Saturday, May 23, 2009

Identity, Culture, and Bruce Lee

I recently finished watching History Channel's "How Bruce Lee Changed the World."

If you get past the overwrought commentary it has a legitimate point about how Bruce Lee became a very influential cultural icon.

The thing that struck me personally is just how contradictory his role in Chinese culture is.

Chinese people are more than willing to embrace Bruce Lee as a cultural icon, as the strong Chinese man who stuck it to Whitey. He's probably the greatest pop culture hero of Modern Chinese Romanticsm.

But the way he lived his life, approached martial arts, and embraced ideas from outside his culture -- was something very hard for Chinese people to handle. To be frank, any Chinese today taking his approach to life would get the stink-eye from other Chinese people.

Take his martial arts.

Its not a big deal now, but his teaching of kung fu to Westerners was something very much frowned upon by other kung fu instructors. He got into nasty fights with other veteran Chinese martial artists because of this.

Then there was Jeet Kun Do.

It's recognized now as a martial art, and taught in Hong Kong. But while it has a lot of Chinese techniques in it, its loaded with techniques from Western and other Asian martial arts.

Granted, the history of martial arts is loaded with artists who broke with tradition, creating new styles with techniques borrowed from elsewhere.

But here's the catch -- in the heavily loaded world of modern Chinese culture and modern Chinese identity politics, what Lee did was heretical. He was essentially acknowledging that centuries old Chinese martial arts traditions were inadequate, and that the fighting styles of the evil barbarians (Westerners & Japanese people), lesser Asians (the Koreans, the Thai), actually had something to offer.

That Chinese cultural superiority complex still seems to affect how Chinese people approach Jeet Kun Do (JKD). Relatives and other Chinese people I've known who have studied the martial arts generally don't think much of JKD. JKD is viewed with a kind of contempt, acknowledged as possibly being useful and effective, but crude, and unrefined. It seems that if a Chinese kid wanted to learn a Chinese martial art, he'll be directed to the Shaolin animal styles, various styles of taijiquan, or Wushu. But never JKD.

For me personally, Lee embodies the contradictions of the Huaqiao, or overseas Chinese. To succeed, the Huaqiao learns to embrace new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing things. When he heads back to China, or just a Chinese community, Chinese people embrace him because they can take advantage of his success -- taking his money, and the knowledge and ideas he brings back with him from outside.

But Chinese people are also uncomfortable with the Huaqiao finding much of his personal value system and approach to doing things uncomfortable and alien. They'll use the Huaqiao for their own ends while trash talking them for losing their Chinese-ness.

Sounds like a raw deal to me.

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