Jet Li: Keeping It Real Since Watergate

In 1974, an eleven-year-old Li Lian-jie (better known by his stage name Jet Li) earned a place on the podium after competing in China’s National Wushu Championships. He stood on the highest step, but was still shorter than the other two medalists who were in their mid to late twenties when he accepted titles as both the Chinese National Youth Sports Competition Winner and the Chinese Men’s All-Around National Wushu Champion, which he won again four more times while still a teenager.

Later that same year, he was invited as one of China’s select few wushu athletes to join the Chinese Martial Arts Delegation Tour in the United States, which included a demonstration in the White House Rose Garden in front of former President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

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After the demo, Nixon asked if the young Jet Li would like to be his personal bodyguard when he grew up: “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive. How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?” (I like to imagine that Nixon secretly longed to be the real-life Green Hornet by hiring Jet Li to be his real-life Kato.)

Most remarkable was the young champion’s response, which according to biographer Christy Marx was more a spirited blurt than a reply: “No, I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!” Now that’s something you can’t rehearse, and it was the first of many times Jet Li would keep it real.

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In 1989, he made a promise to his then-girlfriend Li Zhi (better known by her stage name Nina Li) shortly after they met and fell in love on the set of Dragon Fight. He promised that if they were still in love ten years later, he would ask her to get married, and that if they ever decided to start a family, he wouldn’t make movies during her pregnancy.

Well, not only did they get married ten years later on the anniversary of their first date, September 19, 1999, but when she got pregnant soon after, Jet Li declined Ang Lee’s offer to play the lead male role as Li Mu-Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). (He also turned down a role in both sequels of The Matrix, but for different reasons.) In fact, he didn’t work for an entire year. Instead, he kept it real and stayed at home with his wife and soon-to-be newborn daughter.

In 1994, he also literally kept it real by finally making a martial arts film that wasn’t excessive in its use of so-called wire-fu, the utilization of wire and pulley systems to make characters defy gravity during fight scenes. Instead, he made Fist of Legend, which joins the ranks of films with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was more than just a tribute to and remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972).

Its raw style prompted an exodus from the magical realism that tainted the credibility of Chinese martial arts in fight scenes, with fantastical and unreal high-flying action sequences, towards more brutal and grounded realities of what street fights actually look like. Put simply, Fist of Legend pushed a precedent to focus on fight scenes instead of flight scenes.

The Wachowskis (the former Wachowski Brothers who disclosed gender fluid identities) have cited Fist of Legend as the source of inspiration behind the fighting styles seen in The Matrix and the reason why they hired the renown Yuen Woo-Ping to be the trilogy’s martial arts choreographer — who in addition to Fist of Legend also choreographed the likes of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (1978), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (2003-04).

jet li fist of legend

Tarantino, another die-hard fan of the film, even scheduled Fist of Legend to be re-released in the U.S. under his now-defunct film distribution company Rolling Thunder Pictures, a label he used to catapult overlooked films he deemed worthy into the mainstream, particularly foreign films such as Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) — films he felt might not otherwise have found a distributor without the help of his banner of “Quentin Tarantino Presents.” (Dimension Films eventually distributed its release after Rolling Thunder Pictures flopped.)

And in 2004, Tarantino swayed Miramax to secure an uncut English-subtitled U.S. re-release of Jet Li’s Hero (2002), 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, which he revealed was “an absolute masterpiece” during an interview with Fangoria magazine in their April 16, 2004 Issue, and which the late great Robert Ebert gave a 3.5/4 and called “a visual poem of extraordinary beauty” in his signature “two thumbs up” review of the film.

The takeaway message is that Fist of Legend was responsible for helping put Jet Li and in effect Hero on the radar of American cinema, even influencing it, precisely because it was kept real as an accentuated homage using fists, not wires, to showcase the actual skills and efficacy of Chinese martial arts.

Then ten years later, four decades after he kept it real with Nixon and expressed desire to defend his one billion countrymen, Jet Li experienced a cataclysmic incident that shook him to the core.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake was the world’s third-largest and fifth-deadliest, and triggered the first-deadliest tsunami in recorded history on December 26, which killed over 230,000 people in South and Southeast Asia, and almost claimed him, his then-four-year-old daughter Jane, one-year-old Jada, and their nanny while they vacationed in the Maldives. That fateful event changed his life forever.

Jet Li & One Foundation

Just a few days after, and because of his near-death experience, Jet Li announced plans to start the One Foundation, a Chinese NGO officially founded on April 19, 2007 dedicated to disaster mitigation, children’s welfare, training of public welfare professionals, and support for grassroots charities.

Their slogan is simple: one person plus one dollar (or Yuan) every month equals one big family, which implies that philanthropic responsibilities shouldn’t be solely carried on the shoulders of companies and governments, but extend to every human being.

They’ve since become one of China’s most charitable and transparent organizations, zeroing in their efforts on prevention and preparedness instead of response and reconstruction — treating the cause and not the symptom in the context of disaster risk management and humanitarian response — and are a sound model of an embezzlement-proof NGO for others across the world to adopt.

From 1974 to 2004 to the present and beyond, Jet Li the kid, the lover, the movie star, and the philanthropist, has kept it real with Nixon, his wife, family, his movies, but most importantly, himself. We’ve learned that at his core he’s a lover, not a fighter.

A life full of promises kept to loved ones, resolute vision in his works, and a tangle with a tsunami culminated to wash ashore a silver lining that not only swept away his ego, but also surfaced a newfound purpose, one that he has since devoted his entire self to, marking the beginning of a philanthropy imbued with introspective depth and humanitarian sensibilities for not only his countrymen as he had initially wanted, but for the whole world as one.

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