By: David Chow
History, Philosophy, and Technique
By David Chow and Richard Spangler
(Unique Publications, 1980, 228 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
It’s odd that one of the most influential kung fu artists in America is nearly forgotten today. That man is David Chow (Chow Tai-Wai), the martial arts technical advisor for about the first half of the TV series, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. He not only began Carradine’s instruction in kung fu and choreographed many of the first season's fight scenes, he played the bounty-hunting renegade Shaolin monk who challenges Kwai Chang Caine in the series' pilot movie. He is so forgotten, in fact, that his name does not appear at all in the Wikipedia article on the series, and he does not have a page of his own. And an admittedly cursory search for him online yielded almost no information aside from these few facts: He was the original technical advisor for Kung Fu, he wrote the book under consideration in this review and a couple of others that were not related to kung fu, he was a successful businessman, and he started and runs the David Chow Humanitarian Award Foundation. This is from the foundation’s website:
The David Chow Humanitarian Foundation recognizes and rewards dedicated and caring humanitarians found among charitable, religious, scientific, literary, and educational organizations worldwide that promote man’s humanity towards man whose service of unselfish giving might otherwise go unnoticed.
Note that this is not an endorsement, simply information on the author and his background. Chow’s brief bio on the site says that, after getting beat up by a youth gang when he was a boy, he vowed to never again be a victim and took up body building and kung fu. I found, however, no information at all on his martial arts background—what he studied, who he studied with, etc. Before leaving for the United States to go to college, the bio states, he was named “Mr. Hong Kong” for his bodybuilding efforts and earned recognition as a judo champion.
He came to the United States with a mere $2,400, which, through careful investment, he increased by 700%—just the beginning of a successful investment career. He subsequently went to UCLA, then the University of Southern California, where he earned a master’s degree in economics. Among his many investments, the bio claims, was the introduction of beach sandals to the U.S. market back in the day. His business acumen enabled him to retire at age twenty-seven, giving him the freedom to pursue many interests other than business and kung fu, including humanitarianism and environmentalism. And acting.
The bio says that he was the original technical expert for Kung Fu, but it does not go into the matter in any detail. Indeed, there really isn’t much on the subject, even in The Kung Fu Book of Caine, a fairly thorough look at the seminal series. He also acted in a number of other roles in film and TV, and served as martial arts technical advisor for Robert Conrad in The Wild Wild West series. It would be interesting to know how his involvement in Kung Fu transpired considering the subsequent explosion of interest in kung fu sparked by the show. There is one snipped of info on that, but that’s below.
There is even less information on co-author Richard Spengler, except that he wrote a couple of other book on non-kung-fu subjects, the most recent of which seems to be a Christian fundamentalist work. If so, he wouldn’t the the first martial arts expert to turn away from the arts, often with vitriol. (See review of Chinese Wand Exercises by Bruce L. Johnson.) It’s also a shame because I suspect that he is the predominant author of Kung Fu: History, Philosophy, and Technique, with material added by David Chow. I say largely because there is a section about midway through the book titled, “David Chow Speaks to His Students.” It can be presumed that this section was written entirely—or nearly so—by Chow, and a brief study of the style of writing, syntax, and so forth, shows marked differences between this section and the majority of the book’s text. It can be assumed, however, that Chow supervised the contents, no matter who actually wrote the text, since he was lending his name to the project—at least I’ll so assume.
Kung Fu: History, Philosophy, and Technique was initially published in 1977, five years after the Kung Fu series first appeared and two years after its final episode. Despite Chow’s involvement with both, however, there are few direct tie-ins between the two except for the title and section toward the back of the book. Aside from that, this book was simply one of a burgeoning number of martial arts volumes then appearing in English—this being one of the sort that provides an overview of an entire spectrum of the martial arts rather than being a manual for a particular style. It does manage to stand out from the pack, however, and was one of the better of its day. In fact, it still holds up, at least as far as it’s timeframe extends, particularly as a snapshot of kung fu before the martial arts tsunami struck American shores and the arts were forever altered by the media view of them, by their interchange and mixing, and by their apotheosis into the realm of universal myth.
Starting with a chapter titled “Beginnings,” the authors survey kung fu history in order of age. First up is the Paleolithic Age, when humankind first developed primitive weapons, but the story quickly jumps to the Neolithic.
Elements of the Chinese martial arts, now popularly known in the West as Kung Fu, can be traced to the Neolithic Age approximately four thousand years ago. The earliest form of martial arts appears in the story in which the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, fought and defeated his enemy, Chi You, by using classical Chinese wrestling methods.
Following this victory, kung fu fought its way onward through the Bronze Age and the development of more sophisticated weapons, to the Iron Age, when historical records became more prevalent. All along, it gained in sophistication and technique, but it was not without obstacles to growth and development, the main one being governmental oppression. In an immense instance of irony, after training his troops to use kung fu to obtain victory over his enemies, Huang Ti then banned the practice of kung fu among the public.
He prohibited the practice of martial arts, resulting from his fears the the masses might somehow rise and destroy his empire. The people were not permitted to carry weapons of any kind. As an ensuring precaution, all fighting instruments nor required by Ch’in troops were seized and melted down.
That wasn’t the first time a tyrant resorted to such measures, and it wasn’t—and won’t be—the last. The kung fu story continues on through the standard tale of Bodhidharma taking up residence at the Shaolin Temple and teaching the monks there the rudiments of kung fu, which the monks subsequently developed over the ensuing centuries into the sophisticated cluster of Shaolin fighting styles. But just because the authors tell the tales doesn’t mean they believe them, and they are scholars enough to include some of the oldest sources for the tales in detailed footnotes.
The creation and development of Shaolin kung fu then gives way to the Taoist contribution to the martial arts. This begins with a pretty good explanation of Taoism and its tenets and segues into the creation of the three major internal styles—Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-i—along with descriptions of their methodology and methods. Again, the authors recite the standard creation stories without giving them either credence or denial. The sections on Taoism include quotes from Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.
All this is pretty standard stuff concerning martial arts history, but throughout, the authors embed their story within the context of China’s own tumultuous historical development—martial, philosophical, and spiritual—giving the reader a fuller sense of where things came from and why they are like they are. They also include a large number of entertaining stories of the people, groups, and dynasties that have impacted the kung fu arts since their inception. This lends their history a definite sense of human drama on both large and small scales—much in the way that those big-screen Chinese historical epics do. There is a great deal of lore here that is well worth taking in.
Next, the authors expend a chapter on external styles, beginning with an overview, before moving on to descriptions of several specific styles. The styles they cover, in greater or lesser detail, are Northern Shaolin, Dragon, White Crane, Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Praying Mantis, Monkey, and Choy Lee Fut. In each instance, the style’s history and methodology are covered, often with entertaining stories and anecdotes, and sometimes specific techniques are touched on. What is unusual for a book on kung fu from this time period is the inclusion—and positive view—of Wing Chun, which wasn’t well-accepted in the kung fu community at the time of the book’s publication. Robert W. Smith had this to say about Wing Chun in 1999:
Wing Chun, a short-stance system featuring excessive arms, is almost unknown on the Chinese mainland, though it may still linger in Guangdong and a few other southern provinces. Bill Paul practiced it for a time until he learned that movement, body weight, and kicks would go right through it. (Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century, p. 346)
One has to wonder what Smith would make of the current Wing Chun craze sparked by Donnie Yen's Ip Man movies. Be that as it may, these sections serve to give a fairly broad overview of the range of external styles by covering styles that exhibit distinctive properties. And more lore galore.
Chin Na is the subject of the next chapter.
Chin Na has taken a firm hold as one of the leading Chinese martial arts ever since its emergence approximately 370 years ago during the Ming dynasty. Although relatively unknown in the English-speaking world due to a lack of legitimate Chin Na masters in the West, elements of this scientifically based art are included in virtually every known system of Kung Fu.
You could almost say the same thing now, forty-five years later. It’s rare to see a Tai Chi instructor showing students some of the chin na contained in Tai Chi forms. Even in cinematic martial arts—arguably the most prolific way to view martial arts in action—it’s rare to see combatants use chin na. There are notable exceptions, Tony Jaa being one. Most movie martial artists prefer to punch and kick their opponents into submission, ignoring—or at least accepting—the beating they take in return.
Back in the 1980s, I attended a couple of seminars given by Yang Jwing-ming, who is no slouch as a martial artist and who now operates a global empire of kung fu schools. During one of these seminars, a participant asked what his favorite martial art was, and Master Yang replied, “Chin na.” He then demonstrated the absolute effectiveness of chin na in overcoming and subduing attackers with a minimum of danger and effort, painfully tying them up with what seemed like shrugs and off-hand gestures.
The chapter, which is fairly long, begins with a history and overview of chin na and ends with a catalog of twenty-three specific techniques that are fairly well described in text and depicted in photos that are, I think, a little small to be helpful. But even so, you can basically tell what’s happening as Chow engages with opponents and tosses them around.
“The Dynamics of Kung” is the title of the next chapter. The authors open with:
Kung, which can be interpreted as a highly focused and potent concentration of effort, is the mental foundation behind all hand and leg techniques in Chinese self-defense. The intensification of mind growth must be emphasized if you ever hope to try master your selected style of Kung Fu. Your physical skill may appear excellent, even spectacular, but without Kung, supreme mastery is impossible.
For the authors, “kung” is both an internal force/ability and specific practices to enhance and control that force/ability. Over the course of forty-two pages, they explicate the concept of kung in two sections. The first lays out the foundation for kung and its two major types—soft and hard—and gives practical advice for developing and increasing kung. This entails the introduction of the concept of chi and the mental aspects of the martial arts.
The second, and longer, part of of the chapter is a catalog of seventeen kungs that can be developed. I’m not going to name them all, but suffice it to say that most are staples of the more fantastic examples of kung fu cinema: projecting chi across space, climbing walls like spiders, performing impossible balancing acts, and kicking trees until they fall down. There’s even Head Kung, which consists of repeatedly banging one’s head against a wall until the cranium becomes a deadly weapon—which seems like a particularly senseless practice to me. The final kung is chi kung, and most of this section consists of photos of people doing amazing chi-kung things—mostly feats of breaking, but not excluding exhibiting imperviousness to pain or extreme flexibility. There is no real discussion of chi kung as a daily practice for either general well-being or specific health concerns.
If it sounds like I’m making fun of this section…, well, I am, a little. I mean, if you think Marvel super hero kung fu magic is real, you might be inclined to view this section of the book as gospel. I’m not so marked, but that doesn’t mean I’m without gratitude for the contents. They depict some of the lore surrounding kung fu in the days before martial arts cinema really exploded a few years later and milked that lore to the fullest, unleashing it on audiences around the world. (Should I say, “contaminating audiences?”)
Kung fu in movies and TV occupies the next chapter, and in a sense, I have the same gratitude here as I just mentioned for the lore, because it presents a clear picture of the state of martial arts cinema at the time of the book’s publication. Martial arts cinema was experiencing its first explosion following the appearance of Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu series, and it has experienced several other lesser explosions since, often sparked by martial arts cinema, such as Yen's Ip Man films, which as noted above, drew significant attention to and support of the art of Wing Chun—Robert Smith’s criticism notwithstanding.
The authors’ history of kung fu cinema begins with its roots in Chinese theater and opera and works its way through early silent kung fu films, most of which are now lost. These eventually developed into the chop-socky exploits that spread mayhem across Chinese movie screens and Saturday afternoon American TV in the 1980s. These, in turn, met their final opponent in Bruce Lee, who kicked them off the screen and replaced them with more dynamic and realistic action tied to entertaining modern plots. After a little faltering while competent martial artists who also could act gradually appeared to fill the talent void, this trend changed martial arts film forever. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to find any thriller or action-adventure film that doesn’t display martial arts, often prominently.
The other significant media influence on the explosion of interest in kung fu at the time—and of personal significance to Chow—was the Kung Fu series, which earns its own description in the book. Chow, however, does not go into detail on how he got involved in the show. What he does do is discuss the concept of the series and the Bruce Lee connection, including the sometimes controversial hiring of David Carradine. He was there, so his perspective should have weight in that discussion. Chow then tells how the producers wanted authenticity not just in the fighting, but also with regards to the Chinese philosophy espoused by Caine. This, Chow says, is what led to his hiring. The long and short of it is that he became the kung fu and Chinese philosophy expert on the show because he knew somebody who knew somebody.
It is impossible to accurately gauge the influence that Kung Fu, along with Bruce Lee, had on the martial arts in the West, but certainly, this manner of choosing Chow to be the technical expert was a pretty offhand way for him to gain the sort of unrecognized influence that he had on the show—at least in the beginning—and thus on the development of kung fu in the West.
The next section regards yet another sort of display of kung fu skills that also was then making inroads into the West: Wu Shu troops traveling the world and awing audiences with their amazing abilities that were real-life and did not depend on cinematic magic. Such demonstrations are fairly common these days, but not so back then.
A chapter on the Westernization of kung fu is next, consisting of a fairly in-depth review of the state of kung fun in the U.S. at the time of publication. Again, as such, it is of some historical value in being a snapshot of a seed that has since produced forests.
The last chapter consists of several pages of brief quotes, often poetic, on kung fu. None are attributed. The book ends with photos of the various authors, contributors, demonstrators, and so forth involved in the production of the book. The final element is a decent index.
Even aside from its historical interest, the book is well written, entertaining, knowledgable, and thorough without being pedantic or dogmatic. Other book-length surveys of martial arts are on the market, but if you want the basics about kung fu, this one will do the trick nicely.