For the last week or longer I’ve been going through my annual Star Wars binge where I watch every movie plus all of their bonus features over and over again until inevitably someone outside has to intervene. The difference this time being that my girlfriend, a super preppy reformed teeny bopper who has never had any prior Star Wars experience is watching them with me. The original trilogy didn’t do much for her, but the prequels moved her so much emotionally that she even had nightmares of Jedi being betrayed and shot in the back by Clonetroopers like at the end of Episode III. This is all very unexpected, especially since the prequels never really did shit for me aside from Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and Yoda fighting with a lightsaber. But it sure did a lot for her. We’re constantly talking about it, analyzing it over and over again between ourselves as well as the other fans we know from work. It’s gotten to the point where I’m actually beginning to love watching the prequels. I’ve been talking about the series so much that I decided to give it the LivFic treatment.
I know that this is a little early in this column’s existence to cross from comics into movies, but I’d probably get around to doing this sometime anyway, and y’know, strike while the iron’s hot. Besides, Star Wars has been a part of the comic book medium ever since George Lucas made a deal with Stan Lee to run a Star Wars line at Marvel starting with the story of the first film. Actually it’s funny, if you look up the final issue of that series, the cover shows the whole cast waving good bye except for Chewbacca, who is drawn with his arms wrapped tenderly around a Lando Calrissian that looks more like the black Liberace. What kind of taboo man-wookie passion was Marvel hoping to delve into before the comic was cancelled? Unfortunately we’ll never find out. Maybe I’ll save that for a later column. Anyways, now the Star Wars comics are a Dark Horse thing as we all know and has been running very well for quite a long time now.
The Star Wars Saga is a universal tale of mysticism and politics, betrayal and retribution, set against a galactic backdrop. Although I have never read or seen Lucas admitting to it in an interview, the story itself seems heavily based on real events which transpired centuries ago in ancient China. The history of the Shaolin monks is one riddled with fire and prejudice. The conflict between the Shaolin sect of Buddhism and the Chinese Empire leads through several centuries, climaxing with the Boxer Rebellion, the event that more or less brought about the end of Imperial China.
Similar to the Jedi, the Shaolin were a peaceful order of Buddhist monks who specialized in a martial arts discipline called Gung Fu (Kung Fu) as a means of moving (by this I mean active) meditation, not violence. The Shaolin monastery was originally home to a very rigid, formal style of Buddhism until the arrival of the very unorthodox Buddhist monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century. He is considered the spiritual founder of the Shaolin order, bringing Zen Buddhism to the East and developing a martial arts routine for the monks which became known as Gung Fu. As time went on, the order expanded, establishing several more temples throughout the country.
Along with Ch’an/Zen Buddhism, the monks of Shaolin embraced Taoism, a school of philosophy that came from the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dow Deh Ching), a book of metaphysical poetry written around the same time that the Buddha taught. The practitioners of Taoism in China were divided between those who saw it as philosophy, and those who believed that through it they could discover magical abilities and challenge the natural flow and energy of nature. (The Force is very much based on the Taoist idea of Chi, a flowing energy source found in our bodies.) Sometimes even Shaolin monks would dabble in this “Dark Taoism”, the most famous of these monks was Pak Mei.
Pak Mei, whose name means “White Eyebrow”, would go on to betray the Shaolin order and aid the Chinese Empire in the destruction of the Shaolin Temple at Honan. This was not the only time that the Chinese Empire would be at odds with the Shaolin. Even before Pak Mei’s betrayal, the Empire saw the Order as a kind of threat; an entity completely independent from the Empire, but extremely advanced in martial arts. During the late 19th century, members of the Wutang Temple were known to be plotting to overthrow the Empire, and the temple was subsequently cut from the Order, who made a point to stay out of politics. The misguided aggression of certain confused monks would once again be called upon in the Boxer Rebellion, when several monks, many from Wutang, joined a grassroots movement to fight off the foreign nations that were controlling China at the beginning of the 20th century. During the first 50 years of that century, the Shaolin order was once again seen as a threat by any hopeful regime looking to fill the void of the Empire. It wouldn’t be long before Shaolin monks fled the country, leaving members of the order few and far between.
From what I understand, these are the facts. What we have laid before us is almost an entire myth in its own right. We see the rise of a benevolent new school of religious philosophy, combining Zen Buddhism with fantastic physical discipline. But while the Temples of Shaolin could be a sanctuary from many things, they could not keep out the ugly side of humanity. The lust for power would taint the minds of certain monks who believed that sorcery was to be found within the secrets of the Order. The armies and emperors outside the temples would feel threatened by this sect of “warrior monks” and declare them enemies. Tragedy, betrayal, loss; indeed, sometimes the best stories come from real life.
But let us indulge ourselves a little. Let’s give it some fiction. We have Master Pak Mei, A.K.A. “White Eyebrow”, the monk that falls to the twisted aspirations of “Dark Taosim” and sells his soul to the Empire. What if Pak Mei had a son? What would have happened if that son, who Pak Mei never knew about, followed the path of the Shaolin with noble intentions and became a great Shaolin monk destined to right his father’s wrongs?
As part of his deal with the Empire, when Pak Mei sold Honan Temple out in the 17th century, he was given free reign over all other Taoists, all with the hopes of finding the key to immortality. In the 18th century the Temple at Fukien was betrayed also by a man named Pak Mei, meaning that the title of “White Eyebrow” was probably passed down to leaders of subsequent Dark Taoist cults. The good thing about this is that it gives us a good excuse to fudge some dates. Or hell, let’s just say good ol’ Pak actually was immortal.
The razing of the Fukien Temple brought about the Legend of the Five Elders. Details vary in each telling of the legend, but basically it starts out with the temple burning and five elder monks escaping. These elders fanned out, teaching their fighting styles to new disciples around the country. There are many different accounts of what happened to Pak Mei, but basically a disciple comes along with a personal vendetta (the son or daughter of one of White Eyebrow’s victims) and defeats him. But that’s all legend, hardly set in stone.
Here’s the story how I see it (cue opening crawl and theme music):
In the 1600′s, Pak Mei, a powerful Shaolin master, becomes entranced by the allure of Taoist sorcery and aids the Empire in destroying a Shaolin Temple. In exchange for this betrayal he is awarded control of Taoist societies all over China. His goal is to conquer his chi and discover the key to immortality. He succeeds.
100 years later. The Shaolin Temple at Fukien is burned to the ground, once again the work of the evil Pak Mei. The abbot of annihilation, his influence is felt all across the Dark Taoist underworld. His power is so vast that even the Empire is struggling to piece together a way of dealing with him before he turns his army of magic against it.
Unknown to Pak Mei, five elder monks managed to escape Fukien and scatter across the country, teaching the secret forms of Shaolin Gung Fu to whoever has the courage and conviction to learn them. One of the five, Gee Sin, eventually takes refuge on the Red Boats of the old Chinese Opera. One member of the opera, a free-spirited young boy, catches Gee’s eye, and is taught as a disciple…
Eventually the shadowy network of Dark Taoists discovers Gee Sin’s whereabouts and reports them to Pak Mei. White Eyebrow sneaks up on Sin and his disciple while the two are practicing Gung Fu. After a long fight with Pak, Gee Sin is delivered a killing blow. Pak Mei glances over at Sin’s disciple. A bit of shock comes over him when he sees the boy, but he quickly dismisses it and vanishes. With Gee’s last words he asks his disciple to avenge his death and bring the end of Pak Mei.
The boy leaves the opera and trains under two of the other elders that escaped from Fukien all those years ago. The second of the two, Fung To-tuk teaches him how to practice Buddhism. Through Buddhism he learns to let go of the anger that has driven him for so long. He hones his skills, and when the time is right, he seeks Pak Mei out. At this time the Empire has also dispatched an assassin to kill the evil monk.
Once they’ve confronted each other on Pak’s turf, the sorcerer admits to keeping tabs on the boy ever since the night of Gee Sins death. Pak has reason to believe that the boy is his own son. Of course this is where Pak offers the young man a place at his side, and the boy throws it in his face. The two fight. The boy doesn’t wish to kill him, only to put an end to his destruction of the Shaolin way.
During the fight, the Imperial assassin launches an arrow through White Eyebrow’s chest and into the boy’s heart. Pak Mei, shocked at seeing the abrupt end of a son he never had the chance to know, kneels down next to the boy and removes the arrow. He orders his minions to find and kill whoever shot it, then reaches deep into his chi to bring the boy back from death and heal his wounds. Such an exhausting magical task has temporarily broken his spell of immortality. The wound in Pak Mei’s chest begins to bleed.
The boy regains consciousness just in time to see his father fall to his knees. Stunned, he looks up to watch the minions drag the beheaded body of the assassin over to him. They look at the boy as though he is to assume his father’s title. You see, Pak Mei was selfish and never shared his secrets with them, but the boy…maybe he will. The boy exchanges a few final words with his father, thanking him for his sacrifice, and then gets to his feet and walks away. The days of the Dark Taoists are over.
And that’s how I see it. The story has a few variations from the original events in Star Wars, but I think it does a pretty good job of reconciling them with the actual history of the Shaolin. Plus it’s enough of its own story to stand on it’s own as a pretty entertaining Kung Fu flick (I think it would be a bit much to envision it as six episodes). Of course, the reason it works so well is because the mythological themes in Star Wars have existed since humans first started telling stories; George Lucas just set them in space. Meanwhile, most fans know that a lot of Yoda’s colloquialisms are lifted from Buddhist teachings.
There are definitely people out there who enjoy learning about the different elements Lucas used as inspirations for his films; the same way fans of the Beatles love hearing the stories behind their favorite songs. Lord knows I have enough books and DVDs on both subjects to last me an immortal Taoist lifetime! I hope that all the other fans like me, who love picking the brains of their favorite creators, have been fascinated and entertained by this column. And remember- the chi will be with you… always.