Jet Li Explains Why He Started a Foundation.

On Dec. 25, 2004, I arrived very late at night at the Four Seasons hotel in the Maldives with my wife and two youngest daughters, who were then 1 and 4. It was dark out, but you could still sense how beautiful and peaceful the island was.

The next morning, at 7:50, I felt the earth move. I knew it was an earthquake, because I'd already been in several in China and San Francisco, and I didn't really think much about it. My daughters were very excited to go to the beach, so we set off earlier than planned, at around 10:10. We were just outside the hotel, by the pool and slightly above the beach, when I saw the water come.

It wasn't like in the movies, with a giant wave rolling toward you; the water just rose very fast, covering sunbathers on the sand. People started running toward the hotel, but they were still laughing. I picked up my 4-year-old, Jane, while the nanny took Jada, and we turned toward the hotel. In that instant, the water rose to my knees.

I took two steps and the water was at my hips. Two more, and it was at my chest. Then it was just under my nose. I put Jane on my shoulder and was trying to hold on to the nanny's hand; she was struggling because her head was already underwater. I turned back, and everything—the beach, the swimming pool—was gone. I was just standing in the ocean, in nothing.

I tried to hold on to the nanny, but the water was strong and pushed her and Jada away from me. Luckily, I'm famous and people knew I was there. They'd been looking at me. I shouted at the top of my lungs for help, and four guys swam toward us and saved Jada and the nanny. And I was OK; the water didn't go any higher than my mouth.

In those few seconds after a disaster strikes, you don't have time to think—you just move forward and instinct kicks in. When the wave was gone, there was nothing left. The electricity was down, all communications were down but for the hotel's satellite phone, and we were told we had water for five days and food for three.

That night, everybody camped in the hotel lobby. I held Jada as she slept in my arms, but I couldn't sleep myself, and I had a lot of time to think. I thought that if God had saved me, it must mean something. That day in the Maldives was a real turning point for me. I had spent the first 41 years of my life thinking about Jet Li first, wanting to prove I was special, wanting to prove I was a star. Everything I'd done was self-centered. In that lobby, however, I saw people of different colors, speaking different languages, helping each other. It was very much like in the movies, with people putting women, children and the elderly first, and I thought that if everybody helps, if everybody does a little bit, it will make a big difference.

I also realized that all the money and power in the world would not have saved me from the water. That night I decided that I couldn't wait until I was retired; I had to do something right away. A few days later I announced my plans to start the One Foundation. Still, I didn't quite know where to begin. I wanted to do something in China first, because that's my home country, but I also had to do it right. So it took me a couple of years to do some research and talk to people to understand what could be done there.

I finally set up the One Foundation in 2007. My formula is very simple: one person + one yuan per month = one big family. That is, if everyone contributes a little it will unite us. Sure, governments and companies have responsibilities for ordinary people, but I want to spread the belief that every human being has a responsibility too. It's not just when you've made your millions, when you're a captain of industry or a star. It starts with everybody, with just a little help.

At this stage, the One Foundation is primarily about helping with disaster relief. Since we started, we've already been involved with seven disasters, including the Sichuan earthquake. I chose disaster relief because of what happened to me in the Maldives. Usually when a disaster strikes, you hear about it, you see the pictures and then you donate. This means it can take days or weeks before help reaches those who need it desperately. I want to be prepared. I want to have some money already set aside, to buy food and water, so we can act immediately.

And it's not only about material things. People need to know that someone will come and help them. I know this from experience. You need to hang on and hope you're going to be rescued; we want to show people that help is on the way. I've taken a year off from filmmaking to dedicate all my time to the foundation. But I plan to go back to work next year, since being an international actor is a good platform for promoting the foundation. For me it's not just about raising money but also about changing people's beliefs, spreading a love virus. I want to use my name to do good, to give back to the world. Nothing is more important than this now.