Six months ago I began a videoblog (http://cayugakarate.com/blog) dedicated to exploring the potential link between Chinese military arts and Okinawan empty hand arts. I would like to share my work with the contributors on MartialTalk.
It would be helpful to briefly review the historical context of the Chinese presence in Okinawan.
Between the late 1300s and the late 1800s, the Chinese engaged in the tributary system of trade with numerous peoples throughout Southeast Asia. The Okinawans, due to both their location, as well as their seafaring skills, had an important role in this trading system which became an integral component of the Okinawan economy and social system. In support of the tributary system, the Chinese established a substantial presence (36 families)in the Kume Mura village in Naha. Throughout much of the 500 year period of tributary trade, Okinawan tribute ships were vulnerable to piracy and the Chinese had strong motivation to ensure these ships were appropriately protected against attacks. It was not uncommon for the Chinese to send military personnel to Okinawa. (Funakoshi lists five Chinese by name as teachers of Chinese martial systems to Okinawans. Four of these were described as military attaches.) And while the origins of Okinawan of karate will forever be clouded, due primarily due to the secrecy in which it was practiced; there is some belief that the Chinese are a significant source of Okinawan kata.
If we accept the proposition that the Chinese placed a high value on tribute trade with Okinawa, we should consider the possibility that the Chinese would want Okinawans to have the military skills necessary to protect Okinawan tribute vessels on route to China. We do have a record of Chinese military officials engaged in teaching the Okinawans martial arts. If that were true, we should at least consider the possibility that these arts could have been used in a military context, specifically protecting Okinawan tribute vessels.
Based upon this historical analysis, I have proposed the following hypothesis. Okinawan kata, at least those taught by Chinese in Okinawan, have origins as Chinese military arts, and were taught to help ensure the protection of tribute trade.
Prior to the emergence of firearms, the bladed spear (which I will refer to as a "spear", rather than use the more uncommon term "halberd") was a common weapon used in military combat. While long spears were common on the battlefield, short spears were quite common throughout the Chinese military. Short spears (about the height of the person using it) would have an obvious advantage (compared to long spears) in defending a ship against pirates who had been successful in boarding, and therefore, we should expect that the Chinese would have passed on arts specifically for use with the short spear.
The hypothesis proposed leads to the question: do Okinawan kata have movements that could propel a spear in useful, effective fighting combinations?
It is the purpose of my videoblog to further explore this question. Since July, I have documented 30 hours of training and instruction (mostly training), and have documented the movements of 20 kata for use with a spear. Over the next several years I will explore the movements of these 20 kata, and 20 others, for use with a spear.
In general, I will record a minimum of 1000 repetitions of a kata, in some cases many more. I want to have some minimum level of competency before I take the opportunity to share what my training in a kata has taught me about the uses of the spear movements found within each kata.
While I expect many to be resistant to this novel hypothesis I have proposed, I am hopeful that some might find my ideas useful. There are many karateka engaged in the study of kata, who are perplexed at how some of the movements could be used in effective fighting combinations. For many, there are some movements in kata that just don’t seem to model actual fighting.
I am eager to engage those who would be interested in exploring this very different approach to the analysis of kata.
My blog, over time, will also contain a thorough review of the available literature regarding the origins of Okinawan karate, the history and impact of the Okinawan-Chinese trading relations, and the effects of the Japanese occupation and banning of weapons of warfare. I have posted some of that information already.
Before I close, I need to make some very important points. I have said nothing here that would imply that I don’t believe many kata movements are useful in fighting. That is because I believe that kata contain all sorts of great empty-hand fighting applications. I also believe that some movements don’t seem to have much usefulness in actual fighting, but that does not detract from the fact that I am an ardent believer in the practice and use of Okinawan kata for empty hand fighting.
Second, I recognize that the history is terribly incomplete and that drawing any speculations is difficult. As I document the historical record, this will become more clear. For those kata that predate 1900, we will never know for sure which are of Chinese origin, and which may be of uniquely Okinawan origin. Without question, the kata have been modified in ways that make them uniquely Okinawan, and in ways that don’t resemble the way that Chinese kata, both empty hand and weapons kata, are practiced today.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether the kata have changed, the question still remains. Do the Okinawan kata today, in general, provide for effective spear combinations? I will review a broad cross-section of common Okinawan kata, 40 altogther, in an effort to demonstrate that they do.
As I have brought this issue to other forums, some have asked questions about the relation of Okinawan kobudo to the issue I am studying. Please note I make no arguments at all about Okinawan kobudo. While some of those weapons may have been used to defend tribute ships, I don’t see what motivation the Chinese would have had to teach the use of those weapons in preparing Okinawans for combat with armed pirates. The Chinese have had thousands of years experience in the use of the spear in military combat, and I see no reason that they would have chosen to instruct the Okinawans in bo, tonfa or nunchuka, as these are non-bladed weapons. In military combat, at least prior to the adoption of firearms, preference was clearly given to bladed weapons. And while the kama is bladed, the short length makes it not nearly as effective as a spear. (I won’t argue with the Sai one way or the other. They are effective throwing weapons, and could very well have had a role.)
I do not mean to minimize the role that Okinawans played in the development of karate, as it is practiced today. There was an art of te that predated the rise of the Ming and the development of Tributary trade. However there was substantial Chinese influence throughout the development of the art, and today karate can be viewed as uniquely Okinawan, from the way they train, to the way they practice kata. I do not mean to minimize their obvious fundamental role in the development of their art.
What I do hope to do is to ensure that students of the art do not overlook the importance of the Chinese role in this development. If indeed Chinese military personnel had a role teaching forms to Okinawans, and if these forms survive today with a strong resemblence to the original movements taught, then we need to consider the Okinawans as transmitters of Chinese information, and we should look to the motivations of the Chinese as to why they taught these forms. It is accepted that the Chinese taught empty hand systems for empty hand self-defense. I believe that this assumption should be questioned.
I fully recognize the complexity of this subject, and I am sure this post will elicit all sorts of questions from the contributors here. I will do my best to answer all issues raised. I am most interested in the discussion of kata movements, so if anyone has in interest in pursuing those specific discussions, I would be most obliged. But I have a strong interest in fleshing out the historical record, and would appreciate all information that contributors can share on this topic.
Ithaca, New York, USA