By Phil Archbold
Whenever kung fu comes up in conversation, the movies of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are inevitably discussed, but in his native China, Jet Li is held in equally high regard.
Born Li Lian Jie on April 26, 1963, the Beijing-native began training aged 8 after his gym teacher put him in touch with legendary Wushu master Wu Bin. He wasn’t a “prodigy” student, however; in fact, becoming such an accomplished fighter was a real struggle.
“It was my coach Wu Bin who helped me steer clear of all obstacles and encouraged me never to give up,” Li said (via Kung Fu Magazine).
“His admonitions and his patience in guiding me along will always remain in my heart of hearts.” Li lost his dad when he was a toddler, and Wu Bin is said to have become a father figure over the years, guiding him to greatness along the way. He made the national Wushu team and
won several championships, but Li decided to retire at 17 to concentrate on a career in the movies.
He kicked some serious ass in his 1982 debut feature Shaolin Temple, and went on to make a name for himself overseas (The Guardian called him “the Fred Astaire of kung fu”), but today Li is more of a lover than a fighter.
His passion is now in philanthropy, though he’s been in need of some help himself over the years. From near-death experiences to sham marriages, this is the untold truth of Jet Li.
He was a pre-teen street performer
In 1973, the legendary Bruce Lee passed away under mysterious circumstances , leaving China, America, and the rest of the movie-loving world in shock. The following year, Li (just 11 years old at the time) was doing a kung fu demonstration in Hong Kong when he was approached by a movie producer and asked how he felt about becoming the next Bruce Lee. Speaking to TalkAsia (via CNN ) in 2003, Li (whose English wasn’t quite as accomplished back then) recalled the encounter.
“When movie studio producer talk to me, ‘Hi, little kid, when you grow up, you want to become action star?'” Li said. “I say, ‘Okay, why not!’ So since then, every year the producer came to me to look at me. Says, ‘Okay, you are still a little boy, can’t make movie. I want to wait [for] you.'”
He greatly admired Lee, but as a young boy he couldn’t imagine that his name would ever be mentioned in the same breath.
“I remember I found him very talented, a very talented actor and martial artist,” Li added. “But I don’t know how to make movie, I don’t know how to become this, I didn’t think of it that deep. I was just 11.”
Li had turned 17 by the time the producer decided he was ready to make his debut feature film. He was cast in Shaolin Temple, the first in a series of movies that established him as a star in China.
President Nixon asked him to be his bodyguard
1974 turned out to be quite the eventful year for Li. Not only did the 11-year-old find himself on the watchlist of Chinese movie studios, he also got to perform in front of the U.S. president. Li and the Chinese national Wushu team were invited to the White House, where they put on a show for Richard Nixon, whose time in the Oval Office would soon come to an end because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Nixon wasn’t very popular at the time, and after he saw what Li could do, he apparently offered him the job of protecting him.
According to We Are The Mighty , the president jokingly (we assume, at least) asked if Li would consider becoming his personal muscle once he was old enough to work. “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive,” Nixon reportedly said. “How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?” Li’s extremely loyal reply reportedly left those in attendance stunned. “No, I don’t want to protect any individual,” he said. “When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!”
The silence that fell over the room was broken by then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. “Heavens, such a young boy and he already speaks like a diplomat,” Kissinger quipped. A generation of hostility between China and the U.S. seemed to be coming to an end, but some foul play is said to have taken place on the Chinese Wushu team’s tour of America.
He thinks the U.S. government bugged his hotel room
During his candid 2003 interview with
TalkAsia (via CNN), Li was asked if there was any truth to the rumors that his hotel room had been bugged during his first visit to the United States, and his answer was shocking. The Nixon administration were found to have spied on their political rivals using hidden mics, and the Chinese government were apparently very wary about sending the Wushu team on a tour of America, knowing that they could potentially be targeted for information. They were so wary, in fact, that they warned the traveling team members to be careful about what they said at all times, including while they were in the privacy of their hotel rooms.
“It’s true,” Li confirmed when asked about the bugging. “At that time, China and America just started [a] relationship between the two countries. It is so funny! When I went there I wanted to try [to see if] they have a bug or not. So in New York, a big hotel, I talked to the mirrors.” Li claims that he said out loud that he would really like some chocolate and ice cream. To his surprise (and amusement), the sweet treats he wished for in his private quarters miraculously materialized.
“So, next day, I opened the door,” he continued. “Chocolates, ice cream, bananas — everything is on my table!” Li also discussed the incident when he returned to the States to promote his
disappointing English language sci-fi actioner The One in 2001.
He married his first wife out of duty, not love
Li has four daughters — two with his ex-wife, Huang Qiuyan , and two with his current wife, Nina Li Chi. The action star and Chi (a former Miss Asia) will be celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in 2019, and they appear to be as happy as ever. Li has managed to remain good friends with his first wife, despite the fact that he openly admitted he only married her out of a sense of duty.
Li and Qiuyan (a teammate from the Chinese national Wushu side who also became a martial arts actor) had known each other from childhood. Their long friendship took an unexpected turn when they were filming a movie called Martial Arts of Shaolin together. Li broke his leg on set, and he was blown away by the level of support his co-star gave him. She remained by his side as he returned to full health, at which point Li felt it was only right to propose. Plus, she was loaded.
“My family was poor, her family was well-off,” Li explained (via ContactMusic ). “She often took care of me. That’s how it happened. I didn’t know what love was. In terms of how much emotion each person devoted, she maybe gave 90 percent or 80 percent. At most I gave… I still haven’t figured out. When we parted, we were really like friends.” According to
QQ (via Jayne Stars), Li gave Qiuyan $50,000 as a gift when she remarried in 2005.
He was almost killed in the 2004 tsunami
The devastation caused by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 cannot be understated. On December 26, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake shook the seabed off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, sending 40-foot waves hurtling towards land. In the end, a staggering 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 different countries, one of which was the Maldives. Li and his family were vacationing on one of the 26 ring-shaped atolls that make up the South Asian republic when the tsunami struck, and they had a very lucky escape.
“The waves came really quickly and formed swirls,” Li explained during a Hong Kong fundraiser (via SantaBanta). “I carried my daughters and pulled my maid and ran. I’d only walked three steps when I realized that the water had already come up to my waist.” In a matter of seconds, the idyllic setting turned into something from a nightmare. “When I looked back, everything I saw minutes ago was gone,” Li continued. “Everything was surrounded by the ocean. The houses collapsed. I continued to run but the water was already up to my mouth.”
Luckily, Li, his family and his maid all survived to tell the tale, which the actor apparently intends to do. In 2017, reports suggested that he was planning to star in a film about the tsunami, a China-Indonesia co-production. The story of fellow survivor Maria Belon and her incredibly resilient family was given the
big-screen treatment in 2012’s The Impossible.
The experience changed his life
Surviving the tsunami changed Li’s outlook on life. The actor had an epiphany following the disaster, deciding that he wanted to dedicate himself to philanthropy after being “deeply moved” by the treatment he and his family received from total strangers. If it weren’t for the actions of four brave men who swam to Li’s aid after he screamed for help, his two youngest daughters would have likely drowned.
“The experience of surviving the chaos and witnessing the devastation caused by this natural disaster has changed me forever,” he told Alliance . “During the recovery period in the Maldives, I was deeply moved to see that everyone who was able to help willingly pitched in. Never once did anyone ask ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What nationality are you?’ I wondered: was it possible to keep that spirit alive and transcend traditional boundaries to help humanity at large?”
To satisfy his curiosity, Li set up his own foundation. “I realized that all the money and power in the world would not have saved me from the water,” he said in a detailed piece for Newsweek . “That night I decided that I couldn’t wait until I was retired; I had to do something right away.” The whole ordeal put life into perspective for him. “I had spent the first 41 years of my life thinking about Jet Li first, wanting to prove I was special, wanting to prove I was a star.”
Aaliyah’s death hit him hard
Li’s first appearance in a Hollywood movie was as the villain in 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 , but he wasn’t used to playing a bad guy, especially one that kicks ladies in the face . He got his chance to play the hero two years later when he was cast as the male lead in 2000’s
Romeo Must Die , starring opposite
Aaliyah . Like Li, the R&B singer-turned-actress was trying to earn her stripes in Tinseltown. Sadly, she died before she really got the chance to establish herself.
On August 25, 2001, the 22-year-old boarded a small plane headed to Miami. The aircraft would never reach its destination. Aaliyah and several staffers from her record label (who had been with her in the Bahamas filming a video for her song “Rock the Boat”) perished when the plane crashed. The pilot reportedly warned Aaliyah and her party that the small aircraft was dangerously overloaded, but he apparently relented and took off anyway, possibly with a
faulty engine. For those that knew Aaliyah, the circumstances took second place to the grief.
When Li returned to Vancouver (where
Romeo was filmed) for the movie Rogue , he found being back there hard. “I have some memories of this very beautiful city but it still makes me think about Aaliyah,” he told IGN. “We worked together here for a few months. She was such a talented girl and some locations when you pass by every day, you still think about her.”
He turned down a role in The Matrix
Romeo Must Die didn’t blow the critics away (it only managed 33 percent on the (Tomatometer ), but Li was considered one of the highlights. The box office numbers were a little more convincing. The film managed to rake in $91 million worldwide from a budget of $25 million, which was seen as a pretty decent haul at the time. All things considered it was a success for Li, who felt so comfortable with his future prospects that he turned down a role in the Matrix sequels.
Speaking to TalkAsia (via CNN ), the star explained that he had to make a choice between The Matrix (he was reportedly offered the part of Seraph ) and Hero . “Sometimes you get something and sometimes you lose something,” Li said.
He claimed to be a fan of the Wachowskis, but he wasn’t a fan of what the sibling directors did to the action genre. “After The Matrix , everybody do action movie with people fighting while flying around,” Li complained. “Suddenly everyone can fight. Man can do, girl can do, little boy can do, even cartoon can do the same thing. In this movie, everyone really can do.”
His decision to favor Hero over The Matrix sequels paid off, as the Chinese
wuxia film won wide approval. “With death-defying action sequences and epic historic sweep, Hero offers everything a martial arts fan could ask for,” Rotten Tomatoes critics concluded. The movie was Certified Fresh with a score of 95 percent.
He renounced his American citizenship
After his breakthrough in America, Li found himself spending more and more time in the States. He decided that it made sense to apply for American citizenship, which he was duly granted, but he renounced both his American and Chinese citizenship in 2009 in order to move to Singapore, which doesn’t allow dual nationals. The actor reportedly spent around $15 million on a swanky three-floor property and moved his family to the tax-friendly island, following in the footsteps of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and fellow martial arts movie legend Jackie Chan.
The fact that he likely pays half the amount of tax he would be paying in the States was surely a factor, but according to Nomad Capitalist, Singapore’s excellent education system also influenced Li’s decision. But how did the people of China (the ones he swore allegiance to while a guest at the White House) take the news? Traditionally, Chinese celebrities that ditch the homeland for Singapore are dubbed traitors and lose major credit (actress Gong Li was pilloried online when she became a Singaporean in 2008), though this didn’t happen with Li.
According to the South China Morning Post, polls revealed that only half of the Chinese citizens asked about Li leaving China objected to it, with one fan even suggesting that they would like to do the same. “It’s [his] right to live where [he] wants to,” the blogger wrote. “If I could, I will follow suit. [Singapore’s] passport is better.”
Is his health failing?
Rumors that Li was in grave health spread like wildfire in 2018 after a photo of the actor looking old and worryingly frail went viral, forcing his manager to respond. Steven Chasman told USA
Today that the story was “much ado about nothing” and Li was simply in a bad light when he posed for a quick snap with a fan. “It’s one picture and people are making these interpretations from it,”
Chasman said. “If you took a picture [of] me at the wrong angle and wrong time of the day, I could look frail as well.”
Fans were quick to blame Li’s grave new look on his hyperthyroidism, a condition that makes the thyroid gland produce too many hormones.
He was diagnosed in 2010, and while he’s been able to keep it under control using medication, his hyperthyroidism has often been a cause for concern among fans.
“The web has been abuzz with news that I’m going to be wheelchair-bound,” Li said in 2016 (via The Straits Times ). “Even my friends are concerned and are asking how I am.”
The action star joked that a wheelchair company had been spreading the rumors to boost sales and reassured fans that he was a-okay. “There is nothing to worry about my health,” he said.
Li looked capable as ever in behind-the-scenes footage from a 2017 short film, and Disney is clearly happy with his health, as the Mouse House has cast him in its upcoming live-action remake of Mulan.