How Bruce Lee Became a Pop Culture Legend

Lee Jun-fan, commonly known as Bruce Lee, is a martial arts megastar. He is often credited for changing the perception of Chinese culture and Asians in the western world. According to critics, commentators, media and martial artists, Bruce Lee is the most influential martial artist of all time. He’s the 20th century pop culture icon who bridged the gap between eastern and western culture – one of the very few people ever to do so. 

Unfortunately, Bruce Lee died before he even saw how his work became influential. Despite completing only four leading roles in action films and dying at the young age of 32, Bruce Lee became an international legend. Here’s what he did that made him a pop culture legend: 

He changed the perception of Asians in the Western world.

Bruce Lee is credited with helping to change the way Asians were depicted and presented in American films. He was also largely responsible for bringing the “kung fu craze” during the ‘70s, which only largely existed in Hong Kong before Bruce Lee came into the western scene. 

Because of Lee, Asians are seen as heroes, which is a big improvement from the previous century of derogatory images of Chinese people on screen. Before Lee, the portrayal of Chinese in movies consists of stereotypes of the vicious Fu Manchu, the obese, inscrutable Charlie Chan, and the abundance of unidentifiable farmers and railroad workers. 

Lee’s success inspired a new wave of Western martial arts films and television shows throughout the rest of the ‘70s until the ‘90s, which launched the careers of Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and Jean Claude Van Damme. He also made it possible to integrate Asian martial arts into Western action films and movies, making it mainstream. 

He was the first action hero.

Before Bruce Lee, on-screen combat was polite, stiff and unconvincing. Filmmakers had to make a lot of cuts and camera tricks to make it look like the actors in an action movie are actually fighting. 

But when Bruce Lee came to the scene, his training in multiple martial arts and background in dance (He was a champion cha cha dancer in Hong Kong) inspired a more realistic, fluid approach. Bruce Lee wanted on-screen fights to look brutal yet elegant, and that’s the theme that action movies aimed for ever since. This approach can be observed in modern action movies like “The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and more. 

American action filmmakers also banked on the concept of a lone figure, who at first seems like a regular guy, but when pushed, he can transform into a one-man army. Bruce Lee inspired this concept of a surprising one-man action hero. There’s no Bruce Willis if there was no Bruce Lee. 

He popularized martial arts in the West.

Bruce Lee was already a child actor in Hong Kong before he became Hollywood-famous, so by the age of 18, he already starred in 20 films. But any fame he had in his home country disappeared when he left Hong Kong for the US. Since he was a martial arts student since his early teens, he decided to pursue a career in teaching martial arts. His peers and tutors back in his homeland frowned upon his decision to teaching martial arts techniques to outsiders. But when he lived in Seattle in the ‘60s, he opened a martial arts school and openly taught his own system, Jeet Kune Do, or “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” His students included actors James Coburn and Steve McQueen. 

Bruce Lee didn’t plan on acting in the US, but he was discovered by a TV producer, William Dozier. Dozier was the producer o the popular Batman TV series, and he cast Lee a sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet

He moved back to Hong Kong in 1971 hoping to land bigger acting roles than just supporting ones. He landed leading roles in “The Big Boss,” which was a huge box office success. Then, he starred in “Fist of Fury,” which became an even bigger hit. His third movie, “Way of the Dragon,” is what really showcased his enormous talents as the star, writer, director, and choreographer of the movie. 

These three films sparked the craze in eastern philosophy and Kung Fu as it was known today, launching China and martial arts culture in the global spotlight. The recognition he got for the three films gave him traction to star in “Enter the Dragon,” the first martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio. This film was meant to introduce Lee to Hollywood audiences as a rising star, but it would later cement him as a martial arts legend, for he died six days before the film’s release.

“Enter the Dragon” went on to gross an estimated $350 million worldwide. The movie also sparked a martial arts craze in the ‘70s, epitomized in some TV shows and in songs like “Kung Fu Fighting.” 

His movie, Enter the Dragon, was the most influential martial arts film of all time.

“Enter the Dragon” has been cited as one of the most influential action films of all time. It was not only an extraordinary work of entertainment, but it also gives a crucial look at the changes in the early ‘70s American culture. It was unlike any other film to light up the silver screen. 

When it was released, it was exactly what Bruce Lee has been waiting for: a starring role in a Hollywood film. He wanted to create a heroic Asian male character to break the problematic depictions of Asian people in Hollywood. This movie is referenced in all manner of media, and the impact was particularly seen in revolutionizing the way Asians and traditional martial arts were portrayed in Hollywood. In the process, Lee became the first actor to bridge the East and the West. “Enter the Dragon” became the first film co-produced in Hong Kong and Hollywood, so the Asian landscapes and characters were not constructed by American filmmakers. 

The film is where kung fu meets Blaxploitation and all action. It became a hit at the box office, beating out a Steve McQueen film, and it became Warner Brothers’ top grossing film internationally in 1973. 

The fight scenes in Lee’s films like “Enter the Dragon” has been seminal in the way they pitched an elemental story of good against bad in a spectacle-saturated manner. Today, we take for granted that Hollywood action movies have martial arts, fight choreography, and amazing effects. Before Lee, people hadn’t really seen martial arts in that context in a Hollywood film. 

Without “Enter the Dragon,” most of the video games we associate with martial arts would not be the same. The Street Fighter video game franchise was inspired by the movie, and this game went on to set the template for all fighting games that followed.

“Enter the Dragon” also inspired manga and anime franchises “Fist of the North Star” and “Dragon Ball” in Japan. These two manga and anime franchises are then credited for setting the trends for popular shōnen manga and anime that followed after them. Similarly in India, Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” had significant pop culture impact. Bollywood masala films started incorporating fight scenes inspired by the ‘70s Hong Kong martial arts films until the ‘90s.  

He is the grandfather of MMA. 

As the founder of Jeet Kune Do, Lee is often credited with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts. The concept of mixed martial arts was invented through Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. With this style, he rejected the rigid, traditional styles of individual martial arts and developed “the style of no style.” He called it “scientific street fighting.” 

The concept of mixed martial arts was popularized in the West by Bruce Lee through his system of Jeet Kune Do. He believed that the best fighter isn’t a boxer, a karate, or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to adopt an individual’s own style, and not following any system of styles. 

In 2004, Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) founder Dana White called Bruce Lee the father of mixed martial arts. Lee was responsible for a lot of people taking up martial arts. These include different fighters in combat sports inspired by him, including boxing champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Manny Pacquiao, and UFC champions Jon Jones and Conor McGregor. 

Lee also inspired the foundation of American full-contact kickboxing tournaments by Benny Urquidez and Joe Lewis in the 1970s. A lot of other UFC fighters have mentioned Lee as their inspiration, with most of them referring to him as a grandfather or godfather of MMA. 

He made action film relatable to the audiences.

A big part of Lee’s ability to break out across and cultural and racial division had to do with the universal themes in his movies. Bruce Lee films are products of people’s paranoia and insecurity, where the audiences long for a means to clean up crime and injustice. 

With kung fu and martial arts, anyone willing to be trained could be a hero. Unlike previous action stars who needed guns and weapons, Lee show that all somebody needs is to fight is their own body, which sent an empowering message that appealed to working class audiences, no matter the racial background. 

Another reason the action in Lee’s films became relatable to the audience is because it had to do with his insistence that the fewer the camera tricks, the better. Cuts were reduced and long shots were used when filming Lee’s films, so audiences can tell they were watching genuine kung fu instead of witty camera depictions. Audiences can relate to the action in Lee’s films because as they witness real people performing the action, it inspired a sense of “hey, I can do that too!” Ironically, the fight sequences in his films can’t be achieved just by anyone, so he insisted on having actual skilled martial artists to appear in his films than actors. This trend would later endure in the kung fu and martial arts genre, inspiring an enduring reverence for the art in America. 

He was the first self-help guru.

Bruce Lee was more than just a fighter – he was a thinker who encouraged students to adopt mental discipline, as well as physical excellence. Most of his philosophies come from the simplicity and directness of Jeet Kune Do, but a lot of his thinking and principles that can be applied generally and has been adopted by the self-help industry. Here are some of his quotable wisdom:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”

“Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.”

“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”

“As you think, so shall you become.”

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”

“Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.”

He invented working out to look good and feel good.

Lee was renowned for his physical vigor and fitness, which is achieved by having a dedicated fitness regimen with an aim of being as strong as possible. He felt that most martial artists did not spend enough time on conditioning the body, as most martial artists of his time spent too much time on skill development. Lee included all elements of total body fitness – muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. 

Before Lee, workout gyms were all about body building with an obsession with beefcake bulk. But Lee was strategic – he used traditional bodybuilding techniques to build muscle mass while keeping the body sleek and streamlined, because too much bulk can decrease speed or flexibility.

This now universal approach to fitness and the idea of going to the gym to look good and feel good while building just enough muscle tone for strength is pure Bruce. 

He helped shape superhero culture. 

In 1974, Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee published a special Marvel black-and-white comic magazine entitled “The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu,” which revolved around Bruce Lee and Martial arts. For Stan Lee, Bruce Lee was a superhero without a costume, the first one who made westerners aware of martial arts as a type of fighting and a way of life. According to Stan, “What made Bruce Lee special was the fact that he was a human who did extraordinary things! He was believable, he was a superhero, but the attraction was that he was real! You felt like you could be him.” 

He went on to say that “Bruce Lee was a man of peace, he was a man of philosophy, he encouraged people to be the best they could be. He wasn’t violent. In fact, that was the similarity between Bruce and many of the characters at Marvel. They weren’t looking for a fight, they did their best not to get into fights.”

Besides inspiring Marvel superhero characters, Marvel also produced a lot of Lee-inspired comic series, such as “Iron Fist” and “The Hands of Kung Fu.”