The Bruce Lee legend

The iconic Kung Fu star's films were banned from Communist China by Chairman Mao. But now his legacy is being reclaimed with an epic 50-part documentary on state TV. By Clifford Coonan

His body, glistening with sweat, is compact and ripples with muscles. The fighter is impervious to the pain of the slashes that have been made across his midriff. Glaring from beneath fierce thickeyebrows at the unfortunate enemy who has foolishly crossed him, he tenses his fists before striking out at his opponent. Scores of villains are no match for his kung fu powers. Bruce Lee always prevails.

Next to raise his ire is a sign outside a Shanghai park declaring "No Dogs or Chinese". His lip curls and the man born in the Hour of the Dragon in the Year of the Dragon smashes the sign with an overhead kick. The evil colonial powers have crossed the wrong martial arts legend. "I am Chinese," he yells.

Bruce Lee is a national hero in China for the way he embodies Chinese pride and nationalism in his movies. Yet many in mainland China missed him the first time around – in the early 1970s – because movies such as Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury were banned by Chairman Mao Zedong's Communist government as spiritual pollution andrightist sentimentality.

China's state broadcaster China Central Television will set the record straight when it airs a50-part prime-time series on the late kung fu star. The Legend of Bruce Lee, which starts screening on Sunday, is an exhaustive account of the kung fu hero's life.

It took nine months to shoot at a cost of 50 million Chinese yuan (£4.2m), as the cast and crew travelled from Lee's ancestral home in Shunde, in southern China's Guangdong province, to Macau, Thailand, America and Italy. The series takes the premier slot in the evening schedule, with two episodes being shown back-to-back every night.

Lee is largely credited with reviving interest in the ancient art of kung fu in Hong Kong, and subsequently in China, which wanted to include kung fu in the Olympics but was turned down, and instead staged a separate kung fu competition on the sidelines.

Lee's quickfire moves and often surreally dubbed dialogue, combined with his incredible athleticism, transformed the martial arts movie genre and his films quickly achieved cult status across the world.

What the man known as "Little Dragon" would have thought of his fame in China is hard to say. He was certainly a nationalist, but he was also a Hong Kong man. During his heyday, the Cultural Revolution was at its height. Until Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, many in the colony had an uneasy relationship with the People's Republic, whose centrally planned state economy was the total opposite of the free-wheeling capitalism in the British territory.

Lee was born in November 1940 in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, before his father sent him back to the States after a brawl as a youngster. As well as his kung fu prowess, he was also a ballroom dancing champion in Hong Kong.

Lee made 46 kung fu movies and his popularity around the world paved the way for stars such as Jackie Chan and inspired film makers including Quentin Tarantino. But he could have been even bigger. Lee was just 32 years old when he died in 1973, while starring and directing the movie Game of Death in Hong Kong, less than a month after the release of Enter the Dragon, the movie which turned him into an international star.

His death is a source of some mystery and there all kinds of rumours about how he actually died. The discovery of cannabis in his blood led to speculation of a drug overdose. Triad crime gangs were rumoured to have poisoned him, while another popular theory was that he was simply too fit and his veins burst under the sheer strain. The official version is he died of a brain haemorrhage. His funeral was attended by some of the world's biggest tough guy actors, including Steve McQueen, Chuck Norris, James Coburn and former James Bond actor George Lazenby. His son Brandon also died young, during the filming of The Crow in 1993, prompting dark speculation of a family curse.

Mainland Chinese only started watching Bruce Lee films in the 1980s, when videos of classic movies such as The Chinese Connection became available but his star has not waned since. A theme park – complete with a statue, a memorial hall, conference centre and martial arts academy – is being built in Shunde.

Lee is a powerful figure for the Chinese because he emphasised power and resolve in the face of adversity, particularly from foreign oppressors. This positive image of Chinese people did much to break down prejudices in the 1970s and is also a message very much in line with the Chinese government's own views as the country asserts itself more and more.

Lee reserved much of his wrath for the Japanese, a people made to endure humiliation after the Second World War and into the 1970s. In one classic episode, Lee defeats an entire school of karate experts singlehandedly.

"Bruce Lee is a world-renowned talent," said Zhang Hua, general manager of China Film & Television Production Corporation. "The expression 'kung fu' has been included in the English dictionary because of him. Lee started the popularity of Chinese martial arts in the world and his films are really popular everywhere abroad."

The programme is attracting keen interest from all over the region, both in places with a large Chinese diaspora such as Malaysia and Singapore, and further afield in the States and Korea. The producers are confident they can sell the series abroad at $100,000 per episode.

Zhang said the show was originally supposed to air on CCTV 8 but station bosses liked the series so much they decided to screen it on the main station CCTV1, which has hundreds of millions of viewers. The website for the show had already received two million visits.

"The previous versions made in Hong Kong and Taiwan were too commercial. We hoped to make a good version," said Mr Zhang. Lee's daughter, the actress Shannon Lee, has approved the script and is listed as an executive producer in the credits. In the series, Bruce Lee is played by Danny Chan, a 33-year-old Hong Kong actor best known for his appearances in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer.

He has the look of Bruce Lee down pat, with the same defiant expression and spare but muscled frame. The series was originally scheduled to be aired before the Olympics in August, but was postponed because of the mourning period following the Sichuan earthquake in May.

Expect the Bruce Lee love affair to run and run. The latest news is that China's top director Zhang Yimou, who made Hero and directed the Olympic opening ceremony, has said he is keen to shoot a full-length feature film version.

46

Number of Kung Fu films made by Bruce Lee before his death in 1973.

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