Bruce Lee & His Combatting Of Emasculate Chinese American Narratives
By James Lee
As most identify Bruce Lee with flashy kicks, vigorous wooing, and poignant tones that signify the iconic image of a cultural phenom, his transformation of societal formations is his most unacknowledged, but meaningful impact.
One vital transformation that must be recognised was his role in the changing emasculate stereotypes targeted at Chinese American men for decades before his inception.
Historically, a range of negative troupes existed towards Chinese American men in the North American context. Until the emergence of Lee, the understanding of Chinese American men was that of being feminine, unpowerful, and unable to exert influence.
Such stereotyping began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as China was labelled the “sick man of Asia” due to their loss in the First Sino-Japanese War, as well as the prevalent opium crisis. This conveyed to perceptions of Chinese American men as weak and effete upon their continued arrival to the United States in the decades following.
However, as that portrayal of not being physically adept or forceful consistently heightened, Lee dispelled those narratives through his depiction of a strong Asian figure that could physically dominate larger men in a manner previously unseen. That stature directly contradicted disseminating narratives and helped Chinese Americans be viewed differently in US society.
The magnitude of such an impact cannot go understated considering the historical exclusion and discrimination of Asian Americans. Consequently, any action to negate those sentiments are vital. Lee’s fight against negative stereotypes against Chinese American men was vital indeed.
Most importantly, the shift in perception likely pushed equality in other key societal areas. Specifically, as Chinese American men were seen as too weak and lacking the necessary characteristics to garner political success, Lee showed they could be strong politicians through his exemplification of a powerful Asian American figure. It is difficult to underestimate such a change in narrative, especially during the Asian American Movement of the 1970s, which set the foundations for a progressive increase in Asian American political activity and representation since.
So, as Bruce Lee changed the perception of Chinese American men from weak and inadequate to strong and determined, it had a massive societal influence. Politically, it likely increased political recognition as more Chinese Americans have become embedded into the formal political structure ever since. Socially, and most importantly, it demonstrated that Asian Americans had a previously unrecognised vigour and resolve.
As such, Bruce Lee changed both Chinese American and Asian American perceptions in the US, which is far more important and memorable than his more-celebrated fighting aura.