I’ve been meaning to read the story of Matthew Polly’s time spent training at the famous Shaolin monastery for years, but I finally got around to it recently thanks to my Audible.co.uk subscription*. And what a great read it is! I’m sure we can all identify with the teenage Polly, unsure of himself and his place in the world, who falls under the spell of Kung Fu and decides to dedicate his life to the pursuit of it as some kind of escapism from the pressures and fakeness of the modern world. To Polly, Kung Fu represented something sublime, pure and otherworldly that actually meant something. But unlike most of us, he did more than just dream about it, he actually went to Shaolin and lived there for almost a year, at a time when there was no Internet, no easy way to get there and China had only recently opened up to foreigners, so most Chinese people had never even seen a Laowai in the flesh before.
Polly’s story could best be summed up as a sequence of misadventures punctuated by moments of sublime martial arts inspiration. He manages to get into all sorts of scrapes involving accidentally offending senior party officials, being entered into a tournament against a San Da champion and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex. Part Bill Bryson-style travelogue, and part kung fu geek-out, this is a rewarding, even emotional, look into what the Shaolin monks were really like in the 1990s, just as their international fame as stage performers was starting to spread and take over from the mystical image everybody had of them from the Kung Fu TV show. (Interestingly, at one point Polly watches the Kung Fu TV show with the monks who laughed their heads off at the idea of burning a dragon and tiger into your arms by lifting a hot anvil and dropping it into the snow – “why would you do that???”)
What you really get from this book is a sense of what the Shaolin monks are really like back then, and how much more human, relatable and down to earth they are compared to the lofty ideas we all have of them. It answers all the big questions like, how good are they at actually fighting, how seriously they take the “monk” side of their lives and how they train iron first, arm, head and even iron crotch.
The little snatches of Chinese you pick up by reading the book are also a hidden bonus and bring the characters to life marvellously. By the end of the book you feel like they are your friends and you know them just as well as Polly did. Anybody who likes this blog would love this book. Recommended.
N.B. The cover with a monk holding a Burger King bag is representative of the idea of American values seeping into China, but a little misleading as there were no Burger Kings in China then, and certainly nothing like that in the rural backwater of the Shaolin village.
*Like a number of other books, American Shaolin is included in the cost of an Audible subscription, so if you are a subscriber you get it free.
People often claim that it was Bruce Lee who was the father of the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, but was he really? Sure, Bruce brought a sense of realism to the genre, but it was Kwai Chang Caine who set the ball rolling. The other popular TV series Monkey and The Water Margin were also influential, but felt like they were aimed at a younger audience. And for kids like me it wasn’t possible to watch a Bruce Lee movie – they all tended to be rated 18.
I’d go as far as to say that Lee wouldn’t have had the movie success he had, particularly in the west, if it weren’t for the Kung Fu series.
Here’s a good documentary on the making of Kung Fu – I still remember some of these action sequences, particularly the one where he kicks the knife out of the guy’s hand and it sticks in the roof, which is shown in this video. That moment was the start of my lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts.
Just a short post today, but I really liked this video of Shaolin Da Hong Quan (“Big Hong Fist”) from Will at Monkey Steals Peach. He shows some applications at the end too, so keep watching. The applications look like some I learned in Tai Chi, and I can see some of the punches have a lot of similarity with Xingyiquan. More evidence that Chinese martial arts are all one big family.
Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.
Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.
I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.