The man in the photo looked both familiar and foreign. The media would describe the bespectacled face, crows feet prominently framing the eyes under the glaring sun, as “frail” and “unrecognizable.” One headline pondered, “is this the same Jet Li we all know.”
A picture allegedly of the martial artist has alarmed fans and raised questions about the 55-year-old action star’s health. Long known for his youthful looks and acrobatic moves spanning decades of action movies, in recent years Li has battled hyperthyroidism, a condition that can cause fatigue and weight loss and that has previously ignited rumors of Li’s declining health.
The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that fans were “praying for his health” after the emergence of the photo, which the SCMP said was taken at a temple in Tibet and has been widely shared. Others have speculated that the man they believe is Li looks older because of bad lighting or the angle.
— The Straits Times (@STcom) May 20, 2018
On Monday Li’s manager, Steven Chasman, said that it was just a bad photo of someone who is 55 years old.
“He has hyperthyroidism that he’s been dealing with for almost 10 years. It’s nothing life-threatening and he’s dealing with it,” Chasman told the Washington Post, adding that he has spoken with Li’s assistant.
For years Li was one of the most electrifying martial arts actors in the world. A national wushu champion, he broke out in film after portraying the legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. His fights, though choreographed and sometimes employing wire tricks, evinced a fierce athleticism and fluidity of movement. He would then branch out to American and European productions such as “Romeo Must Die,” “The Expendables” and “Kiss of the Dragon,” where his character subdued a room full of French police singlehandedly. Even after going to Hollywood, Li would continue to work with Chinese directors, such as Zhang Yimou in “Hero.”
Diagnosed with an overactive thyroid in 2010, Li said in 2013 that he was uncertain if he could continue working but was determined to, according to the Associated Press.
“I’m in pain, but I’m not suffering. I’m happy,” he said, adding that he took medication.
The SCMP reported he has also spoken about leg and spinal problems from decades of stunts and injuries from his films.
Last year, the Beijing-born actor said during a dinner for his charity, One Foundation, that his illness kept returning, according to the SCMP.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, hyperthyroidism occurs when “the thyroid gland makes more thyroid hormones than your body needs.” These hormones “control the way the body uses energy, so they affect nearly every organ in your body, even the way your heart beats.”
About one out of 100 people in the United States have hyperthyroidism, the agency says.
Speculation about Li’s health has bubbled up before. In 2016, he dispelled rumors that his illness was worsening and that he needed a wheelchair, telling Singaporean journalists that “even my friends are concerned and are asking how I am,” according to the Straits Times.
“There is nothing to worry about my health,” he said, joking that, “I’m not sure which wheelchair company is putting out such news to sell more wheelchairs. Perhaps someone wants me to be a spokesman for their wheelchairs.”
— Dana White (@danawhite) May 21, 2018
The actor, who has not taken on many roles in the past three years, most recently appeared in a short film with Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. He is also reportedly in talks to appear as the emperor of China in Disney’s live-action production of “Mulan,” which is currently scheduled to arrive in theaters in 2020.
Li, perhaps cognizant of the larger-than-life image he has cultivated through his many movie roles, said that in fighting the illness he was “just a regular guy.”
“I’m not Wong Fei-hung, I’m not Huo Yuanjia. I’m not a hero,” he said, naming characters he had played. “I’m just like you.”
On Monday, Chasman called the coverage of the photo “sensationalism” and shared a picture of Li that he says was taken in the past week.