The television series Kung Fu ran on US television from 1972 to 1975. It featured a half-American half-Chinese Shaolin monk called Kwai Chang Caine who travels around the American Old West searching for his half-brother. Episodes are interspersed with flashbacks to his monastic training. The flashbacks provide an insight into his spiritual development and offer clues about how he might outwit his adversaries. The philosophical points are inspired by ancient Chinese texts including the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu.
Although David Carradine is ethnically European, many of the other Chinese characters are played by ethnically Chinese actors. For a mainstream television programme in 1970s America it presented a surprisingly positive view of Chinese people. The story was presented from a Chinese person’s perspective and many of the villains were white. In this respect it’s a ‘Western’ set in the American Old West that fits squarely into the Revisionist Western sub-genre. The excitement surrounding Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu movies saw them become a cultural reference point for young black and Asian people. Kung Fu can be seen within this phenomenon and it is literally an Americanised version of that vision subsumed into the Western genre. In spite of Kung Fu being a mainstream American TV series its hard-hitting plot lines tackled racism and prejudice straight on. The period setting and relatively unthreatening ‘exoticism’ of Caine’s pacifist spirituality may have made the subject matter more palatable to a mainstream audience. It’s doubtful that the same subject matter would have been as appealing had it been set in modern America with a genuinely half-Chinese hero.
King Fu’s plot-lines include dystopian situations where absolute power has accumulated in the hands of the few and this has resulted in corruption and abuse. But there are ‘good folk’ willing to stand up and fight the ruling elite — people willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the common good. Caine is able to work with these peace and justice loving members of the community to fight injustice. Sometimes he must face criminals or unruly gangs of ‘good old boys’ whose racist and abusive behaviour is tolerated by townsfolk, because they consider it harmless fun or are too afraid to speak out. In a world of bullies and sadistic racists where people are turning a blind eye to hateful behaviour it takes a special kind of hero with moral integrity to restore harmony.
Each episode begins with a flashback to Caine’s monastic training and the signal that his training is complete — when he is able to snatch a pebble from his master’s hand. The format from episode to episode relies on a repeated formula. Caine wanders into a settlement or town and innocently becomes embroiled in a dramatic situation. The predicament is further complicated by a misunderstanding or injustice that Caine must strategically unravel. While some challenges can be resolved with a little detective work to expose the wrongdoer he must occasionally resort to his martial arts skills to disarm and disable a killer.
Caine’s pacifist beliefs and his spiritual philosophy of oneness with the universe contrasts with the materialism and greed of those he faces: the power elite, the unchecked bullies and criminals. But ‘the way’ that Caine advocates does not offer an easy solution as he himself admits: “I do not seek answers, but rather to understand the question.”
Kung Fu celebrates the grandeur of mindfulness and wisdom triumphing over ignorance and hate. It is also a warning about material greed, social injustice and the abuse of power.