Shaolin Monks on the Mic: Orientalism, Buddhism, and the Wu Tang Clan, Pt. 3

Martial Arts Films through African American Eyes

The 1970s saw an explosion in the popularity of martial arts films in America, tied strongly to the runaway success of the television series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a Shaolin monk in the Wild West (Hunt 67). As badly dubbed Chinese action films flooded American cinemas, a clear divide became apparent between the movies that took after Kung Fu, primarily targeting a white audience, and the “chop-sockeys”, “martial arts films [that] were frequently paired with blaxploitation films”, aimed towards the urban black market (Desser qtd in Hunt 67). The latter genre of martial arts films would come to greatly influence the Wu Tang Clan.

The Wu Tang Clan’s image and ethos comes largely from these kung fu films. The name of the group comes from the film Shaolin and Wu Tang, and individual members, such as Ghostface Killah and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, are named after characters in various other martial arts movies (Wu Tang Manual 60-64). But the influence of these films on the Wu Tang Clan is more than superficial: they shaped the group’s entire philosophy. The RZA was introduced to Eastern thought and specifically Buddhism through these movies, and they had a profound effect on him. Most notably, the Wu Tang Clan identified so strongly with The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, a film about a Buddhist monk seeking to avenge the death of his brothers, that many were moved to tears (Wu Tang Manual 62). As recounted by the RZA, the film perfectly captured what the members of the group were dealing with in their life in the projects. “Listen, we’re oppressed. It does feel like we as a people were betrayed a long time ago. I can’t really describe it in any other way. It’s real because the issues are alive with us. You’re living in the hood and you’ve got knowledge and dreams and you got wars between neighborhood and neighborhood and neighborhood” (Wu Tang Manual 62-63).

The RZA’s story reflects the way that the urban black audiences of the “chop-sockeys” related to the films on a personal level. Amy Ambugo Ongiri argues that the popularity of martial arts films among African Americans stems from their way of giving “the little guy” nearly superhuman powers (through kung fu) to battle oppression (Ongiri 35). Additionally, many Chinese martial arts films engaged with themes of colonialism and ethnic unrest, usually through stories about fighting the Manchu overlords of the Qing dynasty (Hunt 50-51). The RZA specifically draws parallels between the subjugation of the Han Chinese by the Manchu in the film The Thirty-sixth Chamber and the oppression faced by African Americans. “You had the government oppressing all the people, but the young didn’t even know they were oppressed… I could relate to that on a lot of levels” (Wu Tang Manual 59).

In the reception of martial arts films we again see the use of Orientalism by the black community to find an alternate source of identity in the face of white oppression. The cheesy, dubbed English vocals and the ridiculous personalities of 1970s kung fu films both played a big role in creating the distinctive sound and style of the Wu Tang Clan. Using Ongiri’s discussion of black Orientalism in martial arts films, we argue that this influence adds more than just camp value to the Wu Tang ethos. “Though African American popular culture utilizes much of the same kitschy commodified paraphernalia” as white representations of Eastern culture, “it operates in a radically different fashion” (Onigiri 32), providing a source of mythical power for “African Americans hungering for non-Western ritual” (Ongiri 37).

The Wu Tang Clan taps into this mystical tradition most prominently by associating themselves with the legendary monastery that is identified in folklore and myth as the birthplace of kung fu: Shaolin. Shaolin is an important symbol in the Wu Tang mythos, serving both as a slang term for Staten Island, their place of origin, and as a mystical invocation of the Orient (Tao of Wu 108-109). Notably, Sifu Shi Yan Ming, a Shaolin monk who defected to the United States and formed a Shaolin Temple in Manhattan, became the spiritual teacher and martial arts instructor of the RZA[1]. The dual meaning of Shaolin in the music of the Wu Tang Clan reflects the parallels found by the RZA between Buddhist teaching and urban black experience. What is telling is the different connotations each meaning has. Staten Island is a place of poverty, crime, and suffering: samsara made painfully tangible. The Shaolin monastery is a place of spiritual enlightenment (Tao of Wu 108-109). Equating the two locations through the Wu Tang slang speaks to the influence of Ch’an’s adoption of the teachings of The Perfection of Wisdom School (which asserts that samsara and Nirvana are one and the same) [find something to cite] on the spiritual beliefs of the RZA.

They mythical power of the Orient sought after by African American fans of martial arts films, in particular the Wu Tang Clan, is embodied in the icon of the Oriental Monk. Possessing ancient mystical wisdom and often supernatural powers, the Oriental Monk icon is identified as “the representative of an alternative spirituality that draws from the ancient wellsprings of ‘Eastern’ civilization and culture”, and is omnipresent in American popular media: from Mr. Miyagi to the Dalai Lama (Iwamura 2). Despite the positive portrayals of the figure as wise and holy, Iwamura argues that the Oriental Monk icon is emblematic of a destructive Orientalism that reinforces “implicit racial coding”, in particular a division between “black magic, white science, [and] oriental wisdom” (Iwamura 8). However, the Wu Tang Clan upturns this destructive racial identification by claiming the Oriental Monk icon as their own, and combining it with the figure of the Asiatic Black man.

The convergence of the Oriental Monk icon and the Asiatic Black man can be seen in the figure of Da’Mo, the founder of the Ch’an school, the sect of Mahayana Buddhism practiced at the Shaolin monastery and absorbed by the RZA into his syncretic spiritual philosophy. Da’Mo, also known as Bodhidharma, was an Indian monk who brought Ch’an Buddhism to China, and allegedly introduced martial arts to the Shaolin monks (Broughton). By creating the system of martial arts that would lay the groundwork for the Western archetypal portrayal of the East, Da’Mo can be seen as the original example of the Oriental Monk icon. The RZA relates the experiences of Bodhidharma to the struggles of African Americans “Da’Mo came from India and he walked to China and when he got there they discriminated against him. He was tall and dark” (Wu Tang Manual 50). The RZA goes so far as to claim that Da’Mo himself was black, “a part of the Davidian[2] tribe of Africans who migrated to South India”, and that “the martial art forms that he taught and learned were originally from the continent of Africa” (Ching).

The RZA, through his role as “the abbot” of the Wu Tang Clan, presents himself as embodying the Oriental Monk icon, while his Five Percenter beliefs simultaneously position him as an Asiatic Black man. An important figure in martial arts films, and a prime example of the Oriental Monk, the abbot is a title which the RZA claims as “the head of the temple” of the Wu Tang Clan (Wu Tang Manual 225). The RZA sees himself as Da’Mo in a way; the story of the dark skinned monk inspired the rapper to walk through the projects of New York City meditating to become aware of his true self, a project he compares to Da’Mo’s journey from India to China bearing the Ch’an teaching (Tao of Wu 101). The Ch’an Buddhist teachings of Da’Mo resonate with the RZA because they help describe his experience in the ghetto in spiritual terms. “Da’Mo observed that the lotus grows on mud… I apply Da’Mo’s wisdom to the projects. I believe the misery there brought forth a certain flower that wouldn’t have grown anywhere else” (Tao of Wu 4). The journey from suffering to enlightenment is thus viewed by RZA as parallel to the struggles of the black urban poor through the figure of Da’Mo. In another self-portrayal that uses the Oriental Monk icon as an archetype, the RZA directed, co-wrote, and starred in the kung fu film The Man with the Iron Fists. He plays Thaddeus Henry Smith, a Chinese village blacksmith who was once a slave in America, and has mystical powers and superhuman martial arts abilities due to his training with Shaolin monks (The Man with the Iron Fists). Additionally, the RZA associates himself with actual Oriental monks, cultivating a close friendship with Shaolin abbot Sifu Shi Yan Ming, and traveling to China to visit the Taoist monks of the actual Wu Tang (wu dang) mountain (Wu Tang Manual 55).

The Wu Tang Clan’s Orientalism creates a unique black identity for the group through the fusion of the Asiatic Black man of Five Percenter teachings and the Oriental monk icon that is found frequently throughout martial arts films. The appeal to the “other” of Eastern religion as a response to being “othered” goes by society goes deeper than just image however. For the Wu Tang Clan, their struggles as poor black youth in the projects find echoes in Buddhist teaching, and expression in hip-hop.

Continued in Part 4!

[1] Fascinatingly, Sifu Shi Yan Ming seems to embody the reverse of the RZA’s Orientalism: an Eastern love for American culture and way of life. Sifu “had American dreams” that led him to defect from China, and spends enjoys hobnobbing with American celebrities at parties, acting in Hollywood movies, listening to the Wu Tang Clan’s music, and flouting the monastic vow of celibacy because he is “too handsome” (Ritter).

[2] Likely a misspelling of “Dravidian”, referring to the dark-skinned inhabitants of India prior to the invasion of the Aryans.