Two Stories of China

I made the terrible mistake of reading Iron & Silk and American Shaolin back-to-back. Two books of stories about an American that went to China, studied kung fu, then returned. As time passes, I am certain the stories will converge.

What differentiates them? Polly, the “American Shaolin”, couldn’t speak effective Chinese when he arrived, whereas Salzman of Iron & Silk portrays himself as effectively fluent from the get-go. This is one instance of many where I sense that he is smoothing out rough edges of his story, embellishing himself in a way that Polly, with his list of “THINGS THAT ARE WRONG WITH MATT”, avoids.

Polly learns to fight via san da (free sparring, Chinese kickboxing) training, after a period of merely practicing forms. Salzman seems to have stuck with forms training and a few isolated instances of push-hands (a gentle partner exercise). Polly went primarily to train kung fu at a temple; Salzman went to teach English and train on the side. Both stayed for a mere two years.

After living abroad for just under two years myself, I see just how little two years is in a foreign culture. To be fair, they are more embedded in their host culture than I am in mine, mostly due to language skills.

I was disappointed in Polly’s rapt description of his first encounter with his coaches (page 52):

[Their] poses were precise; their techniques were blindingly fast and their kicks snapped like their legs were made of rubber bands. They were faster than Bruce Lee. They were better than the wire-enhanced kungfu actors in the movies. I had never seen such a display of martial art skill.

That’s not martial art skill, though. That’s demonstration skill, gymnastic skill, physical skill. But it says nothing about being able to take a punch then knock the other guy down. Their training schedule (p79-80) makes this abundantly clear: they do some calisthenics, stretching, and gymnastics before kicking the air as flashily as possible. From page 85:

The two-hour afternoon session was identical to the morning workout, as every workout would be for the next three months. I ran. I jumped. I reluctantly frog-jumped. I rolled. I tumbled. I sweated. I stretched. I kick-stretched. I learned more basic movements. I fumbled through more of Small Red Boxing [form].

This makes for a fit body, but not fighting skill. Contrarywise, it does make me yearn for martial arts schools that emphasize physicality alongside technique. In most schools, the ability to execute a technique is considered an issue of knowledge and practice, and the prerequisite strength, mobility, agility, and conditioning is ignored.

Also, Polly revealed a siesta culture at the Shaolin training center, called xiuxi. As an athletic practice I admire this deeply. It’s probably what made two-a-days feasible.

The difference between the two books is widest when one considers a single anecdote, only a few pages long, in American Shaolin. Polly recounts one of his coaches, Diqeng, asking how to make money by selling Shaolin-style swords overseas. Polly, at the time, is disapproving: “But you’re a Buddhist monk,” he says. “You’re not supposed to make lots of money.”

It takes him “several days to realize I was suffering from a minor case of Orientalism. I felt like I had grown up in a shallow, materialistic society and wanted the Chinese to be wise and profound—in short, bracingly poor—so I could get my deepness fix before returning home.” The next part of the story, where Diqeng explains just how poor he has been in his life, touches the real in a way that Iron & Silk just never does. It is this introspection and personal change due to cultural exposure that Polly is able to tell honestly and Salzman seems unable to articulate.

Instead, Salzman’s storytelling strength is in scene-setting. Every anecdote is visually entrancing, his words covering the canvas of the mind’s eye with thick globs of high-saturation oil paint. His editing skill for inserting just the right amount of verisimilitudinous detail is stellar. This style does not lend itself to short excerpts.

Polly injects cultural insights, like the fact that non-Chinese Asian businessmen were enraptured by tall Chinese women. Salzman, in contrast, is able to relate his cultural interactions almost as poetry, communicating the cultural gulf as a fog of misunderstanding. The result is that where Polly’s anecdotes stick in the mind as concrete understandings, Salzman’s stay with you as abstract puzzles to muse over. It occurs to me that both writers, but particularly Salzman in this respect, are piggybacking their stories on a shared American cultural vision of China, one that Americans lack such a rosy mental niche for, say, Turkey. I imagine a book based on two years in Turkey would have to work a bit harder to reach an American audience. (For one, there’s no such thing as Turkish kung-fu flicks.)

The part when Polly finally touches serious san da fight training (page 155-156) was my favorite in American Shaolin. His training partner Baotong knocks him down, hard, several times while drilling technique. On Polly’s turn to go, Baotong declines to throw an easy, slow kick for Polly to counter, and Polly gets stuffed on his first few tries.

Finally, Polly catches Baotong’s thunderous kick and executes the technique with a slam. “Get up. Let’s go again,” he snarls. This is the spirit of hard training that his tale had been missing. I was very happy to know Polly experienced this.

Dave Liepmann, 01 March 2015