Li Lian-Jie (Jet Li) was born
in Beijing, China on April 26, 1963. He began to learn the fighting art of
wu shu when he was eight. Because his father passed away when he was just
two, Jet’s family consisted of his mother, two older sisters and two older
brothers. He was the youngest. He was the smallest, so his mother never
allowed him to go swimming or ride a bicycle. Any risky activity -- any kind
of exercise that was even slightly dangerous -- was off-limits. While kids
his age were out playing in the street, this docile little boy stayed
inside. Even after Jet started going to school, he didn't know how to ride a
bicycle. Everybody else was riding around, and he didn't learn until he was
14 or 15! Swimming, ice skating...these were all things that the other kids
could do, but not Jet. His mother had said no, and he would never try it
behind her back.
Jet Li started training in wushu during the summer of 1971. School had just
adjourned for the one-month vacation and the authorities didn't want kids to
run around on the streets because they had nothing to do. So they began to
send the kids to what's now called the Beijing Sports and Exercise School.
Students from all the primary schools in the area--there must have been 15
or so in that district alone--were sent there for a month of sports summer
school. They divided the kids up randomly: 1st grade/class 1 was assigned to
gymnastics; 1st grade/class 2 learned swimming, 1st grade/class 3 played
soccer, 1st grade/class 4 started learning wushu, etc. Somehow Jet got
assigned to the wushu class. He had no idea what wushu was--none of them
did--but if the teacher told them to practice it, they had to practice it!
When school started again in the fall, almost all of the 1000 kids who had
been learning wushu were "fired." That is, they were told that they didn't
have to come back. For them, it was merely a fun summer experience that had
come to an end. About 20 of them, Jet included, were told that they were to
come back every afternoon after school to continue training. It became
something of a point of pride for schools to boast how many kids had been
chosen from their ranks. There were five or six from his school alone, but
of them, Jet was the only first-grader. Being selected out of a thousand
made a kid rather famous in his class. Everybody else might have been
rejected, but that person was special!
After the novelty wore off, Jet began to realize that all of his classmates
got to go home and play, but he had to go to another school for another
gruelling two hours of lessons. He then began to rethink the glory of being
Soon, the training got more and more rigorous. When
wintertime came, they had no choice but to practice outside, because they
had no indoor facilities. Beijing's winters are very cold, and the
children’s hands hurt constantly. Doing handslaps was a no-win proposition:
if a student didn't slap hard enough to make a sound, he'd get scolded. If
he did make a sound, it stung like mad!
A year passed. Jet turned nine years old and began preparing to attend his
first competition. Actually, it was the first national wushu competition to
be held in China since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's. Technically
speaking, since there would be no official placings or prizes, it wasn't
even a standard competition--more like a grand demonstration of forms. Only
a single award would be issued: the best performer was to be recognized for
"Excellence." In spite of the lack of prizes, the best athletes from all
over China were coming to perform.
The competition was to be held in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province.
It was to be the first time Jet had ever left home--the first time in his
life he had ventured out of Beijing. He was very excited about the prospect
of riding the train. His mother, however, was heartsick at the thought of
her baby going so far away from home. The morning that he was set to leave,
she started weeping. He felt awful and offered not to go. But that wasn't
possible either, so he went to Jinan and made a great effort. He ended up
winning the award for Excellence.
After winning his first national competition, Jet was no longer required to
attend school at all -- not even in the mornings! They asked him to move
into the dormitory at the sports school. From that point on, he lived and
trained there all week. He went home on Saturday, and returned to the dorms
Sunday night. On Monday morning, the training would begin all over again.
The only word Jet can use to describe his training is "bitter." It was
exceptionally harsh. There were about 13 students all trained under one
coach. Every morning at 6 a.m., they would be awakened by a very loud bell.
Their workouts usually lasted 8 hours a day. It was tough.
Even if a student had an accident it would not stop his training.
Complaining about an injury would cause the coach to assign him some new
hellacious set of exercises that made him wish he'd never spoken up in the
first place. Say, for example, a student told him that he'd hurt his arm --
could he take a break from practice?
"Hmm," he would say. "You're right. You shouldn't overwork your arm. Why
don't you work on leg exercises instead?" Two thousand kicks, or maybe five
thousand stances. Whatever reason one came up with to shirk training, the
coach was ready with ten alternatives to counter him. Complaining only made
things worse and most of the trainees vowed to keep their mouths shut in the
One Monday, Jet returned to the school -- limping badly as he walked. Seeing
the state of his leg, the coach set him to practicing upper-body exercises.
Jet just stood there, facing the mirror, punching away dutifully. It just so
happened that another instructor was visiting the class that day. He noticed
him in the corner and stopped by to ask him why he wasn't training with the
others. When he saw the big swollen “ham hock” that was Jet’s foot, the
other instructor took his coach aside and said, "Maybe you should let this
kid go to the hospital. This might be serious." When the X-rays came back,
they showed that the bone had cracked clear through. Jet had been practicing
on a broken foot for two days -- because he had been too scared to bring it
up to anybody! That would count as his first major injury.
He was outfitted with a big plaster cast that pretty much immobilized him
from the waist down. For the next few weeks, an older classmate would carry
Jet on piggyback to the field every day. He would set him down, and he'd
stand there practicing arm movements all day. One thousand, two thousand...
No one was allowed to leave the training grounds -- that was the rule! When
practice ended, the classmate would hoist Jet onto his back and carry him
back to the dorms. That's how it was for several weeks as his leg healed.
In 1974, Jet was chosen for another special training course. Little did he
know that the experience would eventually start changing the way he saw the
world. The Chinese government was implementing a program to identify the
finest young wushu athletes in the country. The process of selection took
several months. A group of the students would train together for a while,
and then the coaches would sift and screen out those who weren't good
enough. This process was repeated over and over again, until they were
satisfied with the team they had created. Thirty of them made the final cut.
Their first big assignment would be to represent China (and
her 20 million wushu practitioners) on a goodwill tour of the United States.
As you can imagine, it was a very significant visit. Sino-U.S. relations
were still very touchy at the time.
In preparation for this visit to the West, they were put through an
astonishingly detailed training course. Not just wushu training -- they were
used to that by then -- but this time, they were required to learn the ins
and outs of Western social etiquette. Their teachers also instructed them on
the proper way to board a plane and sit quietly. They were taught the proper
protocol for answering the telephone, how to listen and respond when an
American asked a question, how they were expected to behave when surrounded
by crowds, etc. Everything was so complicated. It took half a year, that
etiquette training! And they had to learn all this in addition to all the
wushu forms that they were expected to perform flawlessly.
The students were thrilled when the classes came to an end at last and they
could set off on their goodwill tour. They would be visiting four cities in
the United States: Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, and finally,
Washington, D.C. From Beijing, they flew first to Hong Kong, then from there
to Mexico, where they gave wushu demonstrations for half a month. Then they
flew to Hawaii, setting foot on American soil for the first time.
At the time, Jet was growing up...and he was becoming mischievous. Lots of
the other kids had been very naughty before they joined the wushu school,
but gradually, the discipline had made them obedient. Jet was the opposite.
He had been a very meek little boy, but as he grew older, he was becoming
more playful – cheeky even. In fact, after being away from home for almost a
month, he was starting to feel bolder and bolder about satisfying his
Back in school, Jet had been educated to think: "China is good. Everything
in China is good." and "The Western countries are decadent societies.
Everything about America is evil." When he actually found himself walking
around in this Western country however, he couldn't help but notice how
different everything was from China -- and not necessarily in a bad way.
None of the students dared say the words -- "Hey, it's pretty nice here!" --
but everybody was thinking it.
The last stop and climax of their U.S. tour was Washington D.C., where a
select few from their team performed their wushu routines on the White House
lawn. After the performance, they were introduced to the American
dignitaries and posed with them for official pictures. As Jet remembers,
President Richard Nixon stood with one of his female teammates, and Jet
stood next to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. At one point, Nixon turned
towards him and said, "Young man, your kung fu is very impressive! How about
being our bodyguard when you grow up?"
"No, " Jet blurted out. "I don't want to protect any individual. When I grow
up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!"
People were stunned. There was an uncomfortable silence. Nobody had expected
him to give that kind of an answer-least of all Jet. Kissinger was the one
who finally broke the silence. "Heavens, such a young boy and he already
speaks like a diplomat!" It wasn't until a few days later, when they were
wrapping up their visit in the States with a dinner at the embassy that
somebody showed them that their visit to the White House had made the New
York Times, complete with picture and headline. The article described the
entire exchange, and went on to wonder what kind of educational methods they
were using in Red China if even the youngest representatives were trained to
reply with such nationalist fervor.
The Chinese government, naturally, had no problems with the answer Jet had
given President Nixon. They praised him highly. What a clever boy to give
such a patriotic answer! Once again, he'd earned a perfect score.
The next year, China began preparations to stage its Third National Games.
The National Games are like a domestic version of the Olympics; they include
all competitive sports: swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and so on.
They're held every 4 years – at least that was the theory. In the 25 years
since the founding of New China, they'd only managed to hold it twice back
in the 50's before the Cultural Revolution put everything on hold. So the
1975 National Games were only the third since Liberation - and the first
since the Cultural Revolution. For the government, it was an extremely
important event with great symbolism. The entire nation felt that way as
Again, Jet started to notice a shift in his training. The
pressure began to increase. People had higher expectations of him because
he'd just won the youth championship. Personally, he didn't think too much
of it. He knew that there were plenty of other athletes who trained a lot
harder than he did, especially the adults. But winning the youth
championships had allowed him to "skip a grade" - that is, he became
eligible to compete in the 18-and-over category. There he was, a 12-year old
competing against people in their twenties and thirties. He started to feel
intense pressure to represent himself well.
As the National Games approached, though, his coach suddenly stopped
teaching him, and Jet didn't understand why. He began to seek out other
distinguished wushu experts from all over China and ask them to instruct
him. It was like being taught by a series of guest lecturers, and none of
them were as strict as his own coach.
The mere sight of his coach could make him shivver. And not just Jet - all
of the other students were very frightened of him. But these other masters
weren't nearly so frightening. They worked with him very seriously, and
explained things very clearly - why one should move like this, how to do
this - but they didn't really punish him at all. It was definitely a change
of pace. And he was the only one who was getting these special tutors.
Everybody else still had to practice as usual.
In May of 1975, an important invitational tournament was held in Kunming,
Yunnan Province, for participants from eight big cities. Essentially, it was
an invitational for prominent athletes to test their skills against each
other, a kind of prelude to the National Games. There were five events and
Jet managed to win first place in each category. Things were going well.
But everybody's main focus was the National Games, which were being held in
Beijing. You might say that they had entered their most anxious phase. Three
days before the official start of competition, Jet was at the arena for the
final qualifying round. Even though it was a preliminary round, he still had
to take it seriously. That performance would prove to be a fateful one.
He stepped onto the carpet to start his sabre form. The very first move he
made was an accident. He sliced himself with his broadsword and cut a big
gash on the side of his head. Funny thing was, he had no idea...
His head felt very warm and wet, and he seemed to be perspiring heavily. The
more he jumped and kicked, the more he seemed to sweat. Drops were running
into his eyes, flying everywhere. “How strange,” he thought.
From a very young age, it had been drilled into him that he could not use
physical pain as an excuse to affect his performance. Not even a broken bone
could justify it - and under that logic, a little blood was no reason at
all. The drive to continue performing was automatic. Years of inflexible
training builds will; when you're truly tested, it serves you well. On the
other hand, if you are always allowed to stop training whenever you feel
discomfort, you will find it too easy to give yourself permission to quit.
So he finished his form, saluted, and ran off the platform. Three or four of
his female teammates were standing there, and they were all crying. Somebody
clapped a towel on his head. When he looked down, he saw that half of his
uniform had been dyed red with blood. He was crimson from the shoulder down
to the pant leg. When he saw all that blood, he let out a surprised little
yelp. Almost fainted! They rushed him to the hospital, where he got stitched
up. Then they took him back to the sports school to recuperate. His coaches
told him that the final round was coming up in three days. But the doctor
had warned him that under no circumstances could the stitches be removed
before a full week had passed.
The day of the competition arrived. The doctor asked if they planned to keep
his bandages on during his performance? No, he couldn't do that - it would
affect his balance. Did he want to forfeit the competition? No, he didn't
want to do that either. So he wore his bandages all the way to the
competition arena. When he arrived, everybody was watching him very
At this point, the lessons he had learned three years earlier from training
on the broken ankle served him well. He focused deep down. Nothing mattered
except his form.
He walked up to the platform and ripped off the bandage. A nurse was
standing by with disinfectant and a syringe. "Immediately after you finish,"
she told him, "come over here so he can clean your wound and cover it up
again." The cut hadn't healed yet, and they were all afraid that the
exposure to sweat and dirt might get it infected. Sure enough, as soon as he
finished the form, he ran down, pulled down his pants to get an injection,
then let the nurse sponge and re-bandage him!
His winning first place caused quite a sensation, because he was so young.
He was only 12 years old, and the other two medallists were in their mid- to
late twenties. During the awards ceremony, as he stood on the top step of
the podium, he was still shorter than the 2nd and 3rd place medallists. It
must have been quite a sight. The national anthem began to play. As he stood
there, listening, he began to feel overcome with emotion. He hadn't really
realized the impact of winning a national title the year before, when he was
11. This time, though, he suddenly wanted to start crying.
"This medal is for you, mom! You didn't raise me in vain! Without your
sacrifices, I couldn't have made it to this point!" he thought. The events
of the last few days - the injury, his mom's reaction, competing against the
adults - all started swimming in the ocean of his mind, and his eyes filled
with tears. Jet says he doesn’t remember ever feeling that way again,
standing on a podium, but he certainly did that time.
He won a total of five gold medals in the national championships for 5
consecutive years, from 1974 to 1979. In 1979, Li received his highest
achievement in martial arts when he was crowned Gold Champion at the Chinese
National Martial Arts Competition. To this date no other man has won more
titles. During this stage of his life, he acquired the nickname "Jet" for
his blazing speed.