Get ready for a short martial arts history lesson that encompasses China, Okinawa, the Southern Shaolin Temple and, just possibly, the style of self-defense you practice!

In the latter part of the 19th century, when the Ming revolutionaries were still active and many secret societies had been formed, an Okinawan named Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915) arrived in Fuzhou. He eventually found a martial arts teacher named Ryuryuko (Chinese: Xie Zhongxiang, 1852-1930), who taught at his house and claimed to have studied at a temple in the Fujian mountains. After spending a number of years in China, Higashionna returned to Okinawa and founded the naha-te tradition.


Building on his teachings, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) established goju-ryu and introduced the Okinawan practice of using closed fists when performing the sanchin kata. He also made several trips to China after Higashionna's death to further his study of the Chinese arts and to find Ryuryuko. Miyagi supposedly located Ryuryuko's grave, but many of the notes he took during his trips were lost as a result of World War II.

A Buddhist monk practices his martial art at China's Nine Dragons Temple.

The other martial art practiced in Okinawa was shuri-te, which means “hands of Shuri." Today, it's called shorin-ryu, or “Shaolin style." Some Okinawan authorities claim it's a combination of the northern and southern styles, which is why it looks unique and has a different set of forms. That doesn't seem likely, however, because most of Okinawa's contact with China was through Fujian province.

Naha-te was more influenced by the southern Shaolin style, and shuri-te is a combination of the original Okinawa-te and the southern Shaolin tradition. Their seafaring adventures and maritime trade gave Okinawan sailors plenty of opportunity to bring back kicking methods from Thailand, which may have influenced their own kicks and strikes long ago.

Keeping in mind that Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands have had contact with many other Asian countries, it's safe to say that shuri-te is a more eclectic Okinawan karate style and a composite martial art with a long history.

Matsumura Soken (1809-1898) is considered a pioneer of the Okinawan martial arts. However, many generations before him, the arts were influenced by Chinese immigrants known as the Saposhi. Ming-dynasty officials sent 36 families to Okinawa to help with the island's development and relations with China. They taught the martial arts to the Okinawans as early as 1393 in a Chinese settlement called Kumemura, but how extensive the blending of Okinawan and Chinese martial arts actually was is unknown.

Other teachers of karate in Okinawa preceded him, but Matsumura is widely regarded the organizer of the kata system and the nomenclature of modern karate. As the king's bodyguard and royal envoy, he traveled to Fuzhou several times, and it's believed that he studied at or at least visited one of the Shaolin Temples in Fujian.

What's most interesting is that Matsumura brought a Shaolin white-crane master named Iwah back with him to Okinawa in the 1860s. Together, they taught the art to many locals.

Mural from the Northern Shaolin Temple in Henan (Photo by Robert W. Young)

To truly know Okinawan karate, you must understand the roots of the martial arts of southern China, and their migration to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands. Okinawa was a satellite or vassal nation of China for more than 300 years, and that close geopolitical and cultural relationship led to the migration of the southern Shaolin style that so strongly influenced the Okinawan martial arts. That relationship and the findings presented so far will be further discussed in the next installment of this series.

(Read Part 1 here.)

(Read Part 3 here.)

Nine Dragons Temple Photo by George W. Alexander

About the author: George W. Alexander, Ph.D., is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation. John E. Graham is vice president of the International Nan Shaolin Wushu Federation and chief instructor at the United Academy of Kung Fu in Mobile, Alabama.

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!

In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

Keep Reading Show less

Enter our partner's current Sweepstakes. They are giving away a Grand Prize 'FKB Wardrobe'.

TAKE NOTICE!

FIVE KNUCKLE BULLET 'Wardrobe' Sweepstakes

Feeling Lucky? Enter our current Sweepstakes Now! We are giving away a Grand Prize 'FKB Wardrobe' which consists of our most popular sportswear items. Prize includes the following:

Keep Reading Show less

Turn the clock back to 2005 and check out this legendary performance by Steve Terada.

This is the sixth installment of a series that features old school sport karate videos to keep the history of the sport alive. Steve Terada was a member of the prestigious Team Paul Mitchell Karate and gained his reputation as a top competitor with his innovative extreme forms. He is one of the pioneers of martial arts tricking, having contributed to the creation of several tricks including the snapuswipe (an inverted 540 kick with an extra rotation before the landing). He was also the first to land many of these tricks in competition.

Keep Reading Show less

ONE Championship concluded an epic series of events with ONE: A New Breed III that saw several highlight-reel performances. And after the event, the organization was quick to announce the main event of their upcoming event on October 9, ONE: Reign of Dynasties.

At ONE: A New Breed, Petchmorakot Petchyindee Academy successfully defended the ONE Featherweight Muay Thai World Championship against Magnus Andersson with a third-round knockout.
Keep Reading Show less
Free Bruce Lee Guide
Have you ever wondered how Bruce Lee’s boxing influenced his jeet kune do techniques? Read all about it in this free guide.
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter