Bruce Lee: Human (a review of “The Tao of Bruce Lee”)


Cover of "The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial...

Davis Miller argues that, of all the living icons that have emerged in the 20th century, Bruce Lee is perhaps the closest to be revered as a god. This is not just down to his extraordinary worldwide appeal, his legacy on film or in the martial arts, but also the mythology that has built up around him. As Miller points out, few facts have been written about the Little Dragon. It’s quite extraordinary for a modern well-known individual to have their complete life fictionalized from start to finish by the majority of the media. In this respect, he has become close to a god-like figure. His life story is often portrayed as miraculous and his death is shrouded in mystery. Davis argues that Lee’s impact on the world was more immense than most people realize. He changed the way we look at action films and the way martial arts are used in them. Outside of this, his legacy is vast, and its influence similar to the way a religion takes hold in the minds of the followers its founder leaves behind.

There are those who say he was anything but great. The martial arts historian and writer, Robert W. Smith, dismisses Lee as a fake. This is not surprising. For all those who revere an icon to godly status there will be those whose view is the polar opposite. One man’s god is another’s devil. As numerous documentary makers, biographers and martial arts writers have discovered, it is not difficult to find positive support for the cult of Bruce Lee. However, Miller, who singles the man out as one of his two major influences in life, is not content with hearing what those who mythologize him have to say. He doesn’t go to Lee’s harshest critics, but rather those who seem to be more grounded in the idea of the “human” Lee – people like “Judo” Gene LeBelle and karate champion Joe Lewis. The truth is Bruce Lee was most certainly a driven man with many original ideas and massive ambitions. Although revered in his home country, Lee chased the American dream.  His first three movies may seem to be chauvinistic towards Chinese culture, but off-screen Lee wanted to be accepted as an American more than anything else. Evidence more than suggests he wasn’t faithful to his wife or spent a great deal of time with his children in pursuit of his dreams. Miller also argues that Lee cared little for teaching martial arts, but was more interested in developing himself through training with his students. He taught to earn money and his decision to teach westerners was probably more based on business than a desire to make Asian martial arts transcend the culture barrier.

More fuel is added to the fire regarding Lee’s prowess as a fighter, as Miller draws upon contemporary accounts and uses training footage of the man to form a cold analysis. He might have given hope to the small people of this world, but Miller suggests his hero was probably more of a bully with all the psychological hang-ups associated with this behaviour than a defender of the weak

According to Miller Lee shut down his schools and forbade anyone from teaching jeet kune do, the name he gave his approach, because he felt no one but he understood what he was trying to do. One has only to read one the last notes in Lee’s posthumously published book “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” to see that the great man feared his approach might become a style. He actively says that if anything like this starts to happen then the name should be dismissed. Despite there being some wonderful Jeet Kune exponents out there, it is not difficult to see how many have completely missed the point of the Lee’s postmodern martial arts message. We now have schools divided up into those who follow the jeet kune do according to which area and period Lee taught, many mimicking the stance he used and exactly how he held his hands.

Lee certainly put across new ideas in the martial arts world, many of which are not fully appreciated even now. He pioneered the use of a lot of training equipment. He married the concept of the athlete with the martial artist. This statement is certainly true of the Chinese martial arts, where the sight of shapeless men performing chi sau or “sticky hands” with cigarettes hanging out of the side of their mouths is still not an uncommon in Hong Kong. Lee is responsible for helping to blend western and eastern combative ideas and Joe Lewis, an early pioneer of American kickboxing, credits Lee for improving his performance in competition. Purists will argue quite rightly that the Englishman E. Barton-Wright had already done this over half a century before with his short-lived bartitsu system, but the difference between them is the same across the martial arts world: timing and marketing. Lee popularized what others had been doing under the public eye and then some.

Lee’s philosophy is also brought into question. Miller perhaps didn’t realize it when he was writing this book in the 1990s, but his research and conclusions suggest that Lee was ahead of his time in blending the self-help movement with the martial arts. This has become a very prominent feature of 21st century marital arts. Many of Lee’s sayings have more to do with the likes of Napoleon Hill than Taoism (Daoism). Being an experienced writer as well as a martial artist, Miller clearly isn’t awed by Lee’s supposed profound adages and is less impressed with some of his reading material. Having said this, he acknowledges that Lee studied philosophy at university, had a huge collection of varied books and gives him the benefit of the doubt regarding the sound bites. He believes them to be as much a conscious part of his marketing gimmick as the onscreen style of fighting he developed.

Despite being promoted as a companion volume to Davis Miller’s first reflective and introspective study on a childhood icon, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali”, “The Tao of Bruce Lee” can easily be read as a stand alone book. This is a major strength in the work. Davis can bring you in at any chapter to provide a fresh insight or idea. He is a dedicated storyteller and not a dry historian or “paint by the numbers” biographer. The reader who comes to the work in hope that they will be getting a full researched biography of Bruce Lee might be put off by the first two parts of the book, which focus on Miller’s early life growing up and the dream-like influence Lee exerted over his development. We see the life of a typical child targeted for bullying. With troubles at home and obvious physical disadvantages that led him to being called “foetus” by his enemies at school, Miller was not only a target for abuse, but ripe to be seduced by the mystique of the martial arts. He is no less critical of himself as he is of Lee, although I don’t see this as a negative thing. It’s an honest reflection on being human, which is the central message of the book. Humans can do extraordinary things and achieve amazing feats, and some are clearly more gifted and driven then others, but here and there reality has to be there to check the balance.

These two parts of the book provide an interesting insight into the ideas that Lee helped put over and hope he provided for the small boys who were bullied at school. It also provides an example of the wake-up call many martial arts students experienced when they realized a lot of what they were being taught was based on tall tales and was totally ineffective as a means for real combat. It’s a sobering lesson for nostalgic martial artists who try to put over the argument that ineffective martial arts were born purely out of the mainstream that followed Lee’s popularity. However, this is also the book’s weakness. This isn’t to say these two parts aren’t of interest, but they seem somewhat disproportionate and self-indulgent when you consider the book’s topic.

Miller is a very good writer, one of the most entertaining and insightful I have read, but many might be put off by the way he shifts his focus. His literary style involves regularly going off into some lucid purple passages that serve to explain his state of mind at the time he is describing. Other iconic figures also crop up in the book too and some might feel there is undue attention onto them. For example, he reflects on his time spent with “Sugar” Ray Leonard and how his familiarity with the gifted boxer gave him an inflated sense of his own abilities. It’s an interesting observation and introspection on the human condition, but it is better addressed in a chapter called “Wanting to Whup Sugar Ray” in Miller’s collected work, “The Zen of Muhammad Ali”.

Despite these problems, “The Tao of Bruce Lee” is perhaps one of the most important reflective martial arts books written in a long time. It could be longer and have more emphasis on Bruce Lee and I would like to see some footnotes to source material, but there is enough for someone interested in pursuing the facts to follow up on. This isn’t a reference book or intended to be a typical scholarly study on the life of Bruce Lee, more an honest cultural and personal reflection. Miller does a great job in explaining the genuine cultural importance of Bruce Lee as opposed to the pseudo-philosophy that is attributed to him. He also does well to show the difference between Lee the movie star and Lee the martial artist and, most importantly, the difference between Lee the god and Lee the human.