Reflections on Bruce Lee’s Water: Does Skill Actually Matter?

Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee said it*—but did he actually do it? Did he flow like water? Judging by his performances in Enter the Dragon, Chinese Connection and Fists of Fury, I’d say: no, not at all.

Bruce Lee in The Chinese Connection

Maybe Bruce didn’t show his real kung fu skills on the silver screen. Movie audiences expect to be entertained, after all, and genuine soft-style martial arts applications appear staged and phony—an insult to the viewer’s intelligence! So we could instead look to real-life demonstrations by Bruce Lee’s surviving students: Taky Kimura, Jesse Glover, Dan Inosanto. Do they move like water?

Non-Classical Kung Fu by Pierre Hartmann
Chief Instructor, Chinese Boxing Association
Student of Jesse Glover

Now maybe if you squint your eyes, you can see a certain metaphorical or theoretical flow in Pierre Hartmann’s movement. Literally and kinesthetically, his application is as far from water as anything can be.

In the Analects, Confucius said that reconciling speech and action is the first concern of the gentleman and the state. “Fast and hard” is a perfectly valid approach to kung fu training, but why should we be ashamed to call it by its name?

* Sun Tzu said it first.

26 comments on “Reflections on Bruce Lee’s Water: Does Skill Actually Matter?”

  1. Personally i think what bruce meant by the whole water thing was to not just think like a karate guy or a judo guy or whatever. If youre in a situation where punching is appropriate dont think, “well i do judo and we dont punch so ill try and throw in stead”. water always changes its form, when adapted to new situations and I think Bruce meant that martial artists should adapt to all situations regardless of what style you practise. Also in his books, the fighting style that he portrays is much different to his film fights. More tighter guards, kicks emphasised low, much more close quarter combat. Like you said, the silver screen gets bored of that. (back then anyway, now I think more realistc fighting is the craze in films.)

  2. Who said that water is gentle or that flowing can’t also be powerful?

    Look at a flash flood. Enormous amounts of power ripping through everything in it’s path. Even if the first drop of water doesn’t move a house, the continued pounding by the water behind it eventually will.

    Like Marks stated, I think the idea of “flowing like water” was intended to mean that you need to adapt to the situation. Sometimes you’ll want to softly guide the attack in another direction. Other times you want to break the attack as it comes in.

  3. Your analysis is looking too much at the form of the fighting. The point is, as Wayne and Mark said, to just respond as appropriate without worrying about a specific style. I think Bruce taking the oppurtunity to bite the guys’ ankle fits that concept pretty well. You just respond to what’s there.

  4. Now who’s dining at bullshido? Just kidding, I see the point you’re trying to make.

    Personally, I’ve always seen chi sao as being pretty watery, and is pretty similar to taiji push-hands in principle.

  5. Water freezes, water becomes vapor, water floods and can be very destructive. Water isn’t only soft and flowing. There’s a great power to water. It carves out stone. I agree with Marks about the “become like water” referring to the right technique for the right time. I think it’s also about BECOMING that technique, to not be rigid and to let it flow out of your body regardless of what it looks like on the outside. We all express those techniques differently, but we still “become like water” when applying those techniques. That’s why it’s so important to have a full tool box, and to also know when the empty the cup. Movie martial arts is just that, made for movies. It’s just for show.

  6. Yes, water can be fast, solid, powerful and destructive. But doesn’t it accomplish all these things without using the JKD machine-gun approach depicted above? And isn’t that its essential characteristic?

    Gaozi said, “Xing (characteristic tendency) is like rushing water – open a passage to the east and it flows east; open a passage to the west and it flows west. Human xing is indifferent to good and not good as water is indifferent to east and west.”

    Mengzi replied, “Water really is indifferent to east and west, but is it indifferent to up and down? There are no people without goodness just as there is no water without flowing downward. Now by striking and splashing water, you can make it go past your forehead, and, by guiding and damming it, you can make it go onto a mountain, but is this the xing of water? [No.] It is the circumstances that make it so.
    (from Mengzi)

  7. no one mentioned rain, rain is water how come no one metioned rain.

  8. Well, what I see is that Pierre is moving his ENTIRE BODY in all of his attacks. Yes, it’s fast and much like a machine gun, but it’s also flowing in it’s essential nature. In my understanding JKD is fast, much like it’s Wing Chun predecessor, but in order to be accurate in this quickness you need to be able to have all of the moves flow or it’s just choppy and mostly ineffective. I think especially in this style it’s of utmost importance to flow like water. ” But doesn’t it accomplish all these things without using the JKD machine-gun approach depicted above?” Of course it does! Look at aikido, for example. It’s the ultimate example of being like water. However, in all martial arts if one does not flow like water, using every bit of their body, (moving from hara, dantien, etc.) the form comes from a place of strength, which is fine if you have it. “And isn’t that its essential characteristic?” Yes, water’s essential characteristic is mainly one of softness, but water can be very hard, much like a machine gun. Rain, right? Great comment BTW. If Pierre were to use only strength I think it would resemble more of a machine gun than a flowing example of what it is like to be like water. What I’m seeing in Pierre’s movements is precise attacks where the power originates from his feet, not just his shoulders and back. In that sense he is being like water. I’m sure there are times when he’s not, and I’m sure Bruce Lee had those moments as well (no one’s perfect…) .

  9. karrie thank you for mentionaing rain because rain is awsome i try to do most of my martial arts training in the rain or when it is cold and dark because stroms are awsome GO RAIN AND STORMS AND LIGHTING OH AND THUNDER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. how to develop yourself to make you strong in judo and kungfu
    some useful techniques used in every style?

  11. So you do not understand a bit about the “water” metaphor, so it is false?. And this said in a website that champions katas in karate, tai-chi, chi-qung and all that bulls***. I sense a bit of inferiority complex here. Maybe is because you know that what you practise is just bullshido. Nothing else. You should better start practising some REAL martial arts and then you would begin to understand.
    And, by the way Bruce Lee fought some boxers during his life. In fact, he yas a Hong Kong boxing champion in his youth. But you said in this website he never fought with a boxer, so either you lied or you do not know the facts before making a judgement.
    You also said that most people who rejects “energy healing” have religious beliefs. Yes, of course, and the supporters of KKK are mostly afro-american people. “Energy healing” is just a superstition. There is no proof of its eficiency, in fact there is no proof of it working AT ALL. Is just an ancient superstition, like taichi and chiqung. Most people who rejects “energy healing” have a brain and know who to use it.
    Bruce Lee was more of a martial artist than all generations of taichi masters. Stop difamating him and start looking to yourselves.
    Sorry for my fractured english, is not my native language.

  12. And, by the way Bruce Lee fought some boxers during his life. In fact, he yas a Hong Kong boxing champion in his youth. But you said in this website he never fought with a boxer, so either you lied or you do not know the facts before making a judgement.

    I actually said he never fought a professional boxer. From a 1998 interview with Joe Lewis:

    Mike Miles: I have read stories about Bruce Lee competing in international boxing while he was in high school in Hong Kong. Any truth?

    Joe Lewis: I do not believe this to be true. Bruce and I loved international boxing and he never told me this. Watch the early films of him in America working the heavy bag and you will see that he is hitting using Wing Chun punches. He is not delivering like a boxer.

    Mike Miles: How about the propagation of the JKD style and how they criticize other Martial Arts styles. No I want to articulate more. How do you feel about the way the JKD pundits criticize Kickboxing?

    Joe Lewis: None of the JKD guys at the time competed. I do not mean this in a negative light but none ever tested their JKD against any other styles and fighters. Not one of them had a professional fight record. They all talk theory but that is the extent of it. There is “no functioning in the line of fire!”

    Mike Miles: What about Bruce Lee and when you trained with him? Did you guys never spar?

    Joe Lewis: Bruce never sparred with me or any of the other name fighters from the 1960’s (Norris, etc.).

    Mike Miles: Then how did you learn from him?

    Joe Lewis: We would spend hours going over fight drills. That was the extent of the physical training between Bruce and I.

    Mike Miles: Do comments like this put friction in between you and the JKD guys?

    Joe Lewis: Many of the lower eschelon have bad mouthed me for years any way. These people who talk this way have never even met me. More importantly, none of them were around when Bruce was around and none have ever fought. Recently, one of the few JKD guys who has treated me with respect is Richard Bustillo. I know he loves and supports boxing but I do not know what his fight skills are like.

    Can you name one professional boxer that Bruce Lee ever matched with?

    You also said that most people who rejects “energy healing” have religious beliefs.

    Where do I say this? Provide your source, so that I can respond properly, or find the courage to admit that you misquoted me yet again. (By the way, most people in any sample group have religious beliefs.)

  13. Yes, the second link is correct. And if I remember correctly, Mike Stone tells the same story as Joe Lewis.

  14. Hi,
    This is a pretty old posting but I thought I’d put my 2cents in this. I agree with what Marks said (the first post) in relation to what Bruce Lee meant by water. I don’t think he meant it in the way a person should move but more like in the sense that you should be able to adapt to different types of situations/scenarios so you can fight different types of people who use different fighting styles. As Marks stated, if you are a Judo guy it does not mean you should have to try and throw the person if the circumstance calls for something more effective.

    And yes, there have been some interviews where the interviewee (forgot who it was) stated that the way Bruce does his fighting sequence on the silver screen is not the same as what he would do in real life. He exagerrates all his movements for the audience.

  15. I agree with Wayne.
    To flow like water means to adapt.
    Which means use peace if needed and deadly force if needed.

    I study JKD. And it is not the style but the fighter. And plenty of other factors. The point Lee was making is why use a kick when a grapple or punch is more efficient.

    Look at the UFC. They use what works. And I have seen the dasted knockouts and forced submissions when one person overcompensates or misses an attack and the other capitalizes.

    Like Kimbo Slice vs. Seth Petruzi(sp?) Kimbo overstepped on the punch and got dropped. Seth took advantage quickly and decisively won.

    Thats why I respect fighting arts more than anything else.
    Because unlike civilized society, one actually has to skill to win a real fight. Even the old west gunslingers had to be fast on the draw with good aim as well.

  16. Flowing like Water . u guys got that wrong.
    what bruce really mean by flowing like water its Ur Mind.
    Morden Fighting thinks To much.
    what i meant to said its Like Boxing.
    u always need to remember Combination or W/e Combo 1,2 ish.
    Bruce wanted u to use all Skills without a sec of thinking and just Do it with ur Body. its like returning urself in the nature.

  17. and what u see in Pierre Hartmann
    its almost the same to Bruce lee phlosiphy
    needed the shortest mount of time to take down ur oppent
    u see machine guns like what Pierre Hartmann
    was trying to do the most dmg in a short amount of time and take down ur oopent.

  18. honestly, I believe bruce never did actually have JKD or anything, let me explain how he beats people up, you know when yu play MW2 and you get a huge killstreak and its like you just can’t be stopped and are flowing with it, that is how bruce lee beat people, there was no style or art, he just knew how to win.

  19. 99% av Bruce Lee:s sayings and quotes are taken from Krishnamurti, Zen and Taoism. For example, the mind like water concept were videly discussed by samurai and zen monks in feudal Japan, not to mention another Zen saying that Bruce Lee took credit for “the art of fighting without fighting”.

  20. Hello. Bruce lee said empty your mind, now hear me, listen to these words, empty your mind so you can understand what i am about to say. be formless, be shapeless, like water.. in other words he is saying be formless, shapeless, like truth. for the truth is already in you just listen to it. do things that are good for you like drinking water. now you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle, so put the water into you and it will become you or in other words you will become water. be water my friend 🙂 dumbasses!

  21. Oh yeah and of course water can flow or it can crash. Just try drinking water, it can flow down your throat but if you drink too much your body usually knows when to stop and thus your throat chokes and it is like the water is crashing. now… be water my friend 🙂 just think of it.. drinking water is so important to not just a fighter, an athlete, but to humans. After all, our bodies are more than half percent water. The prepared fighter is one who has made the drinking of water his life; one who understands life is endless and to yield to temptations like soda or lemonaide or even orange juice is to be a kid again but to be a mature adult that wants to be successful at overcoming and conquering then drinking water daily for several months for several years along with good exercise is that simple strength that champions are made out of or should be made out of.

  22. What is it so hard to understand what bruce lee is saying here? the proverbs says that the turning away of the simple shall slay them and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them. if your some boxer trying to go pro and have a bunch of self glorified goons around you wearing bling bling telling you go champ kick em out but have no idea what a true fighter needs that is like the prosperity of fools destroying you. and the turning away of the simple slaying you is as a champion boxer getting into a ring without having kept in mind the vital things such as drinking water. now this is it. if you drink water as you ought to, then when you are in the ring, you can have that empty mind of which bruce lee spoke of, for your mind will be at peace because it is prepared, because nothing was left undone, is it so hard to understand? he said it himself if you put water into a cup it becomes the cup, where do u honestly think that thought sprouted out of his mouth from? from realizing that you need to put water into your body so that you can be a healthy clean good strong fighter. now if you want to “flow” like a fighter he has other sayings for that such as when your opponent comes towards you, step back and when he steps back go towards him and at the very right moment you do not punch, it punches all by its self. its called timing. if you become frustrated as a fighter it is not because these are untrue it is because you have set them at naught and have not been faithful and diligent in doing that which was from the very beginning and the kingdoms of this world have prevailed upon you!

  23. Watch “the game of death” and you’ll know what he meant by that.

  24. “When you pour water in a cup it becomes the cup.” When you learn a fighting technique and practice it thousands and thousands of times you gain understanding the technique and your body restructures itself from the practice and understanding. “Be like water” refers more to the act of investigation, exploration and mastery than to having a “flowy” style of fighting.

Add a Comment