Published on 5 Jun 2018, Bruce Lee : A Life, by Matthew Polly is a new biography on the late kung fu movie superstar.
Nowadays I don’t really have that much interest in books on Bruce Lee. I guess you can say I have outlived my interest. However, I read an excerpt from the book and I found it enjoyable.
So I ordered the book and it proved to be a compelling, enjoyable read despite its thickness (656 pages). Even the Notes contained many interesting information.
Some of the information have been published elsewhere but even then Polly managed to shed greater light on the old information. There are some information that are new such as that beginning on page 393 on Wong Shun Leung and his exchange with Bruce Lee following Bruce Lee’s visit to Ip Man’s gym where he sparred with two junior students and humiliated them to the extent that even the senior students refused to spar with Bruce Lee.
Master Wong was not there on that day but he heard about how Bruce Lee made the Wing Chun clan lose face with his Jeet Kune Do and wanted to teach Bruce a lesson. Polly went on to describe what happened.
I don’t have a problem reading what followed but if I were a student or disciple of the late Master Wong I sure like hell would be mad with what Polly wrote. Except Polly mentioned in Notes that his information came from an interview conducted in 2013 with Master Wan Kam Leung, a disciple of Master Wong, who was there and witnessed the exchange between both masters.
Both asked Wan for his opinion after their sparring and he gave a diplomatic reply that both are on a similar level of skills. In 2013 when he was interviewed by Polly he gave his honest opinion of the exchange and what followed after Master Wong and him returned to their studio. Read it. It is a good reminder to us on our martial arts journey, echoing what is written on page 135 :-
“Classical methods like these are a form of paralysis. Too many practitioners are just blindly rehearsing these systematic routines and stunts.”
In another chapter on page 147 there is another quote from Bruce Lee :-
“Teachers should never impose their favorite patterns on their students. They should be finding out what works for them, and what does not work for them. The individual is more important than the style.”
This reminds me of what my student, R, asked me last week about teaching a group class. I said that in a group class I would not be able to teach Tai Chi on a detailed level. I have found that in a group class everybody is basically monkey see, monkey do. The small details matter for our personal development of the art.
No two persons are alike. So some can move in a similar manner but more often than not, most students are not able to do so. We can only use a form as a template to teach principles and along the way prompt them to discover different principles by understanding how a different tempo, a different angle, a different alignment and so on can lead to a different result. Thus, a movement like White Crane Spreads Wings might be a throw to one student, a hand strike to another but a kick to a third.
In discovering the general principles we can then understand what makes each style of Tai Chi great. We can also understand how other styles work. After all an arm movement is an arm movement in the context of anatomy unless you are someone like Troy James below.
Today, in Tai Chi and in many other styles we have a great divide. This divide can have a useful purpose taken the right way. However, in reality the divide has caused us to be blind. I am sure Bruce Lee is not the first person to know this or even to bring it up but he is certainly the first to be in print saying on page 203 :-
“Styles separate men, because they have their own doctrine and then the doctrine becomes the gospel truth. But if you do not have styles, if you just say, ‘Here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?’ Now this way you will not create a style – because a style is a crystallization – this way is a process of continuing growth.”
We are guilty of this in many ways. Some of my students would say isn’t that punch with a vertical fist a Wing Chun technique without knowing that in Yang style we use a vertical punch. The vertical punch is also found in Pok Khek Kuen and many other styles. In a way it shows their ignorance, in a way it shows their discriminatory mind and in a way they seem to value style over practicality.
This is wrong. Styles are an outcome of the gathering and consolidation of information to create a style for ease of teaching. It is a means to an end. If you even wonder why you are stuck in your progress check your values. No one forced you to worship a style except that you willingly do it and end up imprisoning yourself in a mental trap of your own making.
Knowledge is important to free ourselves and advance our learning. If you do not know and more importantly you do not know what you do not know that you potentially will end up in a rut. Jesse Glover is quoted on page 201 about Bruce Lee’s skill :-
“The thing that made him so effective was the fact that he could pick up a potential movement before it happened. Many of his advanced concepts were based on this type of detection.”
Glover’s statement reads like the truth except that the part about advanced concepts. Anyone who practiced contact type of skill in styles such as Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Southern Mantis, BJJ, etc would know what this is just a basic skill, the skill of quieting yourself to listen to the opponent, a basic skill honed to a sensitive level such that it feels magical to the lower level person encountering it.
We can choose to be fooled or we can choose to learn the truth. For those of us who are seeking the truth in the combat arts there are many nuggets of gold in between the politics, the backstabbing, the frustrations, the sex, the lies behind the remarkable life and death of Bruce Lee in between the pages.