Jet Li — Pg 2 of 4


That quality of docile obedience ingrained by his mother’s overprotective upbringing served him well with teachers when he began school at the late age of eight.

“I was very popular with the teachers,” he recalls. “Maybe because I was always honest and did what I was told. The teachers liked me so much, they made me Physical Education monitor.” Lian Jie stood atop a high platform and led his grade through the daily national calisthenics.

His good standing with teachers also ensured him a 100% on every test, whether he deserved it or not. He recalls one day in music class when he was being tested for his singing ability. Knowing that Lian Jie was tone deaf, the teacher pretended to believe that the boy had a sore throat and gave him an automatic 100% anyway.

Lian Jie began wushu training at the age of eight during his one-month vacation in the summer of 1971. He was among the grade schoolers arbitrarily assigned to learn wushu among the various sports programs. As Li recalls, “I had no idea what wushu was — none of us did — but if the teacher told you to practice it, you had to practice it!”

In the fall when school resumed most of the 1,000 students in the wushu program were allowed to stop training. Lian Jie was among only 20 students ordered to continue daily after-school training at nearby Beijing Amateur Sports School. He was the only first-grader representing his school. “Being selected out of a thousand made you rather famous in your class,” Li recalls. “Everybody else had been rejected, but you were special! Nobody — least of all me — knew why I’d been asked to continue training, but it was a terrific feeling.”

After three months of training, the group of 20 was whittled down to four. Lian Jie was no longer sure he liked the honor of being among that highly select group. The training was rigorous and especially brutal during Beijing’s harsh winters. “Beijing’s winters are very cold, and our hands hurt constantly,” he recalls. “Doing handslaps were a no-win proposition: if you didn’t slap hard enough to make a sound, you’d get scolded. If you did make a sound, it stung like mad!”

Lian Jie’s sense of having been chosen for special things crystalized at the age of nine when he won the award of excellence — the sole award given — at the national wushu competition held in Jinan in 1972. Upon returning home he discovered that from then on he only had to attend school half days. The reward came with a corresponding burden: he would have to increase training. China was preparing to host the Pan-Asian-African-Latin-American Table Tennis Championships, a very big deal for a nation just emerging from bamboo-curtain isolation. Lian Jie was to participate in the wushu demonstration that was part of the opening ceremonies. The performance went off well, and the nine-year-old was ushered in for an audience with Premier Zhou Enlai.

“Just imagine: to be chosen to represent your country with wushu and to meet the leader of your country — and then to hear him praise you for your performance,” recalls Li. “That was an indescribable honor in China, not to mention a thrilling experience for a 9-year old boy.”

At the sports school Li had been singled out for special attention by Coach Wu Bin who became something of a surrogate father. Like his pupil, Wu had lost his father at age two. He was impressed by Lian Jie’s speed and agility — which earned him the nickname “Jet” — but felt the boy lacked punching and kicking power. A visit to the Li home revealed a possible cause: the family had stopped eating meat after a doctor had advised Lian Jie’s grandmother to avoid it after she had fallen ill. Wu Bin insisted that the boy needed the protein. For years after that he brought food for the struggling family.

In 1974, at age 11, Jet Li won the title of all-around champion at the National Wushu Championships thanks to a stunning performance with the sword and spear. That made him a nationally recognized child prodigy and earned him the nickname “Jet”. One reward was no longer having to attend school at all. As an elite athlete, he began living five days a week at the Sports School dormitory. “Bitter” and “harsh” are words Li applies to the rigors endured by he and the other 12 boys training under Coach Wu.

“Every morning at 6 a.m., we would be awakened by a very loud bell,” Li writes in an account published on his official site. “Within 90 seconds, we had to get dressed and line up outside in the field, standing at attention.” Training lasted until lunch. The young athletes were supposed to have the afternoon off, but unofficial duties also made demands on their time and energies: the school became a popular stop for foreign tourists. “Often, just as we had fallen asleep, we would be awakened by the announcement — ‘Tour group!’ That was our signal to scramble outside immediately to perform for the foreigners. This happened more often than I like to remember.”

Training resumed after dinner and didn’t end until 10 p.m. or later. “The one good thing about the evening practice was that we could finally work out inside the gym,” Li recalls. “There was only one gymnasium at the school, and other sports took priority during the day: gymnastics in the morning, basketball or volleyball in the afternoon. Wushu was only able to get the gym at night, when everybody else had gone home!”

All told, the boys put in 8 hours of hard training each day. They were delighted when routine Friday-night power blackouts — a national energy conservation measure of that era — threw the gym into total darkness and forced cancellation of workouts. But Coach Wu eventually found a solution. Li recalls one Friday evening when their anticipated leisure was unexpectedly interrupted by the loud bell that signaled the start of a workout. When the boys protested that there were no power in the gym, the coach pulled out a flashlight. He spaced them apart in the gym, snapped off the flashlight and ordered them to start practicing forms.

“In the dark we had no way of knowing when the flashlight would click on again,” Li recalls. “What if the coach suddenly shone the light on you just as you happened to be taking a little ‘break’? The punishment would be unimaginable. We were experiencing true fear. In the pitch black gym, where absolutely nobody could see how hard we were working, I trained as I had never trained before.”

During one such training session Jet misstepped and broke a foot. On Monday when the coach saw him limping, he had the boy work on upper-body exercises. Even after an X-ray confirmed that a bone was cracked and a plaster cast was applied, the coach had Jet carried to the training field so he could spend the day working on arm movements. Next

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