It has been three decades since the untimely death on July 20, 1973 of Bruce Lee, the martial-arts expert and movie star. The “dragon” (as he is known for his starring role in the film Enter the Dragon) has long been a cult hero to fans of martial-arts movies. But Lee deserves broader recognition for his contributions to American culture and society.
Lee served, in fact, as an important counterpoint to some of the negative cultural and social trends that were ascendant in the years when he attained fame. At a time when crime was soaring, Lee developed and popularized techniques that ultimately would help millions improve their self-defense abilities. In the face of a counterculture that derided self-discipline, Lee stood as a veritable embodiment of that virtue. In contrast to the pious (and often hypocritical) pacifism that arose against the Vietnam War, Lee’s films were a reminder that force can be legitimate depending on how and why it is used.
Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940. His father was an actor who had appeared in Chinese opera and films, and his mother was of Chinese and German ancestry. The family moved to Hong Kong when Bruce was small. He received training in kung fu, and would later develop his own branch of the martial art, called jeet kune do, which emphasized blocking and hitting in one fluid motion. At age 19, he returned to America to study philosophy at the University of Washington.
In Seattle, Lee found he could make money by teaching some of his martial-arts skills to other students (he also worked as a waiter). He faced hostility from some established martial-arts schools, and from Asians who thought martial arts shouldn’t be taught to Westerners. He persevered, starting his own school and writing a book on kung fu. He married, moved to California and had two children (his son, actor Brandon Lee, died in an accident in 1993). Some Hollywood producers saw him demonstrate his skills at an exhibition and signed him up to play the sidekick Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet.
The show only lasted for the 1966-67 season, but Lee had gained a following, especially in Hong Kong where the episodes were rebroadcast. After a few years of relatively minor or unsuccessful TV and film work, Lee got leading roles in Hong Kong-made films such as Fists of Fury (1971) and The Chinese Connection (1972). Enter the Dragon (1973) assured him international stardom — but he died in Hong Kong weeks before its release. He was 32.
The official report concluded that Lee had died of cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain, caused by a reaction to a headache tablet he had taken. His death was the subject of considerable, even mystical, speculation — that he was killed by gangsters demanding protection money, or by martial-arts rivals, that a curse or “death touch” or bad feng shui was involved. In fact, there is little basis for any suggestion of foul play. Nor is there evidence that drug abuse was a factor, although Lee is believed to have chewed cannabis and the autopsy reportedly found traces of the substance in his stomach.
Lee’s early death added to his stardom and mystique. Indeed, it did not even entirely end his film career. The 1978 movie Game of Death featured footage of him, and in the last couple of years a Korean company has been working on a movie called Dragon Warrior that will star a computer-generated version of Lee.
Still, it is likely that had Bruce Lee lived, he would have had a larger cultural impact than was the case. We’ll never know what directions his life and career would have taken. Considering how he stood out in the cultural climate of the 1970s, it’s interesting to think that maybe he would have become a politician. Bruce Lee vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger would’ve made a great Republican primary.