BEIJING — Bruce Lee is getting a belated hero’s welcome in China, with the country’s state broadcaster set to air a 50-part primetime series on the late kung fu star.
Lee became a chest-thumping source of nationalistic pride to Chinese around the world with his characters who defended the Chinese against oppressors in a series of movies in the early 1970s. But his influence wasn’t felt immediately in China, which was then a closed communist country.
Lee’s films started surfacing in China on video in the 1980s — years after his death in 1973 from swelling of the brain.
China’s official China Central Television hopes to fill the void with the exhaustive 50 million Chinese yuan ($7.3 million) biography, “The Legend of Bruce Lee” — the country’s first movie or TV series on the actor, according to producer Yu Shengli.
Shot in China, Hong Kong, Macau, the U.S., Italy and Thailand over nine months, the series, starting Sunday in prime-time, will air daily on the CCTV’s flagship channel, with two episodes airing consecutively every night in a two-hour slot.
Unlike past films about Lee, “The Legend of Bruce Lee” is unusually detailed in tracing Lee’s life, from his teenage years in Hong Kong to his move to the U.S., where he studied and taught martial arts, to his movie career and early death at 32, the Hong Kong actor who plays Lee told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
“We’ve only seen the glorious side of Bruce Lee — he comes out all guns blazing, his films are entertaining. But very few people know what injuries he suffered and what grievances he suffered,” Danny Chan said, noting the series even reveals that Lee was afraid of cockroaches.
The 33-year-old actor, whose best known work is Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” makes up for his lack of star power with his uncanny resemblance to Lee with his thick eyebrows and slender body.
Lee’s message of Chinese strength in movies like “The Chinese Connection” and “Return of the Dragon” also matches that of the Chinese government.
“Lee had strength, agility, pride, intelligence, not to mention charisma to burn, which coupled with the pro-Chinese rhetoric in his films have made him a potent symbol for the powerful new China that is now rising,” said Michael Berry, a professor in contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“He wrote the word ‘kung fu’ into English dictionaries. He made people aware of China,” CCTV official Zhang Xiaohai said at a news conference Tuesday.
Lee is shown bursting with Chinese pride in a trailer shown at the news conference, bellowing “I am Chinese” to spectators after defeating a foreign opponent.
In an apparent effort to boost racial pride, the series was originally scheduled to be aired before the Beijing Olympics in August, but was pushed back in keeping with the period of mourning for the deadly earthquake in China’s central Sichuan province on May 12, which killed 70,000 people.
The series was authorized by the Lee family. Producer Yu said Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee Keasler, approved the script and is credited as an executive producer. It’s unclear, however, how Lee himself, who spent his time in the U.S. and then-British colony Hong Kong, felt about the communist Chinese regime. The Lee family didn’t respond to requests for comment from the AP sent through intermediaries.
Berry said China is also catching up on pop culture that it missed when it was a closed country, such as kung fu films, noting the emergence of martial arts epics in recent years. When Lee died in 1973, China was still in the middle of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution, when millions of people suspected of opposing the communist government were persecuted.
Top young director Jia Zhangke told the AP he was one of the Chinese youngsters that belatedly found out about Lee by watching his movies on tape in the early 1980s at “video-watching parlors,” which he describes as “a room with 15 or 20 chairs.”
“I really liked them. He fights with great style. Boys like violence. There is nationalism in his movies — he’s always fighting foreigners. I was very happy watching the movies,” he said.