Special Book Report: Who Wrote the Tao?


 This book should change how everyone thinks of Bruce Lee.


Last month I learned of a new book titled Who Wrote the Tao? The Literary Sourcebook for The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, by James Bishop. I also watched a few YouTube videos featuring the author. I quickly ordered a copy direct from the author and read the book. In brief, it's shocking. At least 85%, and probably more, of "Bruce Lee's" Tao of Jeet Kune Do is derived, and in many places directly copied or traced (in the case of "Bruce Lee's" drawings) from other authors.

The Bruce Lee Library

To arrive at this conclusion, Dr. Bishop hunted down the hundreds of books in Bruce Lee's library, digitized them, and then began searching them for phrases found in Tao. One of his sources was the many pictures of Bruce Lee in front of his book shelves, as shown in this Art of Manliness article:

Dr. Bishop first pioneered this hunt for the titles in the library in his 2004 book Bruce Lee: Dynamic Becoming, which I also purchased and read. 

Note that I (Richard) have previously blogged about Tuttle's Bruce Lee Library and additional sources. Here Dr. Bishop refers to books Bruce Lee actually owned and likely read.

A Little History

Gilbert Johnson was the person tasked by the Lee family and the publisher to compile Tao, as noted on p 163 of Dr. Bishop's book:

Here is the chronology of how the book came to be in print:

As you can see, the book appeared two years after Bruce Lee died. 

Dr. Bishop's book notes that concerns about the content of Tao appeared immediately upon its publication in late 1975, thanks to the keen eye of reader Joe Snyder. 

Here is Dr. Bishop talking about Mr. Snyder:

Mr. Snyder's report to the Bruce Lee estate that at least some of the book copied material from other sources, like boxing author Edwin Haislet, resulted in the publisher revising the next print run with the "acknowledgements" found at the bottom of the front matter of later printings:

However, these acknowledgements pale in comparison to the amount of material that Bruce Lee outright copied, paraphrased, or otherwise used in Tao. Thus, we have Dr. Bishop's examination.

Dr. Bishop's Presentation

Dr. Bishop applied a novel method to present his argument. The pages in his book directly correspond to the pages in Tao. You can open a copy of Tao and follow along with Dr. Bishop's book to find the original source, if one exists. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can borrow a digital copy of Tao if you so choose. 

For example, here is page 6 of Tao, a poem which appears to be a Bruce Lee creation:

Dr. Bishop shows Bruce Lee appeared to copy it word for word from D. T. Suzuki:

Here is the corresponding poem from the Internet Archive copy of Zen and Japanese Culture by D. T. Suzuki:

Upon doing the comparison myself, I can see that Dr. Bishop didn't include all of Suzuki's poem. He appears to have omitted text not in Tao. Also, the source page is 123, not 23. I submitted these ideas to Dr. Bishop and he confirmed he's already working on an updated version for some time this year.

Tracing Figures

You may have been surprised when reading Tao to see how well "Bruce Lee" drew figures performing martial arts. It turns out most (all?) are traces of other works.

Here's an example, although this time I'm going to show the Tao version followed by the original (which Dr. Bishop reproduces in his book).

The original appears in Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, again available via the Internet Archive. Here is the original page on Thai boxing from Draeger and Smith:

Tracing and Flipping Figures

The next example made me take a closer look at the tracing issue and how Bruce Lee or Gilbert Johnson handled them. On page 105 Dr. Bishop notes that Bruce Lee traced figures from the 1957 book Rocky Marciano’s Book of Boxing and Bodybuilding, again available at the Internet Archive. Here is one example from Tao:

Here are a few of the originals. They appear like figures B and C above.

Wait, you might say. Those don't look the same. They do if I flip them horizontally.

What is going on here? Why did someone flip these tracings horizontally? Incidentally, these are only two examples of tracing. There are plenty more.

The flipping of the tracings makes me wonder if the compiler/editor, Gilbert Johnson, did this deliberately to obscure the source. That's only speculation. 

A Funny Example

I'll conclude the comparisons with a funny example of Bruce Lee copying another work, including content that he Gilbert Johnson may not have understood. The original appears on page 55 of Tao, shown below:

The third quote says "A habit of diffusing the attention over a wider area helps the offensive passer to see openings more quickly." Dr. Bishop notes that this is a direct quote from John Dobson Lawther's book Psychology of Coaching, and the "passer" here is a reference to an American football quarterback.

The Natural Reaction

The natural reaction many have to learning of these aspects of Tao is to say "No one thinks Bruce Lee wrote Tao. Everyone knows it's just his collection of notes. Furthermore, don't blame Bruce Lee for someone else publishing contents of his notebooks after his death."

This is a fair argument on the surface, but it doesn't hold up when you consider the totality of the content in Dr. Bishop's book. Wikipedia (not the best source, for many reasons) implies Bruce Lee wrote the book:

There is no mention here that Bruce Lee copied most of the book from other sources, making minute adjustments, or no changes at all.

Frequently Bruce Lee copied whole sections of text, and replaced "Zen" with "Jeet Kune Do," or "sword" with "tools," or made other slight alterations. He didn't just copy for reference. He appears to have copied for future use.

I also recommend that doubters read Dr. Bishop's new blog post Was Bruce Lee a Plagiarist? The first example, a Bruce Lee college essay that Lee claimed to write, but was just stolen completely from Alan Watts, showed that Lee was stealing content and presenting it as his own before he died.

I've also heard that this activity isn't really plagiarism because it's part of Chinese culture. I think that's debatable, and by the standards of Western culture at least, of which Bruce Lee was a member, it's not acceptable.


You'll find others who have done some work on attributing Tao. Here is one example from 2008. I also run the Sourcing Bruce Lee blog, but that's more about debunking or confirming so-called Bruce Lee quotes. Only after reading Who Wrote the Tao? did I realize that Dr. Bishop has been commenting on that Sourcing blog for several months!

This post only scratches the surface of Dr. Bishop's work. I highly recommend buying a copy of Who Wrote the Tao? Dr. Bishop is already working on improving the existing text, and is taking a look at books published by Tuttle as part of the Bruce Lee Library. I also recommend checking out his book Facebook page, where updates appear. 

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