The Not-So-Karate Kid

When did America fall out of love with the karate chop?

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The Karate Kid

There’s an exchange in The Karate Kid—the original 1984 film, not the remake out today—that recalls our benighted existence in the time before Wikipedia. Daniel is once again annoying his unpaid karate teacher, Mr. Miyagi, by asking a perfectly reasonable question. What are the roots of this martial art I’m learning, Daniel wonders. “Karate came from China, 16th century, called te, ‘hand,’ ” says Miyagi. “Hundred years later, Miyagi ancestors bring to Okinawa, called karate, ‘empty hand.’ ” When Daniel mentions that he “thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that,” Miyagi shoots him down. “You watch too much TV.”

Perhaps Miyagi should have watched more TV. Karate did come to Okinawa from China, but its lineage can indeed be traced to the Buddhist temples of the mainland (and stuff like that). Devoted fans of the 1980s cult classic shouldn’t expect to see a fact-checked version of this scene resurrected for the 2010 update, however. As countless blogs have pointed out, the new movie has nothing at all to do with karate: It’s set in Beijing and centers on the character-building (and bully-slapping) benefits of kung fu. The new version of Miyagi, a handyman by the name of Han played by Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, teaches young Dre (Jaden Smith) the flowing strikes and quasi-spiritual mindset of a martial art first developed in China’s Henan province, at the legendary Shaolin temple. Forget “wax on, wax off,” and karate’s emphasis on no-nonsense kicks and punches; the new kid learns about channeling and projecting your Chi, and the more varied lessons of “jacket on, jacket off … pick up jacket, drop jacket.” In fact, karate is so irrelevant to the story that the movie will reportedly be marketed as The Kung Fu Kid in non-U.S. markets.

There’s a reason they didn’t excise karate from the name altogether. The original movie pulled in roughly $200 million, adjusting for inflation, and a reboot of the franchise seems better positioned for nostalgia-driven ticket sales than updates of less successful films like Clash of the Titans, Tron, and Red Dawn. After all, 1980s pop culture was filled with improbable jump kicks and board-breaking chops performed by genuine karate champions like Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren. When we think of awesome fight scenes from the Reagan years, we picture guns kicked out of hands, waves of ninjas beaten into submission, and heroes as stoic and meditative as their mullets were long. The karate chop was part of the zeitgeist.

Times have changed. Twenty-five years later, karate barely registers in the landscape of cinematic martial arts. Action heroes these days are more likely to dismantle a goon in a whirl of broken limbs, gouged eyes, and whatever else seems most brutally efficient than to deliver a wheeling roundhouse punctuated with a mighty karate “ki-ai!” At one point in the Karate Kid remake, Dre’s mother asks him what he thought of the karate school they had just visited. When he corrects her, she says with exasperation, “Karate, kung fu, whatever!” So how did karate wind up losing the hearts and minds of our bullied youth?

The true story of karate’s development provides some clues. The art’s progenitor, Ch’uan Fa Kung Fu, was created by Buddhist monks as many as 1,500 years ago and is thought to have spread throughout China and to Okinawa after the Shaolin Temple was destroyed in the 17th or 18th century. From the beginning, the Chinese roots of Okinawan karate were explicit—te, as Miyagi explained correctly, is Japanese for “hand,” but kara was a colloquial reference to China. The art of “China hand” adapted Ch’uan Fa Kung Fu with more direct attacks and blocks, befitting the rugged farmers and fishermen who were its first practitioners.

Karate didn’t make it to Japan proper until the 1920s, thanks in large part to the marketing skills of Gichin Funakoshi. The schoolteacher-turned-sensei reconfigured the fundamentals of karate to make it more palatable—and seem less Chinese—to the Japanese. With a few deft scribbles, the character for kara was adjusted to emphasize its meaning as “open.” Funakoshi also eliminated the traditional emphasis on sickles and other tools as improvised weapons. “The Okinawans were the hillbillies of Japan,” says Phillip Skornia, a 10th-degree karate grandmaster who worked as a consultant on the original Karate Kid. “It’s literally quite hilly there. Funakoshi was an Okinawan, but he didn’t want to try to pass on the use of farming implements to upper-class students.” The new karate came with a more formalized hierarchy—of colored belts, and multiple degrees—that further eased its way into the mainstream culture of Japan.

Meanwhile, martial arts of all kinds were trickling into American life throughout the 20th century. (Teddy Roosevelt even built a special judo training gym in the White House.) But America’s obsession with exotic fighting techniques really took off in the 1960s. Once again, it was Chinese kung fu that paved the way for Japanese karate. A flood of low-budget movies from Hong Kong introduced audiences to Bruce Lee’s balletic bad-assery, and the whirling, theatrical style of fighting that often defines kung fu. By the 1970s, Lee was a superstar and David Carradine was pretending to be Chinese on the bluntly-named TV series Kung Fu. The ancient fighting style of the Shaolin monks had become Hollywood’s default martial art.

In the gyms and dojos of the West Coast, though, karate was making its move. The first American karate dojo opened in Los Angeles in 1955, and half a dozen Americans had received black belts by 1959. Westerners, Chuck Norris included, began winning major international karate championships as early as the 1960s. Norris became the face of American karate, even fighting Bruce Lee in the 1972 movie, Way of the Dragon. Lee died suddenly the following year. Norris kept making movies.

National enthusiasm for kicking people in the face was already at an all-time high, and then along came the 1980s and a full decade of obsessing over Japan. The American auto industry was under assault from Toyota and Honda, and Japanese investors were pouring as much as $20 billion per year into the commercial sector. Starting with Enter the Ninja in 1981, black-clad Japanese-inspired assassins began appearing in everything from mainstream action movies to G.I. Joe. Karate’s inherent marketability—with its ranked system of belts and crisp, white uniforms—kicked in, too. Schools spread from the cities to the suburbs, offering lessons in discipline and self-confidence to America’s children. Kung fu, by contrast, offered no specific degrees or belts and downplayed the importance of parent-friendly sparring matches. Practitioners trained in whatever clothes their teacher recommended, and there was little sense of progression or accomplishment as students advanced from one class to the next.

Full disclosure: I took kung fu as a child in the 1980s, and during tournaments, 10 or 20 of us would be relegated to a corner of the gymnasium or convention center, quietly running through our “forms” in black T-shirts and matching cotton pants. Meanwhile, the fraternity of kids in identical white uniforms would fill the space with screams and roundhouse kicks. They were pacing, glaring, preparing for war with one another. We were dancing around with our hands shaped like crane beaks or tiger claws, taking up valuable sparring space on the gym floor. In that world of after-school activities, practicing kung fu was like being goth.

Karate’s decline since then was the result of increased competition in the marketplace. According to Skoria, a flood of immigration from South Korea throughout the 1980s brought on a proliferation of Tae Kwon Do schools, which began to squeeze the karate dojos out of business. The Korean style seemed better suited to American consumers, who craved clear rewards and the opportunity for quick advancement. Tae Kwon Do offered more belts than karate, and the top ranking could be attained in as little as half the time. “It’s not that it’s better or cheaper,” says Skoria. “Americans just like the idea of being a black belt.”

Today, the American martial arts landscape is even more diverse, and karate continues to operate at the margins. Interest in so-called “mixed martial arts”—i.e., Ultimate Fighting—is surging, while Tae Kwon Do now competes with at least two other Korean styles, Hapkido and Kong Soo Do. There is no longer any single fighting technique that resonates for Americans the way karate once did. Which might be precisely why the producers of the new movie relocated the action to China, where kung fu reigns supreme.

Cynics will claim that the rebirth of The Karate Kid as a kung fu movie has everything to do with Hollywood’s new obsession with movies that play well internationally. It might also mark a new level of cultural grave-robbing, proving that no cult classic can stand up to the almighty yuan. As the Los Angeles Times points out, by setting the movie in China instead of the United States or Japan, the producers hope to penetrate a filmgoing market that’s been notoriously resistant to Western products. The Chinese government pitched in $5 million for the production costs for The Karate Kid, and the film will be one of the few U.S. movies allowed into the country this year. In other words, the new film isn’t exploring some new fad for kung fu among American youth. It’s not that some new martial art, or even a very old one, has won the day. It’s that karate lost.

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