Bruce Lee and jeet kune do historian Tommy Gong, author of Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist, explores the importance of Lee's legacy as a resource for martial artists who seek to continue their own evolution.

Editor's Note: This text is adapted for Web presentation from Tommy Gong's acclaimed book Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist. The term Jun Fan jeet kune do was adopted in January 1996, during a landmark summit meeting in Seattle with Linda Lee Cadwell and Shannon Lee, along with many of Bruce's first-generation students. This meeting served as the precursor to the formation of the JFJKD Nucleus/Bruce Lee Educational Foundation. Actually, it was Shannon Lee's suggestion to merge the two terms (Jun Fan gung fu and jeet kune do) to describe her father’s complete journey in martial arts, and everyone in attendance unanimously agreed. Jun Fan jeet kune do serves as the definitive case study for Jun Fan gung fu and jeet kune do because it endeavors to give a clear and accurate picture of Bruce Lee’s legacy to martial arts — physically, scientifically and philosophically.

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I remember Linda Lee Cadwell paraphrasing a statement made by Pete Jacobs (a student of Bruce Lee’s in Los Angeles) during the Inaugural JFJKD Seminar held in 1997 in San Francisco: “We can’t possibly predict in what direction he may have gone, most certainly we can predict that he would have continued to grow, evolve, change, but we can’t say what that was [or would have been]." In this way, JFJKD serves as both the historical reference for what Bruce Lee practiced, trained and taught during his lifetime, and also the inspiration or catalyst encouraging followers not to follow blindly their sifu (teacher) and/or style, and to discover the truth for themselves. Although Bruce Lee’s message prescribed having no boundaries when looking to improve one’s martial arts, it becomes increasingly important to document what he taught and practiced so future generations will have a chance to experience what the first-generation students did during their time with him. As a result, the art of Jun Fan jeet kune do showcases the common ground that first-generation students share so the historical reference and context of his evolution in the martial arts during his lifetime could be preserved. When examining Lee’s personal notes and letters, and hearing the recollections from his students, one can discover the building blocks of jeet kune do. In this way, Lee’s body of work is basic source material, providing the beginning student some initial steps to study and explore, and a path to understanding JKD.

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An interesting viewpoint is that — while some differences may exist between Bruce Lee’s martial arts when it comes to his time in Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles — little delineation occurred in his evolutionary development toward jeet kune do. Bruce Lee developed JKD throughout his time in America. It was, by no means, a smooth, gradual process — but for him, change happened out of necessity. His process was akin to the modern evolution theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which proposes over thousands or millions of years that species maintain a relatively stable existence — but when evolutionary changes occur, they are rapid and abrupt, not smooth and gradual. Punctuated equilibrium appears to describe perfectly Bruce Lee’s methods because he was known to be inspired by something early on, only to drop it or even criticize it later. As he became enlightened through investigating various topics such as kinesiology (the science of movement), he came to fully understand how to use a certain fighting principle and then modified his methods accordingly. Furthermore, events such as an altercation in Oakland, wherein Lee was challenged by a Chinese martial artist, resulted in an abrupt change in Lee’s approach to the martial arts. Although he bested his opponent, Lee concluded the match lasted entirely too long due to his strict adherence to his previous training, and he immediately sought out more efficient combat methods. In many ways, the exact timing of these inspirations is difficult to pin down, because much of what was happening to Lee was occurring simultaneously. For instance, he was already influenced by Western boxing and fencing in his early years in Hong Kong. The question is: When did certain elements come to full fruition in his development as a martial artist? Similar techniques were taught in all three schools, yet certain discoveries he found useful during his evolution were reflected in his private practice and training. Although it is convenient to chronicle Lee’s development by dividing it between his Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles periods, much overlap exists between “eras” since he continued to have contact with students from all three. In fact, each era could be equally served by referencing the many students he had. Nevertheless, the three eras provide the reader points of reference for placing dates, events and Lee’s development into context so that each school provides a glimpse along the evolutionary path.

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Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist

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One must realize that Lee studied physics, biomechanics, nutrition and training theory, and he used scientific methodology to validate what he was doing. He researched what he did not know, developed hypotheses, tested his theories using himself as the test subject and then concluded whether or not they worked. One could say that Lee used the science of combat when formulating his style of “no style.” It was not simply choosing what he liked or preferred, but rather what was proven to be the most effective. In this way, not only the “what” and “how” were learned, but also the “why.” Perhaps the need to understand “why” is the most important lesson he left us. We can use JFJKD as an invaluable tool because it provides a point of reference when discussing Lee’s evolution and various interpretations of it presented through the years since his passing, whether we’re talking about wing chun, Jun Fan gung fu, jeet kune do, JKD concepts, original JKD, etc. During the mid-80s, there was dissension within the JKD family over the purity of the art versus the infusion of different martial arts based on one’s personal journey. Today the focus has shifted to how much wing chun was done in Seattle, Oakland or Los Angeles, but the same negative criticism still continues, despite its pointlessness. The book Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist places the various elements of Lee’s earlier and later training in context on the JFJKD timeline. Although trapping techniques had less to do with JKD later on, it was a central theme in Lee’s martial art during the earlier and even middle period of his development, serving as a valuable foundation for Lee, and it deserves respect as a valid part of JKD history. Placing techniques such as the pak sao (block), the straight lead, and the side kick with its accompanying footwork along the JFJKD timeline should help the reader see things in better context. Since Bruce Lee’s passing in 1973, we have been fortunate that so many of his students — those he taught early on as well as those he taught later — shared his teachings with students around the world. During the past few years, their teachings have become even more precious because many of them have passed on. In just the past couple of years since work on this book began, some of Lee’s closest students have left us, including Jesse Glover, Lee’s very first student in Seattle, and Ted Wong, one of Lee’s last students in Los Angeles. These students have left us with a rich history that allows us to better understand Bruce Lee and jeet kune do. The first-generation students of Bruce Lee shared a lot in common, so where there were differences, maybe they were more like two halves of one whole that is the formless form. Although Lee did not like to refer to jeet kune do as a style or system, his martial arts movements had a distinct character or flavor. Hence, the balancing act is not to forget his message of liberation and freedom, while being sure to recognize his many other contributions, large and small, so the complete picture of his life can be fully appreciated. In the spirit of being neither “for” nor “against” what JKD is, Jun Fan jeet kune do serves as the two halves of one whole, just like yin and yang, in joining together Lee’s legacies in martial arts, from the physical, technical and scientific to the philosophical principles eliminating the notion of self and ego, being like water, and adapting to “what is.” For unfettered access to a Bruce Lee time capsule containing what Tommy Gong called in the preceding text "a rich history that allows us to better understand Bruce Lee and jeet kune do," be sure to check out the NEW epic collection of downloadable PDFs — Black Belt Magazine: The Bruce Lee Collection — containing 29 issues (3,500+ pages!) spanning 45 years of martial arts history.
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