The Jesus Christ of my generation, David Carradine, died today of an apparent suicide. Maybe David Carradine himself wasn’t Jesus Christ, but his most famous character, Kwai Chang Caine, was one of the closest characters we’ve had to a Jesus in two thousand years. Kwai Chang Caine, an outcast from his own country of China, a half-breed born of a white American father and a Chinese mother, traveled the desert of the western United States of the 1800s carrying a message of peace, tolerance, and love of life and of one’s neighbor. Hunted and persecuted for his peaceful ways and his one mistake of defending his master from a brutal attack by the Chinese emperor’s nephew, Kwai Chang Caine had a lot in common with the more commonly known Jesus, the Jesus of Nazareth.
“Kung Fu” ran from 1972-1975, before DVDs, before cable, when living in the country meant suffering through poor television reception. Yet I watched as many episodes as I could. As a high school student during those years, I came of age watching his adventures and carefully paying attention to his message and his commitment to “The Tao”, the path he chose and did not forsake.
Caine was a Shaolin priest, a monk of high training in the teachings of his masters and the fighting style of kung fu. Every episode of the television program had its obligatory two fighting scenes, but Kwai Chang never wanted to fight and only did so to protect the rights of others, or to defend himself from evil men bent on killing him. A Shaolin priest could walk through walls, it was said, yet Caine was “just a man” as he insisted with unequaled humility. He was not familiar with the Christian Bible, as we learned in “The Tong”, my favorite episode from Season 2, but he recited quotes from famous Chinese Buddhists and other philosophers of his era. For example, Caine said, “Yield and overcome,” to the Christian woman who had quoted the passage from the Bible about turning the other cheek.
I dreamed of joining a Shaolin monastery and learning kung fu, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that I *had* been trained in the monastery every week for the three years that the series ran. From Kwai Chang Caine I learned patience, determination, tolerance, and a philosophical world view.
David Carradine became a cult hero to a whole generation of boys like me. Martial arts schools exploded onto the scene in the 1970s, and are still a rage today. I studied martial arts for one year as an adult. Two of my brothers went further, one even competing at the national level in the 1980s. “Kung Fu” had a huge impact on me personally and on an entire generation.
If the Jesus of Nazareth was anything like the character of Kwai Chang Caine, in temperament, spirituality, strength of character, and the struggles he lived through, then it is no wonder that Christianity caught on. I mean no disrespect to Jesus of Nazareth to compare Him with Kwai Chang Caine, and I hope no offense will be taken by the reader.
The passing of David Carradine will be felt, quietly, privately, by many who will miss their own personal Jesus.