Born April 26, 1963
Better known by his stage name Jet Li, is a Chinese martial artist (Kung Fu), actor, Wushu champion, and international film star.
Li was born Li Lianjie in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. His father died when he was two. 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. 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 championship. His success led to the PRC declaring Jet Li to be a “National Treasure”.
After retiring at age 17 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 to 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. (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.
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) which was a box office hit launching his career as a leading man in Hollywood.
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 2001, he appeared in two more Hollywood films: The One and Kiss of the Dragon opposite Bridget Fonda which did moderately well at the box office. In July 2001, Li agreed to produce and star in an action film with Jackie Chan which was to be released in 2002 or 2003, but no further news of their collaboration surfaced until 2006 and in 2008 Forbidden Kingdom was released.
In 2002, the period martial arts epic film Hero was released in the Chinese market. This film was both a commercial and critical success. In 2003 he reunited with producer Joel Silver for the action thriller film Cradle 2 the Grave where he starred alongside rapper DMX and fellow martial artist Mark Dacascos. In 2006, the martial arts film epic Fearless, was released world-wide. 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 publicised events at a time when China’s power was seen as eroding. Together with the film Fist of Legend, Li has portrayed both Chen Zhen, the student and avenger of Huo Yuanjia, 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.
Li has been a “philanthropic ambassador” of the Red Cross Society of China since January 2006. He contributed 500,000 yuan ($62,500 USD) of box office revenues from his film Fearless to the Red Cross’ psychological sunshine project, which promotes mental health.
In April of 2007, touched by his near-death experience in the Maldives during the 2004 tsunami, Li formed his own nonprofit foundation called The One Foundation. The One Foundation supports international disaster relief efforts in conjunction with the Red Cross as well as other efforts, including mental health awareness and suicide prevention.