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American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China Hardcover – February 1, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this smoothly written memoir, 98-pound weakling Polly makes the age-old decision to turn his nerdy self into a fighting machine. Polly's quest for manhood leads this guy from Topeka, Kans., to the Shaolin Temple, ancient home of the fighting monks and setting for 10,000 chop-socky movies. As much a student of Chinese culture as he is a martial artist, Polly derives a great deal of humor from the misunderstandings that follow a six-foot-three laowai (white foreigner) in a China taking its first awkward steps into capitalism after Tiananmen Square. Polly has a good eye for characters and introduces the reader to a Finnish messiah, a practitioner of "iron crotch" kung fu, and his nagging girlfriend. We get the inside dope on Chinese dating, Chinese drinking games and a medical system apparently modeled on the Spanish Inquisition. The last hundred pages of the book lose focus, and Polly doesn't convincingly demonstrate how he transforms himself from a stumbling geek to a kickboxing stud who can stand toe-to-toe with the highest-ranked fighter in the world. Although Polly may fall short in sharing Shaolin's secrets, as a chronicler of human absurdity he makes all the right moves. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


A funny, offbeat tale of a man and a nation coming of age. -- J. Maarten Troost, bestselling author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals

A lot of people talk about becoming a real live ninja and don't do a thing. That's bullcrap. But this guy actually did it! In conclusion, Matthew Polly is the complete opposite of a wimpy baby. -- Robert Hamburger, author of REAL Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book

A nicely developed narrative. -- Kirkus

A sensibility more alien to my own than Matthew Polly's is hard to imagine. I consider foreign cultures to be really...foreign. I don't spiritually quest; I go to church. As for the martial arts, I own a gun. But I loved American Shaolin. Reading it was like being abducted by an alien-a brilliant, funny, and hospitable alien who took me to another universe of sensibility. There I enjoyed myself immensely. -- P.J. O'Rourke

Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and David Carradine all played Shaolin Monks, but Matthew Polly actually lived it. In American Shaolin, he enters China's most famous temple, the birthplace of zen and martial arts, and uncovers unique insights on religion, sex, politics, and kicking butt-a revealing confession of monastic life in modern China. -- Gene Ching, Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine

I picked up American Shaolin and read it straight through. It is first rate. Polly's book tells more about what's going on in China and has more insights into the real China than anything in recent years. It is a wonderful true-life story with profound, behind-the-headlines observations about Chinese life. A tip of the Stetson to Matthew Polly. -- Dan Rather

Re-enter the dragon-Matthew Polly's gerbil style will totally defeat your dragon style! Just call him a hard-boiled egg: white on the outside, yellow on the inside. The most Asian of Kansans will Wu-Tang you into the apocalypse. -- Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day

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Product Details

  • Series: AWARDS: ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2008
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham; First Edition edition (February 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592402623
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592402625
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,611,038 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey P. Wachs on February 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A must-read for armchair travelers and martial arts buffs alike, in AMERICAN SHAOLIN readers are sure to enjoy a memoir as unconventional as its author, Matthew Polly. For the uninitiated, Polly-- fed up with his 98 lb. weakling existence and bored with Princeton-- chucked the Ivy League life in order to pursue his dream of studying kungfu at the fabled Shaolin Temple. His time in China coincided with the crumbling of the walls that had kept the nation isolated, making the environment one particularly friendly to having a tall and gangly Midwesterner genially (if awkwardly) attempting to insert himself into the often mystifying local culture.

The result is a travelogue exploring the dawning of the "New China," combined with a memoir of a remarkable personal experience-- Polly's determination and sense of humor proved essential in his efforts to win over the skeptical Shaolin monks, who soon see the promise in their guest; the story evolves into a classic underdog story as Polly's martial skills develop, eventually taking him to national tournaments on the Shaolin team and earning him the honor of being invited to become a monk himself (reportedly the first and only time such an invitation has been made to an American).

Along the way, Polly wryly observes the peculiarities of Chinese culture and the Shaolin path, elucidates the storied history of kungfu, and introduces the reader to unforgettable personalities ranging from disgruntled Chinese gangsters to a monk whose "Iron Crotch kungfu" demands a daily training discipline that must be seen to believe (Polly helpfully includes his own photos to make this possible).

As entertaining and funny as it is educational and informative, AMERICAN SHAOLIN is a treat for fans of off-beat travelogues, anyone who loved "Crouching Tiger," Sinophiles in general, and just about anyone looking to take a trip off the beaten path. Don't miss it.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By D. Buxman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was a joy to read! No, it's not a book about martial arts, and it's not really about Buddhism either, although you will learn something about both. This book is about the author's personal journey on a physical, mental and spiritual level. Parts of it are almost hysterically funny, but what I found to be most interesting was the deep degree of insight that was developed with respect to the perspective of the Chinese mindset and culture in the early 1990's.

Entertainment value aside, this book would be excellent for the world traveler or executive that wants a feel for the differences between our cultures.

The portions of the book detailing "Iron Crotch Kungfu," were excruciatingly funny.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey on February 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading American Shaolin and it really is a fantastic book! I haven't been that engrossed in a book for a while (I missed my subway stop two different times while reading it). It is exciting, funny, and moving. Plus quite amazing - I could hardly believe some of the stories and I kept putting down the book to tell my girlfriend about them. Also, it's excellently written. This is not just a retelling of interesting stories; the book really respects the subject matter, putting the people at a higher level of importance then the events, and lets the reader find a lot of meaning and depth.

You don't have to be interested in (or know anything about) the martial arts to enjoy this book. You just have to be interested in reading about someone who goes on an unbelievable journey to learn about himself, find his limits and his potential, and discover how an ancient tradition has become part of the modern world.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By S. Bauman on February 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I read this on a whim, and was very glad I ended up doing so. I have very little interest in martial arts, and normally stick to fiction and science fiction, but found this book to be incredibly entertaining. There were at least a dozen times I laughed out loud while reading the book, and found myself on a couple occasions reading deep into the night as I couldn't put the book down. The book also has some great insight into what rural Chinese citizens think of their American counterparts on the other side of the planet.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By J. Miller on March 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I am the last person who'd buy and devour a kungfu book! I bought it for my husband who needed some reading for an upcoming trip. But, desperate for something to read one day, I thought I'd suffer the first chapter. I could barely put it down! I found myself wondering how a particular story would end on those days when my 14 month old wasn't allowing any mommy-reading time. Don't get me wrong: it is definately more for the macho reader! Polly's humor and his description of Chinese personality makes up for the "guy stuff." Other than making me think a little about how different cultures are, (I am a rather nationalistic American afterall), it was simply a fun read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John H. Bellinger on April 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
As a martial artist I bought this book as a new source of info on the arts and also an interest in Buddism made it seem a good choise. Neither avenue was really satisfied in full. What I did get was one of the most humorous reads I've ever had which touched on the above subjects plus it added, travel log, relationship building, people watching and a sarcasm how to. I've read a few American out of his element books before, but never so close to the way I see things as this. Having said that I think these things I'll have to admit that I would never be able to get those thoughts onto paper in any readable way. Polly makes it intellectually interesting, funny and an escape at the same time. If forced to describe his style, I would say it's kind of like if Dave Lowry and Will Farrel morphed. Read this book if you have any of the above interests. The rest of you read this book.
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