Profile: Jet Li Lian-jie

Posted in Profiles by - October 31, 2013
Profile: Jet Li Lian-jie

Date of birth: April 26, 1963 (Hebei, China)

Other names: Jet Li, Li Lian-jie, Li Lin-kit, Jet Lee, Lee Yeung-chung, Li Lien-chieh

Occupation: Actor, producer, director, wushu performer

Style: Wushu

Biography: Born in the Hebei province of North China, Jet Li began training in the performance art of wushu from the age of eight. He won his first national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team three year later and was selected to represent China at state functions around the world. In 1974, at the age of 11, Jet Li performed a martial arts demonstration at the White House for President Richard Nixon to mark the reopening of diplomatic relations between America and China. Li remained National Wushu Champion from 1974 to 1979.

After retiring from competitions at the age of 17, Jet Li moved into the film industry. He was chosen to star in The Shaolin Temple (1982), a Hong Kong production filmed in Mainland China and at the real Shaolin temple. It was distributors in the Philippines who first coined the name ‘Jet’, believing ‘Lian-jie Li’ would be too difficult to market. The film became a huge national hit and reinvigorated regional interest in the Shaolin story, eventually forcing the temple to reopen its training facilities.

Jet Li followed the film’s success with two indirect sequels – Kids from Shaolin (1984) and Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986). Jet Li made his directorial debut in 1986 with the troubled film Born to Defence. Shooting had to be suspended after Li broke his nose. Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Siu-ming was recruited to rescue the film, although he received no directorial credit.

Li moved to the United States in an attempt to find fame in the west, injecting wushu action into a modern day setting for the films Dragon Fight (1989) and The Master (1989), but neither film performed well. Tsui Hark, who directed The Master, would summarily cast Jet Li in the role of his career as a re-imagining of the popular Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung for the Once Upon a Time in China series. Li, although initially criticised for being too young to play the part, received great plaudits for his understated performance and great kung fu ability.

Jet Li became the go-to leading man for Chinese folk heroes during the traditional kung fu film revival of the early 90s. Li has portrayed Fong Sai-yuk (for two Fong Sai-yuk films in 1993), Tai Chi founder Zhang Sanfeng (The Tai Chi Master), Hung Gar founder Hung Hei-gun (The New Legend of Shaolin), and a version of Bruce Lee for the critically acclaimed remake of Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend (1994). During this time, Li made the transition into contemporary action films with movies like the superhero crime caper Black Mask (1996).

Jet Li made his mainstream Hollywood debut as a villain in Joel Silver’s action comedy sequel Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) alongside Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. Li agreed to play the villain in exchange for a heroic leading man role in Joel Silver’s next film, Romeo Must Die (2000). The film’s success launched further American roles in films like 2001’s Kiss of the Dragon and The One, another Joel Silver collaboration Cradle 2 the Grave (2003), and the more serious action drama Unleashed (2005).

Li turned down the Chow Yun-fat role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to support his second wife, the actor Nina Li Chi, through her pregnancy. In 2002, Li appeared in Zhang Yimou’s ground breaking wuxia film Hero. The film would go on to become the highest grossing film in Chinese cinematic history. Li played another real life martial arts hero, Hou Yuan-chia, for the epic Fearless (2006). Upon the film’s release, Li said it would be his final traditional wushu performance.

In 2007, Jet Li won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor for his role in The Warlords. A year later, he collaborated with Jackie Chan for the first time in the US family adventure The Forbidden Kingdom. In recent years Jet Li has acted in straight dramatic roles, like his performance as a terminally ill father in Ocean Heaven (2010), alongside notable performances in the west, like his involvement in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables franchise.

Jet Li is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and an ambassador for Red Cross. In 2007 he created the One Foundation organisation which aims to raise funds for Chinese disaster relief, children’s welfare and philanthropy development. In 2010, Jet Li was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition which affects the body’s heart rate and metabolism. He is the father of four children from two marriages.

Speech! From “I’ve never had an idol, and I don’t really encourage that kind of behavior. When you idolize somebody, you only see the successful face and fail to see the bad side. It’s an imbalanced perspective… As long as you follow somebody else, you will never be able to transcend their achievements. To reach your personal peak, you must have your own style. That’s the most basic element of success.”

Filmography (as actor): 1982 The Shaolin Temple; 1984 Kids from Shaolin; 1986 Martial Arts of Shaolin; Born to Defence (+ dir.); 1989 Dragon Fight; The Master; 1991 Once Upon a Time in China; 1992 Once Upon a Time in China II; Swordsman II1993 Once Upon a Time in China III; The Tai Chi Master (+ pro.); Fong Sai-yuk (+ pro.); Fong Sai-yuk II (+ pro.); Kung Fu Cult Master (+ pro.); Last Hero in China (+ pro.); 1994 Bodyguard from Beijing (+ pro.); Fist of Legend (+ pro.); The New Legend of Shaolin (+ pro.); 1995 High Risk; My Father is a Hero; 1996 Black Mask; Dr. Wai in “The Scripture with No Words”; 1997 Once Upon a Time in China and America; 1998 Hitman; Lethal Weapon 4; 2000 Romeo Must Die; 2001 The One; Kiss of the Dragon; 2002 Hero; 2003 Cradle 2 the Grave; 2005 Unleashed (+ pro.); 2006 Fearless (+ pro.); 2007 The Warlords; War; 2008 The Forbidden Kingdom; The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor; 2009 The Founding of a Republic; 2010 Ocean Heaven; The Expendables; 2011 The Sorcerer and the White Snake; Flying Swords of Dragon Gate; 2012 The Expendables 2; 2013 Badges of Fury; 2014 The Expendables 3; 2016 League of Gods; 2017 On That Night… While We Dream (short); 2020 Mulan.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

Leave Your Comment