Jet Li — Pg 3 of 4


In 1974 the Chinese government began preparing a group of top wushu athletes to tour the United States. Not yet 11, Jet Li was chosen to be one of only thirty who would represent China and her 20 million whushu practitioners. For six months this select group underwent rigorous drilling not only in wushu, but in every conceivable aspect of etiquette.

“Not only were we taught how to eat with a knife and a fork, but we had to know which knife and fork were used for each course,” Li recalls. “And then there were the little social graces: under no condition were we to let the knife touch the plate, or to show our teeth while chewing, or to use a toothpick in an undignified manner. We were taught the proper protocol for answering the telephone, how to listen and respond when an American asked us a question, how we were expected to behave when surrounded by crowds.”

At long last the boys set off on a tour of Honolulu, San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C., surrounded by a small corps of bodyguards and American security forces. The tour taught Jet that there was little truth to the things he had been taught to expect from America and Americans.

“Back in school, we’d been educated to think: ‘China is good,” he says. “Everything in China is good,’ and, ‘The Western countries are decadent societies. Everything about America is evil.’ When we actually found ourselves walking around in this Western country, however, we couldn’t help but notice how different everything was from China — and not necessarily in a bad way. ‘Wow, there are so many cars here. Hey, look at those tall buildings! Geez, Americans actually have swimming pools in their backyards!’ There were so many new ‘wow’s’ every day. None of us dared say the words — ‘Hey, it’s pretty nice here!’ — but everybody was thinking it.”

The highlight of the tour was performing for President Nixon on the White House lawn. After the performance Nixon happened to address Jet Li: “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive! How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?”

“No,” came the boy’s spirited reply. “I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!” This exchange made the front page of The New York Times and every newspaper and news broadcast in China. At age 11, Jet Li had become a national celebrity. He also became a hero to his mother when he spent the $5 per day stipend he earned during the tour on a swiss watch for his mother.

“At that time, watches were considered a luxury item in China,” Li recalls proudly. “Imported watches were quite expensive, and a Swiss watch was a thing of awe. The only way an average laborer could afford to buy a Swiss watch was maybe if they starved themselves for a few months. My mother was very happy when I presented her with that Swiss watch. She hugged me and said I was a good boy.”

Later that year Jet Li won his first official national championship at the Youth Championships for competitors under 18. It was an amazing feat for an 11-year-old, but he would follow that up with even more impressive achievements. In 1975, at the age of 12, he won gold at the National Games, despite giving himself a serious gash on the side of his head during a preliminary round of the broadsword competition. With blood streaming down his face and soaking half his uniform a dark red, Li completed the routine. After a visit to the emergency room, he went on to compete in the finals where he beat out men in their twenties to win the national championship.

“During the awards ceremony, as I stood on the top step of the podium, I was still shorter than the 2nd and 3rd place medalists,” he recalls. “The national anthem began to play. As I stood there, listening, I began to feel overcome with emotion. I hadn’t really realized the impact of winning a national title the year before, when I was 11. This time, though, I suddenly wanted to start crying. I remember thinking: ‘This medal is for you, mom! You didn’t raise me in vain!’ My eyes filled with tears. I can’t say that I ever felt that way again standing on a podium.”

Jet Li won championships again in 1977 and 1978. His successes were capped off by a gold medal at the national martial arts competition in 1979, creating a record that has yet to be matched. At that time the Chinese government decided to tap into the martial arts craze that Bruce Lee had ignited and only intensified by his untimely death on July 21, 1973. Jet Li was recruited to star in a state-sponsored martial arts film called Shalin Temple (1981) in which Li plays a young man who uses martial arts prowess to avenge his father’s murder. Due to relatively primitive techniques, filming began in 1979 and didn’t end until 1981.

“The best part about making that movie was that we didn’t have to train anymore,” Li recalls. “Even though we were waking up at 5 or 6 to get to the set, and shooting from 8 until sunset, it was nothing. This was relaxing. Didn’t we have to fight all day? Sure, but this was nowhere near as tiring as wushu class. In fact, after we finished the day’s shoot, we’d go out again and play soccer or basketball.”

But the young martial artists had to endure some real hardships while shooting in Henan, site of the actual Shaolin Temple.

“We had to shoot by the Yellow River where ice floes drift downstream in the winter,” Li recalls. “There was a scene in the movie that called for our characters to fall into the river, climb out and then start fighting. Never before — and never since — have I experienced such intense cold. You jump into the water, and by the time you surface, you’re frozen. You’re already past the point of being able to feel pain. There’s nothing. The only sensation I had was that something was throbbing in the water — boom boom boom. It was probably my heart.

“For continuity, it had to look like we’d just crawled out of the water. So every morning, we had no choice but to take a bucket of that icy water and pour it over ourselves. Agony! The rest of the cast and crew were standing by wearing thick overcoats, but we had to douse ourselves with ice. We tried hot water, but it would be freezing by the time it hit the body. After the fourth day of shooting, though, I couldn’t extend my fingers anymore. My striking palm had shrivelled up into a claw. It took a week of Chinese medicinal treatment to regain the full use of my hands. I guess the tendons had shrunk from all that repeated freezing and thawing!”

Shaolin Temple became the first film to provide a glimpse into China behind the bamboo curtain. It was a box-office smash not only in China and Hong Kong but also in Corea (Korea), and was quickly followed up by Kids from Shalin (aka Shaolin 2). It proved equally popular. Their release turned Jet Li into one of China’s top movie stars.

The first two Shaolin films had been entirely mainland productions, lacking the production values expected by international audiences. The reviews were as bad as the box office receipts were good. Shaolin Temple 3 (aka Martial Arts of Shaolin) was made by Hong Kong director Lau Ka-leung . The original mainland crew and many of the cast were replaced by Hong Kong talent. The contrast in the way the Hong Kong and mainland crews were treated angered Li and left an indelible impression. Next

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