China and the Origins
Okinawan White Crane
The foundation of Okinawan white crane kenpo and its Chinese origins are embodied in the kata or quan handed down over the generations in the Fujian region of Southern China. Three of these forms stand out as the most widely practiced and ubiquitous forms. They are sanchin (three battles), seisan (thirteen) and sanseiryu (thirty six). A number of different styles of Southern Chinese martial art traditions have used these forms as part of their repertoire of kata. This includes white crane, tiger, dragon, monk fist, dog style and five-ancestor fist style. These forms are an integral part of all the Naha-Te styles as well. Sanchin, meaning three battles, emphasizes dynamic tension and is an isometric range of motion exercise used for strength building. Its movement is simplistic and concentrates on treading or stepping and thrusting. Sanchin is also the basic building-block kata or three-step pattern and is used as the basis for many other kata. The uniquely Okinawan kata used by shorin ryu and other styles different from the three-step pattern have an embusen that usually starts to the left and the overall pattern forms an H. Supposedly this pattern is based on Okinawan court dance where it was used to salute the four corners of the court. In any case, the Higashionna sanchin uses closed fists whereas the Chinese version uses open hands. Additionally, the Chinese sanchin uses thrusting with both hands simultaneously whereas the Okinawan version thrusts with one hand at a time. The Higashionna sanchin begins with three steps forward then turns 180 degrees to the left and proceeds with three more steps to the rear and then turns to the left again 180 degrees and ends with mawashi uke (roundhouse block) and culminates in a tora guchi or tiger-mouth posture (also known as black tiger posture). Interestingly, Miyagis sanchin uses three steps forward and then three steps back without turning. This is the same pattern as the Chinese version. Paipuren (eight steps) is also an energy and breathing kata based on the sanchin model. It advances three times forward using palm heel thrusts then turns forty-five degrees to the left front and right front and finally retreats straight back to close the form.
beginnings are rooted in Daoism. Certainly the Chinese propensity for
numerology and numerical representations for the names of the kata is
well represented here. The Chinese have used for millennia mathematical
interpretations of the cosmos that include the concept of yin and
yang and the five-element theory to explain the universe and the
forces of nature. Most of this theory is derived from the Book of
Changes or I Ching. However, the numerical representations as
names of the kata have been interpreted to mean the number of steps in a
kata or the number of techniques contained in the form. But the actual
meaning has been lost. Perhaps long ago in China the numerical names had
significance with respect to the number of steps or techniques performed
but over time and since the forms have changed the original meaning has
vanished. In ancient times Daoist monks and mountain recluses used the
sanchin kata as a qigong and health exercise. In China Mountains
are revered as a special place of spiritual power and as espoused by
Daoism, a place where immortals dwelled. Daoists were known to combine
martial arts practices with breathing exercises with the intent of
enhancing strength and even to acquire magical powers. In addition,
Shaolin monks added martial arts applications to the sanchin
form. Sanchins breathing methods were adopted from yoga and were
used to stimulate the mind and body. Beginning in the first century B.C.
there was an immigration of Indian monks from India to China. Their
quest was to spread the teachings of Buddhism and Indian philosophy to
China. Certainly, Bodhidharma (c.
Seisan kata uses sanchin as its foundation and after three forward steps a series of palm heel strikes are delivered at face height. These palm heel strikes are deliberate strikes to the face of an opponent but they can also be interpreted to be a distraction technique as well. Indeed a poem written on an old scroll preserved by the Uechi Ryu style contains a Chinese character representation that translates as, A flash in the eyes. This is no doubt a reference to this palm heel strike sequence used as a distraction technique against an adversary. The next movement in the kata turns 180 degrees to the left and proceeds with three blocking and thrusting movements. Typically, the form then turns 90 degrees and a blocking, punching and kicking combination is executed. The next sequence of movements is to turn 180 degrees and a kicking, thrusting and blocking movement is executed culminating with the tora guchi or tiger mouth posture. The form is a perfect example of the evolution of kata from sanchin to a more complex form using sanchin as its base.
Sanseiryu kata again uses the sanchin model as the basis of its embusen or pattern of movement. In the same fashion as the other three-step kata this form begins with three steps forward then two escape movements are performed followed by a flying kick and an elbow strike punch combination. The movements of the kata then continue with a combination front kick, elbow strike, punch combination performed three more times thus covering the four cardinal directions. Then a series of juji uke or X-blocks are performed from shiko dachi. The form continues with a series of two double strikes and finishes with an inu gamae or dog posture that is a signature posture of the kata. In Goju Ryu the form typically ends here but in the hakutsuru kenpoversion a final beak thrust is executed before finishing the form.
Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) Nakaima Kenchu (1856-1953) Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1953)
Arakaki Seisho and Bushi Sakiyama taught the kata sochin, niseishi and unshu in Okinawa in the nineteenth century. These older kata have been passed down by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1953) in their most unadulterated forms. Sochin meaning tranquil force [also, monks of peace] is a relatively simplistic kata although still considered an advanced form. It uses the three-step method as its base and delivers three punches while stepping forward in a cat stance three times. It is typified by a series of two double punches that are delivered simultaneously. This is a technique that is a way of dealing with two opponents simultaneously and reveals its Chinese origins. The form finishes with a classic crane stance at the end. The crane posture is used as an enticement to get the opponent to attack. Once he attacks his fist is grabbed and a front kick is used as a counter. A similar technique also occurs in unshu kata. Sochin has a feeling of slowly building power and then culminates with a final series of explosive punches and the classic tora guchi posture. Perhaps this kata was originally done with open hands in its beginning movements and later changed [by Higashionna] to the closed fist as is the case with sanchin. One can only speculate regarding this. Niseishi meaning twenty-four starts with an open-handed block (osae uke, pressing block) while simultaneously punching with the right hand. It also uses a series of elbow strike/down block/reverse-punch combination techniques. The form ends with the classic mawashi uke and tora guchitiger posture. Finally, Arakakis last kata is unshu (also, unsu). Unshu katas character representation means cloud hand or hand in the clouds. It is no doubt one of the most advanced crane kata. It is characterized by one-finger thrusts, going to ground as an evasion technique and attacking from the ground with two back kicks. Although these techniques represent the more orthodox version of the kata the form has been modified. Shotokan karate includes this kata in its syllabus but has modified the form as originally taught by Mabuni sensei. It uses two round kicks executed from the ground as opposed to the more orthodox back kicks. Interestingly, this modification is actually taught in a number of jujutsu ryu. Its intention is to avoid an opponents lunge by dropping to the ground then kicking his knee joint to disrupt his balance followed by a round kick to the ribs. In the hakutsuru kenpo version as well as the shito ryu version two back kicks are delivered from the ground. This has the effect of defending against an opponents attack from the rear. By dropping to the ground and delivering a solid kick to the
Shu Shi Wa (1874-1926) Kanbun Uechi (1877-1948) Kanei Uechi
Gokenki Gokenkis Students Chojun Miyagi (L) c.1905
Rare photos of Kenwa Mabuni from his 1937 book Karate Do Kenpo
midsection the opponent is caught unaware. Unshu also includes rapid changes in direction and a technique similar to that employed by sochin where the assailants arm or fist is grabbed and then a front kick is delivered as the coup de grace. Oddly, even though Higashionna learned sochin, niseishi and unshu from Arakaki, Miyagi didnt include them in his kata syllabus for Goju Ryu karate. Although Miyagis gekisai is reminiscent of niseishi and some of the movements may have been derived from this kata. Nevertheless they have been preserved in Shito Ryu.
Additionally, the above-referenced kata have been preserved in karates tradition and within the curriculum of hakutsuru kenpo. However, these kata have vanished in Chinathe place of their origin. None of the Okinawan goju or white crane type of kata seem to be practiced there other than sanchin. Pieces of the Okinawan kata and techniques can be seen in the Chinese forms but their prototypes seem to have been lost over time and all but disappeared. No doubt over time the kata have changed not only in China but in Okinawa as well. In addition to the forms themselves, another obvious physical manifestation in karates evolution is the difference in technique used in the Chinese forms and the Okinawan forms. The Chinese styles such as arhat or monk fist boxing I witnessed first hand in China seem to use extended arm slashing or chopping as opposed to power-oriented thrusting or punching. The Chinese say the Okinawans are too stiff but the Okinawans say the Chinese are too soft. No doubt the stockier Okinawans apply more power in their techniques by virtue of their size. But why do the martial arts of Southern China emphasize open-handed techniques more so than the closed fist? My theory on this is predicated on simple physics. The reason for the emphasis on one technique versus another is caused by a difference in bio-type. A lighter man cannot generate as much destructive force as a heavier built man. The Chinese emphasize thrusting with open hands or penetration techniques more than the Okinawans do while the Okinawans use closed fists or punching more to accomplish dispatching an opponent. Indeed the makiwara board is the favored method in the islands [Ryukyu Islands or Okinawa Island] to develop crushing punching power. This is evidenced by many older gentlemen walking around the island with heavily callused knuckles. The concept of ikken hisattsu or a one-punch kill is inherent in the esoteric fringe of Okinawan martial art theory and further bears out this preferred methodology. Perhaps the reason for this difference in emphasis is simply one of size. The Okinawans being a heavier built ethnic group are able to deliver more power with a punch while the Chinese being of slender build are not. It goes back to physics. The highest impact can be calculated by the formula MV2. In other words, mass times velocity squared. Therefore, speed is most important but without mass it has little of or no effect. This is why the Chinese emphasize spearhands and penetration techniques. Punching without sufficient mass behind it cant generate enough force but a spearhand or penetration technique [especially to a vital point] can. Its the difference between a lightweight and a heavy weight boxer. You dont see a lighter weight boxer knockout a heavyweight. It just doesnt happen. A spearhand, unlike a punch that spreads the impact over a large area, concentrates its force on a very small area. In this way a lack of mass can be compensated for. The Bubishi, a manual of Southern Chinese kenpo dating from the seventeenth century, also reiterates this concept. The text explains the use of a penetrating hand to activate pressure points more effectively than a closed hand technique such as a punch. It is also necessary to penetrate muscle tissue in order to get at a nerve center or nerve plexus.
There is also some empirical evidence to draw on from the historic context to justify this theory. During the eighteenth century, a Chinese military envoy known as Kusanku visited Okinawa. It was in the year 1756 when Kusanku visited Kume Village, Okinawa. His techniques ultimately became the genesis of the Kusanku kata. Kusanku was a highly skilled kenpo master and was famous for his fighting ability. He is also credited with the introduction of a type of kumite (kumiaijutsu) or sparring to Okinawan karate. Further information on Kusanku indicates that although he was a man of slender build, he was able to defeat many heavier built Okinawans due to his excellent style and techniques (See Okinawa Island of Karate, G. Alexander, Yamazato Publications, p. 41). Perhaps the techniques that are referred to incorporate spearhand or thrusting with penetration type techniques (and slashing or chopping with knifehand techniques to vital points), therefore making Kusankus techniques more effective against larger opponents. Getting back to physics for a moment, it is very difficult for a lighter man to injure a bigger man with a punch especially if the heavier man has body conditioning. Conversely, a lighter man can use speed to his advantage in attacking vital points such as the eyes, groin, temple or solar plexus, etc. These areas are almost always vulnerable and are difficult to condition. In fact, this is the basis of the crane style i.e., to use Speed and Evasion to attack vital points.
China has been the origin of many martial arts styles especially in the Fujian area of Southern China. Even today many areas of Fujian are still like the Wild West. This lawless society produced a need for self-defense and personal protection against marauders and bandits. Incidentally, Fujian is the birthplace of the Triad gangs and other secret societies. Therefore, it is no wonder that China has been the origin of so many empty-hand styles including white crane kenpo that not only influenced the development of karate but many other Asian fighting arts as well. These styles developed in an era when combative reality and self-defense skills were a practical part of everyday life. Furthermore, it is important to note that the techniques contained in these forms were never intended to be used by a professional soldier on the battlefield but only as self-defense measures by civilians against an untrained person. One might ask, What is the value today of these arts and the kata that evolved from them? The answer is simple. They represent martial arts that have proven self-defense applications and whose continued practice preserves a martial arts history and tradition. Furthermore, these arts are a way of enhancing ones own self-discipline and awareness. I plan another trip to China in November of 2006 to learn more about China and the origins of white crane kenpo.
Anyone interested in membership in the Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo Association as well as seminars and training please email me and I will send you an Instructors Guidebook, etc. Presently, we have DVDs with many of the kata and explanations on them. For more on this see Mastering White Crane Karate at www.yamazato-videos.com