The Karate Tapestry
By Robert Hunt
There is no beginning and no end.
The Japanese “Enso” symbol, illustrates so well our despair at trying to contain and comprehend the relentless, diabolical passage of time.
In the middle ages, Japanese Buddhist monks meditated over a sheet of rice paper, and, when they felt the moment right, drew a circle – the “Enso”. It represented a precise moment and the futility of ever preserving that moment.
A circle never ends.
So is karate like the Enso. No beginning. The end is now…for now. The best we can do is jump in somewhere and ride the story of karate history until we arrive at today…which immediately fades into tomorrow and into the Enso.
Some see a beginning of the karate story with the journey of the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidarma (called Tamo by the Chinese) who traveled to China in 527 AD to introduce a new kind of Buddhism – Chan, also known as Zen. They choose that point on the great mandala because persistent legend has it that Tamo settled in the recently formed Shaolin temple and taught exercises to the out-of-shape monks which evolved into Shaolin martial arts and ultimately Okinawan karate.
Tamo was real, but did he start the Shaolin martial arts? Maybe. That was 1500 years ago and although legends are persistent, records are scarce. Martial arts were part of Chinese culture for centuries before Tamo.
If we seek the origins of Okinawan karate, however, it might be well to begin in 1368 with the dawn of the Ming Dynasty in China and the House of Zhu, the family name of the Ming Emperors. The history of the Ming is more intertwined with Okinawan martial arts than almost any other aspect of Chinese history. Tamo may have engendered a philosophical martial practice in the misty shadows of Chinese history, but the Ming played a pivotal role in what you and I do on the dojo floor today.
The Ming dynasty was described as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”. The word Ming, which means “brilliant” and is written with the Chinese characters “sun-moon”, was a dynasty of Han Chinese, the ethnic inhabitants of China. The prior dynasty, the Yuan, was Mongol, (Kublai Khan) and the one that followed the Ming, the Qing, was Manchurian.
The connection to karate still lies with the Shaolin temple. The temple had grown over 800 years into an enclave of warrior Monks, allegiant to the Ming who, in gratitude, supported the Shaolin. The Shaolin warriors even marched into battle for the Ming emperors.
Benny Meng and Matthew Kwan tell the story in an article about the Chinese martial art Wing Chung. You can find it on the internet under Ving Tung Museum. I drew from their work for this article.
When the Manchu conquered China in 1644 and drove out the Ming, they forced a cruel government onto the Han. They imposed a long hair braid, called a cue that was supposed to humiliate the Han by representing a horses tail but which eventually became a Chinese tradition that persisted until 1922.
Out of the subjugation, there emerged a centuries long drive to return a Ming to power. Since the Shaolin was a warrior temple and allegiant to the Ming, it was a prime target of the Manchu. Legend has it that they burned the southern Shaolin temple and forced the Monks into hiding. Many fled China Taiwan and other places in Southeast Asia (Okinawa?). Others went underground and quietly tried to foment a revolution. Secret societies grew out of the revolutionary movement, societies like the Triad’s and the Tongs (the Boxers) that still exist within the foreign Chinese underground.
There are plentiful stories of Chinese emissaries (for example Kushanku) visiting Okinawa and Okinawans, in turn, traveling to China to study the martial arts (Matsumura, Nakaima, Higaonna, Uechi). They inevitably seem to have studied with someone associated with the Shaolin.
There are lots of hints about Shaolin/Ming influence within our karate. Okinawans took the name Shaolin (Shorin) for their art, for instance. They also used the Ming loyalist secret greeting of right fist in left palm to start their katas.
During those centuries, the Shaolin priests and their followers were being persecuted and executed by the Manchu. Although there is little direct evidence (because it was secret), circumstantial evidence points to the idea that Okinawan karate was, partially at least, a product of Ming faithful Shaolin Monks and their followers who were either fleeing persecution, training potential rebels, or maybe just passing on the Shaolin arts.
The character who springs to mind is Lu Lu Ko, the illusive Chinese master purported to have taught both Nakaima (in the 1830’s) and Higaonna (in the 1870’s). No one really knows who he was or if he even actually existed. But someone taught those two men. Is the secrecy intentional? Was he evading the Manchu?
Much of this is speculation, but speculation based on facts and verbal family histories, not whimsy. One can see the history of the Shaolin and the Ming in the very kata that make up modern karate. The katas Jitte, Jiin and Jion are often referred to as “temple katas” and begin with the Ming hand signal. What temple?
We look at the organized styles and systematic teaching methods, the colored belts and the black belt of today and we see a structured art that is more or less quaint. But karate emerged from life and death conflicts, one of which may have been the centuries of Shaolin martial development and then their conquest to place a Ming back onto the throne of China and free the Han Chinese from their Manchurian overlords.
The art that the ex-Shaolin Monks were teaching Matsumura and Nakaima, Higaonna and Uechi was not just a fun sport. To them, it may have been nothing less than the future of China.
It all ended with the rise of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse Tung and the advent of modern China, about 1912, not that long ago. The rebuilt Shaolin monastery nowadays is a communist tourist trap complete with pretend monks.
And the Ming dynasty? Long gone. Alive today in history books and karate katas like Basai, Nipaipo, Jitte, Jiin and Jion – any kata that makes the secret fist-in-palm salute to the ancient ghosts of the Ming warriors and a few that don’t.
And today? When the Manchu took over, the Ming went into hiding, changing their names from the Zhu family name for safety. After the rise of the modern Republic of China, some changed them back. Zhu Rongji, for example, is an 18th generation descendent of Zhu Bian, the 18th son of the Hongwu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Rongji served as premier of the People’s Republic of China until 2003.
This article was 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, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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