Jet Li is easily the fourth most famous recent renunciant of US citizenship, after Eduardo Saverin, Denise Rich, and Superman. Details regarding his reasons and motives are scarce. But I doubt that anyone should be surprised or dismayed by Li’s choice to expatriate. He must be fabulously wealthy. Does his renunciation make him “despicable“. Did the United States make Jet Li a great actor and martial artist? Does he owe the United States perpetual allegiance?
Perhaps a little effort to understand is in order.
Last weekend, I watched the film Fearless in the original Mandarin with English subtitles. Jet Li plays the part of Huo Yuanjia, the historical founder of Jinwu Sports Federation. Early in the film, after the Huo Yuanjia wins a match, he celebrates with his friend and financier, Nong Jinsun. They are drinking from tea cups and Huo makes a face and says:
Huo: This tastes terrible.
Nong: It’s coffee. It comes from the West. It’s robust. Our country has grown very weak now. We are living in dangerous times. We need to regain our power and our strength. We have to learn from them, learn from the West. Otherwise, I am afraid our country shall continue its course.
Such words are not merely meant for the period in which the film is set, the early 20th century, but for today, in the global competition between China and the United States for economic dominance. Later in the film, Huo Yuanjia faces the British champion Hercules O’Brien, a famous historic match. But the film, which is a fictional retelling of Huo Yuanjia’s legend, recasts the British fighter as an American, and the pride of China has now defeated an American. Not only so, but Huo magnanimously saves O’Brien from death during the bout, and the American concedes defeat and himself raises Huo’s hand in victory. The Australian Nathan Jones, who towers at 6′-11″, plays the part of O’Brien. Standing opposite the diminutive Jet Li, the match is clearly a case of David (China) versus Goliath (the USA).
When it comes to Martial Arts, Jet Li is the real McCoy. According to his website, he was a five-time All-Around National Wushu Champion of China before retiring from formal competition at the age of 17. For many aficionados of martial arts, Jet Li’s American period has been a let down, as the Hollywood choreographers were unable to display properly Li’s awesome abilities. Perhaps American producers had to hold Jet Li back so that he would not kill Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Yuen Wo Ping choreographed Fearless (2006), and the fights scenes are spectacular.
In Fearless, arrogance and a desire for revenge are Huo Yuanjia’s undoing. First, he kills his rival to settle a wrong without hearing both sides of the story, trashing Nong’s restaurant in the process; this leads to the vengeance slaying of his daughter and his mother. Huo flees to the country to escape himself and settles among poor rice farmers who set him on the correct path again. Later, Huo Yuanjia returns home but he has learned magnanimity in the place of vengeance, humility in the place of arrogance. Hard work, training of the mind and the body, remain as virtues, but one must learn to live in harmony with one’s fellow human beings. Fearless features the virtues of study, discipline, magnanimity, humility, and pragmatic eclecticism; these are the practices that lead to greatness, to David defeating Goliath.
Fearless thus is a parable of the resurgence of China and the virtues that will set China back into prominence. America and the West have become lazy and arrogant; recent articles show that while US students have pretty average math skills, they score the highest in self-confidence. They don’t work hard, but they think that they are the best. In contrast, Fearless extols the virtues with which the Chinese will both win the competition for global dominance and also have many friends in the world. Perhaps, Jet Li now has returned to Asia (Singapore) to promote these cultural values. A man who makes such a film must not only be proud of his heritage, but he must want to promote the values that will lead to the resurgence of his Chinese people. United States citizenship only hinders these aspirations.