American Shaolin

Author: Matthew Polly
Publisher: Abacus
Subject: Autobiographical/Travel/Sport
Year: 2007


This book logs the author’s dedication to learning Kung Fu. Back in 1992 Matthew Polly travelled to China, specifically to Henan and the Shaolin Temple to immerse himself in Kung Fu and learn from the fabled masters at the Shaolin Temple. Polly stayed to train and did not leave until late in 1993 -this book charts his time there. It also includes a short return visit in November 2003 when Matthew went back to Henan.

The book was published in 2007 and Polly highlights that this recollection of events while studying at the Shaolin Temple comes ‘as accurately as his aging, baijiu-damaged brain would allow’.


This book is the total opposite from my previously reviewed book ‘Waking Dragons’ is the story of sticking with martial arts over the long term and juggling with real life issues such as education, work etc.

American Shaolin is the documentation of one martial artist’s journey, who gave himself over to travelling to another country and spending many, many months totally immersed and focused on learning Kung Fu.

It begins with Polly creating a list of things that were wrong with him, as well as highlighting his obsession with Kung Fu. This obsession initially led Matthew to taking Kung Fu classes and an increasing interest in Chinese culture which grew as he studied the ‘intellectual history of China’. However, one of the shortcomings on Matthews’s list was that he felt cowardly. From this point, the book elaborates on the journey that Polly took to grow and learn, so that he did not have to feel so cowardly in the future.

Polly explains how he came to make his decision to train at the Shaolin Temple after discussing it with his teachers. The book then moves to him arriving in China and locating the Shaolin temple. Polly had spent time learning Chinese as part of his studies and immediately puts it to good use to find out where to go. The journey was taken before the internet was widely used, and the exact location of the Shaolin Temple was shrouded in mystique!

Upon arriving, Polly describes how his expectations of what the Shaolin Temple and the surrounding areas would be like differed greatly to what was really there. He documents how he had to search to get a school to teach him, the political views of the time and almost everyone he meets being surprised at a ‘Laowai’ having such good comprehension of Chinese.

We hear how tough the training was, how Polly made friends and fought for the honour of the Shaolin Temple. Iron methods of training (including Iron Crotch!) are discussed and attempted, as well as the benefits of Chinese medicine and a little travel within China.

To close the book Matthew covers his return visit in 2003, documenting changes to the area, politics and progress, as well meeting old friends.


Polly is a professional writer and it shows as the book is very well written. What I have not mentioned in the review is how funny this book is. I laughed out loud on many occasions while reading. Some of the best comedy comes from classic communication issues, both language and cultural. It is a brilliantly written memoir and one of the first martial arts books I recommend when asked. Polly went on to write another book about how he spent time training for an MMA fight after getting out of shape, including training with Randy Couture.

This is a fantastic book, very funny and a great read. It will appeal to both those interested in martial arts and those who aren’t -it’s a hybrid combination of training and travel novel, albeit in fact a recollection of real events. Everyone I have discussed this book with has said it is a very good read thus I would recommend it to all!

Favourite Quotes

  • ‘There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of distinct styles of Kung Fu. There are styles devoted to every conceivable animal. There are ‘drunken’ styles, regional styles, styles exclusively dedicated to one weapon. There are family styles, which are never taught to anyone outside a bloodline. There are external and internal styles, styles for ground fighting, joint manipulation (qin na), and even one focused on head-butting.’
  • ‘That night I weighed up the pros and cons. On the positive side, Iron Crotch Kung Fu seemed to be the Chinese equivalent of Spanish fly, an aphrodisiac so strong women found even ugly men attractive. It would also make me impervious in a fight. On the other hand, if anyone back home found out about it, I’d be forced into therapy.’
  • ‘My initial strategy was based on my experience that fighters almost always rely on their strongest technique first – the kick they have practiced 10,000 times. For the Korean fighter, it was his front sweep.’

As part of Polly’s return in 2003 he wrote:

‘When I found coach Cheng the next day in Deng Feng, the first thing he said to me was: ’Lao Bao, you have gotten fat.’

‘Yes, master, you know you told me I was too thin before’, I said. ‘Not enough power in my attacks’.

‘I said gain some weight, not get fat. I almost didn’t recognize you. Are you still practicing?’

‘Some, not enough.’

‘Obviously. To practice Kung Fu you must not fear to eat bitter. You look like you have learned to love to eat sweet, God, I missed him’.

 Book Rating: 10/10

Stuart Grimes is a fan of all martial arts. He has studied Shotokan Karate for a few years as a teenager and also taken classes in Judo, boxing and Kickboxing. His children have inherited his love of martial arts and currently train over 12 hours a week, incorporating Chin Woo Kung Fu, Gymnastics and Sport Karate. His eldest two children compete regularly and either hold or have held English, British or European titles in the WTKA, WKU, ISKA, WKKC, WMO, WMKF and WKC, as well as a Unity International Games title.

  1. Reply
    kungfuspacebarbarian December 1, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Great review! I read this book a few years ago as an eBook and really enjoyed it. The book was hilarious and informative at the same time. I blew through it in like 2-3 days because i enjoyed it so much

  2. Reply
    KFSB on KFK! | KUNG FU SPACE BARBARIAN December 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    […] including “Fun Fridays” and a few of the reviews I enjoyed (btw, have you guys read American Shaolin? That was actually how I came across the site, when I was looking at reviews for the book. I read […]

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