Born Li Lian Jie, April 26, 1963, in Hebei, China; married Qiuyan Huang, 1987 (divorced, 1990); married Nina Chi Li, September 19, 1999; children: two daughters (from first marriage), two daughters (from second marriage).
Addresses: Contact—Jet Li Autographs, 1411 5th St., Ste. 405, Los Angeles, CA 90401. Publicist—Wolf, Kasteler & Associates, 132 S. Rodeo Dr., Ste. 300, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Website—http://jetli.com.
Member of Beijing Wushu Team, 1970s. Actor in films, including the Chinese-language films Shaolin Temple, 1979; Kids from Shaolin, 1983; Born to Defend, 1986; Martial Arts of Shaolin, 1986; This Is Kung Fu, 1987; Abbot Hai Teng of Shaolin, 1988; Dragon Fight, 1988; The Master, 1989; The Legend of the Swordsman, 1991; Once Upon A Time In China, 1991; Once Upon A Time In China II, 1992; Lord of the Wu Tang, 1993; The Invincible Shaolin, 1993; Deadly China Hero, 1993; The Legend, 1993; The Legend II, 1993; Twin Warriors, 1993; The Defender, 1994; Fist of Legend, 1994; Meltdown, 1995; Jet Li's The Enforcer, 1995; Adventure King, 1996; Black Mask, 1996; Once Upon A Time In China and America, 1996; The Contract Killer, 1998; and Hero, 2002 (released in North America, 2004); and the English-language films Lethal Weapon 4, 1998; Romeo Must Die, 2000; Kiss of the Dragon, 2001; The One, 2001; Cradle 2 the Grave, 2003; Unleashed, 2005. Directed Born to Defend, 1986.
Awards: All-Around National Wushu Champion of China, 1974-79.
Jet Li is a former martial arts star in his native China and one of Asia's biggest movie stars. Li has made the successful move to Hollywood movies, introducing himself to American audiences as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 and going on to star as the good guy in several action films. On-screen, Li projects an image as a fearless, efficient, yet stylish fighter. Off-screen, Li has an aura of calm and often talks about his Buddhist beliefs, hoping to spread spiritual wisdom as well as the physical thrill of martial arts.
Born in 1963, Li is the youngest of five children. His father died when he was two years old. Li was enrolled in the Beijing Amateur Sports School in the summer of 1971 at the age of eight and began studying the art of wushu, or martial arts, as a summer program. He was one of the few students, and the youngest student, picked to continue wushu in the fall after school. Apparently the teachers had already noticed his budding talent for martial arts; at the age of nine, he won an award for excellence at the national wushu championships.
Two years later, he won his first national championship. He went on a world tour in 1974 and performed in a fight on the lawn of the White Housefor U.S. President Richard Nixon. At age 12, he won first place in China's National Games despite cutting his head with his saber. He held the title of All-Around National Wushu Champion of China until 1979.
Li retired from wushu at 17 and pursued a film career. His first film, Shaolin Temple, released in 1979, quickly made him a movie star in China and sparked the kung-fu boom there. He later filmed two sequels. He directed a film in 1986, Born to Defend, but it was not considered a success.
In 1988, Li tried to break into American movies, but because his English was not very good and he was not offered strong scripts, he did not succeed right away. Instead, he relocated to Hong Kong, where kung fu went through a surge of popularity in the early 1990s. He gained a huge following through films such as the 1991 epic Once Upon A Time in China and the Fong Sai-Yuk series.
By the mid-1990s, Li has told interviewers, he felt burned out and ready to retire. At the time, the Hong Kong film industry was faltering, in part because of Asia's weak economy and partly because of Hong Kong's impending takeover by communist China. He focused on his spiritual life and studied Tibetan Buddhism. But a Buddhist teacher told him he had a responsibility to continue his work.
Coincidentally, Li soon got an offer to play a crime boss in the American film Lethal Weapon 4. He moved to Los Angeles and spent four hours a day with an English-language tutor to prepare. Lethal Weapon 4 became Li's debut in English-language films. He played the villain opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and, by most accounts, stole the show.
Next, he starred in the film Romeo Must Die, a sort of urban take on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The film, which blended martial arts and hiphop, starred the rapper DMX and the singer Aaliyah. Li played a member of a Chinese crime family from San Francisco at war with a black crime family. Li falls in love with Aaliyah, daughter of the black family's leader. A review of the movie in Time praised Li's martial-arts moves: "He hangs by one foot from a rope in a Hong Kong prison cell, and presto, four guards are zapped into electric skeletons. He twirls a water hose to subdue some villains, spins in the air to kick five guys at once, strips the belt off one oaf and hog-ties him with it, and goes spectacularly hand-to-hand with Asian-American lookers Russell Wong and Francoise Yip. In the battle with Yip, Li uses Aaliyah as a human nunchaku." The film made $100 million.
In September of 1999, Li married his longtime girlfriend, Nina Li. He told a reporter he turned down a role in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which became enormously popular and moved martial arts films into the mainstream, because he had promised his wife that he would take a break from working when she became pregnant.
Instead, Li traveled to Paris after his daughter was born to star in Kiss of the Dragon with Bridget Fonda. In the film, written and produced by Luc Besson, Li played a Chinese police officer who fights corruption in the French police. Richard Corliss of Time International described his action highlights this way: "Watch him defeat bad guys with the tools of domesticity: a mop, a bale of laundry and (ouch) an iron. Gasp as he kicks a billiard ball out of an end pocket, then swats it, cricket-bat-style, into a villain's cranium . He sneaks past a sentry's guardhouse outside the evil inspecteur's police station and, just to show he can, he rams his foot through his guardhouse door, neatly kicking the sentry in the groin. Inside, he chances upon 20 martial-arts students armed with clubs. Not a problem: he levels five of them with five quicker-than-the-eye maneuvers." Before the film came out, Li posted a note on his website warning parents that the R-rated movie—which was more graphic than his other films, with adult themes involving sex and drug use—was not appropriate for children. He said his next film, The One, would be more family friendly.
In 2001's The One, directed by James Wong, Li played two characters, one good, one evil. Owen Gleiberman, reviewing the film for Entertainment Weekly, criticized Li and his performance. "It's standard operating procedure in a review of a movie like this one to proclaim that the star, however trashy his surroundings, is a veritable fireball of charisma. I'm here to offer a heretical view: Jet Li is not charismatic." Gleiberman found neither the movie's good Li nor its bad Li compelling. But Christopher Noxon, writing in the Los Angeles Times, took a more generous view of Li while comparing him to Asia's other top action hero. "Unlike Jackie Chan, who is known for his comic pratfalls and elaborate stunts, Li has fashioned a persona that's sexy and potent," he wrote. "While Chan is constantly scuttling away from danger, mugging for the camera as he blocks the attacks of enemies, Li walks solemnly into even the most dangerous trap, dispatching all comers with economic flourish. If Chan is the exuberant jokester of Hong Kong imports, Li is the ace fighter, sleek and dangerous."
Next, Li returned to China to film the movie Hero with acclaimed director Zhang Yi Mou. In it, Li played a warrior in China in the 3rd century B.C. The film begins with a king congratulating Li for killing three assassins, but flashbacks show what really happened through many perspectives. The film, which opened in China in 2002, was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language film category in 2003. It debuted in North America in August of 2004, was released in more than 2,000 theaters, and set a new record for an Asian film, earning $17.8 million in its first week in theaters. It was also a critical success. Leah Rozen of People praised its "superb fight sequences" as well as its "satisfyingly complex plot, passionate romance, cool special effects, and strong performances by a handful of China's top actors."
In 2003, Li provided voice-overs in both English and Mandarin Chinese for the Sony PlayStation 2 video game Rise to Honor. He also performed fight scenes that were added to the game using motion-capture technology. Meanwhile, the 2003 film Cradle 2 the Grave reunited him with producer Joel Silver and DMX from Romeo Must Die. The movie was a remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang film M. Scott Brown of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B-but praised Li's performance: "Li—refreshingly unfettered by the overdone computer effects that marred his performance in Romeo [Must Die]—brutalizes enemy upon enemy with chill dispatch and increasingly baroque gore, weaponizing everything around him, from his jacket collar to an unlucky dwarf. He's the aloof yin to DMX's impassioned yang." His next film, Unleashed, another collaboration with Luc Besson, was scheduled for release in 2005.
Li, who meditates for an hour a day or more, says he is looking for ways to communicate the message of Buddhism and the wisdom behind martial arts to Americans. "Whenever I work in the United States, the young people say, 'Yeah, Jet Li! You kick [butt], blah, blah, blah.' Sometimes I feel sad, because I've only shown them that martial arts hurt people," Li told Mike Zimmerman of Men's Health. "I haven't had the opportunity to show them that the important thing is not kicking people's [butts]. If you understand Eastern and Western culture, you will understand the yin-and-yang balance. Maybe you will grow up." There are three levels of martial arts, he explained to Zimmerman. The first is physical, making your body a weapon; the second is using psychology to help win battles; the third is achieving an inner peace.
When People named him one of its "men we love," a runner-up in its "Sexiest Man Alive" issue for 2003, it found him meditating and studying Buddhism at his home in San Gabriel Valley, California. The magazine reported that he had recently spent three months in Asia to learn more about Buddhism. "In Tibet I was not able to shower for two weeks," he told the magazine. "There was no hot running water. But while I was there, I was truly happy."
Li was vacationing in the Maldives, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, when a massive tsunami struck southern Asia on December 26, 2004. He and his four-year-old daughter were in their hotel's lobby when the wave hit, and he injured his foot on a piece of furniture while running for safety. He later posted a message on his website assuring his fans he was okay, thanking the staff of the hospital for keeping the guests safe, and encouraging his fans to donate to tsunami relief efforts.
Thanks to his spiritual beliefs, Li has told interviewers, he does not fear death, and says thoughts of it can make living in the present more precious. Likewise, he can handle either further success or commercial failure. "In Buddhism, nothing is permanent. This flower is very beautiful now, but a few months later, no flower," Li told the Los Angeles Times' Noxon. He explained that martial arts movies are hot now but there are no guarantees that their popularity will last. "You hope your movie becomes successful, but all you can do is your best and keep your responsibility to yourself," he said.
Entertainment Weekly, July 13, 2001, p. 44; November 9, 2001, p. 83; March 7, 2003, p. 51; September 3, 2004, p. 56.
Hollywood Reporter, December 29, 2004, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2001.
Men's Health, September 2004, p. 176.
Newsweek, March 27, 2000, p. 74.
People, August 3, 1998, p. 25; December 1, 2003, p. 125; September 6, 2004, p. 31.
Time, April 3, 2000, p. 80.
Time International, July 30, 2001, p. 48.
Video Business, February 25, 2002, p. 17; August 18, 2003, p. 39.
"Chinese film 'Hero' tops North American box office," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Movies/08/29/boxoffice.reut/index.html (February 20, 2005).
"Jet Li," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=2:42291∼C (February 20, 2005).
"Jet Li," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001472 (February 20, 2005).
"Life: Biography," Official Jet Li Website, http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?s=life&ss=biography&p=0 (February 20, 2005).