Struck by the television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine and the thrilling and realistically choreographed fight scenes in Bruce Lee’s movies such as Enter the Dragon, many people have harbored the dream of giving it all up, moving to China, and training in the martial arts with the Shaolin monks. Most don’t follow through on this dream, however, for whatever reasons - the expense, facing the unknown, possibly ignorance of the language and culture, etc. We are provided with a vicarious taste of what that sort of life is like in Matthew Polly’s extremely entertaining fists-of-fury memoir, American Shaolin, in which he describes his transition from a “ninety-eight-pound weakling” to winning a silver medal in sanda, or Chinese kick-boxing.
In order to pursue his dream, and to check off items on his constantly updated “THINGS THAT ARE WRONG WITH MATT” list, Polly relates that he left college after his junior year and headed to China in 1992. Even when he landed there, he questioned himself about whether what he was doing was a smart move or not. The dialect the cabbie spoke was unfamiliar to him, making this stranger in a strange land, the laowai (white foreigner) Matthew Polly wonder if he’d somehow gotten on the wrong plane:
The jet lag was affecting me like extremely strong pot - my body felt dense and heavy,
my mind was disoriented and paranoid. Where was I? Was this China? Did I get on
the wrong connecting flight in Narnia?
The original Shaolin Temple, Matthew discovers, was burnt down by the Japanese in WWII, but it had been rebuilt. When he lays eyes on it for the first time, he has mixed feelings about it. It’s exciting and cool to see something in person that you’ve seen portrayed in countless chop-socky flicks, but far from being an isolated citadel populated by religious ascetics, it’s more like a tourist trap run by Communist hacks. A whole village has been built up surrounding the temple, complete with a hotel, restaurants, and vendors selling t-shirts, kung fu weapons, and pottery cats that make a “mao” sound when you pull a string.
Polly’s account of the two years he spent training with the monks is often humorous but always page-turning and engaging story of martial arts, culture clash, and personal transformation. Though he considers at times giving up and going home, he perseveres in his training and eventually becomes good enough to represent the Temple in challenge matches and an international competition in sanda. Along the way, he makes friends with several of the monks, such as Coach Dequing, his main kung fu instructor, and Coach Chen, his instructor in sanda.
One of the most interesting aspects of reading American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China is the mention of the “iron kung fu” discipline, in which intensive training and the channeling of one’s life force, or qui, can cause various body parts to become almost indestructible - yes, even the crotch, as the subtitle states. A monk Polly calls Monk Dong (for obvious reasons) could be kicked in the family jewels without apparent damage being done to him and pull 500-pound wagon with his John Thomas. This makes him a stud with the ladies, despite his relatively unattractive looks.
American Shaolin has been recommended by people ranging in diversity from P.J. O’Rourke to Dan Rather. I will admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from it at first, though the title sounded intriguing to me and I like reading about martial arts. I thought it could be either very good or very cheesy. I was glad to find it to be the former, and a memoir that is one of the best I’ve ever read. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes reading good memoirs written with a sense of humor, stories of personal transformation and growth, and martial arts enthusiasts.