The Tao of Gung Fu – Published Decades After Bruce Lee’s Death

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The Tao of Gung Fu would have been the perfect primer, for the West, about Chinese martial arts. But it was never published. 

At least… not when Bruce Lee was still alive.

Bruce Lee’s views on martial arts had already evolved when the manuscript was almost complete. Whatever he had written, influenced by his old masters, no longer reflected his views. This explained why he decided against publishing The Tao of Gung Fu back in 1965.

Nonetheless, this book would have been instrumental in destroying countless myths about eastern martial arts.

Most important of all, The Tao of Gung Fu would have best explained the essence of Chinese kung fu, even if it was limited to Lee’s experiences in Wing Chun and interactions with other masters.

Thoughts on Bruce Lee The Tao of Gung Fu

What The Tao of Gung Fu covers:

  • What is kung fu?
  • Techniques of kung fu
  • The philosophy of Taoism’s within Chinese martial arts
  • Ideas and opinions of Bruce Lee

A Book for Chinese Martial Art Outsiders & Insiders

Because Bruce Lee wrote the book for outsiders to Chinese martial arts (as much as insiders), everything is explained in an easy-to-understand way. There is little need for prior technical knowledge. He even supplements his explanations on kung fu techniques with photo illustrations and hand-drawn diagrams.

Where outsiders benefit from understanding kung fu, insiders would find the distilled concepts of pak sao and other theories immensely useful.

Practitioners of many years tend to complicate concepts. And Lee’s explanations cut away the confusion.

So, yes.

You don’t need technical understanding of Wing Chun to understand what Bruce Lee was talking about. But having background training allows you to appreciate specific techniques at a deeper level.

What can martial artists learn?

Martial art practitioners of all backgrounds will no doubt find his on-point explanation on each form of attack and defense insightful.

For example, kicks.

Bruce Lee emphasized that kicks needed to be low and quick for practical purposes. To avoid being knocked off-balanced, you will also need to snap back your kicking foot immediately.

Other than specific pointers on technique forms, Lee provides training suggestions for speed, technique, strength and refinement. You can use his suggestions for your own martial arts training.

The emphasis, as always for Lee, was how well you learn and develop effective skills. Quantity of moves be damned.

Taoist Philosophy and it’s presence in Chinese Martial Arts

Tao - Yin and Yang
Tao – Yin and Yang

Lee devoted a portion of his manuscript to explain Taoism’s influence in Chinese martial arts. After all, to understand Chinese martial arts, one needs to understand its philosophical underpinnings.

And so, Lee goes into the concept of Tao and how strength and gentleness is two sides of the same coin. He also explains wu-shin, wu-wei and more – the concept of no-mindedness and nondoing. I’d describe as the ideal state of mind when performing randori (defending from free-attacks).

How was this book completed?

Even though Lee scrapped the book publishing, he still kept the incomplete manuscript with notes, diagrams and photos. And the manuscript was in fact almost complete.

Whatever Bruce Lee wrote and completed was left untouched. It would otherwise be disrespectful to re-interpret a master’s work. John Little knew and acknowledged this.

But in places with missing information – presumably the last part – John Little had to consult every single note Lee kept. This explains the question-answer format at the very end. Those words were likely from Lee’s rough notes.

Concluding Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised at being able to understand this book without having a background in Chinese martial arts. Even as an Aikido practitioner (whose repertoire of techniques were primarily defensive), I appreciated Lee’s comprehensive views on various basic attack and defense forms. He explained his thought-process superbly.

For that reason, you should at least pick up The Tao of Gung Fu at your library.

Bruce Lee The Tao of Gung Fu

I Want This!

Disclosure: ‘Bruce Lee: The Tao of Gung Fu’ was given to me by Tuttle Publishing in return for my honest review or press release over their new cover redesign. I have not and will not fake my reviews for monetary or other benefits since this is against what Way Of Ninja and I represent. Also, the links provided to get the book via Amazon will allow Way Of Ninja to earn a small commission but will not cost you more. 

7 Comments
  1. Kai Morgan says

    Hi Logen, great & thoughtful article as always 🙂 This seems to link back to our previous conversation about the ethics of publishing Bruce Lee’s work posthumously, especially as you seem to be saying that he explicitly said he didn’t want this one published? Does the book cover this, i.e. the rationale for publishing it . . . ?

    1. WayOfNinja.com says

      Hi Kai

      No. Lee did not explicitly say he didn’t want this book published. And I apologise for not using nuanced language here: “This explained why he decided against publishing The Tao of Gung Fu back in 1965.”.

      He abandoned publishing this book in 1965 (this is a much more accurate statement); very different from not wanting it published. What I had surmised from the information and context available was that he no longer felt that Tao of Gung Fu accurately represented his views in martial arts. It felt more like “Since my views have changed, why bother publishing this. I could work on something better.”.

      Here’s the excerpt by John Little:
      “This is that book. It was to have been published in 1965 and was intended by its author, Bruce Lee, to be his gift to the Western world. While Lee scrapped the idea of publishing this book, he did not scrap his research notes or sample chapters. ”

      Here’s Bruce Lee’s own words when he was working on the manuscript:
      “I’m in the process of completing a much [more] thorough book on the Tao of Gung Fu …. This book will contain my insight during these past five years. I’ve worked hard for it. ”

      That’s why, as before, I think he would have been okay with this work, in particular, to be published posthumously. He was working on it for a long time, and he retained nearly all his research notes (probably to work on something more reflective of his views later on).

      On the issue of ethics – I believe it will always be there, especially when one dies before being able to settle a substantial deal of his/her affairs. I’m mostly satisfied that his former wife, family and friends have thought about it, and reasoned that it was okay (considering what Bruce Lee would have wanted – considering his ambition and determination to share what he learnt of martial arts).

      Logen

      1. Kai Morgan says

        Hi Logen, I’m sure a lot of thought went into the decision to publish this, as you say. I still read into what you are saying that Bruce Lee did not want this text published, as his understanding had moved on, and so he wanted to redo the book. But although this feels uncomfortable, I’d be a hypocrite to criticise it, as I love to read (for example) the works of Franz Kafka who left his unpublished works to a friend with an order to destroy them, which the friend ignored.

        Also, if Bruce Lee never finished the “improved” version of the text, and this is all we have, you might say it’s the best access we have to his thinking on this subject, even if it’s not perfect.

        There’s not really any black and white answer when you are trying to weigh up the writer’s wishes/intentions against the wider public interest.

        Here’s an interesting debate which looks at all sides of the argument:

        http://mirandacelestehale.net/2011/10/13/the-ethics-of-posthumous-publishing/

        1. WayOfNinja.com says

          Sorry. I didn’t see your response till now. It got flagged for moderation due to the presence of the link.

          Anyway, I totally get it.

          In the case when an author is explicitly against it, I’d be extremely uncomfortable. But that’s an obvious black and white example.

          If an author’s intentions can be ascertained by a group of people close to him/her and they’ve determined it to be appropriate, I think it’s relatively okay. Without that minimal benchmark, I’d be very uncomfortable with it. Private correspondence though, is something I’m undecided about.

          I think that’s how I looked at Bruce Lee’s posthumous works.

          I’m also thinking about it in terms of myself. If I pass on without fulfilling what I intend to do or say, I’d be okay (or I would prefer it) if a group of very close friends (who understand me best) to make certain publishing decisions on my behalf. Yet, they would also know the limits to which I’d want to share about myself.

          By the way, glad to have this discussion with you, Kai. 🙂

          1. Kai Morgan says

            likewise 🙂

  2. Joelle White says

    Thanks for the book review!

    1. WayOfNinja.com says

      🙂

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