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Bruce Lee’s Legacy is Misunderstood, According to His Daughter

Ryan McLachlan
Photo Credit: Golden Harvest / Warner Bros. /  Zayne / MovieStills DB
Photo Credit: Golden Harvest / Warner Bros. / Zayne / MovieStills DB

Bruce Lee is one of the most iconic and influential martial artists of all time. His acting career, though tragically cut short, left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment. Lee was born in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, and grew up in Hong Kong. From a young age, he trained in martial arts, becoming highly skilled in disciplines like Wing Chun. He later developed his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do.

Lee’s legacy has focused on his martial arts skills and his acting, almost always showing him as a tough and masculine man. Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, who was only four years old when her father died in 1973, has said that his legacy is misunderstood and is more complex than it has often been described.

Bruce Lee’s acting career

Lee’s breakthrough in the entertainment industry came when he starred as Kato in the television series The Green Hornet (1966-1967). His role as Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick, showcased his martial arts prowess and charm, earning him a dedicated fan base.

However, it was his foray into the film industry that catapulted him to international stardom. In 1971, Lee starred in the film The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury), directed by Lo Wei. The film was a massive success and firmly established Bruce Lee as a major action star in the East.

Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in The Game of Death (1978).
The Game of Death (Photo Credit: Golden Harvest / daffyduck2000 / MovieStillsDB)

The following year, in 1972, Lee starred in the film Fist of Fury (also known as The Chinese Connection). This film further solidified his status as a martial arts icon and showcased his incredible skill in choreographing fight scenes. In the same year, Lee also starred in The Way of the Dragon (released in the United States as Return of the Dragon). This film was the highest-grossing Hong Kong film until Lee’s next and most popular film.

However, it was his fourth major film, Enter the Dragon (1973), that truly made him an international superstar. Directed by Robert Clouse, Enter the Dragon was a joint production between Hong Kong and Hollywood. The film marked the first time a Chinese martial artist had gained significant mainstream success in the Western world.

Tragically, Lee passed away before the release of Enter the Dragon, adding an air of mystique and legend to his final performance.

Bruce Lee’s legacy

As a martial artist and movie star, Bruce Lee’s legacy has largely been centered on his work. Lee is credited with popularizing martial arts in the West. Creating what has been called the “kung fu craze” in the 1970s, Lee’s work helped launch the careers of other martial artist actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Jackie Chan.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Enter the Dragon (Photo Credit: Golden Harvest / Warner Bros. / Wolf / MovieStillsDB)

Martial artists, such as Dana White, the founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), described Lee as the “father of mixed martial arts.” And other fighters, such as Mike Tyson, have chimed in: “Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee.” In addition to his fighting abilities, Lee’s philosophies on life have contributed to his legacy.

Perhaps one of the greatest parts of Lee’s legacy was how he challenged racial stereotypes and overcame barriers. According to Hye Seung Chung at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Asian men were depicted as “emasculated, childlike, coolies, or domestic servants,” but Lee showed that Asian men could be “tough, strong, and sexy.”

A misunderstanding with his legacy

This legacy, particularly in regard to being a tough, masculine figure, is misunderstood, according to Lee’s daughter, who says her father displayed his strength through vulnerability. “As masculine as he appeared physically, through the amount of strength and action of martial arts, there is actually a very inherent sort of softening of his masculinity that I think gets overlooked,” she said.

The Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong, 2014.
The Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong. (Photo Credit: Anthony Devlin / PA Images / Getty Images)

Shannon Lee said that Bruce Lee’s emotional intelligence helped make him a trailblazer. In a letter to a studio executive, Lee wrote, “Listen, I want to deliver you the most amazing action film, but you have to give me not just your head but your heart.”

The recent depiction of Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2021) showed Lee as a hyper-masculine man who was extremely competitive and arrogant. Shannon Lee has commented that her father didn’t actually believe in competition, and instead of pitting himself against others, he strived to always better himself.

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Ultimately, Bruce Lee’s legacy is far more complex than it has often been described. Sure, part of that legacy is the martial artist and movie star. But another part, often overlooked, is the man driven by inner strength, personal philosophies, and his emotional strength.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.