In 1974, an eleven-year-old 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. They 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. He won the titles again four more times while still a teenager.

Later that same year, they invited him to  join the Chinese Martial Arts Delegation Tour in the United States. He had to do a demonstration in the White House Rose Garden in front of former President Richard Nixon.

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After the demo, Nixon asked the young Jet Li to be his personal bodyguard when he grew up. He said: “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive. How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?”

Most remarkable was the young champion’s response, it was more a spirited blurt than a reply. According to biographer Christy Marx : “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 Nina Li shortly after they met. And then they fell in love on the set of Dragon Fight. He promised that if they were still in love ten years later, he would marry her. And that if they ever decided to start a family, he wouldn’t make movies during her pregnancy.

Well, they get married ten years later on the anniversary of their first date, September 19, 1999. When she got pregnant soon after, he declined Ang Lee’s offer to play 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 finally made a martial arts film that wasn’t excessive in its use of wire-fu. The utilization of wire and pulley systems made 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. It 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. There are fantastical and unreal high-flying action sequences. They are 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 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. He 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 re-released Fist of Legend in the U.S. under his now-defunct film distribution company Rolling Thunder Pictures. Its a label he used to catapult overlooked films he deemed worthy into the mainstream. There are particularly foreign films such as Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994). Those films he felt might not find a distributor without the help of his banner of “Quentin Tarantino Presents.” (Dimension Films eventually distributed its release after Rolling Thunder Pictures flopped.)

In 2004, Tarantino swayed Miramax to secure an uncut English-subtitled U.S. re-release of Jet Li’s Hero (2002). It was 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.

Jet Li & One Foundation

Ten years later, 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. The first-deadliest tsunami in recorded history on December 26 killed over 230,000 people in South and Southeast Asia. It 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.

Just a few days after, because of his near-death experience, Jet Li announced plans to start the One Foundation. It is 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. It implies that philanthropic responsibilities shouldn’t be solely carried on the shoulders of companies and governments, but extend to every human being.

jet li one foundation

One of China’s Most Charitable and Transparent Organizations

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, Jet Li has kept it real with Nixon, his wife, family, movies, and 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. A tangle with a tsunami culminated to wash ashore a silver lining that not only swept away his ego. But it also surfaced a newfound purpose. Since he devoted his entire self, this marked 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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