It’s no coincidence that if you combine the Chinese character “person” (亻) with “word” (言), you get “integrity” (信), because a person’s word spells their integrity. The concept of integrity is integral to Chinese culture. One of the most ancient Chinese philosophers Laozi once said, “Easily making promises will lead to no credibility.”

Jet Li with integrity

His successor Confucius followed up with the quote, “If a person does not have integrity, there is no place for the person to stand on earth.” In other words, integrity is the root of humanness. And that’s exactly what Jet Li has. Integrity.

On the set of Dragon Fight (1989), he made a promise to Li Zhi, better known by her stage name Nina Li, his girlfriend at the time. He promised that if they were still in love ten years down the road, he’d ask her to get married.

She replied, “Alright. If you ask me then, I promise that the answer will be yes.” “Well, if that’s the case,” he said, “then let me make another promise to you. If we ever decide to start a family, I will take a break from my career. Through every month of your pregnancy I give my word that I will not make any movies, until the child is born. I plan to be by your side the whole time.”

Not only did they marry 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 the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Without any regrets, he didn’t work for an entire year.

jet li and his wife

Instead, he stayed at home with his wife and soon-to-be newborn daughter as promised. Come to think of it, this whole experience is probably what inspired the plotline of Kiss of the Dragon (2001) a year later.

Kiss of the Dragon may have been written and produced by French filmmaker Luc Besson, but it’s based on a story pitched by Jet Li. In the film’s early stages of development, he proposed an idea to Besson: a movie about a man’s promise to a woman, and how he would be challenged to keep it as the character develops, even if it goes against his job and his country. Sound familiar? And a year later, a promise becomes the film’s premise yet again in Hero (2002).

jet li kiss of the dragon

Jet Li in Hero

I’m going to try really hard not to give away any spoilers for this one either because Hero is one of my favorite films. If you haven’t watched it yet and are a fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you really need to. But don’t take my word for it, just read what the late Roger Ebert had to say in his signature “two thumbs up” review of the film:

A film like “Hero” demonstrates how the martial arts genre transcends action and violence and moves into poetry, ballet and philosophy. It is violent only incidentally. What matters is not the manner of death, but the manner of dying: In a society that takes a Zen approach to swordplay and death, one might win by losing. There is an ancient martial arts strategy in which one lures the opponent closer to throw him off balance, and yields to his thrusts in order to mislead him. This strategy works with words as well as swords. One might even defeat an opponent by dying — not in the act of killing him, but as a move in a larger game.

Wow. So, without giving away any spoilers, and to sum it up as simply as I can in the context of promises, the film begins with a promise between three warriors to assassinate the king, and ends with that promise changing, transcending from mere individual desire to the greater good of tianxia, literally “under heaven,” a cultural concept that basically describes everything under the cosmology of China.

jet li hero

Several hundred years after the time of Confucius, in a foundational text called Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian wrote one of the most famous Chinese idioms, “A promise is worth a thousand ounces of gold.”

If you make a promise, you’d better keep it like our man Jet Li.

Principle is prioritized over self-interest throughout his cinematic universe—and many martial arts movies in general, particularly in the wuxia subgenre—but promise takes precedence over principle, for promise is just as much the premise in Jet Li’s personal life, too.

jet li and donnie
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