Bruce Lee And Bitcoin
The strange obsession of the crypto-community with Far Eastern martial arts
Shortly after Neo is freed from the Matrix, he is told about the human-machine war. A war which has reduced the human body to a battery cell while the mind is imprisoned in a virtual reality jail. Onboard a futuristic, bare-boned rebellion hovercraft, he is introduced to technology that allows knowledge of martial arts to be downloaded straight into his brain. After a ten-hour learning binge, he wakes, exclaiming: “I know kung fu!”
Morpheus leans in. “Show me.”
Almost instantaneously, Neo finds himself dressed in a gi and standing on a tatami floor. The room belongs to traditional Japanese style-cottage. This is a virtual sparring program. Morpheus tells Neo that the rules of gravity and physics can be broken. That there is no air to be breathed in virtual reality. But the pain in the virtual world is a pain in the real world.
The Matrix, its fight sequences choreographed by Hong Kong’s top talent, is as much a martial arts movie as it is a cyberpunk one.
In William Gibson’s shiruken whizzing Neuromancer, we follow the warrior-acrobat Molly, whose cybernetic enhancements include steel claws. In Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, Hiroaki Protagonist is a “warrior prince” — a pizza delivery boy who is, in the virtual world, skilled with a samurai sword. Cyberpunk loves telling stories that involve ninjas and kung fu.
This reflects a broader obsession with Far Eastern martial arts in digital culture. As one coder and blogger, Steven Thomas writes, “software craftsmanship is sometimes wrapped in the language of martial arts”. He notes the odd use of hybrid terminologies like Code Kata, Coding Dojos, and White Belt Programmers.” It is common to read articles like “14 Tech Execs Who Could Probably Kick Your Butt in a Fight”. Techniques borrowed from Japanese zen, such as meditation and mindfulness are also popular. Edward Snowden, another celebrity of hacker culture, was once an anime and martial arts obsessed teenager. Julian Assange claims to be the descendant of a Chinese pirate.
No one in technology, however, boasts of his mastery of kung fu more than Craig Wright.
Craig Wright And Wing Chun
Bitcoin (for those who live under a rock in outer space) is the most widely adopted and valuable digital currency described as “an innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” It is proof of a concept — that money can work as digital phenomena.
On the 17th of December, 2017, one unit of the currency (in common usage denoted by the abbreviation to “BTC”) hit a high of $19,783.06. The price in recent times has fluctuated wildly. It also takes its own sweet time, sometimes a few hours, for a transaction to be validated. So there are doubts, led by central banks and economists, whether the currency can actually be called money.
Bitcoin is the future that will replace central banks and paper money. Bitcoin is an elaborate hoax, money laundering scam, and gigantic fraud. It all depends on who you ask. It is, however, a feat of computer engineering. Who invented and why is a complex issue. Considering its origins probably lie in tokens for online casinos and are used by criminal networks to move their capital, the cypherpunk world can be a high-stakes, dangerous arena of contestation.
Until Craig Wright emerged to lay claim to the throne, the creation of Bitcoin was attributed to a “Satoshi Nakamoto”. In October 31st, 2008 a ‘white paper’ was published under this pseudonym, outlining the concept of Bitcoin. There was only speculation about who it could actually be. Wright is an Australian who describes himself on Medium as an “Eternal student & researcher; plugging Bitcoin from as long as it was lawyer, banker, economist, coder, investor, mathematician, & stats”.
The smart money is on Bitcoin being developed by a partnership of collaborators, of which Wright was probably a member. Wright’s claim to exclusive authorship of the digital currency has been hard to substantiate. In 2016, he made a first serious attempt to claim exclusive ownership of Bitcoin, but at the last moment, backtracked from providing the required proof.
In a long biographical essay, Andrew O’Hagan writes in the London Review of Books about how Wright grew up as a ninjitsu and karate obsessed child.
“When I asked Wright what kind of martial arts he did as a kid he gave the following answer. ‘I did a few actually. I have studied in the Chinese forms Wing Chun, Tánglángquán, Kuo Shu, Duan Da, Zui Quan, and lóng xíng mó qiáo. I have also mastered Muay Thai, Kenpo and Taekwondo and Chito-Ryu style karate. I started with karate and Ninjutsu.’”
[The emphasis on Wing Chun is mine.]
Ip Man’s Wing Chun Clan, Bruce Lee And The Invention Of Kung Fu
The reason why Wing Chun enjoys massive esteem in martial arts circles is that it was the style that Bruce Lee chose to train in as a teenager. Lee did not just pioneer a new cinematic fight idiom, he also evangelized Chinese martial arts in America, coining the term “kung fu” for the American tongue.
Lee was born in San Francisco, but he grew up in Hong Kong, and only returned to the USA for university education. There were a couple of underground schools that were teaching fighting in 1950s Hong Kong (cashing in on a craze triggered by a live fight, a motion picture movie, and wuxia short fiction in the tabloid press). Bruce Lee and his friends, extremely impressionable teenagers, believed Wing Chun was the most hardcore.
A man named Ip Man, a former police officer from the mainland, was the master from whom Bruce Lee learned the art form (Ip Man too, has now, in turn, inspired a franchise of super hit kung fu films in his honor). The old man claimed to be the last adept in a chain of secret occult fighting knowledge that could be traced to the famed Shaolin temple abbottess Ng Mui of yore.
Wing Chun was a beautiful peasant girl, the daughter of a soya bean farmer, who was being harassed by a ruffian. Ng Mui trained Wing Chun to defend herself. Wing Chun taught the style to her husband. He taught the style to one more person, and so on. A remarkable set of amazing coincidences led Ip Man to be the only human left in the world who knew the most Wing Chun.
Bruce Lee’s Entrepreneurship
When kids like Bruce Lee started to try out the techniques they learned from Ip Man on rival schools, in grudge matches on the rooftops of Hong Kong — which they were expressly forbidden to do — they were puzzled to discover that the fight techniques of their masters rarely actually worked in a red-blooded fight.
Bruce was different from other Hong Kong kids from backgrounds of means who were educated at the city’s best schools. For most from this social class, the enthusiasm to be a Kung badass wore off, and as they immigrated abroad, to countries as far as Canada, Australia, the USA, and the United Kingdom, they drifted into a soft-paunched life of dentistry or accountancy. A few tragics kept up their practice, but as amateurs.
Lee wanted to practice and teach martial arts professionally. He decided to make it his life’s calling, dropping out of university, in the search of a fighting style that actually worked in a combat scenario. In order to do so, he brought the full weight of his opportunity in America, the resources available to him at university, and his own considerable industry, criticality, and talent.
“Ideas have made America what she is, and one good idea will make a man what he wants to be,” wrote Bruce to his friend, Pearl Tso in 1962. “My aim, therefore, is to establish a first Gung Fu Institute that will spread out all over the U.S. (I have set a time limit of 10 to 15 years to complete the whole project). My reason for doing this is not the sole objective of making money. The motives are many and among them are: I like to let the world know about the greatness of this Chinese art; I enjoy teaching and helping people; I like to have a well-to-do home for my family; I like to originate something, and the last but yet one of the most important is because Kung fu is part of myself.”
He continues in the letter:
“I may now own nothing but a little place down in a basement, but once my imagination has got up a full head of steam, I can see painted on a canvas of my mind a picture of a fine, big five or six story Gung Fu Institute with branches all over the States.”
However, Lee soon clocked that the “national art” was an elaborate hoax.
After a fight, in the autumn of 1964, with Wong Jak Man, which left both participants winded and aching from hitting all the wrong body parts. This led him to invent and call his personal fighting style Jeet Kun Do — the no-style style of fighting. Lee’s Jeet Kun Do owe as much to Western boxing and fencing, particularly in the footwork than any Chinese school.
On January the 4th, 1969 he wrote his old friend William Chueng, (who first introduced him to Ip Man’s Wing Chun classes):
“William, I have lost faith in the Chinese classical arts — though I still call mine Chinese — because basically all styles are products of land-swimming, even the Wing Chun school.”
Coining The Phrase “Kung Fu”
To distinguish Chinese martial arts from Japanese karate, which was hugely popular in America (Elvis loved karate and paid to be awarded a black belt) he came up with the term gong fu. On the advice of his friend and training partner, James Lee, he changed the term to Kung Fu (“eat bitter for success”) as better suited to the American tongue.
Lee loved poetry, and this is obvious in his work. His first screenplay was delicately titled “The Silent Flute”. He insisted on “Enter the Dragon” as an allegory for the rise of an eminent personality. He wrote love poems to girls as a teenager, wrote inspirational poems in letters to his students, and continued to write philosophical koans in his diaries.
Karate, for instance, means “Chinese hand” or “Empty Hand”. However, in kung fu, Lee had excerpted brilliantly the essence of martial art: work and sweat. The point of the martial art wasn’t beating someone up. It was self-betterment through learning a difficult art form.
The root word that connects shaman (witch-doctors that cure ailments believed to be rooted in spiritual issues), shramaan (the community of wandering ascetics that Buddha joined after leaving home) and shamen (Buddhist monk in Chinese) is shram: sweat off the brow.
Attitude To Money
As a child of an ultra-capital oriented city like Hong Kong, Lee was indoctrinated, from a young age, to be rich and successful. Hong Kong was wrested from the Chinese Emperor and set up as a trading outpost by the British, principally for the opium trade. Its very purpose is dominance through wealth. Commerce is in its DNA.
Bruce Lee loved to talk about the dough: making it, spending it, his ever-increasing rates and accumulating a fortune. He told people how well he was doing, gossiped about how much things cost, and discussed how to make more. He checked in regularly with his student-administrators (like Taky Kimura) for fees and back dues, sent money to those that needed it, and wrote letters to his wife, Linda Lee, assuring her that he would find money for the latest expenses for the children and her, and, that she was not to scrounge.
Lee’s father, Hoi Chuen, on the other hand, had the immense financial responsibility of raising a family in post-war Hong Kong and supporting extended family members, like his sister’s family. He also ran a complex and difficult business like an opera company. From these proceeds, he saved money to buy a few apartments around Hong Kong, and supplement his earnings with rent. His sons attended the best schools in the city.
Hoi Chuen was deft with legal regulation, making sure he took the trouble to document Bruce’s birthright to American citizenship (an extremely cumbersome legal process at that time). But there was no money for luxuries.
In comparison to his father, Bruce was much looser and faster with his cash. He bought all sorts of presents for his loved ones and friends. A serious clothes’ horse, he was always ordering suits, picking up a pair of shoes, or even wigs. That is when he wasn’t commissioning some gag or work out equipment from George Lee — an extremely talented craftsman who made all sorts of things based on Lee’s sketches. This included kicking bags, ornate bowls, and even a tombstone dedicated to the memory of the unknown “once fluid” victim of the “classical mess”. After his father died, and Lee received a bit of inheritance. Lee, spent almost the whole of his share on a second-hand red Porsche.
In January 1969, Bruce Lee set himself the aim to earn ten million dollars in ten years through acting. Lee’s private “My Definite Chief Aim” — a hand-calligraphed notice that was intended to be hung on a wall near a desk — is now a well-circulated document on the internet, (particularly thanks to Letters of Note).
Bruce was inspired, like many others to do this, by a popular self-help book: Napolean Hill’s The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons.
“Your definite chief aim in life should be selected with deliberate care, and after it has been selected it should be written out and placed where you will see it at least once a day, the psychological effect of which is to impress this purpose upon your subconscious mind so strongly that it accepts that purpose as a pattern or blueprint that will eventually dominate your activities in life and lead you, step by step, toward the attainment of the object back of that purpose.”
Hill was a man of color himself, not that different from a Daoist rogue kung fu master. Holding himself out as a self-improvement expert, Hill boasted of consorting with Presidents, tycoons, and professors, and advising them on war and strategy. Many of these claims have been found to highly dubious.
The purpose of Hill’s book, ultimately, was to use sublime, near alchemical methods — self-hypnosis, magnetizing the mind, forming a cabal of like-minded people called a “mastermind”, communing with the dead — all in order to attract money.
But what is this magical thing that has suddenly become electronic thanks to e-currencies like Bitcoin?
The Definition Of Money
Niall Ferguson, in The Ascent of Money, notes that China not just innovated banknotes in the 7th century, but also introduced the first standardized bronze coins around 221 B.C. He goes on to detail the major problem that arose with metal money with Spanish conquistadors who confused silver with cash:
“Like King Midas, the Spanish monarchs of the sixteenth century, Charles V and Philip II, found that an abundance of precious metal could be as much a curse as a blessing. The reason? They dug up so much silver to pay for their wars of conquest that the metal itself dramatically declined in value — that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods.” He adds: “What the Spaniards had failed to understand is that the value of precious metal is not absolute.”
Ordinarily, Niall Ferguson and David Graeber, the radical anthropologist at the London School of Economics, probably agree on very little. However, Ferguson’s account of the subsequent developments in financial history, such as the invention of the double accountancy by the Italians in Florence, and the rise of central banks support the thesis of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 years: money, from prehistory, has always been an elaborate credit system, rather than something tangible, like metal or paper.
Where conventional historians, from Adam Smith to Niall Ferguson (to a standard economics textbook) get it wrong is when they think money arose from a system of barter to facilitate exchange. This is a flawed origin story.
Graeber, instead, points out that money is a complex cultural system that is underpinned by concepts such as social hierarchy, honor, obligation, kinship, and ultimately, debt. Money is whatever we imagine collectively it is.
It is far closer to the idea of a magical, imaginary best friend than we imagine.
The Concept Of Work In Bitcoin
Fundamentally, Bitcoin is the first widely accepted technology that solved the double-spending problem.
It is a devilishly difficult problem to make sure digital tokens are not re-used but, at the same time, are also be capable of generating new cash, but cannot be hacked and messed with.
What Bitcoin has achieved is that it has created a system of accountancy to validate the social debt to miners — people who have expended computing power to ‘mine’ Bitcoins. The value is not attached to a material — like silver or gold — rather the belief that validation transactions have social utility.
The developers of Bitcoin managed to convince enough people that it can be measured and stored as “work” — computing power expended to “mine” a coin.
“The proof-of-work also solves the problem of determining representation in majority decision making,” argues Satoshi Nakamoto's White Paper.
“The majority decision is represented by the longest chain, which has the greatest proof-of-work effort invested in it. If a majority of CPU power is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow the fastest and outpace any competing chains.”
This is the ingenious core of technology.
Kung fu is a culture obsessed with long, hard to establish lineages, disputes about the validity, and “hard work”. This work then needs to be demonstrated publicly through performances and accepted through social validation. Bruce Lee was particularly adept at these exhibitions (for instance, see Charles Russo’s Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America). That is what got him talent-spotted in America, eventually leading to roles, such as Kato in the Green Hornet.
It’s an odd coincidence that kung fu and Bitcoin share this fundamental logic.