The Truth About Bruce Lee's Temper

Bruce Lee was a great many things: A master martial artist, a movie star, BFF's with fellow fighting superstar Chuck Norris, absurdly strong for his size ... the list is endless. The man was a veritable font of lethal one-inch punches and lightning-fast kicks, so it's great that he was such a mellow and restrained individual. Wait, hold on a second. How do we know that he was one? What if he had a temper? Imagine how horrifying a guy with his skillset would be, should he have a propensity for temperamental outbursts. That's scary, and also worthy of further investigation.

Fortunately, we know the answer to this one, and it comes from a source that should know very well. In 2014, Lee's daughter Shannon Lee answered questions about her father in a Reddit AMA, and she just so happened to address this particular question. So ... did Bruce Lee have a temper or not?

The Dragon could breathe fire on occasion

Yes, of course Bruce Lee had a temper. Despite his intense skills and training, he was a person, and thus perfectly capable of experiencing the same emotions as the rest of us, including some of the baser ones. In fact, an argument could be made that precisely because of his own, borderline superhuman devotion to constant self-betterment, he was known to suffer zero fools on occasion. As Shannon Lee puts it: "He was definitely human. He also had a temper. He was also quick to anger. He wanted things a certain way and he had high standards and sometimes he could lose it."

Note the part where she talks about Lee wanting things in a certain way. In a way, it's endearing to imagine Bruce Lee of all people in full dad mode, angrily demanding to know who took the car keys from the place he always keeps them. On the other hand, the mental image of a royally annoyed Bruce Lee is the opposite of endearing. 

Anger as a learning experience

While Shannon Lee is clear about the fact that his father could have a temper, she also makes a point of noting that even though Bruce Lee was prone to the occasional outburst, he treated his temper tantrums just like virtually every other thing in his life: As opportunities to improve himself. "He knew when he had had a blow up and he would recover and reset and apologize and work on doing better next time," she says. "That was thing with him — he was always in process and always self-improving and being the observer of his own behavior and trying to affect change." That's pretty great!

Despite heaping praise on her father's ability to bounce back and learn from his outbursts, Shannon Lee can't resist throwing in some extra information that tells us that even Lee wasn't good at everything. In true daughter form, she also casually reveals that her father "was terrible at cooking, singing, and handyman type work! Ha!" 

Bruce Lee's philosophy of gentleness

According to the Bruce Lee website, Shannon Lee's assessment about her father is on point and Lee's temper indeed gave him a hard time on occasion. Ironically, a key concept to Lee's personal philosophy was gentleness, which he associated with a sort of internal "non-resistance" from which actions could come. As Lee put it: "A peaceable temper is bred in man that emphasizes nonresistance and the importance of gentleness."

Strangely enough, Lee used his own temperament as a tool to recognize and cultivate the value of gentleness. By objectively looking into himself and his temper, he realized that he would need to develop his gentler side, which he evidently came to see as a cornerstone of his worldview. "I must give up my desire to force, direct, strangle the world outside of me and within me," he described his process, "In order to be completely open, responsible, aware, alive."

What happened when Bruce Lee lost his temper?

What was it like when Bruce Lee lost his cool? As Jake Rossen of Mental Floss tells it, things could get quite messy. In October 1964, Lee wasn't a superstar yet. He was giving a martial arts demonstration when, for whatever reason, his famous one-inch punch went awry and the recipient didn't even flinch. Though Lee quickly threw another and "sent the volunteer flying," the episode was amusing enough for the audience to start laughing and throwing cigarette butts at his feet. Lee immediately blew his fuse, and started demanding that anyone better than him should take the stage. He then flew into a full-on tirade, making a scene about being "the best fighter in San Francisco" and ready to fight anyone who thought otherwise. 

So, yeah. It wasn't pretty. What's more, some of the old-school martial artists became annoyed by Lee's upstart antics, which culminated in a fellow Wing Chun master called Wong Jack Man challenging Lee to a duel. On the other hand, Lee fought angrily and aggressively, won the 20-minute fight (at least according to himself), and allegedly used the drawn-out experience as an inspiration to abandon traditional Wing Chun and to start developing his own, more efficient Jeet Kune Do system. So ... good work getting angry, we guess?