I’ve been meaning to read the story of Matthew Polly’s time spent training at the famous Shaolin monastery for years, but I finally got around to it recently thanks to my Audible.co.uk subscription*. And what a great read it is! I’m sure we can all identify with the teenage Polly, unsure of himself and his place in the world, who falls under the spell of Kung Fu and decides to dedicate his life to the pursuit of it as some kind of escapism from the pressures and fakeness of the modern world. To Polly, Kung Fu represented something sublime, pure and otherworldly that actually meant something. But unlike most of us, he did more than just dream about it, he actually went to Shaolin and lived there for almost a year, at a time when there was no Internet, no easy way to get there and China had only recently opened up to foreigners, so most Chinese people had never even seen a Laowai in the flesh before.
Polly’s story could best be summed up as a sequence of misadventures punctuated by moments of sublime martial arts inspiration. He manages to get into all sorts of scrapes involving accidentally offending senior party officials, being entered into a tournament against a San Da champion and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex. Part Bill Bryson-style travelogue, and part kung fu geek-out, this is a rewarding, even emotional, look into what the Shaolin monks were really like in the 1990s, just as their international fame as stage performers was starting to spread and take over from the mystical image everybody had of them from the Kung Fu TV show. (Interestingly, at one point Polly watches the Kung Fu TV show with the monks who laughed their heads off at the idea of burning a dragon and tiger into your arms by lifting a hot anvil and dropping it into the snow – “why would you do that???”)
What you really get from this book is a sense of what the Shaolin monks are really like back then, and how much more human, relatable and down to earth they are compared to the lofty ideas we all have of them. It answers all the big questions like, how good are they at actually fighting, how seriously they take the “monk” side of their lives and how they train iron first, arm, head and even iron crotch.
The little snatches of Chinese you pick up by reading the book are also a hidden bonus and bring the characters to life marvellously. By the end of the book you feel like they are your friends and you know them just as well as Polly did. Anybody who likes this blog would love this book. Recommended.
N.B. The cover with a monk holding a Burger King bag is representative of the idea of American values seeping into China, but a little misleading as there were no Burger Kings in China then, and certainly nothing like that in the rural backwater of the Shaolin village.
*Like a number of other books, American Shaolin is included in the cost of an Audible subscription, so if you are a subscriber you get it free.