Jet Li was born and raised in Beijing, China, but traveled extensively in his youth performing washu, Chinese martial arts, in various diplomatic tours for the government.
As a devout Tibetan Buddhist, Li meditates, chants, and prays every day. He started practicing in 1998, and became so serious that he considered quitting his movie career to devote all his time to practicing Buddhism. But, following the advice of his teacher and master, decided to continue in order to use his fame and wealth for good.
Although Buddhism is the lens through which Li looks at the world, he feels that all religions are focused on the same goal:
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.
Just because Li is a Tibetan Buddhist, doesn’t mean he’s in line with the “Free Tibet” movement. When asked about his feelings on issues of Tibetan sovereignty, Li kept his answer short.
The issues concerning the Chinese government and Tibet are that of an administering country managing an internal situation . I personally don’t have any political opinions.
Even though he claims not to be interested in politics as an adult, he was smack dab in the middle of global politics before he even hit puberty. At nine-years-old he started performing for various diplomatic events, showing off the best of Chinese culture to other countries.
When he was eleven, he came the U.S. on a goodwill tour, just after dimplomatic relations had been restored between the two countries. Coming from the strict life of a Chinese boy in wushu training, his first trip abroad was a shock. After all the terrible things the adults were saying about how America was evil, turns out it wasn’t all that bad! Li learned an early lesson about how political propaganda can unfairly dehumanize others.
[T]hose of us on the Beijing Wushu Team had been extremely anxious as we embarked on that first tour of the United States in 1974. We had no idea what to expect. And the bodyguards from the State Department were equally tense when they were first assigned to us… But after living together for a month, we came to realize that these decadent capitalists were actually kind and decent men, and they in turn realized that these communist kids weren’t raving ideologues–in fact, we were rather cute.
But that didn’t stop Li from being proud of his homeland. While posing for a picture with President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon told Li he was pretty good at kung fu and asked if Li would be his bodyguard when he grew up. Li responded with nationalistic fervor.
No. I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!
That comment sufficiently impressed Chinese officials to land him a spot at state banquets and on the welcoming committee for American presidents.
His experiences traveling the world with the Chinese Washu Team helped shape Li’s political philosophy. To him, political differences can be bridged when individuals can learn to respect each other.
[A]s countries and cultures, we can learn to respect and appreciate each other’s culture and thinking and develop an understanding of how to make things work between both sides … to maintain a balance.
Li is currently focused on philanthropic endeavors, particularly the One Foundation, which helps fund projects in China and around the globe relating to education, health, environment, poverty, and disaster relief. An ambitious arena to cover, to be sure. Li even took one year off his film career to work with his foundation.
Li’s sincerity about his belief that religion can be a force of great good is truly honorable. He genuinely seems to care very little about what other people believe, so long as they are good to each other. And, unlike so many other religious people, he is living the words he preaches.