New generation of kung fu crazy Chinese discovering Bruce Lee
Letter from Beijing:Lee's films, banned by Mao as spiritual pollution, are reaching a new audience, writes Clifford Coonan
BRUCE LEE'S compact body is coated with sweat and ripples with muscles; he seems impervious to the razor slashes across his midriff. Glaring from beneath fierce eyebrows at the fool who has chosen to cross him, he tenses those legendary fists before striking out. Scores of villains are no match for him. Lee always prevails.
A sign outside Huangpu park in Shanghai saying "No Dogs or Chinese" causes unbearable anger. His lip curls and the man born in the Hour of the Dragon in the Year of the Dragon tears down the sign and smashes the offending warning into pieces with an overhead kick.
"I am Chinese," he yells as he defeats another would-be oppressor, very often a Japanese or Russian villain.
The Way of the Dragon has never been so popular in China. Bruce Lee is a national hero in kung fu crazy China for the way he embodied Chinese pride and nationalism in his movies, but many in mainland China missed him the first time around in the early 1970s because films like Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury were banned by Mao as spiritual pollution and rightist sentimentality.
China's state broadcaster China Central Television is setting the record straight this week with the start of a 50-part prime-time series on him, The Legend of Bruce Lee.
It was shot in Lee's ancestral home in Shunde, in southern China's Guangdong province, as well as Macau, the US, Italy and Thailand, and took nine months to make at a cost of 50 million yuan (€5.35 million). It has pride of place in the evening schedule, with two hour-long episodes shown consecutively every night.
Bruce Lee is largely credited with reviving interest in the ancient art of kung fu in Hong Kong, and subsequently China, and the whole country is crazy about martial arts. China wanted to include kung fu in the Olympics in August but was turned down, instead staging a separate kung fu competition.
The quickfire kung fu moves and often surreally dubbed dialogue, combined with Lee's incredible athleticism, transformed the martial arts movie and his films quickly achieved cult status.
In his films he is always called Little Dragon and his association with the powerful dragon symbol is central to his philosophy.
What Lee himself would have thought of his fame in China is hard to say. He was certainly a nationalist, but he was also a Hong Konger. During his heyday the Cultural Revolution was at its height and there were a lot of tensions across the border with Hong Kong. Until Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, many in the colony had an uneasy relationship with the People's Republic, the antithesis of its free-wheeling capitalism.
Lee was born in November 1940 in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, before his father sent him back to the US after a brawl as a youngster. As well as his martial prowess, he was also a ballroom dancing champion.
He made 46 kung fu movies, and his popularity around the world paved the way for stars like Jackie Chan and inspired film makers like Quentin Tarantino. But he could have been even bigger. Lee was just 32 when he died in 1973, while starring in and directing the Game of Death in Hong Kong, less than a month after the release of Enter the Dragon, the movie which turned him into an international star.
His death is a source of some mystery and there were all kinds of rumours. The discovery of cannabis in his blood led to speculation of a drug overdose. Triad crime gangs were rumoured to have poisoned him; another popular theory was that he was simply too fit and his veins burst under the sheer strain. The official version is he died of a brain haemorrhage.
Mainland Chinese only started watching Bruce Lee films in the 1980s, when videos of classic movies like The Chinese Connection became available, but his legend has not ebbed. A theme park, complete with a statue, a memorial hall, conference centre and martial arts academy, is being built in Shunde.
Lee is a resonant figure for the Chinese because he always emphasised power and resolve in the face of adversity, particularly from foreign oppressors. He reserved much of his wrath for the Japanese - post-second World War humiliation was felt even more strongly in the 1970s.
The television series is attracting keen worldwide interest, both in places with a large Chinese diaspora like Malaysia and Singapore, and further afield in the US and Korea. The producers are confident they can sell the series abroad at $100,000 per episode. The website for the show has already received two million hits.
"The previous versions made in Hong Kong and Taiwan were too commercial. We hoped to make a good version," said Zhang Hua, general manager of China Film Television Production Corporation. Lee's daughter, the actress Shannon Lee, has approved the script and is credited as an executive producer.
The series was originally scheduled to be aired before the Olympics, but was postponed because of the mourning period following the Sichuan earthquake.
Expect the Bruce Lee love affair to run and run. The latest news is that China's top director Zhang Yimou, who made Hero and directed the Olympic opening ceremony, has said he is keen to shoot a film version.