After three years of intensive training with Wu Bin, Li won his first national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team. After retiring from wushu at age 17, he went on to win great acclaim in China as an actor making his debut with the film Shaolin Temple (1982). He went on to star in many critically acclaimed martial arts epic films, most notably the Once Upon A Time In China series, in which he portrayed folk hero Wong Fei-hung.
Early life and martial arts career
Li was eight when his talent for wushu was noticed at a summer course at school, and he began his practice there. Li participated in the sport of wushu in the non-sparring event. He began his wushu on the Beijing Wushu Team, an athletic group organized to perform martial arts forms during the All China Games. He was coached by renowned wushu coaches Li Junfeng and Wu Bin, who made extra efforts to help the talented boy develop. Wu Bin even bought food for Li's family because they could not afford to buy meat, which was essential for the good physical condition of an athlete. As a member of the team, he received wushu training and went on to win fifteen gold medals and one silver medal in Chinese wushu championships, where, despite his young age, he competed against adults. According to Li, once, as a child, when the Chinese National Wushu Team went to perform for President Richard Nixon in the United States, he was asked by Nixon to be his personal bodyguard. Li replied, "I don't want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!" which earned him much respect in his homeland.
Jet Li's hand print and autograph at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong.
The fame gained by his sports winnings led to a career as a martial arts film star, beginning in mainland China and then continuing into Hong Kong. Li acquired his screen name in 1982 in the Philippines when a publicity company thought his real name was too hard to pronounce. They likened his career to an aircraft, which likewise "takes-off" as quickly, so they placed the name Jet Li on the movie posters. Soon everybody was calling him by this new name, which was also based on the nickname, "Jet," given to him as a young student, due to his speed and grace when training with the Beijing Wushu team. He made his debut with the 1982 film Shaolin Temple. Some of his more famous Chinese films include:
American films:In 1998, he made his American film debut in Lethal Weapon 4 which also marked the first time he had ever played a villain in a film. He agreed to do Lethal Weapon 4 after the producer Joel Silver promised to give him the leading role in his next film, Romeo Must Die (2000) alongside late singer Aaliyah. The film became a box office hit.
Li turned down Chow Yun-fat's role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) because he promised his wife that he would not make any films during her pregnancy. He also turned down the role of Seraph in The Matrix trilogy, based on his belief that the role was not one which required his skills and that the films were iconic and stunning enough without adding his name to the cast list.
In 2006, the martial arts film epic Fearless, was released worldwide. Although he will continue to make martial arts films, Fearless is his last wushu epic. In Fearless, he played Huo Yuanjia, the real-life founder of Chin Woo Athletic Association, who reportedly defeated foreign boxers and Japanese martial artists in publicized events at a time when China's power was seen as eroding. Together with the film Fist of Legend, Li has portrayed both Chen Jun, the student and avenger of Huo Yuanjia (aka Fok Yun Gap), as well as Huo Yuanjia himself. Fearless was released on January 26, 2006 in Hong Kong, followed by a September 22, 2006 release in the United States where it reached second place in its first weekend.