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The Real Reason Jet Li Looks Completely Different Now

Li Lianjie is one of the most well known faces in cinematic martial arts, but you probably know him as Jet Li. From martial arts movies in the '80s and '90s up to modern-day franchises like The Expendables, Li has been an action star for as long as many moviegoers can remember. But fans were sent into a frenzy after a photo of him appearing aged beyond his years went viral. Compared to how we know him as a cinematic icon, the snapshot made him almost unrecognizable. 

Born in 1963, the martial artist would have just turned 55 at the time the buzzworthy picture was posted in 2018, but many thought he appeared to be 20 or 30 years older. People made their concerns known on social media and comments sections all around the world — but is there really any reason to worry? Here are the real reasons why Jet Li looks completely different now.

Kung fu cult master

For those who didn't grow up on Chinese kung fu movies (and American action schlock), Jet Li is an actor with a rare résumé. Born in Beijing, Li grew up practicing and getting impressive at wushu, the Chinese sport of standardized martial arts. (Like with "kung fu," the word "wushu" doesn't refer to any particular style of martial arts — it just means "martial arts.")

By the age of 12, Li was skilled enough that he was competing against adults, and beating them, in national tournaments. The decorated competitive background gave him serious legitimacy as he transitioned into a career as a martial arts film star, with his first movie, Shaolin Temple, arriving in 1982.

Li's early movies like the Shaolin Temple trilogy, and especially the critically-acclaimed box office hit Once Upon a Time in China, were well-received, ideal showcases not for just his skills as a martial artist, but his charisma as a leading man. The quality of his projects, and the impressive nature of his graceful stunt work, helped to make him an internationally recognizable name.


Jet Li's star continued to rise in his native China as he continued a streak of acclaimed action movies, including the influential Fist of Legend. By 1998, he started getting calls from Hollywood, making his American movie debut as the villain in the buddy cop movie sequel Lethal Weapon 4.

In 2000, at the age of 37, Li finally secured his first American lead role in the action movie Romeo Must Die, with a cast that included R&B singer Aaliyah, Isaiah Washington, and rapper DMX. While the movie itself wasn't impressive, Li's performance was

Despite his successful entry into the American film market, Li didn't stop making Chinese-language movies, and he didn't shy away from artful projects. His 2002 release Hero, which arrived in the United States in 2004, was acclaimed as one of the best movies of his career by both Chinese and American audiences.

Li didn't accept every offer he received, and he turned down some big ones along the way. He declined a role in the international co-production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon due to his wife's pregnancy, and also turned down the role of Seraph in the Matrix sequels.

Last hero in China

Li continued to take on leading roles in American, European, and Chinese movies throughout the early 2000s, but started to slow down his Hollywood output by 2010. He accepted the role of Yin Yang in The Expendables, joining an ensemble cast of '80s and '90s action stars — but for American audiences, at least, his time as a leading man seemed to be over. While Li also appeared in the two Expendables sequels in 2012 and 2014, he hasn't appeared in another American action movie since The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008.

Part of the reason for Li's partial withdrawal from the spotlight had to do with a 2010 diagnosis of hyperthyroidism, which he only revealed to the public after three years had passed. According to the Associated Press, Li said that the condition left him feeling uncertain as to whether or not he could continue working as an actor in martial arts movies. 

Despite this setback, Li seemed clear-eyed and content about the situation. "I'm in pain, but I'm not suffering," he said. "I'm happy."


One of the viral tweets that helped spark off concerns among Jet Li's fans mentioned that the performer was suffering from "hyperthyroidism and spinal problems," sort of as a way to explain why the 55-year-old appeared to be so prematurely elderly. But what does the condition exactly entail?

Hyperthyroidism, according to the Mayo Clinic, is the condition of having an overactive thyroid gland. The thyroid produces hormones that govern a number of bodily functions, including storage of fats and carbohydrates, body temperature, and protein production. 

While having an overactive thyroid doesn't exactly cause premature aging, it does have symptoms that can all combine to make someone look different than they used to. Some of the results of hyperthyroidism can include fluctuations in weight, interference with the metabolism, and rapid heartbeat, as well as a thinning of the skin. 

According to the American Thyroid Association, there is no one cure for the condition, which can only be managed on an individual basis through medication and surgery. This adds context to Li's personal struggle with the disease, which has at times actually seen him gain weight, not lose mass. 

A painful career

According to Singapore's Today newspaper, Li has a lot more going on with his body than an overactive thyroid, and he's been building up the damage in plain sight, for our entertainment, his whole life.

As a result of his many injuries, Li has said he suffers from problems in his legs and spine, with the issues keeping him from being able to stand up straight for too long. The damage is part of a history in martial arts that goes back decades, earning him a torn knee that required surgery to fix at the age of 18 and a major back injury by the age of 23.

According to the South China Morning Post, Li has said he was told by doctors in 2013 that he "would end up in a wheelchair" if he continued to work in martial arts films at the same level of intensity he and his fans were accustomed to, which helps to account for his slowed output in the genre since then. Who could blame him? The movies he's already done get to live forever, but Li himself only gets one chance.

Concerns gone viral

Li's name entered the news again in May 2018 when a photo taken of him at a Tibet temple went viral, spreading from the Chinese social media website Weibo out to an international audience.

The photo, which showed the 5'6" star hunched over, with short gray hair and glasses alongside a younger fan, made him look remarkably older than his age. He certainly appeared different from the way people were used to seeing him when he had jet black hair. 

Li's relative absence from American movie screens in recent years, coupled with the implied notion that he was gravely ill, helped the image to circulate widely with a quickness. Suddenly, a man who had convincingly defended entire nations on the screen looked like the sort of person you would help to cross the street. Who wouldn't feel a quake of mortal terror from a sight like that?

The idea of yet another idol falling too soon to the savage advance of time was just too much, it seems, for many people to bear, making the photo's spread a buzzworthy (and vaguely mournful) phenomenon. Fortunately, things aren't nearly as bad as they might look.

From the bad side

Li's public relations people were quick to pounce on the emerging viral story, with manager Steven Chasman telling USA Today that his client was — despite the concerns of seemingly every movie fan on Earth — "completely fine."

Though Li's manager assured readers that Li and his team appreciated the international outpouring of concern, he also made it clear that the rumors of Li's declining health were greatly exaggerated — not to mention a snap judgment, based on one photo of questionable composition.

"It's one picture and people are making these interpretations from it," Chasman said. "If you took a picture [of] me at the wrong angle and wrong time of the day, I could look frail as well."

As the photo gained traction with news outlets around the world, social media commentators pointed out that much of Li's appearance could come down to issues of lighting, posture, and other external factors not indicative of failing health. 

They're theories that appear to have merit. Late last year, Li shared a video on Instagram wishing his followers a Happy New Year. While his appearance in the video is similar to his look in the viral photo, he appears considerably healthier — older, but not in trouble.

"Rumors of my death..."

The viral photo incident isn't the first time Li has had to bat back rumors of his impending demise. 

For some reason, Li's hyperthyroidism has been blown up by commentators into a larger problem than it appears to actually be. While the condition has required Li to change up his lifestyle, it's reportedly never threatened his life. "He has hyperthyroidism that he's been dealing with for almost 10 years," his manager told The Washington Post. "It's nothing life-threatening and he's dealing with it."

Despite the fact that his medical condition isn't anywhere near terminal, Li has had to assure fans he wasn't on the way out as recently as 2016 — a year which was, if you'll recall, an absolute bloodbath when it came to distressing celebrity deaths. 

According to The Straits TimesLi was dogged that year with rumors that he was doomed to soon be wheelchair-bound, with the same causes for his supposedly declining health — hyperthyroidism and battle scars — being floated then just as they are now. "Recently, the web has been abuzz with news that I'm going to be wheelchair-bound," Li said. "Even my friends are concerned and are asking how I am.

"I'm not sure which wheelchair company is putting out such news to sell more wheelchairs," he continued. "Perhaps someone wants me to be a spokesman for their wheelchairs." Li ultimately responded to that spate of rumors with a message of reassurance, saying, "There is nothing to worry about my health."

Romeo is fine

While Li does look different now, it doesn't appear to be because his health is declining — nor is it as bad as one photo makes it look. 

Though Li has withdrawn from leading man roles in the American market, he's not retired, and he's not a recluse. In 2017, he produced and starred in the martial arts short film On That Night... While We Dream, and can be seen in behind-the-scenes footage performing fight choreography with vigor. At the time of this writing, he's also in talks to star in the live-action version of Disney's Mulan, set to premiere in 2020. 

Li has had hundreds of thousands of photos taken of him over his lifetime, and you can't expect him to show up looking fresh in every one — especially as he gets older. He's on a journey from a cradle to the grave just like anyone else. 

We're all doomed to look like frail old raisins one day, and that's just if we're lucky. But very few of us will ever get a chance, even in our best moments, to look as badass as Jet Li.