American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China
by Matthew Polly
A review by Gerry Donaghy
All of us experience moments of self-reflection during which we wonder what we're supposed to be doing with our lives, focus way too much on our shortcomings, and ponder what it all means. When Matthew Polly was twenty-one, he had such an experience. Rather than letting it go, or killing it with beer, he decided that the solution lay in traveling to China to study kung-fu with monks of the famed Shaolin Temple. This rather rash and ill-informed decision set in motion the two-year odyssey of self-discovery chronicled in American Shaolin.
Taking a page from Mark Salzman's Iron & Silk, Polly takes the reader on a fascinating journey not only into Chinese martial arts culture, but also a China on the verge of seismic changes. Arriving in 1992, barely more than three years after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the China the author encounters hasn't yet begun to feel the changes that foreign investment would bring. Rather, this is a nation bereft of most Western ideas of comfort, with a barely functioning infrastructure and a medical system where the cure is often worse than the disease.
Polly wisely avoids spending too much time writing about his actual training, as reading a book that merely said things like "today I did three hundred leg lifts on each side, did punching drills for an hour and stretched for fifteen minutes" would get old very quickly. Instead, he spends a great deal of time writing about his interactions with the locals and his teammates and teachers in the temple. If your only impression of Shaolin monks is Master Po and Grasshopper from Kung Fu, then you are in for a slightly rude awakening. The monks Polly describes are every bit as human as we are, with the same desires and insecurities. But while their motivations for enduring punishing training may differ from the monks of legend, they are nonetheless capable of amazing physical feats.
As Polly begins to show his Chinese teammates that he can chi ku (eat bitter), they begin to open up to him and agree to teach him techniques that would normally never be shared with foreigners. In this way, the author learns the Iron Forearm technique and Chinese kickboxing. One monk, whom the author calls (in a rather tasteless fashion) Monk Dong, offers to teach him what is known as Iron Crotch kung-fu. The Iron techniques are developed by repeatedly beating the part of your body you wish to strengthen, making it impervious to most physical attacks. Needless to say, when the author sees what you have to hit to develop that technique, he politely declines.
Part travelogue, part kung-fu bildungsroman, American Shaolin is immensely readable thanks to Polly's conversational tone and rapid oscillation between reverence and flippancy. Again and again, he finds himself in unique and often difficult situations, and the author does a tremendous job of frequently building suspense and delivering satisfactory resolutions. Sometimes the author can be a bit too self-deprecating, taking the Chinese penchant for humility a bit too seriously. But whether he's bartering for Coca Cola in the village near the temple or going toe-to-toe with the highest ranked Chinese kickboxer, his stories are too entertaining to quibble about their minor flaws.
After two years of rigorous training, Polly leaves Shaolin a changed man, having rid himself of most of his insecurities and having found his inner strength. But, as much as American Shaolin is about the author's quest, he also graciously shines his writer's spotlight on his Shaolin teammates and the Chinese people, giving voice to those whose existence is shrouded in legend and hearsay. In this respect, American Shaolin does an admirable job of separating myth from reality.