As I stepped into the wu guan, or martial arts center, I was immediately greeted by Bruce Lee memorabilia on every corner, a testament to this martial arts legend. The ultimate testament to his legacy is the tapestry with a red-yellow yin and yang, underlined with the words Jiequan dao, pronounced “Jeet Kune Do” in Lee’s native Cantonese. I button up my uniform, remove my socks and shoes, as is required in practice, and line up with the other members for the day’s lesson in Jiequan dao, or the “Way of the Intercepting Fist.”
Zhun bei! The shifu called for preparation, and the class silenced. Each member stood straight and put his/her legs together, ready to begin.
Jing li! We gave shifu the traditional salute common in all classic Chinese martial arts: placing an open left hand against a clenched right fist. Class had now begun.
In contrast to other martial arts, Jeet Kune Do is not meant to train individuals for tournaments. Our shifu explained that Bruce Lee saw such matches as “organized despair,” and believed that to solve the problem of predictability in systematic, repeated patterns in other martial arts, he combined the best aspects of different martial arts to develop Jeet Kune Do. This unique form is a mixed martial art philosophy based on the idea of a person being fluid and adaptable to any situation, having “no limitation as limitation.” As we practiced each new move, I marveled at the fluidity within each step and the beautiful, silent power of each strike. Led by shifu, we vigorously practiced steps, punches, kicks, and gouges until nearly the end of class.
Unfortunately, that day was the last class for one of my Jeet Kune Do mates, James. Despite it being his last class, James received no warm, parting embraces, but instead a club tradition: a stream of powerful kicks to the inner and outer thighs, complemented by a barrage of punches to the stomach. Bruce Lee’s original philosophy behind this seemingly brutal custom was that the more hits a person endured in practice, the more physically-strengthened his muscles would be, and the more prepared he would feel to take hits in a real-life situation. These blows would not come from any one selected member, but from every member of the class – whether a yellow belt, brown belt, black belt or a rookie white belt like me.
One by one, each member came forward and tried to prove his/her strength to the master by delivering volley of kicks and punches on James. “The harder you kick, the more ingrained the memory of you will be in his head afterward!”, someone shouted. As a white belt, I was one of the last to engage. Already seeing James in evident pain, I gave five light punches to his abdomen, to the disappointment of the shifu. Panting, he told me “You can do more.” I then used all of my force to give him 30 quick punches, stopped, and checked for his reaction. He dropped his head downwards, continued panting, and said nothing.
As I painfully watched James endure the last strikes and saw him crumble to the floor afterward, I wondered what it would feel like to receive such blows on my own body. I would not have to wait long to find out.
A part of this tradition I wasn’t familiar with was that after taking punches and kicks, the receiver gets to return the favor, engaging each member with force in proportion to the mercy he was given. Soon, I found each member lining up, as James slowly recovered. As I watched my classmates take hits and cry in pain, I began to question whether strengthening my body in this way was worth enduring the pain to come. Finally, it was my turn, and I could only pray for the best.
Hit, Hit, Kick, Hit. “Ouch.”
Hit. Kick. Kick, Kick. “This is really starting to hurt.”
Kick, Hit, Hit, Hit. “This is the most agonizing pain I’ve ever felt.”
After James’ final kick, I struggled to maintain my balance. Immediately afterwards, because I was no longer able to move my legs properly, I could not give an acceptable final salute to the shifu as we ended class. My thighs were in excruciating pain, and I struggled to walk to the benches just outside of the wu guan.
After class, I decided to stay with many of my fellow members, who were practicing punches and kicks on hand targets and punching bags. I was doubtful that I would be able to practice anything given my physical state, but when the opportunity came, I found myself able to punch and kick with more force than I had done in any Jeet Kune Do class before. Even if only a little, it seems that the “pain therapy” method of strengthening muscles had actually given my strength a small but evident upgrade. As I continued practicing, I thought back on my experience of receiving punches and kicks from James, and began to find similarities with my experience in Bridge Year. Here in China, I was put into a new setting, frequently facing situations well outside my comfort zone: I have been given more and more responsibilities from my NGO, I am now thrust into more analytical conversations in Mandarin than I would have imagined myself being able to partake in, and every day there are reminders that family and friends in America are farther than they’ve ever been. However, in dealing with the discomfort of these experiences, I have begun to feel a gained sense of maturity and independence, a broadened perspective on the world from experience working to solve the issues faced by those in need, and a better preparation to deal with varying obstacles that may lay ahead in both Bridge Year and beyond. Jeet Kune Do, it seemed, has turned out to be both philosophically enlightening and physically toughening as Bruce Lee had intended it to be.
As I walked out towards the screen door, I gave a final salute to my shifu, and thanked him for all that had been taught in today’s lesson. As I began walking home that chilly December evening, I looked forward to the set of painful blows that would come next week.