It is safe to say that, in popular culture, there is no martial artist more famous than Bruce Lee. Named “one of the most influential people of the 20th Century” by Time Magazine, Bruce Lee is an iconic figure throughout the world, representing both martial arts and Chinese culture.
A recently re-released book, Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu: Commentaries on the Chinese Martial Arts, offers views into the formative thoughts of the legend that is Bruce Lee. Although published after Bruce Lee’s premature death, the book was mostly written by Bruce Lee (with edits by writer John Little). In fact, Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu, is the only book that Bruce Lee ever authored (more about this below).
Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu makes an interesting read not only from a martial arts perspective, but also historically, culturally, and philosophically. Although the book refers to “Chinese Martial Arts,” the writings are equally relevant to other martial arts. Truth is truth, regardless of style or origin of the art.
A word of caution: although the book does touch on Kung Fu techniques, it should not be viewed as a martial arts instruction manual.
On a personal note, Bruce Lee played an important role in my martial arts career. Through his movies – in particular, Enter the Dragon – I became interested in the martial arts. This led my parents to enroll me in judo at a young age (I started training in karate later).
A quick note on terminology: although the Chinese term Kung Fu (sometimes spelled Gung Fu) literally means “hard work,” it has come to refer to Chinese martial arts. In this article we will therefore adopt this common use.
In order to get the most out of this book, a historical context for the state of martial arts in the West at the time Bruce Lee rose to prominence can be very helpful .
The 1960s and 1970s saw a great awakening to Asian martial arts in the West. Veterans of the armed forces, who trained in karate and other martial arts while serving in Asia, were returning to the West. Upon their return, they started teaching and popularizing martial arts. Predominantly, those martial artists gained their training in Japan (e.g., Joe Lewis) and Korea (e.g., Chuck Norris), two countries that had a large presence of US armed forces post World War II. Comparatively, relatively few westerners had exposure to Chinese martial arts, as China was fairly closed to the West at that time. (A notable exception is Robert Smith, who trained in Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua in Taiwan, where he was posted by the CIA.)
Although Kung Fu was practiced in the US prior to Bruce Lee’s arrival in 1959, it was predominantly an art taught within Chinese-American communities (and sometimes used by henchmen of the Chinese underground). It may be hard to imagine today, but back in the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese communities in the US were relatively isolated. Generally speaking, Chinese Americans lived and socialized within their own communities, and were not well integrated into the rest of the US. It was only in the late 1950s and early 1960s that Kung Fu masters in the US started accepting non-Chinese students. Bruce Lee was one of those, although not the only one (Sifu Ark Wong in Los Angeles being another prominent example). Still, at the time of Bruce Lee’s rise to stardom, Kung Fu was generally unknown in the West, and completely overshadowed by karate (in its various Okinawan, Japanese and Korean variants).
To a great extent, it was Bruce Lee who introduced Kung Fu to the West.
Origins of Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu
The book Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu contains of a collection of Bruce Lee’s writings from 1963, i.e., four years after he moved to the United States. In those writings, 22 year-old Bruce Lee seeks to introduce the West to the then generally unknown martial art of Kung Fu. The 1963 writing resulted in a short, 97-page-long (unpublished) book Lee entitled Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense. This is only book that Lee ever authored. He did not publish the book, and instead continued writing in 1964, with the intent of expanding the content into a more authoritative volume. Lee later abandoned the intent to publish this material. Writer John Little assembled the original Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense book, as well as Lee’s additional writings, into what we now have as Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu.
In 20th and 21st century martial arts there still is a strong tendency to elevate masters to the state of demigods. At this state, all past and present words of the master are treated as gospel – immutable truths that should be accepted and never challenged. This is a grave mistake. Martial artists, no matter how talented, are people. They evolve in their thinking and approach and, on occasion, they make mistakes. More importantly, critical thinking is vital for healthy growth in every field, including martial arts.
Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu is a good example of martial arts evolution. The book mostly represents the mindset of Bruce Lee prior to founding his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do, in 1967. The book is therefore best viewed as a snapshot of Lee’s thinking as he started questioning the ways that the so-called “classical” Chinese martial arts of the 1960s were practiced, and before he came to his own as an independent martial artist.
Introduction to Kung Fu
Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu opens with an introduction to Kung Fu, an art previously unfamiliar to the Western practitioner. Lee paints Kung Fu as a system of martial arts for self-defense, with roots extending more than 4,000 years, and which has been refined over generations.
Bruce Lee states the purpose of Kung Fu as follows:
“The object of gung fu is for health promotion, cultivation of mind, and self-protection.”
Later in the book, Lee states:
“To the Chinese, gung fu is a Way of training the mind as well as a Way of life.”
This parallels the transition karate made in the early 20th century, from a “jutsu” (術 method) to a “do” (道 way of life). Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) captured this in his famous quote:
“The the ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
It is interesting that Bruce Lee adopts this view as well. The history of Chinese martial arts parallels that of Okinawan karate. In the Okinawan martial arts world, karate did not term itself a “do” until it was introduced to Japan in the early 20th century. In Japan, karate was influenced heavily by Jigoro Kano’s Japanese martial art of Judo. Likewise, in the late 19th and early 20th century, as Chinese martial arts attempted to move “upmarket,” and appeal to a broad audience of educated people, they adopted a connection to a “way of life.”
Interestingly, it does appear that the Bruce Lee absorbed the “way” of Kung Fu early in his life. For example, in Hong Kong, the young Bruce Lee was constantly getting involved in street fights. In fact, the reason he was forced to depart Hong Kong for the US in 1959 is because his parents feared for his life following a street fight Lee had with a son of an organized crime family.
Kung Fu Techniques
Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu follows with a section on Kung Fu techniques. This is the most technical part of the book, although the subject is covered more from a principal and strategy approach rather than specific techniques.
A few of Lee’s words of wisdom here would ring true to experienced martial artists. For example, on the topic of power generation Bruce Lee says:
“The waist is one of the most import parts in connecting the movements of the upper and lower body.”
“Using arm force alone is indeed a characteristic of the untrained person.”
Both of these should be familiar to Okinawan karate practitioners with an understanding of gamaku (see an explanation of gamaku and the center here).
The technical section covers striking, punching, blocking and kicking techniques, as well as weak points of the human body to attack. The sectionalso covers sticking hands practice (Wing Chun’s chi-sau – the equivalent of karate’s tuidi).
Although most of the technical discussion of technique is focused on Wing-Chun Kung-Fu, many of Bruce Lee’s writings state general martial arts truths. For example, on high vs. low kicks, Lee writes:
“In training, it is okay to kick as high as you can, but in actual combat it is more important to kick as fast as you can and never let your kick pass above the belt area.”
“Your kicks should also correspond with your hand techniques (i.e., simple, direct, and efficient, without ornamentation or attempts at sophisticated movement).”
(Of course, you would not know this from Bruce Lee’s movies, which are filled with flamboyant techniques and high kicks.)
Lee devotes an entire chapter to self-defense consideration (as distinct from consensual fighting). In that chapter he discusses the importance of awareness and escaping skill over physical skills, as well as the use of preemptive attacks in self defense. Lee also presents several defenses from disadvantaged situations, such as when attacked while being seated on a chair.
A specific chapter discusses forms. Aptly titled The Practice of Forms – One of the Means to an End, the chapter is unfortunately quite short and feels incomplete.
A special chapter is dedicated to supplementary training, including calisthenics, impact targets, and the all-too-familiar Kung Fu Muk (wooden dummy). Lee includes both classical and modern training implements, the latter include the boxing heavy bag and speed bag. Practitioners of Okinawan Karate will recognize the Makiwara (traditional Okinawan striking post) as one of the important training implements promoted by Bruce Lee (see #2 below).
Taoism and the Chinese Martial Arts
An entire section of Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu is dedicated to discussing the parallels between Kung Fu and Taoism. Taoism (also written Daoism) is both a religion and a philosophical Chinese tradition. It emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (think “The Force” in Star Wars). Westerners will probably be familiar with the ying-yang circle (taijitu 太极图) and the eight-trigram symbol (bagua 八卦) that are often associated with Taoism.
Lee discusses Taoist concepts such as wu-wei (無爲 non-doing, effortless action or action without intent, aligned with the natural world), wu-hsin (無心 no-mindedness, or the mind of no-mind — mushin in Japanese) and how those apply in the practice of martial arts.
This is an interesting section from a historical perspective. As Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo discuss in their book Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey (which I wholly recommend), the connection between religion and Chinese martial arts did not exist prior to the early 20th century. This coincided with the transformation of Chinese martial arts from arts taught in secret to a closed audience (usually family) and into an art openly disseminated to the public. Kennedy and Guo cite several historians who postulate that, since the literati in China belittled physical activities such as martial arts, Chinese martial arts adopted a manufactured connection to religion to appeal to a “higher class” and broader audience.
To his credit, Bruce Lee does not suggest a historical connection between religion and Kung Fu. His writing simply discuss parallels between Taoist ideas and martial arts. Thankfully, Lee also does not cite any of the nonsense myths for the origin of Kung Fu, such as the myth of Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple.
Ideas and Thoughts on Kung Fu and Martial Arts
I found the “Ideas and Opinions” section of Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu extremely interesting. This section is a collection of Bruce Lee’s thoughts on martial arts, and on the state of martial arts training in Asia and in the United States. Bruce is spot-on in identifying several of the flaws of the so-called “traditional” martial arts. (Unfortunately, many of these flaws have not been fully cured to this day.)
Bruce Lee is highly critical of blind adherence to a style, as he believes such adherence leads to preference of form over function, and ultimately to stagnation of the art.
“Basically and ultimately, all [martial] arts return to the same truth.”
Lee is critical of the prevalence of dead, cooperative drills in some martial arts styles, which are practiced in the hope that they will confer real fighting skills upon the martial artist (such as one step sparring in karate, or “dead” attacks, where the enemy attacks with one technique, and then freezes in place while they patiently wait for the training partner to respond), believing that non-cooperative (sparring) practice is critical to developing real martial arts skills:
“In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find out that these choice-routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat. All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot.”
He is also critical of the focus on forms (kata, in karate), rather than on understanding the utility of the moves (bunkai, in karate). He is especially critical to training focused solely on the aesthetics of forms.
“As the forms become less and less real, the practitioner drifts further and further away from the end – the reality of martial arts. Finally, all their efforts will have to concentrate on the means and the end is forgotten. Not only that, but an unrelated standard of judgment is established within the system…”
On ranks and belts, Bruce Lee’s views will be familiar to fans of the fictional Sensei Miyagi in the 1984 movie The Karate Kid.
Bruce Lee: “I think it might be useful to hold your pants up, but that’s about that.”
Sensei Miyagi: “In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope hold up pants.”
Bruce Lee has made a tremendous impact on martial arts. Bruce Lee, The Tao of Gung Fu is a window into Lee’s thinking in the early 1960s. It is surprising how much his thinking is relevant to the martial arts world today – in particular, Lee’s criticism of the way martial arts practice in so-called “traditional” martial arts systems has drifted away from practicality and realism. This is an enjoyable and educational read for any serious martial arts practitioner.
Of course, no writing on Bruce Lee is complete without a reference to his prolific movies. Here are some of Bruce Lee’s best martial arts movie fights: