If Jet Li’s life were to be one of his films, it would be The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – comical, full of adventures, and life lessons as well. His experiences in life, aside from being himself, are what distinguish him from the people in the movie industry. His life is one that you would want to watch in the big screen.
Jet Li was born on April 26, 1963 in Beijing, China. He was the youngest, with two older brothers and two older sisters. Their father died when he was still two years old so he didn’t have any memory of him. His family lived a very lean life. They struggled, even.
So how did he become a martial artist star? It all started from the very beginning, of course, with a simple summer class all kids had to go to when he was just eight. As a kid, he just took whatever class he was assigned to by the adults – wushu. He didn’t even know the sport at that time. So just practice he did. As summer ended, he was one of the chosen few to continue training after class when school started again. The other kids were somewhat “fired” so Jet was envied by them. But when the prestige waned off, he realized it was unfair for him as the other kids get to go home early and play while he still had to spend two more hours in another class.
After a year of rigorous training, their group entered a competition in the capital of Shandong Province, Jinan. This was his first time to be far away from home so he did his best for his mother. This contest was a non-sparring event so there was really no winner and loser – only an award of “Excellence” for the best participant. Nevertheless the best performers in China were in that competition. But Jet managed to get that sole award.
He started to focus more on his wushu training after winning and receiving a memo that he only had to attend school for half a day. This is because he was being prepared for a very important event for his country; the Pan-Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Championships. During that time China was only beginning to welcome other countries to visit after decades of closing its doors, so they were preparing artistic performances that showcase China’s culture. This event was crucial for both the country’s cultural and political pride.
The event was a success for China. And at the age of nine, Jet Li has accomplished quite a lot already – he has already met their country’s head of state, who praised their performance. More importantly, he was able to represent his country.
From that point on his entire days were dedicated only to wushu. He did not have to attend school even for an hour. He transferred to a dormitory where all the kids practiced sports day and night. Their training was similar to the ones for the military – they wake up early in the morning to start practicing right away, they barely had time to rest, and they practiced until 10 in the evening.
But this training gave him one of the best lessons with regard to pain and quitting. He learned how to ignore pain and any discomfort, and just focus on his goal that he literally didn’t feel he had a head injury during one of his performance. He only realized he had one after successfully finishing his act and saw that his uniform had a lot of blood on it, he wanted to faint. In his essay he shared this wisdom: “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.”
At a young age he has been to a lot of places doing international goodwill tours. He met President Nixon in the year 1974 where he made a very good impression not only of himself, but his country as well. President Nixon was amazed by his performance that he asked the young Jet if he could be his bodyguard when he grows up. Being a child, he replied candidly, “I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!” This answer caused admiration at how China instils such nationalism to its youth.
In 1976 their group began performing in different cities. He has been to countries such as Iraq, Africa, and Philippines. These world tours brought in a lot of adventures for Jet – from riding a cargo plane with cows, to accidentally getting drunk after chugging down half a bottle of champagne. He had also been near death when the plane he was in couldn’t set off its landing gear properly. And instead of panicking and crying that his good life might be taken at such a young age, he was thinking about how to write the Chinese word “yishu” in his paper that was supposed to be his “last will.”
His early experiences also serve as a clear motivation for his current involvement in various aid organizations. His trips to the United States taught him how to love not only his own people, but also those that come from different lands. With the relationships he formed with his American bodyguards, he realized that though countries differ in cultures, everybody can show compassion towards each other. Despite his understanding of what has been taught to them back home before visiting the U. S., he learned that there is no and there is no need to have a great divide between countries. “… even in times of tension and mistrust, people from two different cultures can form strong friendships that surpass all understanding.”
He has been an ambassador of the Red Cross Society of China since 2006. He also formed his own non-profit foundation known as The One Foundation. In 2010, he was appointed as the first Goodwill Ambassador by the International Red Cross. Jet also founded Taiji Zen, a lifestyle company promoting physical and mental health the following year. Most of his charity works focus on mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
His career in acting started when he was chosen to star in Shao Lin Tzu/Shaolin Temple (1979), which had three series. This gave him a superstar status in the industry as it was the start of the Kung Fu hype in mainland China. He then continued being a martial artist star in Hong Kong.
Some of his Chinese movies are Once Upon a time in China, Fist of Legend (a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury), and Fong sai Yuk.
Lethal Weapon 4 was his very first movie in Hollywood, wherein he also played his first role as a villain. He agreed to do this villain role with producer Joel Silver’s promise that Jet would star in his next film Romeo Must Die. He starred alongside the late singer Aaliyah in the latter, and the movie became a hit.
But Jet is not all about just making movies – he does not care about fame, because he knows it is something that he cannot control. This gives him a clear view of his priorities and seeks real purpose in everything that he does. He declined his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) offer because he promised his wife that he would not make films during her pregnancy. He also declined the role of Seraph in The Matrix trilogy as he deemed it unnecessary to be included in the cast list.
Moreover, Jet made his last epic film Fearless which was released worldwide in 2006. This movie, being his final wushu epic project was announced in the Shenzhen Daily newspaper and in its promotions as well. He said “I stepped into the martial arts movie market when I was only 16. I think I have proved my ability in this field and it won’t make sense for me to continue for another five or 10 years. Huo Yuanjia is a conclusion to my life as a martial arts star.”
Fearless also served as a means to share one of three things he thinks the world should learn; that the only real enemy of a person is himself.
In Hero (2002), his message is that the suffering of an individual is nothing compared to the suffering of a nation.
Unleashed (2005) on the other hand teaches its audience that violence is never a solution.
His other movies include The One, Kiss of the Dragon (2001), Cradle 2 The Grave (2003), and War (2007). After a year of concentrating in his The One Foundation, he starred in The Expendables (2010) alongside the other action stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. He was also in the sequel and will return for The Expendables 3.
He also tried directing for the movie Born to Defense (1986) but did not gain much success despite the realistic fight scenes.
Jet Li has had even more adventures in life, including his Indian Ocean earthquake experience in the Maldives on December 26, 2004 with his family. But he is able to live up to his name – Jie, meaning festival – by trying to maintain peace and positivity within himself so that he could bring joy to others as well. Just like in movies, he is a protagonist who is able to bring out something good from challenges, difficulties, and serious instances, be it a life lesson or a funny memory.