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American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China

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Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 Cain Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 1970s 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 spend two years training with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism. Expecting to find an isolated citadel populated by supernatural ascetics that he’d seen in countless badly dubbed chop-socky flicks, Matthew instead discovered a tacky tourist trap run by Communist party hacks. But the dedicated monks still trained in the rigorous age-old fighting forms—some even practicing the “iron kung fu” discipline, in which intensive training can make various body parts virtually indestructible (even the crotch). As Matthew grew in his knowledge of China and kung fu skill, he would come to represent the Temple in challenge matches and international competitions, and ultimately the monks would accept their new American initiate as close to one of their own as any Westerner had ever become. Laced with humor and illuminated by cultural insight, American Shaolin is an unforgettable coming-of-age tale of one young man’s journey into the ancient art of kung fu—and a funny and poignant portrait of a rapidly changing China.


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Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 Cain Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 1970s 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 spend two years training with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism. Expecting to find an isolated citadel populated by supernatural ascetics that he’d seen in countless badly dubbed chop-socky flicks, Matthew instead discovered a tacky tourist trap run by Communist party hacks. But the dedicated monks still trained in the rigorous age-old fighting forms—some even practicing the “iron kung fu” discipline, in which intensive training can make various body parts virtually indestructible (even the crotch). As Matthew grew in his knowledge of China and kung fu skill, he would come to represent the Temple in challenge matches and international competitions, and ultimately the monks would accept their new American initiate as close to one of their own as any Westerner had ever become. Laced with humor and illuminated by cultural insight, American Shaolin is an unforgettable coming-of-age tale of one young man’s journey into the ancient art of kung fu—and a funny and poignant portrait of a rapidly changing China.

30 review for American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China

  1. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Welch

    There are five compelling reasons why I shouldn't have liked this book. 1) It's about martial arts, and Jack (my husband) and I are Quakers. As in pacifists. 2) It's about a sport. I was the smart kid who had her period every week throughout high school so she could avoid playing volleyball. 3) A man wrote it. 4) It's about China. Africa and the Middle East are my anthropological areas of expertise, and ergo what I read about more because I can tell when somebody's lying. 5) It's about a rich white There are five compelling reasons why I shouldn't have liked this book. 1) It's about martial arts, and Jack (my husband) and I are Quakers. As in pacifists. 2) It's about a sport. I was the smart kid who had her period every week throughout high school so she could avoid playing volleyball. 3) A man wrote it. 4) It's about China. Africa and the Middle East are my anthropological areas of expertise, and ergo what I read about more because I can tell when somebody's lying. 5) It's about a rich white guy from the American Midwest who decides Princeton is too shallow and he really needs to find himself by discovering the Exotic Other someplace else. Every ethnographic nerve in my body bristles when Americans discover themselves on other people's backs. Also people with opportunities others can only dream about who throw them over to become "enlightened", really need to go work for the Red Cross for a year. Or volunteer at a battered women's shelter. And the reason I picked this book up in the first place? I liked the cover. (Yes, I know.) But it's FUNNY! And altruistically cynical. (Hey, like calls to like.) He's got a lovely way of delivering a punchline (haha) using deadpan dry caustic wit. There are two incidents recalled in it that I'm now beginning to believe are standard to every exchange student's experiences: 1) waking up in the hotel/hostel to find someone you don't know standing over your bed with That Look in the eye and 2) being so lonely for the sound of your own language that you hold complete conversations with imaginary people, or yourself. And that you do this so often, you forget and do it on the street, which causes people to shun you. (I awoke in Hungary, with someone I knew I could not best if it came to a wrestling match, holding a bottle of vodka, starting at me with That Look. Since we shared no common languages, it was very hard for me to convince her that, while I was certain she was an intellectual soulmate, and I admired her muscles -er, figure- and, if I weren't in fact about to flee the country we probably would have had meaningful things to say to one another, well, gosh darn it, given the current circumstances it was best to decline--courteously--both the explicit offers her body language was making.) The down side is, he doesn't respect the women in the book; they're straight men (well...) to his jokes and his own personal agenda of searching for enlightenment. Girls don't get enlightened in this book; they get screwed. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln . . . Dear Author, if you hadn't been so unenlightened about the women, I'd have given you five stars. So there.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alix

    This book was so phenomenal that I wrote a thank-you note to the author. The way he wrote it makes him so likable and human that I didn't want it to end. He becomes a badass by force of sheer will and that's always one of those things I want to hear is possible. The big bonus was learning so much about the Chinese culture. I didn't realize it until I was listening to a story on NPR about 'The New China' and I thought, Yeah, I know all about those customs and traditions! Even if you don't love ma This book was so phenomenal that I wrote a thank-you note to the author. The way he wrote it makes him so likable and human that I didn't want it to end. He becomes a badass by force of sheer will and that's always one of those things I want to hear is possible. The big bonus was learning so much about the Chinese culture. I didn't realize it until I was listening to a story on NPR about 'The New China' and I thought, Yeah, I know all about those customs and traditions! Even if you don't love martial arts, you'll love this book. If you like martial arts, this book will be dangerously inspirational.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jordan Funke

    This was a fun story. I wanted to give it 2.5 stars, but the cultural insensitivity lowered it for me. I liked the author's self-effacing and simultaneous self-promoting style. But I was never able to fully suspend disbelief about how successful and loved and accepted he was being the only non-Chinese in a town full of 10,000 Shaolin practitioners. It wasn't too gory and only glorified violence a little. It completely hooked me all the way through, but I hate that this is the kind of American wh This was a fun story. I wanted to give it 2.5 stars, but the cultural insensitivity lowered it for me. I liked the author's self-effacing and simultaneous self-promoting style. But I was never able to fully suspend disbelief about how successful and loved and accepted he was being the only non-Chinese in a town full of 10,000 Shaolin practitioners. It wasn't too gory and only glorified violence a little. It completely hooked me all the way through, but I hate that this is the kind of American who represents me abroad. No wonder we are despised world-wide.

  4. 5 out of 5

    BrocheAroe

    I hated this book. Rather than being culturally sensitive, this asshole woke up 10 years after his experience and decided he wanted to make some money so he wrote this book. He's totally ignorant and doesn't even use the principles he SHOULD have learned from what SHOULD have been an incredible experience. He gives people who do follow this way of life a bad name. Asshole. I hated this book. Rather than being culturally sensitive, this asshole woke up 10 years after his experience and decided he wanted to make some money so he wrote this book. He's totally ignorant and doesn't even use the principles he SHOULD have learned from what SHOULD have been an incredible experience. He gives people who do follow this way of life a bad name. Asshole.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Eh?Eh!

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. the cover picture captured me. i do sometimes judge a book by its cover and in this case the contents matched the goofiness, at least initially. i really enjoyed his writing for much of the book - here is this person who goes to learn from Shaolin monks...that's such a little-boy-dream thing to do. he interacts with the people he meets and makes a story out of small encounters. he describes his training, the distinct personalities and hopes of each key monk, daily life at the temple, the competi the cover picture captured me. i do sometimes judge a book by its cover and in this case the contents matched the goofiness, at least initially. i really enjoyed his writing for much of the book - here is this person who goes to learn from Shaolin monks...that's such a little-boy-dream thing to do. he interacts with the people he meets and makes a story out of small encounters. he describes his training, the distinct personalities and hopes of each key monk, daily life at the temple, the competition he enters and performs well in, he is funny. BUT he was also smugly annoying - here is this person who goes to learn from Shaolin monks...an incredibly expensive venture that his family is rich enough to provide funds for...what parent would front that kind of money for a whim??? either they're the kind that buy his love or he nagged them into it. he tells you how much it costs. ridiculous waste. also, his dealings with the women of China were all unsavory. these girls are raised in a male-centric culture where a good marriage is the goal. he takes up with no intention of marriage, just to 'relieve pressure'...what an a-hole. rather than impacting and ruining - yes, ruining - these girls' lives, he should have stuck to self-pleasure. didn't we learn it's not shameful anymore? maybe he didn't have enlightened health classes. he wrote a vivid passage about one of these encounters that was ethereally beautiful but not enough to cover the fact that he was deceiving the young lady. gah, he's a jerk i'd recommend this book for its humor, but you'd enjoy it more if you weren't as uptight about wasted money and a-holes who take advantage of the disadvantaged (in upbringing, cultural freedoms, economically, etc.) as i seem to be.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    Why is it that only disillusioned, rich white kids who drop out of Ivy League schools that they aren't even paying for because Daddy's footing the bill all go on to lead these neat ass adventures and fulfill lifelong dreams? oh wait, it's because Daddy's paying for their dreams. Polly's a hack and a chump! Why is it that only disillusioned, rich white kids who drop out of Ivy League schools that they aren't even paying for because Daddy's footing the bill all go on to lead these neat ass adventures and fulfill lifelong dreams? oh wait, it's because Daddy's paying for their dreams. Polly's a hack and a chump!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Arminzerella

    When Matthew was a teen, he made a list of things about himself that he didn’t like – and then went about changing those things. His first accomplishment was educating himself and becoming an intellectual. From there he went on to tackle his cowardice – by going to China and studying kung fu in a Shaolin temple. It was a lot harder than he’d expected. He met with resistance from his family – they wanted him to finish college, and difficulties finding the temple once he’d reached China, and was fa When Matthew was a teen, he made a list of things about himself that he didn’t like – and then went about changing those things. His first accomplishment was educating himself and becoming an intellectual. From there he went on to tackle his cowardice – by going to China and studying kung fu in a Shaolin temple. It was a lot harder than he’d expected. He met with resistance from his family – they wanted him to finish college, and difficulties finding the temple once he’d reached China, and was faced with hours of training every day – which was initially very painful and exhausting. Matt came away having learned a lot more than just kung fu. Although he knew some Chinese, Matt was not educated in Chinese culture and had to pick up a lot on the fly. Polly is now fluent in many things Chinese - vulgarities, dirty jokes, bargaining, male friendships, debts, and call girls (just to name a few). After training in traditional forms for a number of months, Matt was able to observe a shanda (Shaolin kickboxing) match. He became interested and encouraged his school to start up their own shanda team and training program (by holding them up against the competing school in a rather unfavorable light). Matt took to shanda like nothing the monks had seen. Once he got over his fear of being beaten, he rapidly mastered all of the kicks, punches, and throws. His trainer told him he had never seen someone (particularly a laowai, or outsider) progress so quickly, and then arranged to have him compete against the finest shanda fighters in the world. Matt eventually makes it through other items on his list (and adds new things to work on), finally realizing that there will always be room for improvement and his list will never be complete. A friend of mine pointed out that this is pretty much every guy’s dream. You go off to some remote temple and learn to be a complete bad ass. And after that either no one messes with you, or those that do come to regret it. I don’t think it’s a completely male attitude either – we all want to be invincible, inviolate, eternal in some way. Some of us just make it more physical. American Shaolin was a really fascinating look at Chinese culture – going beyond kung fu and really allowing readers to get to know and understand some of the people. While Matt’s personal story was interesting, his descriptions of the place and the people of China were far more intriguing and entertaining. I mean, how can a laowai compete with someone who studies iron dong kung fu? Don’t answer that. If you’ve ever been interested in martial arts, or training to be the biggest bad ass around, however, this might suit your tastes exactly. And for those of us who like a taste of other places and cultures, this will leave you wanting to know much, much more about China.

  8. 4 out of 5

    James Kelly

    This book caught my attention several years ago due to my interest in Shaolin kung fu. I read it quickly and found it quite delightful; the tale is of a young American who leaves university to travel to China with an interest in, albeit temporarily, living as a monk. He arrives in a particular province (I can't remember its name, just that it began with d) and after acquainting himself with locals and picking up a few anecdotes to tell the reader, one of which has to do with locals believing he This book caught my attention several years ago due to my interest in Shaolin kung fu. I read it quickly and found it quite delightful; the tale is of a young American who leaves university to travel to China with an interest in, albeit temporarily, living as a monk. He arrives in a particular province (I can't remember its name, just that it began with d) and after acquainting himself with locals and picking up a few anecdotes to tell the reader, one of which has to do with locals believing he is some kind of mythical creature and that he is blind because of his blue eyes, travels to the Shaolin Temple to train under the monks. After trying hard-living and not liking it, he ends up in a reasonably priced hotel where he remains for several years if I can remember correctly. As I said, I read it a while ago. The rest of his book actually describes the martial arts practice in relatively little detail and examines themes such as cultural differences between the West and China; China - U.S. relations; Chinese life under the Communist regime; the emergence of a capitalist market in China; his relationships with the men at the Shaolin temple whom he calls his brothers; his attempts to date local women and the prejudices of the Chinese against the laowai (the Mandarin term for foreigner) which he learns after winning second place in a local tournament. And of course what needs to be mentioned is his bizarre experience of being offered to opportunity to become immune to pain in his groin by having it battered until the nerve cells are dead, a practice in kung fu known as 'Iron balls', which he thankfully rejects. He then finally makes his departure to America. In an epilogue he returns to China to find the Temple dead and the local area commercialised for the enjoyment of tourists. The Chinese government wasn't big on Kung Fu but realised it was an opportunity to bring in Western money by the bucket load, so changed its mind. The changes are completely to his dismay and he has a long rant about what has happened, blaming tourists in large part to his blatant hypocrisy. But he finds hope in an elderly man who has dedicated his life to Kung Fu and realises that the Shaolin tradition is far from dead. This review doesn't do the book justice. If you are interested in China or Kung Fu I'd definitely recommend it. It was enjoyable and did touch my heart. It is not brilliant but it is not your typical 'American youth travels to China to find himself' story. My interest in Kung Fu is now gone and I doubt I will read it again, but it will always have a place on my shelf.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Clarry

    I read this book a long time ago, so my apologies for writing this review from memory. But I had to say, I loved this book. Don't take it too seriously, it's not trying to be a major spiritual journey through martial arts and the Chinese cultures, it's trying to be funny. I first picked it up off the shelf because at the time I was a Wushu practitioner. I opened to a random page where the author is practicing with something called a 7 sectional whip or chain (you don't whip it Indiana Jones styl I read this book a long time ago, so my apologies for writing this review from memory. But I had to say, I loved this book. Don't take it too seriously, it's not trying to be a major spiritual journey through martial arts and the Chinese cultures, it's trying to be funny. I first picked it up off the shelf because at the time I was a Wushu practitioner. I opened to a random page where the author is practicing with something called a 7 sectional whip or chain (you don't whip it Indiana Jones style, you swing it around with a beautiful "woosh woosh" sound). This weapon was my specialty weapon for performances, and I am very proud of the fact because I had to be quite aggressive and win many arguments with my renowned instructor to be allowed to learn the weapon in the first place, being that I'm female and it's not traditionally a woman's weapon. (Being white probably didn't help either.) But I ended up excelling, (by some fluke of odd chance) and I love this weapon dearly. On the page that I first turned to of this book, the author is practicing with this weapon when a pretty girl walks by. As he's mentally stroking his ego he smacks himself in the face with the 7-sectional. (You must believe me that this probably hurt a LOT) I laughed so hard I think I got a few looks in the bookstore, and I knew I had to buy it. I wasn't disappointed, it made me laugh quite a bit.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I had a lot of fun reading this memoir about Bao Mosi and his mad kungfu skills!!! It's cool how he speaks Chinese so well. I like his honesty. He's not afraid to look kind of ignorant or silly when he describes events in the book. Love that. I read a review that said something like: a good book but I'm sad that this is the kind of person who represents Americans abroad. I have to respectfully disagree with that. I thought Matt was exactly the type of person I'd want representing America abroad: I had a lot of fun reading this memoir about Bao Mosi and his mad kungfu skills!!! It's cool how he speaks Chinese so well. I like his honesty. He's not afraid to look kind of ignorant or silly when he describes events in the book. Love that. I read a review that said something like: a good book but I'm sad that this is the kind of person who represents Americans abroad. I have to respectfully disagree with that. I thought Matt was exactly the type of person I'd want representing America abroad: he was willing to learn Chinese and adopt the ways of life of the Chinese people he lived with, even holding hands with one of his monk friends while walking down the street. He was very adaptable to his situation, and he never knowingly let himself be taken advantage of because he wasn't Chinese. He respected the people and customs and grew to love them. Matthew Polly rocks. The Shaolin Monks rock. I loved learning about the Chinese culture and their language through the eyes of a fellow American, and a very funny one :)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    I have an affinity for anything to do with oriental cultures but I do not have an affinity for martial arts. I chose to read this book because it showed up on the ALA Alex list. I was not disappointed, and I can think of a number of teen boys who would enjoy reading it. The author had much to be proud of having spent the time to learn Chinese before embarking on his two year stay in China to improve his Kung Fu skills. By doing so, he was able to give us a personal look into the lives of the Chi I have an affinity for anything to do with oriental cultures but I do not have an affinity for martial arts. I chose to read this book because it showed up on the ALA Alex list. I was not disappointed, and I can think of a number of teen boys who would enjoy reading it. The author had much to be proud of having spent the time to learn Chinese before embarking on his two year stay in China to improve his Kung Fu skills. By doing so, he was able to give us a personal look into the lives of the Chinese people and show us how the people are not so different from ourselves in spite of differences in education and income levels. Someone commented that they felt the author was insensitive toward the Chinese, but I did not find that to be the case at all. He managed to describe how an American would perceive the differences in cultures with humor. He showed a profound respect for the skills of his teachers and the perseverence of the people in spite of the poverty that surrounded them.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jim Peterson

    American Shaolin really captures rural Chinese culture in the 1990s in a place where communism, Buddhism and kung fu all live together. Mathew Polly spent a year in a school outside the Shaolin Temple (not in it) learning wushu and then kickboxing. I've never read a travelogue before, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I should check out Bill Bryson now. Though reading this was great fun, it was also very sad. It seems all that's left of kung fu at the Shaolin Monastery is kung-fu-looking gymna American Shaolin really captures rural Chinese culture in the 1990s in a place where communism, Buddhism and kung fu all live together. Mathew Polly spent a year in a school outside the Shaolin Temple (not in it) learning wushu and then kickboxing. I've never read a travelogue before, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I should check out Bill Bryson now. Though reading this was great fun, it was also very sad. It seems all that's left of kung fu at the Shaolin Monastery is kung-fu-looking gymnastics and kick boxing. Those who are interested in becoming good fighters do sanda (Chinese kickboxing) and those who are interested in artistic-looking, state-regulated forms (katas) do wushu. It's no longer an integrated system for health, self-defense and spiritual learning as Shaolin kung-fu used to be (and still is in some schools in other places).

  13. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

    I love armchair traveling almost as much as real traveling, and it is slightly more practical. I picked this book up, because I had read Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman ages ago and liked it, and because my husband is testing for his black belt this summer, and I wanted to learn more about martial arts culture. The combination of self-deprecating humor and honest look at Chinese culture was well done. He mentions selling the movie rights, but I don't recall ever seeing a movie about this. I'll hav I love armchair traveling almost as much as real traveling, and it is slightly more practical. I picked this book up, because I had read Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman ages ago and liked it, and because my husband is testing for his black belt this summer, and I wanted to learn more about martial arts culture. The combination of self-deprecating humor and honest look at Chinese culture was well done. He mentions selling the movie rights, but I don't recall ever seeing a movie about this. I'll have to check imdb.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    This book came completely out of left field. The marriage of serious martial artistry with the sophomoric sex and poop gags is a weird one, and it's hard to really remember a book that is designed solely to entertain at the expense of any substance whatsoever. A quick, entertaining read, but not much else. This book came completely out of left field. The marriage of serious martial artistry with the sophomoric sex and poop gags is a weird one, and it's hard to really remember a book that is designed solely to entertain at the expense of any substance whatsoever. A quick, entertaining read, but not much else.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Celia Buell

    I picked this up because I wanted something nonfiction and dealing with religion to fill a requirement in The Challenge Factory's "Smart is Sexy" 2019 challenge. I don't think I've ever read a memoir that was so much about true self discovery than American Shaolin. I don't know anyone who is so insecure of themselves that they would go to a foreign country with no connections to master an art, nor do I know anyone who has any type of similar story. I think Matthew Polly's memoir fully illustrate I picked this up because I wanted something nonfiction and dealing with religion to fill a requirement in The Challenge Factory's "Smart is Sexy" 2019 challenge. I don't think I've ever read a memoir that was so much about true self discovery than American Shaolin. I don't know anyone who is so insecure of themselves that they would go to a foreign country with no connections to master an art, nor do I know anyone who has any type of similar story. I think Matthew Polly's memoir fully illustrates the extent that someone will go to find themselves. American Shaolin was about so much more than just kungfu [sic] or Buddhism. Polly writes in a way that shows all the struggles he went through to achieve a space where he felt comfortable to write this story. One part I love is that he starts with his list, "Things that are Wrong with Matt." My therapist has advised me to write down things I am worried about and then decide what I can do about them. Polly takes this to a higher degree then I could ever imagine doing for myself by learning discipline and spirituality in a Buddhist kungfu monastery, speaking in beginner level Chinese. The discipline it takes to fight the way Polly does is impressive. He talks about having to find a balance between being a good fighter and taking glory in conquests, while also being a moral person. This is shown clearly when he faces everyone he fights with respect, and when he works hard not to let his crazy foreigner friends who stay at the temple see the ways he feels about them. Even though I am not a religious person, my favorite part was the point when Polly discovered and grappled with the differences between Buddhism and his learned Irish Catholic traditions from home. I thought the point where he talked about his Finnish friend who talked to Odin, Thor, and Jesus about the "sixth race" of human consciousness was well placed within the way Polly organized his timeline and his own religious discovery. At this point, he was able to cross "spiritually confused" off his "Things that are Wrong with Matt" list, and I think putting those stories together was a perfect writing style and way to incorporate this piece into his journey. The hardest part for me to read was the sports and technique part, because I don't really understand the different types of kicks, or the motivation behind martial arts in general. Obviously it made more sense in the past, when those who could physically fight were often called on to defend their country, but now I don't exactly understand the appeal of martial arts or boxing or wrestling if it's to hurt someone for fun, and to build up a complete immunity and loss of any painful feeling. At some of the points with the matches or longer discussions about kungfu style, I tuned out a little bit and basically skimmed through. I was much more interested in the cultural aspect of the story: the different treatment of foreigners and the different rules, the economic changes China was experiencing, the move between communism and capitalism...This book truly covered every aspect Polly wanted to touch on without any of it being forced. I would definitely read it again in a few years.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Get past the awful cover of American Shaolin, because this travelogue-slash-memoir is a little gem. The decidedly cheesy artist’s impression doesn’t do the content justice. Granted, the book calls occasionally for suspension of disbelief. A recollection by author Matthew Polly, at the time a self-confessed skinny nerd obsessed with kungfu who wants to be a bad ass madafacker, of two years spent training in Shaolin, it celebrates certain stereotypes, like that of ridiculously acrobatic monks hone Get past the awful cover of American Shaolin, because this travelogue-slash-memoir is a little gem. The decidedly cheesy artist’s impression doesn’t do the content justice. Granted, the book calls occasionally for suspension of disbelief. A recollection by author Matthew Polly, at the time a self-confessed skinny nerd obsessed with kungfu who wants to be a bad ass madafacker, of two years spent training in Shaolin, it celebrates certain stereotypes, like that of ridiculously acrobatic monks honed by ridiculously painful training. A monk who practices ‘iron crotch’ qigong gives new meaning to the phrase beating your dong. As Polly, a Princeton graduate and award-winning travel writer, confesses in the Author’s Note, he would “like to admit to an occasional reorganization of events for the sake of the narrative.” Uh-huh. Lets just say I’m pretty sure Damo, an Indian monk said to have introduced kungfu to the Chinese, didn’t slice off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep through 9 years of meditation. But fans, even practitioners, of Chinese martial arts - who know how not to take it too seriously – will enjoy Polly’s combination of a deep respect for its richness and discipline with a wickedly sardonic awareness of how ridiculous it all can get. “Chinese kungfu is one of the most glorious examples of obsessive-compulsive behavior in the history of human culture,” he says. As to why Shaolin has more than 200 open hand forms, he dispenses with the historic reasons of self-defense and religious meditation in favor of his own: boredom. The China that emerges is realistic and deeply human. Monks want to make money, play politics, talk about sex, complain that training is tough, bully the juniors, envy the seniors, are gay. Taxi drivers, cunning shopkeepers, materialistic waitresses and weirdo laowais (‘old foreigner’, a Chinese version of angmoh, if you like) appear. The atmosphere at a rival sports school is nothing so much as what you’d imagine in an American high-school canteen; kickboxers compete with wrestlers for attention of the girls, as number two jock sucks up to number one jock. But it feels genuine, in sharp contrast to the wealthier but soulless temple Polly finds in a rapidly developing China 10 years later. Before, he writes, the monks thought of themselves as fighters first, with performance an economic necessity. A decade later, beside the traditional Buddhist monks (wen seng) and the warrior monks (wu seng), a third category has depressingly popped up: the performance monks (biaoyan seng).

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stevendo

    American Shaolin gets a 5 out of 5 stars because it is like no other book I have ever read before!It reminds me of everything I’ve always wanted to do since I was in grade school waking up watching a few carton kung fu shows being viewed on Disney before I go to school. “I wonder where true kung fu is taught,” I would often times ask myself. Then following that question I would have a full day dream consisting of training with kung fu masters somewhere in a secret temple like in those foreign m American Shaolin gets a 5 out of 5 stars because it is like no other book I have ever read before!It reminds me of everything I’ve always wanted to do since I was in grade school waking up watching a few carton kung fu shows being viewed on Disney before I go to school. “I wonder where true kung fu is taught,” I would often times ask myself. Then following that question I would have a full day dream consisting of training with kung fu masters somewhere in a secret temple like in those foreign martial arts movies. This biography answers all those thoughts and then goes further to further more make my dreams a reality as I read. He’s an author with a voice who tells jokes in between his writings which I found very interesting, for at some points, as I read the story, my mother asked if I was okay for I had just sat there and laughed at a book. Not many novels have a humorous voice behind them which I think is critical! (I get bored easily) He was a tall, skinny, but very witty guy who left his education to chase his life-long dream. He left Princeton University just to go train with the Shaolin Monks! This novel is very inspiring and just plain fun to read! He has to go through so much pain and suffering to succeed in his new lifestyle. Being a westerner in possibly the world’s most known temple learning and training with those many believe to be in-destructible can also take a toll on his mind. However, he stays positive and continues on his quest to fight amongst the shaolin warriors.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Goran Powell

    If alarm bells ring at a book title beginning ‘American’ rest assured, this is an unexpected gem. Matthew Polly writes with wonderfully self-depreciating humour that makes for a very enjoyable read. Better still, he delivers real insight into modern training at the Shaolin temple. There is a sense of genuine warmth for the people he meets and every word rings true. Polly is not afraid to expose the less spiritual side of Shaolin, with its tourist traps, political intrigues and the unhappy relati If alarm bells ring at a book title beginning ‘American’ rest assured, this is an unexpected gem. Matthew Polly writes with wonderfully self-depreciating humour that makes for a very enjoyable read. Better still, he delivers real insight into modern training at the Shaolin temple. There is a sense of genuine warmth for the people he meets and every word rings true. Polly is not afraid to expose the less spiritual side of Shaolin, with its tourist traps, political intrigues and the unhappy relationship between business, politics and religion. He describes his training in both traditional kungfu and modern kickboxing at Shaolin, together with the monks he befriends, the challenge matches, the girls (or lack of them) and the other strange ‘foreigners’ who turned up at Shaolin during his 2 year stay. If you liked Iron and Silk and Angry White Pyjamas, American Shaolin is, in some ways, better than either. Highly recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    As a young adult, Polly leaves his studies at Princeton University during the 1990s to travel to China in search of the Shaolin monks. His goal is to live with the monks, learn kung fu, and improve himself. Polly relates his experiences with humor and a tone of self-deprecation as he stumbles through cultural barriers and misunderstandings. As readers, we gain an understanding of the people of rural China and their struggle from the repressive area of Communist policies that sought to wipe out m As a young adult, Polly leaves his studies at Princeton University during the 1990s to travel to China in search of the Shaolin monks. His goal is to live with the monks, learn kung fu, and improve himself. Polly relates his experiences with humor and a tone of self-deprecation as he stumbles through cultural barriers and misunderstandings. As readers, we gain an understanding of the people of rural China and their struggle from the repressive area of Communist policies that sought to wipe out many aspects of chinese cultural to the adoption of capitalism. Flying kicks and challenge matches also play a prominent role in his account, enough violence to entice any devotee of kung fu. Polly's memoir is both a fascinating account of one young man's journey into adulthood and an insightful look into Chinese culture.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    What a fun and interesting book! The author, while an undergrad, made a list of his self-defined flaws and decided to improve himself by studying with the Shaolin monks. He spent 2 years there, and not only became skilled in the martial arts but became a deft and often humorous observer of Chinese culture. China already was modernizing, but not much had trickled through into the inner country. He returned ten years later and found a transformed China.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    This account of the culture clash between Buddhist martial arts monks in modern China and geeky American kungfu wannabe is fascinating, but also laugh-out-loud funny. Don't read it in a restaurant if you don't want Coke coming out your nose. It's really a guy book (considering language I'd say 15 & up), and I would give it to a reluctant reader in a heartbeat. This account of the culture clash between Buddhist martial arts monks in modern China and geeky American kungfu wannabe is fascinating, but also laugh-out-loud funny. Don't read it in a restaurant if you don't want Coke coming out your nose. It's really a guy book (considering language I'd say 15 & up), and I would give it to a reluctant reader in a heartbeat.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Yoonmee

    No doubt about it, Polly is a good writer, but I got sick and tired of hearing all about how he, the white boy, saved the day, how he somehow managed to do the right thing, etc. His writing was so engaging, that I almost missed all the horrible, somewhat racist things he was saying about China and the Chinese. Sigh. Might be a good book for discussions with teens about orientalism.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Pam

    This book sat on my shelf for a few months. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to read it. Silly me. It was impossible to put down. I was very upset that Polly's experiences in Shaolin had to come to an end because that meant that the book was over. This book sat on my shelf for a few months. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to read it. Silly me. It was impossible to put down. I was very upset that Polly's experiences in Shaolin had to come to an end because that meant that the book was over.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    The book starts with the background of the author, who writes himself as a character. He’s smart – he gets into an Ivy college, but he’s a free spirit – working on a religion degree instead of a degree conferring money-making skills. He paints himself a bit of a fool, deciding to go to China soon after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations to learn Kung Fu from a school that he doesn’t even know is real. The early part of the trip is a humorous fish-out-of-water story, which did nothing to dispel The book starts with the background of the author, who writes himself as a character. He’s smart – he gets into an Ivy college, but he’s a free spirit – working on a religion degree instead of a degree conferring money-making skills. He paints himself a bit of a fool, deciding to go to China soon after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations to learn Kung Fu from a school that he doesn’t even know is real. The early part of the trip is a humorous fish-out-of-water story, which did nothing to dispel his image as a bit of a fool. However, as the story proceeds, you get the idea that he is using his head to better understand Kung Fu, treating it not as a religious practice but more a sporting competition. He applies thought into approaching his fighting opponents to look for weaknesses, which appears to be a tactic used only by the best fighters he runs up against. The author makes it quite a way in the sport, and meets a number of individuals in his training, many with unique personalities and stories (e.g. Iron Crotch - just what you'd think given a sport that focuses on kicks). The combination of the fish-out-of-water story with the sports paradigm, and with the display of growth in understanding the sport as well as the culture makes this a doubly interesting book. I really enjoyed the story – I am near the same age as the author and I recall my cousin buying mimeographed Karate instruction books when we were in junior high, planning on using the martial arts to beat up those bullies that cross us. That’s a very similar story to how the author got invested in martial arts, and I suspect many boys had similar thoughts, especially when martial arts movies or TV shows were popular (David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” for me, “Karate Kid” for the next generation.) I found the thoughts of the writer quite familiar, and really wanted to know where the story went. I found myself cheering on the author as he succeeded in his martial arts training as well as his understanding of the Chinese people. Enjoyable.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    I've wanted to read this book for years and I'm glad I finally broke down and bought it. Uproariously funny at times, the narrator is a very relatable young American man smitten with China who takes the plunge and moves to Shaolin to study kungfu. There were moments I disliked--like his "unified theory of religion" and his sexual exploits--but mostly it was a good nostalgic romp, from one former ex-pat to another. I suspects its charm is such that only die-hard travel writing fans or former laow I've wanted to read this book for years and I'm glad I finally broke down and bought it. Uproariously funny at times, the narrator is a very relatable young American man smitten with China who takes the plunge and moves to Shaolin to study kungfu. There were moments I disliked--like his "unified theory of religion" and his sexual exploits--but mostly it was a good nostalgic romp, from one former ex-pat to another. I suspects its charm is such that only die-hard travel writing fans or former laowai will appreciate.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Stacey

    Really enjoyed his humor, story and journey. Will look for more by this author. Audiobook was how I read this and I enjoyed it. I also read this because of Wendy Welch's review. I have no idea how I stumbled on this book originally as I dont look up stories like this either, but it worked for me! Loved the stretching story. It is highly motivating and interesting. Apparently that almost tearing feeling will not actually tear when stretching. I always wondered. Really enjoyed his humor, story and journey. Will look for more by this author. Audiobook was how I read this and I enjoyed it. I also read this because of Wendy Welch's review. I have no idea how I stumbled on this book originally as I dont look up stories like this either, but it worked for me! Loved the stretching story. It is highly motivating and interesting. Apparently that almost tearing feeling will not actually tear when stretching. I always wondered.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Wendi Lau

    Funny and interesting.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ensiform

    As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies. After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu. This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, wit As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies. After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu. This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, without an introduction or appointment, and ask to sign up for kungfu classes at the legendary temple – but that is exactly what he did. Arriving in Beijing, he discovers that even the Chinese are not sure if Shaolin still exists, but he presses on anyway, and to his credit, he manages to arrive. Not understanding the Chinese tradition of haggling (or extorting the foreigner), Polly agrees to an outrageous price to be taught kungfu at Shaolin, and his journey begins. The account of Polly’s time in Shaolin is both hilarious and informative; it’s a coming-of-age story blended with a travelers-abroad tale. Polly experiences all the shocks that China gives the Western traveler (I was interested to see that he describes his personality as splitting in two, an American Matthew Polly and the dopey, grinning Chinese version, always struggling to process what was going on – a phenomenon similar to that described by Peter Hessler in River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze; he also describes the same resentful, helpless feeling in the face of emotionless, unspeaking, staring crowds), but takes them in stride. Eventually he is quite at home in Shaolin, distinguishes himself in kungfu tournaments, meets a few wastrel and pretender Westerners who follow in his footsteps, and even does the unthinkable: he dates a Chinese woman. Polly’s memoir is a terrific read, but it’s also valuable in two main ways. One, it documents the training process and some outstanding martial arts techniques studied at Shaolin, such as the Iron Forearm or Iron Head or Iron Dong (they all involve focusing qi through breathing and then punishing the specified body part daily until it is as tough as steel), which are fascinating. Two, in addition to all the cultural mores that Polly diligently records (the little rituals of polite language that I find enthralling), because Polly revisits Shaolin ten years later, he is able to document how China has changed – not just in the ease of transport or shopping opportunities, but the emerging confidence and higher expectations of the Chinese people. It’s an insightful, first-rate memoir.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Browne

    Funny at times, and a unique story, but I found myself bogged down in the middle.Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American 19s quest to become a kung fu master at China 19s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 1970s TV series, Kung Funny at times, and a unique story, but I found myself bogged down in the middle.Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American 19s quest to become a kung fu master at China 19s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-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 1970s 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 spend two years training with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism. Expecting to find an isolated citadel populated by supernatural ascetics that he 19d seen in countless badly dubbed chop-socky flicks, Matthew instead discovered a tacky tourist trap run by Communist party hacks. But the dedicated monks still trained in the rigorous age-old fighting forms 14some even practicing the "iron kung fu" discipline, in which intensive training can make various body parts virtually indestructible (even the crotch). As Matthew grew in his knowledge of China and kung fu skill, he would come to represent the Temple in challenge matches and international competitions, and ultimately the monks would accept their new American initiate as close to one of their own as any Westerner had ever become. Laced with humor and illuminated by cultural insight, American Shaolin is an unforgettable coming-of-age tale of one young man 19s journey into the ancient art of kung fu 14and a funny and poignant portrait of a rapidly changing China." "

  30. 4 out of 5

    Manny Furious

    All the good things people have said or written about this book are true. It's a quick, funny read with a number of interesting insights and anecdotes about Polly's two years in China. There's really no reason to rehash the same virtues that others have already done a fine job of exploring. The thing that bugged me about this book and ultimately led me to dock it a star is that Polly comes down with a bad case of Hemingway-itis. Polly pretends to be humble and self-deprecating, but it was hard f All the good things people have said or written about this book are true. It's a quick, funny read with a number of interesting insights and anecdotes about Polly's two years in China. There's really no reason to rehash the same virtues that others have already done a fine job of exploring. The thing that bugged me about this book and ultimately led me to dock it a star is that Polly comes down with a bad case of Hemingway-itis. Polly pretends to be humble and self-deprecating, but it was hard for me to ignore the following claims: Polly admits to being simply maladroit at Kung Fu when arriving at the temple, yet within six-month's time he is beating a number of students who have been studying Sanda for years. Also within a brief time, his spoken Chinese is better than "Dashan" a laowai who had been in China for years, he is able to out-drink the Chinese natives, beat them at their own drinking games, perfect Chinese negotiating tactics, come across as automatically attractive to every Chinese woman he comes across, stand toe-to-toe with a national Sanda champion, develop strong enough forearms to break wooden poles over, flirt with Spiritual Enlightenment, and on and on. There's nothing Polly can't accomplish within a few month's time. Hell, he even manages to intimidate members of the Chinese Mafia/Triads. Maybe they're exaggerations, maybe not. Even if they are true, how are us mere mortals supposed to relate to someone like Polly, who is able to accomplish such things in so little time? Other than that, it's still worth the read.

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