The Liberation of Jet Li
December 02, 2008 | 10,964
Villagers have been lining the road to Sanjiang, awaiting the convoy's arrival, and now they slip and surge down muddy paths in the hope of getting closer to its head. A vehicle door finally swings open and Donatella Versace — of all people — shyly emerges from her sanctum of tinted windows and tobacco smoke. Standing in blonde tresses and heels, she is a fabulously incongruous sight here in the mountains. But the good villagers of Sichuan have no idea who she is. They are here, instead, to see her companion for the day — Li Lianjie, otherwise known as Jet Li. And when he appears before them, a great roar erupts.
The celebrity duo is visiting a school and counseling facility for children affected by the Sichuan earthquake, paid for by Versace and operated under the auspices of Li's charity, the One Foundation. The occasion is only theoretically private. Hundreds of people pour in from the road or strain at the wire mesh that separates the school from the tract of temporary housing it adjoins. There is barely room to stage the songs and dances that the children have so assiduously rehearsed. When Li and Versace tour a classroom, they do so while amazed farmers press faces at every window. Those who can't get close shove mobile phones through the bars in the hope of capturing a grainy memento. As the stars emerge, they find themselves in a perilously crowded courtyard of people and paparazzi. There are three film crews jostling for sight lines. Tempers fray, pushing starts and a local policeman begins to yell at the top of his voice at a knot of uncomprehending Italian journalists. Li's and Versace's entourages make time-out gestures at each other, cutting the visit short and bundling everyone into the SUVs for the long drive back to Chengdu airport and the evening flight to Beijing. It has been an exhausting business, spending a day in Li's wake. "Oh this is nothing," laughs his personal videographer. "You should have seen the crowds when we were in Shanghai."
The Real One
The cosseted youngest of five siblings, a child sports star and a big-screen actor from the age of 19, Beijing-born Li has known nothing but attention for every one of his 45 years. But the smiles that emanate from the trailing multitudes are often of a different kind now. They are not just the silly simpers that form in response to a celebrity sighting. They are also the warm, seraphic beams accorded to individuals who walk a righteous path. People generally don't ask Li to do flying kicks or the wushu horse stance for the camera these days. They don't even want his autograph much. What they want to do, amid the moral vacuum of modern China, is feed off the aura of a man preaching compassion and civic duty. When Li takes the rostrum, he reminds people of a time before land grabs, kickbacks and beatings — of a China in which people were not counterfeiting, short-changing, corner-cutting, milk-adulterating hucksters but virtuous and simple. "Before this country opened up, people were more focused on their spiritual lives," he says. "Since this country opened we have been more focused on the material life. For the sake of Chinese culture, it's time for a balance."
Established in April 2007, the One Foundation is Li's contribution toward that balance, and for its sake he has taken time out from films, becoming a full-time relief worker and traveling tirelessly on foundation business. This month he is set to appear at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Hong Kong. "Philanthropy is my passion and my life now," he says. "I wake up and eat and I'm thinking about it. I'm still thinking in the bath. I talk to everyone I can." It is difficult to name any other A-list celebrity, not even Bono, who has made such a total commitment. There are plenty who touch down in Africa between albums or movies, but none has actually walked off the job as Li has done, at the top of his game.
The One Foundation's name carries unfortunate echoes of Li's 2001 movie The One — an execrable film, which borrows from The Matrix to an embarrassing degree. Its plot — Li plays a cop saving the world from a version of himself who arrives from a parallel universe and desires to become a god — is doubtless some sort of comment on the struggle between egotism and responsibility. But it's far better to think of the One Foundation as so called because of its essential idea: that if every able person in China were to contribute one renminbi (about 15 cents) once a month, then an enormous reserve could be built up for the relief of deserving causes (and thus create "one big family," to use One Foundation – speak). Although large corporate endowments are solicited and obtained, the soul of the enterprise really does lie in spare change. Ordinary Chinese donate by patronizing one of many businesses that Li has signed up — by dining at the South Beauty restaurant chain, for example (one renminbi off the bill goes to the foundation), or by using their China Merchants Bank credit cards. They can also donate at post offices, through PayPal or via SMS. By these means, the foundation had raised, as of July this year, $13.7 million, the great bulk of which has gone to Sichuan earthquake relief.
It's hardly the biggest charitable sum that China has seen. Property magnate Zhu Mengyi has given away $160 million in the past five years (and the octogenarian entrepreneur Yu Pengnian has set aside well over twice that for the provision of cataract operations). But the One Foundation is not about billionaires. It is about a celebrity who has forsworn a pleasant life of premieres and parties, and the ordinary people who support him with their pennies. It is for them, perhaps, that Li places an almost neurotic stress on the One Foundation's "transparency" and "professionalism." He says he wants to run the organization "like a listed company" and make it a "21st century charity." Before discussing how a single cent has been raised, he speaks of "best practices," explains how the foundation's finances are independently audited by Deloitte, and name-checks Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey as his management partners. Scores of funds were established in the wake of the Sichuan calamity — in fact the public's response to the disaster marked an epochal shift in the whole business of Chinese philanthropy. But the One Foundation's businesslike style and the way in which it has made charitable giving a matter of a mouse click or a text message hopefully presage the sector's future.
Fighting for Nonviolence
To the rest of the world, Li's show-biz sabbatical may appear abrupt, but to his countrymen he is reprising the major themes of his life — self-sacrifice, service and discipline. At the age of 8, Li was randomly enrolled in a wushu class during a summer sports program. He had no idea what wushu was, which isn't surprising. At that time, wushu was only 13 years old. It was a committee-ordained synthesis of the various age-old Chinese combat forms (wushu literally means "martial arts"), intended to create a new codified sport. Emphasis was placed on the solo execution of martial stances and routines, and the system of point-scoring rewarded purity of form. In effect, it was a Chinese form of gymnastics, and Chinese officialdom was rather proud of it, making it an integral part of the country's cultural-exchange program. It reached thousands of foreign spectators, who fancied they were watching something ancient instead of the hypermodern creation of a socialist state.
Young Li was among the performers who accompanied Chinese delegations around the world, and his extraordinary ascent through the sport has never been duplicated. At the age of 11, he was part of a troupe sent on a goodwill tour of America and performed in front of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who jokingly asked the young fighter to become his bodyguard. Li's precocious reply — "I don't want to protect an individual; I want to defend my 1 billion Chinese countrymen!" — was regarded as a great propaganda coup by Chinese apparatchiks, whose darling he became. Li also became, at the age of 12, China's national wushu champion — not junior champion, but champion, period. He held that title for the next four years and performed in over 45 countries before his 18th birthday, trotted out like a national mascot. "I felt like I was carrying a lot of responsibility," he says. "I felt like I was representing a billion people and needed to do good."
You can see those sorts of sentiments running through Li's film corpus. In Bruce Lee's action movies, the Eurasian outsider fought for no greater cause than himself (the sole exception is 1972's Fist of Fury, in which he battled the cocksure Japanese). Jackie Chan made the action-comedy subgenre his own, reducing martial arts to a form of slapstick. Li, however, has most often played the sober upholder of national pride.
Li has made five films — Born to Defence (1986), The Master (1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991), Fist of Legend (1994) and Fearless (2006) — in which he protects his countrymen from cruel and rapacious foreigners, mostly Americans. In 1994's The New Legend of Shaolin, he is a Han Chinese rebel fighting against Qing (or Manchu, and thus foreign) rule. In Hero (2002), Li is an assassin who, to his own detriment, abstains from an attempt on the life of the Qin King, who goes on to become the venerated Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Emperor of China and the ruler who would unify the nation, standardize the Chinese language and commence construction of the Great Wall. And on it goes. If you want to picture Li's résumé, imagine it on red paper and bedecked with gold stars.
Of his films, Li considers the most important to be Hero, Fearless and 2005's Danny the Dog, in which he plays a senseless brute, trained to savage anyone running foul of his loan-shark master. "Everything I want to say is in those three movies," he declares. "The message of Hero is that your personal suffering is not as important as the suffering of your country. The point of Danny the Dog is that violence is not a solution. Fearless is actually about personal growth — about a guy who decides that in the end his greatest enemy is himself."
That is the thing about Li. He has spent more than two decades as a superior practitioner of on-screen violence, so all he wants to talk about now is oneness and universal concord. "The strongest weapon is a smile and the best power is love" is typical of the beatific remarks he ventures to anyone within earshot. The conventional explanation for this is that after a horrific near-drowning in the 2004 Asian tsunami, Li experienced a Siddhartha-style bolt of enlightenment and decided to abandon Hollywood venality for a life of good works. It makes great press, and Li does nothing to correct this idea, but the truth, naturally, is more complex. He was walking on a beach in the Maldives with his two small daughters and maid when the tsunami struck. The swells came up to Li's chin (he stands just under 5 ft. 7 in., or 1.7 m), but the group was able to struggle the short distance back to their hotel unmolested save for a slight injury to the star's foot. This was clearly a frightening experience, and the poor Li girls are scared of the sea still, but it is by no means among the first rank of tsunami survival stories. Rather than bringing on an epiphany, this relatively clement brush with death simply brought out the spiritual tendencies that Li had been harboring for years. The tsunami liberated him from the desire to make films.
Life After Life
Seven years before, at the age of 34 — when he stood upon the summit of the Chinese film world but had yet to venture into international markets — Li was already having existential ruminations. "I started thinking about life," he says. "I started wondering what it is people want. Is it money, power or fame Is it to see yourself in TIME" Over the next seven years his fame increased exponentially, but he was unable to completely enjoy it and ended up engaging over 20 different Buddhist teachers. "The main idea taught by the different kinds of Buddhism," he says, "is that the lower you put yourself on the priority level, the happier you become." Surveying the wrecked lobby of his Maldives hotel, Li recalled this lesson, and decided that philanthropy — a thing he had vaguely imagined doing in retirement — was not something that could be indefinitely deferred. Three years later, he had cleared his film commitments and established the One Foundation.
Today, he leads it from the front. At its Beijing offices, there are no p.r. minders corralling the visitor in an antechamber while the great man readies himself. He walks promptly into his own reception area with hand extended. Whenever he is in town (home is Singapore), he shares an apartment near the office with foundation staff, who must have scant hope of rest. He has addressed at least 20 conferences this year, espousing the kind of China that everyone wants to see. The most important point about the One Foundation, he says, is the example it sets, "so that when the Chinese become stronger we can take more responsibility in the world." In other words, it's not just about food parcels or blankets. It's about an idea of what the world's most populous nation can be. And that gets CEOs sheepishly arising from their cognac and shark-fin banquets to write checks. It makes the poor queue at post offices to offer gifts of a few grubby notes. It even persuades Italian fashion icons to sully their extravagant shoes in the mud of ravaged rural Sichuan.
Chinese Actor Close Up: Jet Li
Cool info on Jet Li, including pictures, videos, news, biography, photos, stats, and wallpapers.
Birth Name: Li Lian Jie, &26446;&36830;&26480;
Alternate Names: Jet Lee / Lian Jie Li / Lianjie Li / Jet Li Lianjie / Jet Lee Lin-Kit
Date of Birth: 26 April 1963
Birthplace: Beijing, China
Height: 5' 6½" (1.69 m)