Fallacy of Jeet Kune Do

When I was a boy, I read with great interest Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Right after I read that, I read Dan Inosanto’s Absorb What Is Useful and Guide to Martial Arts Training Equipment. Being young and easily influenced, I was immediately drawn in and sold on the philosophy. As I matured, I slowly removed myself from many of Bruce Lee’s ideas until I nearly rejected all of them. Today, I am a combination of admirer and critic of Lee’s JKD. My methodology was born of my experiences and observations as well as tested theories.

My philosophy is all over the internet, and hopefully we can bring all of those writings to this blog. I am not interested in arguing point-for-point every detail, because much of what I wrote 10 years ago is no longer my position today. This is a vast subject, and being a “nobody” (since Jeet Kune Do people like to point out that I am a nobody) my martial arts career will neither be broken nor made because of this position. I would like to share some of these things in this article, and I hope that at least some of you will find what is in this article helpful.

The Paradox of Bruce Lee’s Philosophy

Bruce Lee’s JKD is a style that claims not to be a style. It has a curriculum, a philosophy, teachers, schools, a TRADEMARK, students arguing about lineage and authenticity (just like every traditional legacy I’ve seen) and even “forms”. Although these “forms” are combinations and drills, what is a form but a series of blocks, attacks and counters that have been prearranged? Do JKD practitioners not do the same thing? You strike me here, and then I do this and that? One person holds out an arm while the defender blocks and counters with X, Y, and Z? Looks like Kenpo from here. Bruce Lee himself came from the traditional system (Wing Chun), which is apparent in his system. Yeah, call it Jun Fan Kickboxing, whatever… but his system of no systems sure looks like a system to me. From what I hear, he even tried to dismantle the art shortly before he died because he saw it going down the same road the traditional styles travelled. Did Lee practice forms? Sure. Those of you who know Ying Jow Pai may recognize the first few moves of “Jeet Kune” an Eagle Claw FORM, being performed by Lee in “Return of the Dragon” in the alley before he whips up the Italian guy–and in the Game of Death, he does the end of the form while in his room the first day on Han’s Island (ironically, Shek Kin is an Eagle Claw Sifu–he is my kung fu Uncle). Surely, he practiced the 4 forms of Wing Chun:  Siu Lum Tao, Chum Kiu, Biu Jee, and the Mook Yan Jong form. But he didn’t teach them to his students… or did he? Ever seen any of the students from his early days? They do those forms. In my opinion, they seemed to be more fighters than the ones who came along in later years. The truth is, Bruce Lee benefitted from traditional martial arts training, but he preached against it. It was his traditional training that encouraged his search for “non-traditional” martial arts. I believe in fighters with a strong foundation creating their own methods–but only after they have a base of knowledge to grow from. Bruce Lee’s ideas were good, but in my opinion not well thought out and tested. We love him because of his movies and his profoundness as a martial arts philosopher. But keep in mind that he was a young man without a master, without a lot of actual learning (he learned mostly by books, except for limited exchanges with others and his short time with Yip Man). He was a talented specimen who trained full time in a young martial arts community without a lot of exposure to martial arts masters. Was he in great shape? Yes. Was he a skilled fighter? I don’t know, no one really questioned or tested him. And that was the problem.

The Process of Development

Where was Bruce Lee’s laboratory? Who did he test his theories on? How long did he test those theories? How was his art tempered?

Let me answer those questions with a question:  Who taught Bruce Lee how to box?

The answer:  no one. Create your own path, remember? Bruce Lee studied boxing the same way most of you do. Not by going into the gym and boxing, but by looking at youtube clips and HBO. Oh, he didn’t have youtube and HBO, so he really had less exposure than many of you have. Bruce Lee learned to box by observation, and came up with his own theories. This is the common method of young men who thought they knew everything. Hey, I was the same way myself at one time… but I was given the opportunity to get older and I had the humility to go and learn from those who know more than me. Imagine where his JKD had been if Lee had walked into a boxing gym instead of looking at Muhammad Ali fights. (By the way, Ali was one of the worst people to learn how to fight by observing. He only used a portion of boxing basics, and relied more on his natural talents and hard work than by boxing basics)

Bottom line, Bruce Lee was a fine physical specimen among a community of martial artists who were in awe of him. I believe many men who admired him could actually have beaten him–Jim Kelly, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, among others. This was one of Bruce Lee’s main flaws (keep in mind, he was young and human):  that he believed he was not in need of a master and that he could teach himself better than if he had gone to the masters personally. Mostly everything he incorporated was self-taught…. Fencing, boxing, wrestling, judo. What would you say if a man appeared today and announced that this was how he learned, and today he is introducing his own art? Be honest! His celebrity status and his strength and prowess prevented him from improving his art because he lacked the two things that every master needs to forge his art:  doubters and humility. He needs the doubters to fine tune his art and prove his theories on. And he needs the humility to seek the information and foundation that his art would be built on.

The Double Standard

Bruce Lee said you cannot swim on dry land; that a fighter needed to fight to test himself out. But Lee tested himself out on students and friends, if at all. He did not meet Jim Kelly and fight him to see where he stood. He trained alone, and showcased his abilities before a camera and his students. He did not care for fighting with rules, but he did not fight without rules. Every fight has rules. If this was the case, when he sparred with Chuck Norris, one of them would be dead, now wouldn’t they?

I am going to end this article here, but would like to close with a few statements. Bruce Lee did revolutionize the martia arts generation he lived in and the one that followed because he made them think. Yet his ideas were not the absolute truth, and included many inaccuracies. We admired the man and his encouragement to test and question, but no one wanted to test and question his art. Today, nearly 40 years after his death, martial artists quote Bruce Lee sayings as one quotes the Bible. His theories are considered to be the most valid of philosophies and anything contrary to be foolish. Despite that in his last years, Bruce Lee wished to alter his art and ideas. His followers are stuck in the “Original JKD” vs. “Concepts”  and Seattle vs. Oakland vs. LA feuds, as if the version they received was better than another.

I would like to suggest several things to consider:

  1. Making one’s own path is useless with no sense of direction. You need a structure and foundation to build from; otherwise you are guilty of building a home on sand
  2. Every style or system is one man’s “path”. If he has tested his art, proven it on opponents and fine-tuned it, the art is valid. You cannot skip the testing of an art by saying he chose his own “path”. Contrary to popular belief, there is a such thing as “bad” or “weak” martial arts styles–regardless of how tough the student of that style is
  3. Teachers who point students down a path that he did not travel is either not confident in the path he took, or sending his student down an unfamiliar road
  4. You cannot confuse admiration, respect, or love with confirmation of your teacher’s theory. You must prove everything, and to accept a dogma without testing is nothing more than “blindly following”. Failing to question a man’s theories because you like his movies, his ideas or his body is foolish
  5. An inexperienced martial artist teaching himself is always foolish. Just as a 6 year old cannot raise himself, a man cannot teach himself an art and expect to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter how ripped his abs are, how good his movies are, or how many thumb-push-ups he can do
  6. I am a great admirer of both Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto. They are heroes and highly significant characters in martial arts history. However, no man is above reproach or criticism

Thank you for reading my blog… please come back and visit again!

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

7 thoughts on “Fallacy of Jeet Kune Do”

  1. I think your forum is a breath of fresh air! I do not agree 100% with what I have read so far based on my own experience but truthfully it is far less intensive than seems your own. Perhaps I will make follow up posts in other topics to address this and to clarify some of your views.

    Now on to Bruce Lee. To many people and it seems yourself included believe Bruce Lee only studied with one man and that was Yip Man. This is wrong based on my understanding of Bruce Lee.

    Let me side track first and state it is my understanding he did not train with Yip Man as much as Yips other students did as many of the other students complained to Yip Man about Bruce being part German so Yip had William Chueng and Wong Shun Lueng do most instructing in Wing Chun while Bruce was still in Hong Kong.

    Bruce was 13 when he began training and left Hong Kong at 18 so he did have around 5 years of some sort of Wing Chun training. Evidently, he was rather good at the time he left Hong Kong. No, Chueng and Lueng where not really WC masters and actually Bruces friends.

    But, Bruce Lee also studied Wing Chun while in America! Huh, what? Yes! He trained with Fook Yueng for a period of around 7-8 years.
    I’ve read from 1959- 1968. So, even with the smaller number that brings his total Wing Chun training up to around 12 years. And with Fook, he learned directly from Fook!

    Of course Bruce Lee was also teaching his own students at the time as well.

    Did Bruce learn Boxing own his own? It is known that Bruce did enter atleast one boxing match in Hong Kong. I have read the boxer was an English boy and 3 time Champion by name of Gary Elms. I assume Champion as far as all the local High Schools that competed. Bruce won by knock out in the third round I believe.

    I have read Bruce was coached in boxing by a monk by the name of Brother Edward. For how long I d not know but I assume it was roughly the length of one school year at most.

    In America, one of Bruce’s students James DeMile was a Air Force boxer. There is some controversy as to his actual records and how many bouts he was in. But he was a boxer and possibly a champion at some level. Probably base Champ. He claims over a 100 undefeated but lets be real, Im sure he fought a whole lot of guys that should not have been in the ring with him to begin with.

    Anyway, do you not think DeMile exhanged some boxing lessons with Bruce in one for or another? Remember, this is the late 50’s to early 60’s in America and finding a boxing gym was far easier than finding a Judo hall but probably getting close at that point as to availibilty.

    There is atleast one other person that Bruce Lee probably learned more about boxing from.
    His name is Leo Fong. My understanding is he did not teach boxing to Bruce per say. But they did spar, atleast for a length of time together if I am not mistaken. You could ask Fong. I believe he may live in Stockton,Ca. still?

    My point is, I believe Bruce did in fact learn some boxing from atleast one man,( catholic monk) Brother Edward. And perhaps exhanged fine points and ideas with others along the way as regard to boxing.

    For certain he went to books to refine what he believed to be important skills lost in modern boxing.

    I do agree that his so called fight record seems basically non existant. Who did he fight? The only so called champion on record was Wong Jack Man. Who won? It is debatable but you could ask Man as I think he is still alive. That was Bruces turning point to get into fighting shape! After that fight is when Bruce started to train like a mad man as regard to phyiscal fitness and probably the point that lead him to start dropping alot of the classical methods he was still using to train to fight with.

    At this point, all I can add is Bruce was highly respected by most of the fighters on the circuit back then. As to what kind of training, sparring (or limted technique sparring) and back in forth instruction he gave and recieved, I do not know! But, I think he picked up as much from these guys as they did from him. Infact, I think he learned more than they did from their time together.

    I believe there are to many lies and half truths regarding Bruce. Not only from his students, Im sure most are being honest but also from others that trained, met or just exchanged ideas with him along the way. I think there is a lot of expanding of the truth going but I was not there! I do not know for certain!

    About a decade back I was told by a locaal Willem Reeders school ( kung fu art not the silat art he also taught) that Bruce Lee learned silat from Reeders. I did not believe it when told so as at that time I still believe, Yip Man was Bruces only teacher. Open later investigation, thanks to the internet, there appears to be aleast some truth to that. Apperently, Bruce was one of 3 men to be taught a particular system of Silat by Reeders.

    Some say he mearly took notes. Others say he spent a good amount of time with Reeders actually training. Again, I do not know. I am mearly passing on what I believe to be factual information regarding Bruce as it pertains to this post you have made.

    I hope I have passed along something of use as far as updating you on Bruce Lee. I do hope you run your own investigation into what I wrote. I certainly could be wrong but I think for the most part I am accurate.

    Forgive any and all errors with grammer and spelling. Not my strong points.


    ps- I hope I dont double post but I hit send and realised I did not include my correct email addy.

    1. Oh wow! Thank you for this comment! I am only the author of article but other people run the blog, so I didn’t see this one. My apologies. Thank you for this information, because these are some things I didn’t know about already

  2. God bless,

    First time poster here first off great blog !! Keep up the cool posts. Ok there is some mis information in regards to Bruce Lees teachings and training. I do understand the confusion because many of his modern or third gen students just spout off his ideas disjointedly and contradict themselfes left and right. The modern crop of JKD teachers have drifted pretty far from what Lee invisioned in such making JKD just a grab bag of techniques which it is not and was never meant to be. Unfortunately alot of the students who knew what Lee meant by phrases like style without a style have passed away. As far as training Bruces primary teacher was YIP Man but he only studied with him for a few years before his parents sent him to America and there are pictures and personal stories of him having rooftop fights between rival martial arts schools as was the thing in those days. He only learned Sil lum tao from Wing Chun he trained in some Tai Chi from his father and would cross train and share info with diff martial artists he met in america. He didnt hate forms he simply thought they werent the most useful thing to help in a fight more a training tool alot of the martial artists of the day would equal learning a form with knowing how to fight so he openly made the distinction but he didnt hate forms Dan Inosanto has said in many interviews Bruce was the best forms man he ever saw in the early Seattle period he even created a form called Ung Moon he would have his students train in Ung Moon and Sil lum tao and basics footwork chi sao and sparring. I hope this helps you maybe see JKD in a new light and if you want a picture of what Bruces original method was check out James Demiles stuff his stuff is the purest take on the original art as it was when Bruce started teaching Jun fan gung fu.

    1. Thank you. And I notice that in the screen test and two movies–enter the dragon and Chinese connection, Bruce Lee demonstrates a famous Eagle Claw form called Jeet Chune…

  3. Modern Arnis uses a loose style of Jeet kune do for empty hands. I wasn’t told it was JKD by my instructor but by another student who had practiced Wing Chung. It’s called level 7 dirty boxing, and it’s a lot of arm trapping, hand chops,back fists, pressure points. Nothing that I feel would work against a strong boxer who kicks, and did varsity wrestling. I guess it’s good for cops who will get in trouble for palm striking someone’s brain stem or choosing a biracial strike instead of breaking the jaw.

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