The Martial Arts Nerd is now an American icon. It is right up there with Superman and Marilyn Monroe. In fact, in a strange way, Superman, and the guy he shares his body with Clark Kent, may have been an early version of the Martial Arts Nerd. I may look, sound and act like a helpless bumbling straight guy, but underneath this facade I'm a scary powerhouse of flying arms and legs!
It is a good thing that blogs didn't exist in 1993 because Matthew Polly would surely have used a blog to document his year at Shaolin Temple instead of giving us this wonderful book: American Shaolin. Besides being a funny almost lovable nerd, Matthew Polly gives us a bone crushing and forced splits account of what it was like to spend a year at the Shaolin Temple.
Polly is honest, so honest you kinda feel sorry for him in an "I'm glad it wasn't me" kinda way. His story telling skills are delightful. I especially liked his stories about seeking out a trainer in the drinking game "Playing Hands". He starts that chapter with a quote from The Dream of the Red Chamber
"Drinking games are to be observed even more seriously than military orders."
His "Playing Hands" trainer is his most important master. He teaches him, through the drinking game, how to achieve goals, negotiate deals, intimidate a criminal Triad affiliate, and get laid. Then Polly learns that:
"Earlier European and American writers called the Chinese fatalistic and passive. This was a mistake. They aren't passive; they are introverts. They study the patterns and wait for their opportunity. But if opportunities were continually deferred, they exploded. This was the reason why luan (chaos) was the most feared word in the language."
Polly was an undergrad at Princeton in Religion and Chinese Language for 3 years before he went to Shaolin. Unfortunately studying Religion without a lot of History didn't prepare him enough to actually explain why a Buddhist Monastery would be credited with creating martial arts. But he takes a shot at it anyway:
"Shaolin Kungfu has eighteen different official weapons, but there are forms for more. Shaolin has five main animal styles-- tiger, leopard, eagle, snake, and praying mantis--but there are more. It is estimated that Shaolin has more than 200 open-hand forms, but no one has been able to record them all. Historians of martial arts explain the creation of all of these styles either for self-defense (Shaolin was an isolated monastery often attacked by bandits) or religious reasons (kungfu forms ar e a type of moving meditation), but that doesn't explain the complexity. It took me all of a week to come up with my own theory: boredom. Put a bunch of sexually repressed young men on a mountaintop with nothing to do but meditate and practice kungfu and the myriad of Shaolin styles is the result."
Of course what he learned there was Wushu, not Shaolin exactly. The Shaolin Temple was destroyed and then, after Jet Li made the movie Shaolin Temple (1982), it was rebuilt to accommodate tourists and the thousands of kids who swarmed there (or were abandoned there by their parents) to learn martial arts. Wushu was created by the Chinese government to replace kungfu because the Communists wanted an absolute monopoly on sources of power and authority. It is a combination of Northern Shaolin (what I teach), Dance, and Acrobatics. He also learned Sanda (kickboxing with Chinese rules), some traditional body surface conditioning associated mostly with performance (like brick breaking), and of course drinking games. Buddhism doesn't seem to have been much of a priority when he was there in 1993, although he thinks it may be now.
History aside, the biggest difference between Wushu and traditional Chinese martial arts is that Wushu performers wear out at the same age as ballet dancers, in their late 20's. Over stretching is the problem they have in common.
It is a really funny book, and it's insightful too, but you'll have to keep reading my blog if you want to find out why a Buddhist temple is so oddly credited as the creator of kungfu.