Bruce Lee is known for the phrase “be like water“, but what does that actually mean? During his tragically short career as a movie star, the martial arts legend created a number of inspirational quotes, which are still being repeated today by athletes, philosophers, and more.
Starring in five movies in the early 1970s, Bruce Lee is regarded all over the world as the most influential martial artist of all time. His performances in movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury are responsible for launching the kung fu craze of the 1970s and the 1980s. And thanks to Lee, people everywhere developed stronger interests in kung fu, and martial arts movies became bigger than ever. Even though Lee died during the filming of his fifth and final film – Game of Death – in 1973, he was able to change the martial arts movie industry forever.
Bruce Lee was more than just an inspiration to martial artists; he motivated people in general with famous quotes like “be like water“. Bruce Lee said to “empty your mind“, and explained that a person should be “formless” like water. Lee said that because water has no shape, it becomes whatever it is poured into, whether it be a cup, a bottle, or a teapot. Lee went on to say, “water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend“.
When Lee says to be “formless“, he means that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be trapped in a certain mindset. Instead, a person should be able to adapt to certain situations, grow, and change; that’s how one can adopt the qualities of water. That’s the basic interpretation of the phrase, but there’s actually deeper meaning to be found in it, which can be more easily understood when looking at Lee’s background and his previous comments about water.
It’s important to note that many of Lee’s beliefs and ideas came from the time he spent with his martial arts master, Yip Man (the subject of the four Ip Man films starring Donnie Yen). Yip Man was a grandmaster of Wing Chun, a fighting style based on reflexive movements. The principles of Yip Man and Wing Chun had a lot to do with how Bruce Lee’s philosophy developed. After training under Yip Man, Bruce Lee had a realization when he would practice punching the water. According to Lee, it occurred to him that water was the “very essence of gung fu“. He discovered that no matter how hard he struck the water, he couldn’t hurt it. Though it seemed weak, it could “penetrate the hardest substance in the world“. It’s formlessness and adaptability led to Lee deciding that he wanted to become like the “nature of water“. The beginnings of this idea of Lee’s was actually depicted in Ip Man 3 when the titular character splashed water on Lee (Danny Chan). Lee believed that a person could achieve this goal of becoming like water through the “art of detachment“, which involved emptying your mind and relaxing.
In 1967, Lee took his ideas and founded his own martial arts philosophy, Jeet Kune Do, a “formless” fighting style that embodied all of Lee’s principles, particularly his “be like water” quote, as Jeet Kune Do focuses on reacting and adapting, and dispenses with the tradition and rules that go along with all other kung fu styles.