Home ENGLISH JET LI in person: “Actually, I was a poster child for obedience. The mischief came later…”, life essays (1)…

JET LI in person: “Actually, I was a poster child for obedience. The mischief came later…”, life essays (1)…


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As a huge fan of the eastern Mortal Arts and moreover of the appealing to me people in the film industry, Jet Li was one of those who I was happy to explore close and therefore years ago I used to check from time to time his beautiful website with interest, where I found a lot of stories and essays written himself (in English). Nowadays it seems Facebook moved aside the maintenance of official website, but luckily his life essays are still there – really hard to find, though strictly archived by the WayBackMachine (web.archive.org). Written wonderfully and with lovely sense of humor from end to end it is a pleasure to get acquainted with – especially the story about the ice-cream and bananas is not one to be skipped :) Here you are… Enjoy!

 – the Editor, Ralie Blag

Video above: Interview with Jet Li in France (English)

Jet Li and Jacky Chan in the movie “The Forbidden Kingdom”

Part 1 – Let’s start at the beginning…

Let’s start at the beginning, since childhood experiences are the events which mold your perspective on the world and your views on spirituality. In my case, these early experiences would eventually lead to my practice of using taiji to analyze the world: the relationships between people and governments, men and women, teacher and student, work and life.

Lots of people ask me if I was sent to study wushu because I was a naughty kid. Actually, I was a poster child for obedience. The mischief came later…

Yeah, I was such a good kid. My family consisted of my mother, two older sisters and two older brothers. I was the youngest. When I was two years old, my father passed away, so I never knew my father’s picture in my mind. Because I was the smallest, my mother never allowed me to go swimming or ride the bicycle. Any risky activity – any kind of exercise that was even slightly dangerous – was off-limits. So while kids my age were out playing in the street, this docile little boy stayed inside. “Don’t touch that!” adults would tell me, and it would never occur to me to touch it. “Don’t eat that!” – and I would leave it alone. Those are my earliest memories. That’s the kind of environment I grew up in.

Even after I started going to school, I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Everybody else was riding around, and I didn’t get around to it until I was 14 or 15! Swimming, ice skating…these were all things that the other kids could do, but not me. My mother had said no, and I would never try it behind her back.

I was already 8 years old when I started school, which made me a year older than all the other kids. For some reason, I was very popular with the teachers. I have no idea why! Maybe because I was always honest and did what I was told. The teachers liked me so much, they made me Physical Education monitor. In every class, certain outstanding students are appointed to be monitors; they assist the teacher by keeping order, recording attendance, things like that. There were Reading Monitors, Math Monitors, but the Physical Education Monitor was responsible for leading grades 1 through 6 through the daily set of national calisthenics.

So there I was every day, standing on top of this big platform, leading the masses. “One, two, three, four… Two, two, three, four…” Some people might not be familiar with the Chinese school system. After the first two class periods, there’s a recess and all of the grades line up in the schoolyard. Everybody starts doing state-mandated exercises in time to the recorded music playing over the loudspeakers. And me in front of everybody, on that platform. Very serious. “One, two, three, four…Two, two, three, four…” I don’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that the teachers coddled me, but I find it interesting that I ended up earning 100% on every test. In every class.

Sometimes, while taking a test, I might forget to write a dash or a decimal. When I would go up to the teacher’s desk to turn it in, she would ask me. “Are you sure you want to turn that in? Are you sure you’ve thought everything through?” Lying directly in front of me was a copy of a perfectly-scored test. “You sure you’re ready to turn in your test?” she demanded. “Have you checked everything?”

“Uh… uh…” Eyes skipping back and forth. Maybe my test did need a little more work. I hurried back to my seat to make the corrections. Only music class gave me trouble, because I had no sense of pitch. Whenever I sang, the tune would wander off-key. For the life of me, I couldn’t hang on to the key. I knew I couldn’t sing. The teacher knew I couldn’t sing. So when it came time for the final…well, let’s just say that all the students had to sing individually. As I waited for my turn, I got more and more nervous. “I’m dead,” I thought to myself. “There’s no escape.” But I really wanted to keep my perfect record. See, I was a serious student. When I got home after school, the first thing I had to do was finish my homework. Not until it was done would I let myself eat dinner or go outside to play. If I didn’t finish, I would feel guilty. But none of that hard work could do a thing for my singing skills.

So the music teacher finally called out my name. (Damn!) I stood up. “Li Lianjie, you have a sore throat today, isn’t that right?” I gaped. “Huh?” Here was my chance to escape! But my mother had raised me not to lie, so I just stood there with my mouth open in confusion.


“If you have a sore throat, then you don’t have to take the test. Sit down. 100%.”

Part 2 – I started training in wushu…

I 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 us 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 us up arbitrarily: 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 I got assigned to the wushu class. I had no idea what wushu was – none of us did – but if the teacher told you to practice it, you had to practice it!

All of the other grades were split up in the same way, so each sport had a total of about 1000 students ranging from 1st to 6th grade, with one cohort from each grade. During that vacation, everybody spent two and a half hours each day training in our respective sports. We all thought it was pretty fun, though. Most kids had nothing else to do.

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 us, however, were told that we were to come back here 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. I remember that there were five or six from my school alone, but of them, I was the only first-grader. Being selected out of a thousand made you rather famous in your class. Everybody else had been rejected, but you were special! Nobody – least of all me – knew why I’d been asked to continue training, but it was a terrific feeling.

From then on, every day after school, all the other kids lined up to go home and I waited separately for the 4th and 5th graders who had been assigned to come pick me up; I was so young that I had to be accompanied by older kids on the 15-minute walk to the sports school. The other students looked at me enviously, which I enjoyed.

After a few days of training, though, I began to think: “Hey, wait a minute…this is stupid!” Because after the novelty wore off, I began to realize: “All of my classmates get to go home and play, but I have to go to another school for another grueling two hours of lessons. That’s not fair!” I began to rethink the glory of being chosen.

In any case, those of us who had been selected went through another three months of training, after which the group of 20 experienced another massive set of “lay-offs.” The four of us who were left joined the other ten or so students who had started wushu during the previous year’s winter vacation.

The training got more and more rigorous. When wintertime came, we had no choice but to practice outside, because we had no indoor facilities. Beijing’s winters are very cold, and our hands hurt constantly. Doing handslaps were a no-win proposition: if you didn’t slap hard enough to make a sound, you’d get scolded. If you did make a sound, it stung like mad!

A year passed. I turned nine years old and began preparing to attend my 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.” Nevertheless, 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 I’d ever left home – the first time in my life I’d ventured out of Beijing. I remember being very excited about the prospect of riding the train. My mother, however, was heartsick at the thought of her baby going so far away from home. The morning that I was set to leave, she started weeping. I felt awful and offered not to go. But that wasn’t possible either, so I went to Jinan and I made a great effort.

I ended up winning the award for Excellence.

After I returned to Beijing, I suddenly received a notice informing me that from now on, I only had to attend school for half a day. As far as I was concerned, this was great! What kid doesn’t want to cut back on school?

There was a special reason why my training schedule was being increased, though. China was gearing up to host for a very important diplomatic event: the Pan-Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Championships. For China at that time, it was a huge event – as big as the Olympics. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the Olympics, but you must remember what China was like in those days. Nobody paid attention to China then. The government had closed the door to foreigners for so many decades; now they were actually inviting a small number of competitors from other countries and continents to visit China. Suffice it to say that the government placed very high importance on this ping-pong competition. A great deal of cultural and political pride was at stake.

For the opening ceremonies, the organizers were planning a whole slate of artistic performances to represent the best of Chinese culture: Peking opera, dance, and of course, wushu. Our group was scheduled to perform five programs, and I was in three of them. Practice was impossibly tiring; our motherland was expecting us to give a performance that was nothing less than perfect. We rehearsed the forms and routines countless times. The event was being held in the largest stadium in Beijing, and as I recall, we went there on 12 separate occasions for official rehearsal-evaluations. Each time, yet another high-ranking official was there to assess us: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense or some other very important leader. That was the first time I felt the pressure of representing many people with my performance. There was no room for mistakes.

When it came time for the actual performance, I guess all of our hard work stood us in good stead. The officials needn’t have worried. We’d practiced so hard that we probably couldn’t have turned in a bad performance if we’d tried.

Afterwards, in fact, we were invited to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai, the head of state (at the time, Chairman Mao was still alive, but he was already in seclusion). Just imagine: to be chosen to represent your country with wushu and to meet the leader of your country – and then to hear him praise you for your performance. That was an indescribable honor in China, not to mention a thrilling experience for a 9-year old boy.

Part 3 – After winning…

After winning that first national competition, I was no longer required to attend school at all – not even in the mornings! They asked me to move into the dormitory at the sports school. From that point on, I lived and trained there all week. I went home on Saturday, and returned to the dorms Sunday night. On Monday morning, the training would begin all over again.

The only word I can use to describe our training is “bitter.” It was exceptionally harsh.

There were about 13 of us who all trained under one coach. Every morning at 6 a.m., we would be awakened by a very loud bell.


Within 90 seconds, we had to get dressed and line up outside in the field, standing at attention. After one hour of practice, we had the chance to brush our teeth, wash our face, and eat breakfast. Practice resumed at 8:30 a.m. and lasted until 12 noon. After lunch, we would get the chance to rest for a while. That didn’t necessarily mean that we had the afternoon off, though. See, our sports school was quite well-known in Beijing. It became something that all the foreign tourists wanted to include on their sightseeing itinerary.

Most of us liked to take a nap after lunch. Often, just as we had fallen asleep, we would be awakened by the announcement – “Tour group!” That was our signal to scramble outside immediately to perform for the foreigners. This happened more often than I like to remember.

We would start training again after dinner, usually at 7:30 p.m. The one good thing about the evening practice was that we could finally work out inside the gym. Mornings and afternoons, we had to train outside. There was only one gymnasium at the school, and other sports took priority during the day: gymnastics in the morning, basketball or volleyball in the afternoon, etc. Wushu was only able to get the gym at night, when everybody else had gone home! Evening practice lasted from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. – sometimes 10:30 p.m. Our workouts usually came out to 8 hours of training a day. It was tough.

At the time, China was very poor. Electricity blackouts were not only common – they were mandated. There wasn’t enough power to keep the entire city lit; every night of the week, a different district would go without electricity. For us, it was Friday night. The whole world went dark on Friday evenings, and we couldn’t have been happier. No lights meant no training – we loved it. Friday night never came soon enough.

This practice had gone on for a very long time. It was practically an institution.

One Friday evening, we were all enjoying ourselves when we suddenly heard a bizarre sound.


It was that awful bell! Confused, we rushed out to the field. The coach took one look at us and promptly bawled us all out. Instead of wearing our athletic shoes, we had on slippers. Our clothes were rumpled and untidy. We were like a group of ragtag soldiers and our drill sergeant was demanding to know: “Where the hell’s your gun? You call those boots?”

“So,” drawled the coach, “you weren’t expecting to practice tonight?”

“It’s FRIDAY,” we all thought. None of us, however, actually said this out loud.

Our coach sent us all back to put on the proper shoes, then yelled at us again for taking so long. As punishment, we had to run several laps in the moonlight. After running for a long time, we were told to jog into the gym.

“But there aren’t any lights,” we thought. “What point is there in going inside?”

Part 4 – As soon as we lined up inside…

As soon as we lined up inside, the coach – that evil, evil man! – pulled out a flashlight. Using that beam of light, he pointed out thirteen spaces. “You…stand here. Next one…stand over there…” Then he clicked off the light.

“All right – begin!”

There’s something you’ve got to understand about our training. We all took wushu seriously…but let’s just say that there wasn’t a single one of us who didn’t slack off when he or she had the chance. The coach only had one pair of eyes, after all, and he couldn’t monitor everybody at once.

If he was watching you, the pressure was on to perform with extension and power and focus.

When he turned his back, though, arms would soften and stances would wilt.

If he whirled around to face you again – ? Kicks would miraculously have snap again, punches flew with power, backs would arch, shoulders would roll back and we were once again the paragons of good wushu form.

Under normal circumstances – that is to say, if there had been light – we would have done our usual thing and no one would have been the wiser. In the dark, though, we had no way of knowing when the flashlight would click on again. What if the coach suddenly shone the light on you just as you happened to be taking a little “break”? The punishment would be unimaginable. We were experiencing true fear. In the pitch black gym, where absolutely nobody could see how hard we were working…I trained as I had never trained before.

Until I misstepped. I don’t know how it happened, because I couldn’t see anything, but I suddenly stepped wrong – probably on some uneven surface – and twisted my ankle. The pain was horrible, but I was too afraid of that accursed flashlight to stop practicing. So I kept going, limping with each step.

Practice finally came to an end.

We had regular practice the next morning. My foot hurt.

We had to perform for a tour group that afternoon. My foot still hurt.

We had to go out to perform for another group later that night. The pain just got worse.

By the time I finally went home on Sunday, I could no longer walk. My foot had swelled up like a loaf of steamed bread. I didn’t know what was wrong with it, and I didn’t dare bring it up.

Why not? Because we had discovered long ago that complaining about an injury would cause the coach to assign you some new hellacious set of exercises that made you wish you’d never spoken up in the first place. Say, for example, a student told him that she’d hurt her arm – could she 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 you came up with to shirk training, the coach was ready with ten alternatives to counter you. He didn’t care whether the injury was real or faked. All that mattered was that he would find some exercise involving another part of your body. “Your knee hurts? Okay, you don’t have to run. Do a thousand sit-ups instead.” The new assignment would leave you in greater pain than actually running on the bad knee. Complaining only made things worse for yourself. You vowed to keep your mouth shut in the future.

On Monday, I returned to the school – limping badly as I walked. Seeing the state of my leg, the coach set me to practicing upper-body exercises. I just stood there, facing the mirror, punching away dutifully. It just so happened that another instructor was visiting the class that day. He noticed me in the corner and stopped by to ask me why I wasn’t training with the others.

“My foot hurts,” I said.

“Oh, that’s why you’re practicing arm exercises. Hey, let me take a look at your leg.”

When he saw the big swollen ham hock that was my foot, the other instructor took my 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.

I had been practicing on a broken foot for two days – because I’d been too scared to bring it up to anybody! I guess that would count as my first major injury. Well, at least I can laugh about it now.

I was outfitted with a big plaster cast that pretty much immobilized me from the waist down.

So I finally got my break from wushu, right?


For the next few weeks, an older classmate would carry me on piggyback to the field every day. He would set me down, and I’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 me onto his back and carry me back to the dorms. That’s how it was for several weeks as my leg healed.

Part 5 – In 1974, I was chosen…

In 1974, I was chosen for another special training course. Little did I know that the experience would eventually start changing the way I 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 us 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 us made the final cut.

Our 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, we were put through an astonishingly detailed training course. And I don’t just mean wushu training – we were used to that by now. This time, we were required to learn the ins and outs of Western social etiquette. Not only were we taught how to eat with a knife and a fork, but we had to know which knife and fork were used for each course. And then there were the little social graces: under no condition were we to let the knife touch the plate, or to show our teeth while chewing, or to use a toothpick in an undignified manner.

Our teachers also instructed us on the proper demeanor and deportment for air travel: how to board the plane and how to sit quietly. We were taught the proper protocol for answering the telephone, how to listen and respond when an American asked us a question, how we were expected to behave when surrounded by crowds, etc. Everything was so complicated. It took half a year, that etiquette training! And we had to learn all this in addition to all the wushu forms that we were expected to perform flawlessly.

We were thrilled when the classes came to an end at last and we could set off on our goodwill tour. We would be visiting four cities in the United States: Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, and finally, Washington, D.C.

From Beijing, we flew first to Hong Kong, then from there to Mexico, where we gave wushu demonstrations for half a month. Then we flew to Hawaii, setting foot on American soil for the first time. I remember very clearly that I inadvertently became the center of a comic scene there…though at the time, it almost turned into a huge international incident.

At Honolulu International Airport, I happened to see an airplane on the runway with the words “China Airlines” written on the side. China Airlines was then (and still is) owned and operated by a Taiwanese company, but of course, I didn’t know that. Terribly excited, I began yelling, “Wow! Look, it’s an airplane from China! A Chinese airplane! Look, everyone! Look!”

Immediately, some adult put his hand over my mouth and barked: “That’s enough!”


Because, of course, Mainland China was Mainland China and Taiwan was Taiwan. In the mid ’70s, there was no policy more fundamental than the differentiation between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. It was a very sensitive political issue.

Me, I’d just been excited to see what I thought was an airline operated by my country. When the adults hushed me, I quickly realized that I’d done something wrong. I was scared to death. Thought they’d send me back home for sure.

Part 6 – Our group was definitely…

Our group was definitely a high-security proposition. Including our chaperones, there were 44 of us on the trip – and then add to that the 26 bodyguards from the Central Government’s intelligence bureau. Each one of these guards was assigned to guard two of us. In addition, a massive American police presence followed us everywhere we went. Nobody knew what might happen to mainland Chinese in the U.S.A., so patrol cars escorted us in cavalcades and hundreds of officers kept the public away from us. Some of the others might have found it nerve-wracking, but I thought it was great fun. I’d never been so close to policemen before.

I was growing up…and I 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. I was the opposite. I’d been a very meek little boy, but as I grew older, I was becoming more playful. Cheeky, even. In fact, after being away from home for almost a month, I was starting to feel bolder and bolder about satisfying my curiosity. For example, I was fascinated with the guns that the bodyguards carried. Despite the fact that the guards were officially discouraged from speaking to us, I kept asking the guys if I could look at their guns up close and maybe hold them. I especially remember that I was always trying to joke around with my own bodyguard. Because I was short for my age and only came up mid-torso, I’d gotten into the habit of holding on to his shirt as we walked. He would walk in front and I would tag along behind him. My height gave me excellent access to his belt, which is of course exactly where his holster was located. “Hey, cool!” I’d say as I reached out to touch his gun, and he’d tense up.

I believe I did this at least once every day.

Such nice memories!

During the etiquette training in China, we had been drilled on table settings. Each plate, we were told, would be flanked by an army of forks and spoons and knives and butter dishes. This knife was intended for spreading butter, that one was for something else altogether. Every utensil had its own specialized function, and I was convinced that if I misused any of them that my motherland would lose face and that my future would be over. And to be honest, we kids were having a bit of trouble coordinating the knives and forks. “Please let me not forget my table manners,” I told myself over and over again.

But after a while, we noticed that our bodyguards – who ate alongside us – didn’t always use their utensils properly. In fact, they would grab the chicken with their hands and chomp away. Instead of cutting up the meat carefully with their knives and forks, they would just tear into it with their mouths wide open… as we looked on dumbly.

What you must understand is that the system of etiquette that we’d been taught had come straight from Buckingham Palace. They were the kind of rules you observe if you’re dining with the British royal family – they were that formal.

When seated at the table, keep your legs pressed together just so. You must never place your arms on the table; instead, keep your hands neatly folded in your lap. As the host brings out the food, do not move. Only after the host picks up his own knife and fork can you begin to do the same.

In short, we had come to America prepared to be impeccable.

Then we noticed that all the food was prepared in advance and sitting on long tables. What’s more, you were expected to pick up a plate and to move along the table; whatever you wanted to eat, you took, and as much as you wanted. Then you walked back to your own table and set your plate down. And you could start eating right away.

Looking to the right, we heard the loud clatter and the hubbub of eating.

Looking to our left, we saw trays being slammed down and people sitting with their legs propped up.

All the rules were being violated – and nobody cared!

We were experiencing the American style of eating at its most casual. Everywhere we looked, people were slurping up their food and misusing their spoons. I started to realize that everything we’d been taught did not necessarily apply in this society. At the age of 11, I was starting to think for myself – or at least notice discrepancies.

Back in school, we’d 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 we actually found ourselves walking around in this Western country, however, we couldn’t help but notice how different everything was from China – and not necessarily in a bad way. “Wow, there are so many cars here. Hey, look at those tall buildings! Geez, Americans actually have swimming pools in their backyards!” There were so many new “wow’s” everyday.

None of us dared say the words – “Hey, it’s pretty nice here!” – but everybody was thinking it.

Part 7 – Contrary to what we had been taught…

Contrary to what we had been taught, I was finding that Americans weren’t all bad. Our experience with the bodyguards from the State Department proved that. They were very courteous, and not at all heartless. When they pulled you back in line, it was because they were trying to guarantee your safety; as long as you didn’t wander off, they were very nice. Besides being dedicated to their duty, they were also extraordinarily kind to us. It was difficult for me to believe in my heart what the adults had been teaching us: that all Americans were class enemies who couldn’t be trusted.

By the time we got to New York, I started to wonder if it was even true that all of our hotel rooms had been bugged with secret listening devices by the American government. Was it really necessary for us to watch everything we said?

One day, feeling silly, I faced the telephone (without picking it up) and said, “Hey, I want chocolate, I want chocolate, I want chocolate.” Then I turned to the mirror and said: “I want ice cream, ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.” Lastly, I ran over to the flower vase and said: “I want banana, I want banana, I want banana.” I was having lots of fun. Then somebody came to tell us to get ready for that night’s performance, and I forgot about the whole thing.

Later that night, when we returned to the hotel, I pushed open the door-and nearly died of fright. My bodyguard was horrified as well.

There on the desk was chocolate, ice cream, and bananas.

At first I thought that they were gifts from our sponsors – and that everybody else on the team had received them as well. Surely it was just a coincidence that the gifts happened to be the foods that I’d been craving. I ran to everybody else’s room to check. “Hey, did you guys find any fancy gifts on your desk?”


My room was the only one. After that incident, I became a little more cautious.

The last stop and climax of our U.S. tour was Washington, D.C., where a select few from our team performed our wushu routines on the White House lawn. After the performance, we were officially introduced to the American dignitaries and posed with them for official pictures. As I remember, President Richard Nixon stood with one of my female team-mates, and I stood next to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. At one point, Nixon turned towards me and said, “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive! How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?”

“No, ” I 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 me to give that kind of an answer-least of all myself.

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 we were wrapping up our visit in the States with a dinner at the embassy that somebody showed us that our 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 I’d given President Nixon. They praised me highly. What a clever boy to give such a patriotic answer!

Once again, I’d earned a perfect score. One hundred percent. A+.

Part 8 – One of the unexpected benefits…

One of the unexpected benefits of being invited to perform abroad was that we all received a small spending allowance – about $5.00 a day. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the money – buy a watch for my mother. A genuine Swiss watch. At that time, watches were considered a luxury item in China. Imported watches were quite expensive, and a Swiss watch was a thing of awe. The only way an average laborer could afford to buy a Swiss watch was maybe if they starved themselves for a few months. My mother was very happy when I presented her with that Swiss watch. She hugged me and said I was a good boy.

Very soon after we returned to China, they started training us in earnest again. Competitions were coming up – and this time they were official tournaments. Later that year, I competed in the All-China Youth Championships. “Youth” meant everyone under the age of 18. I guess that would count as my first official national championship title.

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 – that was the theory, anyway. 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, actually.

Again, I started to notice a shift in my training. The pressure began to increase. People had higher expectations of me because I’d just won the youth championship. Personally, I didn’t think too much of it. I knew that there were plenty of other athletes who trained a lot harder than I did, especially the adults. But winning the youth championships had allowed me to “skip a grade” – that is, I became eligible to compete in the 18-and-over category. There I was, a 12-year old competing against people in their twenties and thirties. I started to feel pressured to represent myself well.

And have I mentioned that my coach was very strict? He pushed us further than we thought we could go, and he would not hesitate to “discipline” us. Though actually, I didn’t get hit as often as some of my team-mates. With me, all he had to do was make some cutting remark; that would be enough to make me stand in the corner and practice for hours.

As the National Games approached, though, my coach suddenly stopped teaching me, and I didn’t understand why. He began to seek out other distinguished wushu experts from all over China and ask them to instruct me. It was like being taught by a series of guest lecturers, and none of them were as strict as my own coach.

What a relief! Oh man, was I thrilled! I mean, the mere sight of my coach could make me quiver. And not just me – all of us did, we were so scared of him. But these other masters weren’t nearly so frightening. They worked with me very seriously, and explained things very clearly – why one should move like this, how to do this – but they didn’t really punish me at all. It was definitely a change of pace. And I was the only one who was getting these special tutors. Everybody else still had to practice as usual.

Fine with me! I’d escaped my punishment! No more punishment for me!

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 I happened 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 we had entered our most anxious phase. Three days before the official start of competition, I was at the arena for the final qualifying round. Even though it was a preliminary round, I still had to take it seriously. That performance would prove to be a fateful one.

I stepped onto the carpet to start my sabre form. The very first move I made was an accident. I sliced myself with my broadsword. Just cut a big gash on the side of my head. Funny thing was, I had no idea…

Part 9 – I remember that my head…

I remember that my head felt very warm and wet, and I seemed to be perspiring heavily. The more I jumped and kicked, the more I seemed to sweat. Drops were running into my eyes, flying everywhere. How strange, I thought.

Of course, the entire audience was roaring “waaaah” in horror, pointing and screaming. I kept going – punching, rolling, leaping. I didn’t feel any pain, just heat. Stuff was dripping. That’s all I knew. I just assumed that I was sweating more heavily than usual. At a certain point, as I whipped my face around, I did notice, “Hey! Here’s some blood.” But I did not stop doing my form.

From a very young age, it had been drilled into me that I could not use physical pain as an excuse to affect my 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: “I cannot stop. I must continue.” 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 felt discomfort, you will find it too easy to give yourself permission to quit.

So I finished my form, saluted, and ran off the platform. Three or four of my female teammates were standing there, and they were all crying.

“What are you all bawling about?” I asked them, as I approached.

“Just look at yourself!” they cried. Somebody clapped a towel on my head. When I looked down, I saw that the entire half of my uniform had been dyed red with blood. I was soaked crimson from the shoulder down to the pant leg. When I saw all that blood, I let out a surprised little yelp. Almost fainted!

They rushed me to the hospital, where I got stitched up. Then they took me back to the sports school to recuperate. My coaches told me that the final round was coming up in three days. But the doctor had warned me that under no circumstances could the stitches be removed before a full week had passed. Although I was worried about whether I could compete, I was more worried about my mother finding out about the injury. She hadn’t been at the qualifying round, but she was definitely planning to attend the final round, and when she saw my bandages, she would panic.

In the meantime, my elder brother heard about what had happened. He came over to the school, took one look at me lying in bed covered in blood, and promptly ran home to tell our mother: “Jet cut his head open!” My mom rushed over to the school. My master had no choice-he had to allow her to see me. Then he took my brother outside and punished him.

They somehow managed to persuade my mother that I was okay.

The day of the competition arrived. The doctor asked if planned to keep my bandages on during my performance? No, I couldn’t do that-it would affect my balance. Did I want to forfeit the competition? No, I didn’t want to do that either. So I wore my bandages all the way to the competition arena. When I arrived, everybody was watching me very carefully.

At this point, the lessons I’d learned three years earlier from training on the broken ankle served me well. I focused deep down. Nothing existed except my form.

I 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 me, “come over here so I 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 I finished the form, I ran down, pulled down my pants to get an injection, then let the nurse sponge and re-bandage me!

So that’s the story of my Third National Games.

My winning first place caused quite a sensation, because I was so young. I was 12 years old, and the other two medallists were in their mid- to late twenties. During the awards ceremony, as I stood on the top step of the podium, I was still shorter than the 2nd and 3rd place medallists. It must have been quite a sight.

The national anthem began to play. As I stood there, listening, I began to feel overcome with emotion. I hadn’t really realized the impact of winning a national title the year before, when I was 11. This time, though, I suddenly wanted to start crying.

I remember thinking: “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!” The events of the last few days-the injury, my mom’s reaction, competing against the adults-all started swimming in the ocean of my mind, and my eyes filled with tears. I can’t say that I ever felt that way again standing on a podium, but I certainly did that time.

Part 10 – Beginning in 1976…

Beginning in 1976, we started doing international goodwill tours again. The team performed in cities all over Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Lots of fun things happened in every country we visited. The time we went to Iraq, it was unimaginably hot – like 50 degrees Celsius. The heat was really unbearable; we just couldn’t take it. It got so bad that in the midday, before taking our afternoon nap, we would get buckets of water and pour them onto the beds, because the bedding was too hot to lie down on. We would go to sleep on the damp sheets. After an hour or two, the sheets would be baked dry and we would get up to do it all over again. Naturally, the hotel didn’t know about it – we did it secretly, telling each other, “It’s simply too hot” as we poured water on our beds. Just think – if we’d never experienced this kind of lifestyle, we never would have learned about this unique method of temperature control!

In 1977, the team went on a tour of Africa, where the heat also became an issue. All of our performances were scheduled for nighttime, starting around 10pm. Daytime performances would have been impractical for athletes and spectators alike, because most of the countries didn’t have enclosed gymnasiums. We performed out on the soccer fields, and nobody in their right mind would sit out in the sun during the day. And even the nighttime temperatures were far higher than we were used to. I remember that they would set out lots of big barrels of drinks for us off along the sidelines; they were filled with big slabs of ice to keep the soda pop cool. One night, it was so hot that I reached deep into one of the barrels and grabbed a bottle. It was too dark to see the label, so I didn’t know what flavor it was, but I didn’t care – all I knew was that I needed to drink something cold. I guzzled it straight down – drank about half of the bottle in one gulp. The icy liquid felt so good going down my throat. It wasn’t until I set the bottle down that I started to feel a little dizzy and lightheaded.

They soon discovered that I’d just chugged half a bottle of champagne! I was no good to perform after that, so they had to find somebody to replace me that night.

During that trip, we travelled between the countries by airplane. One particular African nation, I remember, only owned two airplanes. One of them was a small passenger jet – the one that the president and officials usually flew in. Originally, we had been scheduled to use this plane, but when our group arrived at the airport, we were informed that the president was using it, so we would have to use the country’s other plane – a cargo plane.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there? It was just like in the movies – the cargo plane was big and hollow. In its landing position, the rump of the plane rested on the ground, to facilitate loading. That’s how we entered the plane – from the back end, filing up the ramp. Boys on the left, girls on the right. Inside the plane, there were no rows of cushioned seats as one finds in passenger planes – only two long metal benches running along the sides of the plane, so we sat down facing each other in two rows. It looked just like the planes that parachuters jump out of. We thought it was great fun. What a curious airplane! What funny metal benches! Then somebody remarked on the stout ropes strung a few feet in front of both benches. What were they for? Surely they couldn’t be seat belts. There were only two long ropes and they were too far away from us.

The puzzle was solved soon enough.

The back door of the plane had not yet been closed. From outside, we heard a loud CLUMP-clumping and soon we saw…a herd of cows and sheep being driven up the ramp to occupy the middle of the aircraft.

We were all going to fly together! What a strange cargo that was: the Beijing Wushu Team lining the sides, livestock in the middle. The cattle and sheep crowded up right next to us. We sat, they stood, and we looked at each other across the rope for the duration of the flight.

There’s one other thing about that flight that I should mention. Passenger planes are built with sound-dampeners and shock-absorbing material to make the ride as comfortable for people. Cargo planes, of course, usually carry cargo, so they had nothing of the sort. As a result, the ride was terribly loud and violently bumpy. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long flight – so we only had to endure about 40 minutes of this deafening, chattering ride. And actually, it was like getting a massage. By the time we landed, everybody’s muscles were very, very loose!



Jet Li with Mark Zuckerberg


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