Saturday, March 12, 2011

KWOON BY CHARLES JOHNSON: An Explanation of a short story.

I’ve been a martial arts practitioner since I was 19-years-old, and my sense of who I am--and what I can do---was shaped early on by the demands of martial arts training. So inevitably that side of my life crops up in my stories and novels. In Middle Passage, Rutherford Calhoun learns a version of capoeira from the African (Allmuseri) tribe during their voyage on a slave ship; in Dreamer, Chaym Smith teaches the narrator Matthew Bishop a short, Yang-style Tai Chi Chaun form (one that I do every day). The first of the six unpublished novels (1970-72) I wrote before Faith and the Good Thing was about my teenage experience in a rough, Chicago kwoon in 1967 during that city’s Dojo Wars. It had the working title The Last Liberation, first  because Asian martial arts in China and Japan are infused with Buddhist principles; and, secondly, because even in 1970 I saw a Buddhist life of ahima or harmlessness to all sentient beings, and the transcendence of dualism and the “self” as being the logical, final stage of the black liberation struggle (and of all human struggles).

Nevertheless,  I’ve always found the writing of martial art-based stories to be challenging, and so have published only two, “China” and “Kwoon,” which are among my most reprinted and anthologized short stories.  What makes this kind of story challenging, at least for me, is that a writer needs to find in the world of the Asian martial arts “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as William Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech. The story can’t just be about fighting.  Ang Lee’s film, “Pushing Hands,” does a good job, I believe, of showing us the heart of an elderly China man transported to America, who just happens to be a deadly, Tai Chi master.

 In “Kwoon,” the young martial arts teacher David Lewis is running the best kind of kung-fu studio, one where his clients learn to fight, yes, but the true objective he wants to achieve for his younger students is character-building. In other words, the not-so-hidden agenda of martial arts training is for a good life based on discipline, self-control, confidence, maturity, responsibility, and the fulfillment of one’s duties to others. There is no whining in the kwoon. No self-indulgence. You go out on the deck in, say, a school for Japanese or Korean karate, just wearing your clean coat and pants and present to the world your hard-earned, individual skills, which are represented simply by the color of the belt you are wearing. (One meaning of “kung-fu” or gung fu” is hard work.) Out there on the deck as you face your opponent, your family’s history or pedigree are unimportant. Your economic class or bank account is unimportant. Your race and gender or cultural background are unimportant. Your academic degrees or any awards or prizes you've received or books you may have published are unimportant. Your job outside the school is unimportant. Whether you are tall, short or average in height, beautiful or ugly (as the world outside the kwoon judges things) is unimportant.

Your past accomplishments and failures are unimportant. Whether you feel healthy or sick that day doesn't matter. Your personal problems don't matter. All that matters is what you can do. Right here, right now. Nothing else matters. The ultimate opponent you are facing on the deck is yourself. For as the famous passage says in Chapter VIII, verses 104-105 in The Dhammapada, “If one man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, and if another conquers himself, he is the greatest of conquerors…One’s own self conquered is better the conquest of all other people.”

 That’s the kind of school David Lewis is trying to run. But into his life comes a “student” named Ed Morgan whose martial arts background is not only vaster than David’s, but Morgan is a killer. He’s killed many men. He knows how easy that is to do. The story’s external or surface conflict, then, centers on the vicious drubbing Morgan gives David in front of his own students, most of whom decide they now want to study with Morgan. David has to find a way to redeem himself and the civilized values he’s tried to teach in his studio, to “save face,” and also save his school, which is his only livelihood. More importantly, he must learn to overcome his own arrogance, ego, pride, and---as a good teacher---find a way to be of service to even a cynical, misanthropic man like Ed Morgan, who believes everyone in America is a phony, a fraud and a charlatan. 

Among those who stick by David’s side during this trial is Elizabeth, his beautiful and most advanced student, whom he achingly desires, though he will not reveal that to her because “unlike some teachers he knew, his policy was to take whatever he felt for a student---the erotic electricity that sometimes arose---and transform it into harder teaching, more time spent on giving them their money’s worth.”  As one might guess, this was my approach during my more than 30 years of teaching, for all around me in the academic and art worlds I saw professors, male and female, sleeping with their students, a practice I could not morally (or professionally) approve.

 By the end of “Kwoon,” both David Lewis and Ed Morgan are transformed, “reborn” (one might say) as new people.


  1. What I value most in these comments is the emphasis on David's response to the brutal beating he suffers at Ed Morgan's hands: not only does he turn this into a "teaching moment," but it becomes his opportunity to, as Johnson says above, "find a way to be of service" to his very attacker. (We might even say he offers him his other cheek.) This is the essence of the martial arts, and also of great teaching, and also of love. All are expressed in this subtle story.

    I'm impressed by how many moral subtexts are at work here--even David's refusal to compromise himself as teacher, and Elizabeth as student, by confusing their roles as lovers. The story expresses Lao Tzu's great dictum: "Knowing others is wisdom, knowing oneself is enlightenment."

  2. I literally stumbled across this story today and I really want to share it with my friends. I have a blog as well, and I would love to share it there. Is this at all possible? Please msg me if you are interested.

    Thanks for your time.

  3. I read this story years ago and was thoroughly impressed. It's a good read with a great message for those who have studied martial arts.

    The last line, telling us how Morgan bowed "deepest of all" to Daniel is simply brilliant.

  4. For me, 'Kwoon' is up there with 'Ole Yeller' as a tear jerker.