Bruce’s Classical Mess:
Cleaning up the Mess the “Little Dragon” Left Behind
By Hawkins Cheung, as told to Robert Chu in “Inside Kung-Fu” February 1992
Bruce’s sudden death left behind a classical mess. We can’t deny the impact that Bruce had. Eighteen years since Bruce’s passing, and hundreds of martial artists are still trying to copy Bruce’s movements, punches and kicks. Some learn wing chun simply because wing chun was his mother system. There are now many jeet kune do instructors teaching “his methods.” Eighteen years and many are teaching jeet kune do, but many still don’t know what jeet kune do is, Many of these so called instructors make their art mimic Bruce’s movements. Some instructors have nothing to do with Bruce, but try to relate their teachings to him.
Some of Bruce’s first-generation students came to study from me when I first immigrated here. When I told Bruce of my intent to immigrate to the U.S. before his death, Bruce thought it would be great to have me help out his students, but whether they came to learn or not was another thing.
When I touched their hands, I found that Bruce didn’t teach them the way he developed body power from wing chun. So, I tried to teach them the fundamentals of how to develop Bruce’s power. There are no secrets. First, you have to connect your body as one unit. Then you should develop it with a partner who tries to interrupt your unit by pulling, pushing and other types of physical interruptions. If you can manage physical interruption without disrupting your body unit, then you can talk about separating your unit into individual parts. If you don’t like physical interruptions (i.e., punches, kicks, etc.), then you may move your unit away before the punch or kick arrives. If you can do this, you can then move on to attacking techniques. You can also speak of unit attack with the body or either individual parts (arms or legs). For Bruce, every punch or kick had unit or body power behind it. This ability is something that you either have or don’t have.
The reader may ask, what is the difference between unit body power and individual power? When you punch at your partner during practice, your technique is usually delivered with your individual (arm) power. When you punch to destroy your opponent, the technique is delivered with body connection power. Techniques to impress your friends are delivered with speed and timing; techniques to destroy your opponent are delivered with speed, timing and body connection. Again, using my analogy of a hammer and nail, you have your choice. You can throw a nail and injure your opponent, or hammer the nail forward to kill him. When Bruce threw his punches and kicks, he used his body as a hammer.
When Bruce’s first-generation students came to me, I tried to teach them how to develop this unit power. Unfortunately, they did not believe me. Because I did not immediately teach them wing chun techniques, they felt I was keeping the knowledge to myself. Since then, I have kept my mouth shut. Whenever people talk about Bruce, I just walk away. These students wanted wing chun techniques and feeling. To me, the wing chun techniques are of secondary importance. Techniques can be learned from any wing chun teacher. However, without body connection and physical development, the techniques become useless.
Trained to fight
Back in the 195Os, Yip Man trained us to fight, not be technicians. Because we were so young, we didn’t understand the concepts or theories. As he taught us, Yip Man said, “Don’t believe me, as I may be tricking you. Go out and have a fight. Test it out.” In other words, Yip Man taught us the distance applications of wing chun. First he told us to go out and find practitioners of other styles and test our wing chun on them. If we lost, we knew on what we should work. We would go out and test our techniques again. We thought to ourselves, “Got to make that technique work! No excuses!” We learned by getting hit. When you are in a real fight, you find out what techniques are good for you. Just because your technique may work for one person doesn’t guarantee it will work for you. When you test your techniques on someone you don’t know, you experience a different feeling than when training with your friends. If you discover through your own experience, it’s much better than relying on another’s experience. In this way, you won’t be in his trap.
For this reason, physical and strong tool development are more important than the techniques. The way you apply techniques comes from your courage or confidence. You gain courage and confidence through your experience. For application, you have to ask yourself, “How much experience do I have? How many ways can I use this technique?” There is an old Chinese saying that in real fighting, you must have three points: courage, strength, technique. Technique comes last, unless you have superior timing to deliver techniques. These qualities are of personal development; they have nothing to do with styles. Through your fighting experience, you can check your system’s concepts and theories.
As I reflect, I think that if Yip Man first taught us the concepts or theories, we would follow them based on their requirements and rules. We wouldn’t need to test them out, simply because the wing chun system already had generations of testing. We would try to make the art as perfect as Yiin Wing Chun displayed. Perhaps Bruce and I would have become perfect technicians.
We wanted to find out what is important and not important when we fought outsiders. This is why we fought a lot when we were young. Only through application can you prove if the theories are valid. Techniques without timing are dead techniques. Display timing without power and the results are equally disastrous. Nowadays, many wing chun people have the same techniques, but how many wing chun people have gone through Bruce’s and my development?
Make the art alive
Some of Bruce’s followers say that wing chun people don’t have what Bruce had. To me, Bruce’s followers don’t have what Bruce had. What they teach is Bruce’s techniques, like his classical Jun Fan gung- fu, which is similar to wing chun. Only the body structure differs. These two classical arts were fixed by their founders. The individual that learns them needs to make the art alive. Both wing chun and Jun Fan’s goals are the same: simple, direct and economical movement to intercept. Wing chun utilizes the centerline as the fastest line of entry. Jun Fan allows their followers to choose whatever line they want to make their movements simple, direct and economical to intercept. Bruce’s followers need Bruce’s superior timing to catch up with wing chun’s centerline concept of intercepting.
Later, Bruce found that his Jun Fan was not direct to the goal of intercepting, so he advanced and improved his way of intercepting and created his jeet kune do. Bruce found that wing chun actually went further in’ terms of intercepting the opponent’s mind. Because Bruce never completed his Tao of Jeet Kune Do, many sections in it are not consistent with what we discussed in Hong Kong. Bruce’s five ways of attack and five ranges of fighting are attempts to systematize his teachings, but they fail. Were he alive today, he would have explained his JKD in detail. Jeet kune do translated into English means the “way of the intercepting fist.” Bruce realized that wing chun was straight to the point for intercepting and embodied the essence of jeet kune do. It was the nucleus of his personal art. Wing chun utilizes one method to close in to the attacker. With wing chun, one way handles all: you rush in to close the gap, intercept the opponent’s attack and finish him. In intercepting, there are no ranges. In wing chun and jeet kune do, there is only one range and goal: to intercept and finish off the opponent.
Bruce had no intention to create a style or system. He just wanted to prove to his sifu, Yip Man, that he could find another route to get the job done. Bruce’s work matches a wing chun saying, “Don’t speak of seniors or juniors. The one that attains first is senior.” We in wing chun have no seniors; we strive to become better than seniors or even the founder.
During Bruce’s last stay in Hong Kong, Bruce and Yip Man met at a dinner party. Bruce asked Yip Man, “Do you still treat me as your student?” Yip Man replied, “Do you still treat me as your sifu?” They both laughed. When Yip Man died, everyone thought that Bruce wouldn’t pay his last respects to his master. But he did show up, like one of us, to pay his final respects to his sifu.
Each martial arts style or system goes into battle believing it has all the answers. Any classical style deals with the imparting of fixed knowledge that becomes alive when it is mastered. It is up to the disciple to use that knowledge to develop and carry that knowledge to the point of free expression. Bruce did that. Every martial art master created something new and alive. His followers, later changed the system, intentionally or unintentionally, and made it deviate from the founder’s original intention. What was passed on from then was a dead system.
With wing chun, you still have the tools and concepts intact. Some individual in each generation that applies the tools and concepts will make wing chun alive. No one can say he has the “original wing chun,” as it has undergone generations of refinement, but if you apply the tools and concepts and can use it in combat, then you are using “live wing chun.” In applying wing chun, you have to change to keep up with your opponent’s change; your target is always moving. Wing chun is a system that has no particular style. We wait for the opponent’s style or way to show, and then we start from there to create our own style. You don’t waste time. You just react naturally to your opponent’s action. When Bruce said, “Your technique is my technique,” it is an example of his high understanding of wing chun.
There are now many so-called jeet kune do instructors teaching “jeet kune do-this” and “jeet kune do-that.” Everyone claims he is Bruce reincarnated. To me, all these claims are outdated, because Bruce had regretted naming jeet kune do. Jeet kune do was not designed for public consumption. Bruce said, “Jeet kune do doesn’t mean adding more, it means to minimize. In other words, to hack away from the non-essentials. It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease.” Some jeet kune do people are flow adding more ways, telling the public that this is Bruce’s way.
This is against Bruce’s way.
Jeet kune do is an advanced-level martial art: the question is whether beginners in martial arts can learn it without a proper foundation. Are they ready for it? You do a “daily decrease” only after you’ve studied and sorted out your background and what you have collected and have done the research to know what fits you.
When I teach wing chun, I don’t teach the Hawkins Cheung style. Each student has to customize the art based on his character, size, strengths, etc., and refine his personal style of wing chun. Bruce chose the simple, direct and economical way to express his style. What Bruce meant by jeet kune do is that it is not a style, but rather a process of refinement. It can’t be packaged. This is why he regretted naming ‘jeet kune do.” Those teaching “jeet kune do” and saying that this is the “original Bruce Lee art,” are turning a non classical art into a classical art. This is not what he meant by jeet kune do.
Real jeet kune do
Real jeet kune do was not at all like what he presented on the screen. What he displayed on the screen was his showmanship. People were awed by his ability and skill, but it wasn’t his real art. Jeet kune do was Bruce’s personal art. Now Bruce’s followers can be grouped in one of four categories: Those who teach the screen version; those who teach the “Bruce lee classical;” those who teach the search and development to create their own jeet kune do; and those who teach their own art and label it “JKD so and so.” The goal of jeet kune do is to add your own personal style to your martial art and decrease the extraneous. One day when you’ve sorted out your own martial arts, you’ll understand what Bruce meant by jeet kune do. If you are still in the process of collecting and developing. you haven’t yet attained jeet kune do. You have to find what fits with your background, not Bruce’s. That is jeet kune do. Ask yourself— What is your goal?
Bruce left behind the means to test your martial art. I know Bruce’s wing chun background and know what Bruce decreased for himself. But I don’t know the background of Bruce’s followers, so I ask: What are they decreasing? Have they tested out what they have? Why do you have to add more? What is the problem? Bruce changed for his own reasons. Myself? Rather than changing, I solved the problem of making my wing chun alive. Now some of Bruce’s followers are adding more and more to their art. They are losing the way.
You fight with your hands and feet, not your memory. When your mind becomes boggled with too many fighting systems, you find it difficult to know which to discard and which to keep. In actual fighting, you win or lose in a few seconds, not like a gung-fu movie where the actors fight for a half-hour. In those few seconds, you make up in your mind which style you will use. Every style is good, if you have trained for it. Every style can be useful, but you have to train to develop its usefulness in combat. Bruce was fond of saying, “Take what is useful, reject what is useless.” What you kept in your system is what is best. If you have too many styles, in real fighting, you can hardly decide which one to use under mental pressure. How can you finish the fight in a second if you haven’t decided which method to use?
Many are caught in Bruce’s trap; even Bruce was caught in his own trap. Bruce decided to name his art jeet kune do based on his personal ideas without testing it in combat. Whatever is created by man can be destroyed. Before Bruce made jeet kune do, he fought a lot. After he created jeet kune do, he said this is the way to fight, but without testing it in combat, how do we know the art is alive? Bruce’s jeet kune do concepts are simplicity, directness, and economy of motion. Bruce stressed “non-classical” motion, which is your way of expressing the tools that you deliver. But some of Bruce’s followers are going in the opposite direction. They are collecting more tools, more ways to display their martial arts.
When Bruce Stated, “Take what is useful, reject was is useless,” he meant that you must already have the tools. The tools were whatever you have learned from your classical style or way. You have to put those tools into testing and finding out what is useful. if you are still increasing or gathering tools, it means that you’re not ready to reject the useless. You’re not up to jeet kune do yet. You must ask yourself if you are increasing for the goal of intercepting, for Showmanship, or some other personal goal. “Reject what is useless” is for the fighter to throw away unessential movements or change with whatever circumstances in which to survive. At this stage a person is beginning to do jeet kune do to personalize the art for his needs.
Every martial art system has its useful parts, otherwise it would become extinct. Bruce’s followers are taking what is useful from this style, another style and so on, and becoming collectors of “useful styles.” But all the while, they have no time to test out those “useful styles” in competition or combat. Meanwhile, there are still other “useful styles” out there which they haven’t learned. Where is jeet kune do’s home? Jeet kune do doesn’t have any specialty techniques that make it a unique martial art. Boxers box, wrestlers grapple, wing chun people in-fight and stick and trap, but where is jeet kune do’s home or specialty? Jeet kune do means the way of the intercepting fist, but how do Bruce’s followers attain that?
Any expert in his system or style has spent years continuously training the basic movements to discover the most effective movement. Every expert has to find a way to make his movements simple, direct and economical. if you have a lot of fundamental movements, you have to test out each movement to discover how to refine them and make them simple, direct and economical. This process will take years and years to refine.
When Bruce formed jeet kune do, he stated in a magazine article that “99 percent of oriental self-defense is baloney!” It really shocked me that Bruce was so blatant. It seemed that he meant to challenge the whole world! if he said that in Hong Kong, martial artists would line up at his front door to challenge him. He was in the U.S. at that time. The wing chun clan in Hong Kong just smiled and sat back to watch the show, because we knew the gun wasn’t pointed at us. We knew that Bruce was trying to stir up trouble!
In our youth, during the 1950s, we did the same to other gung-fu systems. That was how wing chun’s name spread. Now Bruce was doing the same in the U.S., but with his personal credit and name. if he won the challenges, he gained fame. if he lost, it was his personal style that suffered, not wing chun. The question was, who dared to test out Bruce to see his bottom card? That was the same game we played from the old days.
When the “Green Hornet” and “Longstreet” series played on TV, people liked the characters Bruce played. His fans loved the series, martial artists loved it, and gung-fu guys loved it. It starred a Chinese gung-fu guy, so maybe people forgot what he said. He made it. Later on, when his movies premiered, the characters he played spoke out for all martial artists. Bruce made his opponents become his friends when he became a hero. The challenges were over, and he won the world over to his side.
The real enemy
Bruce’s real enemy was his mind. When he became successful, his fans wanted more. He continued to work out very hard, but no longer had people challenging him. Before he died, I saw Bruce on TV. He looked exhausted, he lost weight and was ill-tempered. He wasn’t the Bruce I knew before. Bruce had strayed too far from the center. We always said, “When you play the game, it’s very exciting. But when you’re controlled by the game, you have no way out. It’s terrible, you have to pay for it.”
In wing chun, the term “centerline” not only refers to the line in fighting, it also refers to your mind, the things you do, the problems you solve, the way that you live your life. If you stray too far to the right or left, it takes some time to return to the center. The center has no opinion.
To Confucius, the centered mind sees clearly. In life, your yin and yang must be balanced for you to be in the center. Bruce’s followers should know that his main theme or center of his art is intercepting.
Whenever anyone says he teaches Bruce’s art, he is making it a classical art. This was against the jeet kune do founder’s rules. Remember the essence of Bruce’s jeet kune do is embodied in the three qualities of simplicity, directness and economy of motion in entering the target. Bruce said it was a daily decrease, not a daily increase. His followers are not supposed to mimic the way he moved, but use their fighting knowledge to represent the three qualities. If any martial artist expresses these three qualities, he is doing jeet kune do. Bruce’s followers do not own jeet kune do. If you can express the three qualities and intercept in combat, you can say you are doing jeet kune do.
Bruce didn’t leave tools behind to support the concept of jeet kune do. Bruce was a wing chun man. His research was to prove the wing chun concept of the centerline, which is the fastest line of entry. Bruce’s speed and timing were an expression of that concept. Again, I say Bruce’s followers lack his physical ability because they fall short in his mother art, wing chun.
Wing chun was born out of frustration to find the quickest, most efficient way to fight. The founder of wing chun must have found no way out. Wing chun is designed as a combat system. For this reason, the system emphasizes confidence, timing, intercepting, capturing the centerline, shocking the opponent, setting up for consecutive strikes, and trapping. Jeet kune do was born out of Bruce’s frustration. That frustration made him search, experiment and develop into the legend that he is today.
In writing this series, I hoped to have proved that Bruce’s jeet kune do is research and development. Some of Bruce’s followers are teaching JKD incorrectly. Jeet kune do is the art of using simple, direct, economical motions to intercept in one beat. Jeet kune do is not a style or system, and does not feature unique tools; it is a means to check your current system to refine it further and monitor your progress. JKD custom-tailors your martial arts with your own “non-classical” movement.
Bruce left behind a martial arts system or systems, but they are not jeet kune do. Many call their art jeet kune do, but are teaching their personal interpretation which may or may not have anything to do with Bruce’s jeet kune do. Finally, jeet kune do was a means for Bruce to check and prove the wing chun concept of the centerline. He finally proved to Yip Man that he could achieve this without staying in the classical system.
My intention here is to help Bruce’s followers and clarify jeet kune do, not destroy or downgrade them. In this way, we can preserve Bruce’s ideas and memory for all time. I don’t want to cause political problems. I just want people to evaluate their efforts in promoting jeet kune do.
I was Bruce’s close friend and training partner. I came here in 1978 to promote wing chun. I have been pretty low key about my relationship with him. The public always knew we were close friends, but I never discussed much about his martial arts. The goal of these articles was also to clarify the connection between wing chun and Bruce’s jeet kune do. If I have frustrated any of Bruce’s followers, it is because I want them to question themselves and analyze their efforts. Jeet kune do was born out of Bruce’s frustration, but I don’t think many of Bruce’s followers suffered that same frustration. It was that suffering and frustration that made Bruce aspire to greater heights. Too many of Bruce’s followers have deviated from Bruce’s original intention.
These articles were written with the hope of helping my dear lifelong friend cleanup the mess he left behind. May we all let Bruce Lee rest in peace.