Before Bruce Lee was Bruce Lee, he was an energetic adolescent studying Wing Chun kung fu under Yip Man in Hong Kong. Ever a competitor, Lee was an aggressive sparring partner, but Yip Man was constantly instructing him to be more gentle, and shared the parable of the oak and bamboo: In a windstorm, the oak tree will eventually snap, but bamboo survives because it moves with the wind.
When Yip Man told Bruce Lee not to come to practice for a week, a frustrated Lee rowed out into the harbor off Hong Kong to think about what he was doing wrong. Upset, he began punching the water and, in that moment, had an epiphany. Water, he realized, was the perfect metaphor for understanding what Yip Man meant. Whenever he punched the water, it naturally moved away, avoiding harm. Water was “the softest substance in the world,” he later wrote in an essay, and yet “it could penetrate the hardest substances in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.” Thus Bruce Lee’s philosophy of “Be Water” was born, and it is detailed in his daughter Shannon’s new book, “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee,” a pliable guide to self-actualization.
The Seattle Times spoke to Shannon Lee about Bruce Lee’s philosophical demeanor, his lasting legacy and what she learned from writing this book.
(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: How would you describe Bruce Lee’s “Be Water” philosophy?
A: In its simplest form, the philosophy is about being pliable and flexible. It’s about perseverance and not being too attached to any one thing. It’s about being unstoppable and trying to attain one’s natural essence.
Q: I was struck by how philosophical your father was, and I didn’t know he was such a prodigious writer. Throughout the book, you quote directly from his writing at length. What sorts of things would he write about?
A: My father didn’t journal per se, but he wrote at length in myriad loose-leaf papers, spiral notebooks, etc. He did all different types of writing. He wrote extensively about martial arts — training, technique, philosophy — [but] also wrote about how he approached life, essays on philosophy about yin and yang and Daoist concepts like wu wei. He also wrote creatively for TV and film.
Q: A lot of people have been feeling the psychological toll of lockdown. Is there a particular aspect of your father’s philosophy you’ve leaned on in these odd and trying times?
A: One that’s come up lately in conversation is conserving one’s energy and keeping your mind on the things you want and off the things you don’t. I find there’s so many troubling things happening in the world and its so easy to get sucked in. One of the things about water is it has a natural tension to it. It’s ready to move as soon it’s given the ability to move. Part of this, for me, has been to conserve my energy so that when I need to respond or face a challenge, I can.
Q: Bruce Lee was born in the United States, but shuttled back and forth between the West Coast and Hong Kong throughout his life. In a way, he was neither here nor there and what some call “mid-Pacific.” Do you think these experiences informed his philosophy in any way?
A: Interestingly, I would say he did have an immigrant experience, though technically he was not an immigrant. He was a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of Hong Kong. He had feet in both worlds, in East and West, and yet never was fully accepted by either.
He knew at an early age he had to rely on himself. He was not fitting easily into these molds set out for him and [knew] he was gonna have to forge his own path. Without consciously knowing it, he had to funnel himself into himself because he didn’t 100% fit anywhere else.
Q: ESPN recently released a “30 for 30” documentary about Bruce Lee. How closely involved were you in the making of the film and do you think the film did a good job of telling your father’s story?
A: I thought the film did an excellent job. Other than being interviewed, providing some narration and materials, like photos and film clips, I was not involved. The filmmaker, Bao Nguyen, did not ask for my opinion on anything. [Laughs.]
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently?
A: Bao was looking through a particular lens and I think it’s a special thing that, as an Asian man and Asian filmmaker, he was the one to tell this story. I think that held a lot of meaning for him and what he focused on — my father’s struggle for representation, to be himself and to be seen — is a great way into the piece.
Q: What do you make of the Hong Kong protests using the slogan “Be Water” and adapting this philosophy to tactics of political protest?
A: The sense I had was one of wonder that my father’s philosophy is continuing to be used in practical ways and that people are adopting them, and especially in these types of ways. It’s not something I would have thought of. My father is a very beloved figure in Hong Kong. The fact that he and his philosophies live on there is not surprising, it’s just surprising they were utilized in these ways.
Q: In 2002, you co-founded the Bruce Lee Foundation, which seeks to honor and advance your father’s legacy. What is one aspect of that legacy that you wish was more well known?
A: One of the things I hope people get out of the book is to understand the depth of thoughtfulness and self-work that went into his life. He wasn’t fated to be this global icon — that happened because of the work he put in. And not just to his career, but to his self. The person who showed up to make the movies was the same person that showed up at home to his family, in his friendships, as a teacher. I want people to know he was a meaningful philosopher, not just a guy who had a handful of cool quotes, and that he practiced these things. This is the foundation for the awesomeness you see on the screen.