Monday, February 23, 2004

Everybody was kung fu fighting: Matthew Polly writes a diary for Slate on his return to Shaolin Temple ten years after he left (he trained there for 2 years).

Shaolin Temple, as any teenage boy can tell you, is the mythical home of the birthplace of kung fu. There are simply countless bad chop socky films made which center around, take place in, or just reference the hallowed training grounds. Founded and inhabited by monks who needed some way to keep fit while sitting around meditating, the story goes that the ritualized, animal-style self-defense system was created.

I studied a Vietnamese style of kung fu here in Philadelphia for over five years. While I was training, I ate, slept and thought about kung fu. It was a long-time goal of mine growing up to study some form of traditional fighting art that didn't involve colored belts and a lot of yelling. I couldn't have found a better place. My teacher was a diminutive yet very lively and forceful buddhist who grew up in Vietnam, studied at a traditional monastery, and graduated in nine years. He left Vietnam after the War when anyone espousing traditional or non-state-sanctioned arts were being harrassed. Our teacher, who we simply called "Phan" -- his name -- couldn't have been more humble or skilfull. While the art has certain flourishes, it does provide a good base for self-defense. There's no yelling or knuckle push-ups, and there's a real subtlety to the art that had I had more years to devote, I was well on my way to achieving. However, things like earning a living had to get in the way eventually.

As Polly's diary speaks about, Shaolin was pretty much written off and nearly destroyed by neglect and then by the Cultural Revolution. Then it got popular again and was almost destroyed anew as it turned into a Kung Fu Disneyland. It seems things have gotten back to their roots (as much as that can happen) and it's being run more like a monastery again.

During the hard-liners' time in rule, kung fu was reduced to what is now called "wushu" even though that word translates into something akin to a fighting style. It's not. Polly calls it kickboxing mixed with ice skating and he's not far off the mark. It's really incredibly difficult floor routine gymnastics with props that look like weapons. You need an incredible level of training to be good at it, but it won't help you much in a fight, beyond the fact that you can probably jump around without being touched (hmmm, maybe it is useful). That's still taught at Shaolin, but so is the traditional art (and apparently, so too is a third style, which is the performance art you may have heard about on Broadway - mostly breaking stuff with parts of your body), which centers on the animal styles and solid foundations such as stances, footwork and hardening of the body.

Anyway, I could go on and on with this topic that ruled so much of my existence for a while. Suffice it to say that Polly knows much more about it than I and so far in his Diary, he seems to be happy to be back.

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