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Not a good century for the Chinese. After dominating much of the past two millenniums in science and philosophy, they’ve spent the past 100 years being invaded, split apart and patronizingly lectured by the West. And, let’s face it, this communism thing isn’t working out either.

But in 1959 a short, skinny, bespectacled 18-year-old kid from Hong Kong traveled to America and declared himself to be John Wayne, James Dean, Charles Atlas and the guy who kicked your butt in junior high. In an America where the Chinese were still stereotyped as meek house servants and railroad workers, Bruce Lee was all steely sinew, threatening stare and cocky, pointed finger a Clark Kent who didn’t need to change outfits. He was the redeemer, not only for the Chinese but for all the geeks and dorks and pimpled teenage masses that washed up at the theaters to see his action movies. He was David, with spin-kicks and flying leaps more captivating than any slingshot.

He is the patron saint of the cult of the body: the almost mystical belief that we have the power to overcome adversity if only we submit to the right combinations of exercise, diet, meditation and weight training; that by force of will, we can sculpt ourselves into demigods. The century began with a crazy burst of that philosophy. In 1900 the Boxer rebels of China who attacked the Western embassies in Beijing thought that martial-arts training made them immune to bullets. It didn’t. But a related fanaticism on this side of sanity exists today: the belief that the body can be primed for killer perfection and immortal endurance.

Lee never looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger or achieved immortality. He died at 32 under a cloud of controversy, in his mistress’s home, of a brain edema, which an autopsy said was caused by a strange reaction to a prescription painkiller called Equagesic. At that point, he had starred in only three released movies, one of which was unwatchably bad, the other two of which were watchably bad. Although he was a popular movie star in Asia, his New York Times obit ran only eight sentences, one of which read “Vincent Canby, the film critic of the New York Times, said that movies like Fists of Fury make ‘the worst Italian western look like the most solemn and noble achievements of the early Soviet Cinema.’”

What Canby missed is that it’s the moments between the plot points that are worth watching. It was the ballet of precision violence that flew off the screen; every combination you can create in Mortal Kombat can be found in a Lee movie. And even with all the special-effects money that went into “The Matrix,” no one could make violence as beautiful as Lee’s. He had a cockiness that passed for charisma. And when he whooped like a crane, jumped in the air and simultaneously kicked two bad guys into unconsciousness, all while punching out two others mostly offscreen, you knew the real Lee could do that too.

He spent his life turning his small body into a large weapon. Born sickly in a San Francisco hospital (his father, a Hong Kong opera singer, was on tour there), he would be burdened with two stigmas that don’t become an action hero: an undescended testicle and a female name, Li Jun Fan, which his mother gave him to ward off the evil spirits out to snatch valuable male children. She even pierced one of his ears, because evil spirits always fall for the pierced-ear trick.

Lee quickly became obsessed with martial arts and body building and not much else. As a child actor back in Hong Kong, Lee appeared in 20 movies and rarely in school. He was part of a small gang that was big enough to cause his mother to ship him to America before his 18th birthday so he could claim his dual-citizenship and avoid winding up in jail.

Boarding at a family friend’s Chinese restaurant in Seattle, Lee got a job teaching the Wing Chun style of martial arts that he had learned in Hong Kong. In 1964, at a tournament in Long Beach, Calif. the first major American demonstration of kung fu Lee, an unknown, ripped through black belt Dan Inosanto so quickly that Inosanto asked to be his student.

Shortly after, Lee landed his first U.S. show-biz role: Kato in The Green Hornet, a 1966-67 TV superhero drama from the creators of Batman. With this minor celebrity, he attracted students like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a martial art he called Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist.” Living in L.A., he became the vanguard on all things ’70s. He was a physical-fitness freak: running, lifting weights and experimenting with isometrics and electrical impulses meant to stimulate his muscles while he slept. He took vitamins, ginseng, royal jelly, steroids and even liquid steaks. A rebel, he flouted the Boxer-era tradition of not teaching kung fu to Westerners even as he hippily railed against the robotic exercises of other martial arts that prevented self-expressive violence. One of his admonitions: “Research your own experiences for the truth. Absorb what is useful…Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual…is more important than any style or system.” When he died, doctors found traces of marijuana in his body. They could have saved some money on the autopsy and just read those words.

Despite his readiness to embrace American individuality and culture, Lee couldn’t get Hollywood to embrace him, so he returned to Hong Kong to make films. In these films, Lee chose to represent the little guy, though he was a very cocky little guy. And so, in his movies, he’d fight for the Chinese against the invading Japanese or the small-town family against the city-living drug dealers. There were, for some reason, usually about 100 of these enemies, but they mostly died as soon as he punched them in the face. The plots were uniform: Lee makes a vow not to fight; people close to Lee are exploited and killed; Lee kills lots of people in retaliation; Lee turns himself in for punishment.

The films set box-office records in Asia, and so Hollywood finally gave him the American action movie he longed to make. But Lee died a month before the release of his first U.S. film, Enter the Dragon. The movie would make more than $200 million, and college kids would pin Lee posters next to Che Guevara’s. In the end, Lee could only exist young and in the movies. Briefly, he burst out against greater powers before giving himself over to the authorities. A star turn in a century not good for the Chinese. ~ Joel Stein is a columnist and staff writer for TIME magazine

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