Is Bruce Lee the world’s most famous fencer? The answer is actually, astonishingly yes!
Bruce Lee movies are absolutely my favorite martial arts movies of all time (and I love all martial arts movies). Who doesn’t love the distinctive style and amazing technique? Not to mention the jokes – Bruce Lee was a funny guy! This article was inspired by Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday, which would have been this past week on November 27th.
Lee was much more than a movie star, he was a master martial artist who changed the shape of modern combat sports. The biggest reason that he created that change was because of his creativity and his willingness to draw inspiration from outside of the box sources. One of the big sources that he drew inspiration from was the art of fencing.
First off, a bit of background. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco to a Chinese father and a half Chinese, half German mother, but moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was just three months old. He was raised there until his late teen years. In Hong Kong, Lee was a champion cha-cha dancer (yes, that’s completely the truth) before he began studying Wing Chun with legendary master Yip Man. Yip Man’s story itself is fantastic, you can learn all about it in the movie named after him starring Donnie Yen. Lee eventually studied privately with Yip Man as the rest of the Wing Chun wouldn’t train with him due to his mixed ancestry. However his skill was already evident.
He moved back to the US when he was 18 years old, where he became a champion
Peter Lee – A Fencing Champion
Lee came from a family who all participated in combat arts. His older brother Edward was a consummate boxer who led the boxing program at the St. Francis Xavier school in Hong Kong. And his other older brother, Peter, was a champion fencer in epee and foil.
Peter was a champion fencer at La Salle College in Hong Kong (where Bruce would attend but then get expelled from for fighting). According to the Sons of La Salle history book “Peter was arguably one of the all-time greatest fencers of our school.” In March of 1958, Peter won the top prize at the school’s first interschool tournament. Peter then went on to the Colony Championship and won the top prize there as well (remember that Hong Kong at this time was a British Colony).
He represented La Salle as the “Champion at Arms” at many competitions, including the Commonwealth Games in Wales in 1958. At those games, Peter participated in three events: Individual Foil, Team Epee and Individual Epee. Unfortunately he didn’t place in any of them, but then remember that this was his first international competition. All of the top prizes there went to fencers from Britain. This was also the first time that Hong Kong had ever sent a fencing team to the games.
Peter’s Influence on Bruce Lee
These two brothers were close. Very close. They went to the same school together, La Salle, but had also spent their childhood in Hong Kong together, thick as thieves. There are lots of great stories about the scrapes that they got into together as children, including one in which their younger brother Robert was bullied by a pack of older boys who were fought off by Peter and Bruce.
Lee developed a keen interest in Peter’s fencing. In fact, Peter taught Bruce a good bit of epee and foil at home. Lee was most fascinated with the footwork that he saw in fencing, and sought to improve his own fighting by incorporating that footwork into his martial arts.
Peter introduced Bruce to the writings of famous fencing master Aldo Nadi, whose books he studied in depth. Please be clear that the following picture is absolutely fake (the two never met), but wow it’s fun.
Fencing Without a Sword
Bruce Lee didn’t just practice the Wing Chun that he learned from Yip Man, he actually created his own style of martial arts. That style, known as Jeet Kune Do is still widely practiced and has grown tremendously since his death.
The three pillars of Jeet Kune Do are:
- Wing Chun
Yes! Fencing is one of the central pillars of Bruce Lee’s style of martial arts!
Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s top student and the man who led the Jeet Kune Do after Lee’s early death, speaks frankly and candidly about the influence of fencing on Jeet Kune Do martial arts and on Lee’s personal style. Bruce’s son Brandon Lee also spoke at length about his father’s influence from fencing. Bruce Lee’s own book about fighting, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, references four texts – one boxing and three fencing. You can also find references to his fencing influence at the Bruce Lee Foundation.
Jeet Kune Do incorporates heavy fencing elements in the areas of stance, footwork, defense and attack. In fact Bruce Lee himself described his style of martial arts as “fencing without a sword” in his text the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. The ready position in Jeet Kune Do is even called “On Guard,” though that’s hardly the only fencing nomenclature that Bruce Lee uses – in his creation of Jeet Kune Do he relies heavily on fencing terminology, as you’ll see in a moment.
Here are a few points that Bruce Lee took from fencing and incorporated into his martial arts style:
- strong side forward – just as in fencing
- centered and slightly forward – similar to boxing as well
- slightly raised back heel – this he got from Aldo Nadi
- the fleche – to explode forward with a finger whip
- the ballestra – to explode forward with a kick
- riposte – finishing the movement (a signature of Bruce Lee’s fighting)
- distance – Wing Chun involves close quarters fighting, but Lee departed from that thanks to fencing, in which the distance between fighters is more precisely controlled because of the use of a weapon
- hand moves before foot – taken directly from fencing. In kung fu they move together
- set up and interception – from the works of Aldo Nadi
- parry – taken directly from fencing but of course executed without a sword and including simple parry, opposition parry, “beat” parry and compound parry.
- zone of defense – divided into four quadrants. Lee even uses the traditional fencing terms for these areas: octave, septime, sixte, and quarte.
- subtle finger play – to learn striking movements and borrowed from fencing
- line of engagement – when attacking an opponent
- feinting – directly from fencing
- thrusts – terminology taken directly from fencing but used with the fist instead of the sword
- attack by drawing – using an “invitation” to the opponent and classic to Lee’s movies
There’s so much more than just these points, this is really just a sample! To get a more in depth explanation of how fencing is incorporated into Jeet Kune Do, click on this amazing breakdown by Trevor Haines.
These fencing techniques as incorporated by Bruce Lee are a signature reason that his movie fighting style is so distinctive, and so successful. You can see these fencing moves in his films – you just have to look! One thing that gets me every time is wondering if we might not have seen him with a foil or an epee sometime down the road had he not died so tragically at the age of 32 from an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. But in any case he was a powerful, inspirational and innovative fighter. We once again wish him a happy birthday!
How amazing is it that the most famous fighter in history practiced fencing? Not only did he practice fencing, he understood fencing and incorporated it into his legacy. Next time you click on a Bruce Lee movie, watch closely to see him “fencing without a sword.” Amazing!