Just the word “Shaolin” invokes thoughts of mystery—monks practicing their fighting and meditative arts on the side of a mountain, esoteric practices that lead to “iron” body parts…With its title & subtitle, American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China, practically sells itself. Matthew Polly grew up as the kid who was picked on and tormented by bullies. He even had a list entitled Things That Are Wrong With Matt. While he dreamed of heading to China and studying with the monks of the Shaolin Temple (like on his favorite 1970s TV show, Kung Fu), it seemed like just a dream. While studying at Princeton, he realized he could make his dream a reality. He dropped out of school and got on a plane to China, determined to acquire a combination of martial arts prowess, spiritual enlightenment, and self-confidence.
Polly’s account of his 2-year stint in China is a fascinating read. If you come just for the martial arts, you won’t be disappointed—while it takes a while for him to be fully accepted by the Shaolin monks, he eventually represents them in tournaments and becomes the first American to be accepted as a disciple. There are amazing pictures of kung fu feats and descriptions of the training that can lead to having an iron stomach, fist, or yes, crotch. While these monks seem almost mythical, Polly gives us the reality of living in the Temple--personality quirks, routines, and the hard work that goes into making their kung fu look so effortless. Reading American Shaolin will also give you insight about what it’s like to live in China as it changes in the first part of this century. Many folks dismiss nonfiction when it comes to summer reading, but this is exactly the kind of summer book I like—one that transports me into a different place and describes both the big picture of life there and the day to day routine with detail, insight, and humor. Matthew Polly’s web site has more info on him, links to other articles he has written, The Iron Crotch blog, and some videos of the monks of Shaolin doing what they do best.
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