‘Empty your minds. Be water, my friend.’

What is soft is strong: The actor drew on the traditional wisdom of Eastern thinkers

Should we be more like water? He is best known as an actor and martial artist. But now a new book is set to introduce the philosophy of Hollywood star Bruce Lee to the next generation.

High up in the South Korean pagoda, in a room known as “The Temple of the Tiger,” Bruce Lee is staring at his challenger. Dressed in black, and three times his size, Dan Inosanto is a formidable opponent.

But Lee, clad from head to toe in yellow, is unmoved. Smiling slightly, he leaps nimbly around his rival, twice as agile and three times as cunning. Soon Inosanto, drenched in sweat, collapses onto the dusty floor. It is the battle of David versus Goliath.

This is a scene from The Game of Death, a Hong Kong martial arts film written, directed by and starring the Hollywood icon and maverick Bruce Lee in 1972.

It was a movie he never had the chance to see in cinemas: Lee died suddenly, aged just 32, before the final scenes could be filmed.

Yet Lee was more than just an actor, or a master martial artist. He was also a great philosopher.

In an early 1970s interview, he told fans: “Empty your minds. Be formless, shapeless like water. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash.”

It was a mantra that he embraced in his famous fight scenes: swift and athletic, the agile Lee overcomes his opponents just as a mighty river pours and tumbles past obstacles in its path.

And his ideas are set to extend further into the public imagination this week with the publication of a new book, written by Lee’s daughter Shannon, exploring how her father’s teachings can be applied to our everyday lives.

Many of Bruce Lee’s ideas about water can be traced back to the sacred texts of ancient Eastern philosophers. His words echo those of Lao Tzu, the founding father of Taoism, who wrote extensively of the power of water to mould and shape even the hardest of rocks.

And now, nearly 50 years after Lee’s tragic death, the philosophy he popularised is once again shaping a new generation.

Last summer, as unrest grew once again in his native Hong Kong, pro-democracy demonstrators adopted a “Be Water” strategy, expanding the iconic actor’s metaphor to include four key principles.

The protestors have learned hard lessons from the failed Umbrella Revolution of 2014. Now, they “gather like dew” to surround government buildings, “scatter like mist” to avoid arrest, run “fluid like water” through Hong Kong’s narrow alleyways, and when they are caught, they stand “hard as ice” and fight for their freedoms.

Today, just a year on from the sentencing and imprisonment of the “umbrella nine”, the protestors’ new tactics are confounding local police, government authorities and Beijing officials alike.

And just as every new raindrop adds to the river in Hong Kong, each new recruit becomes part of an unmovable tide, all the time staying two steps ahead of the police and paying tribute to one of the city’s most famous sons.

So, should we be more like water?

Raging rapids

Definitely, say some. We can all learn from the wise words of Bruce Lee. Why crash into obstacles, when you can simply flow around them? The new tactics adopted by the Hong Kong protestors show that by behaving like water, we can avoid confrontation, more effectively achieve our goals and maybe even reduce the shocking levels of violence in the world.

Of course not, say others. The word “water” does not always have positive connotations: if something is “watered-down” for example, it is weaker or less powerful than it once was. When a problem presents itself to you, the best thing to do is to face it head on. Everyone should always aim to be direct and honest, rather than cunningly avoid any stumbling blocks in their path.

You Decide

  1. Are you more like water or more like a rock?
  2. Should we always seek to avoid confrontation?

Activities

  1. Use the expert links to watch one of Bruce Lee’s classic fight scenes, and then write your own short story ending with a martial arts showdown. Describe how your character “moves like water” to win the fight.
  2. Think of a time you faced an obstacle. Did you face it head on, or find the path of least resistance? Write half a side explaining what prompted your decision, and why.

Some People Say...

“As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

Lao Tzu (circa 6th century BC to 4th century BC), ancient Chinese philosopher and writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Bruce Lee was hugely inspired by Eastern philosophy, in which water is a common theme. He studied both Asian and Western philosophy while he was a student at the University of Washington, and later read more while recovering from a back injury. Lee believed that knowledge would ultimately lead to self-knowledge, and that his chosen form of self-expression was martial arts.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the life, and sometimes even the very existence, of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who is said to have written the Tao Te Ching, a classic text that gives instructions on how to live a good life. According to tradition, Lao Tzu was an archivist in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century BC, but today some modern scholars believe that he is a legend, not an historical figure.

Word Watch

Pagoda
A tiered tower with multiple floors common throughout parts of Asia. In the film, Lee meets a different opponent on each floor.
Bruce Lee
The star was born in the Chinatown area of San Francisco, but raised in Hong Kong. He returned to America as a student aged 18.
Dan Inosanto
A Filipino-American martial arts instructor who was the training partner of Bruce Lee.
David versus Goliath
When a small person or organisation tries to defeat a much larger opponent. The phrase originates from the Biblical account of David, a young shepherd, defeating the giant Goliath.
Maverick
A person with an independent mind. In 1964, Lee was challenged by a group of men who objected to him teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students. He accepted their challenge and won the fight.
Lao Tzu
Sometimes spelled Laozi, some legends say he was born with white hair, having spent eight or eighty years in his mother’s womb.
Taoism
An ancient tradition of philosophy and religious belief that originated in China more than 2000 years ago. Taoism is about the Tao (also known as the Dao), which loosely means the way of the world, or the path to happiness.
Umbrella Revolution
Used, along with the Umbrella Movement, to describe demonstrations calling for the right for Hong Kong to pick its own leaders. Protestors used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas used by the police.
Umbrella nine
A group of nine activists who were jailed in Hong Kong in April 2019 for up to 16 months for their role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy rallies.

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