Some Good Martial Arts Reads
First off, let me recommend the writings of Mark Salzman. You may have seen the great movie based on his memoir, Iron and Silk. The book is even better, telling the true story of a young man who comes to China to teach English and learn kung fu, which he does at the hands of the animated Pan Qingfu. Salzman explores 1980s China with his western eyes and gets deep inside the culture, learning about martial arts, calligraphy, work, bureaucracy, peasantry, politics – people.
Salzman recently wrote another memoir called Lost in Place that I also heartily recommend. It’s about growing up in 1970s Connecticut. Here, too, kung fu plays a role, although the book is also about Salzman’s family life and coming of age. In Lost in Place, Salzman describes getting turned on by our old friend David Carradine in “Kung Fu” and how that changed his adolescent life, leading him to seek instruction in the martial arts, which he portrays with great clarity, especially if you ever lived through something similar. I can still see in my mind one of Salzman’s instructors from this period, a tough, quiet guy with a tattoo on his forearm of a skull head smoking a joint. Classic.
But Salzman’s writing is enjoyable for more than just his characters and incidents. He writes with precision and explication, drawing you along with a sincere interest in his characters and situations. Simply great stuff. I liked him when I read Iron and Silk; I loved his stuff after Lost in Place, and will try to read everything he wrote.
Something else I enjoyed recently was Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin, his memoir of training at the Shaolin temple – THE Shaolin temple – in the 1990s. Shaolin is a real place and has undergone several transitions over the hundreds of years it’s been around. It was recently reopened by the Chinese government, and when Polly studied there it was still emerging as a Spartan kung fu training camp with several government approved kung fu schools there. Polly’s experiences and writing are as interesting as Salzman’s though he gives them different emphasis and voice. Like Salzman, he gets to know the culture and, even deeper, the people. He also gives, frankly, ass-kicking descriptions of the bad ass training and the people he worked with.
Before I close this out let me throw one more in there. As a kid an older, hip friend of my parents knew I was into Asian stuff and recommended to me Jay McInerney’s Ransom. This novel is probably overlooked among McInerney’s other work; he’s often remembered for Bright Lights, Big City. It’s the story of an expatriate living in Japan, studying karate and teaching English to businessmen, and the guilt he carries over some of the questionable things he’s done in his life and travels. It blew me away when I was 14 or 15 and has continued to impress me upon many subsequent re-readings. Here, we’re in 80s Japan, not China, studying karate, not kung fu, and here we have more of a novel than the memoirs I’ve noted, but the reading is just as compelling.
So there you go, something to look for at your next trip to the local used book store!