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"A poor chess player can still make a remarkable move."
--Wang Yinggui, Liu Nan Sui Bi
It had been a calm night at the Shaolin Temple before the fight started.
A French photojournalist named Pierre was throwing a small banquet at the Shaolin Wushu Center's restaurant for several of the martial monks and Shaolin's "expat community," which consisted of two Norwegians who were visiting for the week and Shaolin's two American students, John Lee and myself. Pierre had been assigned to take photos of the Shaolin monks for a French magazine, and I had arranged for my friends and instructors Monk Deqing, Monk Cheng Hao, and Coach Yan to pose for him. The session had gone so well that Pierre had invited us all to dinner.
We were seated around a large table in the middle of the restaurant, which was built by the government and reflected the Communist Party's taste in architecture: oversize, poorly constructed, and rectangular. Maoist aesthetics are a tyranny of straight lines. The restaurant had the dimensions of a high school basketball gymnasium and was only three years old, but already rundown. It was usually only filled at lunch when droves of tourists made day-trips to visit the Shaolin Temple, famous throughout the world as the birthplace of both Zen Buddhism and the martial arts. The only other guests that night were a group of six Chinese men sitting at a banquet table a hundred feet away. A dozen waitresses were lounging around arguing with each other about who had breakfast duty the next morning.
We had finished the toasting phase of the banquet, where much thanks is given and much baijiu is choked down. (Baijiu is Chinese rice liquor that tastes and affects the digestive system like a combination of sake, moonshine, and Liquid Drano.) We were just settling into the main course when the waitress who was serving the other table came over and whispered something to Deqing and Coach Yan.
Deqing's face immediately went red with rage. He and I had become close friends over the last nine months of my stay, so I was used to his mood swings. But I had never before seen him this angry.
"He really said he wants a qie cuo?" Deqing asked, gripping his glass so tightly I though he might shatter it. "Challenge match?"
"Which one is he?" Coach Yan asked.
The waitress pointed to the other table. One of the men raised his cup in a toast. He was big for a Chinese man, maybe six feet tall and 180 pounds. He was wearing thick spectacles, which was also unusual in rural China.
"His name is Master Wu," the waitress said. "He says he is a kungfu master from Tianjin. Those are his disciples with him."
"Tai bu gei women mianzi," Deqing said with disdain. "So not giving us face."
As Deqing continued to rant, Pierre, who did not speak Chinese, asked me in English, "What is happening?"
"The man at the other table, Master Wu, has requested a qie cuo -- a challenge match," I said. "He wants to fight Shaolin's champion to see whose style and skill is superior."
"Why are the monks so angry?" Pierre asked. "They are kungfu masters. Isn't this what they do?"
"Almost never," I said. "Mostly they train, teach the occasional foreigner, and perform for tourists. Challenge matches are infrequent. I've only seen one. It is considered incredibly rude to walk into someone else's school and offer an open challenge. It's contemptuous."
"I will fight him," Deqing continued. "I will beat him to death!"
Coach Yan held up his hand. "Let me think for a moment."
Coach Yan was as calculating as Deqing was spontaneous. At age twenty-five, he was also older than the nineteen-year-old Deqing and his superior at the temple, so Deqing fell silent. Coach Yan had the perfect face for a kungfu movie villain, a kind of striking ugliness. His eyebrows slashed upward, his cheekbones punched out from his face, and his dark skin was pocked with acne scars. I liked him. But I was careful around him.
Or at least I was until that night.
Coach Yan was staring off into the near distance. He had Shaolin's honor to consider. This was further complicated by the presence of the French journalist. The Shaolin monks had been touring Europe off and on over the last three years and had become extremely popular there. Pierre's photo-essay would help them considerably, so Coach Yan had to consider Shaolin's international reputation.
Watching Deqing, my friend and teacher, stew in his rage made me feel like I had to say something.
"I will fight him," I offered.
I didn't mean it, of course. I was just being polite, the way you are supposed to be polite in Chinese, whether you are sincere or not. It was a gesture to show my fellowship, my team spirit. And I knew there was no way Coach Yan would take up my offer. Shaolin was crawling with expert fighters in their prime who had trained for a decade or longer. Even after nine months of training, I was a beginner at best. Besides, I was laowai -- literally "old outsider" -- a polite term for white foreigners.
After making my faux offer, I waved the waitress over to order another round of baijiu.
I turned to see Coach Yan looking at me with a slight smirk.
"Bao Mosi," Coach Yan said, using my full Chinese name, Mosi (Matthew) and Bao (Polly), "will fight him first."
Deqing was incredulous.
"He cannot fight him first," he protested. "I am his teacher. I will fight first."
What he didn't say, but which was implicit, was that Deqing considered himself to be Shaolin's best martial artist (almost everyone else did as well). Coach Yan was asking the team's star player to step aside for a fourth-string benchwarmer.
The panic must have been obvious on my face, because Coach Yan's smirk widened ever so slightly as he responded. "No, the laowai will fight him first."
Deqing wasn't ready to give in yet.
"You cannot let him fight first. What if he loses? This is a matter of Shaolin's reputation, Shaolin's face."
Coach Yan finished another shot of baijiu.
"I am thinking of Shaolin's face. If the laowai loses, no face is lost, because everyone knows that laowai are no good at kungfu. And we will have had a chance to study this stupid egg's fighting style. Then you'll have an easier time beating him. But if the laowai wins, then Shaolin will gain much face. It will demonstrate that the Shaolin Temple is so great that even its laowai disciples can beat a Chinese master of another style."
As they continued the debate, I felt an overwhelming fear grip me in the gut and squeeze like a hunter field-dressing his kill. I stood up with every intention of fleeing, until I saw that the entire table was looking at me.
"I will be back in a moment. I need to use the restroom." I waved halfheartedly at my glass. "Too much booze."
Willing myself not to run, I sauntered as nonchalantly as possible to the outhouse in back, the concrete hole-in-the-ground cesspit standard in rural China. I crouched inside that box for several minutes, my mind racing through various possibilities for escaping the situation. Fake an injury? Disappear? Unfortunately, there were none that did not involve a tremendous personal loss of face. And then there was my teachers' loss of face to consider. Although I had been in China less than a year, their value system had already sunk in too deep for me to actually back down.
I walked back to the table holding on to the hope that maybe Coach Yan had changed his mind.
He had not.
"Bao Mosi, it is decided," Coach Yan said, an anticipatory glee in his eyes. "You will fight Master Wu in the training hall in fifteen minutes."
"Let's go," Coach Yan said.
Built by the Henan provincial government as a tourism center in 1989, the Shaolin Wushu Center consisted of the restaurant, a fleabag hotel for tourists, a two-story apartment building for staff, and the main complex, which contained some offices, two training halls for the students, and a performance hall where the tourists paid to see the Shaolin monks display their talents. In a daze, I walked alongside Deqing down the steps to the main complex. For moral support, he quoted his favorite martial arts maxim to me: "I do not fear the 10,000 kicks you have practiced once; I fear the one kick you have practiced 10,000 times."
Before I entered the training hall I could hear the crowd noise. I walked in to find that in a matter of minutes word had spread about the challenge match, and the hall was jammed with employees of the Wushu Center, Shaolin monks, and many of the peasants who worked in the village -- a remarkably quick turnout for a community without phones. This was spectacle of a serious order: a foreigner in a qie cuo match with a northern master. The crowd was electric. They smelled blood.
Master Wu was conferring with his students in one corner of the training hall, which was dominated by a cracked wall mirror and a huge green performance mat. I noticed that the Norwegians had brought their extensive video equipment and were setting up a tripod. There was no way I was going to allow them to make a permanent record of my likely ass-whooping. I had visions of it making the rounds of Europe's martial arts community: La Défaite de l'Américain. So I explained to them in English that it was considered rude in China to film a challenge match, and they put their cameras away. I suppose it was a good sign that I still had enough of my wits about me to lie.
Handling Pierre was not nearly as easy. A violence junkie, he had come to Shaolin as a break from his previous assignment as a war photographer in Serbia and Kosovo. Wound several turns of the screw too tight, Pierre's favorite story was about how he had once shattered the glass showcase of a rude Hong Kong merchant with his steel-tipped army boots. He was pointing at these same boots now as he tried to convince me to persuade the monks to let him fight Master Wu in my place.
"Matt, I grab this guy by the neck and bring his face to my knee," Pierre said as he slapped his knee. "Then, I kick him with these boots. You see these boots. I kick him, right up the ass."
I tried to ignore him as I stretched my cramped legs.
"You tell them I fight him," he said. "I kick him with these boots. You see the tips. Up his ass."
"Pierre, you're not a student here," I said. "You are not a disciple of Shaolin. I am. They won't let you fight him."
Unfortunately, this was true. My level of panic was rising, and I was now feeling light-headed. There was a buzzing in my ears that wouldn't go away.
"But I kick him with this boot," he continued, "my boot right up his ass."
"Pierre, it's not possible, and I need to get ready."
"But I kick him--"
I turned to John Lee, looking for some American backup in dealing with this nutty Frenchman.
John was still built like the high school linebacker he had been a year earlier. He stuck his head with its baseball cap turned backward between Pierre's face and mine. Then he slid his muscled frame between us and said with his wide, easygoing, frat-boy smile, "Pierre, dude, chill, bro."
I looked over to the other end of the room to see Coach Yan negotiating with Master Wu. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could see Master Wu motioning to his eyeglasses and shaking his head.
Coach Yan walked over to me.
"Do you know what a challenge match is?" he asked.
I wobbled my head side-to-side with uncertainty.
"Chabuduo," I said. "More or less."
"A challenge match has rules," he said, tipping his head back at Master Wu and rolling his eyes in disgust.
Coach Yan's face was tight with rage, his body tense and ready to lash out. I tried not to look him straight in the eye. Of all the monks, Coach Yan was the most in touch with his inner monster -- especially if less than totally sober -- and was the most likely to crack a bottle over your head if you made the mistake of offending him. His mean streak wasn't wide, but it was deep.
He stepped closer and lowered his voice so only I could hear him.
"Fuck his mother," he snarled. "He came into our house and challenged us. Tai bu gei women mianzi! This fight has no rules! I want you to beat him to the ground. You hear me? To the ground."
Coach Yan stepped back, switching into the role of referee, and waved with both hands for the combatants to approach. Master Wu and I walked out into the center of the room, stopping about five feet from each other.
Master Wu shifted into a cat stance, his weight largely on his right foot, his left foot resting lightly in front, a strong defensive position. His hands slowly circled in front of his body like a waterwheel. His dark eyes locked onto me from behind his thick glasses.
I moved into the standard Chinese kickboxing opening stance -- my body at a forty-five-degree angle to Master Wu with my left leg forward, my weight balanced about 40/60 between my front leg and my back, my left fist forward, my right fist up protecting my chin. I was trying to relax my body. It was an exercise in force of will to get myself to stop bouncing on my toes. Bouncing is seen as a sign of nervousness.
Wu was heavier and stronger than I was, with the kind of stocky frame common to farmers, but I was taller and had the longer reach. That was going to be crucial because by settling into a defensive stance he clearly had no intention of attacking first.
TALE OF THE TAPE
"White Hope" Polly
Height: 6' 3"
Arm Length: 27.5"
"Master of Tianjin" Wu
Height: 5' 10"
Arm Length: 25"
Weight: 185 or so
I tried to clear my head. I had sparred extensively since arriving at Shaolin, but this was the first real fight -- street clothes, no rules -- that I had ever been in.
Coach Yan clapped his hands to indicate the start of the challenge match, then stepped away. He wasn't going to referee after all. We were on our own.