A kind of beatnik
As a boy in Kansas, Matthew Polly was the object of a particularly barbarous schoolyard torture. 'They called it 'racking',' says Polly. 'They'd chase you around the playground. Then four guys would hold down your arms and legs and another guy would kick you in the groin. I guess that might be where my interest in iron-crotch kung fu comes from.'
The childhood thrashings inspired Polly to leave Princeton University in 1992 and set off for Shaolin, a 1,500-year-old Chinese monastery famous for training generations of martial arts masters. Polly describes his two-year quest to remould himself into an 'enlightened badass' in his wry new memoir, American Shaolin.
'The idea came from this fear of being cowardly and not being able to protect oneself,' he says. 'I remember seeing a Bruce Lee movie when I was 13. Here was this little guy who was tough. So I had this idea that if you were a Shaolin dude, it didn't matter how big you were, you could defend yourself. At the same time, I was studying Buddhism. So I kind of had both things in my head when I was at Princeton. The moment I decided to go, it all made perfect sense. It was like this explosion in my head.'
The decision seemed less intuitive to Polly's parents. 'They thought they raised a good son,' he says with a chuckle. 'They paid for a good school. They were expecting a doctor, maybe a lawyer - not a kid who'd run off to China. I'd say they were shocked and deeply disturbed.'
Undeterred, Polly boarded a plane for Beijing. Unfortunately, he'd neglected to figure out where Shaolin was. So, in the first of many comic follies, he wandered around the capital asking people how to find the famous kung fu temple.
When he finally reached Shaolin, it wasn't the windswept, ascetic retreat he'd imagined, but a tourist trap - a gaudy, ersatz version of the temple familiar from countless kung fu films. Although Shaolin is the home of Chan Buddhism (according to legend, the monk Damo spent nine years meditating in a nearby cave) it's perhaps better known for its association with chop-socky cinema, particularly Jet Li's 1981 classic Shaolin Temple, which put the place back on the map after the lacuna of the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of aspiring action stars and curious tourists still beat a path to the temple's doors. 'You'd walk out the temple gates, and there was this humungous billboard for Chinese booze,' Polly says. 'Every part of the place was commercialised, and not in a dignified way.'
Nevertheless, Polly stayed for two years, enduring regular beatings, dysentery and grinding all-day practice sessions. 'At first, a lot of the monks didn't want to train me,' he says. 'Over time, they saw I was sincere. But it took four or five months before they'd talk to me like a fellow disciple. I was the first American to be accepted as a disciple of Shaolin. That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't stayed for so long.'
In American Shaolin, Polly describes himself as a fish well out of water - gawky, relentlessly self-critical and regarded by the other monks as either a walking wallet or a convenient punching bag. Yet he's able to turn his outlandishness to his advantage, pioneering a style he dubs 'crazy foreigner kung fu' involving flapping arms and creative profanity. Polly is eventually accepted into the temple's social order, training with the monks during the day and drinking with them at night. He progresses so quickly that the monks pick him to represent Shaolin in a national tournament (he comes an honorable second). A monk called Dong tutors him in iron crotch, an esoteric discipline requiring unusual devotion.
In the book, Polly describes a typical iron-crotch practice session: 'Monk Dong dropped his drawers, picked up the rope attached to the stone roller and tied it to his Johnson. The roller looked like one of the wheels on Fred Flintstone's car. It must have weighed 500 pounds [225kg]. With the rope running between his legs, Monk Dong leaned forward and pushed with his feet, trying to walk forward. It was like watching a porno version of The World's Strongest Man contest on ESPN2.'
Polly certainly wasn't in Kansas any more. Yet although he says he was initially attracted to kung fu's extreme physicality - the graceful whirling-dervish kicks as well as the masochistic regimen - he eventually began to regard his training as a spiritual crucible too. 'When you're young, you're interested in how to be tough, how to fight,' he says. 'But as I got older, I got more interested in my own soul.
'That's the reason Shaolin is so exciting to people. It exists in a paradox - they're Buddhist monks who study kung fu and knock people around. When I was there, Shaolin was trying to get off its back after the Cultural Revolution. People didn't want to see old men meditating. They wanted to see the martial arts stuff. So the emphasis was on kung fu. But what I found surprising was that it became a form of moving meditation. You think you're learning how to fight, but actually you're learning how to meditate.'
If he never quite achieved full-fledged badass-dom, Polly says he did reach a modest sort of enlightenment while observing an old monk practice one day. 'As I watched the old man, what impressed me was the devotion,' Polly writes. 'It was what had allowed this culture to survive - and now thrive - despite the traumas. As he finished his form, what I wanted was to love something, anything, as fiercely as he so obviously loved Shaolin kung fu.'
Even though he's a decade on from his Shaolin sojourn, Polly may revisit his experience again soon and says he recently sold his memoir to a movie studio.
So who does he envision playing him in his chop-socky epic? 'I like to think it would be Brad Pitt,' he says with a rolling laugh. 'But then I look in the mirror and realise that's not going to happen. Tobey Maguire would be fun. It's sort of a Spiderman story - the geek who learned how to be strong.'