OPINION> Patrick Whiteley
Chill, Grasshopper: Understanding China takes time
By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-06-15 07:41

Chill, Grasshopper: Understanding China takes time

Little Stumpy Mobbs charges me like a wounded bull, swinging his arms, kicking his legs and screaming "Ah yaaaa!" I duck from his crazy moves before striking back. He tumbles, but rebounds taunting me with the sign of the praying mantis - a sign of certain death.

"Ah Grasshopper," my 8-year-old schoolmate replies.

"I have taught you a lot, but now the student must submit to the master."

In the mid 1970s, millions of kids like me were hooked on the genre breaking martial arts/western TV show Kung Fu, starring the recently departed David Carradine.

May he rest in peace.

Kung Fu was one of the most influential English-language TV shows to reveal the mysteries of old China. At that time, China was still caught in the fog of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and was not widely accessible to the rest of the world.

Kung Fu transported me, and countless millions of other children, into the world of Chinese culture for the very first time, a world of ancient wisdom and roundhouse sidekicks.

These first impressions were long lasting, and on reflection, I packed many of these boyhood memories into my suitcase when I moved to China three years ago.

Carradine played a Shaolin monk by the name of Kwai Chang Kaine (aka Grasshopper), who escaped to America's wild west in the 1800s after killing the Chinese emperor's nephew.

Grasshopper's daily routine was beating up bad cowboys and passing on his Buddhist philosophy to those in need. "Ah Grasshopper!" was a phrase bandied around school grounds before you clobbered your classmate before ending up in detention.

Each Kung Fu episode contained a flashback to the Shaolin Temple where Kaine would recall a pearl of wisdom from the old Buddhist master Po.

"Patience, Grasshopper. An angry man is only a fearful man. Conquer your fears and you can conquer everything."

Kaine would pass this knowledge to a farmer being terrorized by the bad guys. Kaine would then systematically kick all their butts.

For most people under 30, Carradine is best known for his role of Bill in Quentin Tarrantino's Kill Bill movies, in which he makes fun of his Kung Fu persona. The flute-playing scene where he tells the story of the five-finger death punch is a classic example.

Carradine appeared in more than 200 movies but for me, the 72-year-old American will always be Kung Fu, one of the most influential ambassadors of Chinese culture to the West.

Grasshopper was a nice guy and tried to help people whenever he could in between opening a can of whoop ass. The fact he wasn't Chinese makes this role a little strange.

I came to China with many preconceptions, which began with Kung Fu, but have developed a much fuller understanding, discovering so much diversity in view points, customs and even physical appearances.

But I've only scratched the surface, and the Middle Kingdom, as the old China hands will tell you, is always a work in progress.