Ode to Kwai Chang Caine

The Hollywood press and celebrity trackers everywhere are having a high time with the sad story of the late actor David Carradine's kung fu noir demise. There's speculation about suicide, what an ex-wife terms his "dark side," eccentric sexual practices, even murder. The family is reportedly suing a Thai tabloid for running forensic photos of the actor's corpse, and the hunt is presumably on for the person or persons, perhaps in Carradine's employ, who may have tied his hands behind his back that tragic night in his Bangkok luxury hotel room.

I suppose one could go on and on about the price of celebrity, the life and self-image of a man at the twilight of a very visible career, the strange genetic tree that might have born fruit in the form of this man who was to some an iconic figure. If one were particularly heartless one could make jokes about sexual excess, and if one were particularly moralistic one might even odiously claim the actor got his just desserts. Personally, I reject all of those options in favor of some good old-fashioned mourning.

The man I grieve for is not David Carradine; I leave that to his family and friends. I never knew the actor--not even a little. The man I know is, in fact, one Kwai Chang Caine, a 19th century Shaolin monk who fled his native land after killing the nephew of the Chinese emperor. He found asylum in the wild American West, there to roam the land in search of his brother, an elusive quest that never failed to emphasize the importance of home, family, and simply human connection.

Carradine played Caine on the television show Kung Fu, which aired between 1972 and 1975. I never missed an episode, and have them all, every one, on DVD. I have watched them with my son, not because I want him to follow in my footsteps in the Chinese martial arts, but because I want him to understand the deeper meaning of those arts, and through them the moral imperatives that separate martial artists from thugs.

David Carradine is dead, but Kwai Chang Caine is not, which is why I term this an ode rather than an obituary. While it was Bruce Lee personal magnetism and magnificent athleticism that wowed, seduced and inspired a generation of martial artists as well as decades of "kung fu flick" devotees, it was Carradine's Caine who inspired me. It wasn't that I didn't envy and admire Lee, it was just that at the end of the day I found Caine's reluctance to embrace violence more interesting than Lee's love of it. More, I found the series' flashbacks to Caine's Shaolin days to more closely touch the culture and philosophy that gave rise to the Chinese martial arts I teach and practice every day.

Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are the three pillars of ancient Chinese culture and perhaps still hold up the roof for many in that country today. Kung Fu the television series explored aspects of all of them, and Carradine's Caine embodied all of them: the harmony and love of nature espoused by the first, the compassion central to the second, and the emphasis on civilized behavior, loyalty to family, and the importance of moral order critical to the third. Week after week, Caine revealed these principles to folks, like me, who had never heard of them. He gave a context for martial arts training, revealing it to be a path to self-cultivation, not merely a fighting system. Did he end up kicking butt in every episode? He did--the show was made in Hollywood, after all--but he managed to evidence sufficient poise, equilibrium and distaste for scrapping to transcend the limits of the budding genre and produce something really special.

Carradine was no Lee, (Lee, apparently, was turned down for the role as America was not quite ready, some claimed, for a Chinese leading man even if he was to play the part of a Chinese leading man) and the action scenes were often painfully bad, but Carradine figured out that it was Caine's heart and mind, not his fists, that made him tick. Carradine became interested in martial arts himself after filming the show, studied some, and played other marital roles on film (Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and Steve Carver's 1983's action film Lone Wolf McQuade in which Carradine played opposite Chuck Norris comes to mind) but he made his contribution as an actor, not as a pugilist.

We live in a world of shoulder-launched rockets, atomic bombs, Predator drones and 9mm handguns. Those items are all about death. Today the staff of a Shaolin priest is a curiosity, but the discipline that underlies it is about life, the philosophical underpinnings that guide its mastery are about mastering the self, not besting others. Bruce Lee's movies are fantasies, his characters impossibly, often joyfully and deliciously overblown. Kung Fu was about a fantasy too, but its message was that the martial arts really do strengthen the body and mind, and lead to the sort of health and peace and harmony so obviously lacking in mainstream American culture.

Caine was a philosopher, a wandering priest whose evergreen, elegant character and simplicity are as relevant and compelling today as they were 35 years ago. Rent or buy a copy of the show if you can and see if you don't agree. Caine would likely not have met the grisly end the actor who portrayed him did, but at the same time without Carradine there would have been no Caine. I thank the actor for inspiring me with his character and I'm sorry his life finished off key. I know, however, that for people on the path to something better as well as for fans of Kung Fu, the best side of David Carradine is only a DVD away.