The Evolution of Jeet Kune Do

by Burton Richardson April 26, 2006

Bruce Lee. He truly was a phenomenon. Few people have achieved so much in so little time. His contributions to the martial arts world last to this day, over thirty years after his untimely death. What allowed this small Asian man, transplanted in the USA, to become so influential? One vitally important factor was his quest for evolution in his personal life and in his expression of the martial arts. Just by looking at how his Jeet Kune Do evolved will give insights into his brilliant attitude toward the self-improvement we all seek. Lee began his martial arts studies in Hong Kong as a teenager under the tutelage of the legendary Yip Man. He studied the art of Wing Chun for many years, and became known for his effectiveness with the art. He prevailed in many “rooftop” encounters where young men would gather to test out the combat skills they were learning. Practitioners of various systems would fight to prove that their particular style was best. Bruce Lee found that the Wing Chun he was learning worked very well.Lee moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. He majored in philosophy, a discipline that is entwined with his evolution of the art. The mental portion of JKD is actually more important than the physical, because it was the mental understanding and quest for truth that forced the physical art to keep evolving. In Seattle, Lee was able to interact with martial artists of various styles. He found that as effective as his Wing Chun was, it had been designed for close quarter combat. He felt that this was a limitation that he needed to overcome, so he began to add new elements to his art. Over time, this led Lee to call his art Jun Fan Gung Fu. (Lee Jun Fan was his Chinese name.) He also began to add some ground fighting to his art by studying Judo. Another influence was that Lee started teaching publicly. He opened a school and was able to interact with even more people of various backgrounds. His school continued until 1963. Lee married Linda Emery and was ready to move on. He left the school in the capable hands of Taky Kimura and left the state. His new home would change Lee’s understanding of the art and cause a major evolution. Lee and his new bride moved to Oakland, California, staying at the house of student and kung fu practitioner James Lee. Oakland is near San Francisco. The San Francisco area is known for having a large Chinatown, along with a very large population of people of Chinese heritage. Lee decided to open a school in Oakland with James Lee. The two decided that they would break from tradition and teach the art to non-Chinese. Bruce Lee believed that anyone who was sincere should be allowed to train. At the same time, Lee decided to teach his own style, thinking that this would help avoid traditional rivalries between many of the established styles. He was wrong. Not long after his school was opened, Lee received a visit from a Gung Fu Master. This master arrived with a group of his followers with a written ultimatum. The master wanted to fight the young Lee, and if Lee lost the fight he would have to either close the school or stop teaching Caucasians. The master seemed surprised when Lee immediately accepted the challenge, rather than backing down. The master then attempted to set forth rules for the bout, but Lee would hear none of it. He made it clear that if someone comes into his school and issues a challenge, then it is going to be a no-rules fight. The fight started, and after a few minutes Lee began to overwhelm his opponent. The master turned and ran. Lee chased him and hit him repeatedly in the back of the head with little effect. He finally grabbed him and dragged the master to the ground where he unleashed a barrage of blows, pummeling his foe into submission. For some, this victory over a skillful master would have been a great testament to their style. For Bruce Lee, it was an incentive to make radical improvements to his methods. Lee analyzed the fight over and over again. While the fight only lasted a few minutes, Lee felt that he should have won in a matter of seconds. The structure of the master’s style allowed him to counter many of Lee’s attacks. Instead of being open to other routes of attack, Lee stuck to his own style without success. When he finally did start to get through the master’s defense, and the master ran away, Lee again stuck to his striking style and punched ineffectively to the back of the head. He finally snapped out of his style and merely grabbed the fleeing opponent and flung him to the ground. Lee realized that he had to go outside of his style to adapt to the situation. According to many close to Lee, this fight was the end of Jun Fan Gung Fu and the beginning of the liberating expression Lee would later call Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee’s philosophy became free, eschewing style in favor of being able to adapt to any situation. He learned that if you say, “I do THIS style” that means that you don’t do all the other methods that are available. That limits the fighter to one particular method. If you run up against an opponent who can counter your style, you have no other options. Lee wanted his students to be free from the bondage of any particular style, and eventually, after years of training, just express their own way of fighting. Lee’s next large evolution happened after he moved to Los Angeles. Southern California was a hotbed of martial arts activity, with many top stylists. Lee was able to interact with many of the very best. This is where he met future protege’ Dan Inosanto. Inosanto was able to learn under the tutelage of Lee, and Lee could become exposed to portions of the Filipino martial arts. When Lee first started teaching in Los Angeles, he emphasized a great deal of hand trapping along with the sensitivity drill Chi Sao from Wing Chun. After becoming proficient in these methods, Lee introduced his kickboxing methods to the students. Later, Lee decided to start students off with kickboxing first. Lee would have older students spar with newer students and he discovered an interesting trend. Consistently, a student with a few months of kickboxing was able to beat a student with much more experience in trapping, but with little kickboxing experience. This made Lee understand even further his idea that the way to learn how to fight is to practice actual fighting. Lee said “In sparring you should wear suitable protective equipment and go all out. Then you can truly learn the correct timing and distance for the delivery of kicks, punches, etc.” JKD was really a combat art, based upon results in sparring rather than in memorization of techniques. To quote Lee again, “It is not how much fixed knowledge one has accumulated; rather it is what one can apply alively that counts.” Lee continued on his path of self-improvement as he became involved in the movie industry. He moved farther and farther away from the confines of drills. Taky Kimura stated that Lee called him and told him that “Chi sao is out.” Dan Inosanto said that the last time they sparred, shortly before Lee’s death, that Lee did not even engage in close range. He just moved around the outside and hit at will, setting up precise shots. With the unfortunate passing of Lee, JKD lost its founder. But fortunately, others carried on the evolution, especially Dan Inosanto. Inosanto has worked at an incredible pace to study every martial art available to him. He has been able to open doors to many arts that would probably have not been seen publicly if it weren’t for his influence. Because of that, JKD practitioners have more to choose from when working toward a personal expression of the arts. Arts such as Muay Thai, Filipino Kali, Indonesian Pentjak Silat, and Thai Krabi Krabong have been made available through Dan Inosanto’s work. And that is just to name a few. The latest great influence has been due to the emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting competitions. The usefulness of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling, and free style wrestling are now apparent. These competitions have been proving grounds for techniques, as they are very hard fighting sessions where only the best techniques can be used. There has been a great evolution in the sport, and many modern JKD practitioners use these lessons to further improve their expression. The most current evolution of JKD is to take all of the old methods, test it in an MMA environment, and then add the street tactics that aren’t allowed in the ring sport. This is true to Bruce Lee’s philosophy of training for a real no holds barred fight where everything is allowed. Certain techniques that are not so useful in the ring become very effective when street tactics, such as hair pulling, groin strikes, and eye gouges are allowed. Techniques, postures, and positions must be changed in order to defend against biting and other such attacks. Since “anything goes” in the street, the JKD fighter must be ready for anything. This is beyond style. In the end, you simply become yourself, using whatever you must to win. To quote Lee, “In primary freedom one utilizes all ways and is bound by none, and likewise uses any technique or means which serves its end. Efficiency is anything that scores.” This is the essence of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.


Burton Richardson
Burton Richardson

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