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Timing in Bruce Lee’s Writings as Inspiration for Listening Musically to Hand Combat and Martial Arts Performance


Colin P. McGuire

Independent Researcher, CA
About Colin

Colin P. McGuire was until recently an IRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Music at University College Cork, Ireland. He holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology and an MA in Electroacoustic Composition from York University, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Asian Studies from the York Centre for Asian Research. Writ large, his academic work centres on the locus of music and body. He is particularly interested in how being attentive to choreomusical connections between movement and sound can contribute to understandings of being-in-the-world, relationships, values, and beliefs. Currently, McGuire’s research focuses on music and martial arts, examining transmission processes, tradition/legacy, body-experience, community/identity, and heroic display. Between 2008 and 2016, he conducted participant observation and performance ethnography fieldwork on Chinese kung fu, the lion dance ritual, and percussion music at Toronto, Canada’s Hong Luck Kung Fu Club. Through investigations of intertextual meanings, transnational identity construction, and resistance to oppression, McGuire contributes to wider discussions of embodiment and diaspora. As a composer and sound artist, McGuire has worked with dancers and choreographers like the Little Pear Garden Dance Company and Ballet Creole’s Patrick Parson. Under the DJ/producer pseudonym Ronin E-Ville, his eclectic electronic dance music (EDM) has been in the Top 20 of Canada’s !Earshot radio charts for electronica and has also been licensed to the Gemini Award-winning TV show Departures.

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Timing is how we know when to do something in order to achieve an aim, and it is essential to all manner of human endeavour. In his posthumous international bestseller Tao of Jeet Kune Do [1975], Bruce Lee discussed timing as a quality of martial arts. His most influential timing concept is broken-rhythm, which is an idea that has resonated with martial artists around the world. Notwithstanding Tao of Jeet Kune Do’s impact, the strategies, tactics, and methods of timing remain poorly expressed in hand combat discourse. That is not to say that martial artists have poor timing, but rather that most martial artists are not very good at explaining how exactly they time their actions. Lee’s own choice of vocabulary was eclectic, drawing from music, fencing, chess, and military drill, which allowed him to discuss diverse approaches to combat time but also led to inconsistencies that muddy the waters for those wishing to engage with his ideas. This article takes up the question of timing in two ways. First, I re-interpret Bruce Lee’s ideas about the rhythm of combat using music theory, which provides precise, self-consistent vocabulary for the task. Second, I explore the meanings that a musical hearing of hand combat reveals at the intersection of sound and movement. Based on extensive fieldwork at a Chinese Canadian kung fu club, I identify some of the ways that percussion-driven performances of choreographed fighting skills have overlooked value as combat training.

How to Cite: McGuire, C.P., 2019. Timing in Bruce Lee’s Writings as Inspiration for Listening Musically to Hand Combat and Martial Arts Performance. Martial Arts Studies, 8, pp.73–83. DOI:
Published on 29 Jul 2019.
Peer Reviewed


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