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The Origin of Karate. Part-1

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Karate is an art that is often associated with Japan. Many people assume that it was born and developed solely in Japan. However, the reality is much deeper than that.

Today, Karate is practised worldwide, with many different styles and variants, and even Kickboxing originated mainly from Karate. It is a testament to the power and beauty of martial arts and a reminder that its origins are often more complex than we realise.

Here is a historical account of the origin of Karate.

3000 Years Ago

During the Shu period in China, the Yellow River unification was a significant event that marked the consolidation of power by the Shu state. The Yellow River, also known as the Huang He, had long been a source of conflict and division among the various states in ancient China. However, under the rule of the Shu dynasty, efforts were made to unify the different regions along the river and create a centralised system of governance. Military campaigns, diplomatic negotiations, and infrastructure development made this unification possible. The Yellow River unification brought stability to the region and paved the way for the emergence of a powerful and prosperous state in ancient China.

Yellow River China
Yellow River -China Image by xiaogeerica from Pixabay

2700 Years Ago- 770 BC

The Mongolian tribes invaded Northern China and established the Yuan Dynasty. As a result of their conquest, they introduced new elements of culture and martial arts to the region, one of which was the fighting form of Sumo. Sumo, still prevalent in Japan today, is a form of wrestling that originated in Mongolia and was brought to Japan through cultural exchange during this period. It is fascinating to see how the invasion of one culture can lead to the introduction and spread of another, even in the realm of sports and physical fitness.

Sumo- A Test of Strength
Sumo. Image by jhenning from Pixabay

Sumo was a test of strength between two contestants wearing ram heads, thus its first meaning, "evaluating the strength of the horns.

Sumo was a ritual to prepare for war in a dance-like fashion, thus known as "bare hands dance." Sumo still influences Chinese opera. Later, Kemari, a kicking game, influenced Sumo and gave birth to another form of fighting called Shubaku.

The scrolls from this period have documentation of Kemari and Shubaku and the principles of war by a warlord named Sonshi.

Interesting Bit: Modern China still has a modern martial art called Shubaku.

1400 Years Ago

A monk named Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese) travelled from a kingdom in southern India, of which he was the third prince, and settled in the Shaolin temple (Shorin Ji in Japanese) in the Hao Shan mountains. He is also known as the 28th descendant of Shaka (or Shason), the founder of Buddhism.

Bodhidharma Image by TeddyAndy from Pixabay

At the Shaolin temple, he taught Zen Buddhism, a form of contemplative religion aimed at creating sudden illumination (Satori). Asceticism and meditation in sitting positions (Zazen) are the two primary forms of Zen practice, and stories have that several monks passed away from the harsh training. Bodhidharma developed a training method encompassing the monks' spiritual and physical development to enable them to recover their health and strengthen their bodies to keep on with Zen. He asserted that mind and body are inseparable and need wholesome training.

Soon the physical condition of the monks improved, and Zen spread throughout the country. This physical aspect of Zen, I-Chin-Ching, was further refined to include methods of self-defence, as the highwaymen, who were ransacking a country shaken by civil war, often confronted the monks. As their religion prohibited using weapons, the monks had to rely on these methods of empty-hand fighting, known as Shorinji Kempo.

Scenes depicting monks practising Kempo are on the temple's wall paintings of the Haiku-Den room. The techniques are long and supple and performed mainly with open hands. The movements are fluid and inspired by the Zen philosophy of non-violence and harmony and the fighting attitudes of animals such as the tiger, crane, monkey, snake, and dragon.

Shorinji Kempo also included fighting methods with "natural weapons" such as the Bo, a walking stick carried by monks in their peregrinations.

The Shaolin Temple:
The Shaolin Temple: Image by Marin Chorbadzhiyski from Pixabay

Kempo's knowledge was for monks only, but its fame spread to the whole country when the temple burned, driving the monks out.

During the Sung period (A.D. 960-1279), most revolutions were led by Kempo Masters. In A.D. 1280s, 100,000 Kempo practitioners rebelled against the ruling Mongolian Genghis Khan in an attempt to restore a purely Chinese dynasty.

Between 1840 and 1900, China, undermined by internal dissension, became the prey of foreign colonial powers (the Opium War with England in 1840-42, wars against France in 1884, Japan in 1894-95, etc.), leading to the Boxer Rebellion (the Boxers were a sect of ultranationalist Kempo practitioners). The Ch'ing dynasty crushed the rebellion in 1901 and executed many boxers. Training houses were closed, eradicating Kempo.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan. Image by Jonas KIM from Pixabay

Kempo never revived in China, but before dying out, Kempo had spread to the Ryukyu Islands, where it was to give birth to Karate.

Development of Karate in Okinawa

China had established a flourishing trade relationship with the Ryukyu Islands during the Sui dynasty around A.D. 607.

In 1372 King Satsudo of Okinawa (the largest archipelago island) became the vessel of the Ming Emperor. In an exchange of officials between the two countries, 1392 Chinese families moved to Okinawa, introducing Kempo to the Ryukyu Islands.

In 1429 the Okinawan King Shohashi unified the islands under his rule and banned all weapons. This prohibition led the people into overt opposition and gave a tremendous impulse to the arts of empty-hand fighting.

The Okinawans refused to help Shimazu and the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in their unsuccessful war of 1592-96 against the Chinese protectorate of Korea.

Later, in 1609 the Ryukyu Islands were conquered by the Japanese warlord Shimazu of the Satsuma clan. Shimazu issued strict laws prohibiting all weapons and martial arts practices to treat lesson to the Okinawans.

Chinese influence in Okinawa.
Chinese influence in Okinawa.

Once again, the Okinawans went undercover and developed the art of empty-hand fighting to a formidable degree of efficacy, developing a parallel practice of using farm implements as defensive weapons against the samurai swords. Hands and feet were turned into deadly weapons by assiduous practice on Makiwara, a vertical board covered with straw.

This fighting art became known as Okinawa-Te (Te means "hand" or "technique"). It was not until 1722 that Sakugawa, who had studied Kempo and bo fighting in China, started to teach in Shuri what he called Karate-no-Sakugawa. It was the first time when the name karate appeared.

Kara refers to the Tang dynasty; for the Okinawans, as for the Japanese, it had come to mean China itself. Karate thus meant "the Chinese techniques."

Note: As often in the case of Japanese use of Chinese ideograms, Kara, can also be pronounced as ku or sora, meaning "empty", "free like air" or "infinite". Thus, Kara became known as "Empty" and Kara-Te as empty hand mainly due to patriotic reasons which led to some masters denying the earlier meaning.

Later, around 1830, an Okinawan official, Sokon Matsumura, was sent to China where he mastered Shorinji Kempo and, after returning to Okinawa, founded in Shuri the "Shorinryu-Gokokuan-Karate"—the original name of Shorinryu Karate.

In 1848 Master Matsumura was named Chief Martial Arts Instructor for Okinawa. At that time, Okinawan Karate emphasised hard blocking techniques in reaction to offensive action, often resulting in severe injuries when the attacker was armed.

Master Anko Asato, a student of Master Matsumura, brilliantly demonstrated the superiority of dodging over blocking by defeating one of the greatest swordsmen of that time, Toshiaki Kirino. Several masters became famous during this period and greatly influenced the development of Karate in Japan. They were Master Chojun Kyamu, himself a student of Master Anko Asato and one of the instructors of Shinan Kori Hisa-taka, founder of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo;

Master Anko Itosu and Master Kanryu Higaona, foremost instructors respectively of Shuri-te and Naha-te (Karate from Shuri and Naha, two of the biggest cities in Okinawa); Gichin Funakoshi, Chojun Miyagi, and Kenwa Mabuni, themselves students of Masters Asato, Itosu, and Higaona, who were later to develop, respectively, the Shotokan, Gojuryu, and Shitoryu styles of Karate in Japan.

Note: Sanshinkan and hence, Kombat Hall, trace its lineage to Kenwa Mabuni. Know more here.

The article draws knowledge from the book "Scientific Karatedo" by Masayuki Histaka, who had personally gifted the book to Soke Tamas Weber. The article also draws knowledge from conversations with senior masters at the Annual Sanshinkan training seminar. Some masters include Soke Tamas Weber- 10th Dan, Sensei Issac Florentine-9th Dan, Sensei Israel Levi-9th Dan, Sensei Joel-8th Dan and Sensei Yashpal Singh Kalsi-7th Dan.

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