The man who was Mao's hero

14:40, December 17, 2010      

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The Bruce Lee legend never fades but it might surprise some to learn that among his legion of fans was Chairman Mao, who called him a hero.

Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Bruce Lee the martial arts legend (1940-1973) both declared - in their unique ways - that the Chinese people had "stood up".

Mao made this proclamation on the founding of the People's Republic of China, on Oct 1, 1949, Lee said it in a cinematic way that needed no translation when he kicked and smashed a wooden panel bearing the words: "Chinese and dogs not allowed", one of the iconic scenes steeped in fiery nationalism from Fist of Fury.

The words are supposedly from notices at the entrance of public parks in colonial Shanghai, and have come to symbolize the country's humiliation.

It turns out the Great Helmsman was a huge fan of the kungfu legend.

By 1974, Mao was diagnosed with a cataract and was advised by his doctors to refrain from reading. Thus he turned to movies. After a heavy dose of foreign biopics, such as those on Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon, he moved on to Hong Kong fare.

The task of collecting these films fell to Liu Qingtang, then deputy minister of the Ministry of Culture, a ballet dancer who shot to prominence by affiliating himself with Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) and starring in her "model repertory".

At that time there were no cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland. Liu flew down to Guangdong and sought the help of the local authority, but it had no recourse either. Finally, the Hong Kong bureau chief of Xinhua News Agency was summoned. He knew an attorney who was a friend of Sir Run Run Shaw, Hong Kong's movie mogul at the time.

Shaw was reluctant at first, it was said, fearing his films would be the target of mainland political campaigns. He relented, however, without knowing exactly who would be watching the movies. Among the prints on loan were three films starring Lee, then totally unknown to most mainlanders due to China's self-imposed isolation.

Reeve Wong, a noted film critic from Hong Kong, who shared the details with me, says there is one inaccuracy in the above account: Lee's main body of work was by Golden Harvest, a competitor of Shaw's studio. Wong says even so, Liu Qingtang insisted it was Shaw who loaned the movies. Here, Wong reasons that it could be a slip of the tongue, or Shaw's name stood for all the people who loaned films, because he had the biggest name.

Liu, who sat with Mao during the screenings, said he watched The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon. Mao would burst into eulogies when he got excited.

While watching Fist of Fury for the first time, Mao dissolved in tears, Liu recalled, and said "Bruce Lee is a hero!" Mao watched the film twice more. Liu said he did not know of any other movie that Mao viewed three times.

When it came time to ship the prints back to Hong Kong, nobody dared do so lest Mao got another urge to watch them. Only after he was terminally ill were two of the movies returned.

Think of it, had Mao publicized his approbation, Lee would have instantly become an exalted figure like Lei Feng, the good Samaritan every Chinese student was encouraged to imitate.

But Lee did not need Mao's help. He became more than just a national hero, transcending geopolitical boundaries. As Mao correctly observed, Lee's movies portray the fight between good and evil and Lee invariably embodied the good. That's something everyone can relate to.
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