(To celebrate the release of our good buddy Matthew Polly’s new book Tapped Out, we’ll be sharing some choice excerpts from one of my favorite books – American Shaolin. Polly trained in China with the Shaolin monks back in 1993 – before it was cool, as the hipsters would say – and this book chronicles all the ridiculous situations he got himself into.)
(excerpt from Part 2, Chapter 2)
I had defied my father to come to Shaolin, because I wanted to go to the most isolated, cutoff, far-flung, off-the-map place in the Mandarin-speaking world. And like most people who are not careful of what they wish for, my dream was granted. And, after the initial thrill of success passed, I was completely miserable.
No friends, no family, not even any English-speaking strangers— Shaolin was total immersion. At some point within the first month I started talking to myself, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that I was also answering myself. I’d never imagined how crucial English was to my sense of a unified self—part good and part bad, but all of a whole. I started to experience two versions of me: one English-speaking and one Chinese-speaking.
Matt was a clever, thoughtful boy. Bao Mosi was a verbally impaired dunce, always nodding his head and smiling and saying “right, right, right” when he had no idea what had just been said to him and was desperately hoping his brain would be able to translate that last comment before the speaker veered off onto another track. Bao Mosi was constantly working under a ten-second delay.
“Are you [something]?” one of the monks would ask. “All of us are going to [something] [something]. Interested?”
“Right, right, right . . . okay,” I would respond.
The Wushu Center had the only phone in the entire village capable of making international calls. It worked in about one out of every ten tries. The price was $8 per minute. The Wushu Center also had the village’s only international fax machine. The price was $20 per page. After failing several times to reach home by phone, I sent a short fax message per my mother’s demand that I reassure her of my continued survival.
Mother, your son lives still. But the natives grow restless. Please send more wampum. And some Peter Pan peanut butter. Food here is terrible. Will call when possible. Love, Little Lord Fauntleroy
Any letter or package from home took about thirty days to arrive: five days from America to Beijing, seven days from Beijing to Zheng Zhou, fourteen days from Zheng Zhou to Shaolin, then about a week for the Faulknerian drunks in the Shaolin post office to get around to telling me, the only American in the village, that a package had arrived from the United States. That is, if they hadn’t developed a hankering for Peter Pan peanut butter. All my packages and letters were opened, some never made it, and if they did, the stamps were gone, because foreign stamps were collectibles.
I was so lonely that for the first and last time in my life, when not under threat of being grounded, I wrote letters. And not little notes, I wrote twenty-, twenty-five-, thirty-page, single-spaced trea-tises. I sent them to everyone—my parents, my friends, my ex-girlfriend—mostly, it pains me to say, my ex. Inspired by the example of all those married convicted felons, I had hopes of rekindling her affections with the power of my words. Fortunately, I have managed to repress all of those words, because they were most likely of the desperate, heartbroken variety, which are never particularly attractive. Nor, in general, is a college dropout who joins a Buddhist monastery. She sent a single Dear John letter back. Unfortunately, I remember every single one of its I-love-you-but-I’m-not-in-love-with-you words.
(the rest after the jump)
I was so completely cut off from any news that it wasn’t until late December that I first heard the results of the 1992 U.S. presi-dential election. The painter, who had helped me when I first came to the Wushu Center, said to me one day, “America has a new president.”
“I am not sure, but I do know one thing,” he continued, “Bushi Bushi.”
The Chinese phrase for “is not” is bu (2nd tone) shi (4th tone).
The Chinese transliteration of George Bush’s surname is bu (4th tone) shi (2nd tone). But I couldn’t hear the tonal differences, because the painter’s rural Henan accent was thick and my Chinese was still poor, so I misinterpreted him as saying that the president of the United States bushi bushi (is not, is not.) I was momentarily confused. Why would he repeat “is not”?
Was it for emphasis? Did something dramatic happen? The president “is not, is not”? Did he mean, “there is no president”? There was an assassination?
My heart started racing.
It is an indication of how deep my sense of isolation was that my first reaction was America had slipped into anarchy and the federal government had collapsed.
Sensing my distress, the painter repeated nervously, “Bushi Bushi.”
“What did you say?” I demanded.
Finally, I heard the tonal shifts and understood he was saying,
“It is not Bush.”
It was not until several weeks later that I discovered it was Clin-ton, not Perot, who was our forty-second president.
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 are 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.
Unlike previous generations of Shaolin students, I had access to a TV, kungfu movies, pool tables, and Street Fighter II to occupy my free time. But even with all that, except when I was studying kungfu, I was like a jonesing addict in detox. I missed Western food, the English language, my friends and family. But I felt the aching loss of visual stimuli at least as much. Nights at Shaolin felt as tedious as extended car rides across the Kansas plains. Many evenings during that first month, the loneliness and isolation would grip me so hard around the chest I’d have trouble breathing. The worst of these panic attacks came on Saturday nights, because I had to face the prospect of Sunday without any kungfu training while all the time imagining all the fun my friends were having that I was not.
Shaolin’s only truly interesting entertainment option was the monks’ spectacular kungfu performances. There was no set schedule for them. They might not perform for several days, and then suddenly have three afternoon performances with an evening blowout. Tour operators would call at the last minute, hoping to get a better deal on the ticket prices. Or some government officials would appear with some foreign dignitaries they wanted to impress with a Chinese cultural event. Or a group would just show up at the door with a person in tow owed a favor by someone at the Wushu Center, and the monks had to drop what they were doing and put on a show.
The performances were designed like a superior version of the regular workout. The monks began with some jumping, leaping, and other gymnastic flips and falls across the mat. The youngest and least talented would start with basic leaping kicks. The difficulty of the techniques would ratchet up with each succeeding monk until the most talented concluded the warm-up: most often either Deqing with a series of whirling high kicks or Lipeng, a taciturn loner who could do twenty back handsprings on a space the size of a dinner table.
After limbering up the monks would execute the stretching kicks with military precision. Each back ramrod straight, every knee and elbow locked, every foot touching the top of every forehead, every American Shaolin leg snapping up and down almost faster than the eye could follow.
Once this group warm-up was complete, the monks left the room to return one by one to perform their individual specialties.
These broke down into two groups: forms and qigong skills.
Most of the qigong skills were iron kungfu feats. The Chinese believe in a concept called qi, which roughly translates as “vitality” or “breath” or “energy.” They believe that qi courses through the human body like the Force in Star Wars, and this qi can be strengthened through breathing exercises and then focused to various parts of the body. Iron kungfu involves directing the qi to a part of the body to protect it from a blow. One monk was an expert in iron arm and leg kungfu. During the performance, various wooden staffs were broken over his limbs. A monk who specialized in iron stomach kungfu invited members of the audience to punch him as hard as they could. The blows had no observable effect. His facial expression never changed. Another monk broke bricks over his head.
Did qi protect them? In my experience, focusing the mind on a certain part of the body and imagining you were focusing energy there was helpful and necessary but not sufficient. Advanced practitioners of a particular iron kungfu had hardened that particular part of the body for so long and with such force that the physical alteration of their bodies bordered on deformity. Deqing, who practiced iron fist, had fists that were so thick they looked like pincushions— the fingers serving as the pins. Another monk, who practiced iron spear, had driven his fingers into hard dirt for so long that the four fingers of his right hand when held together were exactly the same length, his middle as short as his pinkie. And all the iron head practitioners had knots on their heads and spoke with stutters. So there are obvious limits to the power of qi: It can’t stop bullets.
The iron kungfu performances were interspersed with expert form demonstrations. Except for one routine, none of the forms performed were traditional Shaolin-style forms. They were all variations of modern wushu competition forms.
When Mao Zedong banned kungfu in the 1950s, it was part of his overall ideological program to create a “New China” free from its feudal past and religious traditions. But banning kungfu was the equivalent of trying to outlaw high school football in west Texas. The Chinese are obsessed with kungfu; you can find septuagenarians practicing martial arts forms every morning in parks across the country. So Mao knew he needed to rechannel that passion. Because international sporting competitions were one of the fronts where the Cold War could be fought relatively safely, Mao and his cadre created two sports out of traditional kungfu: modern wushu and sanda (Chinese-style kickboxing).
Modern wushu was the kungfu equivalent of figure skating. Competitions, both with weapons and without, are held before judges who assign points based on the beauty and the technical difficulty of each participant’s performance. The self-defense efficacy of the movements—the whole point of traditional kungfu—is irrelevant.
Modern wushu is martial arts without the “martial.” The emphasis is on speed, grace, beauty, and acrobatic ability. The highly stylized forms are peppered with the kind of flips and leaps you find in Olympic gymnastic competitions.
To support these new sports, the government made modern wushu and sanda part of the curriculum at the various tiyu xi-uyuan (sports universities) across the country. It pushed for the acceptance of the two sports in international competitions. And it scoured the land for talented boys to be placed in intensive wushu training programs. The most famous product of the Chinese wushu machine is Jet Li, who was discovered during citywide sports testing in Beijing, enrolled in Beijing Sports University’s wushu program— still considered the best in the country—and became a five-time national champion before making the movie Shaolin Temple, which launched his acting career.
Traditional kungfu masters from Taiwan and Hong Kong absolutely hate modern wushu because they (rightly) see it as a political assault on their art form with the intent of stripping away its martial and religious aspects. But the public loves wushu, because it is fast, beautiful, and the style most often seen in Hong Kong movies.
Handsprings and back flips have zero usefulness in a fight, but they sure look cool. So that’s what the monks gave the crowds. In fact, they had modified the competition wushu forms, which are highly regulated, to jazz them up even further. The goal was to excite, to maximize the “ooh”s and “ah”s. And they did, especially Deqing and Lipeng.
Lipeng was an expert in Ditang Quan (Floor Boxing), which American Shaolin involved leaping into the air with various flying kicks and falling flat onto the mat. After entering with twenty back handsprings, he proceeded to do a series of front flips without using his hands, followed by several high-flying kicks, the last of which he finished by landing flat on his back. And so forth. As a pure example of acrobatic ability and physical toughness, it was breathtaking.
His only competition was Deqing, whose entire body was basically one fast twitch muscle. His endurance was lacking, but for the minute or so he was in front of the crowd he was an explosion of ki-netic motion. He was so fast and so strong that he couldn’t be bothered with the niceties of wushu forms, which require the feet, the hands, the head, and the body to be exactly a certain way at exactly a certain moment. He was too busy blowing through the form, leaping higher, spinning faster, charging harder. Deqing was the only monk that the other monks would make a point to watch. Part of it was his skill and part of it was the joy he exuded, but the major reason was that he was the only monk who consistently improvised new moves for his forms, sometimes on the spot. As great as the other monks were, once you had seen them do the same form exactly the same way a couple dozen times, you started to get a little jaded. Not with Deqing.
Deqing was once doing his version of Shaolin Drunken Style (created by a monk with a weakness for the bottle). In the middle of the form, he was supposed to jump into the air, complete a flying kick while rotating in a large parabola before landing flat on the left side of his body. But he had leaped too high and his body wasn’t rotating over fast enough. He was going to crash flat on his back. So what he did was straighten his legs to stop his body’s rotation, and then, in the middle of the air—six feet above the ground, laid out flat as a board—he rotated his hips, which flipped his body like a pancake. When he finally landed (it seemed like it took a minute), he was in a push-up position, his hands bracing his fall. A monk sitting next to me shook his head with awe and envy and exhaled under his breath, “Fucking Deqing.”
I watched every performance I could. But even more entertaining were the monks’ interactions before the show started. The monks were like a theater troupe. They bitched about aches and injuries.
They complained about having to perform for small crowds. They were pumped when the house was packed or there were VIPs present. The less expert monks studied the performances of their betters, looking for techniques to appropriate. The stars were difficult to track down moments before their performances, usually arriving with a flourish at the last moment after one of the younger monks had been sent to fetch them. There was also endless backbiting about who was over-the-hill, who wasn’t improving fast enough, who was shirking the performances by faking an injury, who was not as good as he thought he was, who never gave a good performance unless the crowd was large enough, who needed to learn something new instead of doing the same old form over and over again, who needed to spend less time instructing others and more time looking after his own deteriorating kungfu skills.
As the monks switched from the jogging pants and T-shirts they wore for practice to their orange monk robes, the banter would go something like this:
“I don’t know.”
“Go get him.”
“Why should I go?”
“Because I told you to.”
“Hey, who has a sash?”
“Where’s your sash?”
“It’s in the wash.”
“That’s why you have two.”
“They are both in the wash.”
“You’re a stupid egg.”
“You need to shave your head again.”
“But it’s so cold.”
“When you bring the staff down on my arm, snap it. Be fast.
Last time, you nearly broke my shoulder.”
“If you don’t like how I do it, get someone else.”
“He’s never here.”
“Who’s in the crowd?”
“A group of laowai.”
“Where are they from?”
“How can you tell?”
“Everyone give full effort today. I don’t want to see any laziness out there.”
“Their clothes. And they’re fat.”
“I want you to do praying mantis form.”
“My back. You know my back is hurt.”
“It’s been more than a month.”
“But I already did praying mantis this morning.”
“So you can’t do it again?”
“My back. It really hurts.”
“Okay, then do iron stomach.”
“Aiya! Why not?”
“I have diarrhea.”
“Then practice your iron asshole kungfu at the same time. Okay, the music has started. Everyone get ready. Will someone get Lipeng? Damn! Everyone ready? Let’s go.”
(That again was an excerpt from Matt Polly’s first book, American Shaolin. We’ll be having more excerpts over the next few weeks, and it’s all about letting you know how fricking good Matt’s stuff is. His new book, Tapped Out, came out this Thursday. If American Shaolin was ‘That time I trained with the Shaolin Monks in China’, then Tapped Out is ‘That time I had adventures through the world of MMA.’ Check it out. You won’t be disappointed!)