The adventures of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-white/half-Chinese Shaolin monk wandering throughout the Wild West, helping people along the way with sage wisdom for the good people and devastating expertise in martial arts for the bad ones.
When it premiered, it was a unique Western series with a half-Asian lead character (albeit played by an actor with no Asian ancestry) who refused to use a gun and looked out for the innocent, especially the minority groups that the genre typically ignored. The emphasis of the series was very much on philosophy, particularly Eastern philosophy, rather than gunplay.
While it has elements of a Stern Chase (given that he is wanted for killing the Chinese Emperor's nephew after he fatally shot his beloved master in cold blood), it was usually not a pressing matter for the character outside the occasional Bounty Hunter. Caine is also a stern chaser, looking for his half brother. He often enters a town only a few days after his brother has left it.
It has since become seen as the archetypical Walking the Earth show with a wandering adventurer who has higher spiritual aspirations, but is still ready to get tough when called for. Some of its dialogue became cliches in their own right (calling students "Grasshopper", and "When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave" are two of the best known of these).
There was a made-for-TV movie called simply Kung Fu: The Movie released in 1986 as a sequel. In addition to Carradine and Keye Luke, the movie starred a pre-fame Brandon Lee as Caine's lost illegitimate son and Mako as the father of the royal nephew that Caine killed, using Caine's son as the instrument of his revenge. A Sequel Series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, featured Caine's Identical Grandson and his own estranged son, a modern day cop. This series does not appear to include the events of Kung Fu: The Movie in its continuity. It lasted longer than its namesake, though it failed to gain nearly so much attention. Kung Fu 3D was a series of 12 Webisodes hosted on the Warner Brothers website in 1999; while it featured a character named Kwai Chang Caine voiced by David Carradine, it deviated from the show's canon. Caine is left on the temple's steps by his mother as a baby, and he is in search of his father instead of his brother. The web series had No Ending.
Either invented or introduced the concept of a kung-fu Western to...well, Western audiences.
If you're looking for martial arts tropes, see This Index Knows Kung-Fu.
The original series provides examples of:
- Adventure Towns
- Annoying Arrows: In one episode, one of Caine's enemies (the henchman of a Tong killer) attempts to assassinate Caine (before a commercial break, of course), by shooting him in the back with an arrow while he is meditating. In a later scene after the commercial break, Caine pulls what is probably one of his finer moments by confronting his assailant, reaching around, pulling the arrow out of his back, and then contemptuously throwing the arrow at his enemy's feet.
- Asians Speaking English/Translation Convention
- Badass Family: The Caines, naturally.
- Badass Normal: Every Shaolin monk, obviously.
- Bald of Awesome: All the monks in the monastery, including Caine before he left.
- But Not Too Foreign: Bruce Lee originally came up with the concept of the show with the intent casting himself as the main lead, but was not cast because the studio did not want an Asian man in a lead role on American Television.
- Catch-Phrase: "Grasshopper" among others.
- Dissonant Serenity: In one episode, Caine is traveling some settlers who are going into hazardous territory. Along the way, Caine is playing his flute and one of the settler asks why he is doing that when they don't know what fate they will be facing. At that, Caine asks, "If I stop playing, will that fate change?"
- Does Not Like Shoes: One of the only times Caine wears footwear is to attend a wedding.
- Conveniently for the stuntman, Caine is wearing shoes on the occasion when he walks through a pit of rattlesnakes.
- Eye Scream: David Carradine's real life father John Carradine makes an appearance as a reverend who's staked out by Apaches with his eyes sewn open. He's permanently blinded by the time Caine rescues him.
- Fighting Series
- Flashback Echo
- Handicapped Badass: The blind Master Po.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: Caine never uses a weapon when he has to fight someone, and if he disarms an opponent, he simply throws their weapon aside or breaks it.
- Humble Goal
- Koan. Well yes, naturally.
- Last-Name Basis: Caine introduces himself as "I am Caine," and people call him Caine. However, when he finally finds his brother (and nephew he didn't know he had) before letting them know that he's related, he introduces himself as Kwai Chang.
- The Lightfooted: As a child, Kwai Chang Caine's mentor challenged him to walk a long sheet of delicate rice paper unrolled across the temple floor. He moved as carefully as he could, but still left a trail of rips and footprints. After years of Shaolin training and study, he successfully made the crossing without damaging the rice paper.
- Magical Asian: Masters Po and Kan to Caine, and Caine himself to most white people he meets.
- The Man They Couldn't Hang: In "The Nature of Evil".
- Martial Pacifist: Caine never wants trouble, but woe be anyone who forces him to fight.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Kung Fu: The Movie includes many elements that straddle the line between Chinese mysticism and outright magic.
- Noiseless Walker: Shaolin Priests are trained to walk silently.Master Kan: Your tread must be light and sure, as though your path were upon rice paper. It is said, a Shaolin priest can walk through walls. Looked for...he can not be seen. Listened for ... he can not be heard. Touched ... can not be felt. This rice paper is the test. Fragile as the wings of the dragon fly, clinging as the cocoon of the silk worm. When you can walk its length and leave no trace, you will have learned.
- Punishment Box: Caine finds himself in a two-man Box, and teaches the other man in the box to meditate so as to avoid the torturous aspects of being in the box. The guards & other prisoners are amazed that they're able to leave under their own power instead of being carried out.
- Stern Chase
- Strictly Formula: In a lot of episodes Caine basically goes to a town, townspeople either don't like him or have initial misgivings about him, finds open-minded ally, finds enemy, must fight, makes monk-ly decision concerning friend and enemy, flashback to the power of five, win fight, credits roll. (The producers eventually mixed this up a bit, with some later episodes set entirely in China.)
- Walking the Earth - Trope Namer; well, indirectly.
- Warrior Poet
- The Western
- When You Snatch the Pebble: This is the Trope Namer.
- Yellowface: Thankfully almost completely averted, with Asian characters played by nearly always plaed by Asian/Asian-American actors.
The Legend Continues adds:
- Arbitrary Skepticism: In The Legend Continues, Peter often frowned on the idea of supernatural phenomenon being the cause of the episode's case. Even after they had often faced various such phenomena up close.
- BFG: Kermit's Desert Eagle pistol.
- Boring Invincible Hero: Caine becomes this after the first season, for the most part.
- By-the-Book Cop: In the first season of The Legend Continues, Peter often disapproved of his father's interference in police investigations. By the time he himself re-learned his own childhood martial arts training, he began to value Caine's assistance more.
- City with No Name: The city is never named. Fans called it Sloansville after the writer Micheal Sloan.
- Borders on Canada Does Not Exist. The setting is supposed to be an anonymous American city, which is supported by the occurrence of American flags and mailboxes, but bears a striking resemblance to Toronto, in and near which the show was filmed. For example, Toronto's Chinatown is quite recognizable, and the front of the actual Toronto coroner's office is used. In "Reunion", a radio broadcast makes a reference to the Gardiner Expressway, an actual local landmark. Even some Canadian money has been spotted on the show.
- Crazy Survivalist: Gant in Dragon's Eye is a Vet that is clearly suffering from PTSD and tries to keep hold of an area of forest.
- Dirty Cop: Used occasionally, most notably in The Lacquered Box, where 2 dirty cops try to get Peter killed.
- Dress Hits Floor: In the pilot episode, Marilyn (a woman who asks Kwai-Chang Caine for help) is brought to the offices of the crime lord Tan, and is told to take her clothes off. Her dress drops to the floor just before she kisses Tan and then slaps him across the face.
- Enlightenment Superpowers: Unlike the original series, many of this series' stories revolve around outright supernatural plot-lines. Caine himself gains magical powers from his Shao-Lin training.
- Friend on the Force: Several of the cops in The Legend Continues, although most of them simply couldn't figure out the senior Caine at all. Peter himself was this for his father.
- Grand Finale: In the final story arc of the series, Peter finally completes his training and becomes a full Shaolin monk, resigning from the police force to pursue that calling full-time. Kwai Chang is granted the status of a Shambala Master and leaves Peter in order to continue his wandering and find out if his wife is still alive. The final scene between father and son concludes when Peter snatches the pebble from Kwai Chang's hand.
- HeelFace Turn: A former gang member in Sacred Trust makes it sound like he's turned away from that life, but he ends up killing another gang member in cold blood and trying to kill Peter, later.
- Hotter and Sexier: The international version of the pilot has a couple scenes in a strip club with all the boobage that implies.
- I Am Not My Father: Peter cites this trope in The Legend Continues, during the first season's opening sequence:Peter: Look, I'm not my father. I don't do kung fu. I'm a cop. That's who I am; that's what I do.
- Very nearly subverted in the Season 3 finale, when Peter undergoes the full Shaolin training regimen but stops just short of finishing it. The subversion is completed in the series finale; he takes the tiger/dragon brands, becoming a Shaolin priest, and turns in his badge.
- Identical Grandson: Kwai Chang Caine from The Legend Continues, grandson of Kwai Chang from the original series. Both played by David Carradine, and both half-Chinese. Implied on occasion to actually be the same man.
- David Carradine also played Matthew Caine, Kwai Chang's son & Kwai Chang II's father, in an episode or two of TLC.
- People were disappointed that a young Kwai Chang Caine wasn't played by Chris Potter in Tournament.
- Ice-Cream Koan in the Pilot Movie for Kung Fu: The Legend Continues when Peter quotes his father back to him.
- Peter: "Ah yes. Darkness shall overcome the light," as you would say. "But splinters of black will easily be crushed. The illumination of one candle shall forever touch mankind's luminous spirit."Kwai Chang: I never said anything like that. means absolutely nothing.Peter: I know. Sounded great though, didn't it?
- Levitating Lotus Position: Kwai Chang Caine did this sometimes while meditating in The Legend Continues.
- The Magnificent Seven Samurai: The Legend Continues had an episode called "Dragonswing", where Caine and Peter assemble a team of Shao Lin alumni to help a friend rescue his girlfriend from the thugs who've taken over his Northwestern town. Robert Vaughn guest-starred as Rykker, a mercenary very similar to his Magnificent Seven character.
- Nested Story: The Lacquered Box is Caine flashing back to a previous instance when Peter was injured as Peter is in the hospital after being shot.
- Reference Overdosed/Waxing Lyrical: In a Running Gag throughout the series, Caine frequently quotes a piece of insight to another character, usually Peter, who invariably guesses that it's from an Eastern philosopher. Caine then reveals that it comes from a modern celebrity, very often a direct quote from a popular song.
- Speaks In Shoutouts: The perp in "Secret Place" speaks by quoting famous movie stars' roles.
- Supernatural Martial Arts: More and more in the later seasons.
- Took a Level in Badass: In one of the early episodes of The Legend Continues, Peter's in a bind against the Villain of the Week, who's beating the crap out of him like nobody's business. Then he instinctively taps into his forgotten kung fu skills via Groin Attack. The next season would focus on him gradually re-learning everything he'd been taught as a child.
- He takes it further, when he and Kermit are surrounded by bad guys with guns, he uses his father's Pyrokinetic ability to heat their guns before making a quick escape.