“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest mofo in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Growing up a 98-pound weakling tormented by bullies in the schoolyards of Kansas, young Matthew Polly dreamed of one day journeying to the Shaolin Temple in China to become the toughest fighter in the world, like Caine in his favorite 1970’s TV series Kung Fu. While in college, Matthew decided the time had come to pursue this quixotic dream before it was too late. Much to the dismay of his parents, he dropped out of Princeton to train with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism.
What follows is the true story of the two years Matthew spent in China living, training, and performing with the Shaolin monks.
After an arduous and misdirected journey begun a short time after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Polly arrives at the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province expecting an austere and isolated monastery. What he discovers, however, is that the Chinese government, in its headlong drive toward capitalism, has transformed the surrounding temple into a tourist trap—“Kung fu World.”
After searching the village, he finally discovers the Shaolin Wushu Center, where Shaolin monks teach kung fu to anyone able to afford the tuition and perform for any tourists willing to pay. Polly enrolls and begins life as the only laowai (“foreigner”) in a five-hundred-mile radius. The Chinese term for tough training is chi ku (“eating bitter”), and Polly quickly learns to appreciate the phrase after his first class with Monk Cheng Hao. He is barely able to walk the next day.
During the months of brutal practice, Polly grows close to several of the monks, and through them he encounters the paradoxes of life as a contemporary Shaolin monk, in which these devout Buddhists must perform daily for tourists and hawk merchandise in order to support their art. Polly also sees their incredible abilities, ranging from their phenomenal physical strength and endurance to their thunderous dunks on their basketball court to their practice of “Iron Kung Fu,” in which the monks make a body part (such as the head, forearm, stomach, neck, or, most frightening of all, the crotch) virtually indestructible through repeated torture.
Polly eventually switches to a rigorous study of Chinese-style kickboxing under Coach Cheng, Shaolin’s best fighter, and represents the Shaolin Temple in one of China’s national tournaments. At the end of his journey, the monks initiate him into the Shaolin Temple, making him the first American to be accepted as a Shaolin disciple. Laced with humor and illuminated by cultural insight, American Shaolin is a funny and poignant portrait of a rapidly changing China.