Thursday, June 11, 2009

Asia Stuff: Death of David Carradine


Recently David Carradine, the star of many films as well as the classic TV show "Kung Fu," passed away recently under ugly circumstances. Although the evidence points to suicide or an accident involving auto-erotoasphyxiation, his survivors have been spreading the idea that the death was neither of these. Instead, they claim, it could have been the work of a mysterious, kung fu, secret society that Carradine was trying to infiltrate.

As the author of a book on Chinese secret societies, etc., a regular reader and occasional small contributor to "The Journal of Asian Martial Arts," a scholarly magazine devoted to the subject, holder of an MA in Asian Studies from Cornell, who has lived in Taiwan for four years and traveled in much of Asia, and am also someone who has done extensive reading, dabbling, and study of the martial arts, I am afraid that the "He was killed by a martial arts secret society" explanation makes no sense to me. I wish I had better news for his family and fans. (And truth be told, how could I not be considered a fan of the man who played the role of racer Frankinstein in the classic film, "Deathrace 2000," a film I consider to be the ultimate b-movie of all time.)

Instead I have a series of questions I'd like answered before I am able to take this claim seriously. Question one would be "What sort of 'kung fu secret society' was he trying to uncover? Why were they secret? What were the benefits gained by this secrecy? What was the economic focus of the society's activities? Are we referring to gangsters of some kind or a religious sect or something else? What are the benefits that members gain from joining?"

There are many very fundamental questions that need to be asked for this to be considered as a plausible theory. Of course, it makes good fiction and an exciting story. And it does fit in with the mystique that kung fu and martial arts in general had in the 1970s when Carradine's classic show was at its peak, new and exciting and taking America by storm with its combination of side kicks and philosophical musings.

Paralells to Bruce Lee's unexpected, early, still not completely solved death and the sensationalized claims surounding it are, of course, to be expected. But I'm also reminded of Frank Dux ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Dux ) and his claims. [Dux was the man whose alleged "true story" formed the basis for the Jean Claude Van Damme film "Bloodsport" which dealt with an underground full-contact martial arts tournament in which the best martial artists in the world compete. Although I love this film and have seen it several times, I consider it fiction, although well done, action, martial arts movie fiction. Apparently Dux is the only person anywhere who has heard of the tournament, which may explain why he won, or at least claims to have won.)

All in all, I wish I had better news for Carradine's fans, and I sympathize with his family and mourn the loss of a man who provided entertainment and new horizons to so many people.
It's curious to wonder what the state of martial arts in America today would be without the unsophisticated portrayals of the arts that Carradine and others gave us in the 1970s. Although these often seem almost laughable today, without them there may never have been enough interest in the arts to develop the more sophisticated, mature view of the arts that many today have developed.

Unfortunately I cannot endorse this theory surrounding Carradine's death.

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For those interested, the image above came from The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu cover gallery website.

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