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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall