AMERICAN SHAOLIN – MATTHEW POLLY

1. It’s not every day you wake up in a village where 10’000 armed Chinese kungfu masters are being urged by a Communist anthem to rise up and throw down your colonialist-capitalist ass. (p.75)

2. Most of Shaolin’s beginning Chinese students study the basic movements for six months to a year before moving to forms. But, Cheng Hao explained, the monks sped the process up for us laowai who have less time, less patience for basics, and a greater need for external markers of our accomplishments. (p.82)

3. I’d never imagined how crucial English was to my sense of unified self – part good and part bad, but all of a whole. I started to experience two versions of me: one English-speaking and one Chinese-speaking. Matt was a clever, thoughtful boy. Bao Mosi was a verbally impaired dunce, always nodding his head and smiling and saying ‘right, right, right’ when he had no idea what had just been said to him and was desperately hoping his brain would be able to translate that last comment before the speaker veered off onto another track. Bao Mosi was constantly working under a ten-second delay. (p.89)

4. Did qi protect them? In my experience, focusing the mind on a certain part of the body and imagining you were focusing energy there was helpful and necessary but not sufficient. Advanced practitioners of a particular iron kungfu had hardened that particular part of the body for so long and with such force that the physical alteration of their bodies bordered on deformity. Deqing, who practiced iron fist, had fists that were so thick they looked like pincushions – the fingers serving as the pins. Another monk, who practiced iron spear, had driven his fingers into hard dirt for so long that the four fingers of his right hand when held together were exactly the same length, his middle as short as his pinkie. And all the iron head practitioners had knots on their heads and spoke with stutters. So there are obvious limits to the power of qi: It can’t stop bullets. (p.93)

5. Modern wushu was the kungfu equivalent of figure skating. Competitions, both with weapons and without, are held before judges who assign points based on the beauty and the technical difficulty of each participant’s performance. The self-defense efficacy of the movements – the whole point of traditional kungfu – is irrelevant. Modern wushu is martial arts without the ‘martial.’ The emphasis is on speed, grace, beauty, and acrobatic ability. The highly stylized forms are peppered with the kind of flips and leaps you find in Olympic gymnastic competitions. (p.94)

6. Traditional kungfu masters from Taiwan and Hong Kong absolutely hate modern wushu because they (rightly) see it as a political assault on their art form with the intent of stripping away its martial and religious aspects. But the public loves wushu, because it is fast, beautiful, and the style most often seen in Hong Kong movies. Handsprings and back flips have zero usefulness in a fight, but they sure look cool. So that’s what the monks gave the crowds. In fact, they had modified the competition wushu forms, which are highly regulated, to jazz them up even further. The goal was to excite, to maximize the ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s. And they did, especially Deqing and Lipeng. (p.94)

7. The only thing more bitter than training at Shaolin was living in Shaolin without being able to train. (p.101)

8. As I chewed over what I had said as well, it took me several days to realize I was suffering from a minor case of Orientalism. I felt like I had grown up in a shallow, materialistic society and wanted the Chinese to be wise and profound – in short, bracingly poor – so I could get my deepness fix before returning home. It had bothered me that while I was trying to become more like my romantic fantasy of the Chinese, they were trying to become more like their avaricious fantasy of Americans. We were two ships passing in the night. (p.110)

9. Unlike Americans, the Chinese don’t pretend to believe in equality. (p.126)

10. For example, a husband was supposed to have the upper hand in a marriage, but if he refused or was incapable of wearing the pants, his wife would take charge with a vengeance. On more than one occasion I witnessed a scrawny man who had spent all night drinking with his buddies being chased down the street by his wife. She’d run after him wearing one flip-flop and striking him over the head with the other, all the while screaming so the neighbors could hear what a jiu guizi (drunken devil) he was and how he’d spent his entire paycheck on booze. (p.127)

11.Bao Mosi, this is China. The leaders’ children are like the descendants of Heaven. This is their world, not ours.’ (p.131)

12. That’s the theory at least. For the beginner, the reality is more like ten seconds of blankness, before various random trains of thought start pulling into the station: my back itches…my friends are probably still in bed…no, it’s a fourteen-hour time difference, they are probably out partying…this is the single dumbest decision of your entire dumb life…I miss ice cream…I hope the Chiefs make the playoffs this year…no, I miss peanut butter more. Each one of these trains of thoughts is quickly interrupted by self-recrimination: stop thinking…focus on your breathing…you lack discipline. And then the random thoughts start again. (p.136)

13. Kungfu practice was the way they practiced Buddhism – the traditional forms were a kind of moving meditation. (p.138)

14. ‘But muscles that are too big reduce the quickness of your technique,’ Deqing said. ‘Power is generated by speed, not size. You saw what a tiny bullet can do.’ (p.167)

15. ‘Because it doesn’t take much courage to fight when you still believe you can win. What takes real courage is to keep fighting when all hope is gone.’ (p.168)

16. Grandmother cursed him again, claiming to have fucked one of his relatives, but her accent was so thick, I couldn’t translate which one. (p.170)

17. While China has some extroverts, like Deqing, introversion was the masculine ideal. You could guess who was the most powerful man at any banquet in China by seeing who talked the least. Unlike in America, where having power means everyone else has to politely listen to your blather, in China power means those lower on the totem pole play the clown while you observe the patterns. (p.189)

18. ‘Your feelings are too obvious. You must hide them.’ (p.189)

19. The contemporary American obsession with ‘keeping it real,’ ‘being true to yourself,’ ‘conveying a sense of who you are’ was not only alien to them – it was anathema. (p.189.)

20. As the waitress poured ten shots of baijiu into thimble-size shot glasses, I tapped the table with my index and middle finger three times. It was the modern Chinese custom for saying thanks. The reason, according to my favorite version of the story, was that in ancient times you had to stand when a waitress served you. But when a long-ago emperor’s legs had been severely wounded in battle, his underlings started tapping the table with two fingers as a symbol for standing because they didn’t want to remind him of his injury. (p.191)

21. There is nothing as sharp as the shards of hate that have first been ground on the whetstone of one’s own soul. (p.195)

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