these kingdoms would have understood the writing, and, outside of its home territory of Assyria and Babylonia, the Akkadian language itself.

Mineralogical examination of the actual tablets from Amarna shows that their preparation was a painstaking process, including the use of various materials from Nile marls, whose inferior clay could blur incised signs, to Esna shales, with a much better texture as well as a pleasing buff color.⁴ This too would have been a duty of the scribes, as well as carefully refreshing such tablets once made so they could be used again. The tablets were generally not fired so they could be reused—the baked clay tablets we have were often inadvertently exposed to high heat.

While the use of different materials might seem to show a process of improvement, the dating of these items indicates the opposite. It seems that with the expansion of regional diplomacy and trade, to say nothing of the steles and other monuments that also demanded the attention of scribes, the ability to train skilled scribes was being outstripped by the need for them.

So when the alphabetic writing systems of Phoenician, Aramaic, and Greek arrived, together with materials like lampblack ink and papyrus, their adoption was rapid. With only 22 letters (or 24 in the case of Greek), scribes suddenly could learn to read and write in the space of months instead of years. Aramaic and Greek, both developments of Phoenician (along with many others) were to become respectively the lingua franca of the Near East and the Mediterranean.

The central bargain that an agrarian civilization makes is that of specialization; rather than everyone being involved in food production, someone can make something that those who are farming want but have no time for, let’s say shoes, and then they can barter that commodity for food. Writing first came into being as a way of recording these transactions.

Eventually there are a great many specialists of many different kinds. As long as food is plentiful, the system continues to work. However, when there is famine, workers in some of the less useful trades just become mouths to feed.

If you’re a scribe, even in dire times, your king needs you; if there is famine, you write letters to other rulers asking for grain, if there is invasion, you write letters asking for troops. But what happens when ties to other kingdoms are broken, and such letters receive no answer? What use then is a scribe, or for that matter a king?

Kingship is essentially a fictitious role. There is typically nothing either genetically superior about them (the opposite is often true) nor does their training endow them with unique abilities—warfare and diplomacy would be learned, but more specialized generals and chamberlains would know them better, and as already noted, rulers would be dependant on scribes for reading and writing. Generally it is because of a connection by lineage to some figure in the past that kingship is conferred.

Divine associations are often made, either as to descent or at least blessing, as I’ve discussed, and enshrined particularly in the West’s doctrine of the divine right of kings, and in the East, in that of the Mandate of Heaven. The web of contacts among rulers also serves to mutually legitimize kings—kings acknowledge each other and will communicate only among themselves.

But in the LBA, these elites lost the international framework and the diplomatic contacts that had supported them. Couple this with famine, foreign invasion, and likely increased taxes to deal with these issues, and you have a recipe for revolt—the fiction of the king’s legitimacy comes to an end.

And the kings, and indeed emperors, in the LBA ruled supreme. Trade too was not what we think of even in the ancient model with individuals or consortia purchasing goods at one port that are rare and valuable in the port of their destination, traveling there and trading the goods they have brought with them for ones that have rarity and value at their port of origin. Rather there was no “trade” at all, but a system of “gift-giving” among rulers. Such expeditions traveled under the direction and authority of the kings and instead of bills of lading, they were accompanied by letters describing both the gifts they were sending to their fellow monarchs as well as requesting the gifts they desired most to receive.

In Mycenaean Greek, the type of supreme ruler of the LBA is embodied in the word wa-na-ka:

Mycenaean Greek was written in Linear B, another logographic/ syllabographic system which was defective for representing that language. The word appears in Homeric Greek as ϝάναξ, acting as a bridge from the Linear B written form to the proper transliteration. That transliteration is wanax and meant “king”, “overlord”, or “leader”, but most properly, “high king”, and appears to have been common in the LBA, and in the Homeric epics, which are intended to represent those times, but completely disappears in the Dark Ages and afterward. As Early Greece-focused archaeologist, Josho Brouwers noted:⁵

[A]fter the Bronze Age, the term basileus [βασιλεύς] ascends in importance while the wanax of old disappears, and is only preserved in Homer in standard phrases like anax andron (“lord of the people”, i.e. Agamemnon), and reserved to denote deities.

In short, it seems the empires and kingdoms of the LBA got too big too quickly: Babylonia ruled its home territory in modern-day Iraq, as well as vassal states around the whole Persian Gulf, the Hittites controlled almost all of Anatolia, while the Mycenaean Greeks controlled the rest of Anatolia (part of the west coast) as well as the Greek mainland and islands, and Egypt, largest of all, consisted of the whole Nile River Valley, with vassal states covering the Levant, Cyprus, Eastern Libya, and Nubia.

These vast nations proved unwieldy, stretching the limits of both infrastructure and communications, and the failure of any one of these states had a magnified effect on the others, all of which were fairly tightly interconnected in terms of the prestige of their kings as well as the prosperity of their people.

During and after the Dark Ages, nearly every Greek city-state did away with hereditary monarchical offices, opting instead for either democracy or oligarchy. Sparta was a notable exception, having two hereditary kings, but the redundancy was an important element of that office. Additionally, Iron Age city-states were much more modestly sized.

Together with the breakdown of trade networks, the invasions of the “Sea Peoples”, the famines, and unavailability of copper I presented in Part 1, as well as the strain expansion placed on these kingdoms, and particularly the scribal class, and the over-concentration of power with the rulers I’ve discussed here, are all part of the “perfect storm” that precipitated the LBAC.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3: The Luwian Menace


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Apocalypse BCE


Notes

  1. In John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, 1663.
  2. In Jack Davis, Pylos section, The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean, Eric H. Cline, ed., 2010.
  3. In modern Sumerian transcription, subscripted numbers indicate the different symbols with which a syllable is written, while superscripted words represent unpronounced pictograms.
  4. Goren, Finkelstein, and Na’aman, “Mineralogical and Chemical Study of the Amarna Tablets”, Near Eastern Archaeology, 2002.
  5. Dr. Josho Brouwers, reply to “In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, states such as Hattusa, Egypt, Assyria, et alia are described as unified, unitary monarchies….” r/AskHistorians, Reddit, 2020.