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CULTURE AND COMEDY. Baotong, author Matthew Polly’s sparring partner, practices his kick.
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #34 (August 21, 2007), page 16.
A journey to the center of the self
American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks,
By Matthew Polly
Gotham Books, 2007
Hardcover, 366 pages, $26.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
If you wanted to beef up your physique or feel tougher, you might get a gym membership or take a class in karate. Not Matthew Polly, a Princeton junior who’d seen a few too many martial arts movies. Determined to shed his 90-pound-weakling status, Polly decided to learn kung fu from the source: China’s legendary Shaolin temple. Thoughtful, revealing, and laugh-out-loud hysterical, American Shaolin takes us along with Polly on his quest for physical (and spiritual) strength, a wacky journey into rural China that also traces Polly’s own path to manhood.
The Shaolin temple is the historical birthplace of the Chinese martial art of kung fu, one of the oldest forms of unarmed combat still around today. Featured prominently in both legend and popular culture, the temple is the destination of many pilgrimages by fighters past and present, so Polly’s interest in it is understandable. But because it’s 1992, Polly couldn’t Google "Shaolin temple" to find out where (and if) the temple could be found, and the China he visited had only begun to take the tentative steps toward openness and capitalism that we take for granted today.
In a decision that was half bravery and half youthful naïveté, Polly flew to China with little more than the idea of the Shaolin temple in his mind — no map, no guidebook, and a relatively small wad of cash to survive on. He eventually finds the famed destination, only to discover it has become a tourist trap, at least on the outside. It’s only when he is allowed to enter the ancient temple that he locates the still-thriving fighting school within.
Just as he must penetrate past the temple’s deceptive exterior to find its true heart, Polly’s journey often involves getting past appearances to learn the hidden subtleties of Chinese culture. Even though he speaks very good Mandarin, Polly’s Western identity marks him for misunderstandings and manipulation. As a towering Westerner assumed to be soft and clumsy, he must prove his ability to "eat bitter," or suffer to learn kung fu, even if it means being unable to walk after his first day of training.
The journey becomes three-fold for Polly: to learn the physical and spiritual aspects of kung fu, to unravel the intricacies of Chinese culture, and to understand himself in the process. Much as anthropologists are best suited to studying foreign cultures, the utter alienness of China acts as the perfect mirror for Polly to see himself. The monks misunderstand him as much as he does them, and Polly finds that he is an ambassador to the East, his every word and move emblematic to his Chinese friends of what all Americans say or do.
Polly’s kung fu lessons will certainly brighten the day of any martial arts fanatic, seeing the extreme dedication of the Shaolin monks. Of particular note are those who practice the various "iron" forms (forearms, stomach, shins, hands, head, throat, and, yes, crotch), continually battering those parts of their body until they achieve a preternatural toughness. Though he doesn’t elect to follow any of the iron forms, showing his ability to absorb punishment without flinching becomes one of Polly’s most important kung fu lessons, and one which informs the rest of his life.
The climax of the book comes when Polly fights in a national sanda (kickboxing) tournament against a Chinese national champion, soon after defending the Shaolin temple’s honor against a rival kung fu master. Needless to say, Polly acquits himself well in both battles, and ultimately learns more about himself than he ever expected. As simple as it sounds, one’s ability to stand up after being knocked down, to march confidently toward certain defeat, is a signal of manhood, if not adulthood, in both East and West.
In the end, Polly achieves the perfect balance between self-deprecation and the inevitable egotism of the autobiographer, modestly lauding his gains while retaining the ability to laugh at his younger, more innocent self. His style is assured and light, entertaining yet educational — one can learn a great deal about the Chinese people and their culture from American Shaolin without realizing it. This book could either be assigned in a class on Chinese culture or as a rollicking summer read: such is Polly’s talent. Like Polly himself, we finish the story of his training with a sense of joy and satisfaction, still absorbing everything we’ve just learned.