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    American Shaolin - book review

    A review of the book "American Shaolin" by Matthew Polly:

    In the early 1990s Polly dropped out of Princeton University, flew to China and set out to train at the Shaolin Temple. He was motivated by a mental list of "what's wrong with Matthew", including physical cowardice, spiritual confusion, etc. That list forms a loose structure for his book, as his year of living and training at Shaolin answers his questions and forces him to ask new ones that can't be answered living on top of a mountain with a bunch of Buddhist monks.

    Polly begins training in a combination of Wushu and traditional Shaolin formal styles, learning to "eat bitter" in agonizing stretching and endurance exercises. He then discovers a talent for Sanda (kickboxing) and goes on to compete in that style, representing his school in one tournament and one challenge fight before heading back to the US.

    Polly is a good writer (now a professional travel writer) and his book neatly mirrors his own journey (a classic fish-out-of-water/coming of age story) with the fast-paced progress of Chinese society itself over the past twenty years. The story is peppered with amusing anecdotes that convey the day-to-day reality of living in a foreign culture, especially a semi-mythical pressure cooker community like Shaolin, which attracts a lot of "extreme" personalities.

    From the Bullshido.net point of view, Polly has a realistic grasp of the relative value of Wushu and Sanda. He explains classical forms training as a way of preserving the past and (increasingly) as a performing art, whereas Sanda is explained as a stripped-down, no-nonsense combat sport. He also has an interesting theory about the proliferation of specialized Shaolin styles; you stick a bunch of celibate athletes up on top of a mountain for long enough and they will create new fighting styles out of sheer boredom.

    "American Shaolin" is a good read and I'd recommend it.

    http://www.amazon.com/American-Shaol.../dp/1592402623
    Check out the Bullshido.net Western Martial Arts Forum for all things Western, martial and arty.

    Bartitsu: the Gentlemanly Art of Self Defence (est. 1899)

    #2
    I am in the middle of the book now, and I must say that it really is an interesting read. The part about the Shaolin monks making fighting systems out of boredom is possibly the best thing I have heard about Shaolin. Great book so far, very readable.

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      #3
      I picked this up at a library book sale a few months ago for about a dollar but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Since you recommend it, I'll make it the next book I read.

      you stick a bunch of celibate athletes up on top of a mountain for long enough and they will create new fighting styles out of sheer boredom.
      This sounds awesome.

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        #4
        Martial Artists and Celibacy? Who would have thought......?
        "Coffee is for Closers" GlenGarry Glenross

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          #5
          I really enjoyed the read; My favorite part was reading about the crazy Finn that Matt kicked the crap out of.

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            #6
            Great book! *****

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              #7
              American Shaolin was a good book. Sam Sheridan's "Heart of a Fighter" is similar in style, but dealing primarily with combat sports (he trains in Muay Thai in Thailand, BJJ in Brazil, and boxing and MMA in the US, the MMA with Pat Militech). I would recommend it as well.

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                #8
                Originally posted by Bugeisha
                American Shaolin was a good book. Sam Sheridan's "Heart of a Fighter" is similar in style, but dealing primarily with combat sports (he trains in Muay Thai in Thailand, BJJ in Brazil, and boxing and MMA in the US, the MMA with Pat Militech). I would recommend it as well.
                Also on that topic, there's "the Last Wrestlers" - http://www.amazon.com/Last-Wrestlers.../dp/0091910676

                The author, English journalist Marcus Trower, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, became sick of being told to "play safe" in his life and fell in love with weight lifting, judo and submission wrestling (in that order).

                Contracting a mysterious illness that prevented him from training and competing, he set out to discover what wrestling meant in other cultures. This book records his adventures tracking down traditional wrestling styles in India, Mongolia, Nigeria and Brazil, interspersed with his theories about the origins of the sport.

                I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but "the Last Wrestlers" is well-written, entertaining and educational.
                Check out the Bullshido.net Western Martial Arts Forum for all things Western, martial and arty.

                Bartitsu: the Gentlemanly Art of Self Defence (est. 1899)

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                  #9
                  I read American Shaolin about a year ago and couldn't put it down. It made me want to take San Da. The Last Wrestlers looks really good too. I'll have to pick that up over the summer...

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                    #10
                    Sounds like an good read. It's hard to separate fact from fiction regarding the Shaolin, and I'd be interested in reading a first-hand account from someone who's not trying to sell mail-order black belts.

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                      #11
                      Originally posted by Marc Spector
                      Sounds like an good read. It's hard to separate fact from fiction regarding the Shaolin, and I'd be interested in reading a first-hand account from someone who's not trying to sell mail-order black belts.
                      I don't think Matt Polly is trying to sell black belts. I don't think he's even a martial arts instructor. I've met the guy at one of his book signings and he's a stand up fellow. Really funny, self-deprecating humor just like in his book.

                      I have also visited the Shaolin Temple back in my Kung Fu days, although I was there in 2001, almost ten years after Matt was there, and only for a week (so of course my experience of it was pretty limited). What I saw pretty much confirmed what he wrote about it being a huge tourist trap, although nowadays it's almost as big a tourist destination for foreigners as it is for Chinese people (EDIT: that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there were a lot of foreigners around. This could also be due to the fact that the "Shaolin Temple International Festival" was going on at the time).

                      I went back in 2005, and they had totally gutted the village lining the street leading up to the temple. There were probably 50 little shops and restaurants, most of them selling useless junk and VCDs, but there were also some quaint little restaurants that I was sad to see have gone. The Chinese government is really trying to monopolize the tourism industry there, while also preserving the temple as a historical site. A mix of good and bad, as usual.
                      Last edited by Bahuyuddha; 2/12/2008 4:18pm, .

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                        #12
                        Resurrecting this thread to give another two-thumbs way up for this book. I just got done reading it and, like someone else mentioned, I couldn't put it down. Extremely interesting and VERY funny, I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Also, not sappy, and like the OP said, the author's outlook would be Bullshido approved. Strongly recommend!

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                          #13
                          Mental Note: Iron Crotch will attract the ladies but might not be worth the loss of sensitivity.
                          Originally posted by Newb1

                          B) I could not beat a Judoka with Aikido. I could only beat an Aikidoka with Aikido. I thought that was understook.

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                            #14
                            That was a really good book. If you enjoyed it, you'd probably also like "Angry White Pajamas".

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                              #15
                              I am again a huge fan of this book! Can anyone here tell me if Polly still practices kung fu? I wonder what became of him as a martial artist.

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