Select one of the keywords
American Shaolin    by Matthew Polly order for
American Shaolin
by Matthew Polly
Order:  USA  Can
Gotham, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

American Shaolin offers much more than I anticipated when I picked up the book - in addition to offering the expected insights on martial arts, it's a coming of age story, and also the humble account of a stranger in a strange land, who made the effort to learn the language, and worked hard to understand the culture. Hence, Polly's book provides a fascinating window into modern China.

A Prologue sets the scene at a banquet in the Shaolin Temple in 1993 (having participated in them daily when on a Chinese cycling tour in 1985, I appreciated the author's description of the rice liquor required to be tossed down for each and every toast as something that 'affects the digestive system like a combination of sake, moonshine, and Liquid Drano.') During the banquet, a kungfu master from Tianjin requests a challenge match and the twenty-one-year old author, then a foreign student in the temple makes the polite gesture of offering to fight him. To his horror, Coach Yan takes him up on it. How will he get out of this we wonder, and keep flicking pages to find out - much later in the book.

Polly tells us that it all started with his inner to-do list of 'Things That Are Wrong With Matt' - in addition to spiritually confused and unattractive to the opposite sex, he had included cowardly in it (he works his way down the list through the book, but then finds himself adding to it too - such is life!) He worked on ignorant by attending Princeton, where he also took kungfu classes and studied Mandarin. After asking if he's willing to eat bitter (suffer), a Chinese professor suggests he train at the Shaolin Temple. Though not even sure that it still exists after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Polly sets off on an Oz-like quest to find the temple and fix his perceived flaws ... and so begins his adventure.

We follow Polly, called Bao Mosi by the Shaolin monks and disciples, as he finds out about life at the temple and in its environs, and enjoys the irregular but spectacular kungfu performances given by the monks for tour groups - including demonstrations of iron kungfu (there are photos of iron crotch kungfu in the book - don't ask, just look and shudder). He takes on an intense training regime (eating bitter six days a week) in kungfu and later in kickboxing, learns to win at drinking games, and gradually makes friends despite hefty cultural barriers and occasional smaller hurdles of misunderstanding (did you know heroes always die in Chinese movies?)

This is a wonderfully engrossing read. I highly recommend American Shaolin to martial arts practitioners, but also to anyone who enjoys good travel literature or to read about someone deliberately and repeatedly pushing themselves out of their comfort zone to develop character.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Travel books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews