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

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  2,730 ratings  ·  394 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
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really liked it Average rating 4.00  · 
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 ·  2,730 ratings  ·  394 reviews

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Start your review of American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China
Wendy Welch
Dec 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 21, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: humor, memoir
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
Dec 24, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: babble-added
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 10, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: don-t-read-this
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
James Kelly
Dec 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book caught my attention several years ago due to my interest in Shaolin kung fu. I read it quickly and found it quite delightful; the tale is of a young American who leaves university to travel to China with an interest in, albeit temporarily, living as a monk. He arrives in a particular province (I can't remember its name, just that it began with d) and after acquainting himself with locals and picking up a few anecdotes to tell the reader, one of which has to do with locals believing he ...more
Apr 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: other-asia, memoir
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
Jan 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jim Peterson
Feb 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kung-fu, english
American Shaolin really captures rural Chinese culture in the 1990s in a place where communism, Buddhism and kung fu all live together. Mathew Polly spent a year in a school outside the Shaolin Temple (not in it) learning wushu and then kickboxing. I've never read a travelogue before, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I should check out Bill Bryson now.

Though reading this was great fun, it was also very sad. It seems all that's left of kung fu at the Shaolin Monastery is kung-fu-looking gymna
May 06, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Apr 15, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Why is it that only disillusioned, rich white kids who drop out of Ivy League schools that they aren't even paying for because Daddy's footing the bill all go on to lead these neat ass adventures and fulfill lifelong dreams? oh wait, it's because Daddy's paying for their dreams. Polly's a hack and a chump!
Jul 20, 2011 rated it it was ok
No doubt about it, Polly is a good writer, but I got sick and tired of hearing all about how he, the white boy, saved the day, how he somehow managed to do the right thing, etc. His writing was so engaging, that I almost missed all the horrible, somewhat racist things he was saying about China and the Chinese. Sigh. Might be a good book for discussions with teens about orientalism.
Celia Buell
I picked this up because I wanted something nonfiction and dealing with religion to fill a requirement in The Challenge Factory's "Smart is Sexy" 2019 challenge. I don't think I've ever read a memoir that was so much about true self discovery than American Shaolin. I don't know anyone who is so insecure of themselves that they would go to a foreign country with no connections to master an art, nor do I know anyone who has any type of similar story. I think Matthew Polly's memoir fully illustrate ...more
Sep 02, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  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
May 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
American Shaolin gets a 5 out of 5 stars because it is like no other book I have ever read before!It reminds me of everything I’ve always wanted to do since I was in grade school waking up watching a few carton kung fu shows being viewed on Disney before I go to school. “I wonder where true kung fu is taught,” I would often times ask myself. Then following that question I would have a full day dream consisting of training with kung fu masters somewhere in a secret temple like in those foreign m ...more
Goran Powell
Oct 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jun 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.
May 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Apr 02, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: aquinas-library
This book came completely out of left field. The marriage of serious martial artistry with the sophomoric sex and poop gags is a weird one, and it's hard to really remember a book that is designed solely to entertain at the expense of any substance whatsoever. A quick, entertaining read, but not much else.
Nov 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
The book starts with the background of the author, who writes himself as a character. He’s smart – he gets into an Ivy college, but he’s a free spirit – working on a religion degree instead of a degree conferring money-making skills. He paints himself a bit of a fool, deciding to go to China soon after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations to learn Kung Fu from a school that he doesn’t even know is real. The early part of the trip is a humorous fish-out-of-water story, which did nothing to dispel ...more
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've wanted to read this book for years and I'm glad I finally broke down and bought it. Uproariously funny at times, the narrator is a very relatable young American man smitten with China who takes the plunge and moves to Shaolin to study kungfu.

There were moments I disliked--like his "unified theory of religion" and his sexual exploits--but mostly it was a good nostalgic romp, from one former ex-pat to another. I suspects its charm is such that only die-hard travel writing fans or former laow
Wendi Lau
Nov 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Funny and interesting.
Apr 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, china, travel
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
Carolyn Browne
Jan 23, 2016 rated it liked it
Funny at times, and a unique story, but I found myself bogged down in the middle.Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American 19s quest to become a kung fu master at China 19s 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 Caine in his favorite 1970s TV series, Kung ...more
Joe Green
Sep 21, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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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

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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.” 11 likes
“[...] 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.” 5 likes
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