The adventures of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), 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. Originally based on a movie script by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander from 1969. This series aired from 1972 to 1975 on ABC.
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. That was expressed with the regular flashback to Caine's early days in the Shaolin monastery where on top of his martial arts mastery, he learned important lessons about life from wise mentors there, especially the blind Master Po (Keye Luke).
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, Danny Caine. 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, which aired on CBS 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. In 1987, there was an attempt at a Sequel Series called Kung Fu: The Next Generation, which would have aired on CBS, but only had a pilot episode. Carradine did not return; instead it starred David Darlow as Caine's grandson who tries to turn his own son, played by Brandon Lee, away from a life of crime.
A Sequel Series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, featured Caine's Identical Grandson and his own estranged son Peter, a modern day cop. This series ran from 1993 to 1997 as part of Warner Bros' PTEN syndicated package, and does not appear to include the events of Kung Fu: The Movie or Kung Fu: The Next Generation 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 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.
There is also the series Warrior, which is based on a similar series concept that Bruce Lee developed around 1971, which began airing in 2019 on Cinemax for two seasons before moving to HBO Max for season three onwards. The following year, Greg Berlanti was tapped to produce a remake for The CW, featuring a gender-flipped Caine named Nicky Shen (played by Olivia Liang), which aired its first episode on April 2021.
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
- Affectionate Nickname: "Grasshopper," obviously. Also, Caine occasionally teasingly calls Master Po "old man."
- 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. The trope is ultimately averted, however—the next scene has him with a bandage wrapped around his chest, and it's heavily implied that Caine was only able to survive by going into a meditative trance and slowing his heartbeat, since it's often not the arrow itself that kills someone but the blood loss.
- Arrowgram: "Besieged Part Two: Cannon at the Gate." The Mole communicates with the besiegers via flaming arrow - the flame is so they can see where the arrow is headed and go pick it up after it lands.
- Asians Speaking English/Translation Convention
- Badass Boast: Kwai Chang tells a sorcerer intent on destroying Master Kan that, "You know the name of Chen Ming Kan. You will learn the name of Kwai Chang Caine."
- In the pilot episode, just after fighting off the first of many, he is warned that more bounty hunters will find him. His response? "Let them find me."
- Badass Normal: Every Shaolin monk, obviously. Caine in particular constantly shows off his combat skills against anyone foolish enough to mess with him.
- Batman Grabs a Gun: In addition to refusing to use a gun, Caine refused to ride horses, saying he didn't want to offend or hurt the horse. In the final episode, "Full Circle", Caine very reluctantly rides a horse because he needs to keep up with his brother Danny, who is also on horseback, as they dodge bounty hunters and rescue Danny's son. He tells the horse, "Forgive me."
- Berserk Button: For Caine, it would definitely be harming Master Po.
- Harming innocents in general, especially his fellow Chinese, is a great way to get yourself on the wrong end of a beating.
- But Not Too Foreign: Bruce Lee auditioned for the main lead role, but was not cast because the studio did not want an Asian man in a lead role on American Television. In 2019, Cinemax launched a series based on Lee's original project, Warrior (2019).
- Characterizing Sitting Pose: Kwai Chang Caine routinely adopts a Lotus Position sitting pose when he has nothing to do at the moment, being a Shaolin monk and a Martial Pacifist. Often, he'll sit quietly after being captured, to conserve his strength. Too late, his captors learn it was part of an I Surrender, Suckers gambit, and that they've brought a One-Man Army into their midst.
- Chevalier vs. Rogue: In an episode, Caine goes up against a ninja that a rich homesteader has in his employ. Both are contemptuous of the other.
- 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: Caine wore shoes in the pilot episode, but afterwards goes barefoot. 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.
- Doesn't Like Guns: Caine refused to use guns, often frowned on allies who use guns, and constantly disarmed gun-wielding opponents and then disposed of the gun.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: In "The Nature of Evil", the unnamed murderer assumes Caine is after him for the bounty on his head. Caine says he doesn't care about the bounty, he cares about bringing him to justice for killing a mute young man and beating a blind old man, and making sure he doesn't hurt anyone else. The murderer says he doesn't understand why Caine would care, since the people he hurt weren't related to Caine.
- Eye Scream: A Reverend (played by David Carradine's real life father, John Carradine) is staked out by Apaches with his eyes sewn open. He's permanently blinded by the time Caine rescues him.
- Fighting Series
- Flashback Echo
- Friend to All Children: It's subtle—more so than many other examples—but Caine is always friendly to and respecting of children.
- Friend to All Living Things: The Shaolin priests, obviously. When Caine gets stuck by a scorpion, his response is to smile at it as if it were a kitty cat, and later shelters it from a rockfall with his hands.
- Guns Are Worthless: Caine's mortal enemies often don't use firearms, and when they do, Caine either disarms them before they can shoot, or dodges the bullet.
- A Handful for an Eye:
- In "Blood Brother", a thug throws flour in Caine's face, but he doesn't even react and takes him down anyway.
- In "Nine Lives", Perlee throws mud in Caine's face, allowing him to tackle Caine and get a few hits in before Caine wipes himself off and regains the advantage.
- In "A Small Beheading", Captain Brandywine Gage tries to throw sand in Caine's face, but Caine blocks it with his arm.
- Handicapped Badass: The blind Master Po.
- Serenity Johnson also becomes this, to a certain extent. Which makes sense, since he was trained by the latter's student.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: Caine seldom uses a weapon when he has to fight someone, and if he disarms an opponent, he simply throws their weapon aside or breaks it. Once in a while, however, he'll briefly use an Improvised Weapon, and he does use a sword on a couple of occasions.
- Humble Goal
- Interchangeable Asian Cultures:
- In "The Assassin", Caine tries to explain the difference between a Shaolin monk and a Ninja with little comprehension from the white folk after he is mistaken for the ninja's accomplice.
- In "Barbary Coast", the corrupt businessman Vincent Corbino forces Caine to become a prizefighter. Before a match, Corbino announces Caine as "The Shanghai Kid". Caine says he's never even been to Shanghai, but Corbino dismissively says, "All Chinese come from Shanghai."
- Keep the Reward: Caine doesn't really care about money, so this is his usual reaction to being offered it. For example, in "The Stone", Caine stops a gunman from shooting Isaac Montola. Isaac thanks him and offers a huge wad of cash to compensate him, but Caine ignores it to Isaac's confusion.
- 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.
- Like a Son to Me: In the pilot episode, and practically every flashback ever, Master Po has this towards Kwai Chang.
- Lodged-Blade Recycling: Caine is shot in the back by an arrow that goes all the way through him. While clearly suffering from pain and shock, he breaks off the barb of the arrow and throws it away, then reaches behind his back to pull out the shaft, then turns to face his attacker. Shocked by his toughness, the attacker flees. Caine immediately passes out. His friends do show up in time to save his life.
- 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", the murderer survives a hanging.
- Martial Pacifist: Caine never wants trouble, but woe betide 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. So did several later episodes of the series.
- Mr. Fanservice: Caine is Tall, Dark, and Handsome, a Nice Guy, muscular, and has no problem walking around with his shirt undone. This was inevitable.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The ninja mentioned above pretends to be a simple, kindly servant. His act works well enough to fool even Caine.
- While Caine is a bit of a unique example (he doesn't actively pretend to be an idiot), most people assume that because he's a quiet, peaceful Chinaman, that he's easy prey. Big mistake.
- 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.
- Old Master: Po, to Caine.
- Master Kan, who fits the "kindly but dangerous Cool Old Guy" to a T.
- Or Was It a Dream?: A couple of episodes feature this trope, with Caine undergoing strange experiences which may or may not have been imagined/hallucinated. Of course, it was The '70s...
- Pacifism Is Cowardice:
- Caine is sometimes accused of cowardice or hypocrisy for his pacifism. The first episode even has a railroad crew chief comment on the supposed Values Dissonance of a "man of peace who can fight like ten tigers."
- In one episode, Caine joins up with a band of Mormons with the Serial Numbers Filed Off. They don't fight back even when they're attacked on their own land.
- Pilot Movie: "Kung Fu: The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon". Caine begins his journey in contention with a railroad boss. Flashbacks reveal his Shaolin beginnings.
- 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.
- The Remnant: In "The Last Raid", Kwai Chang Caine must rescue people who have been kidnapped by a Confederate soldier who still thinks the Civil War is going on.
- Searching for the Lost Relative: The Shaolin monk and Martial Pacifist Kwai Chang Caine will wander the earth in search of his brother, Daniel. He seems to always be less than a week behind Daniel in his travels, despite taking time out to help the downtrodden, like a knight errant.
- Shirtless Scene: It's amazing how many excuses the producers find to get Caine's shirt torn up or just completely off.
- Shown Their Work: The series of secret tests of character, and the final test (picking up the cauldron of burning coals and branding oneself) that Kwai Chang goes through to get into and graduate from the Temple is actually historically accurate, although if anything, it's downplayed compared to what one had to go to in order to enter and graduate from the Real Life Shaolin Temple.
- 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).
- This Is Unforgivable!: In the pilot episode, Caine is pissed off when he discovers that the bounty hunter sent to take him down is a former Shaolin priest who's working for money.
- Treacherous Advisor: One episode deals with a former mentor of Caine, who also settled in the West, having turned evil.
- Walking the Earth - Trope Namer; well, indirectly.
- Warrior Poet: Caine is a very dangerous warrior, and very serene and peaceful, befitting a Shaolin priest.
- The Western
- When You Snatch the Pebble: Quoted verbatim to make it the Trope Namer.
- Hilarious in Hindsight when you realize it takes longer for a person to close their hand than it does to snatch something from it. Go back and look at the scene, as the boy's hand is moving unusually slow to grab the pebble, like he has some sort of nerve disorder or something. You can try it yourself, the signal takes longer to reach the hand than it does the arm.
- Worthless Yellow Rocks: While Caine understands the concept of money, he doesn't really care about it and doesn't understand why people assign value to money, gold, silver, and jewels instead of useful things like food. In "The Stone", when Isaac turns murderous because he believes his diamond was stolen, Caine points out it's just a rock.
- Yellowface: Thankfully almost completely averted, with Asian characters nearly always played by Asian/Asian-American actors.