Young Forest

“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest m*****f***** in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.” – Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

American Shaolin details the author’s two years spent living and training at the Shaolin Temple in the early ‘90s. A decade later, he went back to the Temple and watched a demonstration where a man in his 70s was performing. His skill wasn’t extraordinary and he wasn’t a monk, but more likely a farmer or laborer who practiced the same sequence for the last 60 years, though the Japanese invasion, Civil War, Cultural Revolution, and capitalist explosion.

“When I was twenty-one what I admired the most was the tremendous skill of the monks. I wanted to be that good at something, anything. But as I watched this old man, what more impressed me was the devotion. It was what had allowed this culture to survive – and now thrive – despite the traumas. As he finished his form, what I wanted was to love something, anything, as fiercely as he so obviously loved Shaolin kungfu.” – Matthew Polly, American Shaolin

少林 (Shaolin) means “Young Forest”

What is the prime age for martial artists?

I’ve heard that a martial artist’s physical peak is between ages 20-25. In the book, 25 was too old to be doing two fingered push ups. (Not that that makes you a master.) But, even with years of daily practice and learning, how many 25 year olds have a truly deep understanding of the arts? That takes years of study and practice. I also think you also have to understand a lot about life to understand the arts. There is much to experience after you turn 25.

Even if you start training from childhood and continue for your whole life, I think you’d have to be in your late 30s to have a good balance of physical ability, knowledge, and wisdom. You’re strong and fast enough to demonstrate your skill, but you also know enough to give your students a comprehensive education.

It’s the older trees I like to admire

How many young practitioners train for this moment only? How many are humble? When age and injuries catch up and you can no longer do jump kicks and splits, will you continue to learn? Could you be like the old man and practice the same sequence for decades?

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