Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

On the Shelf with Matthew Polly

While attending Princeton University in the early 1990s,Matthew Polly decided to pursue one of his longtime dream goals,which was to be like David Carradine in Kung Fu and seek out the Shaolin Temple for marital arts training. He was able to find the actual home of the Shaolin monks and for two years,was one of their students who taught him about more than kickboxing and iron forearm.

Polly returned to the States,and later became a Rhodes scholar who studied politics and philosophy at Oxford. He eventually took up travel writing and has had articles published in Esquire,Slate,Publisher's Weekly and Playboy.

Polly is the winner of a Lowell Thomas award for his travel writing and has recounted his kung fu adventures in American Shaolin: Flying Kicks,Buddhist Monks and the Legend of Iron Crotch,An Odyssey in the New China,which is an enlightening and entertaining look at a world that many only know about thru B-movies(not to mention currently available in paperback). I am most grateful to Matthew Polly for giving me a chance to ask him a few questions and getting some excellent answers:

1)You cite David Carradine in Kung Fu as one of your reasons for seeking out the Shaolin Temple. Are you still a big Carradine fan today?

A great and funny question. David Carradine is one of the better B-list celebrity tales of love, loss, and redemption. He seemed so cool to boys of my era. Then we grew up and learned (a) his kung fu skills were actually terrible, (b) he got the part of Caine only because the studios wouldn't give it to a Chinese actor named Bruce Lee, and (c) he coasted the rest of his career on this one show, selling out our affection like a crack 'ho (e.g. Yellow Book). But then Tarantino, the great excavator of '70s cool, rescued Carradine in Kill Bill the same way he did Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

2)When you went to China in 1992,you decided to find the Shaolin Temple by just asking around-would you recommend that approach to someone going to China these days?

No, never. But then again there were no Google maps in 1992. Al Gore hadn't invented them yet. These days the problem isn't finding Shaolin but finding the right school. The place has become so popular that there are dozens trying to lure in Western students. I get emails every week from young men seeking advice on where to go.

3) What was the hardest martial arts techique for you to learn?

The Chinese say that to learn kung fu you must first learn how to "eat bitter" (suffer). The toughest technique was to master the bitterness. After that the specifics were easy.

4)What was the biggest culture shock that you experienced while in China?

I grew up a white boy in Kansas. I had no idea what it was like to be an outsider or minority. You learn a lot about ethnicity, identity, and race when you are the only foreigner on a rural mountain top in the middle of China. The way people would stare, point, and take pictures of me, I often felt like I was a panda at the National Zoo.

5)Have you seen any films and/or TV shows since leaving China that you feel comes close to what you saw first hand over there?

No, and I keep waiting for one, because I watch all of them, especially the so-called TV "documentaries." PBS, National Geographic...they all trade on the Shaolin myth created by Carradine's show and countless Hong Kong chop socky flicks. But I do have high hopes for " The Real Shaolin" by Alexander Lee. I saw a ten minute distillation of his work a year ago when he was looking for investors, and it was as close to the truth as anything I've seen on film.

6)Are you in touch with any of the monks who trained you at Shaolin?

I am. I talked to Monk Cheng Hao and Monk Deqing after the book was first released. They were both happy with it. I am closest to Monk Lipeng, who has become an action movie producer. I'm helping him edit the script for his next picture.

7)What was your favorite pop culture discovery in China?

The Chinese absolutely loved Ace of Base's "All That She Wants." It was played constantly while I was there. If there is ever a conflict over Taiwan, America could easily settle it by throwing China an Ace of Base reunion concert.

Thank you again,Matthew Polly,for your time and if folks would like to know more his amazing experiences in China and with the Shaolin monks,please check out the official website and Matt's Iron Crotch blog. And now,for your viewing pleasure,the monks of Shaolin demonstrating their devotion to the physical arts:

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