Wolverine likes to claim that he’s “the best there is at what I do… but what I do isn’t very nice.” His battle prowess is definitely undeniable, as even without his claws and mutant powers, Logan is a master at multiple martial arts and fighting styles. Nevertheless, there’s always something even a master can learn… which is why Wolverine once sought out a new teacher in the Chinese martial artist Shang-Chi.
Reputed to be the greatest living master of wushu in Marvel Comics (and soon the MCU), Shang-Chi edges out even Wolverine in certain disciplines. When Logan came to Shang-Chi hoping to gain an edge on his old opponent Victor Creed/Sabretooth, however, The Master of Kung Fu taught him what he needed to know in a very unconventional way…
The lesson took place in Wolverine: First Class #9. Set during a period in Wolverine’s early days with the X-Men when he was mentoring a young Kitty Pryde, the story saw Logan seek out Shang Chi after his enemy Sabretooth kidnapped Kitty and was holding her for ransom. Although Creed claimed he wanted to know the whereabouts of a hidden cache of gold and weapons, Logan knew Sabretooth really just wanted to try and kill him again.
Unfortunately, Sabretooth had an edge. Despite Logan’s skill in battle, Victor Creed always managed to bring out Wolverine’s animal side, causing him to lose control and allow Creed to beat him. Knowing that if he lost control this time Sabretooth might kill Kitty, Wolverine decided he needed help. Taking a large amount of money to Shang Chi’s home, he asked the Master of Kung Fu to teach him something he could use against his enemy.
However, Shang Chi informed Logan that he no longer practiced kung fu. Instead, he spent his days in quiet contemplation, ruminating over Japanese teaching-riddles called “Koan.” He posed one such riddle to Logan, producing an apple and asking him, “What is this?” However, he added that if Logan told him it was an apple, he would hit him thirty times. On the other hand, if Logan told him it was not an apple, Shang-Chi would also hit him thirty times.
Annoyed, Logan simply said the apple was an apple – and Shang-Chi attacked, swinging a staff at Wolverine. Logan swiped at the weapon with his claws and cut it in two, but Shang-Chi calmly stated that by cutting his staff in half, Wolverine had simply given Shang-Chi two weapons. Quickly adapting his fighting style to the sudden change, Shang-Chi knocked Wolverine to the ground, informing the angry mutant that he needed to see things in a similar unprejudiced way if he wanted to defeat his opponent.
This only frustrated Logan, who insisted that his animal nature prevented him from seeing things clearly. In response, Shang-Chi calmly pointed out that Logan was actually much worse than an animal since he wasted all of his time wondering if he was an animal when a true animal simply is an animal.
Once again, Shang-Chi held up an apple and asked Wolverine what it was. Choosing to remain silent this time, Wolverine ended up having to ward off another attack when Shang-Chi shot multiple arrows at him. Coming at Logan with swords this time, Shang-Chi engaged his opponent in a lengthy battle – this time complimenting Logan on the clarity of mind he had in the heat of battle. Pointing out that this was the mindset he needed to embrace instead of his “berserker rages,” Shang-Chi threw Logan to the ground, telling him that by polluting his mind with useless thoughts and questions, Logan was coming to the battle already defeated.
More confused than angry at this point, Logan asked why answering and not answering Shang-Chi’s riddle was considered wrong. Shang-Chi calmly replied that being attached to form (by saying the apple was an apple) and being attached to nothingness (by giving no reply at all) were both forms of attachment Logan had to learn to let go of. Posing his question again, Shang-Chi only received exasperation from Wolverine who told him the apple was “you,” “me,” and “a doghouse.” In response, his teacher politely informed Logan that he was now attached to nonsense.
Furious, Logan gave up and stalked out of Shang-Chi’s house. Feeling he’d wasted his entire day he got a note from Sabretooth that directed him to a waterfall in Madripoor. Still unable to shake off Shang-Chi’s riddles, however, Wolverine continued asking himself what the objects he was looking at truly were, until the noise of the waterfall drowned out all of his thoughts. Experiencing an unexpected moment of clarity, Wolverine met up with Sabretooth – but as his old enemy tried to engage him in battle, Logan simply countered every move without thinking and knocked Creed over the waterfall.
After saving Kitty, Wolverine returned to Shang-Chi to reveal he finally knew what the master was trying to teach him. Objects – whether they be an apple, a man, or a waterfall – simply are what they are. Thoughts and words inevitably fail to encapsulate them, requiring a clear mind to simply respond to them as they are without judgement. Thus, when Shang-Chi produced the apple again and asked, “What is this?” Wolverine finally answered correctly – by taking a bite out of the apple.
Of course, Wolverine would continue to struggle against his animal nature and battle Sabretooth many more times – often with less positive results. Nevertheless, his dealings with Shang-Chi did reveal to Logan that he is capable of understanding and gaining clarity of mind, even if he can’t maintain that clarity at all times. Shang-Chi’s violent, yet illuminating lesson showcased both the physical and philosophical elements of martial arts – and one that his MCU version will hopefully delve into as well.