Born in Beijing, China in 1963, the youngest of five children, Jet Li (born Li Lian Jie) was an obedient, dutiful son.
Tragedy would soon cloud his life. His father died when he was two, leaving only his mother to try to provide for her family.
Fearful for his safety, his mother would not allow young Jet Li to do any activities that might be in the least dangerous. This included roughhousing, riding bikes, ice-skating, etc. He was eight years old before he started school, a year older than everyone else.
His teachers took a special liking to the boy. He always did as he was told, worked hard, and always got high grades on his tests. Because of his studiousness, he was given the task of physical education monitor, leading state mandated daily calisthenics.
During the one-month summer break, students from all the schools would attend the Beijing Sports and Exercise School to practice their assigned sport for two and a half hours a day. The arbitrary assignment would prove fortuitous for all. There were four possible sports- swimming, gymnastics, soccer, and wushu, with approximately one thousand students in each discipline, ranging from first to sixth grade.
Wushu means literally Military Art and is a cultural tradition in China, starting as a matter of survival during war and then becoming a formal sport. Part fighting art and part performance art, athletes are judged on both combat application and aesthetics.
Li was assigned to wushu, under the tutelage of Wu Bin, and he approached it with the same dedication he did all his schoolwork.
At the end of summer break, all but 20 of the wushu participants were told they no longer needed to come for training. Those remaining 20 were told they were to return every day after school. At the end of an additional three months, 16 of the 20 were now told their services would no longer be needed.
Li soon earned the nickname Jet because of his speed and grace.
His first competition was also the first national wushu competition since the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s. He was nine at the time. He won.
His next big performance was at the Pan-Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Championships, the first international event held in China since the Revolution.
At twelve, he became the wushu champion, even though he was competing against men in their twenties.
Over his career, he won 15 gold medals and 1 silver in direct competition with adults.
He performed for Richard Nixon, who asked him to become his bodyguard. The young man responded that he was not interested in protecting an individual, but wanted to protect his one billion countrymen.
At seventeen, the youth retired from wushu to pursue other interests.
The next phase of his life was martial arts action hero.
He debuted in the Shaolin Temple in 1982.
It was after this he was given the screen name Jet Li in the Philippines because it was felt his given name was too hard to pronounce.
He has appeared in over 25 films, primarily in China and Hollywood. He has even won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor for Warlords (2007).
He has also lent his voice and movements (via motion capture) to the video game Jet Li: Rise to Honor (2004).