Jet Li has been called a wushu prodigy time and again throughout his life.
But he himself has purportedly gone on record insisting, “I am not a prodigy and newspaper reports about my having consciously trained and practiced wushu since I was a child often annoyed me beyond measure. It was simply not true. Like everyone else, I came across numerous problems in the course of training and many a time I wavered and thought of dropping out. It was my coach Wu Bin who helped me steer clear of all obstacles and encouraged me never to give up. His admonitions and his patience in guiding me along will always remain in my heart of hearts.”
When he was eight years old during the summer of 1971, Jet Li first started practicing wushu, entirely by chance. In those days, it was mandatory for grade-schoolers in China where he grew up to participate in sports programs during summer vacation. It just so happened that Jet Li got arbitrarily assigned to wushu, which he knew absolutely nothing about.
He described, “I had no idea what wushu was — none of us did — but if the teacher told you to practice it, you had to practice it!”
To his (and everyone else’s) surprise, however, he picked it up quite well due to his natural physicality. In fact, he was so talented that by the end of summer he was among thirty students chosen out of more than a thousand pupils. He was the only first-grader to continue learning wushu under the tutelage of Coach Wu Bin at Beijing Amateur Sports School (now known as Beijing Sports and Exercises School), every afternoon after school, for hours on end while the rest of the kids went home, usually for up to eight hours. What began as merely a fun summer experience became training that grew exponentially more rigorous.
After several years of training like this, Jet Li won his first official national title at the All-China Youth Championships in 1974, which made him eligible to compete in the eighteen-and-over category. In 1975, he competed against adults in their twenties and thirties in the Third National Games, a domestic version of the Olympics held every four years in China.
During one of the final qualifying rounds, he performed with the broadsword.
His very first move was an accident, having gashed the side of his head. “I remember that my head felt very warm and wet, and I seemed to be perspiring heavily. The more I jumped and kicked, the more I seemed to sweat. Drops were running into my eyes, flying everywhere. ‘How strange,’ I thought.” Jet Li continues, “So I finished my form, saluted, and ran off the platform. Three or four of my female teammates were standing there, and they were all crying. ‘What are you all bawling about? I asked them, as I approached. ‘Just like at yourself!’ they cried. Somebody clapped a towel on my head. When I looked down, I saw that the entire half of my uniform had been dyed red with blood. I was soaked crimson from the shoulder down to the pant leg. When I saw all that blood, I let out a surprised little yelp. Almost fainted!”
Three days later after getting stitched up, he competed in the finals and won first place! “My winning first place caused quite a sensation, because I was so young. I was 12 years old, and the other two medalists were in their mid to late twenties. During the awards ceremony, as I stood on the top step of the podium, I was still shorter than the 2nd and 3rd place medalists. It must have been quite a sight.”
It’s no surprise Jet Li gets called a prodigy, anyone who wins national championships in anything after only three years of training would get called one, too. But it’s also understandable how getting called a prodigy cheapens his diligence, unrelenting discipline, the many challenges he had to overcome, and indeed the iron-fisted tutelage of Coach Wu Bin. So, is he a prodigy or protege? Maybe a little bit of both, though one thing is for sure: Jet Li is persevering!