Kwai-Chang Caine and the daily life of a writer…

In the winter, I have a fairly organised regime to write every week day. I am at my desk by nine o’clock; I have a break for exercise at eleven and I run or cycle and do a few weights, a bit of yoga or meditation, and then I work through until about three, when I take an hour off.

Lunch is the usual stir fried vegetables or a smoothie or soup and, so far this year, I have taken it in front of the television, with the intention of checking on the football transfer window. Of course, with not much action happening transfer-wise, I have switched to the movie channel, finding a daily opportunity to watch the re-runs of the Kung Fu series on the Movie channel, which I watch with interest before I return, inspired, to write for a few more hours.

Kung Fu was an incredibly popular action-adventure martial arts western drama which ran in the early 1970s. It was a big cult serial in its time, revolving around the character of Kwai-Chang Caine, played by David Carradine as the adult (remember him as Bill in ‘Kill Bill’?), and Keith Carradine as the teenage version.

The story is that Caine is wandering through the old American west, looking for his half-brother. He has been trained as a Shaolin monk and he brings his peaceful philosophy and his martial arts training to every adventure which confronts him.

Flashbacks to his past are an integral and important part of the programme, showing his younger self, ‘Grasshopper,’ and demonstrating the spiritual and physical training he receives from his two teachers, Master Kan and the blind Master Po. These flashbacks show an example of Caine’s learning about life and the rigours and importance of self knowledge: these episodes correlate directly with the situations the adult Caine finds himself embroiled in and they explain his choice of action.

There are many references to the Tao Te Ching, the book of ancient Taoist philosophy, and the popularity of the series was largely due to the behaviour of Caine and his deeply rooted philosophy of nonviolence and selfless action. Here is an excerpt from an early flashback, showing why the teachers called the young Caine ‘Grasshopper’:

Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

My fascination in the serialised Kung Fu is not really based on the skills of the actor, David Carradine, who died tragically  in 2009 after a life filled with troubles, although Carradine does a great job of creating a laudable and credible Caine.

My enjoyment is not really based on the formulaic story line. Caine is peaceful and tries to avoid attention but, wherever he goes, he is forced by his philosophy and training to become the centre of attention for an immoral community or person and to fight for the underdog.

I do not particularly revel in the fight sequences where Caine is forced to retaliate, not for personal victory, but from a sense of fairness. Carradine relied on his acting and dance training for these sequences and the guidance of martial artist David Chow.

I know that the series is deeply rooted in the 1970s and therefore I forgive the terrible stereotypes of the secondary characters: women who are either floozies, hard boiled old women or victims; Irish men who drink like fish and talk to God; Rednecks who hate Caine because he is of mixed race and perpetually insult him; twisted Sheriffs who break laws for their personal gain. Caine is regularly abused, imprisoned, put to hard labour, accused, beaten, even given the death penalty and eventually he heroically fights back, using his Shaolin training, and justice is restored before he is hailed for his selfless behaviour and he moves on in his quest to find his half brother, Danny Caine.

What I really like about the series is its intention to demonstrate a way of life which is selfless and considers others. Caine never tries to impress anyone: he is modest, he never seeks approval or thanks and he never chases material gain. He dresses simply, eats healthy basic food, embraces nature without damaging it and his interaction with the rest of the world is entirely to do with being helpful and supportive. Caine’s voice is hesitant and understated: ‘I am Caine’ is never an assertion but an apology, his ego is not high on his agenda. Kwai-Chang Caine is, inevitably, compared favourably with the other people in each series, people who display greed, aggression, folly, weakness or despair, and Caine always comes up trumps, restores order and moves on in a way which is silent, respectful and expects nothing in return.

I am not advocating that we all become Shaolin monks, but there is something of Caine in us all. As I go through my daily life, I want to put some of Caine’s justice and support of the underdogs in my own characters when I write. I want to apply some of his humility, kindness and consideration, not to mention courage and the ability to exist in the moment, to my own life and how I support and interact with others.

Of course, ‘Kung Fu’ is only a television series, and it’s of its time. It is set in the old West and the Shaolin training Caine uses is ancient. His philosophies are entrenched in past teachings and probably few people nowadays would consider them as valid for our modern world. I know Kwai Chang Caine is not real, like Santa Claus, God and the Tooth Fairy. Perhaps that is why I want to believe in him.




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