Shaolin monks have been an enduring fascination of mine for many years. My novel, The Truth of Io Ren, is based on some of the themes explored in this series. It deals with a fictional order of monks largely inspired by Shaolin, a sect of rationalist monks slowly losing their religion in a world increasingly strangled by tribalism and magical thinking.
This series is written from the perspective of a 30 year old man reflecting back on his early years, from ages 12 to 18. It is meticulously researched and accurate: everything here, from the training exercises discussed to the Iron Scrotum technique, are real techniques. In fact, I often err on the side of understatement when describing Shaolin techniques; in most cases, reality really is stranger than fiction.
If this series catches your interest, I strongly encourage you to seek out the National Geographic documentary, Myths and Logic of the Shaolin Kung Fu.
When I was twelve years old, my parents drowned near Martha’s Vineyard when a cruise liner hit their speedboat while they were fishing. I was sent to live with my grandparents, Raymond and Lei, in New Bedford, but I didn’t stay there for long. My grandfather was secretly in the stages of stage four liver cancer, and he died in hospital a month later. Lei mourned him for months. I learned a lot about cooking and maintaining a house in that time—she hardly ate, and there was no one else to look after us.
We were very poor, but my grandmother spared no expense on my grandfather’s funeral. His name was Raymond, but I called him Pete, after the elephant at the annual summer circus across the street. He would take me to see it every year, but I was too small to see over the crowd, so Pete would let me ride on his shoulders. The old man had a stern reputation with his kids, but I only remember him as a playful old man. When I pointed out that I was riding his shoulders the same way the carnie was riding Pete, he adopted the habit of waving his arm around like a trunk while making trumpeting noises.
Lei was more my grandfather’s husband than she was my grandmother, and I think she resented my intrusion into their lives during my grandfather’s final moments. A few months after the funeral, she reached the limits of her tolerance and decided to return to China to live with her brother in Xinmi, a county in Zengzhou city, part of Henan province. She took me with her—a decision that I’m not entirely sure was legal, but there was no one to left to object, and no one to come to China to retrieve me once the State department realized she wasn’t taking me on vacation.
I had no real friends in Massachusetts and school bored me, so I didn’t resist the idea of moving to China. Lei was stern and uninterested in being a mother again, but she still did right by me. She was a retired teacher, and she began homeschooling me almost immediately. She taught me Mandarin, Chinese history, world history, algebra, and science.
A few months before my thirteenth birthday, I found out that our dingy hovel in Xinmi was only a few dozen kilometers from Dengfeng, home of the world famous Shaolin temple on Mount Song. I’ve always been obsessed with Kung Fu. I have just one positive memory of my father: every Sunday when I was little, I would sit in his lap on our old couch and watch David Carradine’s Kung Fu show on ABC. Carradine played a half-American Shaolin monk called Kwai Chang Caine. In the series, Caine wanders the old west, crusading for justice and searching for inner peace (and for his long-lost half-brother, something I often wished I had. Alas, I’ve no living family that I’m aware of).
Suddenly, I was in a position where I could literally follow in Kwai Chang Caine’s footsteps. I thought it was going to be an adventure. I packed my bags that very night and left our hovel with the sunrise, my head filled with unrealistic dreams as the train carried me to Dengfeng. I walked all the way to Mount Song and presented myself before the monks that afternoon.
The Shaolin temple was not as I had imagined it. I had pictured a quiet monastery filled with monks in their bright orange and burgundy robes, but what I found were throngs of tourists. It reminded me of America—sacred cultural institutions were reduced to a tacky, meaningless tourist trap.
In broken Mandarin, I begged to see the abbot—at the time, I did not know the word for abbot, or even that the leader of monastery was called an abbot. They laughed when I asked for their 领导者, the Chinese word for leader.
Abbot Xingzhan was on his way out. The year was 1996, and the old Master’s retirement had already been announced. Shi Yangxin, the current abbot of the monastery, was already the heir-apparent; he was off finishing his MBA when I showed up on their doorstep.
The first thing Xingzhan wanted to know was where he could find my parents. He assumed I was just a tourist, separated from my family and looking for help. When I told him my parents were dead, he paused and studied me, probably wondering how an obviously Caucasian pre-teen could speak basic Mandarin. I might have left it at that, hoping the man would take pity on me, but I could see from the throngs of tourists in the courtyard that the temple was not a refuge for orphans. I told him the rest of the story, of my love for David Carradine, my grandparents, and the sense of disconnect I felt. It was hard to make friends in China, and neither my grandmother nor my great-uncle were energetic enough or interested enough to take an active role in my life. I had no real purpose or future, but I knew I loved Kung Fu and that was enough for him.
It turns out, both abbot Xingzhan and Yangxin had met David Carradine, and they were big fans of his work. ABC’s Kung Fu had revitalized the genre, inspiring dozens of Kung Fu movies and keeping Shaolin in the world spotlight. Without Carradine, the Shaolin tradition might have faded into obscurity, and the abbot was keenly aware of this.
Perhaps Xingzhan wanted his own Caucasian disciple, a real-world counterpart to the fictional origins of Chang Kwai Caine, or perhaps he simply took pity on me and earnestly wanted to help. Whatever the reason, he sent me back to Xinmi with a note for my grandmother, asking for permission to take me.
Lei was all too eager to get rid of me. Just like that, I was to be the next Bruce Lee.