American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China
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American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  1,713 ratings  ·  305 reviews
Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Growing up a ninety-pound weakling tormented by bullies in the schoolyards of Kansas, young Matthew Polly dreamed of one day journeying to the Shaolin Temple in China to become the toughest fighter in the world, like Cain...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published February 1st 2007 by Gotham (first published 2006)
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Wendy Welch
There are five compelling reasons why I shouldn't have liked this book.

1) It's about martial arts, and Jack (my husband) and I are Quakers. As in pacifists.

2) It's about a sport. I was the smart kid who had her period every week throughout high school so she could avoid playing volleyball.

3) A man wrote it.

4) It's about China. Africa and the Middle East are my anthropological areas of expertise, and ergo what I read about more because I can tell when somebody's lying.

5) It's about a rich white...more
Jan 07, 2008 Jennifer rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: martial arts lovers
This book was so phenomenal that I wrote a thank-you note to the author. The way he wrote it makes him so likable and human that I didn't want it to end. He becomes a badass by force of sheer will and that's always one of those things I want to hear is possible. The big bonus was learning so much about the Chinese culture. I didn't realize it until I was listening to a story on NPR about 'The New China' and I thought, Yeah, I know all about those customs and traditions! Even if you don't love ma...more
Jordan Funke
This was a fun story. I wanted to give it 2.5 stars, but the cultural insensitivity lowered it for me. I liked the author's self-effacing and simultaneous self-promoting style. But I was never able to fully suspend disbelief about how successful and loved and accepted he was being the only non-Chinese in a town full of 10,000 Shaolin practitioners. It wasn't too gory and only glorified violence a little. It completely hooked me all the way through, but I hate that this is the kind of American wh...more
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Sep 02, 2007 Matthew rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: the casual martial arts fan
Shelves: biography
Get past the awful cover of American Shaolin, because this travelogue-slash-memoir is a little gem. The decidedly cheesy artist’s impression doesn’t do the content justice.
Granted, the book calls occasionally for suspension of disbelief. A recollection by author Matthew Polly, at the time a self-confessed skinny nerd obsessed with kungfu who wants to be a bad ass madafacker, of two years spent training in Shaolin, it celebrates certain stereotypes, like that of ridiculously acrobatic monks hone...more
I have an affinity for anything to do with oriental cultures but I do not have an affinity for martial arts. I chose to read this book because it showed up on the ALA Alex list. I was not disappointed, and I can think of a number of teen boys who would enjoy reading it.
The author had much to be proud of having spent the time to learn Chinese before embarking on his two year stay in China to improve his Kung Fu skills. By doing so, he was able to give us a personal look into the lives of the Chi...more
I hated this book. Rather than being culturally sensitive, this asshole woke up 10 years after his experience and decided he wanted to make some money so he wrote this book. He's totally ignorant and doesn't even use the principles he SHOULD have learned from what SHOULD have been an incredible experience. He gives people who do follow this way of life a bad name. Asshole.
When Matthew was a teen, he made a list of things about himself that he didn’t like – and then went about changing those things. His first accomplishment was educating himself and becoming an intellectual. From there he went on to tackle his cowardice – by going to China and studying kung fu in a Shaolin temple.

It was a lot harder than he’d expected. He met with resistance from his family – they wanted him to finish college, and difficulties finding the temple once he’d reached China, and was fa...more
This adult memoir wins the "Best Title of the Year Award!" And it lives up to its name. I couldn't put this one down, and I hate kungfu movies. So the author did something right. I think this one has wide appeal, especially for high school students, and it definitely shouldn't be purchased for "large psychology collections." Puh-leese. I can't believe I just read that in a review.[return][return]Matthew Polly is a wuss from Topeka, Kansas, who gets into Princeton. But things aren't going right a...more
As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies. After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu. This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, wit...more
I had never heard of this book, so when forced upon me by my sensei, I took one look at the cheesy 1970's art work of a blond American fella in a Chinese shaolin outfit standing in some sort of crane or tiger pose(not the same cover as above) and thought, cheese.
I was suprised when I started reading it to find that it was actually a true story about a young American man's journey to China and his experiences as an outsider training in the Shaolin community.
As a recently returned martial artist I...more
American Shaolin by Matthew Polly is a strange and intriguing book. Matt struggles to find himself. Trying desperately, he decides to train in Chinese Shaolin Kungfu at the Shaolin Temple in China. Matt is a junior at Princeton University, a very prestigious school and decides to leave for 2 years to the Shaolin Temple, the place where kungfu was founded. Along the way, Matt starts to find himself and steadily starts to get rid of the things on the “Things That Are Wrong With Matt” list. It is a...more
I read this book a long time ago, so my apologies for writing this review from memory. But I had to say, I loved this book. Don't take it too seriously, it's not trying to be a major spiritual journey through martial arts and the Chinese cultures, it's trying to be funny.

I first picked it up off the shelf because at the time I was a Wushu practitioner. I opened to a random page where the author is practicing with something called a 7 sectional whip or chain (you don't whip it Indiana Jones styl...more
I had a lot of fun reading this memoir about Bao Mosi and his mad kungfu skills!!! It's cool how he speaks Chinese so well. I like his honesty. He's not afraid to look kind of ignorant or silly when he describes events in the book. Love that. I read a review that said something like: a good book but I'm sad that this is the kind of person who represents Americans abroad. I have to respectfully disagree with that. I thought Matt was exactly the type of person I'd want representing America abroad:...more
Alvin Chi
This is a great novel written by Mathew Polly who attended Princeton University. He wanted to learn Mandarin and his college Professor recommended him to go to China which was the origin of Mandarin. Then he decided to go to a Shaolin temple in Henan, which was a part of China who specialized in Kung Fu.
This was a really good novel about Polly’s experience in China; although he didn’t go to China for the reason he wanted to but he managed to focus on Kung Fu as well as improving in his Mandari...more
Goran Powell
If alarm bells ring at a book title beginning ‘American’ rest assured, this is an unexpected gem. Matthew Polly writes with wonderfully self-depreciating humour that makes for a very enjoyable read. Better still, he delivers real insight into modern training at the Shaolin temple.

There is a sense of genuine warmth for the people he meets and every word rings true. Polly is not afraid to expose the less spiritual side of Shaolin, with its tourist traps, political intrigues and the unhappy relati...more
As a young adult, Polly leaves his studies at Princeton University during the 1990s to travel to China in search of the Shaolin monks. His goal is to live with the monks, learn kung fu, and improve himself. Polly relates his experiences with humor and a tone of self-deprecation as he stumbles through cultural barriers and misunderstandings. As readers, we gain an understanding of the people of rural China and their struggle from the repressive area of Communist policies that sought to wipe out m...more
May 17, 2009 Valerie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Steve, Mark, Debbie, Shawn
Recommended to Valerie by: whimsy
Shelves: arewethereyet
I love armchair traveling almost as much as real traveling, and it is slightly more practical. I picked this book up, because I had read Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman ages ago and liked it, and because my husband is testing for his black belt this summer, and I wanted to learn more about martial arts culture. The combination of self-deprecating humor and honest look at Chinese culture was well done. He mentions selling the movie rights, but I don't recall ever seeing a movie about this. I'll hav...more
Nancy Yamaguchi
What a fun and interesting book! The author, while an undergrad, made a list of his self-defined flaws and decided to improve himself by studying with the Shaolin monks. He spent 2 years there, and not only became skilled in the martial arts but became a deft and often humorous observer of Chinese culture. China already was modernizing, but not much had trickled through into the inner country. He returned ten years later and found a transformed China.
American Shaolin
By: Matthew Polly
This book is about a young boy named Matthew Polly He hoes to Princeton University. He is a 21 year old in the book that thinks he has 5 things wrong with him. Once he goes to princeton he crosses off one of the words that he thinks is wrong with him “ignorant.” As he finds out how good it feels to get a word crossed off. after all that self confidence was gone he wanted to cross off another word “COWARDLY” which basically defines this whole book. So he seeks o...more
This account of the culture clash between Buddhist martial arts monks in modern China and geeky American kungfu wannabe is fascinating, but also laugh-out-loud funny. Don't read it in a restaurant if you don't want Coke coming out your nose. It's really a guy book (considering language I'd say 15 & up), and I would give it to a reluctant reader in a heartbeat.
Michael Kerr
3.5 stars - why can't goodreads give me half stars?
American Shaolin is the engaging memoir of a young American, Matt Polly, who goes to China in the early 1990s to study martial arts with the Shaolin monks. It's the dawn of the new China, shortly after the Tiananmen massacre, and Polly observes the stirrings of the massive energy being unleashed. In addition to providing a western view of this cultural shift, the book is a wryly amusing tale of a callow youth in search of himself. There's a lot...more
This book sat on my shelf for a few months. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to read it. Silly me. It was impossible to put down. I was very upset that Polly's experiences in Shaolin had to come to an end because that meant that the book was over.
This is an easy read, and often quite funny. I learned many interesting things about kung fu, the Chinese, and 1990's rural China from this book. Not to mention some really excellent Chinese curses!
American Shaolin is a book about a man who travels to china to become enlightened and learn the ancient art of Shaolin KungFu. Along the way he meets many other Shaolin monks, and becomes friends with them. He then learns the art of Sanba, Chinese kickboxing. Then he decides to join the Chinese Tournament, and places second in his weight class.

I like this book because it is very moving and inspiring. He went from a scrawny boy to a tall, powerful man. I also like it because the theme behind the...more
Asaf Bartov
I had an inexplicable attraction to this book, some decade ago, and bought it on impulse. Then it lay on my shelves, moved house thrice, before I picked it up one day in one of my famous Random Defiant Read moments.

I was quickly reassured that this would be a worthwhile read. Mr. Polly is forthright, engaging, and witty, and he skillfully interweaves the main narrative of his apprenticeship at the government-run Shaolin Wushu Center (adjacent to the Shaolin temple itself) with interesting narrat...more
This book entertainingly recounts the author's unique and fascinating experience as the only American (and for most of the time, the only Westerner) studying kung fu martial arts at Shaolin Temple Wushu Center, in China, from September 1992 to September 1993. In addition to being a devoted martial arts student, the author speaks Chinese, so he's really able to understand, communicate with, and befriend the locals. The book is full of cultural insights, written with keen cultural understanding, a...more
Nov 05, 2008 Andrew rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in an Asian adventure story
Recommended to Andrew by: My Dad
America prides itself in creating a near-ideal society; a society where people succeed and accomplish great things through sheer determination and taken initiative when opportunities present themselves. In American Shaolin by Matthew Polly, it is seen that for one such boy growing up in Kansas, that philosophy was really taken to heart. America blessed him with a supportive family and a great education at Princeton University. Time and time again, his determination saw through obstacles, but he...more
Joe Green
All the good things people have said or written about this book are true. It's a quick, funny read with a number of interesting insights and anecdotes about Polly's two years in China. There's really no reason to rehash the same virtues that others have already done a fine job of exploring.

The thing that bugged me about this book and ultimately led me to dock it a star is that Polly comes down with a bad case of Hemingway-itis. Polly pretends to be humble and self-deprecating, but it was hard f...more
As a librarian, its been a while since I read a book I couldn't put down. This book is one of them. I've read several books about China but never have I read one that touches on the interesting culture, economy,religion, society and history of China and packages it all with an equally fascinating story as this one does. Polly is hilariously honest about some of his exploits & failures. Polly's observation of poverty stricken central China as they transition to capitalism in the early 90's is...more
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Matthew Polly is an award-winning travel writer for Slate. His first book, American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch; An Odyssey in the New China, was published in February of 2007. A Princeton University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, his work has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, and The Nation. He grew up in Kansas and lives in New York City
More about Matthew Polly...
Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China Shaolin: Temple of Zen

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“It is difficult for my fellow countrymen who have never lived abroad to understand that until a foreign man is about sixty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he'd like to punch an American in the face. Even people like the Chinese, who mostly like us, think of us--at least partly--as loud, fat, poorly dressed, overprivileged, hectoring, naive, arrogant, self-righteous bullies with little knowledge and no interest in any culture other than our own. I once had a conversation with a Japanese journalist who said to me, "You don't seem like an American." When I asked him, slightly hurt, why he said that, he replied, "Because you listen.” 7 likes
“The sayers do not know and the knowers do not say.” 3 likes
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