As many of you know, I have been researching the writings attributed to Bruce Lee for some time now. I’ve carved out an area of specialization in identifying the unattributed sources of those writings. While most of those examples were not published by Bruce Lee in his lifetime, I have, over the course of my research, identified numerous cases where Bruce Lee himself published and/or presented material from other authors claiming credit for the material or failing to cite their true sources.
For the purposes of definition, I turn to the University of Oxford’s description of plagiarism:
“Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed, or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.” (University of Oxford, 2023)
Make no mistake – Bruce Lee was a plagiarist. I take no satisfaction from saying that, but it is nonetheless true. Wishing it were different won’t change things.
Today I had a somewhat tense discussion with Steve Kerridge, one of the best Bruce Lee historians in the world and someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, over whether Bruce Lee was a plagiarist. Steve takes the position that Bruce Lee borrowed from others but shouldn’t be called a plagiarist. My position is that Bruce Lee clearly took credit for other people’s ideas and verbatim text and the label “plagiarist” is unavoidable when the evidence is made clear.
I am currently gathering research for an academic paper on Bruce Lee’s plagiarism. Until that sees publication, I am not going to release the entirety of my findings. But because there is some unwillingness on the part of some Bruce Lee fans to accept the idea that Bruce Lee himself could be guilty of plagiarism, I am going to now show you four examples of Bruce Lee willfully plagiarizing in his lifetime. This is a fraction of the evidence that I now have. But I want to at least provide a little of the evidence at this point to demonstrate my assertion that Bruce Lee was guilty of “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as his own” and “incorporating it into his work without full acknowledgment.”
Keep in mind, when reading the following, these are just examples from my research. There are much more examples to be revealed, including more examples of plagiarism from the Bruce Lee works mentioned below.
Example One: “A Moment of Understanding” college essay.
The following is an essay that Bruce Lee wrote for his freshman English class at the University of Washington Seattle in 1961. He titled it, “A Moment of Understanding”.
My instructor at the time, Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school of gung fu, would come up to me and say “Leung, relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.”
“That was it!” I thought. “I must relax!” However, right then I had just done something that contradicted against my will. That occurred at the precise moment I said, “I must relax.” The demand for effort in must was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in relax.
When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-blind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Leung, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.”
The following week I stayed home. After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then, at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might, yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This was water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.
Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then as I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in the front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the bird flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached – not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature. (Lee, 1975, pp. 38-39)
Compare these passages to those from D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts:
From Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki:
You must follow the movement of the sword in the hands of the enemy, leaving your mind free to make its own counter-movement without your interfering deliberation. You move as the opponent moves, and it will result in his own defeat. (Suzuki, 1956, p. 291)
(I should point out that I discovered the above example of plagiarism as I was writing this blog post.)
And, now, from This Is It:
The apparent multiplication of psychological disorders in our technological culture is perhaps due to the fact that more and more individuals find themselves caught in these snarls-in situations which the psychiatric anthropologist Gregory Bateson has called the “double-bind” type, where the individual is required to make a decision which at the same time he cannot or must not make. He is called upon, in other words, to do something contradictory, and this is usually within the sphere of self-control, the sort of contradiction epitomized in the title of a well-known book, You Must Relax. Need it be said that the demand for effort in “must” is inconsistent with the demand for effortlessness in “relax”? (Watts, 1960 p. 62-63)
To maintain control we have to learn new reactions, just as in the art of judo one must learn not to resist a fall or an attack but to control it by swinging with it. Now judo is a direct application to wrestling of the Zen and Taoist philosophy of wu-wei, of not asserting oneself against nature, of not being in frontal opposition to the direction of things. The objective of the Zen way of life is the experience of awakening or enlightenment (insight, we should say in current psychological jargon), in which man escapes from the paralysis, the double-bind, in which the dualism: idea of self-control and self-consciousness involves him. In this experience man overcomes his feeling of dividedness or separateness-not only from himself as the higher controlling self against the lower controlled self, but also from the total universe of other people and things. (Watts, 1960, p. 67)
This is what Zen means by being detached-not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling is not sticky or blocked, and through whom the experiences of the world pass like the reflections of birds flying over water. Although possessed of complete inner freedom, he is not, like the libertine, in revolt against social standards, nor, like the self-righteous, trying to justify himself. He is all of a piece with himself and with the natural world, and in his presence, you feel that without strain or artifice he is completely “all here” – sure of himself without the slightest trace of aggression. (Watts, 1960, p. 68)
Bruce Lee clearly knew when he submitted this paper to his teacher that he was committing plagiarism. In the book, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, his widow Linda Lee interviewed his English professor, Margaret Walters. According to Professor Walters:
“He spoke good English at the time but writing themes of the kind that teachers assign are not easy for students who come from another background. It just doesn’t click with them. And so I more or less let Bruce write what he wanted that first quarter. He was quite homesick, so I got these descriptions of Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure that some of the things he gave me as themes must have been translations of Chinese poetry that he had studied or read or memorized in the past. And, in fact, I accused him once of doing that and he sort of laughed. He didn’t admit it, but he didn’t deny it, either.” (Lee, 1975, p. 53).
This is important for two reasons. First, Professor Walters outright accused him of plagiarizing his themes. This means she had a discussion with him about what constituted plagiarism. He cannot claim, from at least that point forward, ignorance of his actions or of not knowing what constituted plagiarism.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he did not deny that he committed plagiarism. His unwillingness to unambiguously say that he did not plagiarize, even laughing about it, suggests that he was fully aware of what he did and was playing a game of cat and mouse with his professor. From the reading of her statement, one could assume he was implicitly challenging her to identify his sources.
What is even worse about this example? When you remove the examples of plagiarism from this essay, there is little that remains. What is left – the statement about the nature of water – is itself paraphrased from Taoist teachings, so it is unlikely to have been any kind of epiphany. The realization to be drawn from these plagiarisms is that this story – one that fans have long believed about the life of Bruce Lee – could not possibly have happened. It was a made-up story.
Example Two: “The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study of the Way of the Chinese Martial Art”
In 1967, Bruce Lee published a 13-page booklet with an essay purported to be written by him. Called The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study of the Way of the Chinese Martial Art, the essay was previously published in an earlier form in 1963 and was believed to have been drafted in 1962. The essay contained the following passage:
The word Tao has no exact equivalent in the English language. To render it into the Way, or the “principle” or the “law” is to give it too narrow an interpretation. (Lee, 1967, p. 1)
Now compare to The Works of Lao Tzyy: Truth and Nature:
The Chinese word “Daw” or “Tao” as used in this book has no exact equivalent in the English language. … To render it into “Way” or “Principle” or “reason” is to give it too narrow interpretation. The present translator has chosen the word “Truth” as its substitute. (Cheng-Lin, 1949, p. 5)
What is interesting about this essay is that Bruce Lee actually makes some attempt at citing sources within it, yet for other sources he fails to acknowledge them. It makes it clear that he understands and has been taught to provide citations for external material but only does so when it seems to suit him.
Example Three: “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate”
“Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate” was an essay Bruce Lee published in the September 1971 edition of Black Belt Magazine. It is probably the most famous of his writings published in his lifetime, yet it is not immune to the problem of plagiarism. While I found ideas borrowed without attribution from multiple sources in this essay, I will give you one sample of my findings.
In the essay, Bruce Lee writes:
While JKD utilizes all ways and means to serve its end (after all, efficiency is anything that scores), it is bound by none and is therefore free. In other words, JKD possesses everything, but is in itself possessed by nothing. (Lee, 1971, p. 27)
This passage is plagiarized from Zen Comes West:
The School of Zen Buddhism may be viewed as part of the Mahayana school or entirely on its own. It uses all scriptures and is bound by none, and likewise uses any technique or means (upaya) which serves its end, which is to awaken the pupil’s mind to its own enlightenment. (Humphreys, 1960, p. 21)
My friend and colleague, author and Spanish Bruce Lee historian Marcos Ocana, believes he has identified up to a third of the contents of this essay as being plagiarized. While I have not yet found that much, I would not be surprised.
Example Four: “1972 Letter to John”
The last one I will leave you with is one of the latest-occurring instances I found, and this was in a letter to someone named John. Written around the Summer of 1972, it includes the following:
You see, John, when we have the opportunity of working out, you’ll see that your way of thinking is definitely not the same as mine. Art, after all, is a means of acquiring “personal” liberty. Your way is not my way nor mine yours. So whether or not we can get together, remember well that art “LIVES” where absolute freedom is. With all the training thrown to nowhere, with a mind (if there is such a verbal substance) perfectly unaware of its own working, with the “self” vanishing [into] nowhere the art of JKD attains its perfection. (Lee, 1998, p. 167)
Now compare it to this text from Zen and Japanese Culture:
Art lives where absolute freedom is, because where it is not, there can be no creativity. Freedom and creativity and myoyu are synonymous. (Suzuki, 1960, p. 144)
The mind, it may be said, does not know where it is. When this is realized, with all the training thrown to the wind, with a mind perfectly unaware of its own workings, with the self vanishing nowhere anybody knows, the art of swordsmanship attains its perfection, and one who has it is called a meijin (“genius”). (Suzuki, 1960, p. 153)
From reading the letter it is very clear that a reasonable person would arrive at the conclusion that this handwritten letter represented the words of Bruce Lee. Indeed, that is clearly Bruce Lee’s intention, because at no point does Bruce Lee indicate to John that he is quoting the writings of another person.
Lee’s letters were often plagiarized; he loved giving friends and students pieces of sage wisdom, however he was usually not the sage. In fact, if he began a sentence with, “Remember, my friend…” there is a good chance that what follows is plagiarism.
This one is also important because it exemplifies a common pattern in Bruce Lee’s plagiarisms; a pattern which in literary studies is sometimes referred to as “mosaic plagiarism”. In mosaic plagiarism, the plagiarist takes parts from different sources to create one larger piece of plagiarized work. The complexity of this type of plagiarism makes it harder to believe that it was not intentional.
Cheng, L. (1949). The works of Lao Tzyy: Truth and nature. World Encyclopedia Institute.
Humphreys, C. (1960). Zen comes west. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.
Lee, B. (1967). The Tao of gung fu: A study of the way of the Chinese martial art. Oriental Book Sales.
Lee, B. (1971, September). Liberate yourself from classical karate. Black Belt Magazine, 9(9), pp. 25-27.
Lee, B. (1998). Bruce Lee: Letters of the dragon: An anthology of Bruce Lee’s correspondence with family, friends, and fans 1958-1973 (Vol. 5). Tuttle Publishing.
Lee, L. (1975). Bruce Lee: the man only I knew. Warner Paperback Library.
Suzuki, D. T. (1960). Zen and Japanese culture. Pantheon Books.
Suzuki, D. T., & Barrett, W. (1956). Zen Buddhism: selected writings of DT Suzuki. Anchor Books.
University of Oxford. (2023, January 2). Plagiarism. https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism
Watts, A. (1960). This is it, and other essays on Zen and spiritual experience. Vintage.
One thought on “Was Bruce Lee a Plagiarist?”
As Tom said many years ago:
The Tao of Jeet Kune Do… has lined the pockets of a few at the expense of misleading countless martial artists of all ages and levels of proficiency. Hopefully the day will come when the great masters whose writings are contained in The Tao of Jeet Kune Do will be honored, both in print and monetarily, for their work that has for too many years been wrongly and purposely credited to Bruce Lee.