The irresistible mess of Shaolin (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5)
Unless you live in a media-impenetrable cave, you have an image in your head of what kung fu looks like. And unless you’ve delved extensively into martial arts esoterica, Northern Sil Lum (北少林, Běishàolín, BSL hereafter) is the kung fu that you’re thinking of: low stances, fluid transitions, circular blocks, rapid and long-range attacks that include leaping and spinning kicks.
It is one of the oldest, best known, most widely practiced, and most influential of the martial arts. Many of the martial arts of Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia trace their lineages to BSL. Under its better-known Mandarin reading, Shaolin, it appears in the titles of a pile of films; from a quick perusal:
- 2 Champions of Shaolin (《少林與武當》)
- The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (《少林三十六房》)
- Abbot of Shaolin (《少林英雄榜》)
- American Shaolin
- Bruce and the Shaolin Bronzemen (《神龍猛虎》)
- Executioners from Shaolin (《洪熙官》)
- Five Shaolin Masters (《少林五祖》)
- Invincible Shaolin (《南少林與北少林》)
- Kids From Shaolin (《少林小子》)
- Martial Arts of Shaolin (《南北少林》)
- The New Legend of Shaolin (《洪熙官之少林五祖》)
- The Real Shaolin
- Shaolin (《新少林寺》)
- Shaolin and Wu Tang (《少林與武當》)
- Shaolin Daredevils (《雜技亡命隊》)
- Shaolin Dolemite
- Shaolin Drunkard (《天師撞邪》)
- The Shaolin Drunken Monk (《螳螂醉八拳》)
- Shaolin Girl (《少林少女》)
- Shaolin Handlock (《十字鎖喉手》)
- Shaolin Plot (《四大門派》)
- Shaolin Popey (? 《笑林小子》)
- Shaolin Prince (《少林傳人》)
- Shaolin Rescuers (《街市英雄》)
- Shaolin Soccer (《少林足球》)
- Shaolin Temple (《少林寺》 1976)
- Shaolin Temple (《少林寺》 1982)
- Shaolin Traitorous (《大太監》)
- Shaolin vs. Evil Dead (《少林殭屍》)
- Shaolin vs. Lama (《少林鬥喇嘛》)
- Shaolin vs. Ninja (《中華丈夫》)
- Shaolin Warrior (《少林殺戒》)
- Shaolin Wooden Men (《少林木人巷》)
- Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin (《蛇鶴八步》)
- The South Shaolin Master (《南拳王》)
- Young Master of Shaolin (《少年英雄方世玉》)
Those are just ones that use the term Shaolin in their English titles, though glancing at the Hanzi will tell you that the term was often applied where it did not appear in the original, reflecting how well known it had become. Also worth noting is that the list contains both Bruceploitation titles such as Bruce and the Shaolin Bronzemen, and blaxsploitation crossovers like Shaolin Dolemite. In any case, some of these Shaolin films starred the greats of martial arts cinema: Jackie Chan (陳港生), Jet Li (李阳中), Gordon Liu (劉家輝), Cheng Pei-pei (郑佩佩), and Donnie Yen (甄子丹).
This highly influential, well-developed, and effective style was what Wong Jia Man had been studying for 15 years, completing the full course, and teaching for another year prior to his fight with Bruce Lee.
Prior to 1964, Bruce Lee’s main martial art was Wing Chun (詠春). While it has appeared in a few movies, it is the opposite of BSL in many ways: a short-range style with the elbows held close to the sides; its movements stress economy and directness with few kicks, kept low to maintain balance. Wing Chun also places the practitioner in almost constant contact with their opponent, an element which suited it well to Lee because of his severe nearsightedness.
And yet, from the time Lee was discovered by Hollywood, through the remainder of his career, he was a classic kung fu actor: Even in his screen test for Number One Son (a scrapped project meant to be the adventures of the scion of Charlie Chan), he performs Hung Ga (洪家) forms—Shaolin, but a Southern version, uncoincidentally linked to Wong Fei Hung, a popular figure in Hong Kong film. Although none of Lee’s films bore the actual term, he played a Shaolin monk in his most famous film, Enter the Dragon and can be seen therein performing a BSL form. Clearly, sometime after 1964, he had begun to add these moves to his repertoire.
Most argue that Lee’s trip back to Hong Kong at the end of that year was made to desperately try to actually learn to fight after, if not being defeated by Wong, at least not having done as well as he’d have liked. I disagree. I believe he used the trip to learn some flashy moves—Wing Chun is decidedly not that—and to get some publicity photos taken with Yip Man in order to build better martial arts cred, which Lee was also sorely lacking, for the martial arts film career he desired.
I discount the former notion because I think it’s absurd to say that he beat Wong easily but needed to change everything about his fighting style. Even those who say Lee lost play into the myth that he was any kind of serious fighter. Finally, the trip was not even Lee’s idea: his father died and he returned for the funeral¹—anything else he did while there was simply opportunistic. Nonetheless, let’s dwell on this bit of hype.
Linda Lee confirms that Bruce’s ’64 style was essentially Wing Chun, as well as relating the “crisis” that occurred after the fight:²
It did not take him long to realize that the basis of his fighting art, the Wing Chun style, was insufficient. It laid too much stress on hand techniques, had very few kicking techniques and was, essentially, partial.
Most reputable martial artists and historians who actually know about Lee’s life say that what was actually “partial” was Lee’s training, not Wing Chun—or for that matter any of the other martial arts he was to later superficially study. This is what his decrial of the “classical mess” of the traditional martial arts was all about: sour grapes.
There is scuttlebutt within the martial arts community, and as such impossible to confirm, that Lee sought but was refused training from one of Wong’s BSL teachers, Grandmaster Jianfeng Ma (馬劍風). This doesn’t necessarily argue for Lee trying to repair his technique—as I’ve mentioned, the style is an attractive one, and it’s equally possible that he’d simply liked the look of some of Wong’s moves, especially given that he didn’t remotely have time to study anything thoroughly, and had Hollywood clearly in his sights.
And I can’t fault Lee for that as it drew me in as well: though it is not the intent of BSL it looks awesome. When I studied it my teachers would always complain about the way I did it, saying I had watched too many movies (I had). I could sense that these moves were the ones I had seen in films, and couldn’t help but strike those poses and give it that punctuation.
One of my favorites to this day is the whirlwind kick (旋風腳, xuanfengjiao). It’s a spinning, jumping deal, and you slap the sole of your foot at the kick’s peak—as my fencing coach would say, “trash with splash”. In Wushu (武術) which also incorporates the move, we’d sometimes run into it to give the spin more velocity. When really showing off, I’d launch it off a step or low ledge to put greater height into it.
Perhaps because it’s so easy to get caught up in the visuals, there are those who, along with Lee, will discount BSL as just for show and not practical, and many martial arts can indeed be thus criticized as bullshido. But not this one: Peter Ralston, taught by Wong, was the first non-Asian to win the Full-Contact Martial Arts World Tournament in the Republic of China in 1978. “Full contact”—that’s practical; “world tournament”—that means bring any style from anywhere: we’re talking about the forerunner of mixed martial art fighting here.
As for Lee, the system he created, Jeet Kune Do, was largely plagiarized from various other martial arts, particularly Western fencing and Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing, of course with some of those cool BSL kicks thrown in. His posthumous book even failed to replace the word “blade” with “fist” when cribbing from sources on fencing. He himself never competed and the fighting system has never produced any noteworthy champions.
If you think Bruce learned martial arts after going Hollywood, when do you think he had time? He was shooting films, making appearances, giving private lessons to his new, exclusive LA clientele, and traveling back and forth to East Asia. If you look at his filmography, 1970 is the only letup, during which time he was presumably pitching The Warrior, and upon failing that, deciding to seek greener pastures in the Hong Kong film biz. In the period after The Green Hornet tanked, when he was scrounging for roles, Cadwell says he was reading and writing a lot and philosophizing about martial arts. But Nancy Kwan who he worked with on The Wrecking Crew tells a different story:³
Bruce had a plan that he was going to become a big gungfu martial arts movie star.
Clearly he was lifting and doing some martial arts study, but both mainly in an effort to look good on screen. The 2020 film, Be Water, shows a lot of footage of Bruce “training”, which is clearly choreography and filmed because he wants to see if it looks good. Again, I can only report on the rumblings from the martial arts community where Lee’s rep was that he was fast but ultimately had no power.
Nonetheless in I Am Bruce Lee, they seem to have managed to goad interviewees into speculating on Lee’s prowess as if he were a fighter, but with mixed results. Professional boxer Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini seems to have taken it fairly seriously:
Bruce Lee was so quick, so smooth, you know, but the one thing that negates speed on a fighter is pressure, and I’m a pressure fighter. And when you get close then you know, Bruce would be trying to bring knees and high head kicks, and I’d get in there and I’d be, you know, throwing uppercuts and trying to bring the elbow across, and I’m sure he’d be trying to counter me, so you know, I’m left bobbing and weaving inside. It would have been a good time.
Ed O’Niell, of Married with Children fame, but also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu also appears, noting:
Ray [Mancini] was good to the body, and then eventually he’d get that hook on you, you know. Bruce wouldn’t know how to stop it. Why? Because he never did it.
Mickey Rourke on the other hand, cut right to the chase:
The bigger guy, equally trained, is always going to beat the littler guy.
And Gene LeBell put a still finer point on it:
People say, “was he the toughest man that ever lived?” He was 130–135 pounds. You’d grab him and uh, you know—sfft—out the window.
If they said Bruce Lee could have beat Chuck Norris, I’d say how much do you want to bet? I got a fistfull of greenbacks in my pocket.
Of these, I’d note that only LeBell actually knew Lee while the others are engaging in wild speculation, and as is typically done, conflating his onscreen persona with real life. I honestly give some credit to I Am Bruce Lee’s filmmakers for presenting these dissenting points of view alongside those buying into the myths.
I’ll conclude this series here; I’ve dwelled far longer than intended on the topic, but as I researched it, I found there were a lot of layers to peel away. I’ll note that I’m pretty far from hating Lee: Although I don’t accept him as Martial Arts Jesus, I have, and still do, find him an inspirational figure, if only for his will to power. My own history in martial arts was also dilettantish, as a perusal of the list I’ve studied will hint. Nonetheless, he was one of the filmic greats who drove me to that study. Even in my own medium of games, the level structure he created in Game of Death (《死亡遊戲》) remains highly influential.
I will leave you with one final fun fact: Lee was part Jewish. In this year’s Bruce Lee: A Life, Matthew Polly traced Lee’s maternal ancestry to Mozes Hartog Bosman, the son of a kosher butcher from Rotterdam, and the filmstar’s great-grandfather. Bosman’s six sons went on to become the richest men in Hong Kong. One of these, Ho Kom Tong (何甘棠), had a remarkable 30 children, one of whom was Grace Ho (何愛瑜), Lee’s mother. An article in Jewish webzine Forward puts forth the delightful notion that that the success of Lee, as with his grandfather and granduncles, might have been “due to their yidishe kops”.²
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- Cadwell confirms this in the film Be Water, 2020.
- Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew, 1975. There’s also video evidence of this in Be Water.
- Be Water.
- Seth Rogovoy, “Wait, Bruce Lee Was Jewish?” Forward, June, 2018.