Bruce Lee Palestinian scholar Edward Said wrote extensively on pejorative stereotypes of "Eastern" societies as they are perpetuated throughout Western media and art. "Orientalism" was the term he used. Even today in a global society that allegedly prides itself on promoting acceptance and multiculturalism, distinct fissures remain and many Westerners are still woefully ignorant of the world outside their borders. Nonetheless, there has been a great deal of progress. And although he was best remembered for his martial arts prowess, Chinese / Hong Kong native, Bruce Lee, refused to recognize the divisions created between ethnic Chinese and Westerners -- which helped both build understanding and push the "Kung Fu" film genre to new levels of international success.

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Bruce Lee and his family
Little Dragon

Bruce Lee was born to a Chinese father (who worked as an actor) and a wealthy heiress mother (who happened to be half white) during a trip to San Francisco. Despite being born on American soil, Bruce was only a visitor and he quickly returned back to his parents' home of Hong Kong.

In the history of Western contact with the East, specifically China and Japan, Hong Kong plays a central and very controversial role as following the influx of European visitors to China in the 1500's. The island port was invaded and occupied by the Portuguese and then the British who both hated how exclusionary the Chinese were and saw a great deal of potential wealth in the city. It is because of this long and tormented relationship with imperialism that Lee's family remained suspicious of Westerners even though he was technically ethnically mixed.

Despite Bruce being born into a wealthy and connected family, Hong Kong was a developing city and gang violence spilled over into the best of neighborhoods. In turn this prompted Bruce's family to urge him to learn martial arts so he could protect himself. Over time Lee found himself embracing the practice a little too much, and like a famous 'Fresh Prince', Lee got in a few too many fights and his mother preferred that he move to his birthplace of San Francisco to get away from the trouble.

It was here where Bruce Lee would become an icon.

Bruce Lee Poster
The Rise

Following his emigration to the United States, Lee spent some time in Seattle attending university and honing his personal passion of martial arts, specifically the style of Wing Chun. Before long, Lee had risen to the status of one of the most interesting martial artists in the world and his demonstrations became the stuff of legend -- from his one-inch punch to his two-finger push-ups.

He began his major Kung Fu acting career with an upstart film studio in Hong Kong called 'Orange Sky Golden Harvest' who hoped to take the martial arts film crown from the famous 'Shaw Brothers' with their new film, 'The Big Boss'. Following its release, the film quickly became a huge success and within a few years, Lee was an international superstar and the Kung Fu genre's popularity was at an all-time high. The crowning achievement of his cinematic career came with his role in the Robert Clouse film, 'Enter the Dragon', which was released a few days after Lee tragically past away. The film is generally regarded as one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made, and will be shown on various television networks throughout the United States on the 27th of November -- to commemorate his birth -- and, inspite of initial backlash from censors, the film has become something of a cult classic in the UK.

Most people are familiar with the superstar aspects of Bruce Lee, but despite his successful movies and the almost god-like veneration he enjoys in Hong Kong, he never lost his humility and his gentle spirit.

Bruce Lee Poster
The Bridge Between Worlds

1970's Hong Kong was a very strange place as it had been a British territory since 1842 as well as being relatively economically stunted by occupation. By the time the 70's came around, the city was growing exponentially fast and the city was rapidly being transformed from an almost backwater trading port to a developing and bustling metropolis. There continued to be tension between the foreigners and the native Chinese citizens, and as a result of the centuries of division, Chinese teachers were forbidden to teach foreign people Chinese martial arts. This tradition carried over to even Chinese immigrants outside of their homeland, and after opening up his own studio in San Francisco during the 1960's, Bruce resolved to teach any student who was willing to learn regardless of race.

A revered Shaolin kung fu master, Wong Jack Man, found this practice repulsive and challenged Lee to a fight which would ultimately settle if he could teach non-Chinese students. Bruce accepted the challenge and famously came out with such ferocity that Wong Jack Man actually turned and fled Lee's fists of fury. While this may just seem like a colorful legend ripped from the semi-fictional annals of Kung Fu lore, it represents a clean break between old and divisive traditions and is an underrated event in terms of cultural relations.

The Dragon's Legacy

From his experience with Wong Jack Man, Lee found his earlier learned styles too restrictive and decided to create his own 'free flowing fight system' called Jeet Kune Do -- which derives its name from Lee's Chinese name and is called 'the style of no style' as it is meant to be fluid and ever-changing. In one of his lesser-known television roles, Lee encapsulated the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do perfectly when he stated, "Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend”.

Bruce Lee Poster
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In a sense, this seems to be his philosophy as he never bowed to preconceived notions and instead believed in adaptation and understanding which is again evidenced by his befriending of then-unknown American martial artist, Chuck Norris.

While the impact of his legacy on popular culture is undeniable as countless movies, video games, and other mediums of entertainment have emulated him, both subtly and explicitly, Bruce Lee did something much more than excited people's imaginations -- he helped bridge two cultures and push a closed-minded society towards change.

Today, a bronze statue of Bruce Lee stands by the Hong Kong waterfront, eternally frozen in one of Lee's iconic fighting stances. And it stands as not just a memorial to a great actor and martial artist, but also a man who blazed trails during a time of radical changes and showed people that there was another way of thought. Now, more than forty years after his tragic death, Lee continues to be a source of inspiration across the world for a myriad of reasons and his legacy is likely to endure much longer than that.

This article was brought to you by Jared Hill, who is a Chicago based blogger with a keen interest in vintage grindhouse cinema and obscure comic titles.

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