Legendary martial arts star Jet Li once turned down then-President Richard Nixon’s offer to be his personal bodyguard during a visit to the United States when he was 11 years old.
Li performed with China’s national wushu team throughout their U.S. tour in 1974. He first met Nixon during the final stop of the tour, the 59-year-old martial arts star recalled in his now-offline essay. The actor and producer, whose full Chinese name is Li Lianjie, was one of the chosen martial artists who performed wushu in front of then-President Nixon and other American dignitaries during an event outside the White House. Organizers of the event later introduced the children to the officials and took their pictures.
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“As I remember, President Richard Nixon stood with one of my female teammates,” Li wrote. “At one point, Nixon turned towards me and said, ‘Young man, your kung fu is very impressive! How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?’”
The martial arts star, who was aged 11 at the time, said he refused Nixon’s offer, explaining, “I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!”
According to Li, his answer stunned everyone at the event. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger purportedly broke the “uncomfortable silence” by jokingly stating, “Heavens, such a young boy, and he already speaks like a diplomat!”
Li won his first national martial arts championship the following year and held the title for five consecutive years. He eventually retired from competitive wushu at the age of 18 and pursued a career in cinema. By the 1980s, he became one of the biggest stars in Chinese action films.