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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 51-90

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Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu:
A Polycultural Adventure

Vijay Prashad

Kung fu is back. Jackie Chan enlivens it on the big screen, Sammo Hung on the small. Children abandon soccer practice for their dojos, adults move from Jazzercize to Billy Blanks's Tae-Bo. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five took their names from the idioms of kung fu movies, while young emcees find philosophical lessons in them (from the Wu Tang Clan to the Jeet Kune Flow of the Arsonists' Q-Unique). If Bollywood movies and culture provide "kitsch with a niche," kung fu puts the tang in Wu Tang.1 As the U.S. government conducts its war against the planet mainly on the Asian continent, from the fifth Afghan war to the presence of special forces in the Philippines and in Indonesia, with its threats against the "Axis of Evil" from Asia's far east (Korea) to its far west (Iraq and Iran), Asian artifacts emerge within U.S. society as the hallmark of the postmodern cool.

Kung fu, unlike Bollywood, has a different genealogy. It returns to the mainstream as part of the retro-1970s move among the urban hip. Those [End Page 51] who want to recall the days of Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham, 1977) also remember that Tony Manero's (John Travolta) room in the movie hosted a poster of Bruce Lee, and Travolta himself showed us that he could wield the nanchakus. You can't bring back the 1970s without Lee.

The fascination is such that in 2004, South Korean filmmaker Chul Shin is slated to release a $50 million movie billed as Lee's "comeback film." With computer graphics, Dragon Warrior will "star" a digital Bruce Lee.2

My interest in kung fu is, however, only partly in the phenomenon itself. I am interested in how an investigation of kung fu can help us move from a limited multicultural framework into an antiracist, polycultural one.

3 Many scholars have complained in recent years about the limits of multiculturalism, about how it sees cultural zones as discrete and preformed communities (black, Asian, Latino, white), with the role of the multiculturalist being that to respect the border of these zones and ask that we tolerate their practices from afar. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek polemically calls this "racism with a distance," since the benevolent multiculturalist treats "culture" as a homogeneous and ahistorical thing that can be appreciated, but that remains far outside the enclosed ambit of one's own cultural box.4 To retain this distance and sense of a self-enclosed culture, is to pretend that our histories are not already overlapping, that the borders of each of our cultures are not porous.

This "racism with a distance" ignores our mulatto history, the long waves of linkage that tie people together in ways we tend to forget. Can we think of "Indian food" (that imputed essence of the Indian subcontinent), for example, without the tomato (that fruit first harvested among the Amerindians)? Are not the Maya, then, part of contemporary "Indian culture"? Is this desire for cultural discreteness part of the bourgeois nationalist (and bourgeois diasporic) nostalgia for authenticity?

5 In search of our mulatto history, there is no end to the kinds of strange connections one can find. Of course, these links are only "strange" if we take for granted the preconceived boundaries between peoples, if we forget that the notion of Africa and Asia, for instance, is very modern and that people have created cross-fertilized histories for millennia without concern for modern geography. The linguistic ties across the Indian Ocean, for example, obviate any attempt to say that Gujarat and Tanzania are disconnected places: Swahili is the ultimate illustration [End Page 52] of our mulatto history, or what historian Robin Kelley so nicely called our "polycultural" history.6

Bloodlines, biologists now show us, are not pure, and those sociobiologists who persist in the search for a biologically determined idea of race...