Why did the series do so well…? It was strange.
This was a question talk show host Larry King once asked the actor David Carradine – star of the series Kung Fu, consisting of three seasons broadcast between 1972 and 1975, it had a pronounced impact and was an international success. The story of Kwai Chang Caine, a half Chinese half American Shaolin monk exiled in flight from China and roaming the American Old West.
The ‘strangeness’ observed by King in his question applies to the many strains of difference which Kung Fu brought in contrast to existing dramatic fare on American TV production schedules, landing directly into the mainstream of the US and its international markets. A strangeness that can only be understood referent to a normality (/’non-strangeness’) that King presumably does not challenge in this way, but that is ultimately fuelled from the outside of ancient Chinese philosophy and interpolated into the United States’ Ur-mythos, the Western.
It occurred to me recently that virtually nothing of its reach or kind has so resonated with the idea of there being people (a group) whose disciplines of the body/spirit so entwine with potentials of freedom, becomings and a realisation of the mysterious flows of life and nature. Its confluences as a story are through the lens of study and exemplification of the ancient Chinese philosophies of the Dao – that way of life, that recipe book of action and non-action, dedicated in spirit to the formless constancy of the thread of inspiration and intensification, presence and escape. The same thing one suspects that informs Dylan Thomas on his elucidation ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age‘. The transformation that results through an opening toward this real force already present (also a way of life) adjacently referenced but directly invoked, invisibly composed but serenely active – the quiet consistent voice of silence and its opening invitation of being.
In terms of its story, its a vehicle charged both from its recurrent navigational reference of the Dao as well as a world of the martial arts (contemporaneous with Bruce Lee and the rising impact of Hong Kong Cinema) specifically a martial arts in explicit contact and harmony as an extension and cultivation of the spiritual and the energetic (Chi). As such it is also a space that crystalises the capacities of the body beyond those transformations routinised in our world of modern daily life and socio-economic determinism. These elements carrying with them the possibilities of the body and spirit in the context of discipline and training since childhood, allied with a fealty to love and the flexibility of becoming as a correlate of a warrior preparedness. Told through story, in the form of an observation presented to give us the character Caine’s learning, application and poise towards serenity in struggle and battle and the turning fates of occurrence, all of which taking place in a wilder and wider tableau of that which is real in impact, resonance and life.
It’s been a delight to have discovered Grasshopper‘s channel on Youtube (‘Grasshopper’ the name given to young Caine by the blind Monk Master Po), replete as it is with scenes and motifs from the show’s 3 seasons as well as some interviews, voice commentaries and related bits and pieces. Alongside Kung Fu Tv Show (where episodes can currently be watched), a most comprehensive resource for following the story of this show.
Growing up it felt like Kung Fu and what it embodied had a very special place in the childhood of my mind and heart. As a child of the early eighties, it was still being repeated during prime time and it had retained a special air in our house, where the moniker ‘Grasshopper’ would sometimes be imparted at a moment of learning, or where my father would at points refer back with reverence to one of Caine’s extraordinary feats of the outlandish.
With such gentleness and reserve was a Daoist abstract machine (per the language of Deleuze/Guattari) presented into people’s living rooms. Poetically and soulfully expressed within David Carradine’s performance (as well as those of his brother Keith and Radames Pera as his younger incarnates) – learning from the sagacious and gnomic Master Po, Mastan Kan and a shifting cast of others.
There were spin offs; a movie in 1986, a TV pilot set in modern day in 1987 called ‘next generation’ with Brandon Lee playing Caine’s descendant, as well as a doomed 90’s attempt; The Legend Continues. A new remake looms again on American network the CW.
Kung Fu was emerging into a televisual field still recurrently held by its traditions in model and story, a routine of which would be that explanation accompany occurrence. Kung Fu often eschewed such linearity with its bi-focal story; interspersing the interiority of the Shaolin Temple and Caine’s childhood of learning with the later exteriority of the American West and his journeys as an itinerant wanderer encountering the endless folly and peril of human lives and their circumstances. Though it is always with a great integrity and humility that Caine entered and touched upon people’s lives, while invariably aware of the ways in which they were problematised or trapped. As such, a being depicted capable of seeing both the lineaments of social and personal productions as stratification and disablement but also with practical knowledge (however esoteric or paradoxical) and understanding of thresholds in and beyond such circumstances. Recurrently we see Caine make contact with people and where possible, use his own being as example or with a spareness and minimality give awareness of the different dynamics/dimension of people’s lives and problems. Sometimes this has a more simplistic appearance, such as employing the necessary courage or thinking to defeat a local bully or petty tyrant, at other times, perhaps where a connection is formed with a difficulty Caine himself has faced or faces – things can become much more mysterious and less in line with a formal realist definition of cause or consequence. Something which the Dao itself is perennially straddling. That many of our problems and many of our solutions occur partly in places and ways outside the commonplace of understanding (or where in modernity and the time that followed the Dao, ‘understanding’ has been positioned).
It is part of the achievement of David Carradine’s performance that he so eschews any demonstration or expression which would jeopardise the reality of the character of Caine, in this respect a discipline has been in place equal to the story – marking a significant integrity on his and the show’s part. This character and being over the course of the series that reveals and is revealed through experiences and encounters (an active process of education and then learning) that propel him in such a way past the compass of ordinary sense and being, through which the presence of the Dao and its teachers emerge as a thread of consistent anomalous reference and navigation. A fact that only further animates his resolve and gentle discipline of being and intent. Brujos, demons, visions, promptings, sorcerors and gestures of the spirit – the world of the unknown-incursive runs parallel to his own, that such things can thread a story elucidating the Dao is the appearance of a bridge through the spirit of philosophy to the continuation of reality by other means.
One story which fascinatingly melds the psychological with the intensity of spiritual/demonic is the Season 3 episode ‘One Step to Darkness‘ which even incorporates psychotropic substances onto a plane of realisable ontology through a shared virtual-real involved in specifically transformed perception and spaces of encounter (with a semi-psychologised but real entity characterised as a demon).
Caine encounters a woman Amy (Leslie Charleson – pictured) whom he assists in an altercation and later discovers is addicted to a drug of Chinese origin. He sees the face on her riding crop of a Chinese demon (Kuei) which Caine remembers from his time at the monastery.
We cut back to the young student Caine before a large tapestry in the monastery, the face of the demon upon it, but he does not understand how he knows it, only that he has a feeling they will meet and in this context is disturbed. Master Po ascertaining that the child has a relationship with this entity points out that the demon is something created by the mind, while never undercutting its presence as a reality.
Knowing that he must investigate the re-appearance of the demon, Caine discovers the woman Amy and her marriage to an Army officer are being torn apart by the trauma of the stillborn death of their child in China a year earlier, where she was introducted to the drug (and its associated demon). Only later does Caine recollect the Typhoid fever of his own much earlier childhood in China – when near death he has implored the same demon (pictured this time on a nearby bottle of pain medication) to let death take the other sick child in the hospital room instead of him. It is from this time that Caine becomes fully aware he has been carrying this Demon within him and that now, suddenly encountering it once more is the opportunity for him to face it.
During one of these scenes in the monastery – under the unyielding face of the demon on the tapestry student Caine asks Po what he must do, to which Po replies ‘you will know what once you have sought out your demon and confronted him, only then will you come face to face with the thing you fear, that you have given the shape of this demon‘. As such in this instance, it is crystalised in method of form as being incepted in relation to a fear.
And yet despite this early realisation and explanation Caine cannot reach the Demon and it is only at the story’s continuation years later and a continent away upon seeing the riding crop from Canton with its familiar face (which we come to see is also a handy container for Amy’s stash of the powdered drug itself) that Caine can resume this contact. As such and seeing the moment, Caine embarks on a trajectory of encounter. In time, he joins Amy in a sunny glade by a pool, where she is in a psychotropic state (she first greets Caine via his reflection on the surface as an entity of the water). Caine explains that she is in a place that he needs to get to ‘I’m seeking entry into a different place.’
Amy: Why are you looking so deeply into my eyes?
Caine: Where else can I seek the truth
Amy: What truth are you seeking?
Caine: A truth that will help me reach a different world
Amy: How do you reach this world?
Caine: Only through someone who is already there, can you tell me?
Amy: Telling isn’t seeing, or hearing or feeling
Caine: Well, if you tell me, I can hear, see, feel… What do you do in this world?
Amy: I drift, I become one with it
Caine: Do you have friends here?
Amy: Yes, I have many friends (…) the flowers, aren’t they beautiful…
Simultaneously in the past of the monastery Master Po is telling Caine that he must go deeper into the world of his inward journey to confront his demon. Yet we see that this inward journey also involves another person, the practical implication of this is as a virtual-real extension through communication and perception, that simultaneously requires that the other person (in this case Amy) provide the impetus and component of passage for Caine to ‘travel’ or ‘be’ there.
Where this reaches a point of being most remarkable is perhaps here. Despite Po’s previous explanation that the demon has been created in Caine’s mind, he simultaneously exhorts him to go further and meet the demon in its own world rather than allow him to come into Caine’s.
‘The doorway to another reality lies before you, you must step over the threshold… you must enter this world, meet your demon, wherever you were in the past when you created him….’
This becomes the moment of an extraordinary three fold gateway-in-story, where student Caine in the monastery travels back and for the first time as an adult begins to see his initial encounter with the demon while a very young child; sick and in hospital.
The older Caine, speaking with Amy in the sunny glade seems to find the way to finally join or enter through her world when he is momentarily transformed (in the scene) into the young student Caine (Radames Pera), sat in front Amy asking her about the flowers, and then is again transformed into the still younger Caine (Stephen Manley) from the scenes in the hospital. The adult Caine is returned when a thorn on a flower pricks his finger. He asks Amy about the drug, referencing the riding crop, asking when she first encountered it.
At this point the wind transforms dramatically and Amy takes Caine’s hand and leads him – depicted in slow motion that somehow recalls Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and the girl’s ascent of the rock. Amy leads Caine to a nearby cave, where the demon awaits.
In the proceeding confrontation between Caine and the demon, he is able to free both himself and Amy from its grip. By defeating the demon in combat – in the place and mode of encounter (within the cave) while simultaneously refuting their own ‘bargain’ (‘no bargain may be made with a child delirius with fever‘). He finally vanquishes the demon by responding to its command to him to die, with a counter-command to the demon to ‘be nothing’. So while the psychologising-as-real of the demon’s inception is also the point at which it can be vanquished, the shared (perceptual) world of the encounter alongside Amy as well as her co-emplacement in the world (with her own genealogy of encounter and situation) and her threshold crossing assistance are the intensive-real of the story. In the story’s own grammar (Po’s advice that Kane must meet the demon where it lives) they have been in the world of Kuei the demon.
We have the three points of encounter (and ongoing presence/presence-through-absence) with the demon; an unseen and unencountered but successful first incepting of the Typhoid child Caine, the first remembering and seeing of the tapestry depicting Kuei by the young student Caine, alongside adult Caine seeking to encounter and outmatch the demon. Alongside this is the layered virtuality of the demon; as something both made by the mind, but also real and sharable in experience – it presents the virtual-real as an experience that can be mutual as a transformed capacity or mode of awareness. Though not straightforwardly achieved even for a priest trained in the arts threaded beyond the known.
It is shown as impacted and reached through the extreme disturbance of illness and fever and the transformed sense through a psychotropic substance, which is something Caine somehow melds with, or makes use of (making the abstract sense or transformed perception) something which can itself be shared, borrowed, used or assimilated to an absolutely shared extent. It also renders the demon itself as inherently personal (and self-created or created of individual mind) while also collective in the context of being something Caine once defeated, is able to also set free from Amy, who is shown to have been broken out of her desolate ontological trap. As a story it gives us a fascinating simultaneity of the virtual-real as personal and shared and of an objectivity to a third party entity that is associated/encountered/inculcated through a drug and yet is also in the child Caine’s case brought on through fever and fear of death (and a ‘bargain’). That it uses the drugic and Amy’s transformed perception and experience as the gateway for Caine’s own transformation is also thought-provoking, suggesting as it does that the reality of psychotropised spaces are accessibilities beyond that connection.
Perhaps in the vein of very specified understandings applied to the ideas of expanded fields of action, those associated with the impact of things sacred, or through the idea of the spirits in the world of the spiritual, then it behoves us to understand that there is a line of distinction here for the Shaolin practitioners as to the shamanic practitioners. In this respect, the virtual-real of their space, impacting from the Dao as it is, can contain the Dao’s extraordinary capacity to be outside our normal understanding and this can (from the story) also be about other kinds of entity and different kinds of force. Yet as distinct from the shamanic, their actions and courses are not also an anomalous navigation which ontologises the necessary understandings of impact and existences of such entities as those commonly in contact with and through the auspices of shamanism. It is not as if this is problematic for the Shaolin as a (in this case fictionalised) method of existence and Caine is exemplary in this episode having waited for his chance to meet and remove Kuei from his being. The point is simply to note a difference in emphasis in the apparent absence of the main intrinsic to shamanism (the seeking out and balancing with the reality of other realms of perception and encounters with other forms of being) as absent from Shaolin. At the heart of shaolin after all is sobriety and what can be gleaned from the story of this episode in particular is how Caine has replaced any requirement for a psychotropic substance with patience, timing and becoming in respect of perception and action. In this respect all of the qualities of the psychotropic are placed within reach, while being elementised as the result of Caine’s formidable practise and learning to this point in time (expressions of his intent).
Kung Fu appeared to set itself the challenge of expressing and holding to the spirit of the Dao and by and large it does this consistently, even in places of story more strange and imperilled (by the seductiveness to hold to the dominant mode of explanation as a way of understanding reality). Another fascinating instance of which takes place in the episode ‘The Brujo‘ where Caine encounters and must ultimately defeat a practitioner of malignant magic whom has been terrorising a village through his curses.
In this way also, the story interpolates (through the arrival of the Chinese as a group into the America of this time largely as labourers and underclass dwellers) daoism as a personified anomalous presence within the broad bi-focalism of the west and its perspective (of acquisition, settlement and violence-control) and the Native Americans, warriors otherwise enlightened but in war-mode within a cause of receding likelihood. As such, allowing for interactions which cross socio-structural boundaries in instances of recurrent recalibration towards a mode of action consistently becoming and in harmony, replete with gesture and spirit. A contact that renews. As to these encounters – Caine’s meeting with the brujo results from his intevention to save a woman and young boy on their way to the town, against the aegis of the brujo who has used his dark arts to injur her (and at the scene where she dies, leaving Caine to take the boy on to the town). The boy is seen to be in some way otherly while the woman now dying tells Caine she had been waiting for him having seen that he would come (‘a priest of light from a far off land… I have touched your soul young priest...’).
In fact the early depictions of the brujo in this episode are powerfully done, exultant and dark with his power, he is pictured spectrally emergent from the landscape while he speaks in disquieting and subtly altered tones. But in this respect again it is not sufficient that the story places Caine as the teleological binary against him, but does so with Caine as the itinerant, nomadic visitor to a space already with its socio-ecosystem in which there are those ‘allied’ in some way with Love and with Integrity are already also featured and to which Caine becomes a guide-substitute (and leader) against the brujo’s malicious ministrations. And it is in the resolution of this battle that the series and its story demonstrate their commitment to intensive action as a gesture in the form of their writing and its production. They also avoid folding down into either explanation for the occurrence and reality of magic and specifically a magic which has an element involved through the knowing acceptance of the target (much like the gothic representations of voodoo) and yet is also simply presented as real. It chooses neither to neuter its efficacy and the efficacy of other anomalous acts (like the old woman seeing that Caine would come as she lay dying) which are not part of the script of our world view constantly such it is – in the habit of endlessly explaining itself through the rendering of our productions. As such, it avoids return to the conceptual tracks of normal explanation except via a pure intensity of action, an active form of inaction (intensity).
In fact it is by doing ‘nothing’ (being unafflicted) that Caine breaks the brujo’s power over the village and yet this act is defined by the words of Caine’s master from childhood, when faced with a situation where in his childhood Caine is cursed by a sorceror he has met. ‘be like the mirror… allow no evil to pass through you, reflect it to its source.’
As such, the power of the brujo is not simply psychologised to a matter of belief even though this may be (if at least in part) a significant component, but instead is countered with a belief which is also an action, that of a wilful reflecting against malevolance. As a ‘solution’ to young Caine’s problem, it is almost as much that it feels like a solution is what is required, something that pertains with certainty as an equal or counter action to the elements of affectivity malevolant by design as something which must in some way enter and as such, can be denied by an activation of intent.
Through Caine we are left with the depiction and depictions’s affect of an unbending integrity, to mind which (from Hinton‘s translation of the Dao De Ching):
The nature of great Integrity is to follow Way absolutely.
Becoming things, Way appears vague and hazy.
All hazy and impossibly vague it harbors the mind’s images.
All vague and impossibly hazy it harbors the world’s things.
All hidden and impossibly dark it harbors the subtle essence,
and being an essence so real it harbors the sincerity of facts.
Never, not since the beginning – its renown has never been far off.
Through it we witness all origins.
And how can we ever know the form of all origins?
Lose Way, and Integrity appears.
Lose Integrity, and Humanity appears.
Lose Humanity, and Duty appears.
Lose Duty, and Ritual appears.
Ritual is the thinning away of loyalty and sincerity, the beginning of chaos,
and prophecy is the flowery semblance of Way, the beginning of folly.
Whenever I read the Dao, I am always amazed by the feeling that I am reading it for the first time, the thought recurs ‘it must be the first time, or else I would have remembered all of these extraordinary lambent lenslets of phrase and have been knowingly changed by them and their near-peerless declarations, low high and full empty…’ And yet this too is strangely resonant of the task we face as these here human beings, so often are we inflexible to those particles of assistance that drift through our concrete casing…
Some of these things come through the stories of Kung Fu and its conceits or its imagining in set and staging, but one thing in particular that it feels resonant at this point to highlight comes through from Carradine himself as the embodiment of a kind of high-energy patience and grace (and aside from the enacting of his characteristic of integrity – as above and of which patience and grace too are a part). Carradine himself spoke about the extraordinary and transformative impact the series had on so many people and in the wider culture, also pointing out that generally nothing else has carried the same philosophical force, often focusing instead on the purely physical of the martial arts (or of an amplified in power of this), while failing to express the spiritual and philosophical as profoundly necessary correlates. In the same extract, he explains he had no knowledge of this profound impact as it was happening, focused as he was on trying to act Caine. However, in so doing, he establishes in the fictional/virtual an exemplification of a lineage of lived possibility and with it an expression, irreducible in affect and the depiction of experience, to any more complex a connection than those others we might have in our lives, the results of which as affective coagulants and nexi of their own corresponding modes of existence – carry both the possibility of experience and learning and that each of these is always itself, as much as it may also be anything or everything else.