Bruce Lee and Me: A Martial Arts Adventure - Bruce Lee News
The martial arts memoirs Bruce Lee and Me and American Shaolin are the stuff of glorious fantasy, writes Steven Poole.
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."