Shaolin, Sanda: Matt Polly

Matthew Polly’s first two books, American Shaolin and Tapped Out, are perhaps the funniest and most honest accounts of training in traditional and mixed martial arts you’re ever likely to read.  Indeed, the two books should be required reading for anyone thinking of indulging their fantasies of martial arts competence, let alone glory.

As he publishes a new and authoritative biography of Bruce Lee,  Matt talks about why Bruce must be seen as an actor first and foremost; the extent to which Bruce can be seen as the father of MMA; his views on the Wong Jack Man fight and the Xu Xiaodong challenge matches; the importance of theatre and ritual to traditional Chinese martial arts; why traditional martial arts are multi-faceted in a way that combat sports rarely are; and why traditional arts have immense value in their own right.

Matt, I understand your new biography emphasises Bruce’s identity as an actor while downplaying his reputation as a martial arts guru…

What’s interesting about Bruce is he’s the only major icon who died before he became internationally famous. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were already established celebrities before their early deaths. Bruce was almost completely unknown outside Asia before Enter the Dragon. That film that turned him into an international icon. I think many fans confuse the character he played on screen with who he was in real life because they didn’t have any experience of him in real life. And then of course the martial arts magazines ran with that and they turned him into the patron saint of kung fu.

I don’t want to in any way diminish how important Kung Fu was to him, or how important he was to Kung Fu, but one of the fascinating facts about Bruce Lee is he was in his first movie when he was three months old. His father was an actor. Bruce began doing regular film work from six years old. He had his first starring role at 10 and he made 20 films by the time he was 18 or 19, none of which were kung fu movies. So he had a full acting career before he ever walked into Yip Man’s studio and started training Wing Chun.

To understand Bruce Lee’ s personality it’s easier to understand how he operates if you think of him as an actor first who became obsessed with the martial arts, and then merged those two obsessions later in life by becoming a kung fu movie star. Because if you think of him as a Shaolin monk like the character in Enter the Dragon it’s very hard to put that together with some of his other personality quirks. But if you think of him as an actor, a child actor who became kung fu obsessed, then he makes sense as a person.

What personality quirks are you referring to?

Well, he liked to smoke a little dope, that he had a few mistresses here and there, he bought a Porsche, he liked living in fancy houses with servants, all the things that every celebrity likes to do, but you don’t normally associate with ascetic gurus. He behaved like an actor behaves, and an actor obsessed with martial arts, he didn’t behave like our image of the ascetic martial arts master,  which is probably false anyway.

An image which you did a lot to puncture in American Shaolin of course

That’s right. If anybody knows how the Shaolin monks are not like our image of them, I do. So in a certain sense it all works together, but if you want to grasp Bruce Lee the person you have to think of him as an actor. In his entire life of 32 years, there was only five years where he wasn’t actually a working actor.

What sort of acting culture existed in Hong Kong? 

His father was a Cantonese opera actor, so Bruce was steeped in that tradition, but he personally rejected it. The Shaw Brothers started making films in Hong Kong in 1959 which was just about the time Bruce went to America.  The key to understanding the movies he made at the time was that the movie industry in Hong Kong was highly politicised because of the revolution in China. It was split down the middle between the right wingers who supported the Nationalists, and the left wingers who were pro Mao Tse-Tung.

The movies he made were very didactic, they were social message movies. Hong Kong was largely a  refugee camp with millions of people who had fled from the revolution in China. His early movies were melodramas and weepies with social messages. Bruce always played the spunky orphan with the heart of gold who was caught in terrible circumstances. Some older figure who was a stand-in for socialism brought him in and looked after him. At the end, the message would be ‘We should all work together to help children like this who are homeless and don’t have the advantages they should have.’

But lots of people have said Bruce Lee was “just an actor.” This is a line you get from traditional martial artists who criticise him as a dilettante who couldn’t fight…

Ha ha. Yes of course. There are the Bruce sceptics as there were in his lifetime. He had a lot of stuntmen who would say you’re just a movie star martial artist, you’re not a real martial artist, and then they’d challenge him to fight and then he’d whip their butt. There’s no question in my mind  that he was a first rate martial artist, that he was one of the best of his era. To diminish his skill is not my intent. I think anyone who does is silly. It’s just to say chronologically speaking he was an actor long before he got into martial arts. And if you had to rank which one came first, it was actor first, martial artist second. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t a fantastic martial artist as well.

Am I right in thinking you did some Jeet Kune Do as part of your research for the biography?

I had one hour lesson with Dan Inosanto’s senior student who knocked me about a bit and showed me some Wing Chun and some JKD.  In the past I studied MMA for two years and before that I had Chinese kickboxing so I have a background that covers the basics of what JKD is. Although that’s another whole subject.

What’s your take on that?

The split between Concepts JKD and Original JKD is similar to political arguments between conservatives and liberals. There’s the one group who wants to continually progress the art and who say what’s in the past isn’t good enough, we need to add stuff to it. Then there’s the conservatives who believe we need to do it exactly like Bruce did. It’s the same with the originalists who want to interpret the Constitution exactly the way Thomas Jefferson would have. The funny thing about it is, Bruce himself was very opposed to codifying his art form. He went so far as to close down his JKD schools to make sure this didn’t happen. But then he dies and of course that’s exactly what happened: they codified his art form.

Part of the reason this controversy continues to rage might have something to do with the influence of Krishnamurti

Right. One of the issues with Krishnamurti is this idea that there’s only an individualised truth, you can’t have a systematic truth. Krishnamurti was opposed to all organised religion and Bruce applied that to the martial arts in opposition to all styles. But the problem is it’s inherently paradoxical because as soon as you say you should kick this way, you have a style. As soon as you say you should punch this way, you have a style.

Bruce’s way of trying to escape this was to say it’s a style for this moment, but we’re going to continually evolve and continually change. But you can’t teach a student continual evolution, you have to teach them certain basics so they understand what they’re doing and once you do that you have a system and that system represents a style. I feel like he caught himself into a mental paradox in the way he was thinking about JKD.

Meanwhile, some of those who are doing most to reinstate the practical side of Chinese martial arts are drawing on JKD material. This seems ironic, but Bruce occupies an unavoidable position between modernity and tradition, east and west…

Bruce was fascinating to me because of episodes like the Wong Jack Man fight. This we’re told was a result of his teaching Kung Fu to white people. That’s not true. What happened was he was going round San Francisco giving demonstrations where was criticising classical martial arts and saying classical Kung Fu was 90% nonsense. And that’s how the fight came about. Bruce was very much a revolutionary at the time and very down on traditional styles. But the irony was that he was a Wing Chun stylist at the time, and when he created his new version, it became its own style in JKD. So the idea that it could be a style of no style, or finding the way of no way is a zen koan. It’s a paradox, it can’t be done.

When Bruce first came to the US he was still very much a traditionalist, wasn’t he?

Yes. Many people don’t know that his first instructor in the US was a man called Fook Yeung at the Chinese Youth Club in Seattle. Fook taught Bruce several different styles. According to Jesse Glover, when Bruce first got to the US his initial idea was to create a super style by combining the best of all the various Chinese kung fu elements. He was learning styles like White Crane and Hung Gar and trying to combine those with his Wing Chun background. It was only later through his American students that he started to branch out into Judo and other Japanese styles, and American boxing and to add those elements as well.

Do you see Bruce as the inventor of MMA?

Yes, philosophically. I mean, the Gracies invented MMA. They made it happen and everything came from them. But Bruce had two important roles in making MMA happen. One, there wouldn’t be MMA if he hadn’t created the popularity around the martial arts. There were about 200 schools in the West before him and afterwards there were about 20 million students. You needed that base of support for MMA to arise and succeed. Philosophically I see him as the John the Baptist of mixed martial arts. He’s the guy who came first and pointed the way. Secondly, the argument I make in the book is he put the ‘mixed’ into mixed martial arts. He was the guy who first came out and vociferously said you should try everything and adapt what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own. That philosophy for me undergirds what MMA has become.

But we shouldn’t forget Bruce did all this through the medium of film, through acting and performance. There’s a controversy raging in traditional Chinese martial arts now, with some people saying traditional martial arts really evolved as part of Taoist ritual and Chinese opera, were always more about ritual, theatre and performance than fighting…

I think that’s absolutely true. I think part of the issue with Chinese martial arts when people criticise it for its lack of self defence practicality is a failure to understand its ritual aspect, its spiritual aspect and also its entertainment aspect. A lot of the forms were performed on stage in Chinese opera, and then brought back into the martial tradition and also tied in with medicinal and health purposes. The degree to which the focus was on things other than self defence or practicality is inherent in Chinese kung fu.

What do you make of Xu Xiaodong and his recent challenges to Taiji and Wing Chun?  

The UFC and cage fighting allowed a lot of things to be tested that had never been tested before. Most martial artists are siloed within their own style and and there are rarely opportunities to test their skills against people from different systems. And when you look at the early UFCs, it was clear none of these guys knew what they were doing. Even Royce Gracie could barely punch or kick.

Over time, people started to figure out what worked in that environment and it exposed some weaknesses in various styles that they either need to fix or abandon. The truth is these modern MMA guys are really good at what they do. I wouldn’t want to take traditional Wing Chun into the UFC cage.  Bruce decided Wing Chun didn’t work as well as he thought it would when he fought Wong Jack Man and he ended up adjusting his style. One of the biggest changes he made was the footwork. He looked at Asian styles, particularly Karate, and saw the use of these solid, tethered-to-the-earth stances. What he picked up from boxing was that mobility was the key to winning these contests, staying loose and staying out of range.

If Xu has proven – yet again – that MMA kicks traditional martial arts’ butt, why practice them?

Well, I see martial arts as having four aspects. One is street-fighting or combat. The second is is sports (MMA etc). The third is is entertainment (Chinese opera, kung fu movies) and the fourth is spirituality. I think MMA got very focused on competition and proving who could be the best fighter within these set of rules. But one of MMA’s weaknesses is it left out two other aspects. It has entertainment aspect a bit, but it definitely left out the spiritual and health aspect. I think there’s real value in traditional martial arts in those areas. One of the problems with turning martial arts into a sport and only a sport is you become caught up in a culture which is all about winning and the prize money and the bling. You lose the spirit of some of the best of martial arts.

On the other hand, there was that episode of The Ultimate Fighter Season 12, where  George St Pierre brought Jon Danaher in, and what struck me was the whole camp around GSP really was infused with traditional budo values. 

Yes, absolutely. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t but in all things in life, there’s the influence and there’s what’s the most important thing. Dana White is very good at his job, but it’s all about prize money and getting Ferraris and the bling. Then you have behaviour where fighters throw stuff at buses and get arrested, because they’re acting like typical celebrity fighter guys and it’s about the money most of all. There’s real value in the traditional martial arts and wisdom that comes with it. And I love John Danaher, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. There aren’t many jiu jitsu guys like John Danaher.

Talking of spirituality, there’s your account in American Shaolin of a mystical experience after practising the basic 18 Shaolin movements for a prolonged period .…but repetitive movement, trance states and so on can be found in many activities.

I don’t think such experiences are  exclusive to martial arts, but I think they were infused in traditional east Asian martial arts in a way you don’t see in say pancration in Greece where it was all about sports.  I think the intent and mindfulness of the art itself influences whether these things are possible. Yes, the moment of epiphany in the book was central to my development and why I think ultimately, at the deepest level, martial arts should be about spiritual awakening. My experience in MMA was that it has developed a superior unarmed combat style, but it has lost the spiritual aspect to a large degree that undergirds east Asian martial arts.

It’s surprising to hear you say that. Since writing Tapped Out you seemed to have gone over to MMA training and left the traditional arts behind.

Yeah, I continued with MMA because I enjoyed it physically, but it’s not spiritually nourishing. I suppose that just means I find my spiritual nourishment somewhere else, rather than traditional martial arts. Nowadays, when my soul is hungry for nourishment, I go to Catholic mass. In the end, it’s the institution that got you as a child who usually wins. And once you’ve trained at the Shaolin Temple, the strip mall studios and former bodegas are not quite the same vibe.

But I do think that the mixed martial artists who are so proud of their art should be mindful of some of things that have been left behind. Because at a certain point you become too old to bang in the cage and then you should ask yourself what your martial arts are for.

I joke in American Shaolin that kung fu was China’s way to trick 13 year olds how to meditate. A lot of people get into martial arts when they’re young and getting picked on. You want to be able to defend yourself and then as you get older you recognise some of the more spiritual aspects. And that’s what’s important at the end of the day.

Right. The thing that drew me in was the sense that you not only got the tools to beat up the bad guy, but you also got the tools to control yourself. A holistic  package as it were.

That’s what I found fascinating about Bruce Lee. Yip Man’s influence on him was about learning how to become like water, to control your temper. He had a Taoist sage influence on his young students, who were hotheads, would go out into the street and get into fights. So Bruce from about 18 became fascinated with the philosophical aspects because it was a journey to control himself. He was a fire element so his fascination with water was a way to balance out what he knew was out of balance in his own psyche.

The other thing that struck me right at the very end of American Shaolin was how affected you were when you watched the old farmer perform his form with the heavy steel pudao, the same form he’d been doing for 60 years. Elsewhere in the book you describe another master who practices his hard qigong in an isolated village. These are glimpses of what the old, painful aspects of training in Henan in the 17th century might have been like: a grim process of acclimatising yourself to pain.

As I mentioned in American Shaolin, the idea of chī kǔ (吃苦 ), eating bitterness, is central to the Chinese understanding of learning martial arts, and the value of suffering. And the way in which that contrasts with the western idea of trying to avoid pain in any way. We have an entire society built around the idea of alleviation of pain. We have an opioid crisis because we’re trying to avoid all sorts of pain.  I admire progress and evolution in the way mixed martial artists do, but I have a nostalgia and sentimentality for tradition and the way that old man practised the same form for 60 years. There’s something beautiful about that and a sadness in seeing that wiped away as MMA goes like a bulldozer through the traditional kung fu and karate world.

Clearly you felt you weren’t getting enough pain with your forms and weapons practice and so you gravitated to sanda…

That’s right. What attracted me to sanshou was that all the best fighters at the Temple were all kickboxers. There was a big division between the forms guys and the kickboxers. The kickboxers were the ones who went out late at night and got into fights and the forms guys were more of the pretty boys. I wanted to fight and so sanda became more attractive.

The other aspect to it was when you’re 6ft 3 and 155lbs, you’re never going to be a great wushu guy because backflips are meant for people who are like 5’8”. But if you’re tall and lanky you have a real advantage in sanda. Bruce often said, you have to adjust the style to attributes of the person, and tall people need a different style than short people. So that was part of the reason I was into kickboxing.

And it set you up for your foray into MMA.

Sanda doesn’t do any ground fighting and its boxing is pretty weak, but its kicks and throws are good. It also has good defence against throws, which is crucial for standup fighters. Sanda gave me the basis for learning MMA but it was a whole other level to go into training at Randy Couture’s gym. Having said that, I never would have made it through Vegas if I hadn’t endured Shaolin. Two years of eating Shaolin bitter prepares you for anything short of federal prison or a CIA black site.

You’ve said in other interviews that throws are the link between northern Chinese kung fu and MMA. Did you do any Shuai Jiao at the Shaolin Temple?

There weren’t any Shuai Jiao teachers there. I met a couple of guys who were good at it, but at the time I was there it wasn’t really emphasised. There were three aspects: traditional Shaolin forms, modern wushu and modern kickboxing. Those were your course options.

And yet they say Shuai Jiao is the root of Chinese martial arts…

I’ve heard them say that, but I don’t see it. I think it would be a much stronger argument to say Peking Opera is the root of Chinese martial arts than Shuai Jiao!

Do you think MMA will take off in China?

We’ll see. The advantage you have with 1.4 billion people is you have a huge base of potential fighters you could draw from. People keep trying to crack China and see if MMA will work there, but there are two things going in opposite directions in China. One is the traditionalist, nationalist conservative feeling which is opposed to western impurities, and another is a desire to be the equal or superior to the west by adopting their best techniques. I think those two things are in contrast and we’ll see which one wins out.

But I’m certain in the next 20 years we’ll have several very good Chinese guys in MMA, particularly in the lower weight classes. It’s inevitable, the same way we had Yao Ming in basketball. Once enough people get interested in it and see there’s a way to gain money and fame, you’ll see it happen. But it’s interesting that it hasn’t happened yet.

Are you aware of the influence of Fight Club on young Chinese people? According to a recent article in the New York Timesyoung Chinese are rewatching Fight Club and forming fight clubs in dingy supermarket basements.

Well everything comes around. One of the great things about world culture is you see something pop up somewhere and it catches on fire and it makes no sense to us, but I’m sure it makes perfect sense to them. You know, MMA is controlled fight club. You go to a studio and you bang around a bit and you get a little hurt and you feel a little tougher afterwards. Although I wonder if that movie’s criticism of capitalism is why they’re attracted to it.

Why is it so difficult for the majority of MMA fans to appreciate traditional martial arts, and vice versa?

I think that martial arts in the west is still an implant and still somewhat insecure. It doesn’t have 1000 years of history and people are still very territorial. Someone else doing well feels like you doing badly, as opposed to the rising tide which lifts all boats. So when MMA came in, it frightened traditional teachers who thought they were going to lose all their students. And the MMA guys wanted to feel superior to the guys with the history. When MMA became its own style, it was like Bruce Lee going round saying traditional martial arts were crap back in 1965. MMA guys were saying the same thing in 2005. Which was short sighted but this is the history of martial arts. It’s always like this.

You almost seem to be saying that people who practice traditional martial arts shouldn’t apologise for practising traditional martial arts in a traditional way. 

That’s a great point. Yes, I think traditional martial arts are valuable in themselves, there’s exquisite beauty in maintaining a system that’s 200 years old, and doing it the way your masters did it and preserving your art form. But if you want to do MMA, just go do it. You don’t need to take Wing Chun or Hung Gar or Karate and try to turn it into an imitation of MMA. Just train MMA if you want that. Otherwise, I think people should just train Shaolin forms, because their purpose isn’t quite the same. Their purpose in my view was as a spiritual practice and also health and tradition and to connect to the history of a culture. That’s why it should be maintained. If you want to learn how to be the best fighter on earth and you want to bang in the cage, go to the one of the MMA gyms. If you love traditional martial arts, keep it the way it is.

On the other hand, you do have these people who tout for business by deluding their students, by claiming their systems are effective for self defence.

Some of the traditional techniques would get your butt kicked quite quickly on the street, like chambering your fists at your hips instead of up in front of your nose. There are several flaws in traditional martial arts as self defence and that’s one of the things MMA has pointed out. That’s the tension I’ve experienced in my own life, going from Shaolin to MMA and appreciating them both, but they each have their weaknesses.

But if you’re clear what the differences are, it’s possible to appreciate them on their own terms?

I think that’s the key. It’s hard to do, because everyone likes to think what they’re doing is the best.