A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
~ CHINESE PROVERB
I have written on rare occasions of my salvation by the original Kung Fu series that starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, the fugitive Shaolin priest who wandered the old west in search of his half-brother. A brief recap will suffice to explain what I’m up to here.
I was quiet, small, and shy as a child, which was a personality guaranteed to make one a bully-target. I didn’t like it any more than the next guy would, and from fairly early in life I set out on a journey to learn how to fight. I was raised by people much too old to be raising children, whose philosophy was that a dime spent on me would be better invested by being flushed down the toilet, so this precluded any form of formal training. My first “martial arts” instructors were thus the pro wrestlers that arrived over the airwaves from the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. They may have been putting on a show, but the techniques they used could be near-lethal, and the occasional bully would have to rethink his lifestyle if he got careless.
I spent four years in the navy, 1965-69, about half at shore stations, and with money in my pocket and time off-duty, I began to collect a smattering of “real” martial arts, basically whatever was being taught within walking distance of the base. Upon my discharge in 1969, I moved home to spend the next four years being a caregiver for my great-grandmother who had raised me, doing odd jobs around the neighborhood in my spare time, and spending the proceeds at the Japan Karate Federation, where classes were taught by a 35th-generation samurai. He wasn’t there to teach religion, but he was very much the “real deal,” and I caught from him the underlying concept of a spiritual base that was the foundation of the fighting techniques.
I wanted more, and began to seek out books on Zen and meditation. I began to realize that, without any formal training or access to a temple, I was becoming a Taoist. I read voraciously, always seeking to learn and incorporate the peaceful path of balance and harmony with nature and the universe, and despite the fact that a formally-trained Taoist likely wouldn’t recognize the way I try to live every day, it has brought me a life of peace and stability that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
But it isn’t likely that I could have attained this level without some living example in my life, and in October of 1972, in the greatest example of kismet that I have ever been a part of, the ABC network began airing three seasons of Kung Fu. I came for the fights and stayed for the peace. Kwai Chang Caine, through his portrayal by David Carradine, became my teacher and guide on the road to my version of Taoism. I have striven for the last 46 years to live every day and meet every challenge as Kwai Chang would have done. Christians will understand; you try to emulate Jesus, and you have hundreds of movies to serve as examples. I have Kung Fu, and it is my great good fortune that the creators were as dedicated as they were to the spiritual vision of the character. I own the whole series, and I still make time to watch an average of three episodes a week to this day; it is my equivalent of attending church. As I’ve said, it may not be “real” Taoism, but I have lived the last half-century, virtually my entire working life, largely free of stress and contention, and there is a level of success to that that is hard to argue with.
My goal over next year-and-a-half or so will be to examine the entire series episode-by-episode, extracting the lessons and the shortcomings alike for examination and discussion. The history, the views of the participants, every aspect I can access, all will be covered in as fine detail as I can gather. Kung Fu came under much ridicule in later years, and was featured in derogatory memes and other forms of artistic dismissal, and a good portion of this may stem from the fact that Carradine himself spoke of it in quite derogatory terms. The rest of it may be due to the obvious and never-explained whitewashing of the character. My research suggests that many of the Asian actors of the time initially resented Carradine’s casting, but came to love him in the end; his Caucasian background meant that thousands, maybe millions of viewers wouldn’t be put off by a non-white star (the times were what they were), and their serious roles in the series opened doors to many roles other than coolies and laundrymen, so it was a huge gain both ways. Whatever else it did, it came to define Carradine as an actor, and established his credibility as a true leading man. It is sad that he didn’t learn a thing from the role he played for three seasons, but I did, and that’s what this series will be about.
It has long been accepted that Bruce Lee was instrumental in creating the concept of Kung Fu, and was so outraged at not being cast as the star that he turned his back on America and went back to Hong Kong. There could some partial truth to this, as Warner Brothers was looking at Lee in a modern setting whereas he wanted the show to be set in the old west to justify a heightened level of violence. The alternative story put forth by Herbie J. Pilato, author of The Kung Fu Book of Caine, avows, “Ed Spielman is the creator of the Kung Fu series. Any claims to the contrary are incorrect, and an injustice.” Spielman himself even allegedly considered legal action if Lee’s estate continued to make this claim. You would think that in this age of instant access to information about everything, the facts behind this would be well-known, but this is apparently not the case. In the final analysis, Bruce Lee may have been passed over for the role because Kung Fu was never about the fighting; it was about the centered peace and unwillingness to resort to violence inherent in this gentle soul who always tried to avoid the conflict. Can anyone imagine Bruce Lee turning the other cheek when some drunken cowboy calls him a dirty, slant-eyed coward? Huge believability issue there!
So, that’s what’s coming in the months ahead, interspersed, of course, with anything else that takes my fancy. I will be watching each episode in detail, taking notes, placing them in their surrounding culture, and discussing what makes each episode important to me. I hope you’ll join me on the journey, join the occasional discussion, and if you’re less than a fan, that you’ll maybe see the value and come around. It was a very worthy concept, and deserved better press than it got, especially from its main star. Hopefully I can give it a boost in the eyes of a few readers. Want to take a ride?