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2005 Kung-Fu Cowboys to Bronx B-Boys: Heroes and the Birth of Hip Hop Culture Cutler Edwards
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THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
COLLEGE OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
KUNG-FU COWBOYS TO BRONX B-BOYS: HEROES AND THE BIRTH
OF HIP HOP CULTURE
A Thesis submitted to the Department of History in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts
Degree Awarded: Fall Semester, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Cutler Edwards All Rights Reserved The members of the Committee approve the Thesis of Cutler Edwards, defended on October 19, 2005.
______Neil Jumonville Professor Directing Thesis
______Maxine Jones Committee Member
______Matt D. Childs Committee Member
The Office of Graduate Studies has verified and approved the above named committee members.
I give this to many people: to my parents, who alternately encouraged, cajoled, and coerced me at the appropriate times in my life—good timing, folks. To my brothers by birth, who are stuck with me, and my brothers and sisters by choice, who stick with me anyway—you are true patriots. Thanks for the late nights, open minds, arguments, ridicule, jests, jibes, and tunes—the turntables might wobble, but they don’t fall down. I could not hope for a better crew.
R.I.P. to O.D.B., Jam Master Jay, Scott LaRock, Buffy, Cowboy, Bruce Lee, and the rest of my fallen heroes.
First I would like to thank Bawa Singh, who inspired me to pursue history in graduate school. Sally Sommer helped me develop the original idea from which this thesis grew, broadened my ideas, and sharpened my focus. And to my committee, who were not only part of my thesis, but an important part of my life during graduate school: Matt Childs, who never fails to make clear that I still have roads to travel, Maxine Jones, who always seems certain I will reach my destination, and most importantly Neil Jumonville, who is always excited to come along for the ride.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Abstract ...... vi
1. Preface ...... 1
2. The Cowboy as American Hero...... 4
3. Kung-Fu Invaders...... 26 The Cowboy Connection ...... 33
4. The Kung-Fu Hero...... 39 Classic Kung-Fu...... 39 Kung-Fu Comedy ...... 45
5. Kung-Fu B-boys ...... 53
6. Conclusion ...... 67
NOTES ...... 69
BIBLIOGRAPHY ...... 85
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ...... 93
The scholarly study of hip hop is still in its infancy, and the focus in 2005 still rests largely upon African roots. However, many influences helped to shape hip hop culture in New York during its formative period in the 1970s. One of the most important of these was the Chinese kung-fu film, and the kung-fu heroes upon whom this cinema centered. Rather than being seen as a foreign concept, the kung-fu hero fit into American culture as an ideological descendant of the mythological American cowboy. By tracing the history of the cowboy as American hero and then investigating the similarities between cowboy hero and kung-fu hero, the reasons for the kung-fu hero’s acceptance in America, particularly by minority audiences, become clear. Finally, an analysis of the movement in kung-fu films and hip hop dance (called breaking or b- boying), reveals how the kung-fu hero affected the development of hip hop culture, and its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings.
Intellectual history is a difficult field to define. Maybe it is the history of ideas. But what is the significance of those ideas? From where do they spring, and how do they influence the world in which they arise? So maybe it is not simply about ideas, but about the relationship between what people think, and the way they live. In that way, intellectual history is essentially history itself, encompassing everything under the sun. No wars, social movements, political parties, or cultural shifts occur without some sort of accompanying ideology, nor do the ideas behind them stop evolving after they occur. History does not happen in a vacuum, and its influences are many and varied. Mohandas Gandhi took ideas from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in his campaigns in India; Martin Luther King, Jr. completed the East-West cycle when he, in turn, took inspiration from Gandhi. Potatoes and Ireland may be synonymous now, but without their introduction around 1600, the history of that island—and indeed the United Kingdom and the United States—would be very different. It is with that fact in mind that I approach this topic. Broad, transnational considerations are important in studying any subjects in the modern world. The recent focus on Atlantic history, integrating Africa, Europe, and the Americas for a more complete understanding of the Atlantic region between the 16th and 19th centuries, is a good example. By looking at a variety of influences, historians broadened conceptions of their fields and produced more accurate, widely useful work. But even the development of Atlantic history is a microcosm of the necessities of modern history. The exponential increases in travel, technology, and information exchange in the last century have outpaced the entirety of human history prior to the Industrial Revolution. Information and ideas move at such an astounding pace that it is no longer possible (if it ever were) to study a subject in a narrow way. Political developments in Asia directly affect economic markets in the West; US pop music stars inspire youth-led revolutions
1 in Eastern Europe. The best approach to a full (or at least better) understanding of any topic, anywhere, is in a global context. That understanding is permeating scholarship today. Thomas McEvilley’s 2002 opus, The Shape of Ancient Thought, is a monumental, empirical investigation of the roots of Western culture. He exposes the interconnectedness of Greek, Persian, and Indian thought, proving that none of those cultures were philosophically independent. Consequently, subsequent studies of western culture will have to consider the influences of eastern thought. In a small way, my thesis follows McEvilley’s lead—The Shape of Hip Hop Thought, if you will. The values of hip hop culture, and the identifying characteristics of b-boys, have a long tradition in American history. B-boys are the quintessential urban cowboys: independent, self-reliant, inventive, loyal, and adherent to a personal creed. But the development of hip hop culture was only indirectly influenced by cowboys. In McEvilleyian fashion, b-boys found their immediate inspiration in the kung-fu hero, a traveler from halfway around the world who arrived in New York City in the 1970s. In the United States, the kung-fu hero was welcomed by a culture ready to accept him and his abilities. His virtues and values reached back, through the most recent American hero—the cowboy—to the roots of western culture, to our ideas of what heroism has been for millennia. This is modern, American intellectual history, but we must look across an ocean and back through the centuries to trace the roads which led to the Bronx. By so doing, we can gain a greater understanding of the development of the vibrant, global culture hip hop has become. Perhaps the connection between East and West, between these two seemingly unrelated cultures, can also help us understand why hip hop so rapidly spread across the globe, and can serve as an example for consideration of foreign influences on contemporary American pop culture and thought. But the transnational, multicultural nature of this thesis is not relevant only as a consideration of intellectual history. The field of dance history in the United States has traditionally been focused on the history of concert and performance dance, which falls into two basic categories: ballet and modern dance. Until very recently, the study of social dance had not joined the discussion. In the last thirty years, though, dance
2 historians have looked to the social realm, to investigate both the cultural significance and meaning of movement, and how social and concert dance affect each other—the latter of these questions is particularly relevant in the wireless world of the twenty-first century. The study of American social dance is, like the study of American popular music, at its root the study of African-American forms. But in a post-television-and- portable-radio world, dance history is incomplete if it does not consider the myriad influences bombarding the kids who go out and create, every night, new variations on old traditions—in this case, how kung-fu films inspired a whole new vocabulary of movement. Hopefully, it will show how dance history can be improved by considering a wider variety of cultural factors, and investigating how and why they influence dance’s kinetic and aesthetic development. For that matter, little has been done in the world of film studies to look at the impact of either cowboy or kung-fu movies. The development of techniques has been investigated, as has the development of the industry itself. Scholars, too, have looked at gender representation, the relationship between good and evil, sexuality, and other factors in the films themselves. Very few, however, have gone outside the theater to see how the films influenced audiences, or how viewers interpreted and incorporated what they had seen on the screen into their lives. Finally, this work is a starting point for a broader study of hip hop culture in general. Hip hop’s influence is worldwide, and even more than rock-n-roll or jazz, will be studied not just as a musical genre, but as a way of life. Hip hop’s ability to reach across lines of race and class makes it an important historical development, particularly in the US, where poverty and racism are still problematic. Hip hop history is barely in its first stages, and work so far has concentrated on its African roots. But in modern America, nothing stays ‘pure’; influences originating outside the black community played an important role. Responsible historians must consider them all.
THE COWBOY AS AMERICAN HERO
“Hip hop is beautiful to me because it always challenges America’s notion of what they believe young, disenfranchised people to be.” -Mos Def1
Since its genesis in New York City in the mid-1970s, hip hop has become the most influential American cultural form, both in the United States and abroad. More than just a type of music, hip hop is a complete culture, comprising its own styles of speech, dance, dress, art, and even philosophy.2 It began as a way of life for kids growing up in the mean streets of the Bronx; within a generation, it has also become a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the shaping influences on American life. Scholarly study of hip hop has boomed in the last ten years, as hip hop’s reach has spread around the globe, finding its way into the most remote parts of the world. Traditionally, scholars discussing hip hop’s origins focus on its diasporic African roots, almost to the willful exclusion of other influences. For instance, the basis of hip hop dance, known as ‘breaking’ or ‘b-boying,’ is credited most strongly to either Brazilian capoiera or West African movement styles; rappers are most often compared to African griots, village storytellers who passed down oral tradition, or Jamaican DJs, known for ‘toasting,’ or speaking brief phrases (“work it!) over the music they played.3 However, attempting to extract any conclusively African threads from the multivalent milieu in which hip hop arose is a difficult exercise at best. Indeed, the underappreciated multi-cultural origins contribute significantly to hip hop’s status as perhaps the most “American” of all art forms to develop in this country. The unique, appropriative abilities of hip hop gave rise to an inclusive mentality that enabled the culture to absorb any influence which could develop it further. This is what allowed one of the most important formative impetuses for early hip hop to be not a survival of
4 African origin, nor a product of the Atlantic exchange of ideas and cultures. Hip hop’s guiding guru did cross an ocean to reach the New York City incubator, but it was the Pacific Ocean, and he arrived from Hong Kong: the mystic hero of the Chinese kung-fu film. At casual glance, Chinese kung-fu is a form seemingly unrelated to American hip hop. It is rarely, if ever, mentioned in hip hop studies, and actual investigations of its influence are absent from the field. Nelson George is one of the few to mention the impact of kung-fu films on hip hop culture. He points out that kung-fu “provides a nonwhite, non-Western template for fighting superiority” and that “scores of eager teens memorized the leg whips, chops, and badly dubbed dialogue.” George’s brief foray into kung-fu, however, concludes that “kung-fu movies were passé…by 1979” and he touches on their resurgent popularity in the 1990s before moving on to other topics.4 In the new book That’s The Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, the first comprehensive scholarly collection of hip hop articles, kung-fu earns only two mentions. One is a single line—“Some moves… can be traced to kung-fu movies—which were immensely popular in the seventies—Playboy magazine, French pantomime, cartoons, comics, and TV,” in Sally Banes’ hoary-but-seminal 1985 article “Breaking.”5 The second, and the only discussion meaty enough to merit an index listing, is the final paragraph of a 1984 essay of the same name by Michael Holman. It is tacked on as an addendum which can be summed up by his introductory sentence—“Not only breakdancers, but media stars like Bruce Lee and other Kung Fu film stars and martial artists had a major influence on breakdancing culture.”6 Surely, if the only influences Holman sees fit to mention as an equal to kung-fu’s influence on b-boy culture were the breakers themselves, kung-fu’s importance requires further inquiry.7 Yet before Holman can even finish his paragraph he derails his kung-fu train of thought for another stopgap, a three-sentence blurb on Mr. Freeze, “the first white kid to be able to break well.” Sadly these two references, important evidence of the multicultural construction of hip hop since its very beginnings, have gone uninvestigated in the ensuing two decades. Strange though it may seem, the kung-fu hero was not a completely alien invader. In many ways, hip hop’s ethos is descended from a long line of American
5 thought and popular culture, and the kung-fu hero filled the most recent role in the continuum. He met with easy acceptance in this new land because he fulfilled many of the requirements for heroic status in American culture. The kung-fu hero was determined, even-handed, righteous, self-reliant, brave, and a defender of the oppressed. Rather than seeming foreign, the appeal of the kung-fu hero in the US was both universal and personal, part of a tradition stretching from the mists of prehistory to his immediate predecessor, the cowboy hero of the Wild West.8 Regardless of location or era, the hero has always held a certain place in culture, and an appeal attendant to his (or her) position. The archetypal hero has a universal attraction, and qualities which allow him to persevere and succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. One needs to understand the generic qualities of heroism in order to understand the importance of the kung-fu hero and his role in early hip hop. As scholar Edward Linenthal wrote, “Revered for the power of his acts and the mystery of the world he functioned in, the warrior often became a model, embodying the ideals of a society.”9 The hero exhibits all those traits which a society collectively finds most appealing and desirable, and he uses those powers in the ways which it deems most appropriate. Usually this means that the hero performs acts that one feels one would not have the ability to carry out, lacking the physical strength or personal grit (or both) necessary to complete the tasks in question.10 That tradition reaches back to western civilization’s earliest tales. Homer’s Iliad established the paradigm by which all later heroes would be judged. The warriors in the Iliad were all larger than life, and even those doomed to die have “provided many generations with heroic models for cultural ideals and standards.” Achilles’ “value as a cultural hero does not lie solely in his physical triumph. . .but in the conscious decision to carry out a heroic deed, realizing it will cost him his life.”11 Some duties are more important than self-preservation, and one of the hallmarks of the hero is his willingness and ability to sacrifice himself in pursuit of a higher ideal.12 One of the most important of those ideals is encompassed in the Greek arête, the single most important element of Greek character. In the heroic context, it is often translated as “a combination of proud and courtly morality, and warlike valor,”13 and with arête comes an obligation to be brave and live up to that potential.14 But in a broader
6 context, arête also means “knowledge.” In a sense, then, arête is a concept which requires a constant striving for self-improvement, a quest to realize and perform at one’s highest human potential. Heroic tales commonly revolve around physical journeys with good reason—because the very process of becoming a hero requires effort, change, and advancement. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell concurs that the physical-movement leitmotif is actually a search for expansion of consciousness— events on the journey “represent psychological, not physical, triumphs….The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally, it is inward.”15 The bodily travels parallel the mental distances that must be traversed. In the United States, the hero has usually been portrayed as a lone wanderer, finding the purpose of life on a journey on the American frontier: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, Davy Crockett, and innumerable incarnations of the western cowboy.16 Colonel Daniel Boone was the first character to arise as an American version of “the archetypal hero, [who] begins in a state of innocence or unawareness of the powers that are latent in himself and in his environment.” First appearing in John Filson’s 1784 work The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (sic), and further popularized by the publication of the excerpted Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon(sic), “Filson's Boone narrative fits the archetype rather closely.”17 Boone was the Olympian forefather, the immortal progenitor of the American hero. But as with most origin-myths, it was his descendants around whom the story would really focus. It is the “stoic, isolated” cowboy character, wildly popular for the first half of the twentieth century, to whom one must turn in order to find the direct predecessor to the kung fu hero.18 The cowboy arose as a hero in American popular culture at a time when the country was wondering where society would next turn. The 1890 census had just declared the American frontier closed, and the ramifications of that fact had yet to be determined. Three years later, historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his seminal essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and posited that it was the American frontier to which the development of a uniquely American experience must be attributed. He emphasized that the “perennial rebirth” of reconfronting the challenges of building a life as the frontier boundary moved in fits and starts, “this fluidity
7 of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”19 Although his essay did not immediately cause a stir in the American populace, he had tapped into a broadly-held sentiment: the American frontier, increasingly distilled into a vision of the American West, was a romantic, wild land where our nationally-cherished virtues of independence, strength, intelligence, and an underlying stubborn streak were most readily able to flourish. His essay has endured, and become one of the pillars of American historical thought, and of our national imagination and identity. Attitudes and approaches have changed over the years, and some scholars feel that Turner’s thesis is outdated; in particular, historians studying minority and women’s issues have railed against him.20 One of the most influential critics is Patricia Nelson Limerick. Her revisionist 1988 work, The Legacy of Conquest, helped to shape a New Western history, with a focus on the multicultural nature of the American west. She stressed the need to look outside Turner’s ethnocentric view, and incorporate the numerous non-Anglo inhabitants into studies of the region. Significantly for this study, she brought African-Americans and Asians into the discussion. Thus she points out not only the historical presence of those groups in the west, but helps to demonstrate that African- and Latin-Americans’ embrace of the cowboy/kung-fu hero had a century-old precedent.21 But clearly Turner’s ideas remain important, as even those scholars who disagree with him continue to engage the Frontier Thesis in their work. What the test of time has clearly shown, though, is that, issues of inclusiveness and factuality aside, Turner had a firm grasp on the significance of the frontier in American mythology. Limerick and company’s turn to a New Western history may have resulted in a more accurate study of America’s past, but they have missed a vital element of Turner’s ideas. In their effort to move the study of the west from a shifting civilization-line to a specific, regional history, they largely abandon the idea of the frontier. Looked at as a liminal concept, the ‘frontier’ can be geographically anywhere—the mountains, the sea, the desert, the city—any place where individuals confront the unknown. It is an area where, in order to survive, people have to reach into themselves, adapt to new situations, and find the fortitude to triumph. The ‘frontiersman,’ in his various
8 incarnations, is a character to whom Americans look to find a hero, a man with arête, battling the forces of nature and man arrayed against him. He constantly pushes onward, alone, in a quest to make the territory safer, more just, more open, and more equitable for those who come behind him. But why should the cowboy have come to be the singular example of the American hero? What was it that made him more desirable than other strong American characters? The reasons that a hero comes to be regarded as such are sundry and varied, dependent largely on the circumstances from which he arises. There were many contemporary candidates for canonization as the American hero: the swashbuckling adventurer (John Smith, John Paul Jones), the intrepid explorer (Lewis and Clark), the lumberjack (Paul Bunyan), the mountain man (Boone, Davy Crockett), or the soldier (who arose in a slightly different incarnation after every American conflict). It was the cowboy, however, who was adopted as the supreme representative of the heroic ideal, and whose image has endured. Perhaps that was because he operated under the set of circumstances that held the broadest appeal. He lived and adventured in the mystical “Great American West,” a mysterious place, far away even to those who (geographically) lived there. It was a boundless land, uncontrolled by man and unshaped by the forces of human society. Each of his challengers had some reason that kept them from achieving the same heights, and being accorded the same respect and awe, as the cowboy. The sailor, for example, had the trackless sea as his domain, but had to rely on his shipmates for success. The explorer and the mountain man had both operated in a lonely theater; although rugged, brave, and self-reliant, they did not have the necessary villains against whom to compete and thereby realize their “highest human potential.” Paul Bunyan, like G.I. Joe, was located in too specific a setting, and outside of their normal environs, their respective qualities lost some of their impact. Perhaps the strongest contender as a revisioning of Filson’s archetype was the rugged hunter and Indian fighter Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales, but it was not just his position as a scout for the British army that prevented the man known as “Hawkeye” from becoming the template for American heroes. Cooper’s writing in many ways laid a foundation for the cowboy role, and “the
9 life cycle of the cowboy story can be viewed as beginning with Cooper’s work….” Although his paradigm of “the noble hero confronting society” had a lasting impact on American imagination, his version of events soon lost their currency. Alf H. Walle demonstrates that “Cooper’s forceful portrayal of the ‘great American desert’ as a hinterland where society could not establish itself, for example, proved to be in error, and by the 1890s everyone was aware of his errors.” Cooper had portrayed his hero as the quintessential American individualist, being pushed westward by a “European-styled culture inevitably establishing itself in the New World and displacing distinctively American people” such as Bumppo. Within a few decades after the Civil War, however, the American public, heeding the call of such works as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” was embracing the idea of America as a unique and vital civilization, worthy of respect. 22 Cooper’s vision of an America aspiring to become a pale reflection of stagnant Europe held little appeal to this new mindset. In his summary of the failure of Cooper’s heroic model to become the paradigm, Walle reports that the “prevailing view that Americans possessed a positive and productive uniqueness” was closely tied to American intellectual and social elites’ struggle for “parity with their European cousins….” Cooper undercut these groups’ efforts to achieve equality in European circles, Walle continues, because he depicted Bumppo the frontiersman, paragon of America, as “incapable of effectively interacting with society and… inevitably displaced by it….” In order for Americans to be equal, or superior, to their European rivals, they needed to “transcend Cooper’s vision of the true American as a rather pathetic vestigial remain being pushed aside by the advance of civilization.” The story of the frontier, as written by Cooper—an exceptional America withering under the cultural weight of Old World influence—fell into decline “because it conflicted with the emerging worldview of the American public.”23 Compounded with other developments in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the ailing Bumppo was abandoned by the trailside. Americans continued to define themselves in relation to the power of nature, and the potential for self-realization and growth in an independent life, away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. 24 That appeal grew when they were confronted with a rapidly- industrializing society in the years following the Civil War. Turner’s thesis had asserted,
10 in contrast to Cooper’s vision, that it was the very frontier nature of American life that had given rise to the qualities that made the American character unique, summing up the growing contention that the United States was not aspiring to emulate, but to surpass, the “courtly muses of Europe.”25 The Frontier Thesis, then, in allowing Americans to escape their feelings of inferiority and subservience to the Old World, “caught the imagination of American intellectuals and, for all practical purposes, it was embraced as an origin myth regarding American character and civilization.”26 An origin myth is a vital element in the repertoire of a culture’s hero-makers. The attribution of mythological origins provides a fundamental explanation of a hero’s ability to transcend the normal mortals around him and assume a superhuman stature. Turner’s philosophical, academic lecture had to be distilled, and reduced to its mythological essentials, before it would hold a lasting appeal for the American public. Owen Wister was the man to bridge this gap. In his novel The Virginian (1902), he purged aspects of Cooper’s vision, welded the remains to Turner’s theory, and forged America’s first enduring heroic archetype. An interesting fact is that, considering it is the work to which the cowboy myth owes its greatest debt, there is none of the cattle-working associated with the historical cowboy; roping cows and Indian-fighting are “alluded to proleptically and after the fact but never represented directly.”27 About more than the specific components of cowboying, The Virginian is really a tale that created a new attitude, a new lifestyle; it is the creation myth of a founding hero. Of the changes Wister wrought, perhaps the most significant to this study was his use of Turner’s ideas to insist “that the individualist personality type born of the frontier gained personal prowess…Wister suggested that once this character had been developed, this personality type could leave the wilds and succeed in a modern, urban world”28; the kung-fu hero would later undertake the same journey, leaving the place of his training and upbringing to test himself in the city streets of China. Wister, like Hong Kong directors, was aware that the largest potential audience for his works lay, obviously, in cities. Wister’s decision to send “The Virginian” back to city life in the East built a bridge between his hero and his audience. In doing so, he anticipated the romantic idolization that would be accorded the frontier hero by urban audiences throughout the twentieth century (although it would ebb a bit in the latter decades). He
11 gave city dwellers unfamiliar with life on a dude ranch, much less on the “real,” mythical frontier, the comforting assurance that they, too, could possess a bit of the frontier character, even in their humdrum, workaday lives, an assurance that helped them feel connected to the hero. Additionally, he used a protagonist who was mired in anonymity; he is known by no name, simply as “The Virginian.” In so doing, Wister created not a hero, an “idiosyncratic individual,” but a heroic archetype.29 It was not “Daniel Boone,” or “Paul Bunyan,” or “Natty Bumppo/Hawkeye”—it was “The Virginian,” or more generally, “The Cowboy.” Not naming his character enabled countless followers to draw upon the Virginian’s aura without copying a specific character. This trend would continue even after the cowboy rode off of the printed page and onto the silver screen. Cowboy actors gained legions of fans—Tom Mix, Will Rogers, Roy Rogers, John Wayne—but the role of movie cowboy-hero never became the province of a single character. The closest to come to that status was Hopalong Cassidy. Really, though, Hopalong too was viewed not as a character, but as the alter-ego of actor Bill Boyd. Boyd played Hopalong in sixty-five films in the 1930s and 1940s, most of which were converted into one-hour television episodes in the 1950s, but when Boyd retired, Hopalong retired with him.30 Even the Lone Ranger and Zorro, two of the other major serialized cowboy-hero characters, were “anonymous” behind their masks. Wister’s work, then, provided the foundation for a generic heroic model, a nameless template upon whom other authors could inscribe their details. And inscribe they did. One of the most successful was Zane Grey, who built upon Wister’s model beginning with his first novel, Betty Zane, published in 1903. Although it was not a commercial success, he never looked back. By his fifth book, 1912’s Riders of the Purple Sage, which would go on to become the best-selling Western novel in history, he had found his groove. He published top-ten selling books each year from 1917 to 1924, and sold twelve million copies by 1936. Fifty years and 85 books later (he left an unpublished catalogue of over twenty novels at his death in 1939), his sales had surpassed 130 million worldwide. More importantly for the cowboy’s establishment as a cultural hero, over one hundred movie adaptations have been made of his works.31
12 Grey’s writings were by no means alone in their transferal to the movie screen. The Virginian was adapted as early as 1914, the year before D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation revolutionized movie-making, and western films caught on from the very beginning. “Americans,” Walle reminds us, “still believed that they could determine their own destiny and they were unwilling to openly confront the fact that they had little control over their lives.” Westerns were perfect escapist fantasy, not just for adults, but for children who had to live under the “law” of their parents. The cowboy was an independent, “individualist hero [who] could remain moral and victorious.”32 Commercially-minded producers and directors had come to the same realization as Grey, that people “wanted [to] see virtue triumph and vice downed. In a word they long[ed] to see that life is not hopeless—to see chivalry in men and chastity in women, to see the struggle for good against evil, to prove the truth of friendship, kinship, honor, and God.”33 They wanted a hero, and this recipe helps to explain how the kung-fu hero, introduced to the world of the cowboy in the person of David Carradine’s character in the Kung Fu TV series, Kwai Chang Caine, found a toehold on American shores. The cowboy was able to meet all the expectations of a hero, and flourish. Although he at times cooperated with others in his efforts, he was beholden to no man. At any time, he could whistle for his trusty horse, climb astride its powerful back, and ride off into the great unknown, to find, well, whatever it was he found. And although a loner, he did not avoid people—there was always the cattle-rustler to hunt down, the homesteading family to defend from greedy bankers or malicious marauders, the stagecoach to save, the stampede to stop, and the ever-present prairie damsel-in- distress to protect from her particular peril, whatever shape it may have taken. He performed his chosen tasks out of arête, not for rewards from the town or kisses from the girl. There were wrongs to be righted, and righting wrongs was what heroes did. The independence of his lifestyle enabled him to flex and fully explore the heroic characteristics valued by American culture. Operating independently on the primitive frontier, he owed allegiance to no one, and arête only obligated him to follow the directives of his pure, heroic, cowboy heart. The cinema cowboy rode the ranges of the American West and survived by relying on his wits, creativity, physical strength, and mental fortitude. He was a self-
13 sufficient leader who followed his own ethical code, and often gave priority to the pursuit of subjective ‘goodness’ instead of a rigidly-defined concept of ‘law.’ In his investigation of the western as an expression of American culture, Jeffrey Wallmann wrote, “Commonly, westerns…pit infallible institutional law against a higher moral law...westerns thrive on the duality of justice and injustice—on the issue of fairness, really—because the political structures of laws, regulations, and enforcement always inject tension, if only because of the diverse reactions to adversity.”34 In this light, the cowboy hero represents humanity before our life was formally structured by the pressures of society. He is free, physically and psychologically, from the bonds that tie those who idolize him to their daily existences. He is able to ignore the technical details of modern-day legality for the primordial sense of ‘what just feels right in his gut,’ and remind the rest of us that “the common man must stand up for” his rights and the rights of others, and “he must rally behind those strong-willed individuals who refuse to be exploited, who will not surrender their rights or stand by idly while others are inveigled to do so.”35 As a hero, he provides an alternative to the potential pitfalls of a too-easily- corrupted bureaucracy, hypocritical religions, greedy businessmen, and malevolent villains. It becomes essentially, as Wallmann points out, a struggle of the Law of Nature versus the Law of Man: [in addition to the] Justice/Injustice duality, it also incorporates the duality of Individual and Community. American culture values early independence, encouraging self-reliance in infants, and tolerating adolescent rebellion well beyond the norm that prevails in other cultures. In the effort to be more fully one’s own person American culture cherishes three things in particular—mobility, privacy, and convenience—which are the very sources of a lack of community. In this case, community does not refer to a place, to the spot where we live, but to where we find ‘a sense of community’ among people who know us, with whom we feel connected and safe.36
From Wallmann’s conclusions, there is a connection to be made about why the cowboy movies, and their ideological descendants, the Chinese kung-fu films of the latter half of the twentieth century, held such a firm grasp on the imagination of young Americans.
14 Several authors have shown that westerns’ primary audience was children, and that the films—particularly the popular Saturday matinee double-features—were “a standard rite of male adolescence.”37 In an American culture that places a high value on independent thought and individuality—the continuous remonstrations against succumbing to peer pressure—youth are encouraged to question certain accepted norms. Indeed, the emphasis on being sure to do what they feel is ‘right,’ combined with tolerated (read: expected) adolescent rebellion, results in what amounts to an obligation to rebel. Yet at the same time, they continually confront authority figures (parental, educational, governmental) who discipline them for overstepping the bounds they are told to challenge. Therein lies the essence of these movies’ appeal. The film hero, too, has his own moral compass, what David Riesman termed an “inner-directed” personality, pointing toward goals the hero chose for himself.38 “Inner-directed” personalities follow their own decisions, as opposed to “tradition-directed” people, who feel bound by the behavior of those who have come before them, and “other-directed” personalities, who, predictably, allow the opinions of others, and their own personal need for acceptance, to continually redetermine their goals. Warren Susman, in Culture as History, had his own interpretation of Riesman’s ideas. Susman found that, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—that is, between the time of the cowboy hero’s setting and the time in which his audiences lived—American culture had shifted from an emphasis on character to an emphasis on personality. Character meant adherence to the ideals of integrity and duty; personality was a popularity contest, the ability to make friends and impress people, often at the expense of one’s instinctual behavior.39 But cowboy audiences, and later those who followed the kung-fu hero, found these films appealing because they evoked a time when an individual was expected, and praised, for living according to his or her own directives, without being expected to bow to the pressures of modern consumer culture. Youth longed for a period when individualism was rewarded, and found it in films of the cowboy and kung-fu heroes. The cowboy hero, like the kung-fu hero, frequently finds his compass steering him away from the regimented requirements of society, and cannot—or will not—bend to those expectations, at the expense of making things how he thinks they ought to be. Mobile,
15 private, and self-determining, he is free of the fetters of traditional ‘community,’ but because of that, he is free to use whatever means he deems appropriate to help those he finds deserving. It does not hurt his appeal that he always turns out to be right in the end, victorious and vindicated by the results of his actions. For a young person struggling with the uncertainties of growing up, this is escapist fantasy at its best, as the hero is rewarded and admired for being “a law unto himself.”40 These qualities made, and continue to make, the cowboy resonate with groups besides children, however. The same characteristics—resistance, self-reliance, strength, bravery—that made the cowboy hero a favorite of children also brought him admiration from groups whose oppression was more sinister than a child chafing under his parents’ control. Primary among these groups in the early days of the western film were African-American audiences, who “enthusiastically supported the cowboy stars.”41 One of the first to write on the connection between black audiences and the cowboy hero of western films was Howard University sociologist William H. Jones. In his 1927 study, Recreation and Amusement among Negroes in Washington, D.C.; a sociological analysis of the Negro in an urban environment, Jones discussed the appeal of a strong, righteous hero to the “rough class of people” living and working in American cities in the first decades of the twentieth century. Black film scholar Pearl Bowser, on the other hand, has written on the connection between cowboy heroes and African-American audiences in small-town and neighborhood theaters. Regularly-appearing actors such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix (cowboy stars of the silent-film era) had legions of loyal followers who came to see them regardless of the film, because of the type of character they always played. An unidentified theater manager in a 1928 Variety review of Mix’s Daredevil’s Reward said he never worried about profiting on a Mix film, because all he had to do was “put Mix’s name out front and they come back like prodigal sons. There’s affection and trust in their eyes again when they lay down their dough.”42 Studying the same connections, historian Stanley Coben has hypothesized that black audiences found resonance in westerns’ “retention of Victorian ideals and social arrangements.” Coben locates the root of the African-American admiration of the cowboy hero in the quasi-religious nature of his morality, duty, and obligation.43 Later, as cowboys lost these elements in the years following the outbreak of the Vietnam War,
16 important audience groups—children, minorities—drifted away from the genre. Disillusioned by the imperial nature of US forces abroad killing native peoples, an eye- opening parallel to the treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans in the US, black audiences’ urge to leave the Wild West was aided by the sixties emphasis on multiculturalism, and the increased tolerance of other peoples. To fill the heroic void left by the decline of the western, they would look even farther west, to Hong Kong. But in the twenties, the noble qualities of the cowboy were still very much in effect. Over the next few decades, and after the advent of sound created new stars (Hart, Mix, and many others struggled with, and ultimately failed to make, the transition to “talkies”), westerns continued to build a relationship with minority groups. Jim Hitt points out that The Mark of Zorro (1940) was a crucial binding point, as writers began to show more concern for the downtrodden, often non-Anglo peasants, which may have “mirrored the concern of liberal and left-wing writers over the Spanish Civil War.”44 An interesting twist on the standard western, the Zorro films focused on the humanistic, albeit aristocratic, title character’s defense of the native inhabitants of Mexico/California from an alien, elitist government. Clearly operating from within the heroic cowboy mold, Zorro (alter-ego of effete socialite Don Diego de la Vega) gallops up on his trusty black steed Toronado, and “delivers an important message to the audience: Hedonistic rule, or the subjugation of a people with no regard for their well-being, can be overcome by those who have the courage and wit to pull it off.”45 While the argument could be made that Zorro turned the natives he was defending into helpless, passive creatures awaiting salvation by an enlightened aristocrat, one must bear in mind that it was not the dapper Don Diego de la Vega who was doing the rescuing. Instead, in his disguise as Zorro, he was a mysterious hero who simply showed up in their times of need and battled the evil government forces of the alcalde. He championed the poor, but with his aristocratic status concealed by his ever- present mask, he did not patronize them. The film’s writers were intent on making the point that it was not his social status that gave him the strength and ability to fight, but rather the social conditions under which the natives were living. The Mark of Zorro begins with the statement “Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that
17 crushes it. A champion arises—the champion of the oppressed.”46 In the Zorro series, there is the foreshadowing of an important transition in the western film, to a focus on the plight and rights of the natives persecuted by an encroaching foreign presence. Although westerns still praised heroic American virtue in the Turnerian sense— James Agee’s review of 1947’s The Unconquered described it as “a celebration of Gary Cooper’s virility…and the American Frontier Spirit”47—by the 1950’s the shift seen in The Mark of Zorro would solidify around the “Cult of the Indian.” Shaped by post-World War II concerns about “the difference between the racism of the Nazis and the Japanese and the supposed tolerance of the democracies,” studios produced a growing number of movies in which Native Americans were presented sympathetically. Further influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, the new films were cinematic precursors of Limerick’s multicultural west. They looked outside the benevolent roles traditionally granted to white males in westerns and emphasized “the culpability of Whites in starting and perpetuating hostilities.”48 Clearly, this period of the western era continued to build on the appeal to minority audiences, as the increased focus on oppressed peoples as righteous resisters combined with developments in the cultural arena. Westerns confronted the challenges of reconciling the frontier, racism, and ideals of American heroism, even under the looming threat of the McCarthy Era. Studying the “myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America,” Richard Slotkin observes: The Western was a safe haven for liberals, because its identification with the heroic fable of American progress covered its practitioners with a presumption of patriotism that was essential in Hollywood during the…’Red Scare.’ Because it was safely ‘in the past,’ the tale of White-Indian conflict and peace-making allowed filmmakers to raise questions of war and peace and to entertain the possibility of coexistence without the kind of scrutiny to which a film set in or near the present would have drawn. Moreover, the same setting would allow them to address the race questions without offending southern sensibilities.49
Screenwriters and directors skirted the issues which would attract the attention of McCarthy and his disciples, but audiences were able to immediately detect the allegorical relevance of these historically presented struggles. The depiction of these new protagonists, as native, traditional inhabitants who had “acute senses, belief in
18 omens, stoicism, custom, intense tribal pride, and harsh virtues,” must have magnified their connection to an African-American community well aware of its own unique history when confronted by white foreigners. 50 Even with the changes occurring in the people playing the roles of hero and villain, the fundamental structure of the films had not undergone any marked change since the early days of the genre. Equally significant was the fact the their popularity had not waned among their primary audience: “Westerns of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s did not depart significantly from the patterns set by the original…shoot-em-ups….The Saturday western matinee continued to be a defining entertainment experience for another generation of young men.”51 However, this statement only applies to their overall plot. As the popularity of westerns continued during this era and an increasing amount of stories had to be produced, some elements which had aided in the appeal of the films began to disappear from the scripts. In her book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, Jane P. Tompkins noted that, as westerns were more consciously aimed towards their youthful audiences (who presumably just liked the action) and “filmmakers began to emphasize western stars’ athleticism, moral and psychological battles became less prevalent in the genre.”52 The Indian turn did not reverse this trend either, as the action of the open struggle between two opposing groups left little room for the solitude necessary for the personal growth and internal struggle around which so much of the earlier movies had been built. Meanwhile, during the middle decade of the century, another genre of films was challenging the western dominance of the action screen. Capitalizing on the rampant growth and prosperity of the United States in the years following World War II and American involvement in Korea, war films began a brief period of popularity. Western movies were struggling with competition from westerns on the small screen, more readily and more frequently available to the public, and the successes of the American military created another hero to whom moviegoers turned. The cowboy era was increasingly seen as the distant past, and the liberating, anti-communist GI was portrayed as a modern example of the best the United States had to offer.
19 War films never completely displaced the cowboy, however; his mythological significance to the American mind was too firmly established by this time. He represented too many things to too many different groups. For American minorities increasingly aware of their tenuous, unequal position in the United States, the war films’ depictions of battalions of armed white soldiers shooting down natives in foreign lands held little appeal. Looked at in depth, the war films were really only early cowboy movies, often the worst of them from the standpoint of an oppressed group, repackaged in modern costumes. With the “closing of the frontier” now unavoidable by all but the most vivid imaginations—even the cowboy films were being made in suburbs of the growing metropolis of Los Angeles—war films had simply shifted the physical frontier from the American west to the various theaters of war around the world, where once again American gunmen were clearing the land for civilization. But the popularity of war films quickly waned again, because of the renaissance of traditional westerns. By the middle of the 1960’s, the struggle between television and silver screen cowboys for viewers had resolved itself. “The genre’s popularity in one medium reinforced its appeal in the other…After 1962, big screen productions revived to levels comparable with 1950-55 [the prior peak of western movies], and this rise was matched by a second surge of western productions on TV in the mid-sixties.”53 War movies did not have enough universal appeal, or unique elements, to withstand this tide. The western was again home on the range, but, as shown earlier, the dynamic had shifted. The cowboy continued to move in a nebulous world between all-American hero, fighting the villains of the west in whatever form they came, and flawed frontiersman, attempting to cope in retrospect with the legacy of oppression and poverty he bequeathed to Native Americans. The concern for the native population of the United States was accompanied by a growing national awareness of the plight of disenfranchised or alienated groups on the margins of America the 1960’s: the counterculture, the traditional Civil Rights Movement, NOW and other women’s groups, and increasingly vocal—and militant—Black and Red Power organizations. The western rebirth was short-lived, however. Although the cowboy had momentarily risen from the dust like a lariat-toting Lazarus, “the halcyon days began to wane at the end of the 1960’s, as the Vietnam War, racial crises, ghetto turmoil, political
20 assassination, and the Watergate scandal led to national anger and even despair. Traditional westerns no longer meshed with widely accepted social and political views of the time.”54 Turner’s old frontier thesis, ironically, became an added threat to the newly- adopted role of the “Cult of the Indian” period westerns, which was sympathizing with an oppressed people struggling against an invading foreign government/society. In his 1960 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, John F. Kennedy had announced his vision for a “New Frontier.” The New Frontier, echoing the now-mythological themes of Turner’s original, was to address “unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” As Slotkin has pointed out, “For Kennedy and his advisers, the choice of the Frontier as symbol was not simply a device for trade-marking the candidate. It was an authentic metaphor…a complexly resonant symbol, a vivid and memorable set of hero-tales—each a model of successful and morally justifying action on the stage of historical conflict.”55 Once again, Turner’s assumptions about the frontier were being used to explain the uniqueness of the American experience, and the weight of the duty that Providence had placed upon the country. The American public, now well-versed in the Frontier Thesis by their cowboy coaches, quickly picked up on the idea. Indeed, by the end of the decade, “American troops would be describing Vietnam as ‘Indian country’ and search-and-destroy missions as a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ and Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam would justify a massive military escalation by citing the necessity of moving the ‘Indians’ away from the ‘fort’ so that the ‘settlers’ could plant ‘corn.’”56 Kennedy’s successor, Texas rancher-turned-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, fit the role well. In his cowboy hat and boots, he entertained dignitaries with “barbeque diplomacy” at his ranch. Johnson embraced a “mythologized rural America,” and that vision extended from his ranch to his administration and worldview.57 But with the shift of the frontier from the West to the Far East came a shift in interest as well. An American public with an increasingly acute social awareness was no longer blindly following its leaders into battle with the Indians.
21 Mindful of the potential dangers for native peoples when “sending in the cavalry,” society at large, and the various countercultural groups in particular, began a dialogue with the peoples of Asia. Disaffected hippies found direction in the gurus of India, and The Beatles went there for inspiration. The radical Left, angry at the oppression and social control they saw in US government tactics, found compatriots in Vietnam and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Celebrities like Jane Fonda spoke out against US actions in Vietnam; she married radical Tom Hayden and they traveled to North Vietnam together.58 Returning Vietnam veterans, black and white, brought Asian influences home with them. Many had met the kung-fu hero, and established martial arts schools when they returned—black veterans in inner cities in particular.59 Bombarded with news about Vietnam, very aware (even if not supportive) of the moral and ethical issues being raised by the conflict, many Americans found their interest in— and sympathy for—Asia rising. The first important popular-culture connection between the United States and Asia is Bruce Lee. His role as Kato, the Chinese chauffeur/sidekick in the short- lived television action series The Green Hornet (1966-67),60 had made him an underground star, but it was his first feature film, Fists of Fury (aka The Big Boss), released in the United States in 1971, which vaulted him into the American mainstream. There was an instant connection with an American public accustomed to the struggles of the cowboy hero, but wary of the ramifications of the historical facts surrounding the slaughter necessary to create that mythical figure. But Lee’s film, in many ways, picked up where the “Cult of the Indian” left off, and established a loose framework for many films that followed. Lee’s character, Cheng Cho-An, is a country boy who goes to work in an ice-packing plant in Thailand (a “frontier land” far from his home). Once there, he discovers that the plant is a front for a heroin-smuggling operation, and a powerful one at that (evil men operating under the cover of legitimate, “legal” business). Although greatly disturbed by this, he refrains from combating the evil, having promised his mother that he would not fight. Eventually though, as his coworkers and friends continue to mysteriously disappear, his righteous anger boils forth in a surge of violence, and he destroys the smuggling operation.
22 That basic plot structure shares similarities with many “outlaw” westerns which, much like Zorro, had a problem with the status quo but required an extra impetus before they would act on their feelings. Similarly, in The Mark of Zorro, de le Vega springs into action not just because of the threat to the natives but in defense of his father. Yet another good example of this subgenre is 1939’s Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power and directed by Henry King. Power’s quasi-historical (mythic?) Jesse James is a homesteader upset by the corrupt business connections between local authorities and representatives of the railroad being built through town.61 Influenced by the popular gangster films of the 1930’s—in which the gangsters, operating under their own version of the cowboy’s moral code, battled the forces of law and became heroic themselves— Jesse James and other outlaw westerns questioned “the easy equation of material and moral progress and, and [saw] corruption as the necessary adjunct of America’s rise to economic heights.”62 The outlaw versions of the cowboy hero in these films, though, needed more than the abstract presence of moral decay before they could reach their highest human potential. In Jesse James, this came in the form of the murder of his mother by railroad goons sent to drive his family off their property, which the railroad needed. Finding her dead, James hunts down Barshee, the head of the railroad gang, and kills him in the obligatory western show-down. The James gang then goes on their famous crime spree, which in the context of the film is aimed exclusively at the railroad and its assets. In an attempt to erase its insidious influence on the pure people of the frontier prairie town, “Jesse’s attack…[is] a defense (or at least an avenging) of the principles of justice and civility that law was created to protect.” In using the death of James’ mother as the final straw, “King …provides Jesse with a double justification for becoming an outlaw. The initial impulse is given by a confrontation with the railroad and the law it has corrupted. But the crucial shift from legal resistance to rebellion or guerrilla warfare is motivated by” a slight or wrong against the family, thereby personalizing the struggle, much as Lee’s character in Fists of Fury does not act until his friends (in the role of extended family) have been harmed.63 The kung-fu/cowboy link was more explicitly established with the premier of the television series Kung Fu. The idea originated with a short story by series creator Ed
23 Spielman about a Japanese samurai, in which a Shaolin monk played a minor part. When co-writer Howard Friedlander read the story, he was drawn to the monk character. Friedlander realized right away the potential for the monk. He recalls, “I turned to Ed, and I said, ‘Ed, it’s a western! It’s a western. The Shaolin monk! Bring him to the west, it’s a western.’ And his mouth just dropped open and he realized that was it.” Spielman and Friedlander wrote a new tale, with the Shaolin character as the focus, and unwittingly added a new mythology to American culture.64 Starring David Carradine as half-American, half-Chinese monk Kwai Chang Caine, Kung Fu introduced a new hero to the western world. Caine was trained in the Shaolin temple, but was forced to flee China for America after killing the Emperor’s nephew, who had shot and killed Caine’s teacher, Master Po. Once Caine arrives in this country, he learns he has a half-brother. The show then revolves around his search for his lost brother, while dodging assassins and bounty hunters in pursuit of the dead- or-alive reward offered by the Emperor. In the meantime, he wanders the west, helping his oppressed Chinese countrymen who are here to build the railroad (again, questioning the price of progress) and others who find themselves beset by various evil forces. In the pilot movie, Caine is told that the temple had “never accepted anyone of other than full Chinese birth…There is a first for everything.”65 Caine was one of the first kung-fu heroes in the United States, but he would be far from the last. To a populace tiring of the bloody “Cowboys and Indians” games of American cinema, the arrival of a “peaceful man in a violent land” was welcome.66 The late 1969 reports in Time of the US Army atrocities during the My Lai massacre had sounded the death knell for the western as a genre.67 Many Americans were no longer willing to overlook the atrocities visited on native peoples in order to expand the frontier. Confronted with the bloody reality of a superior force sweeping everything before it, they realized the necessary similarities to the reality of the conquering of the west. The hideously graphic scene enacted at My Lai was a fight from which the cowboy hero returned mortally wounded, and no amount of snake-oil or bravery could help him survive. The standard western obviously could not endure. But the cowboy climbed back on his horse one more time, and “in the wake of the My Lai…Hollywood attempted the
24 revision of a genre [that] had become too predictable, and that predictably was identified with the symbolism of a ‘bad war.’ The westerns produced in 1970-72 are marked by ambitious attempts at formal, thematic, and ideological innovation.” Films such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man in particular tried to continue the genre by shifting the focus to Native Americans, and sympathize with the victims of Vietnam by forming a “New Cult of the Indian.” It was a short-lived effort, though, and “despite some critical and commercial successes, the ‘alternative’ western did not survive the end of the war.”68 It should not be surprising. The western was supported primarily by a youthful audience, and as the movie industry attempted to deal with the very adult, social issues raised in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, punctuated by stories such as My Lai, those youth rode off into the sunset, like their cowboy heroes of old. Fortunately, just over the next ridge, they met Caine, a transitional character who introduced American youth to his extended family. In the years to follow, Chinese heroes—acting out many of the moral battles stressed in westerns—would swarm the screens of America, soon becoming a new Saturday afternoon rite of passage. By the mid-1970’s, author James Horwitz, while working on They Went Thataway, his autobiographical-cum-scholarly investigation of the impact of the western on American youth, would have to travel to Paris to see western double-features in broken-down movie theaters, part of a round-the-clock cycle known as Le Festival Western. In the US theaters of his fondly-remembered youth, the western had been displaced by kung-fu films, with a fresh, Sinicized version of the cowboy hero. But even abroad, Horwitz was aware of kung-fu’s growing popularity. He lamented that by the time of the 1976 publication of his book, he “expect[ed]…they have closed down Le Festival Western in Paris. Replaced it with Le Festival Kung Fu….”69 He was probably right; the simple arête for which westerns’ traditional audiences hungered had disappeared, and they found a more than adequate replacement in the imported Hong Kong kung-fu productions.
These Hong Kong imports were not a new creation made simply to fill the void left by westerns, however. The kung-fu films of the early 1970’s had evolved from fifty years of Chinese cinema. In order to understand how the transition from western to kung-fu happened, one must look into both the connections between the two film styles, and the origins and characteristics of kung-fu films themselves. The term kung-fu is an old vernacular Cantonese phrase71 which literally translates as “accomplishment with effort.”72 While defeating four opponents at once or leaping effortlessly on to the roof of a building are both examples of good kung-fu, so too could the term be applied to passing a calculus test after studying for it intensely. The phrase kung-fu films “came into general use only in the 1970’s...and spread as the films themselves were distributed around the world,” and today kung-fu has come to mean simply hand-to- hand combat.73 But what kung-fu represents in the context of Chinese martial arts is greater than mere fighting skills. In China, martial arts “do not merely serve military or self-defence purposes. They are, in fact, a form of knowledge related to human biology and Chinese medicine. At a higher level, they are not a ‘Wei-Gong’ (an ‘outer force’ designed to kill or injure) but a ‘Nei-Gong’ (an ‘inner force’ designed to overcome the limitations of the human body and its environment). It is a process of self-discipline.”74 In this context rests the basis of kung-fu’s ready acceptance by both cowboy audiences and the youth who developed hip hop culture. Film scholar Leon Hunt, in Kung Fu Cult Masters, one of the few books focused exclusively on the kung-fu genre in Asian cinema, describes the history of kung-fu as a
26 journey through a “borderless world.”75 In Hunt’s borderless world, one can find the roots not only of kung-fu’s connection to cowboy epics and the Frontier Thesis, but also kung-fu’s appeal to non-Chinese audiences on the other side of the world, in the rough neighborhoods of New York City. The main historical site of kung-fu in China, and the most popular background for kung-fu films, is the Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist enclave in southeastern China.76 Buddhism entered China in the first century A.D., brought along trade routes from India. In the sixth century, the Indian monk Bodhidharma (Ta Mo in China) traveled to China and took up residence at the temple at Shaolin. There he found monks physically weakened by their long hours of meditation and inactivity. According to legend, Ta Mo introduced the monks to yogic breathing practices, and developed an array of eighteen exercises to strengthen their bodies and help them maintain a healthy lifestyle.77 These techniques became the basis for Shaolin kung-fu. Originating in India, customized for the needs of Chinese devotees, it is obvious that “Shaolin kung-fu—or, at least, its mythical underpinnings—seems to have been transcultural from the start.”78 Thus it should not be a surprise to find that kung-fu could so readily move to another culture fourteen centuries later. The Shaolin temple, as both a religious institution and the point of origin for kung- fu combat techniques, is “central to the mythopoetic origins of Chinese Boxing—fighting movements derived from nature, lethal abilities mediated by spiritual concerns, patriotic rebellion and underground movements, southern identity and heritage, the dynamics of learning and transmission.”79 The location of kung-fu within a Buddhist framework helped to balance the potentially fatal techniques with the duty, obligation, and restraint inherent in Buddhist philosophy, keeping those who learned the techniques from becoming killing machines bent on using their deadly knowledge for personal gain. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643), Shaolin Temple flourished. Its fighting monks were often called upon by the emperor for military assistance. With the government’s support, the temple grew in power and influence. The connection between Shaolin and the Ming rulers proved detrimental, however, when Manchu invaders toppled Emperor Chung-Chen in 1644. The Manchus established the Qing Dynasty, which would last until 1911, and ruthlessly persecuted Shaolin and its followers for their aid to the Mings.
27 Accordingly, most kung-fu films take place during this period, particularly the middle years of the dynasty, which were a time of “instability, marked by both internal and external turmoils. Internally…plagued by incessant uprisings….[while] externally, the country fell prey to various imperialist advances from abroad.” The monks of Shaolin were ‘true patriots,’ never abandoning their devotion to the native Ming Dynasty or the people of China, and continued to struggle against the Manchus even after government oppression forced many of the monks to flee the temple. Spreading across the countryside, they shared their knowledge with the laypeople. Consequently, although dispersed, kung-fu grew during this period, as “the Chinese people pursued the martial arts…as a form of self-defense…[and] as a means of strengthening the faltering nation.”80 Perhaps in this context one can find one of the fundamental appeals of the kung-fu film when it arrived in the United States in the early 1970’s. The ‘traditional’ way of life in America was under siege in the late sixties and early seventies. At home, the counterculture was striving against a conservative society increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of youth and minority groups. The Black Power, Red Power, and Women’s Liberation movements were trying to carve out an equal place for their constituents. Against them were arrayed the forces of what they, like the Shaolin monks, considered a “foreign” government that had become too absorbed in its own power, represented by events such as the Watergate scandal. Abroad, the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a confusing quagmire in which many were questioning US involvement. In the 1950s, the Beat Generation had broken the restraints of American society, plunging into experiments in writing, lifestyle, and philosophy. Their quest for a new cultural frontier led many of them to Eastern thought, and Buddhism in particular.81 Although they were not politically active as a goal, the Beats were the “foundation of subversive nonconformity” upon which “the explosion of youth and counterculture in the sixties were built.”82 In that light, it is easy to see why the disaffected youth of subsequent decades so readily found philosophical guidance in the tenets of the kung-fu practitioner. The heroes of the kung-fu film, by the time they arrived in this country, “shared a Masonic-like background harking back” to the traditions established by those Shaolin monks and their disciples. During the Qing Dynasty, they made vows to fight the foreign
28 Manchus and restore the Ming Dynasty to its rightful place as the government of China (like American minority groups of the sixties and seventies, fighting an oppressive, “other” government). The tight-knit community of kung-fu masters, with their private verbal and physical languages of resistance, quickly found a devoted audience in neglected communities in the United States. A kung-fu fighter, like Zorro, was seen as “a person who fought for a cause, seeking to restore power and dignity” to an oppressed people. But the kung-fu hero had gone through a lengthy evolution before arriving on American shores in his saffron robes and sandals, and traditional western audiences played quite a role in welcoming him.83 Chinese martial arts films fall under the heading wu xia pian, (“martial arts film,” or “martial chivalry film”). As director Chang Cheh explains, the terminology itself highlights the two elements of the genre—wu xia “pictures use the notion of martial arts (wu) to express the content of chivalry (xia).”84 Wu xia films are divided into two main categories. The swordplay films, “detailing the chivalrous exploit of ‘Knight-Errants’ and ‘Lady Knights’ in ancient dynasties… often featuring flying swords…and ‘weightless’ flight,” were so popular in China in the 1960’s that the term wu xia is now often used to refer specifically to them. They were produced predominantly in northern China. Kung- fu films originated in the south, and, proudly drawing upon the Shaolin tradition of the region, featured hand-to-hand combat in comparatively realistic, historical settings, such as the above-mentioned Manchu period. Yet the preponderance of mainland studios in the early years of Chinese cinema played a large role in the focus on swordplay films.85 A shift from swordplay to kung-fu began in the 1960’s. Mao launched his ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966 and it sent many members of the mainland, Chinese wu xia film community fleeing to Hong Kong. There they set up shop and continued making wu xia movies.86 Swords were strangers in the land of kung-fu, though, and by the turn of the decade the wu xia film was losing ground to the kung-fu film in popularity. Yet Kung-fu was still a minor genre worldwide. In 1966, Hong Kong cinema had trained its sights on the Western market, with the goal of gaining a foothold within five years. It finally achieved that with 1972’s King Boxer (distributed in the United States under the title Five Fingers of Death).87
29 Interestingly, it was a man from the United States that helped the Hong Kong kung-fu industry break into the Western market it had targeted. By 1970, “Hong Kong was buzzing with rumours about Kung Fu and a new star from America, Bruce Lee, who would show the industry the way to glory.”88 Lee’s role as Kato in the short-lived “Green Hornet” TV series (1966-67) had won him legions of fans in Hong Kong—it aired there as “The Kato Show.”89 He returned to Hong Kong, disillusioned with American racism after being denied the lead role in the television series Kung Fu. Executive producer Jerry Thorpe originally wanted to cast Lee for the part. “I remember him telling me this,” director John Badham recalls, “but no one knew who Bruce Lee was, and you know, they didn’t think an Asian guy could do an Asian guy.” Tom Kuhn, former Warner Brothers’ Vice President of Television, tells a tale of Lee’s visit to his office while the series was in casting. Lee burst in the door, kicked it shut, and began swinging nunchaku, “at me…zoom!..by my nose….the guy was unbelievable. And his presence was just mesmerizing.” Kuhn was obviously impressed with Lee, and they spent about an hour talking. “Frankly,” Kuhn admits, “I had trouble understanding him.”90 Other sources claim that Warner Brothers executives decided Lee either looked “too Chinese” or “too muscular” to be accepted by US television audiences.91 But Hong Kong had no such reservations. When Lee arrived there, he sparked a bidding war between several of the major studios; Golden Harvest emerged the winner, and Lee began work on The Big Boss, which arrived in the US as Fists of Fury in late 1971. Failing to win his services, the other major kung-fu studio, Shaw Brothers, raced into production on a new film, in an effort to beat Golden Harvest to the box office. The result of that effort was Chinese Boxer (1971), the first major movie entirely devoted to the art of kung-fu, “pre-empting, if not actually igniting, the kung-fu fever.”92 Within the next two years, “approximately three hundred kung-fu films were made for the international market”—including some that were never released in Hong Kong.93 The biggest splash was made by King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death, which was the first kung-fu film to be distributed by a major American studio, and part of a two-pronged attack by Warner Bros. to gain a foothold for kung-fu on US soil; by May 1973 it had reached the third spot at US box offices, in the film’s seventh week on the charts.94
30 The second component of Warner Bros.’ effort was their production of the Kung Fu television series. Kung Fu was a master stroke, a perfect hybridization of the established hero for American youth, the lone gunman of the Wild West, and the figure with whom they hoped to replace him, the kung-fu warrior. Caine’s independent mentality, strong moral compass, and quasi-Buddhist philosophy dovetailed nicely into the post-1960s western setting, connecting to the characters of early cowboy films. By importing a character raised in an alien world, Kung Fu was able to bypass the moral murkiness and awkward details of history with which modern westerns were being confronted. Caine, half-Chinese and half-American, was an explicit, physical link between the East and the West: the first non-Chinese admitted to Shaolin Temple, and the first American to bring Shaolin arts to this country.95 Media reviews at the time noted the connections between Caine and the cowboys, calling him “a classic American hero”; Esquire magazine put Caine on the cover, kicking the Long Ranger under the caption “Ah so! A new American hero at last!”96 Kwai Chang Caine was a man of Western arête—moral but not self-righteous, brave but not aggressive, proud without hubris—a man who put the xia (chivalry) in wu xia’s ‘martial chivalry.’ And he embodied the connection between the striving for self- improvement of arête and the accomplishment with effort of kung-fu; he was a man who was actively seeking his ‘highest human potential.’ Rademes Pera, who played the young Caine in the series, recognized one of the reasons for the shows success. “The character of Kwai Chang Caine,” Pera points out, “is an archetype now in the culture…. It strikes a chord in people, and because of that, it has the power and longevity that it’s had.” Looking back in 2004, Carradine concurred, attributing its longevity to the fact that Kung Fu “is an everyman story; this is a morality play. It’s eternal…. It has echoes of mythology.” Caine synthesized the characteristics revered by two distinct cultures, and showed American audiences that heroes outside the western tradition had value as well. But even Caine’s extensive knowledge, symbolically straddling the heroic traditions of Western and Eastern culture, likely could not have predicted the rush of Western youth through the temple gates he had exited in China.97 Kung-fu as a genre was aimed at two particular audiences in the United States. Kung Fu the series “suggested that China had replaced India in the (white, middle-
31 class) counterculture’s romance with the East,” but offered something the India of the “1960’s experience” could not, “the fantasy of a hippie who could fight back.”98 Richard Robinson, in his Carradine-idolizing Kung Fu: The Peaceful Way, gushed about the superiority of the television series over the films that followed (about which “the most impressive thing” is that “people want to see them”) because the show was about “peace, love, the natural way, ecology, a raising of consciousness, higher sense of spiritual values, the search for a nonviolent answer to violent confrontations.” But Robinson’s final descriptive—that the series was about “people who can take care of themselves if and when they get pushed to the wall”—belies his contention that Kung Fu was all roses and rainbows.99 In that statement, he explains one of the main reasons that the films he so despises caught on. The kung-fu films, coupled as double-headers with blaxploitation films in “downtown theaters,” were aimed at a second group, minority audiences—particularly African-American men—by whom nonviolence as a political philosophy had been run out of town at sundown. Caine, although he fought when necessary, was a man who suffered far more than he resisted, and he represented an earlier era to them. The kung-fu hero of Hong Kong, who did not actively seek violence but suffered no fools, was one with whom they could more closely identify. He refused to submit when he held the moral high ground. The films “rejected the quietist message of the television show and benefited from the rising thresholds of screen violence created by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and the spaghetti westerns.”100 Bruce Lee’s films are a perfect example; his characters did not have the pacific edge of Carradine’s Caine, and “many a black or Hispanic youth was inspired by Lee’s fearless confrontations with white power.”101 While Lee rarely—if ever—confronted overt “white power,” he was fighting ‘the man,’ the power structure, the government, the unfeeling, uncaring, ‘foreign’ bureaucracy against which minorities in the seventies were struggling. It is a small leap to see how, in the flood of kung-fu films of the early seventies, audiences found the same appeal in the hundreds of kung-fu heroes who fought the Manchus. After the early entry of Chinese Boxer and the smash success of King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death, kung-fu offerings expanded greatly—between King
32 Boxer’s release in the spring of 1973 and by the end of the year, 38 new films had been purchased for US distribution. Kung-fu films became a “’downtown’ genre, playing in neighborhoods abandoned by white flight. Audiences of Asian African, and Hispanic heritage kept the genre alive into the early 1980’s before video wiped out the local movie house.”102 But video did not wipe out the kung-fu hero. Kung-fu films lived on, adopted and nurtured by their multicultural audiences, and formed an important element in the shaping of hip hop’s vision of heroism. And with good reason: “At its worst, the martial arts movie is laughable, totally deserving of derision. But at its best, it can supply an audience exhilaration that cannot be found in any other cinema….These are great action movies. These are great superhero movies. They deliver where other unimaginative, overblown, and campy superhero movies fail.”103 The kung-fu hero was a superhero without superpowers, just skills developed and refined through training, devotion, study, and effort. The kung-fu heroes were the results of a dogged determination to prevail, encouraging examples to youth forced to rely on their personal abilities alone, and the obvious successor to the cowboy hero who had lived under the same conditions. The world of kung-fu was “a world that you [did not] know,” Kung Fu director John Badham explained, “but you want[ed] to know more about.”104 Most fans of kung-fu movies were “converted by the unique experience, the ‘WHOA, where did this come from?’ feel of that first film, which was not so much an encounter with a foreign culture as the twisting of something vaguely familiar into a new universe.”105 They were converted by the appearance on the silver screen of the ‘kung-fu cowboy.’
The Cowboy Connection
English-speaking audiences watching the 2000 hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may have been confused several times during the film, when they encountered, lodged firmly among the English subtitles, the untranslated phrase Jiang Hu. Was Jiang Hu a character they had missed? Had the crew in charge of subtitles simply missed those words? No, it was something more than that; it is a concept for which there is no direct translation. Its literal meaning is “rivers and lakes,” as in the “wild, unsettled
33 region on the fringes of civilization; metaphorically, however, it has a much more complex connotation.” It is a central theme in Chinese martial arts. Jiang Hu is a world into which the powers of centralized government have little reach; its residents, made up in large part of society’s renegades, exiles, and outcasts, would “refuse to submit to common law” even if required. What keeps the denizens of jiang hu from degenerating “into mere anarchy is an unwritten code of ethics—a chivalry of the outlaw brotherhood. It is ultimately this code that is being invoked” when the Chinese refer to jiang hu.106 Perhaps, then, the best translation is already very familiar to US viewers: the frontier. Versed in nearly a century of Wild West films and stories, American audiences could readily see similarities between their cowboy heroes and Hong Kong heroes who are “honest and courageous, but quick to anger, and willing to avenge a wrong regardless of the personal cost. If they do make a pledge, no matter how trivial, they honor it with their lives… [Jiang hu] is a recipe for a kind of honor among renegades.”107 Taken a step further, jiang hu, like the frontier, refers to a broader, more layered concept, ‘the wilds.’ Like the American frontier, or the ‘rivers and lakes’ of China, the impoverished neighborhoods of New York were a wilderness where formal law did not always take priority, and where the inhabitants formed their own codes of behavior in order to survive. The study of Chinese martial arts films, and kung-fu films in particular, is a very young field. A serious effort to write about Chinese cinema began only in the mid- 1970’s, and “even then, much of it was written on an amateur basis.”108 Kung-fu film has suffered the additional disadvantage of being dismissed as a pulp genre, as David Bordwell points out: “Respectable Western critics have long been at a loss to explain why audiences and filmmakers are fascinated by Hong Kong film. From the start, these movies offended guardians of taste.”109 Although his use of the term “respectable” is problematic, and hopefully ironic—how respectable can they be if they dismiss the genre without investigating why it is popular—it is clear that kung-fu studies is still a developing field. Even those few books that have been written about kung-fu films tend to study the technical aspects of film-making, or gender roles, or questions of nationalism. What they have not looked at is how audiences received them, how they influenced culture (particularly in the US), why they were “fascinating.”
34 Interestingly, many of these writers, even from the earliest works, have touched on the cowboy connection that helped kung-fu films resonate with US audiences. As early as 1973, an article in Cinema/TV Today discussed how the kung-fu film had characteristics “both exotic and familiar”; they were films with “many of the characteristics of the Cowboys and Indians stories” and offered “plenty of thrills and excitement.”110 Presumably the comparison was being made then to continue drawing new viewers to the genre—it was only two months after Five Fingers of Death had climbed the box office charts—but others have pointed out the same similarities. In A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, a collection of essays published in conjunction with the Fourth Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1980, several authors came tantalizingly close to tackling the cowboy/kung-fu partnership. Sek Kei, writing on the early kung-fu films of the sixties, realized that they were similar to westerns in intent and scope. The Golden Eagle was “mounted on the scale of a large Hollywood film” and featured “wrestling, archery, horsemanship, fist fights, sword fights, knife throwing duels, and comic combat scenes,” all elements that would have been familiar to cowboy audiences. Treasure Island—set in the early days of the Republic of China after the fall of the Qing in 1911, a frontier period of change—was a “story of five heroes who wipe out a gang of bandits,” and it “centered on a battle of wits, with displays of strength and gun-fights.”111 But visual similarities with westerns were not the only ones to be found; there was a philosophical connection between the two genres as well. Yu Mo-Wan’s “The Prodigious Cinema of Huang Fei-Hong,”112 discusses the characteristics of the Huang Fei-Hong films, a series of proto-kung-fu movies that were largely responsible for establishing the template used by kung-fu films. He concludes that the success of the films in large part hinged on the success of the central themes, traditional Confucian virtues: “Propriety (the quality of being humble and courteous), Righteousness (willingness to stand up for what is right), Charitable Love (veneration for the old and compassion for the poor), and Peace (resolving problems without the use of violence).”113 These echo cowboy qualities, although the views of violence require investigation; perhaps the word “unnecessary” should be added to Yu’s characterization. Essentially, though, both archetypes frown on senseless violence, but
35 do not shy away whatsoever when, literally, their hands are forced by determined villains. Then again, like westerns, the Huang Fei-Hong films (and the kung-fu films that followed) were about action, and scenes of pacific conflict-resolution held little interest for audiences anywhere. Yu concludes that the ideal martial artist is “a protector of the weak and the oppressed, and an uncompromising champion of truth and justice….the public good takes precedence over his personal grievances and, when confronted with evil-doers, he first tries persuasion, and has recourse to violence only as a last resort.”114 Other similarities to the cowboy hero are expanded upon in Tony Rayns’ article on wu xia- turned-kung-fu star Wang Yu. Wang tended to portray characters who belonged to “an era of stoic, individual heroism…. His screen persona is resolutely solitary.”115 Although his films (including Chinese Boxer and Return of the Chinese Boxer, One-Armed Swordsman, and Blood of the Dragon) were not well-received by critics of Asian cinema, his ascetic characters—strong, determined, and almost supernaturally capable of triumphing over astounding odds—resonated with a culture with half a century worth of experience in cheering on the lone gunman. At least one author in the collection drew explicitly on westerns to help elucidate his points about kung-fu films.116 Ng Ho, in the conclusion to “When Legends Die,” made an insightful, if short-sighted, observation on the relationship between the two genres: [Kung-fu films] are like American westerns in that both take historical or quasi-historical figures and subject them to the process of myth-making. It is less attractive a project to establish the factual reality of these figures than it is to explore the renewal and revitalization of their images as legends. Like westerns, kung-fu films will inevitably decline. Myths and legends could survive in the 1950s and 1960s, but they have no place in the ultramodern 1980s.117
Obviously, he slightly exaggerated the demise of myths and legends in the 1980s. Since his article, wizards, witches, medieval knights, superheroes, cowboys and kung-fu have continued to draw viewers to movie theaters; kung-fu films themselves helped to spawn a whole new generation of ‘ultramodern’ hip hop legends. What is true is his statement about the connections between western and kung- fu myth-making, the way that they both formed heroic archetypes in their respective
36 cultures. Unfortunately, a quarter of a century later, no one has delved any further into the relationship between those archetypes. Recently, some authors have noted the similarities in passing— Stephen Teo is aware that “Skills were considered the ultimate test of superiority just as a skill with guns and a fast draw were the ultimate test for cowboys,” while David Bordwell sees “the history and legends surrounding China’s martial arts… [as] a treasure house of stories, akin to…tales of the U.S. frontier,” and Leon Hunt recognizes that “Chinese kung-fu films…marked out a fictional world as distinctive as,” and even “invit[es] comparison with,” the western—but none of them take the next step and investigate the impact of those relationships.118 Even plain statements from famed members of the Hong Kong film community have not sparked further studies. Director Chang Cheh, a giant in the field with more than a hundred films to his credit, recognized as having “created the exemplary martial hero…a romantic who did not shirk from violence in the defense of his principles,”119 cited western director Sam Peckinpah (“Gunsmoke”) as a major influence on his filmmaking style.120 Mak Kar, who studied film at New York Uinversity in the 1960s and 1970s, brought back and built upon the influences he found in the United States, especially the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.121 Kar was responsible for popularizing the kung-fu comedy subgenre in the late seventies with films such as Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (1978) and Crazy Crooks (1980). But even Chang’s explicit nod to the influence of westerns, repeating the connection made in the title of Kar’s first big hit, 1976’s The Good, The Bad, and The Loser, has not been enough to send one man, much less a posse, in search of the kung-fu cowboy,. Kung-fu films made such a ready transition to US audiences because of these similarities. By the time they began arriving in the early seventies, westerns had become victims of their own self-conscious exploration of the realities of America’s past. What began as a genre of straightforward, humanistic plots revolving around mythic dualities of good and evil had evolved into a psychologically complex exercise in historical catharsis; “they became self-consciously sentimental, as a way of playing up the humanist side of the genre. Chinese kung-fu films remain locked in violence and farce’ how many of them could be said to be graced with touches of humanism?”122 I would argue that most kung-fu films could. They are almost all centered on the
37 obligation to do what is “right,” and many focus on self-sacrifice and efforts for the greater good, for those unable to better their own situation. Unlike westerns, however, kung-fu films did not lose the action and energy for which they were known in order to to accomplish this; indeed, these ‘touches’ of humanism were intrinsic before the height of their popularity. Hong Kong offered a return to the good ol’ days, when the good guys were the good guys, the bad guys were the bad guys, and everyone knew who the heroes were. Even better, Hong Kong’s offerings appealed in a special way to the audiences at which they were aimed. The early Chinese martial arts film, from the 1920s through 1940s, tended to be a vehicle for fantastic wu xia fight scenes and lacked a larger context; one can hear the echoes of Mao in 1960s criticisms of the genre, which focused on “individual grievances in order to obscure the contradictions between the classes; it propagates a feudal and superstitious belief in retribution in order to dull the people’s determination to resist; and it promotes the wishful pursuit of the Tao away in the mountains or in monasteries in order to deflect the people from the path of struggle in reality.”123 This had changed by the late 1960s, as the Shaolin traditions of kung-fu gave ample opportunity to explore class struggle. Bruce Lee’s films, the work of the Shaw Bros. studio, and the productions from recently-founded Golden Harvest studios124, set poor heroes (usually aided or trained by monks, or monks themselves), against antagonistic, acquisitive businessmen (Lee’s preferred opponent125) or murderous foreign invaders, be they Manchus (Shaw Bros.) or Japanese (Golden Harvest). It was the ‘Cult of the Indian’ revised; audiences were able to cheer for the natives fighting the evil invaders/settlers without the guilt of the western version. Once again, there was a hero who had to “fight for his pride (and sometimes his principles) without radically questioning himself”—indeed, in these plots, there was often little to question.126 The costumes had changed and the faces looked different, but in the breast of the Shaolin disciple beat the heart of the cowboy archetype. The kung-fu hero faced “folkloric tests of ability, trials of strength and will, and challenges from strangers,” and to top it off, he lacked a trusty six-shooter.127 The kung-fu hero settled his fights in a way even the toughest cowpoke would have to respect—with his fists and his feet.
THE KUNG-FU HERO
“…I want to create a new chamber. Shaolin skills are confined here in the monastery, and in my view that’s a great pity. I think Shaolin techniques should be available to all. So then, that’s my idea for a new chamber—to teach the martial arts to the people. Anybody. Shaolin skills belong to posterity. What I’m proposing is that you allow me to go out, and share the Shaolin knowledge.” -San Te, Enter the 36th Chamber
Kung-fu films divide into two main categories. The earlier films are ‘classic’ kung- fu, serious efforts to explore the heritage of Shaolin, the martial traditions of China, and conflicts between martial schools and government forces. These films had the run of Hong Kong until the mid-seventies, when directors like Mak Kar began to inject elements of Cantonese slapstick into their oeuvre, and formed the kung-fu comedy, which soon held a prominent place of its own in theaters around the world. They were often still located at Shaolin, but some abandoned the historical past in favor of the comedic possibilities, and opportunity for social commentary, of modern urban Chinese life. Both the classic and the comic films bequeathed their own legacy to early hip hop. The classic kung-fu film had two aspects that proved to be vital elements of hip hop culture. The first, a message about an underprivileged, oppressed group finding within itself the means to resist and gain a sense of pride, gave youth in New York City in the 1970s encouragement to develop their own definitions of worth. Through discipline, creativity, and personal effort, they were able to establish a new, vibrant culture. The second, more immediately visible, were the specific kinetic demonstrations of kung-fu films, which they absorbed, adapted, and reformulated to fit
39 their needs. Kung-fu was one of the foundations of not only hip hop philosophy, but the aesthetics of breaking. The reasons why kung-fu films were well received by minority audiences are clear. But how did the development of those films influence hip hop? Martial arts films, before the rise of kung-fu specifically, were not as overtly political as kung-fu would later be. The early films featured “effete, romantic heroes,” dealing with personal situations but not larger social issues, a fact that some scholars have connected to “the subordinate status of a colonized and dominated culture.” The new martial star, the kung-fu hero, was born in the mid-1960s. China had grown into a new superpower and Hong Kong was well on its way to being an “Asian Tiger”; the kung-fu hero was a “cultural registration of an increasing sense of self-confidence expressed in the same mythical and historical narrative forms.”128 The liberated feeling in Hong Kong was reflected by its film studios, which shifted to a new choreography of explosive action. Along with the shift in action came a shift in setting. Gone was the mythic, ancient-world, swordplay of the wu xia film. In its place was the gritty, unarmed combat of China’s historical past, making the genre more relevant to its audience in both time and spirit. Directors realized that the special effects on which wu xia had been so heavily based were “inadequate to the occasion.” Instead, they attempted to reach a middle-ground that Sek Kei refers to as “credible exaggeration.” They looked outside of traditional Chinese cinema, and incorporated “Western and Japanese methods of handling action scenes from the points of view of camera movement, effects, stunts, and even fighting methods.” Fantasy-combat montages and a focus on special effects gave way to display of fighting styles with “increasingly rigorous plausibility. Conceptual niceties gave way to practical function” and realistic movements which would later be imitated by b-boys. The idea of “credible exaggeration”—believable techniques performed at an unbelievable level—inspired b-boys to probe the boundaries between possible and seemingly-impossible.129 The kung-fu techniques of the early seventies were Wei Gong, the external styles geared towards physical combat and familiar to the “average Chinese viewer.”130 Importantly for our early b-boys, “there was less fantasy and more of an achievable skill gained through relentless training…Kung-fu thus emphasized the body and training
40 rather than fantasy or the supernatural.”131 The techniques were realistic, and there was no reason to believe, as there had been in the earlier films, that any magical abilities or mystical skills were needed to perform the feats of the kung-fu hero. In particular, Bruce Lee’s insistence on not using cinematic magic or camera tricks was well-publicized, and audiences were “aware that his kung-fu skills are not the result of supernatural strength or special effects…[his] skill is achievable, a result of fitness and rigorous training.”132 By proxy, viewers applied those conclusions to many other kung-fu stars, whose self-reliance inspired a desire to emulate them in spectators. For instance, in the film Warriors Two, “the pseudo-scientific explication of Yongchun Boxing is so plausible that audiences doubtless went home determined to learn it for themselves, but what’s seen in the film bears little relation to the actual style.”133 In the eyes of the early b-boys, however, realism was “less important than a bold expressiveness in every dimension.”134 The point is that the films were so specific and inspiring that they led to the creation of original movement. The move towards more realistic action made such an impact on audiences that directors and kung-fu choreographers became increasingly concerned with authenticity. By 1974, a run of movies focusing on “proper” Shaolin kung-fu techniques was kicked off by Shaolin Boxers and The Skyhawk. Although these two films were largely forgettable, three movies released later that year were much more successful, and began a string of Shaolin films that left an indelible mark on breaking. Heroes Two, Men From the Monastery, and Shaolin Martial Arts introduced the kung-fu techniques of southern China to the world in “concrete, vivid detail.”135 The films took different routes to reach their goal of educating the audience about Shaolin and its martial traditions.136 Heroes Two was preceded in theaters by a short documentary explaining the history and characteristics of three styles. The most successful of the group, Shaolin Martial Arts, spent less time than the other two on the legends surrounding the Shaolin Temple, and instead concentrated its efforts on the “performance, explanation, and practice of specific martial techniques.”137 Sek Kei notes that the Shaolin techniques of these films formed the basis for the “humorous acrobatic styles” that would appear later in kung-fu comedies; at the same time, they were serving as models and training films for b-boys in New York City. As Rock Steady
41 Crew breaker Ken Swift recalls, “Every kung-fu movie was like styles, people got they ass whipped, and they went back and got revenge, and it was cool, and that was like something maybe we saw this as kids in the hood, as something we dealt with every day in our lives, you know what I’m saying, dealing with the way we had to live, in school and at home.”138 Each in its own way, the kung-fu films helped to build the foundation for a new way of life for their youth audiences. Shaolin Temple (1976) dealt with the admission of lay students to Shaolin, a move, made necessary by increasing Manchu hostility, to ensure the survival of Shaolin kung-fu techniques. Unlike Shaolin Martial Arts, with its focus on the styles themselves, Shaolin Temple addresses “the functioning of the temple itself: its training techniques, its code of ethics, the tension between Buddhist doctrine and patriotic testosterone, the traitors within who conspire with the Qing government.”139 A code of ethics, group loyalty, the reconciliation of ideals and impulsive desires—all important messages to kids dealing with the uncertainties of life in the ‘hood. Films like Shaolin Temple were expounding the theories and origins of kung-fu; the same year, Secret Rivals/Silver Fox Rivals140 raised the standard for fight choreography. No longer were there as many vague, flailing arm movements as in the early kung-fu films. In their place were “flashy high kicks combined with acrobatics, stylish crisp hand moves, and jumping combination kicks.”141 The new choreography had an immediate impact on early b- boys. “Realistically, [we] would leave the theater and just want to kick the shit out of people,” Ken Swift remembers. “I mean, we would walk uptown and sometimes just kick somebody…You know, we would do a demo on somebody, and start doing exactly what we saw in the movie, not knowing what we were doing, but just imitating it to the max.”142 The mid-seventies are recognized as the time that hip hop culture took cohesive shape, and the first b-boys began to develop a distinctive hip hop style. As the choreography and philosophy of the films became more refined, so too did the choreography and philosophy of b-boying. The film to explore most fully the educational possibilities, and responsibilities, of Shaolin temple was the classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978),143 directed by Lau Kar- Leung. Set firmly in the middle of the Qing Dynasty, it “tackles the learning process not only of a style or a philosophy, but of a martial arts totality.”144 36th Chamber traces the
42 progress of a youth (Lau Kar-Fei, as San Te145) who, following the murder of his parents by corrupt government officials, evades pursuit and flees to the Shaolin temple. Once there, he begins to study martial arts to avenge their deaths. In painstaking detail, the film documents his progress through the 35 chambers at Shaolin, in each of which he learns a new martial arts technique, exercise, or philosophy before progressing to the next, harder chamber. Upon completion of the 35th level, San Te is told that he may take over the instruction of pupils in any one of the lessons; the film’s title is taken from San Te’s request to be allowed to create a new chamber, outside the temple. From this chamber, he proposes to teach Shaolin martial techniques to the world, so that the people can defend themselves. The chief abbot and his assistants are shocked at the request, and when San Te protests, the abbot—with a surreptitious nod and a sly wink—banishes San Te from the temple. When San Te realizes that he has been cast out into the world at large as “punishment” by a secretly-sympathetic abbot, he can barely contain his glee. Banned from the temple, San Te transforms Guangdong into a “factory for the production of resistance.”146 The last section of the film focuses on San Te’s efforts to gather a group of followers, whom he instructs in Shaolin techniques and leads in struggle against the foreign Manchu forces of the Qing Dynasty. Director Lau Kar- Leung thus explicitly portrays the value of Shaolin kung-fu as a means of dealing with the challenges of daily life in an unsympathetic social system, a fact not missed by audiences. Another element of 36th Chamber is the form taken by the interaction between San Te and the senior monks in the monastery. As he progresses through the chambers, he transforms from a willful, oblivious boy to an aware, dutiful man. In order to complete his final test, however, he has to defeat the master of the combat classes. Despite repeated efforts with the weapons he learned from his teachers—spear, pole, sword, long-handled axe—he fails. Undaunted, he invents a new weapon, with which he is able to readily defeat the combat master. In so doing, San Te is able to transcend the traditional teacher/student relationship of the Shaolin films. His ability to teach himself, “to effectively blur the Master/Pupil division, to remain suspended ‘between established cultural systems’”147 sent a message to audiences. They saw a youth in
43 need working the system for what he could get from it, using its information to serve his own ends, and developing his own methods, which were more effective techniques of coping in society than the traditional ones. In effect, he transformed himself into the teacher, the viewer into his student, and the streets of New York and other cities into his temple—his goal of establishing a 36th chamber to take kung-fu skills to the world succeeded in a much grander way than the small group he gathered around himself after leaving the monastery in the film. Hip hop artist RZA, one of the founders of rap supergroup Wu-Tang Clan, is one of the few members of the hip hop culture to have written on the influence of the kung-fu hero on hip hop’s development in the 1970s. In The Wu-Tang Manual, a history of the development of the group and their ideas, he includes a chapter on the influence of martial arts. The 36th Chamber figures prominently, and he credits it with being the film that really took the kung-fu hero from an admired figure to an emulated role-model. RZA was “just amazed” by the film—he found its moves and message “sublime.” The similarities between the oppression of the characters in the film and the people in his neighborhood struck home, and he “related to that on a lot of levels.” He, like others, transformed that relationship into action; he remembers that it was “the second part of the movie…the training he went through to become a master, to build himself up…that took me by storm. I actually began doing push-ups and punching walls, going to Chinatown and getting books, the whole trip. The 36th Chamber was the one that opened my mind. The idea of self-discipline, of re-creating yourself. I was around fourteen years old. And it changed me, for real.” But The 36th Chamber was not the only film that would directly influence hip hop’s development.148 Other films highlighted, and helped build, the connections between the kung-fu heroes and their audience-disciples on a more personal level. Movies like Boxer from Shantung (1971) and Disciples of Shaolin (1975), another entry in the Shaolin series, focused on “working-class” youths whose martial skills enabled them to advance in society.149 In these films, the heroes were orphaned as children, then raised and trained in kung-fu at Shaolin monasteries. After leaving, they wind up in cities, where their training—diligence, self-reliance, innovation—helps them to survive and find a place of some sort in “modern” society.150 Early b-boys, feeling abandoned and
44 “orphaned” by a remote, unresponsive government, saw the parallels they had with their kung-fu heroes, and incorporated their physical and mental methods of coping, albeit in new forms, into their own lives. When added to some of the elements gleaned from kung-fu comedies, the messages, information, and demonstrations of classic kung-fu had a dramatic impact on early hip hop.
I was quite young…I felt so strongly the need to express my sentiments about social conditions. -Jet Li151
The rise of the kung-fu comedy sub-genre provided a bulwark of sorts for kung-fu films, allowing to a wider variety of viewers than those solely interested in authentic techniques, and thereby prolonged the commercial viability of kung-fu films. It was a “transitional” form that gave martial arts instructors the leeway to experiment more with movement and attitude.152 The corpus of motion and message thus expanded, from authentic styles, combative techniques, and militant resistance, to include innovative movement, playful attitudes, and creative subversion. B-boys combined the moral obligations of the traditional films, in the form of devotion to a crew/extended family, with the rebellious, self-reliant character of the comedies, to create a new ideal, and, like the cowboys of old, resisted the codified behaviors expected of them. Instead, like their kung-fu heroes, they shaped their own society, a self-supporting community that circumvented the traditional social ladder, and developed their own parameters of self- worth. The roots of the kung-fu comedy were laid well before the first movies of that subgenre were produced in the late 1970s. After Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China directed its efforts to improving the reputation of its native folk arts. Among the first cultural ambassadors were Chinese opera and acrobatic troupes, and “the agility and quirky humour of the performances is not so far removed from” the styles and forms displayed in early kung-fu comedies such as Mak Kar’s Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog, and
45 Jackie Chan’s breakout performance in Drunken Master (both 1978).153 The Chinese wanted to show the value of their personal creations, just as b-boys and early hip hop adherents were intent on showing the value of the culture developing in the inner city neighborhoods of New York. As Action, a b-boy and member of the New York City Breakers explains it, “A lot of people think if you’re from New York and you’re from the Bronx, that you’re no good. But we’re from the Bronx, and we’re out here to show everybody that we’re good…. Coming from the ghetto, where everyone thinks it’s so negative, and we’re doing something positive, know what I’m saying, how can that not become big? Or how can that not become respected in society?”154 Like their b-boy descendants, kung-fu heroes and directors used a local art form in part in an attempt to earn respect for their culture. They did become respected, first by the creators of hip hop, and eventually by the world. Kar’s work in particular had a great influence on the tone of the films that followed; even ‘classic’ kung-fu movies often incorporated a drunk secretly skilled in a novel personal technique, or a whiny character who preferred fleeing to fighting despite the fact that he was part of the kung-fu brotherhood. Kar made “fight scenes less the raison d’etre of the genre” by introducing elements such as the exploits of con-men and slapstick, comic violence. He made a place in his films for those individuals who cut a less-than-traditionally-heroic figure, or for whom it was easier to blend a little farther into society’s background than to be a leader. He did not focus on “chivalrous or heroic figures, nor yet on belligerent stuntmen out to make a kill; but on ‘little men’ who live on their wits in order to survive in a hostile world.”155 To kids trapped in the dangerous streets of inner city New York, living by one’s wits had obvious relevance. Kung-fu comedies helped to round out the offerings of the kung-fu genre, and their “cynical, quick-witted heroes suggest an urban sensibility.” Even those comedies visually set in period were modern in both look and outlook, and not only in their diverse reference points, which included television and advertising catchphrases. Kung-fu comedians such as Samo Hung felt that, “Sometimes changes should be made and [their] own thoughts added, so as to make the atmosphere satisfy the audience,” and reflect “a modern competitive society in which only the fittest survive and the younger are generally fitter.”156 Although slightly goofy, the comic hero made as strong a
46 connection with hip hop’s founders as the kung-fu cowboy had, by virtue of the kung-fu comic’s location in city, and often modern, settings. They, like the Shaolin heroes, were teachers in their own right, demonstrating the “virtues of ‘adaptability’ and ‘using the brain’ in capitalist societies.”157 Aside from their lessons on surviving at the bottom of the metropolitan food chain, the kung-fu comedies’ move to contemporary time and spaces served another purpose. Their modern settings and attitudes helped to make clear the possibilities for kung-fu in city life, possibilities which b-boys latched onto in particular. Films such as 1976’s Private Eyes, featuring fights in a supermarket and a restaurant kitchen, as well as later films by Jackie Chan, Samo Hung, and others, drove home the possibilities for kung-fu (and kung-fu-inspired movement) in modern times and urban spaces.158 Critic Chan Ting-Hing noted in 1980 that “an interesting point about Hung’s films is that they are becoming more and more contemporary in atmosphere, and the psychology revealed by the characters together with the situations they encounter link these films more and more with people in present day Hong Kong.”159 But the films also had plenty of opportunity to resonate with people in New York City, home of the largest Chinatown in the United States; according to director and producer Ng See-Yuen, in terms of overseas distribution and target audiences, kung-fu studios “concentrated on the Chinese population in the United States and Canada.”160 A kung- fu fight scene set on a street corner on a Hong Kong street corner in 1978 must have looked, except for some of the faces, almost identical to a contemporaneous b-boy battle in the Bronx. Just as the philosophies of the “classic” films echoed the moral and familial obligations, and determination, of the cowboy hero, the kung-fu comedies had their own messages. They were not as centered on the stoic lessons of the earlier films; it is difficult to be a wily, comic trickster if one’s life is preordained by duty and destiny. The kung-fu comedies helped to build the good-natured irreverence and amiability of the b- boy culture. The comic hero was “pragmatic and adaptable, creative and unpredictable,” a hero whom “much of Hong Kong’s younger generation could relate to far more easily.”161 In their modern settings, the kung-fu comedy was able, however, to reflect the sense of independence and self-sufficiency embodied in the cowboy hero.
47 Their “emphasis on individual achievement and an outdoing of one’s own master undoubtedly paralleled the ethos of capitalism,” but kung-fu comedies had other significance for our post-cowboy audiences.162 Individual achievement, capitalist or not, found a ready home in theaters that had been hosting cowboy films extolling the virtues of independence for fifty years. And to kids who grew up playing the dozens, a primarily African-American verbal contest of taunts and boasts, outdoing one another was a familiar pastime.163 That value is firmly embraced in b-boy culture, a world of one- upmanship, where “busting” new moves, originality, and creativity are lauded, and “biting” (copying someone else, as opposed to trying to outdo them) is a serious taboo. Like b-boys, the creators of kung-fu comedies could not rest on their laurels and keep their position at the top. With the same imagination, creativity, and effort that they demanded of their characters, they tweaked, pushed, and prodded, “especially the training and fight scenes which, in order to keep contemporary audiences interested, [had to] continuously reveal new twists.”164 Constantly upping the ante, the kung-fu hero served as an extended member of the b-boy family, presenting new moves, new attitudes, and new looks. Eventually the trend of increasing complexity reached a peak, in 1983. Three important films were released that year. Jackie Chan’s Project A redefined the kung-fu comedy, with an all-star cast (including Samo Hung and Yuen Biao) and a huge budget. It was the first of Chan’s films to feature the spectacular stuntwork for which he would become known, performed by Chan’s own Sing Kar Ban stunt team, in “breathtaking showcases for Chan’s inventiveness, humor, and willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of entertainment.”165 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, directed by Tsui Hark, added new elements, determined to prove that Hong Kong could match Hollywood’s special effects. Hark sent his hero through dimensional portals to battle intergalactic beasts in what many called the “Chinese Star Wars.”166 Clearly the slapstick and witty wordplay on which Mak Kar had built his films was no longer sufficient to carry a kung-fu comedy. Directors outside the comedy community were forced to adapt as well; “‘pure’ kung-fu had largely gone out of fashion and Hong Kong action was embracing an increasingly montage-based aesthetic,” much like the one it had abandoned in the late
48 sixties when the turn to kung-fu began. The third important film of 1983 was Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, reuniting the director-star team of brothers, Lau Kar-Leung and Lau Kar-Fei, from 36th Chamber. Lau Kar-Leung, without abandoning his devotion to authentic representation, incorporated increasingly spectacular techniques and choreographic elements to stay current. Although the brothers Lau succeeded in creating another kung-fu classic, it was the last hurrah for “kung-fu in its most classical manifestation: the art being shown in its purely physical mode while the genre is still largely in an unadulterated form.”167 By the mid-eighties, even those kung-fu heroes most devoted to authenticity were bowing to the expectations raised by the modernized settings and styles of the new generation of directors and new trends. Simultaneously, a shift was happening in b-boying. Breakers made appearances in mainstream films like Flashdance (1983), and were the focus of documentaries such as Style Wars (1983) and Wild Style (1982). They showed up more frequently in print media, as well. B-boys had been introduced to the world in 1981, when Village Voice ran the first article to be published, “To the Beat, Y’all,” establishing Sally Banes as an early scholarly voice on the culture. By the summer of 1984, they were the cover story in Newsweek; the article marveled at breaking’s spread from the poor black and Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx to white, middle class enclaves across the country. B- boying had blown into a pop-culture phenomenon. It was in commercials for everything from Levi’s to Panasonic, and was featured in the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. As b-boying gained worldwide attention, the dancing changed. There was a decreased emphasis on the intricate arm movements and footwork that were the legacy of the ‘educational’ kung-fu films of the seventies, and a move towards more high-flying stunts, twists, and flips. B-boys began to lose the intermediary steps and simply focused on visually impressive moves without mastering the entire breaking repertoire.168 The consensus on this transition among those who study hip hop seems to be that it reflected the greater appeal that the stunts had for the cameras which had recently become trained so intently on the b-boys.169 Cameras in general, and news cameras in particular, tend to focus on the dramatic. Footwork did not translate as readily onto film; the viewer had to be familiar with the technicalities of other dance
49 forms in order to fully grasp the creativity displayed by the breakers. Even the most casual observer of dance, however, could plainly realize that the headspins, windmills, and other acrobatic b-boy innovations were like nothing they had ever seen before. “Breaking for the camera” is a respectable argument, but it fails to consider the reasons for growth within the kung-fu cowboy continuum. The b-boys changed in part because their kung-fu cowboy heroes were changing. With kung-fu films turning from long, single-shot fight scenes to rapid transitions and multiple angles, a cut-and-paste style, there was no longer an archival quality to the combat footage.170 Things happened faster, quicker; kung-fu heroes no longer built up to one special strike, but pulled out all the stops as soon as the fight began. Increased variety in stunt work in the films led to increased experimentation in the streets. For a dozen years, kids had been watching movies intent on showing them techniques founded on the ideas of “rigorous plausibility” and “credible exaggeration.” Their styles had grown along with the kung-fu hero, and when his style advanced, they did their best to follow. The change in film choreography and effects, and influence of those changes upon the audience, was manifested in the shift in b-boying, from concentrating on grounded, floor-based styles, to high-flying, vertical movement. In any event, by the mid-eighties breaking had matured into an established form. Like other mature dances—swing being the easiest comparison—once performers have mastered the vocabulary of floor moves, and expanded them to cover as much horizontal space as possible, the only direction left to explore is up. The media saturation, however, had a negative impact on breaking. Exposed to the world, dislocated from its home in the Bronx, and represented in clips and snatches that did not convey the full impact of the art of the b-boy, it had been distilled and homogenized, offered as aerobics classes at gyms and at dance workshops in middle America. At the same time, changing cinematic tastes and the rise of home video moved kung-fu out of theaters. Once again, the hero had left town, and he took his disciples with him. But he did not disappear; he simply went, in b-boy parlance, “underground,” out of the public eye. He rose again in the early 1990s; “despite having been almost completely ignored by the mainstream press, Hong Kong cinema attracted a cult following.” Fans came out of the woodwork, celebrating the kung-fu hero with a
50 “mixture of awe, aggressiveness and proselytizing zeal. A popular cinema gave birth to a popular fan culture. Subterranean tastes helped push” the kung-fu hero into the mainstream. David Bordwell asks, “How could this happen?”, and his very choice of words provides an answer. 171 Clearly, kung-fu movies had meaningful significance for hip hop culture since the first kung-fu cowboy, Kwai Chang Caine, strode across the television screen. Hip hop never abandoned the kung-fu hero; he lived on in breaking, rap lyrics, and the attitudes shared by the hip hop culture. By the early 1990s, “underground” (subterranean) hip hop artists, building on the popularity of late-eighties groups like NWA, were gaining entry to mainstream channels. Rappers like Jeru the Damaja, Fu-Schnickens, UMCs, and Special Ed laced their albums with Buddhist philosophy, Shaolin mysticism, and kung-fu technique metaphors.172 But even without the above-mentioned performers, the most popular of the newly-risen underground groups, the Wu-Tang Clan, a New York City collective of rappers, likely would have brought the kung-fu hero back to popularity single-handedly. The name of their group was taken from a rival monastery to Shaolin; the members took on names of kung-fu characters such as Ghost-faced Killer (from Mystery of Chess- Boxing, also the name of one of the Clan’s hit singles), Master Killer (from 36th Chamber), and the Abbot, adopted as an honorific by the leader of the group, Prince Rakeem, also known as the RZA.173 Their debut album, Enter the 36th Chamber (sound familiar?), was a smash hit. Like hip hop’s earliest kung-fu heroes, King Boxer and Chinese Boxer, they spawned untold imitators. By mid-decade, kung-fu films were back in American theaters. The Wu-Tang Clan bought the rights to many of the old films and re-released them for the home-video market, and American directors like Quentin Tarantino injected kung-fu elements into their films.174 Bordwell is right that a popular cinema gave rise to popular fan culture, but the birth was mediated by hip hop. America did not just suddenly rediscover kung-fu films; hip hop had been incubating them since the late 1970s, and the kung-fu hero sprang, fully formed, from the body of hip hop culture like a Chinese Athena. As the kung-fu hero had helped the youth of New York City survive a rough childhood in the 1970s, they, once grown, carried him through the lean years of the “ultramodern 1980s,” where
51 “myths and legends” had no place. But hip hop, like the Hong Kong cinema that helped spawn it, “takes to heart the old adage that old [heroes] never die, they just fade away and reappear.”175 In the meantime, the techniques and tactics were preserved by the students of the thirty-sixth chamber, the early b-boys of New York City.
We can teach others kung-fu by movie in future. -Once Upon a Time in China176
Hip hop’s founders drew on widely varied sources in creating new, self-affirming expressions of creative individuality and group solidarity through graphic, musical, and dance modes. Hip hop dance, and b-boying (or breaking) in particular, was influenced by the broad spectrum of movement styles in American culture. Dance historians have done a thorough job of linking b-boying to African movement and placing it firmly in the continuum of African diasporic dance. However, the impact of other cultures and their views on the meaning of movement in hip hop remains underappreciated. Foremost in this category of overlooked origins are the Chinese martial arts films of the 1970s. These kung-fu films were an important agent in the transmission of Asian philosophic and aesthetic values, particularly in the birthplace of b-boying, New York City. Seen either in theaters or on television’s “Kung Fu Theater”—which was “for many African Americans… staple weekend viewing”—these movies were one of the strongest influences on the early development of breaking.177 After all, the kung-fu film has an “ongoing interest in the process of learning, the transmission (and embodiment) of knowledge, the relationship between masters and their disciples”—that is, the kung-fu hero and his audience.178 The kung-fu hero’s significance may indeed be larger than some of the traditionally credited roots of breaking, such as Angolo-Brazilian capoeira, or West African dance instruction in the schools of New York City in the 1970’s.179 Many writers on the subject seem intent on maintaining an African homogeneity in b-boying’s origins, almost to the point of willful ignorance of the significance of other influences. Were they
53 to investigate more fully the influences on hip hop, they may find that their theories are not only misguided, but met with disdain by the founders of the culture. Legendary b-boy Crazy Legs, one of the founders of the Rock Steady Crew, emphatically denies those theories: “We didn’t know what the fuck no capoeira was, man. We were in the ghetto! There were no dance schools, nothing. If there was a dance school it was tap and jazz and ballet. I only saw one dance school in my life in the ghetto during that time, and it was on Van Nest Avenue in the Bronx and it was a ballet school.”180 Occasionally someone will look outside the capoeira/West African tradition, and extend some credit to sources such as television programs and other popular culture elements for their impact. But even then, scholars tend to focus on either the emulation of African American performers (Fred “Rerun” Berry in television’s What’s Happening) or white entertainers’ portrayals of African characters (Steve Martin’s “King Tut” sketch on Saturday Night Live).181 Were they to expand their horizons beyond the realm of African roots, they would recognize the connection between Chinese martial arts films and dance. Legendary Chinese director King Hu has commented that he has “always taken the action part of [his] films as dancing rather than fighting…A lot of people in Hong Kong have misunderstood [him], and have remarked that [his] action scenes are sometimes ‘authentic’ and sometimes not. In point of fact, they’re always keyed to the notion of dance.”182 Hu’s cinematic vision inspired a whole generation of martial arts directors, instructors, and choreographers, and it should be easy to see how a hungry group of youths in turn were inspired by them. “As far as the martial arts goes,” agrees b-boy Kwon of Swift Kids, “[the films] gave a lot of b-boys ideas as far as doing things on the floor and expanding their ideas for movement and bringing out their character.”183 But the focus seems to remain blindly on exclusively African roots. Katrina Hazzard-Donald is representative of this tendency. In her essay “Dance in Hip Hop Culture” she traces hip hop’s evolution from African through African American tradition, via both personal contacts and the media channels mentioned above. She then discusses ways that hip hop spread to such far-flung locations as Cuba and Sri Lanka, primarily through mechanisms of “the popular-culture market and industry,” television and videotapes, which she cites as “sources of cultural
54 transference.”184 Hazzard-Donald fails to consider, however, that the influence on breaking through the importing of these sources was as significant as the influence of breaking through their export, confirming Amy Abugo Ongiri’s statement that “African American interest in martial arts films is an often anecdotally pronounced but rarely explored cultural phenomena (sic).”185 The kung-fu/b-boy connection is not only overlooked by historians of African American dance, but also by scholars working on Chinese martial arts. Sek Kei set the tone in 1980: “Years of evolution have shifted the emphasis of Chinese martial arts…their martial skills were more often exhibited as entertainment than used in combat.” He points out that they have been “adapted into such forms as ceremonial celebrations (lion dance, dragon dance)” and “amalgamated with music, dance, and acrobatics into a form of performing arts in the theatre: scenes of combat, of course, lend themselves to elaborate spectacle…. No comparable phenomenon exists elsewhere in the world.”186 Obviously, Sek had not yet encountered b-boying in Hong Kong in 1980, but his statement also fails to consider other combat-cum-dance forms such as capoeira.187 More relevantly, neither American dance scholars nor Chinese film scholars consider the relationship between kung-fu films and hip hop, and the battle- styled b-boy contests that developed in hip hop culture. This influence deserves further consideration. Perhaps the only kung-fu movie that has been even briefly considered in terms of its direct influence on breaking is Jackie Chan’s 1978 hit Drunken Master. The unique movements of the technique that Chan practices in the film—he seems inebriated, obviously—makes it stand out when encountered in a dance setting. Sally Sommer highlights the link in her unreleased documentary work-in-progress Check Your Body at the Door, interweaving clips of Chan’s performance with footage of house dancers in New York in the mid-nineties, one of the few pieces of research to engage the kung-fu film as an influence on popular dance. In an ironic twist, further investigation reveals that what seems to be a migration of movement from movie screen to dance floor was actually a migration from dance floor to movie screen. Hong Kong critic Ng Ho found it a “major irony that what today’s audiences are shown in kung-fu comedies really are flowery tricks with little or no practical application,
55 and yet audiences accept them whole-heartedly. In Drunken Master, for example, the Zui Quan (Drunken Fist) technique is not an authentic martial art; much of it actually resembles contemporary pop dance styles.”188 It is highly unlikely that Ng was mistaken in his assessment of the direction of influence, as his article, published in the Hong Kong International Film Festival proceedings from 1980, was adapted from three articles published in early 1979.189 On the other hand, the first media coverage of breaking was the Village Voice article of 1981. B-boying had yet to begin its rapid spread around the globe; it is apparent that the technique in Drunken Master must have come from Asian dance floors, and moved through the celluloid medium to the improvised cardboard performance spaces of New York. Thus, b-boys were influenced by not only Asian cinema, but by Asian pop dance; the irony is heightened by the fact that by the time the b-boys were done with the movement, they had transformed it into a more “authentic” representation of kung-fu than either the Asian dancers or auteurs had originally achieved. But these snippets of Drunken Master were far from the only kung- fu connection. Although hundreds of Chinese kung-fu films were released in the US, this focused examination of the link between kung-fu and b-boy movement will concentrate on two well-received late-seventies films to demonstrate the integral role the kung-fu aesthetic played in the codification of b-boy style. Seven Grandmasters (1978) serves as a perfect example of the degree to which kung-fu cinema saturated the lives of early hip hop figures. In David Toop’s Rap Attack, praised at publication in 1984 as “the most authoritative book yet on the New York street phenomenon,” the section on hip hop founding father Grandmaster Flash begins with a photo of a Times Square movie theater; the marquee features two kung-fu films, one of which is Seven Grandmasters.190 The cast of that film reunited the following year to make Mystery of Chess-Boxing, so popular that “when first released on New York’s 42nd Street…[it] caused near riots and played for two years.”191 This film’s significance is reflected in a hit 1993 rap song, “The Mystery of Chess-Boxing,” from the Wu Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the 36th Chamber, named after Lau Kar-Leung’s seminal film. Movies such as these played a fundamental role in the development and solidification of movement and meaning in hip hop dance.
56 First, it is clear that what was established as the pattern of a b-boy sequence is rooted firmly in kung-fu choreography. As identified by Robert Farris Thompson, this pattern is “entry (rapid-fire stepping), break (down to the hands), swipes (the ground gymnastics imparting momentum and special flair), spins (on the hands, the back, the shoulders, the head, and other body parts), finishing with a freeze and then an exit (returning the performer to verticality).”192 This is, without deviation, the standard construction of a battle sequence in kung-fu films. Take, for instance, Executioners from Shaolin. The film, another from 36th Chamber director Lau Kar-Leung, begins with “the type of ‘abstract’ pre-credit martial arts sequence which has practically become Liu’s trademark”: two martial artists battling in unarmed combat before the film begins.193 To Roger Garcia, “The principal axes of the film are established by the cinematic off pre-credit sequence which is totally devoid (in the experiential realm) of any circumstantial sense; it has no anterior context, only the programmation of two men whose method of communication is physical (i.e. kung-fu speech, a dialogue enunciated through the shifts and progression of stylistic patterns).”194 It is, in other words, an encapsulated b-boy battle, captured and complete before the body of the film even begins.195 The entry is more complex than simply proceeding into the combative space. It is preceded by a challenge, whether spoken or verbal. As honorable opponents, the two combatants size each other up before engaging.196 Part of this is psychological, as the fighter coolly assesses the situation, radiating a calm and confidence notifying his counterpart that he is secure in his ability to prevail. Bruce Lee was a master of the art, cocking his head to one side or the other, sidling casually in a circle around them, rolling his eyes in disgust. He showed “undisguised contempt…for unworthy opponents”; Stephen Teo termed it “visual braggadocio.”197 B-boys pay tribute to Lee’s mastery of this art with moves such as “The Muggsy,” which creator Ken Swift says came directly from Bruce Lee’s movements.198 The other facet of the size up is tactical, observing the opponent for any clues as to what style he may use. This is a crucial element, as the ability to anticipate, counter, and respond to the opponent’s moves is required in order to win.199
57 Then the physical phase of the competition begins. In both kung-fu and breaking, the initial step into the contested space is made in one of two ways. Sometimes it is a smooth, sideways slide into the circle, with fast footwork keeping the fighter nimble and mobile. Physically, this entry presents a small target to the opponent, as the surface of the turned body is minimized, and the hard, muscled shoulder and hip precede and protect the contestant. This is a stance equally disposed to attack and retreat; the fighter can rapidly approach his opponent, or just as rapidly withdraw to avoid a sudden flurry of blows. The sideways entry is generally used when the performer is starting slowly, beginning with basic movements to “feel out” the level of his opponent, and is most common when the two fighters are unfamiliar with each other’s styles. The entry is much more dramatic when the combatants’ styles are pronounced. When familiar with the technique used by an opponent, the performer, knowing what is expected, can engage the ‘enemy’ on his own terms. This usually results in an aggressive entry with more flair—a spinning twist, a front or reverse flip, or a flying leap—and an initial stance squarely facing the opponent. With legs spread and knees bent, this aggressive entry pose is not designed for retreat. It is the entry of a confident contestant, ready to spring forward or rapidly circle the opponent laterally. It is a declaration of superiority, an attempt to claim an early advantage in the battle by intimidating the opponent from the beginning. In b-boying, this pattern is also present. Initial rounds of a battle generally begin slowly, the breakers gliding into the middle of the circle for a few minutes of exploratory footwork before moving on to the breakdown and the freeze. After the first few cycles of contestants are complete, dancers begin flying in to the circle, challenging, responding to, and signifying on the movements of the previous b-boy, often before he has even left the space.200 In kung-fu terms, this is the equivalent of recognizing not only the opponent’s style, but the fact that the opponent presents no unknown threat. The challenger is ready to dismantle his opponent; there is no timidity or caution in the aggressive entry. The entry step flows smoothly into footwork in the circle, preparation for the aggressive spins, turns, and twists that engage the contestants in actual combat.
58 These combative moves are one of the two most important contributions of kung fu films to hip hop dance, second only to the freeze. Although dropping low to the ground and spinning is by no means unique to kung-fu, it is the method and approach that differentiates them from the “breakdown” characteristic of African American movement or capoeira. Stylistically, breaking differs from capoeira in its rhythms. The Brazilian dance/martial art has a fluid, circular style, with each movement maintaining a flow of continuity into the next move. The performer rarely breaks the constant motion. In b- boying, however, the breakdown is angular and broken, not necessarily following a predictable rhythmic pattern. A spin or twist to the side can instantly stop and abruptly reverse direction, or morph into a completely different move. This is the way of kung-fu: angular forms that yield to other angular forms. The traditional spins of breaking all appear in kung-fu, without needing any interpretation to see them. As Lil’ Lep explains, the films directly translated to dance for his crew, the New York City Breakers: “Kung fu movies were important, because we learned from them. You know Flip ( Flip Rock AKA Bobby Potts), he does a lot of flips, and they do a lot of flips in kung-fu movies. You know my man Chino (AKA Action), he does a lot of flips too. My thing is my swipes, headspins.”201 Mr. Wiggles adds that, “If you look at [fellow Rock Steady b-boy] Frosty [Freeze], with the back-flips, you can see the kung-fu influence.”202 The various styles of flips were a popular subject for appropriation, but were far from being the only borrowed techniques. Some of the moves, such as kneespins and backspins, could be used as defensive moves, keeping the opponent at bay.203 Their rapid rotations prevent approach, thereby enabling the performer to claim a personal space in which to move. They do not, however, offer any opportunity for offensive action; the contestant must proceed to another move in order to press the attack. Other spins do not exhibit this weakness. In particular, flares and windmills are simultaneously defensive and offensive. While the outstretched legs of these rapid spinning moves enlarge the sphere occupied by the performer, they also present potentially lethal weapons in the form of whirling feet. These spins, turns, and flips are a crucial element of personal style; they are what establish both the kung-fu master and the b-boy as skilled performers. The footwork is difficult and intricate, but can be learned more easily. The acrobatic stunts
59 and spins of more advanced performers are what differentiate them from the average. When Mr. Wiggles, of Rock Steady Crew, says that he wants to slam a move on the sidewalk so that it “splats” and people remember it, he is not just saying that he wants to leave his mark.204 A signature move, in something as ephemeral as dance or kung-fu, visually melts as soon as it is completed. Ironically, though, these signature moves are what grant the performer legendary status. In the world of movement, it is not the motion that is important so much as the memory of that motion in the collective consciousness, and the governing mythology that surrounds the move or moves. As a bystander says during the battle between the lead character in Seven Grandmasters, Tsang Kwan Chung (played by Jack Long), and the Monkey Master, “Everyone knows Tsang Kwan Chung uses the Pai Mei technique…He became champion because of those strikes—they made his reputation.”205 His skill has preceded him—he has achieved mythic status through his movement. Even viewers who have never seen a legendary, heroic figure in person know what to expect because of his reputation as the master of a certain style. It is this status that keeps him involved in challenges and battles, and draws contenders to his title. In the b-boy documentary The Freshest Kids, b-boy Crazy Legs perfectly expresses the link between the legendary status of the kung-fu masters and the view within the breaking community of other b-boys: “You hear of someone breaking in another area, you’d be like, alright, cool, let’s go over there. It’s like the martial arts films—‘I heard your style is good, but mine is better.’ And you go there, and you test their style.”206 It is a culture where status is held by skill alone. The peak of that status, and the single most significant stylistic element of breaking drawn from kung-fu, is embodied in the freeze. This is the conclusion of a b- boy’s sequence in the performance circle, and was the most important part of the breaker’s repertoire before hip hop’s commodification by mainstream media shifted the focus to the stunts and spins, which made for better film images. The freeze, after all, is static, a held pose that offers little appeal to a moving format. In the ritualized combat of breaking, based on the highly choreographed fight scenes of kung-fu films, the freeze was the sine qua non of the b-boy.
60 In the context of kung-fu cinema, the freeze plays two roles. Many kung-fu films ended on an abrupt freeze immediately following the death of the villain in the final combat scene, even if it meant “leaving other plot elements dangling.” Often the scene would freeze just as the killing blow was about to strike home. Alternately, the camera would stop on the victor or victors, a look of serene satisfaction on their faces for a job well-done in ridding the world of a villain. But in either case, the sudden final-shot freeze-frame allowed filmmakers to “hold the viewer to the very last moment…the last shot of Fist of Fury proved so dramatic that the halted final image became a firm local convention.”207 So much of a convention, in fact, that the freeze took on a new significance in kung-fu films. Freezes began to appear frequently even in battles that were not intended to end in physical death. They often appear in challenge matches, such as those in Seven Grandmasters. In this film, Tsang Kwan Chung travels throughout China, testing his skills against recognized masters of various styles, in order to establish himself as the national champion. As the opponents engage each other, technique after technique is blocked, counterattacks are made, and the combatants play off of each other’s moves in an effort to launch an attack for which the other is not prepared. Because the object of these fights is to settle supremacy, not death, when the critical opening presents itself, Tsang Kwan Chung immediately makes what would be a fatal move, yet stops the blow just before impact. He could have finished the fight physically, but demonstrating simply that he had the opportunity to land a fatal strike, had he chosen to take it, is enough to end the battle. Additionally, it shows a high degree of mental and physical discipline to be able to selectively stop attacks in the midst of heated combat.208 The freeze also commonly appears when one of the combatants is clearly overmatched and the superior martial artist does not want to hurt him to end the battle. The standard kung-fu plot line features not only a master and his opponents or enemies, but also what one might call the master’s “crew,” students who wish to learn his style. In Mystery of Chess-Boxing, as in many of the ‘classic’ kung-fu films, there are training sequences interspersed between the main fights, during which the master imparts his techniques to his pupils. In these training fights, the teacher easily and repeatedly overcomes the students’ feeble defenses, pausing his motion at critical
61 moments to show where the student has failed. These freezes, too, carry a sense of superiority, as the novice is humbled by a vastly better fighter. The freeze is a metaphoric death, a controlled fatality, a move that makes it obvious to both the participants in the contest and to viewers that the battle is over. It is a strike so vital, so creative, so strong, that all question as to the outcome is erased. One can choose to ignore it and continue battling, but everyone watching knows that the battle continues only because of the generosity and restraint of the fighter who chose not to deliver a lethal stroke. The fighter has symbolically killed his opponent; in b-boy parlance, one would say that he “killed” that move. In making the case for the origins of the freeze, these films must be given priority. Although Thompson attempts to link the freeze to such sources as the “move-and-freeze sequences in the jazz dance and the Harlem mambo ‘picture step’ of the fifties,” those movements do not show the same aggression, impact, or import as the kung-fu freeze.209 Visually and metaphorically, b-boy style has much more in common with the freezes of their kung-fu heroes than with the hoary dances of the breakers’ grandparents. B-boy freezes tend to take one of two forms. The first is a suspended attack as in kung-fu; for example, freezing with arms outstretched in mid-punch or stopping post-spin on the ground, legs poised in position to launch a lethal kick. Although obviously physically intimidating, they also convey a sense of ridicule and disrespect for the opponent, “You are not prepared for my technique; your style is too weak.” This aggressive freeze is physically humbling, particularly damning in a culture built on personal strength, skill, and vitality. The second type, the derisive freeze, is psychologically humiliating. The villain in Mystery of Chess-Boxing, the “Ghost-Faced Killer,” kicks his opponent powerfully to the ground. As he writhes in agony, Ghost-Face turns away, clasps his hands behind his back, and laughs—to continue fighting someone so inferior would be a joke. In another scene, he crouches on one leg, crosses the other over his knee, rests an elbow on his thigh, and props his chin in his hand, as if to say, “I could even defeat you sitting down.” The derisive freeze is a pose of ridicule and disdain. A common version of this freeze done by b-boys is often compared to pin-up poster girls’ seductive sprawling, but these coy, reclining positions are also common in kung-fu films, and the comedies in
62 particular.210 This style of freeze is usually done in the films by a kung-fu comic, such as the mischievous student Ah-Po in Mystery of Chess-Boxing, after he has escaped a potentially dangerous situation. Other b-boy freezes, such as miming grabbing the opponents crotch and then “discovering” that one’s hand comes away with a foul odor, are also rooted in kung-fu comedies, and clearly carry the same disrespect for one’s opponent. The defeated contestant is unworthy of serious effort; they deserve to be exposed as a fraud. Skill and style to execute these techniques were personally developed according to taste and ability. Just as some b-boys specialized in footwork, some in stunts, and some in freezes, the kung-fu films taught that “each man needs his own style, one that suits him. Any wise man chooses one matching his abilities. No man can learn them all.”211 But all styles had to be studied; to be confronted by an opponent with an unfamiliar style was to run the risk of losing before the battle even began. This attitude, requiring familiarity with a virtually unlimited kinetic vocabulary, brought many new movement styles to breaking. In learning the different techniques in the films considered here, the students go through numerous training sequences. In slow motion, or in repeated training sessions, the pupils emulate the rapid moves of the skilled master, “breaking down” the kung-fu styles step by step. Kung-fu films were, in this way, video instruction manuals for b-boys, fonts of knowledge to be drawn upon. While capoeira does have some similarities to hip hop movement, there were virtually no step-by-step descriptions of it, or any other exotic movements, available to the poor masses at large in New York City. But for the price of a movie ticket, or an afternoon in front of the television, there were laid bare the internal workings of kung-fu. Neither Grandmasters nor Mystery focus solely on spins and stunts. Both films toed the line of “rigorous plausibility,” and the elaborate choreography remained true to the roots of ‘classic’ kung-fu styles. Because of this, much time was spent on the complex patterns of arm and hand sequences. The arm movements of the Chinese forms were readily adaptable to popping and locking; Mr. Wiggles’ demonstration of the New York version of the Electric Boogie in the documentary Everybody Dance Now clearly shows a kung-fu influence. The rapidly articulated elbows and wrists, blocking moves across the front of the body, and
63 asymmetry of the arms are hallmarks of Chinese boxing; many different examples are demonstrated in Mystery of Chess-Boxing. In Check Your Body at the Door, vogue/house dance innovators Willie Ninja and Archie Burnett are shown mining an unidentified kung-fu film for inspiration, showing that the tradition survived through the 1990s. As Burnett points out, “this is the best place to steal some steps, boy.”212 Lower body moves also made the transition from kung-fu to hip hop. When b- boys hit the ground and grasp a foot or leg, weaving and twisting their lower limbs through intricate patterns and variations, they are copying the foot-boxing of kung-fu films, practiced from a prone position.213 Even the name the b-boys gave these movements, “threading the needle,” references the naming of kung-fu techniques such as “splitting the water,” “breaking the knot,” or “carrying the wood.” When the Floormaster crew’s “Action” performed this style in a circa-1984 clip in The Freshest Kids, he might as well have been demonstrating guest star Sam Seed’s defensive tactics from Mystery of Chess-Boxing. Ken Swift admits direct inspiration from the films, particularly Seven Grandmasters, in creating and naming new moves. “The brother [Jack Long] was on the floor, and he grabbed his hands and he pulled and he slid on his butt, and he kicked this dude,” he says. “I have a forearm glide that I do, called ‘flowing downstream’ that was inspired by the film.”214 The stunts and spins of kung-fu were even more directly translated to breaking. Lil’ Lep’s New York City Breakers crew was not the only group to appropriate the moves of the kung-fu heroes; b-boy Ray gives the films credit for directly influencing his Brooklyn-based Floormaster Dancers as well. “Kung fu played a part in my life,” he says. “You see the styles they had, they spin on their heads, like b-boying, they had windmills, they were doing the helicopter, which is the swipe. We looked at these things, we used it as dance.”215 Every prominent b-boy power move is present in kung-fu cinema, and most are contained in the two movies considered here. Headspins, backspins, windmills, flares, suicides, helicopters and numerous other leg sweeps—all are demonstrated with precision by Jack Long. In a nod to Lau Kar-Leung’s films, Kuo opens Mystery of Chess Boxing with an elaborate, pre-credit combat sequence between Long and Lee Yi Min, who plays his pupil in both films, featuring a dizzying array of moves that translated directly into the b-boy repertoire. Not only did breakers copy the
64 fancy spinning attacks, they also absorbed the innovative evasion tactics, leaping falls that create a separation between contestants which allows the performer to regroup. In one specific sequence in Mystery of Chess-Boxing, Long spins away from his opponent, leaps high into the air and backwards, lands flat on his back, and kicks his legs high, undulating his body in a wave which ends with him up on his feet.216 Rock Steady Crew’s Frosty Freeze kinetically quotes the move in the breaking scene featured in Flashdance. Besides the sheer physical similarities of kung-fu choreography and b-boying, the lessons and philosophies in the films saturated the b-boy mindset. What was important to the warrior in the cobblestone streets of Qing Dynasty China resonated with early breakers. In establishing oneself as a renowned martial master, one had to have personal strength, physically and mentally, to overcome the many obstacles on the path to success. The hero of these films traditionally was from the lower class, often injured or intimidated by the forces of the corrupt government. Physical strength was necessary to combat these oppressors, but strength of spirit was also vital, to avoid the danger of using that physical power for selfish reasons. The kung-fu master was a local cultural hero, struggling against overwhelming odds. To poor kids in the ghettoes of New York in the 1970’s, the appeal of a mythic figure rising from the underclass to defend and represent his people is clear; as Ken Swift points out, it is important to recognize “the influence of kung-fu, of martial arts, of kung-fu movies” in hip hop’s development.217 The martial artist relied solely upon devices which were available to these youths—strength, skill, style, creativity—in making a name for himself. Themes of social justice and resistance of oppression were standard in Hong Kong film. American film heroes by the 1970s were either white—frequently members of the oppressive governmental structure, such as Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character—or they were black, but oversexed and overblown, the “Fighting and Fuckin’ Super-Negros” of blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song and Superfly.218 The martial arts films presented African-American and Latino residents of the inner city with strong, moral heroes who were able to overcome their circumstances by dint of courage and effort. Armed only with their cunning, wit, and determination,
65 these heroes countered the overwhelming, uncaring forces of the government, and claimed a space for themselves in their environment. Kung-fu movies provided a virtual training academy for those interested in discipline of the body as an avenue for personal growth, and the characters in them served as “video-mentors” for youths lacking a strong family support network. Their “focus on virtue lost and found, individual determination, righteous vengeance, and community struggle against all odds…helped to create the martial arts as the ultimate tool of the righteous but wronged ‘little guy’, and goes a long way towards explaining an African-American interest in martial arts culture.”219 Although Ongiri’s article only addressed martial arts films’ influence on African-Americans, in the cultural mélange of New York City, the boundaries between African-American, African-Caribbean, and Latino cultures were porous at best. Sek Kei summed up the cultural value of kung-fu films thus: Martial arts films can be said to be analogous to the Hong Kong situation. Born of boundless energy in less than favourable conditions, they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves and become one of the most prolific, resourceful, and fast-paced cinemas in the world. By juxtaposing Eastern and Western elements, the old and the new, they have evolved an idiosyncratic style and developed it to a remarkable degree. They have, in fact, elevated the reputation of the Chinese martial arts world, a tradition hitherto disdained even by the average Chinese.220
With the exchange of a few terms—“martial arts films” for “hip hop,” “Chinese martial arts world” for “poor neighborhoods of New York City,” and “Chinese” for “American”— he could be talking about the b-boy, the United States’ most recent incarnation of arête, the hip-hop hero. Interest in Chinese cinema was shared across nation, ethnic, and cultural boundaries, particularly by the founders of hip hop. No group internalized, developed, and re-formulated kung-fu films more effectively, nor more eloquently, than the early b-boys.221
Hip hop and b-boying did not develop in an insular community, from a closed lineage of African and African-American tradition. It was born in the frontier streets of New York City in the 1970s, nurtured by youths living in one of the most dense, multiculturally rich settings in history. In that diverse environment, the struggles for individuality, success, and respect led to a resurfacing of the universal elements of humanity’s search for heroes. For seventy-five years, the cowboy had been the hero to whom American youth turned for inspiration. His popularity waned, though, as he struggled to reconcile his mythological past with changing attitudes about his historical, decidedly unheroic, treatment of minorities. Culture upheaval in the US combined with conflict abroad to finally defeat the quintessential American hero in the late 1960s. In 1969, Marshall Fishwick’s investigation of The Hero, American Style concluded that, “Western man lives at a time where most old myths have lost their mana and power…. When an old mythology disintegrates, a new one originates. To survive is to remythologize. Instead of discovering a new mythos, we find ourselves participating in it.” That is what the youth movements of the sixties were doing, with “their new tactics, songs, morals, haircuts. They will bury not only us,” he predicted, “but our worn-out mythology, too.”222 Fishwick was a bit pessimistic. The old mythology was not buried; the common traits of heroism are too strong to be abandoned. But it was stripped, shaved, reclothed, and brought back in the kung-fu hero. Young people who had lost the trail of the cowboy found a new idol in kung-fu films. These new heroes picked up where the cowboy left off. Their exotic origins belied their place in the heroic tradition, while making them more accessible than the cowboy to minority audiences. In New York in particular, the kung- fu hero took root, teaching a whole new generation the rules of heroic behavior.
67 Westerns as a genre lost their appeal when they changed too much, became too physical at the expense of philosophy, too dark at the expense of holding promise about the betterment of humankind, and too violent at the expense of introspection. Kung-fu films filled the void left by the disappearance of the cowboy, although they too eventually fell into decline for the same reasons—better stunts, but less psychology; better choreography, but less kung-fu; more theatrics, but less moral gravity. But during his heyday, the kung-fu hero had a dramatic impact on early hip hop culture. In particular, he was a leading figure in shaping the philosophy and aesthetics of b-boys, a group of kids who continue to influence American, and world, culture.223
1 The Freshest Kids, directed by Israel (New York: Brotherhood Films, 2002). 2 For general works on hip hop and hip hop history, see David Toop, Rap Attack 3: From African Rap to Global Hip Hop (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000); Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), or the early work by Curtis Marlow, Breakdancing (Cresskill, NJ: Starbook/Sharon Publications, 1979). 3 For examples of traditional views of b-boying’s origination from these sources, see “The History of Breakdancing” in Curtis Marlow, Breakdancing (Cresskill, NJ: Starbook/Sharon Publications, 1979), and William Eric Perkins, ed., Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), in particular Robert Farris Thompson’s “Hip Hop 101” and Katrina Hazzard-Donald’s “Dance in Hip Hop Culture.” 4 Nelson George, Hip Hop America (New York: Penguin, 1998): 105-6. 5 Sally Banes, “Breaking,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, eds. Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004): 18. 6 Michael Holman, “Breaking,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, eds. Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004): 39. 7 Members of the culture have never referred to themselves as “breakdancers,” nor to the dance as “breakdancing.” They are “b-boys” or “b-girls,” “breakers,” or “breakers”; the dance is “b-boying,” “breaking,” or simply “going off” (as in “going off on the break,” although that is a dated phrase that has largely fallen out of use. 8 The cowboy, too, made his mark in early hip hop, albeit not as dramatically as the kung-fu hero, demonstrating the impact of the heroic lineage behind the kung-fu warrior. In contrast to the kung-fu hero, the laconic cowboy hero ironically was primarily incorporated by hip hop lyricists: one of Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five MCs even went by the name Cowboy. The Sugarhill Gang recorded “Apache” in 1981. It referenced, among other things, the Battle of Little Big Horn, Geronimo, and western films in lines like “My tribe went down in the hall of fame, ‘cause I’m the one who shot Jesse James.” The cowboy hero continues to show up periodically in hip hop. A very brief timeline includes the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” (1986), Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” (1987), Gangstarr’s “I’m the Man” (1992), Jeru the Damaja’s “Black Cowboys” (1996), and Sadat X’s 1996 album Wild Cowboys. 9 Edward Tabor Linenthal, Changing images of the warrior hero in America: a history of popular symbolism (New York: E. Mellon, 1982): xv. 10 Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (originally published in 1949) is the classic study of the archetypal hero, extracting the universal details of the hero’s journey and transformation from the numerous mythologies of the world. Campbell’s goal was to “bring together a host of myths and folk tales from every corner of the world,
and to let the symbols speak for themselves. The parallels will be immediately apparent; and these will develop a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millenniums of his residence on this planet” (from his introduction). By any measure, it was a resounding success, and subsequent scholars studying “the hero” have used Campbell’s work as a guide. In The Mortal Hero, Seth L. Schein analyzes Homer’s Iliad, the work upon which much of Western literary tradition is built; he investigates the devices and techniques through which the heroic character is fully realized, useful for any study of heroism. Linenthal’s Changing images of the warrior hero in America is a useful update, and places him in the context American popular culture. The Hero in Transition, edited by Ray Browne and prolific hero-scholar Marshall Fishwick, is a broadly conceived collection of essays on the hero in twentieth century America, from film to comic book to soap opera. In an interesting parallel to Campbell’s groundbreaking work, one of the earliest b-boys, cited by recognized founders of the culture like Crazy Legs and Mr. Wiggles as perhaps the most vital originator, was named Spy; he was known as “The Man with a Thousand Moves.” 11 Linenthal, xv. 12 This will be a primarily male story. The Greek tales tended to feature men in the heroic roles, just as cowboy movies did; the occasional heroine was anomalous. Kung- fu films, in contrast, have a markedly larger female presence in the heroic pantheon (as does much of Chinese literature—see note 19). Films such as Seven Blows of the Dragon (1973) and Ten Tigers of Shaolin (1979) featured women as kung-fu heroes, a trend that still continues (Hero; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), although women are certainly in the minority. And while b-girls have been a part of hip hop since the beginning, breaking too is predominantly male. 13 Werner W. Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, trans.Gilbert Highet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986): 5. Jaeger’s three-volume work, originally published in 1939, used the Greek idea of Paideia, the shaping of Greek character through a combination of tradition, civilization, philosophy, and literature, as the basis for his study of Greek history. 14 Linenthal, xv. 15 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968): 29. 16 Besides these obvious cases, other American literary heroes often are wanderers on a journey of self-discovery. Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Kerouac (On the Road and Dharma Bums), Dreiser (Sister Carrie), Thoreau (Walden), Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), HenryAdams (The Education of Henry Adams), and, more recently Tom Wolfe (A Man in Full) are but a few examples of the many authors who written tales of transformation built around travel. Significantly, these stories also incorporate, in their own way, the concept of a ‘frontier,’ a strange place to which the protagonist must travel to fully realize his or her own potential for change. 17 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973): 302-303. 18 Andrew Brodie Smith, Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent western films, American culture, and the birth of Hollywood (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003): 188.
19 Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? ed. Richard W. Etulain (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999): 19. 20 Criticism of Turner’s thesis began as early as the 1930s, when Walter Prescott Webb and former Turner student Herbert Eugene Bolton challenged Turner with alternative interpretations of the frontier. Questioning of Turner continued intermittently until the 1970s and 1980s, when an explosion of scholars arguing against Turner heavily damaged the Frontier Thesis. Historians such as Richard White, Donald Worster, Michael P. Malone, and Limerick attacked Turner’s failure to acknowledge minorities, women, class, urban and environmental issues, and the history of the west after 1900. For a brief historiographical discussion, see “Speaking for the Past,” in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 743-69. Collections of criticism of Turner’s work can be found in Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds., Trails: Toward a New Western History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991) and Gene M. Gressley, ed., Old West/New West: Quo Vadis? (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). 21 Limerick in turn may find it interesting that in the world of the kung-fu hero, on the other hand, the ‘others’ for which she so strongly pushed in western history already had a place. In particular, the Chinese have long incorporated women—Leon Hunt points out that “women warriors are nothing new in Chinese storytelling, and have a much longer history than their Western counterparts.” (118) 22 Alf H. Walle, The Cowboy Hero and Its Audience (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000): 91-92. Walle’s interpretation of The Leatherstocking Tales is that Cooper saw the entire West as a sprawling, inhospitable region completely unsuited for large-scale habitation, a haven for the noble frontiersman who could not find a comfortable place in the growing cities of the East. In the great plains of the West, the frontiersman could finally find a place where civilization would never encroach. Walle’s reasoning for the decline in Cooper’s popularity is that he failed to foresee the continued growth of American cities, the ingenuity and determination of American business, and such advances as the transcontinental railroad, which rendered the vast distances from East to West coast suddenly less formidable. By the 1890s, the region had “emerged as just another resource to be harvested, and…had become rather thickly settled.” As a result, the American reading public viewed Cooper’s vision of history as “grossly inaccurate,” and sophisticated audiences turned to novelists such as Henry James, “who focused on the interplay between sophisticated Americans and Europeans.” On the other hand, James wrote at length about how displaced he felt by the rapid advances in American and European culture and technology. He would likely have felt more at home in the world of Cooper’s hero than in the world of the readers whom Walle claims turned to James for a sense of modernity. Walle’s hypothesis is thus somewhat problematic, but does give hints as to why Cooper fell into disfavor. 23 Ibid, 92. 24 For example, Thoreau in Walden, Emerson (particularly the essay “Self-Reliance”), and Henry Adams’ struggle to reconcile his view of “classic” America with the rapidly- changing reality of American life in The Education of Henry Adams.
25 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” Address to Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, MA, August 31, 1837. In his speech, Emerson demands for American scholarship bear many similarities to the American frontier spirit. He felt that the full worth of a scholar could only be attained if one nurtured a sense of self-trust, espoused bravery and freedom, and cherished the individual instead of the masses: “if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him…. [It is] not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit; — not to be reckoned one character… but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…. We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” 26 Walle, 94. 27 Lee Clark Mitchell, “’When You Call Me That…’: Tall Talk and Male Hegemony in The Virginian,” PMLA 102, n. 1(January 1987): 66. 28 Walle, 96. 29 Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide (New York: Rawson Associates, 1982): xii. 30 “Hopalong Cassidy: The Legend,”
44 Hitt, 24. Hitt fails to consider, however, the outbreak of WWII, which surely must have contributed to the same concerns. 45 Carol Anthill, “Behind the Mask and Mystique of Zorro. Part One: Namesake,”
61 Incidentally, both title characters were played by the rapidly-ascending Power, a coincidence that may justify further investigation, based on the characters’ similar actions. 62 Slotkin, Gunfighter, 295. 63 Ibid, 297. 64 From Grasshopper to Caine: Creating Kung Fu, documentary special feature included with Kung Fu The Complete First Season DVD (Warner Home Video, 2004). Friedlander’s interview on the DVD supports further the connection between kung-fu heroes and the unique New York setting in which he was adopted as a hip hop inspiration. “No one knew what kung-fu was,” he remembers, “We were just two kids from Brooklyn who invented this thing, in a sense.” Within the decade, some other kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx would use the kung-fu flood Friedlander and Spielman released to invent new forms of dance and music. 65 Kung Fu pilot movie. First airdate February 22, 1972. Directed by Jerry Thorpe and written by Ed Spielman & Howard Friedlander. Interestingly, Carradine’s father, John Carradine, played the role of James Gang member Bob Ford in the 1939 production of Jesse James. After James retires, Ford shoots him in the back to collect the reward money, killing the outlaw hero. Three decades later, his son’s role in the hybrid series Kung Fu helped to finalize the death of the cowboy hero in American popular culture. 66 Kung Fu—The Complete First Season, Warner Home Video, 2004: DVD packaging. 67 “The My Lai Massacre,” Time, November 28, 1969; “My Lai: An American Tragedy,” Time, December 5, 1969. 68 Slotkin, Gunfighter, 628-631. 69 James Horwitz, They Went Thataway (New York: Dutton, 1976): Introduction. Horwitz’s book is a combination of scholarly investigation of the impact of westerns on audience, and memoir of his personal relationship with the genre. It is a general, easy read, but interesting and informative. 70 Quoted in Hunt, p. 49. “In Hong Kong, David Carradine was known affectionately as cho man jai (grasshopper boy).” 71 Lau, Shing-Hon, “Introduction,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 3. 72 Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters (London: Wallflower Press, 2003): 1. 73 Lau, “Introduction,” 3. 74 Sek Kie, “The Development of ‘Martial Arts’ in Hong Kong Cinema,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 27. 75 Hunt, 1. 76 The original Shaolin temple was located in Henan province, approximately 75 km southwest of the provincial capital Zhengzhou, at the foot of Shao She Mountain in the Songshan Mountains. The name comes from Shao (“young” or “new”) and Lin (“forest,” from the wooded slopes of the mountain). The first temple was built in 495 AD; Ta Mo arrived in 527. In 1980, Ng Ho wrote with some trepidation about an “alleged” second temple, integrated with the original, at Jiulianshan in Fujian province, southeast of Henan. By 1990, it was no longer alleged; archaeologists excavated a large temple complex in Putian village. In 1992 they concluded it was the Southern Shaolin temple.
Various other, minor temples were affiliated with Shaolin throughout history, but it is the temple in Henan that is usually depicted in the films. 77 The breathing exercises and physical techniques the Ta Mo introduced at the temple were not new ideas, but he applied them in new ways at the temple. Both China and India had long traditions of martial skills, and the yogic ideas he brought from India had been in development for at least two millennia. Tomio Nagabushi, in The Bodhisattva Warriors (Weiser Books, 1994) traces the origins of kung-fu, in part, to vajramukti, the Indian corpus of unarmed combat. Interestingly for a study of kung-fu and its influence on dance, he uses a modern Indian Kathakali dancer to demonstrate the similarities between Indian movement styles and kung-fu. 78 Hunt, 49. 79 Hunt, 48. 80 Ng Ho, “When Legends Die,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 64. 81 Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were two of the first to begin studying Buddhism intellectually, at Columbia, then began incorporating elements of it into their lives at the urging of West Coast poet Gary Snyder. The Buddhist influence on the Beats took many forms. Snyder’s poetry was specifically patterned after the method and message of classical Chinese writing, particularly nature and humanity’s relationship to it. At the other end of the spectrum was Kerouac, whose writings showed Buddhist elements in his employment of the travel motif as a journey of personal discovery. His characters unconcern with money and personal property reflects the Buddhist dictum to avoid attachment to the temporal world. 82 Lisa Phillips, Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995): 39. 83 Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997): 113. 84 Chang Cheh, “Creating the Martial Arts Film and the Hong Kong Cinema Style,” in Hong Kong Film Archive The Making of Martial Arts Films—As Told by Film-makers and Stars. (Hong Kong: Provisional Urban Council, 1999): 16. Quoted in Hunt, 6. 85 Hunt, 6-7. 86 Teo, 112. 87 Hunt, 3. 88 Teo, 103. 89 Jeff Yang, Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Mainland Chinese Cinema (New York: Atria Books, 2003): 55. 90 From Grasshopper to Caine: Creating Kung Fu, documentary special feature included with Kung Fu The Complete First Season DVD (Warner Home Video, 2004). 91 Hunt, 67. Carradine’s plainly-Caucasian Caine is seen as Chinese by everyone in the program, however. 92 Teo, 104. 93 Hunt, 3. 94 David Desser, “The Kung Fu Craze: Hong Kong Cinema’s First American Reception,” in David Desser and Poshek Fu, eds., The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 20.
95 At least according to the series. There is the obvious exception of Bodhidharma, as well as others. 96 Esquire, v. LXXX, n. 2, August 1973. This issue had a section devoted to the growing popularity of kung-fu in the United States, but did not take it seriously and had dismissive, racist undertones. In describing kung-fu as a martial art, one article points out that it is called “gung fu in Canton, where all the Chinese in America come from anyhow” (73). The introduction to the section claimed that many Americans were now interested in studying “methods of Oriental dirty fighting,” and were “generally carrying on inscrutably,” repeating the image of Chinese as sneaky, crafty, and dishonest. The introduction concludes with these instructions in stereotypical mock-Chinese English: “To unlock the riddle of the East, is most necessary you read following honorable special report on martial arts. So?” (72). Honorable, indeed. In a final demonstration of the novelty of kung-fu, Carradine is pictured on the cover, in what looks to be a mock-up photo, in a gi, the traditional uniform of Japanese karate. 97 The Tao of Kwai Chang Caine: Production and Beyond, documentary special feature. 97 Bordwell, 93. Italics added. 98 Hunt, 67-68. 99 Richard Robinson, Kung Fu: The Peaceful Way (New York: Pyramid Books, 1974): 28, 55. Italics added. 100 David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000): 84. Bordwell’s “rising thresholds” fail to consider the long tradition of violence in American cinema, including cowboy, gangster, and war films, extending back as far as Birth of a Nation. 101 Bordwell, 50. 102 Bordwell, 84. 103 Richard Meyers, Amy Harlib, and Bill and Karen Palmer, Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1985): 11. 104 The Tao of Kwai Chang Caine: Production and Beyond, documentary special feature. 105 Bordwell, 93. Italics added. 106 Peter Nepstad, “Jiang Hu—the ‘Martial World’” in Once Upon a Time in China (48- 49): 48. 107 Nepstad, 49. 108 Lau, “Introduction,” 3. 109 Bordwell, 87. 110 Cinema/TV Today, (July 28, 1973): 11). Quoted in Hunt, 7. 111 Sek Kei, “Development,” 30. 112 Huang Fei-Hong (1847-1924) was a near-legendary doctor and martial artist in the final period of the Qing Dynasty and early years of the Republic. He was renowned as a master of multiple kung-fu forms, including ‘Iron Fist’, ‘Five Forms Fist’, ‘Tiger Vanquishing Fist’, and ‘Shadowless Kick’, as well as being a champion at ‘lion-dancing’ (he was known as ‘King of the Lions’), a ceremonial dance popular at street festivals and other entertainments. Between 1949 and 1979, at least 85 films and 13 television shows were released in Hong Kong. Yu laments that “very little information about
Huang’s actual deeds has survived,” but that did not prevent the stories from being wildly popular (sort of like a Chinese version of Daniel Boone). 113 Yu Mo-Wan, “The Prodigious Cinema of Huang Fei-Hong: An Introduction,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 82-83. 114 Yu Mo-Wan, “Prodigious Cinema,” 83. 115 Tony Rayns, “Wang Yu: The Agony and the Ecstasy,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 99. 116 This festival centered on kung-fu movies. The following year the organizers focused on the swordplay film, highlighting both the distinction made between kung-fu and wu xia films, and the degree to which kung-fu had overtaken swordplay in importance in Hong Kong cinema. 117 Ng Ho, “When the Legends Die—A Survey of the Tradition of the Southern Shaolin Monastery,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 69. 118 Teo, 99; Bordwell, 183; Hunt, 4. 119 Teo, 100. 120 Hunt, 3, 49. 121 Sek Kei, “Development,” 36. Kar also worked on Western productions before returning to Hong Kong; among other projects, he was assistant director on Man With the Golden Gun. 122 Ng Ho, “When Legends Die,” 69. 123 Cheng Jihua, History of the Development of Chinese Cinema (1963), quoted in Lau Shing-Hon, “Introduction,” 3. 124 Golden Harvest, to differentiate itself from Shaw Bros., set most of their films in the early Republican period. The settings were more recent, but the conflicts remained very similar—the villains simply switched from Manchus to Japanese. 125 Lee’s movies tangled the class struggle with issues of nationalism and racism; the villains were either foreign, or Chinese crime lords who placed their own desires above the well-being of the Chinese people. 126 Bordwell, 183. 127 Bordwell, 183. 128 Teo, 97-98. 129 Sek Kei, “Development,” 31-2. 130 Ibid, 34. Sek Kei continues, “Whether these techniques were accurately represented or not is another question.” The accuracy of the representation is not as important here as the impact of that representation. 131 Teo, 98. 132 Teo, 114. Teo expands on the link between the role of kung-fu hero and his acceptance by the audience. Other kung-fu heroes like Wang Yu (The One-Armed Swordsmen) were “conscious of [their] working-class status,” and went to great lengths to train themselves, outside of normal avenues, to prove their worth and ability (110). 133 Ng Ho, “Kung Fu Comedies: Tradition, Structure, Character,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 43. 134 Bordwell, 8. Unfortunately, there is a focus in kung-fu scholarship on visual appeal at the expense of dialogue, accompanied, even in books written by English-speakers,
77 by a disdain for dubbed dialogue. The kung-fu heroes, however, are at their most heroic when viewed in overly-dramatic dub sequences, their vaguely-British accents delivering bombastic challenges, Buddhist philosophy, and Confucian ethical pronouncements. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that very little has been written on the reception of kung-fu films in the US by non-Chinese audiences. But for our study, subtitling detracts from the ability to watch the action, and for kids used to playing the dozens and other forms of verbal braggadocio, the dub sequences provided an unending stream of fodder (which would become even more important in the word of MC’s and DJ’s). Also worth investigating is the translation of both dubbed dialogue and subtitles, and different meanings the often-botched or grammatically incorrect results hold for formally-educated critics and their audiences, youth already familiar with ultra- flexible speech patterns and usage. 135 Sek Kei, “Development,” 33-4. 136 This educational approach allows viewers entry of a sort into the world of the films, “partly facilitated by the pedagogic, initiatory narrative structures of many martial arts films. These films don’t just tell stories about learning and transmission; they are, themselves, a form of learning, an ongoing ‘education’ of the audience.” They allow “an ‘outsider’ to feel like an ‘insider’; that of the cult aficionado, the hardcore fan who knows the difference between Mantis and Crane, Shaolin and wu dang…This esoteric cult capital, often nostalgic for ‘old’ martial arts films with ‘authentic’ techniques, is sometimes transformed into new (urban) mythologies such as The Wu Tang Clan’s kung-fu-inspired hip hop or The Matrix’s cyber-mysticism.” (Hunt, 3-4) In the b-boy context, there was not so much esoteric cult capital or nostalgia, re-emergent twenty years later in the Clan or The Matrix as there was the immediate adoption and adaptation of the films’ content into contemporary life. 137 Sek Kei, “Development,” 34. 138 Eric Pellerin, “Challenge of the B-Boy Master: The Impact of Kung-Fu on Breakdancing,” http://kungfucinema.com/articles/2003-11-24-01.htm, November 24, 2003. Accessed October 12, 2005. 139 Hunt, 58. 140 Also released as Silver Fox Rivals, but not to be confused with 1982’s Rivals of the Silver Fox, a much-inferior film banking on titular similarity to the original. 141 Baker, Rick and Toby Russell, The Essential Guide to Hong Kong Movies (London: Eastern Heroes, 1994): 118. Italics added 142 Pellerin, “Challenge.” 143 Also released as Master Killer: Enter the 36th Chamber. 144 Roger Garcia, “The Autarkic World of Liu Chia-Liang,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 123. Liu Chia-Liang is the pinyin transliteration of Lau Kar-Leung’s Cantonese name. 145 Lau Kar-Fei, also popularly known as Gordon Liu, was the director’s adopted brother. His character, San Te, or San De, meaning “Three Virtues,” a name he was given after entering the monastery, was one of the historic heroes of Shaolin; his birth name was Liu Yu Te. The film—as are many of the Shaolin films—is fairly historically accurate; after completing his training as Shaolin, San Te left the monastery for Guangzhou (Canton), capital of Guangdong province, in order to continue his anti-Qing
activities. He was killed by Qing soldiers, and monks from Wudang, a rival monastery to Shaolin and an ally of the Manchus, after they attacked the Guangzhou monastery searching for him. 146 Tony Rayns, “Resilience: The Cinema of Liu Jialiang,” in Li Cheuk-to, ed., A Study of Hong Kong Cinema in the Seventies (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1984), 52. Quoted in Hunt, 62. Liu Jialiang is an alternate transliteration of Lau Kar-Leong. 147 Hunt, 63-4. 148The RZA, with Chris Norris, The Wu-Tang Manual (New York: Riverside Freestyle, 2005): 59. 149Tony Rayns makes a similar observation in “Bruce Lee: Narcissism and Nationalism,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980). Rayns concludes that Lee’s films reflect “both his strong personal drive to succeed and his desire to externalize the feelings of personal and racial inferiority that afflicted him,” and that in The Way of the Dragon in particular, “the revelation of his martial skills…is identified with his creation of a role for himself in society.” (110) His performance (martial arts) skills gave him a sense of meaning and importance.Lee’s overall approach echoes the more explicit expression of the same idea in films like Disciples of Shaolin, hammering home the point that the possession of something new, vital, and unique can elevate one in society. 150 Lau Shing-Hon, “The Tragic-Romantic Trilogy of Chang Cheh,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 91. 151 Parish, Jet Li: A Biography, 57. 152 Hunt, 102. 153 Ng Ho, “Kung Fu Comedies,” 42. 154 The Freshest Kids. 155 Sek Kei, “Development,” 36. 156 Chan Ting-Ching, “The ‘Knockabout’ Comic Kung-Fu Films of Samo Hung,” in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 149. Hung quoted in Chan, 149. 157 Lau Tai-Muk, “Conflict and Desire—Dialogues Between the Hong Kong Martial Arts Genre and Social Issues in the Past 40 Years,” in The Making of Martial Arts Films—As Told by Filmmakers and Stars (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive/Provisional Urban Council, 1999): 33. Quoted in Hunt, 16. Other authors concur. Ng Ho, in his 1980 article “Kung Fu Comedies,” explains that kung-fu films of the 1960’s were rooted in “’feudal’ virtues like benevolence, righteousness, and moral fibre.” The kung-fu comedies of the late 70’s however, abandoned these values for the ideals of capitalism: “their characters succeed through unscrupulousness, by biting the hand that feeds them, by stopping at nothing.” This change in the films “faithfully reflects a change in society: the struggle for survival.” (43) 158 Other Chan films exhibiting these qualities include Project A, the Police Story trilogy, First Strike, and—of obvious importance to the question of kung-fu and New York City, Rumble in the Bronx. 159 Chan Ting-Ching, “Knockabout,” 150. 160 Liu Shi, “Ng See-Yuen: An Interview,” Chan Ting-Ching, ed., in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980): 145. Stephen Teo and Leon
Hunt have both written on the appeal of the kung-fu film to Chinese audiences overseas. Teo points out that the ‘Chinese’ nationalism in Bruce Lee’s movies “is better understood as an abstract kind of cultural nationalism,” (111) while Hunt finds, in the Shaolin series, “a refinement of the kung-fu film’s dialogue with colonialism.” (48) Both locate nationalism and colonialism at the center of kung-fu cinema’s connection with the Chinese diasporic community. By proxy, their messages about being “cast out of paradise by aliens” (Hunt, 48) extended to those non-Chinese viewers who were able to identify with the diasporic mindset 161 Stephen Lau, ‘Life Imitates Entertainment: Home and Dislocation in the Films of Jackie Chan,’ in At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, ed. Esther C.M. Yau (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001): 126. 162 Ng Ho, “Kung Fu Comedies,” 43. 163 The dozens has a long tradition in the African-American community. African- American author and professor Mona Lisa Saloy, in "Still Laughing to Keep from Crying: Black Humor," written for the 2001 Louisiana Folklife Festival, traced the origins of the dozens to “the slave trade of New Orleans where deformed slaves--generally slaves punished with dismemberment for disobedience--were grouped in lots of a 'cheap dozen' for sale to slave owners. For a Black to be sold as part of the 'dozens' was the lowest blow possible.” Two competitors, usually male, trade insults, barbs, and jokes— “Your momma’s so fat, she broke her arm and gravy poured out,” “You’re so stupid, it takes you an hour to cook Minute Rice”—until one quits or is laughed out of the contest by the audience. It requires a broad range of references, a razor wit, and lightning- quick mental reflexes. Historically, similar verbal competitions were practiced in other cultures. A flyting in sixteenth-century Scotland was an exchange of abusive poems by poets, though the term refers generally to the exchange of insults in ancient Norse and Germanic cultures. In an interesting parallel for comparison, American cowboys in the late nineteenth century participated in cussing contests, the winners of which often were awarded new saddles. 164 Chan Ting-Ching, “Knockabout,” 150. 165 Yang, Once Upon a Time in China, 177. 166 Weisser, Asian Cult Cinema, 216; Yang, 185-6. 167 Teo, 108. 168 Sally Banes, “To the Beat, Y’all: Breaking is Hard to Do,” Village Voice XXVI, n. 17, 22-28 April, 1981, 31-33; Newsweek, 2 July 1984; Sally Banes, “Breaking,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, eds. Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004): 13-15; When Wild Style was released, it was billed in advertisements as “More vital than 100 Flashdances!” 169 Personal conversation with dance scholar and critic Sally Sommer, March 2004. 170 The same thing continues today in music videos, with such short snippets of dance moves that viewers can not tell whether the stars of the video actually can dance, or simply can get one move at a time right, and then those are strung together into a semblance of respectable performance. 171 Bordwell, 87. Italics added. 172 “Underground” is the term used to refer to hip hop groups outside the radio/music video mainstream, and denotes lack of a major-label affiliation. It is a badge of honor
for those who perform out of a love of the culture as opposed to aspirations of commercial success, and is analogous to the “indie” or “independent” reference in rock music. Both terms, however, are being increasingly co-opted by image-conscious marketing departments, and are now commonly used as buzz words by the music industry in an attempt to gain credibility or street appeal for their acts.; Jeru the Damaja, The Sun Rises in the East, 1994; Special Ed, Legal, 1990; UMCs, Fruits of Nature, 1991; Fu-Schnickens, F.U. (Don’t Take It Personal), 1992. 173 Pronounced “Rizzuh,” and interpreted as “the Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah,” a reference to the philosophy of the Five Percent Nation, a mystical, radical offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was prominent in the New York neighborhoods in which members of the Clan grew up. 174 For instance, Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, The Matrix, Charlie’s Angels, the Austin Powers series, Kung Fu Hustle, Chan’s US films, particularly Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, and recent films like Kung Fu Hustle and Ong Bak. Not to mention the obvious movies: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero (all of which, though billed and commonly referred to as kung-fu films, are actually classic examples of wu xia). 175 Teo, 109. 176 Produced in 1993, the film features a humorous scene where kung-fu hero Huang Fei-Hong, himself the subject of many films, is revisioned into the first kung-fu movie star. The film is set in Guangdong, and a friend of his arrives at Huang’s school with the first video camera in the province. After much coercing, Huang is convinced to demonstrate some forms in front of the camera. In a nod to fans who notice that many kung-fu films seem to have the fight scenes sped up for the sake of visual impressiveness, the novice cameraman undercranks the hand-powered camera, and when they gather to watch the film later at the correct speed, everyone is astounded at how blindingly fast Huang seems able to move. 177 Amy Abuko Ongiri, “’He wanted to be just like Bruce Lee’: African Americans, Kung Fu Theater and Cultural Exchange at the Margins,” Journal of Asian American Studies 5, n. 1 (February 2002): 32. 178 Hunt, 60. 179 For examples of traditional views of b-boying’s origination from these sources, see “The History of Breakdancing” in Curtis Marlow, Breakdancing (Cresskill, NJ: Starbook/Sharon Publications, 1979), and William Eric Perkins, ed., Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), in particular Robert Farris Thompson’s “Hip Hop 101” and Katrina Hazzard-Donald’s “Dance in Hip Hop Culture.” 180 Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005): 116-117. 181 Katrina Hazzard-Donald, “Dance in Hip Hop Culture,” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996): 218. 182 Quoted in Rayns, 103. Stephen Teo points out, in a selection from his PhD dissertation-in-progress posted online at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/hu.html, that Come Drink With
Me was Hu’s first “wuxia film (the swordplay and chivalry genre that predated the kung- fu martial arts cinema) but it was already marked by the director's singular reworking of wuxia conventions and themes that would establish his critical reputation and make him a master of the genre… Come Drink With Me should really be viewed as a pioneering work: a precursor of some of the themes and motifs that Hu would later develop in his next two films, Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1970-71), and whose influence would be felt in the subsequent boom of wuxia films that followed its great success at the box-office.” (Accessed September 14, 2005) 183 Pellerin, “Challenge.” 184 Hazzard-Donald, 221, 232. 185 Ongiri, 32. Other obvious links between kung-fu and African-American culture in the early 1970s include Carl Douglass’ 1974 dance hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and Rudy Ray Moore’s series of Dolemite films. In perhaps the pinnacle of all blaxploitation movies, Dolemite, a super-slick ghetto entrepreneur, demonstrates his own “pimp-fu” fighting technique. He is aided in his battles by what the movie poster billed as an “all-girl army of kung-fu killers,” employees of his strip club who have undergone martial arts training. 186 Sek Kei, “Development,” 27. 187 While the specific regional African origins of capoeira are not agreed upon, it is clear that it was brought to Brazil by African slaves by the middle of the sixteenth century. A martial art disguised as dance to prevent punishment on plantations, capoeira was practiced to prepare the mind and body for potential combat situations. Illegal for much of Brazil’s history, it was refined in Quilombos, communities of escaped slaves, and eventually traveled to New York City with Brazilian émigrés in the 1970s. See Matthias Röhrig Assunção’s recent Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art (New York: Routledge, 2005), Bira Almeida, Capoeira, a Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1986), Floyd Merrell, Capoeira and Candomble: Conformity And Resistance In Brazil (Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2005). For a study of movement in capoeira, see Kenneth Dossar, “Dancing Between Two Worlds : An Aesthetic Analysis of ‘Capoeira Angola’” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1994). 188 Ng Ho, “Kung Fu Comedies,” 45. 189 In Film Biweekly, nos. 7, 8, and 10 (April 12, April 26, and May 24, 1979) 190 Book jacket quote from review by The Source magazine; David Toop, Rap Attack 3: From African Rap to Global Hip Hop, 3d ed. (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000): 128. Toop, in a three-paragraph discussion of the influence of kung-fu films, uses the photo to drive home the story that DJ Flash, because of his skill level over other DJs of the day, was given the title “Grandmaster” Flash by his friend Joe Kid to separate him from the rest. (128) Sadly, those three paragraphs are the extent to which he considers kung-fu’s influence in his 229-page expanded third edition, hailed by hip hop magazine The Source as “the one classic standout” on the subject of hip hop history. 191 Mystery of Chess-Boxing, movie packaging. 192 Robert Farris Thompson, “Hip Hop 101,” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996): 218. 193 A similar sequence occurs in 36th Chamber, although because of the monastic setting of the film, lead character San Te spars against a host of fighting monks.
194 Garcia, “The Autarkic World of Liu Chia-Liang,” 125. 195 See Clip 1, the opening credits from Mystery of Chess Boxing, in which director Joseph Kuo pays homage to Lau’s films by displaying stars Jack Long and Yi-Min Li sparring before the movie begins, in a set that does not reappear anywhere in the film (a tiled floor resembling a giant chess board). 196 See Clip 2, from Seven Grandmasters. The two combatants face off, mixing verbal challenges and expressions of disdain with physical demonstrations of skill. 197 Bordwell, 52; Teo, 104. 198 The Freshest Kids, directed by Israel (New York: Brotherhood Films, 2002). 199 See clips 3 and 4, from Mystery of Chess Boxing. In the first, Ghostface Killer goes to extra lengths to intimidate his opponent by making sure the opponent knows the superlative style Ghostface will employ, the “Five Elements Style.” In the second, Ghostface again performs an elaborate pre-combat sequence in search of a psychological advantage. 200 “Signifying” is used here with the meaning that it holds in black discourse, particularly the sense of making fun of a person or situation. Kinetically, it is the mocking of another’s movements—an exaggerated, swishy parody of some tough-guy’s strut, for instance—and “encompasses a whole complex of expressions and gesture.” Verbally, signifying has a wide range of employment, from “the ability to talk with great innuendo, to carp, cajole, needle, and lie” in some situations, to clever circumlocution in others.— Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle…: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970): 51-52. The most thorough examination of the signifying tradition is Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying Monkey : A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). 201 Pellerin, “Challenge.” 202 The Freshest Kids, directed by Israel (New York: Brotherhood Films, 2002). 203 See Clip 5, a compilation of evasive moves used by Jack Long’s characters in both films. 204 “Everybody Dance Now,” Margaret Selby, director (New York: WNET, 1992). 205 See Clip 6. 206 The Freshest Kids, directed by Israel (New York: Brotherhood Films, 2002). For a comparison, see Clip 7, from 7 Grandmasters, a challenge to determine the superior martial artist. 207 Bordwell, 183. 208 See Clip 8, from Seven Grandmasters. Here Jack Long demonstrates a classic freeze/retreat sequence. 209 Robert Farris Thompson, “The Fresh and the Primordial: One Class from a Course on Hip-Hop History,” (Lecture notes, January 1986): 10. 210 These simple interpretations miss the significance of sexuality in kung-fu films. Stephen Teo discussed the two elements that Director Lau Kar-Leung feels a kung-fu artist mustrepresent: 1. Family, whether it be an actual group of kinsmen, or a close-knit community of fellow kung-fu fighters. 2. “Sexuality as a matter of balancing the yin and the yang elements of kung-fu (so as to execute the art with greater efficacy.” He explores the links between this yin-yang view of kung-fu and sexuality, “how masculinity
and femininity, strength and weakness, are all vital elements in the practice of kung-fu, offering a more balanced approach to the martial arts… The sheer masculine presence of kung-fu stars have led some Western critics to decipher homosexual motifs as a integral part of the genre.” (104-5) This Euro-centric interpretation is flawed in fundamental fashion, however, as both Asian films and hip hop sprang from cultures with much different views of sexuality and gender than the West. Comedy, ridicule, disdain, and homoeroticism/homophobia are common not only in kung-fu films, but in practically all aspects of hip hop culture, especially b-boying and rapping. Rappers in particular use those themes, combined with the tradition of the dozens, to belittle other rappers and boast about their own skills, virility, and superiority. 211 Seven Grandmasters, Joseph Kuo, director (Hong Kong: Hong Hwa Motion Picture Co., 1978). 212 Check Your Body at the Door, directed by Sally Sommer. Work in progress. 213 Occasionally the techniques were vertical. See Clip 8; Jack Long grasps his right ankle with his left hand, and then leaps through the loop formed by arm and leg, an obvious antecedent to the dance move later popularized by rap duo Kid ‘N Play. 214 Pellerin, “Challenge.” 215 Ibid. 216 See clips 10 and 11. The first is from Mystery of Chess Boxing. A long training sequence between the Chess Master (Jack Long) and his pupil, Long executes the move approximately one-third of the way through the clip. The second is a brief section from 36 Deadly Styles, a longer version of clip 2, and shows Long performing a similar flip to verticality as part of a more advanced sequence of movement. 217 Ibid. 218 Ongiri, 36. 219 Ibid., 35. 220 Sek Kei, “Development,” 37. 221 See clip 12, from Mystery of Chess Boxing. 222 Marshall Fishwick, The Hero, American Style (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1954): 247.
Film: Because many Hong Kong films are retitled for US release, or released at various times under different names, I have listed them by original title, followed by the first US release title if different from the original. Following production information, I have listed any other alternate release titles as listed on the Internet Movie Database (www.IMDB.com).
The Big Boss/Fists of Fury. Directed by Wei Lo. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1971. (Fists of Glory)
Blood of the Dragon. Directed by Kao Pao Shu. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1973. (Blood of the Ninja/Dangerous Chase/The Desperate Chase)
Boxer From Shantung. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1971. (Killer From Shantung/The Shantung Boxer)
Check Your Body at the Door. Directed by Sally Sommer. Documentary work-in- progress. Borrowed from director, March 2004.
Chinese Boxer. Directed by Wang Yu. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1971. (Hammer of God/Hammer of the Gods)
Disciples of Shaolin. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1975. (Invincible One/Royal Monks/The Hung Boxing Kid)
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Directed by Lau Kar-Leung. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1983. (Invincible Pole Fighter/Magnificent Pole Fighters)
Everybody Dance Now! Directed by Margaret Selby. New York: WNET, 1992.
Executioners From Shaolin. Directed by Lau Kar-Leung. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1977. (Executioners of Death/Shaolin Executioners)
Flashdance. Directed by Adrian Lyne. Hollywood, CA: Paramount, 1983.
The Freshest Kids. Directed by Israel. New York: Brotherhood Films, 2002.
Heroes Two. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1973. (Bloody Fists/Temple of the Dragon)
Jesse James. Directed by Henry King. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox, 1939.
King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death. Directed by Chang Ho Cheng. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1972. (Hand of Death/Invincible Boxer/Iron Palm)
Kung Fu—The Complete First Season. Warner Home Video, 2004.
The Mark of Zorro. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox, 1940.
Men From the Monastery. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1974. (Disciples of Death/Dragon’s Teeth)
Mystery of Chess Boxing. Directed by Joseph Kuo. Hong Kong: Hong Hwa Motion Picture Co., 1979. (Ninja Checkmate)
One-Armed Swordsman. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1967.
Private Eyes. Directed by Michael Hui. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1976.
Project A. Directed by Jackie Chan. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1983. (Pirate Patrol)
Return of the Chinese Boxer. Directed by Wang Yu. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1975.
Secret Rivals/Silver Fox Rivals. Directed by Ng See-Yuen. Hong Kong: Seasonal Film Corp., 1976.
Seven Grandmasters. Directed by Joseph Kuo. Hong Kong: Hong Hwa Motion Picture Co., 1978.
Shaolin Martial Arts. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1974. (Martial Arts of Shaolin)
Shaolin Temple. Directed by Chang Cheh. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1976. (Death Chamber)
Style Wars. Directed by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. New York: PBS, 1983.
36th Chamber of Shaolin/Shaolin Master Killer. Directed by Lau Kar-Leung. Hong Kong: Shaw Bros., 1978. (The Master Killer/The 36th Chamber/Disciples of Master Killer)
36 Deadly Styles. Directed by Joseph Kuo. Hong Kong: Hong Hwa Motion Picture Co., 1978.
Warriors Two. Directed by Sammo Hung. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1978.
Wild Style. Directed by Charlie Ahearn. New York: Charlie Ahearn, 1982.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Directed by Tsui Hark. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1983. (Zu Time Warriors)
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Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. “Identity and Betrayal: The Symbol of the Unconquered and Oscar Micheaux’s ‘Biographical Legend.’” In The Birth of Whiteness : Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Blake, Kevin S. “Zane Grey and Images of the American West.” Geographical Review 85, n. 2 (April 1995): 202-216.
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Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Bowers, Faubion. “Ah, So! Karate or Monkey Wrench?” Esquire, August 1973.
Browne, Ray B., and Marshall W. Fishwick. The Hero in Transition. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.
Campbell, Joseph A. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
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“Deadwood Dick and the Black Cowboys.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 22 (Winter 1998-1999): 30-31.
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Elkin, Frederick. “The Psychological Appeal of the Hollywood Western.” Journal of Educational Sociology 24, n. 2 (October 1950): 72-86.
Etulain, Richard, ed. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Farber, Stephen. “Kids! Now you can chop up your old comic-book heroes with your bare hands!” Esquire, August 1973.
Fishwick, Marshall. American Heroes: Myth and Reality. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1954.
------. The Hero, American Style. New York: Van Rees Press, 1969.
Frantz, Joe B., and Julian Ernest Choate, Jr. The American Cowboy: The Myth & The Reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.
Frayling, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.
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“Hopalong Cassidy: The Legend.”
Horowitz, James. They Went Thataway. New York: Dutton, 1976.
Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.
Jaeger, Werner W. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Gilbert Highet, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Jones, Daryl. The Dime Novel Western. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978.
Lau Shing-Hon. A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film. Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1980.
Linenthal, Edward Tabor. Changing images of the warrior hero in America: a history of popular symbolism. New York: E. Mellon, 1982.
McGuigan, Cathleen. “Breaking Out: America Goes Dancing.” Newsweek 2 July 1984: 46-52.
Meyers, Richard, Amy Harlib, and Bill and Karen Palmer. Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1985.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. “’When You Call Me That…’: Tall Talk and Male Hegemony in The Virginian.” PMLA 102, n. 1(January 1987): 66-77.
Morella, Joe, and Edward Z. Epstein. Rebels: The Rebel Hero in Films. New York: The Citadel Press, 1971.
Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.
“My Lai: An American Tragedy.” Time, 5 December, 1969.
“The My Lai Massacre.” Time, 28 November, 1969.
Neal, Mark Anthony, and Murray Forman, eds. That’s the Joint! : The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Ongiri, Amy Abuko. “’He wanted to be just like Bruce Lee’: African Americans, Kung Fu Theater and Cultural Exchange at the Margins.” Journal of Asian American Studies 5, n. 1 (February 2002): 31-40.
Pellerin, Eric. “Challenge of the B-Boy Master: The Impact of Kung-Fu Movies on Breakdancing.”
Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Phillips, Lisa. Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995.
Pickett, Roy. The Theme of the Hero. Dubuque, IA: WM. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1969.
Prashad, Vijay. “Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycultural Adventure.” Positions 11, n. 1 (Spring 2003): 51-90.
Reid, Craig D. “Fighting without Fighting: Film Action Fight Choreography.” Film Quarterly 47, n. 2 ( Winter 1993-1994): 30-35.
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Cutler Edwards was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1975, and has lived in Florida since the ripe old age of 6. He earned his B.A. in History in 1997 from Florida State University, with a double major in Classics, achieving the dream by taking fifteen. He is a world traveler, a jack of all trades, and a real hoot at parties. He collects classic vehicles, esoteric music, hardbound books, humorous anecdotes, and personal accolades. He discovered hip hop in 1981, a new use for non-dairy creamer in 1991, and the secret to his own happiness in 2001 (a large part of which is a healthy portion of irreverence). Upon graduation, he will split time between a dirty shoebox in a major northeastern city, and an ethereal castle in the cloud-wreathed peaks of North Carolina. One day he aspires to complete a dissertation in verse form, to beat-box accompaniment.