Shaolin Warriors 

Reynolds Performance Hall, UCA, Oct. 30


Everybody was kung fu fighting last Tuesday at Reynolds Auditorium on the campus of UCA. Twenty-two Chinese monks and monks-in-training were in town to demonstrate their martial art prowess, a skill the monks and their forebears have been honing for more than 1,000 years in the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province.

In Chinese culture, chi is all around. It's an essential energy — a life force — that flows through the air and in all living things. The balletic side of kung fu celebrates a connection to that energy. On Tuesday, the Shaolin monks spent a lot of time communing with the chi. Dressed in long flowing robes with shiny bald heads, they glided through elaborate wax-on, wax-off-style arm maneuvers and jumped and twirled and very nearly floated away.

The sequences were choreographed and often followed a plot that, much like a lot of kung fu films, was largely inscrutable. One involved the warriors imitating animals — a frog was obvious (and amazingly nimble) but beyond that it was anyone's guess. Another featured a lot of mock fighting and bowing and a sack, contents unknown.

If we had our druthers, there would've been a narrator offering brief descriptions of the action: “That one with the scampering legs is a caterpillar.” “Look at this guy, he's a bucking bronco.” “That guy just got a bag of gold for having a pure heart.”

But, even without context, the monks' movements were as compelling as anything in modern dance and surely more hypnotic, especially when paired with a Shaolin temple backdrop, low lighting, piped-in Eastern music and ever-burning incense.

If graceful maneuvering was the yin of the evening, unbelievable stunts provided the yang. Several monks broke two- or three-inch-thick metal bars over their heads. Another took a giant battering ram that took six other monks to lift to the stomach, without giving up much ground. Yet another used his collarbone to bend two spears pointed at him into a wide arc. One false move and he would've taken it right through the throat.

Still, everything paled next to the most elaborate stunt of the night. It started with three wide swords, resting sharp side up in three parallel notches on the ground. A monk lay across the blades. Then, dozens of spikes secured together in a square pattern went on top of him — a kind of sword, monk, spike sandwich. Then, another monk went precariously on top of the spikes, and a large piece of granite went on top of him. What else to do but break the granite with a sledgehammer? A practical demonstration, to be sure.

Again, chi was an obvious driving force. Before every feat of strength, monks spent several minutes breathing deeply and intently, motioning forcefully around their stomachs. Apparently, if you're a badass or a really good breather, you can store chi down in your lower gut. (My wife, always the kidder, kept poking my paunch for demonstration. One day.)

Training must start early at the Shaolin Temple. Two junior monks, who couldn't have been more than 10, very nearly stole the show. They kicked and chopped with extra ferocity, screeching a high-pitched “ya” every time they made a move. One could pull his leg straight up and over his head and, without skipping a beat, fall into the splits. If that wasn't painful enough, the kung-fu kids couldn't stop doing a move that seemed to split the difference between a front flip and a somersault, where they'd flip forward, bounce on their head and land in a crouch. The first time they went into the move, a guy behind our group told the person beside him: “I did that once when I was drunk.”

I doubt he had the chi.

Lindsey Millar


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