What Does Water See? On Fighting as Perception in Bruce Lee's Kung Fu Films

Bruce Lee’s most famous saying was actually written for him by one of his advocates and students, the screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant was writing for the short-lived ABC show, Longstreet (1971-72). Silliphant wrote a character named Li Tsung, a martial arts expert who teaches the blind lead (played by James Franciscus), for Lee, in hopes of reviving his television career after The Green Hornet (1966-67) folded.

Silliphant’s lines captured Lee’s thinking so well that he repeated them almost verbatim as an emblem of his teaching during an interview aired on
Canadian television: “I said, empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless like water. Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow; water can crash. Be water, my friend.”

The monologue contains just the right dose of self-help guru spirituality to make it applicable to nearly anything, and it has proliferated in the years following Lee’s death as the cornerstone of the philosophy—implicit and explicit—behind his approach to self-discipline and martial arts as a form of self-knowledge. It obviously has strong ties to Lee’s conception of Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist”, his “non-classical” approach to fighting that attempts to draw eclectically from a range of fighting styles (and hence is often regarded as a forerunner to modern mixed martial arts or MMA). Indeed,
Silliphant’s lines were formulated for the character to use in teaching Longstreet the thought behind this approach.

Jeet Kune Do is meant to obviate the limitations inherent in any given fighting style. Lee posited that many practitioners were so enveloped in adopting just the right prescribed stance or performing the prescribed movement that they neglected to respond adequately to the situation of the fight itself. A fight, for Lee, is a
situation, an emergent and evolving place occupied by the fighter and his/her opponent.

Fists, Fire and Water by thommas68 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The way most people understand the admonition to “be water” refers to the fighter’s ability to respond. By always adapting to the situation as it presents itself, one is ready for anything. To flow and to crash become the equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s insistence that he “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” (Lee drew on Ali’s inspiration, particularly his footwork, in his writings on the martial arts).

Certainly, this is correct as far as it goes. Lee’s conception of fighting and his conception of identity is grounded on a malleability that, like water, adapts to its surroundings while also profoundly altering those surroundings. Thus, a river follows the trajectory of its bed, all the while cutting gradually deeper into the earth, altering the landscape by conforming to it. And yet there is another element to this statement that I believe is overlooked, a way of thinking that is complimentary to the theme of adaptability but that is also precedent to it. If the water adapts to its situation and also alters it, if it flows and crashes, then it must first, in some manner, take account of that situation. (At least in Lee’s anthropomorphic vision of water or is it his hydromorphic vision of man?) This is a matter of perception. The question emerges: how and what does water perceive?

The emptying of one’s mind and becoming formless that Lee recommends is (at least logically, if not chronologically) precedent to the taking form from the environment that he depicts as water’s wise habit. Becoming formless is here a way to open oneself to the otherness presented by the world, to open oneself to the radically unconditioned possibilities inherent in perception if one lets go of expectation, if one perceives through action, through involvement. This notion of perception as becoming formless is best encapsulated, I believe, in the fight scenes that serve as the point of focus and celebration in kung fu films.

Consider the climactic fight scene, occupying the final ten minutes of the film, in Lee’s first starring role in a kung fu movie, The Big Boss (1971). Cheng Chao-an (Bruce Lee) has decided to avenge the deaths of his friends by taking on the “big boss” Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh)—the owner of the ice factory where Cheng and his friends worked that turned out to be a front for a heroin operation. Cheng arrives at the boss’s compound eating from a bag of potato chips. He leaps the high fence from a standing position and then abruptly tosses a chip into his mouth. The boss exits the front door of his home holding a cage with two parakeets and accompanied by six henchmen. The villains notice Cheng standing in the center of the yard, casually eating his chips. The boss signals to the men to attack; they approach Cheng brandishing blades.

Subjective camera shots (a combination of pans and jerky zooms) reveal the henchmen and boss looking at Cheng and Cheng looking from the henchmen to the boss. The shots suggest that Cheng is sizing up the situation, that he is calculating his ability to overcome the immediate obstacles (the henchmen) in his effort to arrive at the ultimate obstacle (the boss) and then overcome him. This “sizing up” is a hallmark of fight scenes, whether they be contained in kung fu movies, westerns, or video games.


Cheng dispatches the henchmen easily. The boss steps forward as Cheng approaches. More subjective shots, centering ever more carefully on the faces of the antagonists. The reverse angle subjective shots continue as the fighters take their respective stances, their feet clawing at the ground to establish a firm foundation, culminating in extreme closeups of the eyes of each of the combatants—again this is a cliché of both kung fu movies and westerns (and even several video games); it is a central figure of the representation of fighting. But if this is a common signifier within fight scenes what are the possible signifieds that aggregate around it?

Notice that the entire scene up to this point concerns itself with issues surrounding perception. Of course, film being a visual medium, it ought not to be surprising to find cinematic contemplations of perception ranging across nearly all genres. But I would argue that the fight scene not only focuses our thoughts on perception in a particular manner (at least potentially) but that it also forces us beyond the commonplace assumption that perception lies within the domain of the cerebral and that it is somehow radically delimited by our subjectivity.

It is easy enough to construe this scene in the mold of our commonplace thinking regarding perception and action. In this account, the scene isn’t all that puzzling or revealing—it is a mere vehicle to get us to the display of physical prowess in the fight itself. The camera shots reveal what Cheng, the boss, and the henchmen respectively see. We see the faces of the henchmen express shock and they freeze in their motion down the steps from the home. A reverse shot coupled with an intentionally clumsy zoom (to concretize the henchmen’s surprise) demonstrates that they see Cheng. The zoom perhaps intimates that Cheng is a threat to them (which, of course, he is).

What could be simpler? Their perceptions (and later those of Cheng and the boss) are communicated to us by the camera shot; in fact, it is simpler still, in a sense: their perceptions aren’t just communicated to us, they are shared by us. When a camera shot shows us Cheng from their angle, we see Cheng from their angle. The perceptions are one and the same putatively. We don’t even have to wonder as to what that perception means to them, because Cheng-as-threat is built into the plot. In this way of viewing things, all the looking is just prefatory to the fight and builds excitement in reference to what is coming. There is no question concerning perception here; perception is transparent: what they see is what we see.

And yet, to buy this straightforward argument would be to dismiss this cliché as merely decorative, merely indicative of genre without any deeper meaning. That is the trick of the cliché and that is the trick of our commonsense understanding of perception. Clichés disappear into their situations and become ignored: that is their power; they do their work without calling attention to it. They hide their mode of operation.


Perception does the same. It seems self-evident that the apple I see on the table is what you see on the table. Sure, we can quibble about whether or not the apple actually exists and we can even quibble about the radically subjective nature of perception (the way I see the apple will never precisely match the way you see it). But as a perception, we consider the entire affair rather unremarkable. Perception operates so effectively in part by effacing its manner of operation, by making its rather exceptional nature appear unexceptional.

Something similar is at stake in the actual fight scene itself with respect to our assumptions regarding causality. The fight scenecan (but as we will see, need not) appear to be a straightforward illustration of a mechanical and behaviorist view of the world. A punch or kick lands, a body falls; a knife blow meets its target, the victim bleeds. Moving toward the psychological, we might claim a stimulus-response model is at work that complements and furthers the mechanical physicalist model. Cheng sees the henchman swing his arm forward wielding the blade, he dodges the thrust, and returns the assault by grabbing the man’s arm, using his own momentum to toss him to the ground. The larger realm of the fight as a whole is simply the composite of all of these mechanical impacts deriving from stimulus-response sequences on the part of the participants.

I would suggest that Lee’s fight scenes reveal the falsity of these modes of considering action and perception. There are several traps we fall into when thinking about perception, and many of those traps arise because we confuse perception with thought. We tend to think that either perception is practically unproblematic (I see the apple and you see the apple, so we share the basic perception and can move on to more interesting things) or that it is privative (my perception is mine alone, I construct my own world around me). Neither can really be the case and the Lee fight scenes clarify that.

In these fights, especially the fight with the big boss, we are led to believe that Cheng and his opponents are more or less evenly matched in strength and skill; if the battle were a foregone conclusion, it would hardly hold our interest. Therefore, if Cheng is to be the winner, it is more than a feat of strength; his success is grounded in a superior approach to perception, to seeing what is coming and acting accordingly. Clearly Cheng and his opponents cannot imagine their perceptions are merely privative; they must believe they are seeing and sensing something important. But Cheng’s advantage is that he recognizes that the manner of his seeing matters, it makes a significant difference.

Cheng’s (and Lee’s) manner of seeing is consonant with theories emanating from Gestalt theory. When I see an apple, I do not see it in a contextless void. I see the apple as situated. The apple is on the table because it was left there for me to eat; it fits within the set of relationships that constitute the kitchen as a lived space. The apple is on the floor of the garage because someone carelessly dropped it there. Now the apple shows up to me as being out of place. In either case, I don’t simply see an apple; I see the apple as a figure upon a ground, an entity securely ensconced within a place. The apple can be in place or out of place, but it can never be simply placeless.


When I think about perception—or better yet, when I think through perception— I no longer take perception for granted, as simply revealing what is there. So, perception, when taken seriously, that is, when we are aware of it in its rich paradoxicality, doesn’t show us what we already know to be the case, it reveals the strangeness of the world, it defamiliarizes. Perception plays out a dialectical structure in which it creates distance within proximity—and in this sense it is akin to Lee’s famous “one-inch punch”. A punch usually requires distance in order to build momentum and to bring the requisite muscle groups and bones to bear with sufficient force. Lee was renowned for delivering a brutal punch in proximity, without what was generally thought to be required to produce force.

One way of imagining this is to make it analogous to this notion of perception—creating a distance within proximity. For Lee, physical contact and movement is perception. Perception is not something we do from “behind our eyes” in the manner of a discredited Cartesian dualism—the soul lurking somewhere within the apparatus of the body, observing and making decisions that the body then executes. Our perceptions occur within our actions; we are bodies-in-the-world, engaged in the world, not removed from it. Perceptions don’t bring the world close to us across the chasm that divides body and soul, it opens up a distance in which the world insists on startling us, insists on making us alive to its never-ending revelations.

If the world shows up to us in the manner of our expectations, we no longer see it at all; perception no longer takes place. In seeing the world as merely what we expect it to be, we remain rigid and inflexible; we learn nothing and we fail to adapt. This is the paradox of perception. To see properly is always to see anew, to get a fresh view of what lies before us. Perception occurs not because something gives itself over to us to be sensed but rather because something resists our attempts to grasp it.

This is what Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to as the resistance of the sensible; this is the adversarial role of perception, if you will. The term “adversary” derives from the Latin adversus—”turned toward”. Things perceived resist our grasp as they turn toward us. Actual perception, therefore, is a response to a provocation. The adversaries in a Lee fight scene then become the scene as such. That is, they alternately become figures and ground within the Gestalt of an act of perception through action.

Lee as Cheng comes into contact with his adversaries as a connection to that which inevitably and insistently withdraws. The fight forces Cheng into an entanglement with the real; it obviates both the total separation between self and other and the total identification with the other. Their bodies move together, they are equally caught up in the warp and woof of the developing scene of the fight. And yet there must be moments of breakthrough; this is not a dance, it is a fight. Cheng must perceive his opening and then take it. He must perceive in acting and act as a mode of perception.


Notice how often Cheng leaps out from the center of an enclosure of his adversaries—usually via an impossible catapulting of his body from a standing position into a soaring flight over their heads. In one sense, this is the ultimate cheesy effect of a kung fu fight scene. In another sense, however, it is a concrete illustration of resituating the site of perception. In order to see anew, Cheng must resituate himself. He must reconfigure figure and ground. All appearance appears through something else (figures and ground); everything shows up to us within a context through which it gains meaning.

The movements of the bodies of his adversaries only have meaning for Cheng within the context of the ever-shifting fight. If the perception becomes stultifying; if the adversaries have constricted movement, then Cheng must reorient himself in relation to the fight itself; to force it back into the perceptible. That is to say, perception in a Bruce Lee film is not something one does from a safe distance—that is not real perception at all. Perception properly speaking is united with movement. Perception is an act and derives from action.

This leads us to a reconsideration of the Lee dictum advising us to “Be water.” In some ways, the monologue progresses through elision and metaphor. The water doesn’t become the cup. I won’t mistake the water in the cup for the cup itself. More to the point, the “water-in-the-cup” only exists in that form when it is in the cup. It finds its place within its situation. It fills the space available to it and in so filling that space, it acts. In the case of the cup, it adds weight and solidity; in the teapot it adds (potentially) heat. The water, in its state of flow, doesn’t become what it inhabits, it adapts to it, it responds. In fact, we might say that within the proximity of the water to whatever contains it, water opens up a space in which it can act. The river water touches the rock to its side and beneath it and in that closeness, all the while, the water cuts deeper into its seeming solidity.

What the saying presents as alternatives for the water (“water can flow; water can crash”) are really just two modes of the water’s way of perceiving its surroundings. Flowing and crashing are the ways in which the water sees. This too can be found in the Bruce Lee fight scene. The movements of evasion do not differ from the movements of attack and contact. Flow and crash are just different modes of the same manner of acting.

Cheng wins his fights because of his ability to perceive in and through action, his ability to adapt to the ever-changing situation without allowing it to slip into the already-known and the no-longer-seen, his ability to flow and crash as two different manifestations of the same impulse. This is an attempt to come to grips with an adversarial world that turns toward us as it withdraws from our grasp.


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Criterion Collection recently released a brilliant Blu-ray edition of all of the major kung-fu films Bruce Lee starred in during his sadly abbreviated career. Criterion went all out with this one. The films are beautifully restored. There are commentaries, subtitled and dubbed versions, alternate versions of Enter the Dragon, and interviews and special features on several aspects of Lee’s working life.

Sources Cited

Alloa, Emmanual. Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty. Fordham Press. 2017.

AMC. Bruce Lee Be As Water Philosophy video. YouTube. (date unknown)

SCMP Reporter. ” How Bruce Lee classic quote ‘be water’ from fictional US TV series came to be attributed to him”. South China Morning Post .17 July 2018.