“Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.”
If ever there were an example of “East meets West” in prime time broadcasting, it was Kung Fu, a show that followed the travels of a usually pacifist Chinese Shaolin monk through the American Old West. And, in the course of his journey, the quiet and introverted refugee faced numerous injustices and prejudices along the way, most of which required him to eventually show off his formidable martial arts mastery.
Debuting on ABC in 1972, Kung Fu starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Kaine, the orphaned son of a Chinese mother and American father. Raised in a Shaolin temple in China, he was more than adequately training in the martial arts by the blind Master Po, who gave him the nickname of “Grasshopper.” But, far from being an aggressor, Caine was also well versed in Eastern philosophy, which taught him to only use his abilities as the last resort in any conflict. That is, with the exception of the one time that he killed the men who had murdered his beloved master (perfectly understandable). Rather than face certain execution, he fled China for America, in search of his long-lost brother Danny and a new life.
Traveling from town to town, he was ever-mindful of the Chinese assassins and bounty hunters that searched for him, but these were far from the only obstacles he faced along his journey. Not only was racism against Asians rampant in the country, but he crossed paths with many good folks who faced their own injustice against various oppressors, and the kind-natured Caine did his best to help them as best he could. In one encounter, he taught a Native American boy to defend himself from the outlaws that had kidnapped his mother. In another, he calmed a man who was unable to control his constant rage. Caine felt a kinship with his fellow outsiders, sympathizing with their plights that often mirrored his own, and was about the best ally one could hope for.
With a title like Kung Fu, one might assume that the focus of the show was nonstop fighting action. The truth is, most of the battles took up only a few of the final minutes in each show, as Caine always first tried to use the lessons of non-aggression imparted on him by his gentle master. These lessons were shown through a series of flashbacks to the days of Caine’s youth, where his training included numerous physical tasks and philosophical dilemmas that Master Po would test him with, always imparting the wisdom necessary to face these challenges later in life. And when all of that failed, and no peaceful options remained, Caine would proceed to offer a display of his formidable fighting skills to his unlucky opponents. These scenes were primarily shot in slow motion, highlighting the graceful beauty of his skills in a way that would have otherwise looked rather brutal.
Martial arts legend, Bruce Lee, has been purported by some to be the man originally chosen to play Caine, but the role went to David Carradine and it’s the one he will always be remembered for. And, although the popular series ran for only three years, Kung Fu enjoyed a large and loyal following that has grown over the years into cult status, thanks in part to syndication that continues to introduce the memorable series to new viewers.
In 1986, a film called Kung Fu: The Movie aired on television, with Carradine reprising the role of Kwai Chang Caine and Brandon Lee (son of Bruce) playing his son, Chung Wang. This led to a pilot the following year called Kung Fu: the Next Generation, which unfortunately did not get the green light. Finally, in 1993, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues premiered on television. David Carradine again portrayed Caine, now battling on the streets of Chinatown, alongside his estranged son Peter, a police officer. The successful sequel series ran for four years, longer than the original, before being cancelled in 1997. A feature film was rumored in 2006, but nothing has come to pass thus far. Sadly, David Carradine passed away in 2009.
Kung Fu was a unique and memorable series that resonated strongly with its loyal fans. A compelling blend of action and ancient mysticism made it one of the more thought-provoking adventure shows ever produced and one of the most fondly remembered of the genre. If you were a regular viewer of the original series, we’d love to hear your thoughts in our comments section.