By Robert Hunt
So proclaimed blind Master Po about Shaolin Priests in the opening of the classic TV movie Kung Fu.
Those mesmerizing words from Master Po, the blind Shaolin Priest, were first heard in 1969, early in the journey through the American karate maze. But now, almost a half century later, one comes to realize just how relevant the Shaolin was to the virtual existence of the Okinawan martial arts and the entire story of karate history.
It began at least as long ago as the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644). There are volumes to tell about the Ming, too many for these few pages, but key is that the Ming supported the Shaolin monastery and its martial arts. They even used the Shaolin priests as a sort of mercenary army, including against Japanese pirates, Wako, who plagued the Chinese coast. (Sounds like fodder for a Kung Fu flick.) The Shaolin flourished during the Ming years, encouraged by the Ming emperors, and allegiant to them ever after.
The Shaolin monastery dates to the 5th century AD. There is a persistent legend that a Buddhist priest from India named Bodhidharma traveled to China in the 6th century, wound up at the Shaolin and taught the monks exercises to enhance their meditative ability, exercises which ultimately evolved into Kung Fu. It is also alleged he sat in front of a wall for nine years seeking enlightenment.
Bodhidharma did travel to China in the 6th century to spread Zen Buddhism, but the connection to a martial art is not so clear. There were warrior Monks at the Shaolin before Bodhidharma ever knocked at the big wooden gate. A hundred years earlier weapon caches were discovered at the monastery and it is said that the early patriarchs were military leaders retired to monastic life after military careers, an occasional Asian custom. It is possible Bodhidharma added a Zen approach, as well as religious philosophy, to an already existing martial refuge.
The Ming/Shaolin merge into the karate story through their connection to Okinawa and the fabled “36 families.”
Okinawa, like much of Asia, saw China as the center of their world and itself as a vassal kingdom. Around 1400, the Ming emperor, at the request of the Okinawan king, sent educators and tradesmen to Okinawa. There may have been 36, but that has nothing to do with the name. Chinese culture is steeped in semi-religious numerology and the number 36 was more “lucky number” than actual tally. They were referred to as “36”, no matter how many families actually boarded the boat in Fuzhou.
The 36 families settled in Kume Village, which they called Kuninda, on the then island port of Naha. There they shared crafts, reading, calligraphy, literature, culture and – Kung Fu. Several modern Okinawan karate teachers speak proudly of their ancestral connection to Kume Village.
It was this combination of Ming support for the Shaolin monasteries (there were several) along with their support of Okinawa that plays into modern karate and the influence of blind Master Po on our martial art.
We often think of karate as Japanese, largely because many of the post World War II instructors we knew were Japanese. But karate only became known to Japan in the 20th century. For the half millennium it gestated in Okinawa, it was considered Chinese, driven in large part by those 36 families and the legacy of the Shaolin monks.
The Chinese words “shao” and “lin” translate as “small” and “forest”. In the Okinawan language “shao” becomes “sho” and “lin” becomes “rin”. The words in Okinawan then read – “shorin“.
Bushi Matsumura, the first Okinawan to more or less organize karate in the 1800’s, the true “father of karate”, referred to what he practiced as Shorin. It would indicate he believed his martial art originated from, or had a connection to, the Shaolin. Modern versions of Shorin Ryu claim that same lineage.
In the 1800’s, Ryuei Ryu, Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu all found a connection in the Shaolin Monastery. Lu Lu Ko, the illusive purveyor of martial arts supposedly to both Nakaima and Higaonna, as well as Shushiwa, Uechi’s instructor, both allegedly trained in either the northern or southern Shaolin monasteries or from people who did.
Because of the lack of written records, this is all difficult to authenticate, but there is adequate circumstantial evidence for one to make an argument for it.
The Shaolin priests (monks if you like) were famous as masters of two arts – empty handed ones and the use of the staff, which they called kun, the Okinawan bo or kon. The bo plays an important part in the Okinawan martial arts. Almost all Okinawan martial artists practice it and there are as many bo katas as empty handed ones.
Several katas – Bassai, Nipaipo, Jitte, Jiin and Jion – begin with a closed fist inside an open hand, a motion that is alleged to be a secret hand signal of the Ming warriors who sought refuge in the Shaolin monastery and whose martial progeny tried for 250 years to return a Ming to the throne of China.
When the Manchurians, the Manchu, invaded China in 1644 and formed the Qing Dynasty, they feverishly tried to stamp out any Ming allegiance hidden in the Shaolin. Ming soldiers and other faithful fled China. Kume Village, home of the 36 families and a haven of Ming sympathizers, was a logical refuge for Shaolin monks fleeing a vindictive government.
Little was written about karate and its origins during those years. It was all secret. In Okinawa, that was due to the Satsuma occupation. But secrecy was also a tradition among the Shaolin and the Ming, since they were being hounded by the Manchu and executed along with their extended families. Martial systems were passed on secretly and verbally so no path could ever be followed. This was possibly a reason for the use of kata and its hidden bunkai – a way of passing on unwritten, secret techniques. Master Po and his descriptions of unseen and unheard priests wasn’t far off the mark – either unseen and unheard, or dead.
There is much more to say about the Shaolin monastery, their legendary priests, the Ming and their influence on the martial arts. It’s been going on for 1,500 years.
According to Benny Meng of the Ving Tsun Museum, the Chinese martial art of Wing Chung is a descendent of Shaolin priests working underground to restore the Ming, and that Chinese Opera, which spawned the likes of Jackie Chan, grew out of Shaolin/Ming secret societies.
The Boxer rebellion in China around 1905 was a rebellion of Shaolin lineage martial artists trying to drive the Western powers from their country.
The modern Chinese mafia is an evolution of the Triads, secret societies descended from the Shaolin.
The ebb and flow of history is a phenomenon that takes decades to appreciate and connect. Because the Manchu persecuted the Chinese, Ming soldiers and Shaolin priests fled the country. Because the Satsuma persecuted the Okinawans, the Okinawans may have forged the Shaolin martial arts into the karate that we pursue.
(Because King George tried to tax American colonists past their level of acceptance, we are here, and free, to write articles today.)
We sometimes view karate in a vacuum, as if it started somewhere identifiable and comes in well established “styles”. If we stand back and explore the art over two millennia, the styles to which we pledge such allegiance in modern times seem limited.
Karate is a river as old as time itself. Now it is flowing through us. We forage through the remnants of 1,500 years of a life and death tradition and organize it into belts and tests in order to make sense of it. We try to wrap it up in a box, tie a ribbon around it and hope we understand something.
But life is impossible to wrap up. And we know precious little about a Ming warrior or a Shaolin priest. Blind Master Po would have been as enigmatic in real life as he was portrayed by Keye Luke in the movie.
But karate is more of a tapestry than a box of knowledge. It is comprised of colorful bits of humanity woven together for centuries. The best we can do is practice, study, and seek the answers.
These articles were assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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