THE SONG OF A GRASSHOPPER: THE SPIRITUAL WISDOMS OF THE CLASSIC TELEVISION SERIES “KUNG FU”
By Avellina Balestri (alias Rosaria Marie)
Word Count: 3239
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences
Summary: A review of the classic western/martial arts TV series “Kung Fu”
My dad and I were fishing through the wide and wonderful world of Netflix one day, searching out a new series to delve into, when he had a moment of enlightenment from days of yesteryear. “See if they have a series called Kung Fu starring David Carradine”, he instructed. “It’s a show from the ‘70’s about this Chinese guy who travels around the Old West, and has these ancient wisdom reflections. You know John Carradine, the Shakespeare actor I met in California? Well, that’s his son.” My father’s memory had sparked my interest, and when it was discovered that this series was in circulation, we put it up at the top of our queue. I didn’t expect I would come to like it as much as I did, but little by little, and episode by episode, I found myself getting hooked!
Kung Fu falls into a genre all its own, even as it incorporates key elements from traditional Westerns and martial arts action flicks. It manages to strike an intricate balance of elements, from excellently choreographed fight sequences, to emotionally engrossing acting, to morally powerful story lines and solutions. It also produces a wonderfully different type of hero: Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese, half-American Buddhist monk from the Shaolin Order who becomes a wanted man after killing the Emperor of China’s nephew, who had previously murdered Caine’s teacher, the blind Master Po.
With the help of a Catholic priest, Caine escapes the country and travels across the American South-West in search of his long-lost half-brother, a notorious gunslinger. Along the way, his love of justice causes him to become embroiled in various conflicts for the sake of other people, using both physical skill and spiritual wisdom to navigate through seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And of course, there are flashbacks a-plenty from his youth spent in the Buddhist monastery in China under the guardianship of Master Po and Master Kan.
Unlike the hoard of pistol-packing, beef-chomping, big-headed, ten-gallon-hat-wearers usually starring in Western series, Cain is deeply thoughtful, courteous, humble, and soft-spoken. He is also a vegetarian, out of respect for all living things, and a teetotaler, to keep his mental faculties alert. He carries no weapons, aside from his own body trained in the martial arts, and he only uses his fighting skills in defense of himself or others. However, when he is lent a bow-and-arrow in one episode, he is able to hit the target smack-dab in the center…with his eyes closed!
Caine is not just trained as a warrior, but also a healer, teacher, and lover of the arts, enabling him to appreciate and excel at the physical, spiritual, and ascetic elements of self-improvement and helping bring about the betterment of others. Like all true organics, he carries a variety of healing herbs in his satchel, and aids the varied people he crosses paths with through his holistic remedies and massage therapy.
Music is a very important element of Caine’s life. When he first goes to the monastery as a boy, Master Po calls to his attention that there is a grasshopper singing at his feet. “Old man, how can you know these things?” the boy questions. “Young Man, how can you not?” Po replies. From that time on, Caine is nicknamed “Grasshopper”, in order to always remind him of the timeless importance of the little things in life. Later on, when traveling across the Old West, his prized possession is a bamboo flute. Interesting, in Hindu tradition, one of the main divinities, Lord Krishna, is portrayed as playing an enchanted flute.
But aside from being a potential type of Krishna or perhaps Buddha (considered by Buddhists to be the Man who became fully at One with the Universe), Caine can also be seen as a Christ-like figure in many ways that bridge cultural and religious gaps, and he exhibits particularly Franciscan qualities with regards to his ability to calm and befriend animals and his embrace of poverty to keep himself from being possessed by the things of the world. He also wears no shoes, both symbolically for his position in life, and practically, because if his feet and hands are weapons of self-defense. Often people will marvel at his amazing physical strength and mental keenness, and ask, “What are you?” He answers simply, “I am a Man.”
Eastern spirituality places a strong emphasis on the importance of self-control and mastery, physically and mentally. It is shown that when young Kwai Chang first enters the temple as a boy, he is taught to walk on thin rice paper without tearing it, and to snatch a pebble out of his teacher’s hand before he can close it. This is just the beginning of various exercises he will be made to undergo during his time in the temple, learning the art of Kung Fu. Ultimately, he earns the marks of the tiger and the dragon on his forearms, a sign that he has passed his training and been initiated into the Shaolin priesthood. At one point in the series, these marks are mistaken for the branding of a slave; he responds that these symbols represent his greatest freedom, not his bondage.
All of this self-control stuff pays off during his Western excursion, when he is often mocked, ridiculed, and challenged to lash out, and yet restrains himself. He recalls that a man, and especially a martial artist, should never strike in anger, both because he may lose his mind-over-matter balance, and he might easily kill unintentionally. But we can imagine Caine was not always so serene, since he did pulverize the emperor’s nephew in a fight (richly-deserved as it may have been)! In the aftermath of this event that he takes no pleasure in recalling, perhaps he is extra cautious, and experiencing a type of purging for his past breach of self-control.
I love the way Caine is able to say he “loves” other people in a very spiritual sense, referring to that love which emanates from an inner fragment of Divine light, and based upon a true appreciation for the dignity of every person. Basically, it can be summed up thusly: “The light within me recognizes, bows, and honors the light within you; and together we are one with this light.” There is an emphasis on empathy for all life, the give and take of love, and the need for togetherness as opposed to dog-eat-dog survival tactics. There is also a palpable sense that people cross paths for a reason, and all things work together for some greater purpose.
Another thing I admire about Caine is that he does not chase after women, and truly respects them for their own sake. In fact, he resists several women trying to seduce him over the course of the series. He does have a few semi-romances, although none really get off the ground, mostly because he is pretty busy running for his life and getting into stramash after stramash on behalf of others! Nevertheless, I would have to admit that among the plethora of TV heroes, he probably embodies most of the qualities that I would seek out in a soul-mate.
Another major theme in Kung Fu is interreligious dialogue. I am pleased to say that by and large this touchy subject is handled with impeccably good taste and balance. Caine, a through-and-through Buddhists, interacts respectfully with those of differing beliefs, including Catholicism and Native American Spirituality. There definitely is an emphasis on the similarities that cross the spiritual divide, but I don’t believe the series tries to paint the conclusion that all religions are “the same”, but simply that areas of common ground and mutual understanding exist and can be reached. Much of this has to do with Natural Law, called the Tao in Eastern Tradition, which is part of the infrastructure of all humanity, and which Christians might understand to be the etching of God on our souls.
Racism and prejudice also features heavily, and Caine himself is often targeted for his Asian background. And yet, we never find the stories sinking into stereotypes or platitudes about past wrongs. There is admirable balance in the way different races are portrayed. We meet good and bad White people, Black people, Asian people, Native American people, Hispanic people, etc. It seems as if the defining factor is how these individuals deal with the challenges they face in life, whether it be injustices towards them, or peer pressure to be unjust to others. They have free will, and are responsible for the evolution of their own identity through every choice they make for good or evil.
There are a substantial amount of really juicy episodes in the series, and I could analyze most of them individually at length. But for my present purposes, I’ll just give a brief overview of my Top 10 Favorites, and hope that maybe some readers might get interested and decide to go in search of them:
What sort of possessions can claim a hold on people, and why are they all dangerous? How can we make restitution for wrongs committed, and repay past good deeds? These questions are explored when Caine encounter a Franciscan monk who has stolen an ornate chalice from his Order. Mortally wounded by brigands who rob him of the chalice, the monk makes Caine vow to relocate the stolen piece and make restitution to his Order. Along the route, we get to see through flashbacks how Caine was given sanctuary by a Catholic priest in China who hid him from the Imperial authorities and helped him escape the country. Now Caine feels a special obligation towards to Franciscans to help repay the good deed.
The Soul Is the Warrior:
Where does the true power of Man lie? What is the nature of the soul, and how does it enable us to overcome fear of evil and death? The questions arise when Caine confronts a vengeful cattle baron who keeps rattle snakes in a pit in a psychological bid for power. When the landowner prepares to kill two of his captives, Caine makes him promise to release them if he will walk through the pit, like St. Francis agreeing to walk through fire before the Sultan. Caine must rely on his light-footedness and spiritual strength to get himself through the ordeal, and reflects on the lessons he was taught at the temple about the everlasting nature of the soul and his own gift of calming wrestles animals.
What is the nature of truth, and what happens when it is compromised, even with good intentions? Caine explores these complex issues when a young girl he befriends thinks she has witnessed Kwai Chang shoot a man, and is forced to testify against him in court. He holds nothing against her for telling the truth as she saw it, but when she lies to save his life at the last minute, he fears she has compromised her own integrity for his sake, and sets out to prove his innocence. He comments at the end that “Alethia in Greek means “lover of truth.” She bids him farewell with a kiss on the cheek, saying “I love you, Mr. Caine!” He responds, a bit choked up, “And I have never loved anyone more.”
Why do things happen the way they do? Are some people sent to be aids on our spiritual journeys? Also, how does hatred for past wrongs affect one as a person? These questions come up when Caine meets a young man from a Native American tribe who has been praying to the Great Spirit for someone to guide him. When his father is killed and his mother kidnapped by bandits, he and Caine set out to rescue her. Meanwhile, Caine has flashbacks of the murder of his own parents by an evil warlord in China, and the difficulty he had learning to let go of the gnawing hate that festered within him for many years.
What’s the difference between true love and usury? What are the dangers of becoming imprisoned by another person’s dominance or possessed by another person’s beauty? Caine comes face-to-face with these issues when he meets a traveling performing duo comprised of a beautiful dancer and dwarf man who is infatuated with her. She tries to seduce Caine and get him to run off with her, abandoning Nebo to his fate. But Caine gently pushes her away, saying, “Do you not think I would go back to save him for his own sake?” Ultimately, he teaches them both the importance of true love, based on giving and receiving with grace.
Are we all capable of loving, or have some of us hardened our hearts beyond the point of return? Can we ever rediscover a sense of true love that extends to all people, for their own worth? When Caine is rescued by an outlaw and gunslinger, he tries to teach him the meaning of love, even as he tries to help him escape from those trying to gun him down. However, the effects of Caine’s teachings will have unexpected consequences when the hitherto hardened killer is unable to shoot a deputy, and is killed himself in full view of the woman he was finally about to tell he loved. This is one of the only times Caine is seen in tears, and I must say it made me a little teary as well!
Night of Owls, Day of Doves:
Why do some people experience good fortunes, and others are forced into unthinkable positions out of desperation? Is there ever a chance of finding redemption after one’s reputation is sullied, especially when people refuse to let you change your image? Caine meets a group of prostitutes who intend to try to make a fresh start for themselves when they are left a substantial inheritance. However, some people contest the legality of the will, endangering the women’s last chance for redemption. When death threats are made against them, Caine agrees to protect them and make up for a wrong done to one of the girls by a dissolute Shoalin monk.
What is the meaning of true freedom, and can it ever be purchased? Do you allow injustices to define us? And what is the true meaning of justice? When a former slave from Brazil trained in the art of capoeira fighting falsely believes Caine has stolen a diamond from him, he sets out to track him down. It will take a handful of street urchins, an Irish widow, an Armenian pianist, and a heck of a fight with Caine to set the record straight. Meanwhile, the Armenian, who has dreamt of returning to his native land to restore justice there, finally realizes that “Wherever justice can be done, that is Armenia!”
Empty Pages of a Dead Book:
Is the Law always the same thing as Justice? Is following the letter of the Law more important than embracing the spirit of it? Unfortunately, a young man bent on honoring his late Texas Ranger father by bringing criminals to justice needs to learn these lessons, but not before he finds himself embroiled in a frame-up along with his new-found friend Caine and tried and condemned for a murder they did not commit. Ultimately, they break jail and find themselves on the run, but when they are given the choice of leaving a man to die or surrendering themselves, the fusion of justice and righteousness, the word and spirit of the law, finally takes place.
The Way of Violence Has No Mind:
When faced with racial injustice, is it better to endure to turn the other cheek, or fight fire with fire? When is the line drawn between appropriate resistance to unjust laws, and embracing unbridles violence? These issues are explored when Caine meets with a Chinese-Cowboy-Robin-Hood-type-Outlaw, who hates whites and seeks to achieve justice for the Asian community. But when an elderly white couple agree to hide him from his pursuers, Caine tries his best to demonstrate that there is good and bad to be found in all races, and that violence only begets more violence. In this episode, Caine also manages to survive being tied to a wagon wheel underwater because he doesn’t freak out and lose his breath, but slips out of the ropes using Kung Fu muscle manipulation.
I hate to put a damper on my own proclivity to wax mystical about the many wonders of Kung Fu. And yet, I must lay the hard, cold facts before the unbiased reader: the series self-destructs at the tail end of the second season and on through the understandably short-lived third. What used to be a penetrating analysis of human nature and spiritual enlightenment devolved into a galactic action hero comic strip, with stupidly inserted “funny parts”, outlandish costumes and sets, fantastical story-lines, and lots of flying cyber-demons to fight…but this time with stunt men, and jerky camera angles! It was just…horrible, to the point of drawing tears from this bewailing former-fan!
Evidently what may has started the descent into ignobility was dropping ratings and David Carradine’s pulled tendon which prevented him from continuing to hack-and-kick with his usual gusto, requiring the use of stand-ins and scene cuts. It is noticeable that Carradine is none-too-happy about the new and anti-improved developments in the series, and shows it through huffing and puffing a lot on camera (so counter-character! Grr!). Finally the pain became too excruciating even for him, and he just walked off in mid-season, putting Kung Fu out of its elongated death agony.
Frankly, I’ve got to back yon dude 100%…only wish he’d come to the conclusion of abandoning the sinking ship earlier so that Kwai Chang could have retired with full honors still intact, instead of making the debilitating descent into the dark backroom studios for hokey ‘70’s special-effects creature insertion and rummage sale costume creations! It seems that Carradine’s own legacy wound up being just as messy and scandalous as the fall-off-a-cliff finale of the series…par for the course in the life of an actor! But evidently, in addition to his acting, he was an accomplished artist and musician, and quite obviously, had mastered martial arts to a tee!
But to conclude my review of the series on a happy note: I still think the bulk of episodes from the Golden Age of Kung Fu stand out as a timeless and very worthwhile achievement. I believe that the moral backbone and spiritual realities brought to the fore in Kung Fu have the potential to enlighten and inspire deeper explorations into the nature of humanity and, at the heart of it all, the quality of love. In its own special way, it undermines the nihilistic notion that we are simply a scientific accident of firing neurons, and that all morality is merely born of social norms or evolutionary survival tactics.
It is in these cases that the words and reflections of Kwai Chang Caine may yet serve to enlighten those on the path of philosophical exploration, piercing the souls of those seeking a taste the transcendent that can be found in the love of a friend or the heroism of a warrior or the melody of a flute or the song of a grasshopper.