January 31, 2008 at 3:50 am #27306
‘The Buddha had lousy kung fu’
The martial arts memoirs Bruce Lee and Me and American Shaolin are the stuff of glorious fantasy, writes Steven Poole
Saturday April 28, 2007
Bruce Lee and Me: A Martial Arts Adventure
by Brian Preston
305pp, Atlantic, £8.99
American Shaolin: One Man’s Quest to Become a Kungfu Master
by Matthew Polly
366pp, Abacus, £10.99
In The Matrix, Neo undergoes an accelerated virtual training program in the martial arts. When he wakes up, he is a different man. “I know kung fu,” he says in awe. It’s a glorious fantasy – who wouldn’t want to take a cyber-shortcut to being kickass with none of the years of painful training? Sweat and tears are rendered obsolete by whizzy technology. But in reality, you must, as the Chinese say, “eat bitter” – do lots of tedious and painful work – to acquire any skill. Indeed, the term “kung fu” itself, often used as an umbrella term for the hundreds of different Chinese martial arts, just means “skill acquired through hard work”. An excellent chef or pianist can be said to have good kung fu. Similarly, martial arts are not about learning a few “secret techniques” and instantly being Jackie Chan. Spending a few months learning to hop around like a crane or tiger will not make you invincible. There are no shortcuts, as both of these books demonstrate.
At the age of 47 Brian Preston decided to enrol at his local Canadian “Shaolin kung fu” school in order, as his publisher hoped, to spend a year getting a black belt and allow readers to indulge the eternal macho fantasy by proxy. He quickly realises that the training is horribly hard work, and embarks on an entertaining and self-deprecating journey around martial arts in general, taking in visits to the mystical Wudang mountain and the Shaolin Temple itself, and interviews with practitioners of Brazilian jiujitsu, or the surprisingly charming young men who do “mixed martial arts” in glitzy tournaments such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (a bit like televised wrestling, only for real, with blood and smashed bones).
Near the end, a light comes on in Preston’s head when someone speaks to him of the “Eternal Spring path”, the Chinese physical philosophy that does not deny ageing but seeks to preserve a robust strength until the day you topple over and die. So he gravitates towards the “internal” martial arts (so-called because they train an unusual way of moving power around the body), bagua and taijiquan, or in the old spelling tai chi chuan. Taiji’s public image of beatific elderly people waving their arms around slowly in parks is an excellent stealth cover for its vicious reality, and it has the further advantage, for the middle-aged author, that it doesn’t destroy your knees.
Matthew Polly’s experience was more hardcore – a wimpy student at Princeton in the early 1990s, he decided to drop everything and spend two years training full-time at the Shaolin Temple. The story goes that Shaolin was the birthplace of “kung fu” a millennium and a half ago, when a wandering Indian yogi showed the monks some interesting breathing tricks, and some of them decided to specialise in fighting in order to defend the monastery against bandits – which they did with impressive efficiency until the temple was destroyed in 1928. The remaining Shaolin monks in China were persecuted and murdered during Mao’s “cultural revolution”, in a kind of disgusting revenge of the nerds against their physical (and moral) betters. When a young kung fu film actor, Jet Li, starred in a movie shot among the ruins, 1981’s Shaolin Temple, interest rocketed, and the place was rebuilt as a venue for teaching and performances.
Polly speaks Chinese, and is not afraid to eat bitter, so his very funny book is both a record of superb physical accomplishment – he fights and wins a couple of challenge matches with coaches from rival schools – and a loving tribute to his teachers, the fighting monks, ordinary young men interested in pop music, videogames and sex who also happen to have astounding physical skills. The school itself is run by grasping communist placemen, who spend the foreign students’ fees on lavish cars and dinners, and pay the actual kung fu masters a pittance for their hectic schedule of teaching and performing – which leaves little time for actually being monks. This systematic betrayal, along with the increasing lure of tourism, eventually takes its toll. When Polly returns a decade later, in 2003, he is saddened to see that what goes on at the temple no longer bears much relation to tradition, but has become merely the nerve centre for the shows that tour the world, “the long-running hit musical Shaolin’s Martial Monks”.
A question that both of these books ask is: why does the idea of “kung fu” still hold such glamour and mystery in the west? What is the point of spending years eating bitter to be proficient in unarmed combat, when you might meet a mugger with a knife or a gun? Or, if you are going to learn to fight, why not choose boxing? As Preston’s title suggests, the answer is partly the legacy of Bruce Lee, who was not a particularly outstanding martial artist by Chinese standards, but who was gifted with great beauty and charisma and a willingness to show off some stunts that western audiences had rarely seen. The other part of the answer is a kind of Orientalist spiritualism: a new-agey pick’n’mix adulation of “ancient Chinese wisdom” and meditation – which very often turns the western teaching of taiji, in particular, into flowery, non-violent nonsense.
It’s ironic, because arguably there is something like “ancient Chinese wisdom” encoded in the traditional martial arts – it’s just that it’s not to be found anywhere but through the hard physical discipline itself. Polly had spent years studying Zen texts, but his experience of feeling “peaceful” came after an intense, complex workout. And there is a very funny moment when he has his western romantic projections about the wise Orient debunked, as before a tournament fight he asks his coach what strategy the Buddha would suggest against his next opponent. “He taught us the principle of universal love. You could try loving him,” the monk deadpans. “But the Buddha had lousy kung fu.”
Too lazy to run, too dense to swim, too bored to lift weights, and aware that smoking by itself might not be the best corrective to a sedentary lifestyle, I began taking classes in Chinese martial arts myself in my mid-20s. The discipline in itself is endlessly fascinating, but I also found a form of learning experience that’s increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. This is, I think, another reason for the popularity of Asian martial arts in the west: the relationship between teacher and student. As our own traditional practices of apprenticeship vanish, and westerners expect to acquire knowledge reliably through crude financial transaction – I pay you money, and you will teach me so-and-so, and if I don’t learn it properly, I’ll demand a refund – there is something corrective about becoming a “grasshopper”, entering into a relationship with a teacher based on respect and humility, and getting taught only what your attitude shows you deserve. My own taiji teacher is a tiny middle-aged Chinese woman half my weight. Getting bounced around the room by her like a rubber ball is really something. So I try to do what I’m told, and practise. As a wise master once said: “Wax on, wax off.”
· Steven Poole’s Unspeak is published by Little, BrownJanuary 31, 2008 at 9:41 am #27307
The blood, sweat and tears mentatlity actually intereferes with fighting efficacy, and dropping that and learning to truly focus,centre,root,align and integrate your body, mind and spirit in the midst of turmoil is the true work in martial arts as in anything else. Its not laziness and flowery hands and its not beating your head off a brick wall.
Buddha came from an Indian warrior clan as I remember. Anyway the notion that chinese martial arts come from Buddhism is Buddhist propaganda. And the idea of loving your opponent is not solely Buddhist either.
Bruce Lee WAS an outstanding martial artist, jealous wing chun practioners apart, as many anecdotes show, in addition to being a good show man.
It was martial arts that lead me into Chi Kung and I’m sure that applies to many of my generation. We started after watching Bruce Lee kick the Big Bosse’s ass and also wanted to kick ass if we are honest about it. That is the great thing about true martial arts, it transforms and matures as well as protects.
DylanJanuary 31, 2008 at 7:14 pm #27309
“To become more than what you were” basically sums it up I think.
As human beings, we are born into this mortal coil and as we
grow up we learn the limitations of being human. We develop
fantasies of becoming more than what we were, of developing
superhuman or even supernatural talents. We secretly dream of
developing superpowers–to be Neo from the Matrix, to be
Anakin/Luke/Obi-Wan whatever from Star Wars, etc.
We see experts in the martial arts, and see the skills that
they demonstrate as almost being supernatural–almost as
a stepping stone toward our fantasy of being a superhero.
We are drawn in–and the secrecy of a number of the schools
just makes it more seductive–almost as if the techniques
themselves are otherworldly and we are about to be inducted into
a course of action where we will learn these skills and
“become more than what we were”.
Once inducted, this often leads to an interest in internal
martial arts or spiritual techniques–because in my opinion,
the quest to “become more than what you were”, is really
at its fundamental level, a quest to connect with something
larger than your current status–something better addressed
in the spiritual arena . . .
SFebruary 1, 2008 at 7:06 am #27311
To unfold who we really are sums it up for me.
There is a reality behind these seemingly superhuman exploits. The growing up is not about dismissing them as fantasy but realising that they are side lights along the true path.February 3, 2008 at 2:14 pm #27313
It got me thinking about the need for human touch, and how touch translates honesty beyond words. I think in some ways martial arts is culturaly appropriate touch for men in the west. Of course as you develope the ability to feel and communicate with the energy body touch is not so needed, but with out that I feel it is an important part of building community and trust amongst each other. I have known buisness men that hold on to the hand and look people in the eye to try and feel them out. I am not saying it is the only reason but I think it is an important part. I went to a very hippy camp called A.R.E camp and in the morning we would get in a circle and before we would do are morning exercises we would give each other some back massages and there was holding hands and singing. Some might say very air fairy but very effective in creating trust and openess at the camp, it was a very beautiful accepting feeling and meany did not relize how cold the “normal” world was till having gone to that sumer camp.February 3, 2008 at 3:45 pm #27315
There’s probably a component here as well.
There is still a pretty big fear-based component amongst
the general population of showing any sort of bonding desire
for fear of being viewed as gay or partly gay (as if that
should even be a problem anyway, but I digress . . .)
Contact sports provide an outlet for this desire without
aggravating the underlying fear response. Someone I once
knew who was really big into amateur wrestling competitions
basically told me–whether the wrestlers will admit it
or not–that that is a major reason why they enjoy
the sport so much.
It sad how much stuff we all repress or hide from others
out of some fear-based need to present some “image”
to other people that isn’t really our true self.
SFebruary 4, 2008 at 5:37 pm #27317
Yes I am going to start the humans that understand the gromming of semians. Called Hugs……….NO, not realy, but that would be hilarious. 🙂
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