Bruce Lee: Martial Arts Legend and Movie Icon

Updated on February 22, 2019
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was born in the United States. His family moved back to Hong Kong when Lee was very young. Lee is considered the founder of a type of martial arts known as Jeet Kune Do. During his life, Lee became one of the most influential martial artists in the world. His hugely successful movie career resulted in Lee becoming one of the best-known pop culture icons of the 20th century. Many Asians give Bruce Lee credit for improving the way they are portrayed in American cinema.

Early Years

On November 27, 1940, Bruce Lee was born in Chinatown, San Francisco. This was the year of the dragon. According to Chinese tradition, this is a fortuitous and strong omen. When he was three months old, Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong. Bruce Lee's father was a well-known film actor and Cantonese opera singer. When they were in Hong Kong, the Japanese invaded. Bruce Lee and his family lived under Japanese occupation for over three years. After the war, Lee's father resumed his acting career. During the post-war rebuilding years, Lee's father became one of the most popular actors in Hong Kong.

Teenage Bruce Lee
Teenage Bruce Lee

Street Fights

While growing up in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee's family lived in a privileged and affluent environment. Unfortunately, housing in Hong Kong became difficult to find and Lee's neighborhood became dangerous and overcrowded. It soon became populated with gangs due to an influx of refugees trying to escape communist China. At this time, Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony. Bruce Lee started to regularly get into street fights. His parents decided it was time for him to learn martial arts.

Introduction To Martial Arts

Bruce Lee's first exposure to martial arts was from his father. The fundamentals of Wu-style t'ai chi ch'uan was taught to Lee by his father. When he was 16 years old, Lee began to train in Wing Chun style of kung fu. After losing many fights with gang members, kung fu master Yip Man began teaching Lee Wing Chun. A regular class with master Yip included the practice of sticking hand drills, free sparing as well as wooden dummy techniques. The classes were conducted with no established pattern. The goal of master Yip was to encourage his students to fight in organized competitions. He hoped this would keep them from fighting with street gangs.

Bruce Lee and Yip Man
Bruce Lee and Yip Man

Private Training

The other students in master Yip Man's class refused to train with Bruce Lee after about a year. They discovered his mother had British ancestry. Most Chinese were strongly against teaching any martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Bruce Lee had impressed master Yip Man with his keen interest in Wing Chun. Man decided to continue training Bruce Lee in private. Another master named Wong Shun Leun also helped train Lee during this time. Man’s private students would watch Bruce Lee spar with Wong Shun Leun. Many were surprised by the precision and speed Lee could deliver different types of kicks.

Return To United States

Because of his poor academic performance and conduct, Bruce Lee was transferred from La Salle College to St. Francis Xavier College in 1956. During this time, he joined the college's boxing team. Bruce Lee became the Hong Kong school boxing tournament champion. In the final boxing match, Lee was able to knock out the previous champion. Lee kept getting into street fights and some of them involved the police being called. On one occasion, Lee beat the son of a feared triad organized crime member. His parents decided Lee needed to go to the United States after learning there was a contract on their son's life. The police were also threatening to put him in jail if he continued fighting. In 1959, Bruce Lee returned to the United States and lived with his older sister named Agnes Lee in San Francisco.

Bruce Lee and Family
Bruce Lee and Family


After living for months in San Francisco, Lee moved to Seattle to work as a live-in waiter for Ruby Chow at her restaurant. Chow's husband was a friend of Bruce Lee's father. Lee finished high school during December 1960. He earned a diploma from Edison Technical School in Seattle. The next year he was a student at the University of Washington studying dramatic arts and other subjects. During this time, he met his future wife Linda Emery. The couple was married in August 1964. They had two children. Their son Brandon was born in 1965 and daughter Shannon Lee was born in 1969.

Chinatown Fight

In 1964, the Chinese community in Oakland, California's Chinatown district demanded Bruce Lee stop teaching martial arts to non-Asian people. Lee refused to comply. He was then challenged to combat by Wong Jack Man. Known for his mastery of T'ai chi ch'uan and Northern Shaolin kung fu, Man felt he would have an easy time with Lee. It was an intense no-holds-barred battle. The confrontation is said to have lasted for an intense three minutes. Lee took Man down on the ground and asked him if he was willing to give up. Man reluctantly agreed to give up. Lee then went back to teaching Jeet Kune Do to non-Asians

Bruce Lee as Kato
Bruce Lee as Kato

Beginning Of Film Career

Bruce Lee's film career began at an early age. His father was a movie actor in Hong Kong and Lee was in many different movies starting when he was a baby. By the time Bruce Lee had become 18, he had starred in over twenty movies. After moving to the United States, Lee focused on his martial arts training. In 1964, Lee participated in a martial arts exhibition in Long Beach, California. After the exhibition, he was asked to audition for a television series pilot called Number One Son. The show never aired. His audition led to him being cast as Kato on the television series The Green Hornet. It lasted for one season. Lee then appeared in other television shows including Batman, Ironside, Blondie and Here Come the Brides.

Hong Kong Movies

A movie producer named Fred Weintraub suggested Bruce Lee go back to Hong Kong and make feature films. Lee wasn't happy with the roles he was getting in the United States, so he returned to Hong Kong. Lee was unaware that the Green Hornet television series was extremely popular in Hong Kong. Lee was shocked when many people recognized him as he walked around the city. He was able to negotiate with Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers Studio and signed a two-year film contract with them.

Bruce Lee in The Big Boss
Bruce Lee in The Big Boss

Movie Success

Bruce Lee's first movie, where he had the leading role, was called The Big Boss. It was released in 1971. The movie was a huge success all around Asia and Lee became a superstar. His next movie was the Fist of Fury, it was released in 1972. The movie broke box office records that had been set by The Big Boss.

Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris
Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris
Movie poster for Enter the Dragon
Movie poster for Enter the Dragon

Own Production Company

After his two-year contract expired with Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers Studio, Lee negotiated a new contract. This deal made it possible for Lee to create his own company. It would be called Concord Production, Inc. Bruce Lee's third film was Way of the Dragon, it was also released in 1972. For this movie, Lee was the producer, director, writer as well as star. Bruce Lee had met Chuck Norris in a martial arts demonstration in the United States. He invited Norris to be his opponent in the death fight in Way of the Dragon. It took place at the Roman Colosseum. This is considered a legendary cinematic fight scene and one the most memorable in martial arts movies. Bruce Lee’s next movie was Game of Death. It included a fight sequence between basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee. It had Lee wearing his iconic yellow tracksuit. Abdul-Jabbar had been Lee's martial arts student. During this time, Lee was offered an opportunity to star in Enter the Dragon. Six days before the 1973 release of Game of Death and during the filming of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee died.


While working on Enter the Dragon in Hong Kong in May 1973, Bruce Lee collapsed. He was taken to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital and diagnosed with a cerebral edema. His condition was treated by administering the drug mannitol. On July 20, 1973, Lee was having dinner with an actor in Hong Kong and talking about making a movie called Game of Death. Lee said he had a headache and the actor gave him a painkiller. Bruce Lee went to take a nap. At dinner time, Bruce Lee didn't come out of the bedroom. The actor checked on him and couldn't wake Lee up. An ambulance took Lee to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Bruce Lee was declared dead when he arrived. He was 32 years old.


Enter the Dragon was released after the death of Bruce Lee. It confirmed his status as a martial arts movie icon. The film was made on a budget of $1 million. Enter the Dragon made over $200 million. Bruce Lee is credited with creating a strong desire for movie watchers to see Asian Americans in cinema. His work paved the way for a new type of action hero. Lee is credited with providing a desire to see martial arts action movies featuring such actors as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, and others.



Encylopedia Of World Biography

Bruce Lee: A Life

ISBN-10: 1501187627

© 2019 Readmikenow


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    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      17 months ago

      MsDora Thanks. He was quite a big deal to me growing up.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      17 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the detailed information on Bruce Lee's background, his short life and his great achievements within those years. My husband (ex now) got me into watching Bruce Lee movies and I grew to love his performances. Thanks for filling in some gaps.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      17 months ago

      Madan, thanks. Growing up he was quite the hero to us young guys.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh 

      17 months ago from Singapore

      Great article sir. I have for long been an admirer of Bruce Lee. Its a pity he died young. Sometimes I feel his death may be fishy but now it looks a clear case of natural death. great article about a legend.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      17 months ago

      Liz, thanks! I agree. How he died was a bit of a shock.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      17 months ago from UK

      I remember seeing him in films when I was young, but I hadn't realised that Bruce Lee met such a tragic and untimely end.


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