8 teachings from the movie Birth of the Dragon

An epic movie but… was Bruce Lee really like that?

In the martial arts movies’ environment, the figure of Bruce Lee has been (and is) at the same time hated and loved:

  • Loved because of his incredible skills and fan following (that has passed the decades)
  • Hated because of his contrasts with the traditional martial culture (and even for some disagreements with some Chinese producers of his time but we will not deepen this topic)

Note – This article has been asked by one of our Core Course practitioners on Patreon (see how to attend our home study classes here Learn Kung Fu online: a beginner-to-expert course).

We mention these aspects because the movie must be seen carefully considering them, in fact:

  • It aims to stress the Shaolin’s influence over the martial art that Bruce Lee founded (the Jeet Kune Do, read The core concepts of Jeet Kune Do)
  • It describes Bruce Lee with a sort of respect (especially if compared to the caricatural stereotype of movies like Once upon a time in Hollywood, read Once upon a time in Hollywood: Bruce Lee beaten) but it is very far from being a praise to his figure
  • Its real protagonist is the (idealized) Shaolin culture but a lot of other important influences are completely skipped (the relation with western boxing, etc.)

A note by Master Kongling – The only real way to know who Bruce Lee was and what Jeet Kune Do is: is to read his books. In my humble opinion, I never liked him as an actor but indeed: in martial arts terms, he was a genius, the kind of person that comes every 100 years. He was not the invincible hero described by his most ardent fans but at the same time, he was certainly not the superficial figure described in this or in Tarantino’s version.

Said this, we continue our cinematic martial path (started with 4 teachings from the movie Ip Man) remembering that, as always:

  • We will not go into the merits of the historical precision
  • We will not criticize the obvious narrative / choreographic exaggerations and alterations

Let’s see what we can concretely learn from this fantastic film.

Birth of the Dragon’s teachings

1) The use of improper weapons in self-defense

“Now, in the street, you’re not gonna have swords or spears. If it’s a brick, we use a brick. If it’s broken glass, we use broken glass. The idea is to put the other guy away fast.”

When Bruce Lee says this, he suggests us the fact that, in a reals self-defense scenario, it is important to immediately gain an overwhelming advantage and an improper weapon can be at the same time:

2) Only when the mind is clean, can express its best in combat

“That’s what you got to overcome. Kung Fu is about discipline, about channeling what’s in here. In here, out here.”

“You know what I was doing in there? Getting inside your head.”

“In a fight a chip on your shoulder is just extra weight.”

In the scene where Bruce Lee challenges Steve, the goal of the master was to show the student what does it mean to be a victim of stress and frustration in combat:

  • If the mind is obscured by external thoughts, it is the slave of a type of instinct that (against the wrong opponent) becomes predictable and easy to manage (read Become the absolute zero)
  • Even the incredible power of a gun is useless if we shoot in the wrong moment, way and direction; the point is that the bullet is our instinct but who shoot must be our clean rationality (read Fighting with the reason at the speed of instinct)

A note by Master Kongling – “Clean” does not mean weak or slow, it simply means applying a rational control to our instinct, exploiting its fast potential but never being subjected to it (read also How to use emotions in workout and combat).

As we always say, we must develop the capability to look at the fight as an external observer that sees an interactive series of elements: nothing more, nothing less.

A note by Master Kongling – Naturally this is not a result that can be achieved in a few months, it is a matter of years of practical experience but it is what we have to aim to.

3) What is Kung Fu?

“In northern Shaolin, Kung Fu is about self-discipline and self-discovery. For us, Kung Fu does not reside in the fists, it resides in the soul.”

“Kung Fu is not just a way of fighting, it is a way of living and thinking.”

In the scene where Steve accompanies Wong Jack Man to see the Golden Gate bridge, the monk asks him what is the value of Kung Fu (from his point of view): he replies that it is a way to become tougher and get respect.

Completely wrong (read also A quick way to learn what is the meaning of martial arts).

Kung Fu is a way to know, understand our limits and control / overcome them. All the rest exists but it is subordinated to self-discovering. The goal of Kung Fu is to find peace not to search for violence (read The fighter and the warrior).

A note by Master Kongling – Most people want to study martial arts for self-defense purposes, aiming to become stronger, to become able to prevail over others: well, alone, this attitude will never distance them from dangers; on the contrary, it will bring them closer. In most self-defense situations, 50% of the problem comes from ourselves (no matter who is right or wrong).

4) When is it necessary to fight?

“You must know when it is necessary to fight and when it is not.”
“How do you know when it’s necessary?”
“When you find something so important, you would give your life for it. Then you must fight to protect it.”

This definition of Wong Jack Man (after the first meeting with Bruce Lee) perfectly describes when in a self-defense situation is necessary to fight:

  • Are we willing to sacrifice our lives for what we have in our wallets?
  • Are we willing to sacrifice our lives for a joke or an insult?
  • Are we willing to sacrifice our lives for an attack that did not harm us?
  • Are we willing to sacrifice our lives for something that could be resolved simply by talking or going away (read Self defense: 10 correct attitudes during a quarrel)?

Are we truly so stupid? Are we so mentally weak?

Every serious expert of self-defense knows that each time that we accept to face a physical confrontation outside a ruled / protected context (read What is the difference between real fights and combative sports?), we are risking our life (most of the time, uselessly).

A note by Master Kongling – These are the rational questions to answer before ending in a bad situation, these are the answers to find now and to remain faithful to: without any preparation, no one can make these choices in the stressful moment of danger. The best moment to make clear in your mind your scale of values is: now.

5) Technique is a trap, style is a prison

“Technique is a trap. Style is a prison. That is what I tried to tell Lee Jun-Fan. Kung Fu is meant to liberate.”

When Steve comes to ask help from Wong Jack Man to free Xiulan Quan from his captors, the monk says this phrase that exactly describes the aim of the teachings of our school:

  • Rarely it could be expressed better
  • Rarely it is applied in today’s Kung Fu courses

A note by Master Kongling – The final goal must not be to try to become a copy of a copy of a copy (each time inevitably less precise). This way Kung Fu dies. What many people do not want to understand is that it does not exist a traditional / original style, it must exist an evolution based on the valid principles of the past (as it always has been, until the appearance of firearms).

6) Know yourself and your opponent

“Lesson number one: know your opponent.”

“Lesson number two: know yourself. If you know yourself and then you know your opponent, you need not fear the outcome of a thousand battles. In those two principles you have the whole of Kung Fu. And the rest is just… eternity.”

Wong Jack Man teaches these principles to Steve to let him understand that, substantially, in combat:

  1. The precise knowledge of our personal capabilities and limits, let us be aware of what we can do and what not (eliminating a big part of the possible errors that we could do)
  2. The precise knowledge of the capabilities and limits of our opponents, let us be aware of what they can do and what not (eliminating another big part of the possible errors that we could do)
  3. The remaining possibilities must be weighted in terms of training quality, scenario’s circumstances and personal psychophysical capabilities but are less and less relevant the more profoundly we own the other 2 points

A note by Master Kongling – When you fight in a sports competition, there is an infinite number of things that you know and that you can expect: in self-defense, in many cases, it is a meeting in the dark. This is one of the reasons that we study the other martial arts (read The complete list of all the martial arts), to know as much as possible what we could expect from our adversaries (read 6DKF: what does it teach?).

7) How to behave in front of aggressive people in self-defense

“You must ask yourself… why is he doing that. He’s fighting against the world. He is on the wrong path.”
“But what you do?”
“The role of a Sifu is to bring him into the harmony with the world… and with himself.”
“Suppose he’s trying to kill you.”
“Than I suppose… you kick his ass.”

When Bruce Lee asks Wong Jack Man what he would do against a badass, what he replies is not what a perfect Shaolin monk should do, it is exactly what everyone should do:

  • The worst response to an aggressive attitude is the specular one and if we become able to understand the difficulties of who is humiliating himself in front of us with such behavior, we will be certainly more able to do not let the violence escalate uselessly
  • The strength that a true warrior must aim is self-control, the weakness of unnecessarily getting into trouble is already innate in most people; in self-defense does not win who does the most damage but the one who manages to cause the least possible one (to himself and to what is around him, read why here Best martial arts for self-defense)
  • Only when the alternative is death, only when all the possible pacific options have been tried we have the right to reply to the violence with the violence (read the steps here Personal defense: the S.A.F.E. method)

A note by Master Kongling – What if in this situation I had listened to anger and pride? Read Self-defense: aggression in front of a supermarket. What would have happened?

8) On the street never bet against the street

“On the street never bet against the street”

When Bruce Lee discusses with Steve the details of the fight with Wong Jack Man, he says these words and their meaning is that:

  • Although he considers Shaolin monk’s knowledge of Kung Fu of high level, he knows that this, in a fight without rules, loses much of its value
  • No matter how long and how well someone could have studied martial arts, if to the theory we do not flank the infinite possibilities of the practical application of combat, we will never truly know how to fight
  • The live knowledge of the practical experience always wins against the crystallization of the theoretical one

A note by Master Kongling – Those who are born and / or live in a violent context have (in spite of themselves) fighting dynamics in their blood which, although raw, can easily overcome the typical student of classic martial arts courses. I repeat it every time: if you don’t play against an opponent you can’t say you know how to play tennis and so it is for combat.

Final notes

A few conclusive thoughts:

  • There should be no need to stress that this is an action movie, most of its contents are purely narrative gimmicks
  • Someone could criticize that we are using such a film for teaching purposes, however, the fact of wandering in the method of transmission of the notions serves to make them less heavy and to build valuable motivation (read Motivation: from passion to self-discipline)
  • It is very important to learn to recognize the value in the midst of what is apparently worthless; all are able to express generic judgments, few know how to distinguish, in detail, the correct parts from the wrong ones (as Kung Fu practitioners we must learn to grasp teaching from any experience, read also Martial arts: movies VS reality, 7 differences)

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  • What is your favorite movie about Bruce Lee?

Author: Master Kongling

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