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Jet Li Portrait Photo


This article covers the life and cinematic roles for Chinese wuxia film star Jet Li, also known as Li Lianjie (李连杰). As a martial artist, Jet Li contributed to the fame and popularity of Chinese wuxia films in the 1990s, even gaining international fame and recognition for these heroic, action-filled roles. As his career progressed, Li even moved his career to America, challenging his notoriety as a heroic actor by taking on new, refreshing roles as villains in Western Hollywood films.

However, even after his recent role in the new live-action version of the much-loved Disney film Mulan (2020), Jet Li has rescinded himself from the public eye, focussing on his philanthropic work and personal life instead of his role as a public figure and celebrity. Yet, there is a notable lack of coverage of Jet Li’s previous roles in film and his sudden disappearance, both in the academic and tabloid fields. Except for a rare, occasional few, almost no one has covered the influence that Li has had within Chinese cinema, nor his sudden disappearance as a celebrity.

Moreover, this Wiki Book page is for those curious of Jet Li and his life story within the public eye and personally, perhaps for long-time fans or even curious readers who are curious about Li’s role in martial arts films.


A brief biography:

Jet Li poses for a 2003 cover of “Inside Kung Fu”. From Inside Kung Fu.

Li Lianjie (李连杰), better known by his stage name and presence as Jet Li, was born in Beijing, China on April 26, 1963. He was born into a poor family, where his father unfortunately died when he was only two, leaving his mother a widower and a single mother to Li and his two older brothers and two older sisters.

In the summer of 1971, Li was one of the youngest students studying martial arts enrolled in the Beijing Amateur Sports School, where he has gained recognition through winning an award for excellence at the national wushu championships.[1] While training with the Beijing Wushu team, he got his nickname, “Jet”, because of his speed and grace, and even went on to perform for US president Richard Nixon but turned down his request to make the young martial artist his personal bodyguard.[2]

However, after injuring his knee around the age of 18, Li retired from competitive wushu and turned to acting instead. His debut film Shaolin Temple (1982) was interestingly the one that gave him the most fame and recognition. With his newfound fame from this film, Li quickly became renown throughout China and starred in the films sequels, gaining even more popularity. His recognition quickly allowed him to work in Hong Kong during the 1980s to continue making wuxia films, where he promptly acted in Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and its sequels.

Li continued to work in the cinematic field, even expanding his work to documentaries and gaining international fame for his superhuman-like abilities from his martial arts abilities. Li thus started working in the United States to expand his portfolio, starring in notable films like Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and Romeo Must Die (2000).

In 2009, Li renounced Chinese citizenship for Singapore citizenship and now focuses his time more on charitable causes, establishing the Jet Li One Foundation in partnership with the Red Cross Society of China and works to provide disaster relief to the people of China and beyond. [3]

Life roles

Celebrity’s life roles off-screen:

Student of martial arts

Where did Jet Li’s perfect coordination and graceful movements come from? In 1971, Li’s martial arts skills were noted and was sent to a martial arts school by his family, where he went on to receive an award at the first wushu competition held in China since the Cultural Revolution. The majority of young Jet Li’s martial arts beginnings was watched over by Li Junfeng, an established Kung Fu master and coach. According to coach Li, Jet Li was the perfect pupil, he was not just powerful and flexible, but also fast at absorbing knowledge and new skills like a sponge. Jet Li was among his 10,000 students, and trained under Junfeng during his 10-year time spent with the Beijing Wushu Team. [4]


Despite being a long time student of martial arts, Li revealed that the physical toughness he gained from martial arts studies did not translate into a similar mental strength. In 1998, Jet Li became seriously involved in Tibetan Buddhism, continuing to meditate, chant, and pray every day. At one point, he became so serious that he considered quitting his movie career to devote all his time to practicing Buddhism, but deciding to continue in order to use his fame and wealth for a greater good, eventually leading to his philanthropy-focused “Jet Li One Foundation,” which works to provide all kinds of help to those in need, e.g., disaster relief, funding grassroots charity, etc.

Although Buddhism is the lens through which Li views the world, he feels that all religions are focused on the same goal, stating: “every religion boils down to love, to a respect for all living things, to choosing peace over violence as a means of resolving a conflict. The essence is universal; it is only the means to the end that varies.” [5]

His first wife Huang Qiuyan has remained a steadfast supporter of her ex-husband even after their divorce.

Family-oriented man

In his personal life, Jet Li has been married twice with four daughters. In 1987, Li married Beijing Wushu Team member and Kids from Shaolin co-star Huang Qiuyan, with whom he has two daughters but divorced in 1990. Interestingly, he said his first marriage was done out of obligation from financial disparities, and never developed into a loving relationship. In 1999, Jet Li married a Hong Kong-based actress, Nina Li Chi, with whom he also has two daughters and is still with now.

Outside of martial arts and film related work, Li is often seen as a family man as a devoted husband and father. With his second wife, they employed an early learning specialist to get their kids to the top of their class at six and nine months of age.[6] Aside from a very early exposure into academics, the girls' father also gave up his American citizenship (later on to switch to Singaporean citizenship) in order for his daughters to receive an education there instead of in America. His devotions towards his family and daughters is also seen through the controversial 2020 live action rendition of Mulan, where Li had stepped back but returned to Hollywood in over a decade because his daughter wanted him to star in the movie. Here, Jet explained that his youngest child made him take pause, reflect, and ultimately agree to appear in the movie.

Screen roles

The celebrity’s screen roles:

Once Upon a Time in China (1991) with Li as the sole silhouette of the protagonist Wong Fei-hung.

Jet Li's screen roles can be divided into three characters: the historical hero, modern hero, and villain. Each role is marked by Li's martial arts ability, bringing action and more dynamic forms of acting onto the big screen for viewers to enjoy. Li does have some other roles but he does not play them enough to be notable, such as his role as a father. Li's two most notable roles as a father are in Ocean Heaven (2010) as a terminally ill and dying father and My Father Is a Hero (1995) as an action hero dad. Even then, his role as a father, especially in the latter movie is overlooked by his more prominent role as a powerful and swift hero, which is reflected onto his career as his notoriety as a hero in films overwhelm his role as a father.

The following tables show some of Jet Li's most famous roles and it is not a comprehensive list of all of the roles that he has ever played. However, it should be acknowledged that some of these movies, like Shaolin Temple (1982), Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and more, were turned into franchises of their own, having sequels and even more films that continued each role that Li played within its first film.

In the table "Historical Hero Roles," the word "Historical" is defined as having happened in the past. While Li is most famous for his historical roles that were set in a fantastical ancient Chinese setting, Li's historical roles are actually set in different periods of time. For example, Shaolin Temple (1982) is said to be set in Medieval China somewhere between the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907),[7] whereas Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is set in the late 19th century, during the Qing dynasty.[8] Thus, his historical roles are not set in a specific period of time but ranges from different periods, which show his diversity as an actor.

Historical Hero Roles
Year of Release: Movie Title: Li's Character:
1982 Shaolin Temple 少林寺 Jueh Yuan
1986 Martial Arts of Shaolin 南北少林 Zhi-Ming
1991 Once Upon a Time in China 黄飞鸿 Wong Fei-hung
1992 Swordman II 笑傲江湖之东方不败 Ling-Wu Chung
1993 Tai Chi Master 太极张三丰 Zhang Sanfeng
Fong Sai-yuk 方世玉 Fong Sai-yuk
2002 Hero 英雄 Nameless
2006 Fearless 霍元申 Huo Yuanjia
2007 The Warlords 投名状 Pang Qingyun
Modern-Day Hero Roles
Year of Release: Movie Title: Li's Character:
1986 Born to Defence 中华英雄 Jet
1989 Dragon Fight 龙在天涯 Jimmy Lee
The Master 龙行天下 Jet
1994 The Bodyguard from Beijing 中南海保镖 Allan Hui Ching-Yeung / John Chang
Fist of Legend 精武英雄 Chen Zhen
2001 Kiss of the Dragon 龙之吻 Inspector Liu 'Johnny' Jian
The One 最后一强 Gabe Law / Gabriel Yulaw
2005 Unleashed 不死狗 Danny
Villain Roles
Year of Release: Movie Title: Li's Character:
1998 Lethal Weapon 4 致命武器4 Wah Sing-Ku
2000 Romeo Must Die 致命罗密欧 Han Sing
2007 War 玩命对战 "Rogue"
2008 The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor 盗墓迷城3 Emperor Han
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) with Li in the background but still in the centre view as a debut villain Wah Sing-Ku.

It should be acknowledged that while Li's roles as villains are not confined to either modern-day or historical characters, Li has only started playing villains once he started his Hollywood career in the U.S. Thus, his career as a Hollywood villain more so marks a shift within his own notoriety as a martial arts and wuxia hero, and is a pivotal moment within his career rather than a defining aspect of his career. As well, he is more so known as a villain in the West, not as a hero, thus his heroic roles in Hollywood films are overlooked in the West.

Analysis of his roles

There is a stark contrast between his roles as a villain and a hero, as they directly oppose one another; the former wreaks havoc and evil whereas the latter stops and prevent it. As a person who is famous for being a martial arts hero, his roles as a villain also stand in opposition to the heroic image that he has in the public, perpetuating conflicting images to the public as well. Moreover, as Jet Li is known in the public eye as his heroic roles in the cinematic world, his own image is irreversibly intertwined with his on-screen presence. Thus, when he is seen as a hero on screen, he is also seen as a hero in public.

In various interviews, Li has stated that he strongly believes that "violence is never a solution" and the the greatest weapon is a smile and the largest power is love."[9] It is interesting, however, that both Li's roles as a hero and a villain work against his own beliefs as both use martial arts as forms of defence and assault. For example, in his role as Huang Fei-hung in Once Upon a Time in China (1991), his character doesn't allow his students to fight because of how it perpetuates violence, but ultimately results in violence to defend himself, his school, and those he cares about. Additionally, we do not see Li using the power of love or a smile neither as a hero nor a villain to solve any problems that his characters encounter throughout his films. In this sense, it seems that his entire cinematic career has been a direct conflict with his personal beliefs.

Substantive analysis of the celebrity's profession

A critical analysis of one or two films starring the celebrity under analysis:

Role in the film that correlates to his personal life

Wong Fei-hung and his martial arts students

Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is a film that has several parallels to Jet Li's own life. Like Jet Li, the protagonist Wong Fei-hung uses his position of power and his athletic abilities for the common good, often using it to help the less fortunate. As well, Fei-hung notably does not allow his students to use martial arts to inflict harm upon others. The first scene in the restaurant for example, shows Li screaming "Don't fight. Don't fight! He hit you? Don't fight! I told you not to fight!" (Hark 34:18-34:43)[10] at his students even when the gang are attacking them. This scene imposes the idea that Li and Fei-hung are one and the same in their passive, non-violent values; just as Wong Fei-hung does not permit his students to fight for the sake of violence and to continue violence, Li only wants to use martial arts as an art that enforces good and peach rather than harm and violence.

In addition, Li is a philanthropist who helps out people in his own life. While it is not disclosed whether he directly helps those in need through his own physical aid or just indirectly helps them via financial support, Li is just like Fei-hung in that he helps those that are in need and takes people under his wing. Fei-hung always feeds his students and takes medical care of them as well as the victims of the gang's wrong doings. Thus, both are seen as compassionate individuals who always help others regardless of the circumstances.

In terms of the film itself, Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is often seen as the benchmark when it comes to historical martial arts films till this day, which is similar to how the trajectory of Jet Li’s life is regarded. This film and particular role is one that Li is most known for, thus marking a notable moment in his acting career.

How social, historical and geographical settings in the film relate to those where Jet Li grew up or experiences in his personal life

American Troops in Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

The setting of this film is different as it is set in a Cantonese-speaking setting but Li grew up in Beijing, where Mandarin is mostly spoken. As well, the historical setting is different because the film is set in the Qing dynasty, when China seemed more backwards because of their lack of modern technology, namely the absence of the power of guns, and British and American forces outnumbered the Chinese in manpower and overpowered them through their guns, cannons, and ships. In having this historical setting with dominating American and British influences, Once Upon a Time in China (1991) demonstrates the idea of international presence in China and consequently notions of colonialism too.

Colonialism presents itself through the notions that the American and British powers are, at times, more powerful than Chinese powers because of their warfare technologies and their prevalence within China. As well, the notion of enslavement of Chinese people for the sake of American advancement and development also perpetuates notions of America being a colonial power that dominates over more foreign peoples.

How the plot relates to Jet Li's life stories

Hung Fei-hung in a suit at the end of Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Wong Fei-hung's gradual acceptance Western influence parallels Li's own transition as an actor in Chinese cinema to Hollywood cinema. One aspect of Fei-hung's acceptance of the West is his own use of Western technology via guns and cannons, the other is wearing his western suit. At the beginning of the movie, Fei-hung rejects both of these but is seen using guns and cannons at the climax of the movie to protect his own students and the other females on-board the American ship. Additionally, Fei-hung wears a tailored suit at the end of the film to take a picture to commemorate all that had happened. Although not much is known about Li's transition into Hollywood, e.g. his feelings behind his transition and its general process, it is known that he had to transition from the Chinese cinema world to the Hollywood cinema world. Like Fei-hung, Li also had to gradually accept Western ways of filming after being a Chinese actor for several years.

The celebrity’s contribution to their professional field (cinema, film culture, and beyond):

Despite Li's recent absence from the filmic world, his influence and impact of his works on filmic culture are undoubtably significant and wide-spreading. Li has made considerable efforts to incorporate traditional Chinese martial arts within his roles and preserving the authentic nature of martial arts in his films, especially when working with American directors and on American sets. This subsequently provides the Chinese community with more exposure in the Western market and beyond, and cultural value to the films he participates in. Li opened up Hollywood to wushu, and ultimately introduced more Chinese characters into the cinematic world. For example, in Li's film, The One (2001), Li replaced Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson after scheduling conflicts prohibited Johnson from joining the film.[11] In this film, the fighting scenes were altered to incorporate martial arts, as opposed to Western streetfighting. According to The South China Morning Post, "Li worked hard to give his twin characters definition in terms of their fight styles. He used the xingyiquan martial art for the evil Jet and baguazhang for the good Jet."[11] Moreover, Li explained the cognitive and metaphorical reasoning behind his choices, educating the wider community on different traditional styles of martial arts.

However, contrary to popular belief, not all exposure is good exposure. Some Chinese people were offended by various roles Li took on, such as his role in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), which included a "flied lice" accent joke. These jokes were negatively received by Hong Kong citizens.[11] In response, Li replied, “I am just an actor and I follow the script."[11] Nonetheless, Li can still be credited to have shattered some stereotypes and prejudices that Western audiences have against Chinese people, as well as using stereotypes/'typecasting' to his advantage so that he can get more roles and break said stereotypes. Scholar Sabrina Qiong Yu affirms this, writing "stereotyping may be unavoidable but it is not always unpleasant, especially if it can be bent to the advantage of transnational stars."[12]

Key societal, economic, political, moral, and historical forces that influenced the celebrity’s career:

Welcome to Jet

Impact through the rise of the Internet

Through internet stardom, Li’s career is often characterized as ‘the first firm star in the PRC’, ‘the HK/Asian Kung fu superstar’ and such, but is more so known now for his low profile off-screen life. [13]During Li’s early stardom in the 1980s in mainland China, he was characterized by a common trait in socialist stardom, which is that his off-screen life received minimal media attention, almost as though he didn't exist outside ‘martial arts films’. This image then transferred over even as though the internet popularly became a common occurrence for celebrities. Thus, during his thirty-year screen career, Li’s name has hardly ever appeared in gossip columns, his personal image outside film seems stable, yet somewhat mysterious, which to an extent is due to the media construction.[13] On the internet, Li’s minimal and humble off-screen publicity characterizes his persona, which also shortens the distance between Li and his fans. This image allows him to take the side of ordinary people, yet he stands as an ideal man incorporating the ordinary and the extraordinary at once and is a hero whom his fans look up to.

As an example, was Jet Li’s website that gathered fans together online to promote audience engagement, but mysteriously disappeared online without notice. This platform has since been transferred onto YouTube, but its content do not solely focus on his image but instead promotes kung fu/martial arts as a whole, as is now inactive. Through time, this platform reflects his gradual disappearance from the public eye and the cinematic world, as he now has become less popular and less discussed about—his name rarely comes up when it comes to conversations about action movies or martial arts movies—most people commonly think of Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee first.

Film censorship in China

In previous years, Jet Li has spoken out against the heavy film censorship mainly in mainland China, which has prevented many Hollywood films from ever making it into cinemas. Transitioning from Hong Kong films before making it to Hollywood, Li has seen a string of his Hollywood films banned in his home country. Romeo Must Die (2000) did not make it past the censors because it featured gangsters, while Kiss of the Dragon (2001) was blocked because Li's Chinese policeman character showed violence towards people abroad. [14]

While maintaining this balance between international fame and still representing his Chinese roots, Li has said that the need for realism, insisted on by censors, left "only the ancient Chinese stories to be produced", and "it is my hope that audiences can mature and develop to see the difference between a movie and real life; not everything needs to be realistic."[14]

Reception of the celebrity

General global image

As Jet Li first came to prominence, the star was mostly known within China for his breakout role in the blockbuster martial arts film, Shaolin Temple (1982), with Li gaining further traction in his subsequent roles in its sequels as a mischievous elder brother in Kids from Shaolin (1984), and a young monk in Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986). However, due to Jet Li’s ‘boyish’ Shaolin Temple franchise roles in the past, many doubted that he could take on the ‘legendary’ status of his role in Once Upon a Time in China (1991) as martial arts legend Wong Fei-hung, and he faced some back lash for his casting.[12] Nonetheless, Jet Li’s decidedly mature performance in the film pleasantly surprised critics, and the movie was released to great critical acclaim, launching his image within China as a versatile martial arts actor with a respectable range of ability. Following his breakthrough roles in American cinema, particularly Lethal Weapon 4 (1996), Jet Li's reputation as a martial arts wonder was firmly established within the Western sphere.

Li faced positive reception in the United States upon the release of Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), with Alison Dakota Gee of The Wall Street Journal writing, “[w]hile Jackie Chan may have charmed U.S. audiences first, it's Mr. Li who seems the likely successor to the international legacy of the greatest of all Chinese stars—Bruce Lee.”[15] However, this positive reputation did not sustain itself completely, due to events such as Li's undertaking of a lead role in Unleashed (2005) as a martial artist kept in a basement to be used as a weapon, which some viewed as offensive, demeaning, and even humiliating to Chinese people due to its reductive stereotypes. Despite this, as well as his waning appearances in films, Li has continued to gain fame and relative respect both within China and transnationally due to his large philanthropic efforts that aid a variety of issues around the world.

Citizenship changes

In 2009, Li renounced his Chinese and American dual citizenship for Singaporean citizenship, citing that he preferred the Singapore education system for his children. While some netizens understood his decision and applauded him for prioritizing his children, others, particularly Chinese citizens, felt that this was a traitorous, ungrateful act towards China as he was born and raised in the country. This ended up being quite a polarizing issue among the public, with half of internet users listed as ‘taking issue’ with Li’s decision in a poll conducted by The South China Morning Post, and the other half listed as having no issue with his citizenship change.[16]

Comparisons with Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan and Jet Li prior to the 2008 premiere of The Forbidden Kingdom. From Getty Images.

Due to their publicized friendship and similar talents as martial artist actors, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have frequently been pitted and compared against one another in the media over who the ‘superior’ martial artist and celebrity is. This ‘rivalry’ came to a particularly heated turning point in 1995, where Jet Li’s role in High Risk (1995) was seen as criticizing and parodying Jackie Chan. This led to some negative publicity for Li, especially when Chan replied to the situation, stating that the director was simply looking for a cash grab, and that “Of course I'm not happy, but what can I do? I cannot say 'Stop! Don't do it.' Naw, let them do it, let it be.”[17] Li later apologized to Chan for his portrayal, and the two are regarded as good friends.[17]

Image as a philanthropist

Interestingly, Jet Li's image in recent years has been more so tied to his philanthropic efforts rather than his martial arts. As mentioned by scholar Dorothy Lau,“ [Li's] various collaborative work with world leaders such as former United States President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, including American business moguls and philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as well the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, in highly publicized charity events and fundraising initiatives has further bolstered his global visibility and philanthropic credibility” (Lau 170).[13] However, this philanthropic image has not come without a fair share of scandal. In 2014, Jet Li was accused of embezzling over RMB 300 million from his charitable organization, One Foundation. Jet Li responded with sarcastic humour, stating "I really want to take One Foundation's RMB 300 million, but I didn't know how. Unfortunately, I do not have the authority within the organization to sign the money over to my own bank account."[18]

Critical literature review

"'Friending' Jet Li on Facebook: The Chinese celebrity persona in online social networks" by Dorothy Lau[13]

Jet Li's official Facebook page, which is still being occasionally updated

In her article, Dorothy Lau describes Li’s shift from an “ethnically” centred image to a more “cosmopolitan” celebrity image due to his philanthropic efforts, and provides an analysis on how this dichotomous image is translated to, and received in, the digital space by his fans[13]. The digital space she analyzes in question is a Facebook fanpage called “李连杰 Jet Li” with over 17M likes at the time (now, it boasts over 29M likes[19]), paying close attention to how Jet Li’s celebrity image is consequently deconstructed, and reconstructed. Lau also briefly analyzes Jet Li's website.

This is significant since Lau and Dyer, a scholar she frequently cites, sees a celebrity’s image as one’s social significance. This is an exceedingly relevant concept to this project—especially within the context of the social value of celebrities in the modern world, and their subsequent influence on culture. In this digital space, Lau argues that Li's digital presence, despite its "propagandistic" approach to his philanthropic efforts, successfully cultivates a celebrity image that makes Li look "connected to the world," with a particular focus on his roots in China (Lau 179, 186). Moreover, his apparent accessibility in the online sphere contributes to an aura of a willingness to invite criticism. This dichotomous approach paired with his avid philanthropy through One Foundation subsequently increases his appeal and star power, according to Lau.

The Jet Li One Foundation's Logo

Building upon the significance of Li's One Foundation and its constant appearance in his social networks, Lau proceeds to make a convincing argument that the charity largely contributes to Li's image as a cosmopolitan global star and philanthropist. She states that as the charity "encourages transnational, business-like models of giving," due to its focus of world issues, and not solely operating within China and aiding Chinese people alone. This was evidenced by "active involvement in disaster relief for Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan in August 2009" (Lau 171). Lau ultimately connects her arguments by suggesting that Li's celebrity image "reflects the trope of the knight-errant (youxia)", a key fixture in wuxia films, and that Li implicitly capitalizes on the values of his "cinematic appeal" and filmic image to establish his off-screen image (Lau 183). In this way, we see a connection between his off-screen persona, and his on-screen persona.

"Jet Li: ‘Wushu Master’ in Sport and Film" by Mary Farquhar [20]

This article analyzes Jet Li’s overwhelming popularity status as a celebrity in the modern world of sports and films. Starting off in the broad backdrop of China’s ever changing sports sector, Li was an accomplished martial arts champion, winning numerous championships. The author uses discussions on Li’s role throughout his film career as examples to correlate with how he is portrayed in real life, all while thoroughly analyzing Li’s true persona versus his on screen image.

While China has a fairly long and colourful history of film stars, martial arts stars circulate in their own images each with varying distinctive images. According to Farquhar, however, Li’s heroic portrayals through martial arts have moved from black and white melodrama into a more complex image ever since starring in Shaolin Temple (1982), which projects authentic sites of Buddhism, heroism and martial arts (111).[20] The author states that Jet Li showcases how celebrity status in the film is created through the combination of on screen performances with one’s off screen persona. His star image relies heavily on his wushu skills, and adds onto the screen as a martial arts hero and into stories of his life as a practicing Buddhist, a conversion enacted at the end of Shaolin Temple and later in his own life (Farquhar 119).[20] As Buddhism was part of Li’s first film role and is increasingly part of his private persona, he now focuses on more spiritual and philanthropic aspects, such as with the Jet Li One Foundation. Through these personal focuses, Jet Li has shaped his public identity as one who exudes greatness and ‘heroism’ in more ways than one, similar to in his on screen roles.

In all, this article mainly argues that Jet Li is capable of being an all around superstar: a wushu master among few true martial arts stars in Chinese or world cinema, and a celebrity whose star image builds bridges between China's past and present and between China and the rest of the world.[20]

"Jet Li: Star construction and fan discourse on the internet" by Sabrina Qiong Yu[21]

In this article, Sabrina Qiong Yu analyzes the construction of three aspects of Jet Li’s star persona, (1) authenticity, (2) sexuality, and (3) cultural identity, primarily through his (now defunct) website, Yu identifies Jet Li’s website as unique due to Jet Li’s notoriously “low-key” star image - in this website space, fans can feel as though they are aware of Jet Li’s innermost reflections that one previously would not have access to (Yu 227).

The author also mentions how authenticity can be achieved through plain interactions, such as using a personal blog and replies to fan mails, Li exposes his personal life to the public on his own accord, limiting industry intervention and media manipulation (Yu 234). In this sense, the platform is what allows empowerment of celebrities by giving them the opportunity to take more control over their own image.

Analyzed by Yu on 26 March 2007, the site had “176,936 registered users…and 138,096 published postings.” (Yu 227). In terms of his ‘authenticity’, Yu argues that while Li is interested in maintaining an authentic martial arts hero image and persona, he is not interested in maintaining that same persona off-screen. Instead, he is more subtle and humble in his off-screen persona—he is never caught in scandals and advocates for nonviolence. In terms of sexuality, Yu argues that Li’s own shy and introverted personality in real life affects his on-screen romantic endeavours. Thus, he is rarely depicted with over-the-top romantic interests or pursuits that Western audiences prefer. Finally, regarding cultural identity, Yu demonstrates how Li’s Buddhist beliefs and preference of non-violence helps to dismantle the notion that Chinese actors in Hollywood only know how to fight and are bad at acting; his identity then helps to better represent martial arts in Hollywood and also give more well-rounded representations of Asianess within Hollywood. In totality, Yu uses the complexity of the contradictions and similarities between Li’s on-screen and off-screen personas to demonstrate how Jet Li is more so a normal guy whose off-screen personality sometimes bleeds into his on-screen personalities, which allows him to be more well recieved by his audiences.

Cover of Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom by Sabrina Qiong Yu

Jet Li: "Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom" by Sabrina Qiong Yu[12]

Sabrina Qiong Yu’s monograph analyzes Jet Li’s entire career both in Chinese cinema and Hollywood through his films, interviews,, fan reviews, and more. She also compares his larger-than-life on-screen persona with Li’s more humble and discreet off-screen persona to further analyze how differently Li is perceived and received by Western (mostly North American) and Asian (specifically Chinese) audiences.

Chapter five of the monograph “Villain/killer/child: crossover images and Orientalist imagination,” specifically, analyzes the reception of Li’s martial arts abilities on-screen in Western and Chinese audiences. She analyzes how Chinese audiences are used to seeing Li as a heroic character, such as his roles as a police officer, body guard, or even a science fiction hero (Yu 105).[22] However, Li started his Hollywood career by playing a villain, such as his roles in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), thus, Western audiences like seeing Li as a villain.[22] In turn, Chinese audiences’ reception of Li’s roles in Western films were “characterised by disappointment and resistance” (Yu 109) while Western audiences preferred to see Li in his Western roles rather than his roles in Chinese films.[22] Yu even notes that “Western critics relish Li’s evil character” (Yu 111) meaning that it is satisfying to see a man often associated with heroic-qualities turn evil on-screen and his villainous roles are more well-received than his heroic ones.[22]

More interestingly, Yu uses Edward Said’s notion of the Orient and Orientalism to analyze Li’s roles and the reception of his roles. Yu argues that “Chinese/Asian stereotypes are often more negative and distorted than stereotypes of Europeans or Latinos in American films, and, in addition, often more complicated, in that they are closely related to the issues of Orientalism, racism and colonialism” (Yu 109).[22] Thus, in playing roles that adhere to Western stereotypes of Asian men, such as a “kung fu superman” (Yu 109), Li’s contribution in Hollywood only further perpetuates these preconceived, prejudiced biases against male Asian actors and Asia as a whole.[22] In other words, by playing roles that are based on stereotypes that the West already has of Asia, Li’s roles work to further implement them while rarely breaking them to introduce what ‘authentic’ notions of Asian men look like.

Critical debates

National and international reception

Jet Li’s overall celebrity image is built upon both consistency and contradiction between his on-screen and off-screen personalities, as well as the stark contrasts between his roles as heroes in the Chinese cinema world versus his roles as villains in Hollywood, which overshadow his heroic roles in the West and China. Yu's monograph shows a clear contradiction between his Western and Chinese roles and how their receptions by Chinese and Western audiences create a sort of debate between the two.

Jet Li in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) where he was cast as a stereotyped version of a Chinese emperor, perpetuating stereotypes of China that the West has.

In her analysis, Yu argues that the contradictions within Li’s own career, as well as the stereotypes of the Orient in the West, will never allow Li to appease both Chinese and Western audiences at the same time. In regards to Li’s Western performances, Yu notes that “[i]n contrast to the critical acknowledgement of Li’s charismatic villains, many reviewers describe Li as an unconvincing hero who lacks charismatic presence. The most notable comment is that Li exists only as a fighting machine without any acting skill, and one reviewer sums this up: ‘Li’s martial arts skills are as brilliant as his acting skills aren’t’” (Yu 112).[22] However, on the other hand, Li made his breakthrough in the cinematic world because of his martial arts skills, which was always used to enforce good. For example, his role as Wong Fei-hung demonstrated how martial arts can be used to protect the weak and helpless, is a form of self-defense and can enforce peace. Thus, in the Chinese cinematic world, martial arts is often associated with good, directly opposing to the notion of martial arts as a form of violence that appeals to the action genre. These values then explain what Yu describes as the “vociferous anger, disappointment and regret” (Yu 111) that Chinese audiences exhibited to Li’s roles in Hollywood.[22] The differences in reception can be best explained by Yu herself:

“The different kinds of reception are due to the different perception of Asianess they have and the different values that they have. While Wushu is seen as an art in China/HK, it’s used as a form of violence that perpetuates notions of stereotypes that Western audiences have—they fit into the mold that Hollywood has already made for Asians. It can be argued that Li took a these villainous roles in Hollywood just for the reason to expand his fame but he was only given roles that Hollywood had that fit his background and looks. Not cognitive dissonance but a desire for fame and notoriety” (Yu 116).[22]

Moreover, the different receptions of Li's cinematic career in the West and in China can be best explained by the different values that each audience hold; Chinese audiences see martial arts as an art itself, one that is used for good and prevents harm, whereas Western audiences devalue martial arts, seeing it as a part of the image of the stereotypical Asian man, and uses it for their own entertainment.

Varied identity due to lack of filmic works in late career and social media

In Jet Li's persona, there exists a strange dichotomy of being one of the most iconic Chinese trailblazers in Western cinema due to his worldwide exposure for film media, and his philanthropy attempts seeming to precede his cinematic impact. Namely, his current philanthropic work seems to eclipse his heroic identity from his on-screen roles, and yet also perpetuates his heroic identity because he is a 'real-life hero' who does admirable acts to help others. This confuses people of what he’s known for, and where this identity originated—on screen, or off. As shown through our review, it is argued that social media attributed much of his ‘identity’ afterwards, despite his relatively sparse posting. His lack of on-screen and internet presence could be entirely due to the fact that Li is now an older gentleman who suffers from hyperthyroidism, and thus he wants to focus more on his passive, charity work, instead of his active work in martial arts and cinema. Nonetheless, as a nationalistic identity was traded in for a transnational icon status as time went on, and popularity was gained in other global fronts, it brings our question of what 'persona' really means in the wake of social media. Is it the number of comments? The number of views a post gets? Or, is it soft power?

We believe that this identity is based off of current public opinion and perceptions on his on-screen and off-screen image—the internet’s public opinion is Jet Li’s identity, and it changes at any given time. Whether he is an introverted enigma, a philanthropist, a retired martial arts legend, or something else entirely, each comment and 'like' on social media and the Internet changes his identity. We can see that Jet Li’s identity is an amorphous object that is entirely constructed by the court of public opinion (and speculation), and therefore, has no set identity, despite what these scholars may claim it to be at a given point in time. His physical identity and appearance can also be seen as amorphous, even, due to the images circulating around the internet (they are all from different parts of his life, as shown on his Facebook page[19]), it is not a recent or ‘accurate’ picture, but that is the primary image people think of when they think of ‘Jet Li’ as a character, both on and off screen.

Disparity between on-screen sexuality/audience perception

How do Li’s fans respond to his constructed “shy” personality on- vs. off-screen, and “Lack of sexuality” over media? This often then translates to fan curiosity towards his mysterious and compelling portrayals. As discussed, Jet Li off-screen is often seen as a humble individual that doesn’t have much of an internet presence, while fans and audiences still sexualize him for his martial arts capabilities. Li’s persona of the ‘shy but reliable man is somewhat constructed from his star persona in performing romantic scenes, which in turn gains him the loyalty of female fans around the world.[12] When it comes to sexuality, Li’s publicized private images correspond to his on-screen persona, which blurs the line between reality and the cinematic world.

In the eyes of his fans, Jet Li's character is seen as an ‘ordinary hero’, a ‘moral model’ and a ‘sex icon’ (the last of these, mostly among female fans)[12]; these ideas argue that Li’s star image is built from both consistency and contradiction between his on-screen and off-screen personalities. It is believed that through these contradictions, using opposing terms such as ‘superhero/normal guy’ versus ‘shy man/sex idol’, the audience can constitute multiple meanings for his holistic character within a new generation of North American Jet Li fans.


The beginning portions of this wiki page explored Jet Li’s background and rise to stardom, evaluating how his growing environment helped shape him into a martial artist and prepared him for his ambitious future career. We also evaluated the multiple roles he played and still continues to portray off-screen, associated with his personal and private life with religion and family. Through further analysis, various on-screen roles in the categories of the historical hero, modern hero, and villain were discussed, more critically evaluating how each of these roles serves to have an impact on his professional career being marked by martial arts, and bringing action and more dynamic forms of acting to the screen. Under the substantive analysis of Jet Li’s celebrity profession, we analyzed one of Li’s representative films, Once Upon a Time in China (1991), which is what originally brought fame and marked his acting career, and also reflects some personal values Li upholds such as now being a philanthropist who focuses on helping others.

Here, we’ve analyzed Jet Li from a predominantly Western perspective. It would, however, be very interesting to see how a Chinese or Asian perspective sees Li both on-screen and off-screen. For example, how Jet Li's roles as heroes in the Chinese cinematic world have contributed to the wuxia genre or to the martial arts field as a whole. In what ways has he helped benchmark the wuxia genre? Has he helped maintain the traditions of martial arts in a modern-day world where technology seems to override and overpower manpower? Moreover, it would be worthy to analyze Jet Li from a Chinese or Asian standpoint to see the full extent of his impact.


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  3. Editors (April 2, 2014). "A&E Television Networks: Jet Li Biography".
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  5. Ahmed, Naushin. "Celebrity Spotlight: The Lightning-fast Buddhist".
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  7. "Shaolin Temple (1982 film)". Wikipedia. Retrieved November 13, 2022.
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  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Havis, Richard James (Nov. 14, 2021). "Jet Li in America: how Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die, the Chinese martial arts star's first two Hollywood movies, took shape". South China Morning Post. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Yu, Sabrina Qiong (2012). Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom. 22 George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.CS1 maint: location (link)
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  14. 14.0 14.1 The Guardian Staff and Agencies (Aug. 20, 2007). "Jet Li calls for Chinese censors to relax grip". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. Gee, Alison Dakota (Aug. 14, 1998). "Jet Li Gets Evil in 'Lethal 4'". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  16. Sun and Chen, Andrew and Vivian (Jul. 3, 2009). "Jet Li's citizenship change no big deal". South China Morning Post. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  17. 17.0 17.1 D., Spence (1996). "Jackie Chan flashback". IGN. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  18. "Jet Li jokes about embezzlement accusations". Yahoo News.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Li, Jet. "Jet Li Facebook Fan Page". Facebook.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Farquhar, Mary (Feb. 10, 2010). "Jet Li: 'Wushu Master' in Sport and Film". Hong Kong University Press, HKU. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  21. Yu, Sabrina Qiong (2010). "Jet Li: Star construction and fan discourse on the internet". Chinese Film Stars: 1st edition.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 22.5 22.6 22.7 22.8 Yu, Sabrina Qiong (2012). "Villain/killer/child: crossover images and Orientalist imagination". Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and International Film Stardom. 22 George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 105–126.CS1 maint: location (link)


UBC Asian Centre, Bell Shrine, Winter 2013.JPG
This resource was created by Michelle Liu, Angelia Tu, and Jennifer You.