Shannon Lee, daughter of legendary martial artist and pop culture icon Bruce Lee, denounced President Donald Trump’s use of the term “kung flu” as a nickname for COVID-19. She also shared thoughts on harnessing the philosophy of kung fu to overcome the insult.
Lee, who regularly writes and speaks on her father’s philosophies, told NBC Asian America the president’s racist rhetoric runs counter to the actual spirit of the practice of kung fu as well as the late icon’s teachings. Trump used the term at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally last week after joking that the coronavirus "has more names than any disease in history."
"I can name 'kung flu,'" Trump told the crowd. "I can name 19 different versions of names."
Despite backlash from the Asian American community, the president uttered the phrase again just days later, before a crowd at Dream City Church in Phoenix while his supporters chanted the term as a sort of rallying cry. Many officials have also doubled down on Trump’s words, with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who previously slammed the terminology as “highly offensive,” defending him.
Buzz Patterson, a Republican candidate running for a House seat in California, went so far as to rhetorically ask, “If ‘kung flu’ is racist, does that make Bruce Lee and ‘kung fu’ movies racist?”
“Saying 'kung flu' is in some ways similar to someone sticking their fingers in the corners of their eyes and pulling them out to represent an Asian person,” Shannon Lee said. “It's a joke at the expense of a culture and of people. It is very much a racist comment ... in particular in the context of the times because it is making people unsafe.”
She added, laughing upon hearing Patterson’s rationale: “My father fought against racism in his movies. Like, literally.”
Lee pointed out that in Chinese, the term “kung fu” refers to any discipline or skill that is achieved through hard work and practice. In referring to Chinese martial arts, she noted kung fu is a centuries-old, time-honored tradition grounded in fortitude and courage.
Given the hate attacks and violence that have coincided with the use of terms like “kung flu” and “Chinese virus,” Lee said she finds the language troubling, particularly when keeping the roots of the martial arts practice in mind.
“From a very pure martial arts standpoint, I think it's not appropriate for it to be used in this way,” she said. “It seems so diametrically opposed to the notion of kung fu. Kung fu is to build inner strength.”
Lee cautioned against normalizing such “divisive speech,” emphasizing that in various aspects of her father’s life, he strived, instead, to cultivate unity. He actively hit back against reducing cultures to a stereotype.
While trying to make it in Hollywood, Bruce Lee refused to take roles that cast Chinese people in a negative light, thus losing out on certain opportunities. He ultimately moved back to Hong Kong due, in part, to the difficulty in finding appropriate roles.
“He didn't believe in wanting to put forth these negative, stereotyping portrayals of people. He himself believed very much and worked very hard on himself, at being the best version of himself that he could be, being the most authentic and real expression of himself as a human being,” she said. “And that was what he wanted to share with the world. … He wanted to present something more real, more powerful and more authentically from himself, and that reflected his culture.”
Lee noted that her father's respect for cultures and efforts to foster solidarity extended beyond his time in Hollywood. He also applied this mentality within martial arts: He believed the traditional styles had a tendency to separate people, as practitioners wouldn’t reach across genres to learn from others, so he incorporated styles from various cultures into his own practice.
“He had different sayings like, ‘Under the sky, under the heavens, we're all one family,’” she said. “He wanted to be considered first and foremost as a human being.”
Lee acknowledged that amid the rising anti-Asian sentiment, many Asian Americans may feel uneasy. But she noted that at the center of kung fu practice is a sense of “patience in developing oneself” and said people in the community shouldn’t internalize such hateful words.
“Let what other people are saying or doing be a reflection of them and not a reflection of you,” she said.