Halfway through Jet Li's film, Fearless
, a biopic about China's 19th-century kungfu master Huo Yuanjia, Li's character Huo is shocked when he returns to his home city of Tianjin. The streets are crawling with Westerners lambasting the Chinese as "Asia's sickly people".
Enraged, he sets out to defend his country's pride by entering an international competition and is killed in the process, becoming a national hero at 42.
In real life, Li turns 44 tomorrow and wants to play the role of real-life hero. The Hollywood action star together with the Red Cross Society of China launched a charity drive, "One Foundation", in Beijing last week.
"One plus one plus one equals one (1+1+1=1)," Li repeated at the opening ceremony. "The whole world is actually a big family."
Under Li's plan, people are encouraged to donate one yuan (US$0.13) per month to assist people in urgent need of help.
Li has been planning the project for years, and will direct the funds to help young people suffering from mental health problems, as well as helping victims of natural disasters.
"Donations are not only for rich people," Li said.
Jet Li and a girl in shooting of a charity ad.
Li said he started the "One Foundation" idea after he and his family narrowly survived the tsunami in 2004. "I had a close brush with death during the tsunami that swept through South Asia on December 26, 2004. Fortunately, my family and I were able to escape danger. We are all right and in good health," he said.
"But the experience of surviving the chaos and witnessing the devastation caused by this natural disaster has changed me forever."
During a recovery period in the Maldives, he said he was deeply moved to see that everyone who was able to help did so willingly.
"Never once did anyone ask anybody else: 'Where are you from?' or 'What nationality are you?' he said.
"I wondered: Was it possible to keep that spirit alive and transcend traditional boundaries to help humanity at large? Deep in my heart, I sensed the urge to do something more."
He said long-term support is of utmost importance. "My young daughters were with me during the tsunami disaster; and I can already see that they are experiencing post-traumatic symptoms as they have developed a fear of the ocean and water," he said.
"It struck me that the deep mental scars and psychological effects that result from any large disaster can be just as devastating as the physical destruction.
Since then, he has given up most of his film career in preparation for charity work. But for a big film star like Li, it was no easy task to set up a long-time charity foundation. "The efforts I spent within the two years for the foundation is much more effort than my 20-year acting career."
As the ambassador of China's Red Cross, he not only worked actively with members of the organization; he also persuaded directors, actors, and investors to donate to the foundation whenever joining in the shooting of any film project.
He wanted celebrity friends to jointly set up a public credit system to promote the campaign. "I tried to seek help from everyone I know to participate in the foundation," he said.
He invited actress Xu Jinglei to join One Foundation when they met up for the first time. "I know many people visit her blog so I think it is a good way to spread the idea of the foundation." Li said.
Meanwhile, he sought the help from the experts.
"I studied the management of foundations in developed countries and got the advice from medical professionals, lawyers, bankers, politicians, and anybody else who is willing to help," he said.
Li admits that the foundation, to some degree, derives from his 10-year study of Buddhism. "I have studied the philosophy of Buddhism and I have a much better understanding about life," he said.
"Many times, people use the word 'love' but do not understand what it means.
"They will say, 'I love this car' or 'I love these shoes', but that isn't love.
"You don't love those things. Instead, you 'want' them, even when 'love' referring to a girl or a boy. You want to own them. True love is a gift."
In Buddhist thought, he said, the highest level of love is selfless unconditional giving.
Many celebrities are similarly busy with charity work such as the Smile Angle Foundation established by Asian pop diva, Faye Wang, and her husband, mainland actor Li Yapeng. And many people are questioning whether such activities are merely ploys to enhance the stars' profile. Li said that it is unnecessary for him to do that.
"I have risked the danger of death. I could have died at any moment during the tsunami disaster. At that moment, I realized that although I am so prestigious and rich, I have still had no dealings with death," he said.
How Jet Powered to the Top
Jet Li burst on to the Hollywood scene in 1998 in Lethal Weapon 4, in which he had the pleasure of kicking and beating Mel Gibson to a pulp.
Li didn't win the fight but captured the attention of Hollywood producers, who chased him with their cheque books. He was paid $2.4 million for his next film Romeo Must Die and US$5 million for the lead role in Kiss of the Dragon, which he co-wrote with Luc Besson. He also starred in the movie The One.
This year he films Mummy 3, and also co-stars with Jacky Chan in the feature film version of Monkey King. However serious kungfu fans were fully aware of Li's abilities before he grabbed international attention.
Li was an established Chinese action star, with a blue-blooded martial arts pedigree and huge following in Hong Kong.
He started training at the Beijing Wushu Academy at age 8 and won five gold medals in the Chinese championships, his first when he was only 11. In his teens, he was already a national coach, and before he was 20, he had starred in his first movie: Shaolin Temple (1979), which started the 1980s Kungfu boom in the Chinese mainland.
(China Daily April 25, 2007)