I Seek Kung Fu in the Traffic of Life

by Jeff Siegel

“I seek not to know all the answers, but to understand the questions.”

-- Kwai Chang Caine

Post-modern life got you down? Tired of celebrity news excess, corruption and stupidity in Washington, and trying to drive while every car around you is doing the cell phone lane swerve? Then may I suggest a little Kung Fu?

Kung Fu ran on ABC for 41 episodes over three seasons, ending in 1975. It was, like many television programs then and now, formulaic and clichéd. In addition, too many of the female characters, supposedly living on the 19th-century American frontier, looked like they just came from the department store makeup counter. But when King Fu was right – and it was right most of the time – it was a revelation, and it remains so today.

The program starred David Carradine as a Shaolin priest who fled to the U.S. after killing a member of the Chinese imperial family. Caine, whose father was Caucasian and whose mother was Chinese, wandered the West, trying to avoid bounty hunters and corrupt sheriffs, sticking up for the downtrodden of all races and classes, and having flashbacks to show how he became a priest. Also, because this was network television, Caine had to kick the crap out of bad guys – literally – every 20 minutes or so, always in self-defense, often in slow motion, and usually with some terrific lighting.

Shaolin is a sect of Zen Buddhism, and its monks study martial arts as part of their commitment to the eightfold path that is central to Buddhism. What made Kung Fu so remarkable then, and makes it even more remarkable today, is that in much of each weekly 60-minute episode, as much time is spent espousing non-violence and discussing philosophy as it is practicing hand-to-hand combat. One hallmark of the show: The sayings, like the one at the top of this piece, which reflected a variety of Confucian, Tao and Zen thoughts.

Consider how revolutionary that is – a network television program where the plot isn’t advanced through bathroom humor, family dysfunction, tight tops on women, or mind-numbing violence. Yes, as a 16-year-old American male, I loved to watch Caine beat up three guys, but I was also mesmerized by the dialogue. Here was a character who was so cool that he scared the bad guys just by talking to them, and he never had to raise his voice to do it. Imagine how much I wished I could do that in high school.

As an adult, I still enjoy the fights, but I enjoy the talking even more. Carradine’s performance is a mixture of shrugs, half-looks, and a heightened intonation here and there. He genuinely wishes the bad guys would stop doing whatever it is they’re doing, because he genuinely doesn’t want to kick them into unconsciousness. There’s an episode in the first season, in which Caine is trying to help a man wrongly accused of a crime. Near the end, the man double crosses Caine, mostly out of greed but also stupidity. Caine looks at him, shakes his head, and says quietly, “It is a difficult path you have chosen.” How many TV shrinks could put it any better in an hour of screaming at their guests?

I try to think of that line every time a numbskull driver cuts me off in traffic. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a whole lot better than screaming at the driver. His path does not have to be mine.

(Poster from the Kung Fu series from Warner Home Entertainment.)

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Anonymous said...

TV is the great satan of modern times, acting to dumb down the population and mould them into Orwellian puppets...

That stated, 70s TV was in many cases bearable and in some cases quite great.

I loved the Rockford Files personally and I will even admit to watching the Brady Bunch. Kung Fu was also classic....

Daniel said...

I grew up on college campuses and a rural commune in the South, and part of being the child of non-violent utopians in the 1970s (for me, anyway) was an intense identification with two fictional characters: Caine and Billy Jack. Two non-violent, ass-whuppin contradictions.

Both men had a non-Western mindset that wasn't so much opposed to the Christian counter-culture of my formative years as it was unconcerned with Christianity's assertions. So in a sense, those two figures were highly instructive to me, even if they were just formulaic, simplistic, re-imagined Cowboy stories.

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