In a class of twenty new Taekwondo students, ten will probably drop out within three months’ time. Though they will cite a variety of excuses for quitting, all the dropouts show a lack of commitment to Taekwondo training.
One year after their first entry into the dojang, half again will have quit, leaving perhaps five of the original twenty students. Only one, maybe two, is likely to stick around long enough to attain the rank of black belt.
Like those early quitters, the black belts are motivated by a variety of factors. Beyond these varied reasons, though, there must be some unique character attribute that drives these people to reach elite black belt status.
From American Shaolin, a autobiographical tale of Matthew Polly’s intensive training at the modern Shaolin Temple:
With most TV programming so dull, the boys at Shaolin were kungfu movie freaks, constantly visiting Shaolin’s multiplex to watch the latest blood-spattered Hong Kong releases on VHS. Wanting to undermine the assumption that laowai (non-Chinese outsiders) suck at martial arts, I brought VHS copies of Steven Seagal’s Above the Law, David Carradine’s Kung Fu, and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Lionheart back to Shaolin after winter vacation.
The monks were used to highly fictionalized portrayals of the Shaolin temple, so they weren’t bothered by the fantasy version of Shaolin in David Carrdine’s Kung Fu. They were, however, shocked by the casting of David Carradine.
“The actor is a laowai,” I said. “He’s pretending to be half-Chinese.”
“That explains why his kungfu is so terrible,” Little Tiger said, as he ducked to the back row to avoid another cuff from monk Deqing.
For the rest of the movie I ignored the slights about Carradine’s kungfu skills, which were admittedly poor. (To be fair, however, he did capture that California New Age, faux-Zen blankness perfectly.) I was waiting for that climactic moment that nearly every American male who was alive in the early 1970s remembers: the scene where Carradine lifts a burning chalice to pass the final Shaolin test, permanently branding a dragon one one forearm and a tiger on the other. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like this legend since my arrival, but I had to know.
“Is the story true?” I asked. “Did that used to be the final test for Shaolin monks?”