Every now and again, time and space just seem to line up in an incredible display of fate/coincidence (delete as appropriate). For months now, we have been trying to get to grips with the strange brand of Uncle Tom-ism on display in the Shanghai ex-pativerse. It has so many unique facets that it appears to defy summary or clear explanation. Then along came Matthew Polly who wrote American Shaolin, a book that sets it all out with the purpose and prose of a Plato’s Republic. Albeit unintentionally.
The book details Polly’s trip to China in 1992. Told as a series of anecdotes, he flies in to Beijing without a plan, makes his way to the Shaolin Temple and stays there for 18 months to learn kung fu. At the time, Polly was a highly motivated and intelligent Princeton student who’d studied Mandarin to a decent level before leaving for China. The story covers his first year, which ended with him being entered into a tournament in Zhengzhou City.
Polly is intelligent and open minded. He can speak Chinese and knows what is happening around him. He uses words like orientalism and peppers the story with measured observations and jokes about uptight neo-cons back home. He is both a likeable and capable storyteller and the book is an easy and entertaining read. It is for all these reasons that, when read on a macro level, the book is a tragedy on an oedipal eye-gouging level.
Within the first two months he finds out that Shaolin as it was ended in 1912 and attempts to restart it were literally bombed through the warlords period, pacific war, civil war and revolutions. The ‘kung fu’ he is learning is stylized dance taken from Modern Wushu and the iron body skills are individually trained circus routines. Yet he decides to stay and join the town’s kick boxing club.
Thereafter he learns kickboxing in rural Henan for USD1400 per month. That’s right. One anecdote has him proudly negotiate it down to USD600 per month. Still twenty times over the average family income in that area at the time and at least double that again over what other students pay. Everyone calls him laowai to his face and constantly refer to his ‘tall nose’. He is used as a punch bag for most of his training. “Why are laowai so bad at kungfu?” He takes bullies out for banquets and kowtows in the old style to a master who will never teach him – because he ‘understands’ guanxi.
By the time other “laowai” start turning up in Shaolin, Polly laughs at their strangeness and prides himself on being more ‘in’ than them. Oh, those crazy laowai. The most brutal picture of this is when he helps fellow American John Lee get attention at the hospital by reprising his “crazy
monkey foreigner kung fu” routine that amused his Chinese friends so much. As for the kung fu itself, Polly is painfully naïve. He spends a whole chapter befriending a mysterious caretaker who eventually relents and teaches him “Iron Arm” kung fu. This turns out to be bashing your forearms into a tree in a pattern, then using Chinese medicine to treat it. This is a common warm up/conditioning routine found openly in all traditional kung fu classes from Hong Kong to American Chinatowns.
Finally, when facing his first skilled opponent he is beaten to a pulp while the crowd chant ‘kill the foreigner’. If only he’d taken good advice to go to Taiwan or Hong Kong in the first place. Or better still, if he was going to do kick boxing, a Muay Thai camp in Thailand. Instead he decides to pay outrageous amounts of money to learn plain kick boxing in a third-rate school (he names the better schools in China) while being used as the butt of all around him’s ignorance – all because of the name Shaolin and the strange driving desire to prove that he ‘understands’ his oppressors. Polly himself often refers to better schools and a more open life in Beijing and Shanghai, even Wuhan, but instead is proud to represent Shaolin in the tourney – despite all but one of his teachers and classmates refusing to march with him and making him enter as the Princeton Team, USA.
Polly recalls all of this with cheerful nostalgia. We all get into situations in life, at home and abroad, where people with power over us abuse it. Sometimes we have to make do, but we don’t have to like it. We certainly don’t have to happily reproduce that behaviour. Despite his intelligence and open attitude towards China, Polly seems happy to give examples of “Chinese” behaviour while also stressing the individual personalities of the people he meets. His mind remains blissfully conflict free while talking about stereotypes and struggles while himself using generalizations and the word “laowai” on every second page.
And therein lies the book’s unintentional insight into the mind of the Uncle Tom Laowai. Read the book. It is one of the great philosophical novels of our time.
American Shaolin by Matthew Polly (Gotham Books) can be found in Garden Books, on the corner of Changle Lu and Shanxi Nan Lu.