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Book Review: ‘Bruce Lee’ by Tommy Gong

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Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist Tommy GongBefore I read this book, I only knew that Bruce Lee had been a martial arts movie star. I had never seen one of his films or read anything about him. I had no idea what a fascinating person he was — not only was he a great athlete, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover what an incredible artist and philosopher he was. In fact, “artist” better defines him than “athlete,” in my opinion, because as Tommy Gong shows in Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist, Bruce Lee was devoted to his art, constantly studying form and learning how to improve it, seeking to make it the formless form that could never become stagnant by making it adhere to hard principles.

Gong retells Bruce Lee’s life story by focusing on his development of his own form, Jeet Kune Do. Gong explores the three primary periods of Lee’s development and teaching while living in Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles at different times in his life. By interviewing Lee’s former students, Gong found significant differences in what they were taught. The result is a new understanding of Lee’s methods and the evolution of his formless form of Jeet Kune Do, and a close look at the philosophical beliefs Lee held about martial arts and about life itself.

Anyone already familiar with Lee and his martial arts will find all the details needed here to take that understanding to a new level, including the curriculum Lee gave his students, the influences on Lee, and his own thoughts and desires to develop his art. Gong states that the book’s purpose is to answer the question, “What drove him [Lee] to modify his techniques and training methods, influencing his direction and development as a martial artist?”

What I found most amazing about this book is that while it could be used to understand and improve one’s own technique, complete with photos of various moves and stances, more importantly, it reveals Lee’s philosophy behind creating Jeet Kune Do and his refusal to capitalize upon creating a form that could be taught in a franchise of schools because he knew the students would suffer as a result. Lee insisted on personally teaching Jeet Kune Do to his students, and he did not expect them to follow his methods exactly but to use what they could and develop their own skills according to what worked best for each one. Among the many numerous quotes in the book from Lee about the development of Jeet Kune Do, Lee states, “Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style,” and “The function of Jeet Kune Do is to liberate, not to bind.” Gong adds, “He encouraged followers to blaze their own paths in their personal development and excellence in martial arts, to have faith and trust in themselves when taking directions that might even stray off the Bruce Lee path.”

Lee understood that martial arts was about far more than physical fighting. He stated, “To me, at least the way that I teach it, all types of knowledge ultimately mean self-knowledge. So, there are people coming in and asking me to teach them not so much how to defend themselves or how to do somebody in. Rather, they want to learn to express themselves through some movement, be it anger, be it determination or whatever. So, in other words, they’re paying me to show them, in combative form, the art of expressing the human body.”

More than an athlete, movie star, or artist, Lee was also a philosopher. He was an adamant believer in positive thinking and even wrote poetry with a positive message to it. He believed in the spiritual side of his art, stating, “Jeet Kune Do, ultimately, is not a matter of petty technique but of highly developed personal spirituality and physique. It is not a question of developing what has already been developed but of recovering what has been left behind. These things have been with us, in us, all the time and have never been lost or distorted except by our misguided manipulation of them. JKD is not a matter of technology but of spiritual insight and training.”

After reading Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist, I am now an admirer of Lee. I have a great respect for not only his physical but his intellectual prowess. He devoted himself to his art, reading everything he could from books on fencing and wrestling to Chinese philosophy and self-help books. He was more than a martial artist; he was a liberator of man. In a 1971 article in Black Belt magazine, he stated, “we must recognize the incontrovertible fact that regardless of their many colorful origins (by a wise, mysterious monk, by a special messenger in a dream, or in a holy revelation) styles are created by men. A style should never be considered gospel truth, the laws and principles of which can never be violated. Man, the living, creating individual, is always more important than any established style.”

Now I understand why Bruce Lee became an icon and remains a household name forty years after his death. It’s not because he was a great martial artist, not because he had a great physique but because he had an inquisitive mind and a great soul that allowed him to achieve that great skill and physique, and to create a legacy that will live on for generations to come.

Anyone who is a Bruce Lee fan will love this book as well for its numerous photographs and anecdotes about Bruce Lee. It is a great testament to a great man, and I feel like my life has been enriched by having read it.

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