The Jet Li Story

By Martha Burr

Now Shooting Lethal Weapon 4, Wushu's Most Famous Star Makes the Hollywood Leap
The West is poised for a new Chinese hero. For three decades America has embraced the charismatic power and awe of Bruce Lee's kung fu and movies, and the 90's finally illuminate the screen with the physical comic genius, amazing stunts, and unyielding charm of Jackie Chan. But Jet Li is a different kind of hero. Not unlike Chow Yun Fat, his characters embody the values of loyalty and justice, imbued with a reflective depth and sensitivity. His kung fu serves a purpose, perhaps even a moral lesson, as his screen personas range from martial arts folk heroes ;Zhang San Feng to Wong Fei Hung to Ching Woo defender Chen Zhen. Despite a few less than successful comic outings, we've come to view Jet Li as the archetypal hero, whether Shaolin monk or modern day cop, whose difficult journey triumphs in good over evil.
Triumph is certainly a word that belongs to the Jet Li story. Cinephiles often overlook the fact that Li Lien Jie is also one of China's all-time greatest wushu stars and national sports heroes. But it seems inevitable that Li's wushu history is what shaped both his own character and those that he plays on screen. Determination and will made him the top star of the Beijing Wushu Team at age eleven, when he won All-Around Champion in the National Wushu Championships. He went on to take it again four more consecutive times, breaking records and making martial arts history.

Wushu Childhood
Li was eight years old when his Physical Education teacher in the Changqiao Primary School of Beijing discovered the young boy's jumping, agility and grace. He sent Li to the Beijing Amateur Sports School for wushu training, where he fell under the tutelage of Coach Wu Bin. Attending classes during the day, the eight-year-old soon became one of the hardest working and most determined. Leg presses, bending and somersaults were only part of each evening's curriculum, and the young athlete went home tired, yet inspired, every night.
Perhaps Wu Bin became a kind of father figure to Li, who lost his own father when he was only two, and as a wushu coach he certainly saw the potential of a future star, both in natural talent and in perseverance. He designed extra training for Li. Wu Bin was pleased with the speed and agility of his pupil, but found that Li lacked strength for kicking and striking. He visited the Li home and discovered that the family did not eat meat because at one time the grandmother has fallen ill and the doctor advised her to avoid it. The entire family followed in the habit, but Wu Bin told them that Lien Jie needed the protein to develop his strength, and he in fact continued to bring food to the struggling Li household for years.
Li's natural talent in gymnastics soon was wedded to a deepening love of the martial arts. In three years, his sophistication grew substantially. Many other children in the Beijing Amateur Sports school wushu program dropped out due to the mental and physical rigors. Li, instead, continued to practice punching and kicking, agility and flexibility, and swords and spears late into every night.

"Not a Prodigy"
People often speak of Jet Li as a prodigy and a child wushu genius. Li himself answers this sharply in a short memoir where he writes: "I am not a prodigy and newspaper reports about my having consciously trained and practiced wushu since I was a child often annoyed me beyond measure. It was simply not true. Like everyone else, I came across numerous problems in the course of training and many a time I wavered and thought of dropping out. It was my coach Wu Bin who helped me steer clear of all obstacles and encouraged me never to give up. His admonitions and his patience in guiding me along will always remain in my heart of hearts."
There are inevitably historical points of convergence, moments of those being in the right place at the right time. Luckily for wushu, both Jet Li and Wu Bin were joined in a vision that emerged as the Beijing Wushu Team. After three years of serious wushu training with Wu Bin, and becoming a national junior champion, Li became a member of Beijing's professional team in 1974. For many eleven-year-olds the pressure might have been too much, but for Li it seemed to raise him to another level. For one thing, the physical training intensified greatly. For another, and perhaps more important, it broadened his vision of the martial arts. Running around a 350 meter track 20 times in 25 minutes took discipline, but studying the characteristics of different martial arts styles, and assimilating them, took both an artistic and a martial arts intelligence. Li began to blend free gymnastics exercise, boxing and weapons together with his own highly skilled jumping and speed. He was able to take advantage of many martial arts masters gathered in Beijing, and he studied their different points and qualities, soaking up all they had to offer.
Li looked for the essence of martial arts. And then at his first National Wushu Championships in 1974 he demonstrated his knowledge of it. As one writer noted, "His interpretation of the requirements set for the contest was based on a thorough study as well as a clever combination of the characteristics of various schools: the flowing Changquan, the free Chaquan, the brisk and light Monkey Boxing, the graceful Tongbeiquan, the rhythmical and bombastic Gun Boxing, the inner energy of the Taichiquan, etc. Thus the most important thing, in his mind, was the integration of the forms of running, springing and leaping with a sense of beauty." Li took first in the compulsories, and then went on to win the highest marks in swordplay, spearplay, routine boxing, Pu swordplay and two man sparring, making him All-Around Champion.

Performing for Nixon
Many fans in America are less amazed by this achievement of labor and love than they are by Li performing wushu for Nixon and Kissinger on the White House lawn later that year. Granted, watching the footage is still fascinating, especially now that that young boy has grown up into his own stardom. Had it not been Jet Li, the performance would most likely lose some of its retrospective glamour, but because he was there it remains an enigmatic symbol of Sino-American diplomacy. The innocence of the young Li (China's National hero who later would play China's Nationalist hero) performing before the American President who was soon to become a villainized ;corrupter of the American political ethic, stands as a strong, if somewhat unfathomable and paradoxical, image.
Nevertheless, it was the beginning of what might be called wushu diplomacy for China and for Jet Li. For the next four years he was the consecutive All-Around National Wushu Champion. He subsequently traveled abroad to countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, performing wushu and educating more and more of the public whose interest was piqued by the current popularity Bruce Lee movies.

With Wu Bin
The glamour of international travel and exhibition must certainly have punctuated those five years of relentless work, training and dedication that a champion had to maintain in order to win. The many stories of Wu Bin's hard discipline towards the team are perhaps underscored by Li's own remembrance:
"What my teammates did once in a training session I did thrice. To make the most of my time, I worked in the gym even on Sundays, when everybody else was resting.
"My coach, however, didn't seem to appreciate my efforts. He was always kind and patient when he explained the essentials of all the movements to my teammates and pointed out to them where they went wrong. When he saw they were too tired, he advised them to take a break. But he seemed to be quite another person when he talked to me. Often he would snap at me, 'Do you think that's the correct movement?' 'How come the more you practice the worse you become?' and so forth.
"To be frank, I didn't quite like the way he treated me. But now I understand he did it all for my good. Whenever he took on a new trainee, the first thing he did was get to know his character so he could deal with him accordingly. Seeing that I was a bit 'ambitious' and proved a willing trainee, he applied the rigorous method of training towards me. This was described by him as: "A resounding drum must be struck with a heavy hammer.'"

Quest For Knowlwdge
One thing that set Li apart from other competitors was the creativity in his routines and the fact that he continued to set higher standards for himself each year. His "specialties," once performed, were no longer secrets, and as one observer remarked, "Judges all praised him for he was never content, for he was ever advancing, for he had brought the traditional art to a new high." Many others who knew him as a competitor corroborate this, and Li took every possible opportunity to gain experience from all the wushu masters he encountered, including Beijing opera actors and dancers. Having this insight into Li's kungfu epistemology again confronts the sometimes popular prejudice that "wushu" is mere performance, divorced from "real" martial arts and martial art history; ;instead, the high level contemporary wushu stylist's education is not unlike Bruce Lee's philosophy of taking what is useful from the different martial arts and finding your own way and your own individual expression.
Depth is what characterizes Jet Li's wushu. The combination of abstract mental understanding coupled with a fluid, powerful physical interpretation ;makes his performances compelling. But the beauty and grace inherent in his wushu finally comes from the soul. What sets apart genius from mere intelligence? Perhaps nothing we can measure in a quantitative sense. But when you watch Li perform there is an extra dimension to his wushu which sets him apart, a spirit which creates life in the form itself.

"See the Real Jet Li"
The days of Jet Li's performance are long past, but for those curious to see the young competitor there is a ;kungfu documentary called Dragons of the Orient (available from Tai Seng). Despite the film's dubious narrative devices, it offers us a glimpse of Jet Li's style, both training and performing. There we see the White House lawn, as the eleven-year-old Li dressed in a bright red outfit performs a two man fighting set with his teammate Chu Shi Fai. He is also shown at twelve, practicing and competing, wielding a broadsword at lightning speed. Cut to Jet Li at nineteen, handsome, muscled and strong, with long hair in his face. He gives the camera a taste of the double broadsword, the whip chain, the three-section staff, the spear and the pu dao. This is no Jet Li of the movies with camera angles and special effects - but it is equally engrossing, because it is real. The footage even becomes a bit surreal as we watch him celebrate his mother's fiftieth birthday party with dumplings and cake, and walk along the Great Wall where he used to practice as a child. The film's narrator is quick to tell us, "Don't think he is a rude guy. Besides competing in kung fu, he's good at literature and art, too." They then give us a poem Li composed, in what is most likely a terrible translation: "There's always a mountain/So there are always good fighters/Therefore one must know his strengths and weaknesses to become perfect."
Li the master becomes Li the student as the camera captures him learning and refining taiji elements from the 97-year-old Wu Tu Nan, and then Paqua Fist from the equally sage Li Si Min. ;Then watch series of Li's training exercises, from breaking bottles to punching paper tied to a tree tunk, strength training, and a dynamic exercise done hanging from a pine tree developing "Paqua legs," which is described, "like a dragon on a tree, kicking hard." Finally we see Li training with a device of his own invention doing an exercise called "Beating Stars." Surrounded by a group of soccer balls suspended between trees with taut ropes, Li strikes the different balls as they rebound and create a surrounding web of continual motion. In this way, "one attacks from all four sides and protects from four sides too. It practices the hands, eyes, body and feet to be swift and fast, turning and responding."
Finally, the last shots of Li capture him doing a drunken sword form. In a sunlit, open field, surrounded by pine trees, Li's movements are strong and subtle, stylized to perfection, exuding the grace and beauty that has become his signature.

Shaolin Temple - The Movie
Li's high profile in wushu was not to go unnoticed by the makers of kung fu movies. One who was particularly struck by his talent was director Chang Hsin Yen, who saw him at the National Championships on a trip to help find the cast of Shaolin Temple. Li, at eighteen, accepted the role of Guer Yuen, a monk whose father was killed by the Emperor's nephew, and who subsequently defends the Shaolin Temple against the Emperor's corrupt and despotic troops. Preparing for the role Li consulted acting coaches including his sister who was a student director in the Chinese Drama Institute. He also learned to ride a horse in three days. His main concern, however, was to show authentic martial arts without gimmicks.
It is fortunate that the director had the same vision. Chang himself went to a number of wushu tournaments and traveled throughout China searching for the right talent for the film. "I was lucky," he remarks, "because this group of kungfu masters each has his own characteristics and outward appearance, and, after only a little instruction, they could master their roles extraordinarily well."
Besides Li, the film was packed with many of China's other great masters and champions, including Sun Jiankui, Hu Jianqiang, Yu Hai, Du Chuanyang, Liu Hualiang, Yu Chengwei, Pan Qingfu, Ma Xianda, Wang Changkai and Ji Chunhua. Chang remarks, "You can say that each master did give a good account of himself. Master Yu Chengwei, the expert of double-grip drunken swordplay and the shark's fin broadswordplay, gave an excellent performance with the help of props specially designed for him. Chief coach Yu Hai demonstrated his superb techniques in the Mantis Boxing, while masters Pan Qingfu and Ji Chunhua displayed their famous qinnagong (barehand grip) and the Hawk's Paw Boxing respectively. These are all traditional kungfu and those having this kind of knowledge will be able to tell."
Chang's presence must have also reassured Li's concerns about authenticity, and few special effects were used in making the film. Chang describes some of the process: "We did not use the trampoline, as the masters were capable of jumping to a great height. We did not use fast motion, as their actions were already very fast, and their patterns clear. When shooting their combat fighting, I did my best to record the perfectness and genuineness of the actions so that the viewers would be able to see their fighting arts in continuation. Take, for example, a two-and-a-half turn performed by Li Lien Jie in midair. I should have been able to shoot it in slow motion, but I was able to use normal speed to shoot this very difficult 900 degree turning."
Shaolin Temple was in production for three years, and cost approximately 10 million Hong Kong dollars. Besides the interiors done in the Kowloon studio, the exterior shooting locations included the Yellow River, the Dragon Court in the ancient capital Kaifeng, the Longman Grottoes in Luoyang city, and various other provinces. Costumes were based on historical records, and eighteen kinds of weapons recorded in ancient martial arts books were featured in the film.
The result was instant movie stardom for Jet Li, and a huge resurgence of interest in the Shaolin Temple. People began to flock to the real temple in Henan province. Li recalls, "When they saw Shaolin Temple, many students started marching to the real Shaolin, wanting to learn kungfu! The government was very concerned. They issued broadcasts telling everyone that today the Shaolin temple isn't like it appears in the movie!" But the movie was to forever transform the poor, run down temple into what is one of today's biggest tourist attractions in China. Both Chinese and foreigners flock to Henan to sightsee and learn wushu at one of the village's many commercial schools, the largest of which, Tagou, has 3000 students.

The Journey toWong Fei Hung
Li's ascendence as a film star paralleled the fame of Shaolin Temple itself, though not without struggles similar to those of his wushu days. While filming Shaolin Temple Li had the opportunity to visit places like the Shaw Brothers Studio and meet and watch directors such as Lau Kar Leung and Sun Chong. The success of Shaolin Temple was exploited by two sequels, Shaolin Temple 2 and Kids From Shaolin, neither of which lived up to the promise of the first film. Director Lau Kar Leung then brought his fight choreography and expertise to Martial Arts of Shaolin, ;but the next three films, experimenting with contemporary settings - Born to Defence, Dragon Fight and The Master, were rather dismal. The latter two were also shot in the U.S., creating many difficulties between the contrasting production styles of Hong Kong and American crews. And as Bey Logan once noted, "The problem facing Li was that, unlike Jackie Chan, he could not easily adapt his on-screen fighting style to fit the feature. Jet was a past master at performing the elegant classical kungfu movements and weapons, but had big problems conforming to the Police Story style roughhousing."
It was another period piece that finally shot Li to the top. Once Upon in China was a fortuitous combination of Li's talents, both kungfu and acting, with one of Hong Kong's most expressive and powerful directors, Tsui Hark. Where Li had played a monk rebelling against the Qing in Shaolin Temple, he was now playing not only another rebel but a revolutionary as Wong Fei Hung, the famous Cantonese folk hero and actual compatriot of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Tsui Hark's filmmaking went far beyond that of Li's previous films, with breathtaking cinematography, a lush score and masterful editing. And it was a perfect role for Li to give a deep, complex and moving performance. As Wong Fei Hung, Li was a hero out not for revenge but for justice. He could be at once innocent and mischievous, and then powerful and fierce in combat. At times his character even emits a certain profound melancholy. He is both a doctor and a kung fu hero, healing the sick and defending the helpless, and finally, he comes to represent the heroic spirit of China itself.
Critics and audiences loved Once Upon a Time in China, and it vaulted Li into Hong Kong's realm of superstardom. The movie was followed by five sequels, losing Li for the fourth and fifth, but gaining him back again for Part 6, Once Upon a Time in China In America, released last year and shot in Texas with Samo Hung directing. Li discusses his ongoing role with Bey Logan: "Of course, I was aware that there had been many earlier Wong Fei Hung films. I know that Tsui Hark made sure that what we were doing fitted in with what people knew from those movies. I had not seen them, though. The old black and white films and the Shaw Brothers movies never really played in China. The only other Wong Fei Hung I had seen was Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, and of course what we were doing was quite different."

Hong Kong Hero
A number of excellent period pieces followed this success, including The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, Swordsman 2, and especially The Tai Chi Master, which ranks as one of the top martial arts film classics of all time. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping, and co-starring Yuen Biao and Michelle Yeoh, the film imagines the early years of Zhang San Feng and his creative development of tai chi. Li's kung fu and acting are both dynamic and elegant, used to their greatest potential by the director. The design of the martial arts choreography is complex, shifting from one style to another, with a pace that builds to the emotional climax of the film.
Li's acting, by this point, was fully mature, and he had spent quite a bit of time in the Hong Kong film industry. Still looking for the right modern day kung fu movie, he finally scored with two gems showing off his contemporary style. Bodyguard From Beijing, a re-make of the American Kevin Costner film, sweetly combined romance with action. And then My Father is a Hero, co-starring Anita Mui, took the usual undercover cop story and combined it with the kung fu kid motif to create fun and suspense, yet maintaining the Jet Li hero trademark of inner struggle.
1995 presented Li with a new challenge with Fist of Legend. A remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, Li was playing the Ching Woo hero Chen Zhen, but in the shadow of another martial arts hero of Bruce Lee himself. Li told Logan, "(Bruce Lee) Li Shao Lung is a hero over there (Mainland China), just like everywhere else. Many young Chinese admire him and want to be like him. I'm not doing this film to say: 'Hey look, here is the new Bruce Lee!' No, it's to show my respect for his memory. Like the American movie Dragon." It was essential that the martial arts in this film be outstanding, and with Yuen Woo Ping choreographing them, it was. Li's own homage to Bruce Lee combined the right amounts of humor and seriousness, and the dramatic buildup of the fighting to the film's climax is completely compelling. The film received critical and box office success in Hong Kong, and Yuen Woo Ping reports that the martial arts in it was also a popular hit with the local kung fu cognoscenti.

The Leap to Hollywood
Hollywood continues to prove itself an unknown quantity to Hong Kong stars and filmmakers. Li is now in the middle of shooting Lethal Weapon 4, playing the head villain. Certainly this role is a departure for the man who we have never imagined as anything but a hero, but it also offers him a new thespian challenge, not to mention huge exposure in a mainstream American action film, and quite possibly, some good fun. If the media plays it right, they'll trot out that old White House lawn newsreel and show the public once again the real kung fu of Jet Li. ;Quentin Tarantino, a huge Jet Li fan, has bought the rights to several of Li's best Hong Kong films and Miramax will be distributing them later this year. Like Chow Yun Fat, Li has worked hard on his English to help Americans with that peculiar accent block which prevents us from enjoying a fuller spectrum of global acting talent. But most important, Jet Li is fluent in that universal language of action and emotion, and especially in the vernacular of martial arts that speaks to our collective imagination. Jet Li continues his tour as ambassador of wushu, this time not to the White House but to Hollywood, an Eastern hero on his journey to the West.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1998 .

Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article