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The effect of China on the origins of Karate in Okinawa


Karate (空手) is a martial art with complex origins. Many debates and many sources have backed up different points of view on how different nations have impacted its development. Some argue that its development began when a weapons ban was imposed upon the Okinawan common folk by the Japanese Satsuma Clan in the 17th century; the flowering of karate during this period is unclear, but it is known that much of Ryukyukan culture developed during this period [1]. The art itself uses a wide variety of kicking, punching, grappling, knee and elbow techniques along with open hand strikes, joint locks and chokes for manipulation of opponents, aimed at specific and vulnerable parts of the body; these may include nerve points or fragile locations such as the ears and eyes [2]. In this dissertation, this project will be exploring the effect China had on the development of this fighting art, mainly within Okinawa (which was then an independent kingdom, called the Ryukyu Kingdom). The effect will be explored mainly through the comparison of traditional Chinese Wushu and Karate in terms of beliefs, techniques, movements and historical developments.

Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture which used to be an independent kingdom known as the Ryukyu kingdom, prior to Japanese occupation. It was the centre of trade for many decades for a variety of eastern countries, mainly Indonesia, Japan and China. Thanks to this, a lot of characteristics from different cultures merged together to assimilate into Okinawan culture, such as Japanese fishing techniques, and linguistic influences from China.

Immigratory Historical Factors

The first point of contact to be recorded between Okinawa and China was in 607 A.D. [3]. Due to differences in language, communication was limited between both nations until four years after the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Following these events, at sometime around 1393, a Chinese organisation was founded known as the 36 Families from Min [4]. This is a key point to take into account, as it shows that there was a systematic acceptance of Chinese culture through the organisation’s immigration, since it was the first time that any meaningful relationship between both nations had been established. Said organisation consisted of a number of Chinese bureaucrats, craftsmen and labourers who emigrated from Fujian, also known as Fukien which is a southeast coast province in China, into the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was thanks to this organization, that Okinwawan folk began to appropriate and learn more about the culture of China i.e. the establishment of the 36 Families in Kume village led to the merging of Chinese culture with Okinawan, in many different aspects, martial arts included.

According to Douglas Haring’s translation of the Takanoya Account 1896, the mission was “settled in 1393 by immigrants of China and provided a place for Chinese diplomats to reside, and for Okinawan nobles to learn the language and manners of China”. This settlement was in Kume village and it “served as a center of diffusion of Chinese culture in Ryukyu” for five centuries. That is an immense amount of time for cultural assimilation to take place. The claim that Kume village was key in this cultural exchange between the nations is also backed by Patrick McCarthy’s translation of The Bubishi [4], stating that it was seen as “Okinawa’s window to Chinese culture”. Eventually, young Okinawans would learn and take part in Chinese culture too and they would stand to gain much respect for it, becoming well accepted into society and also receiving scholarships for education directly from the Chinese government. The conclusion of this account, stated that “The enrichment of Okinawan culture via Kume was incalculable’. Supposedly, the public not only achieved proficiency in writing and speaking Chinese, but also other useful craft such as ship building techniques and architecture. Eventually, the evolution of Karate came about, and the comparison between the Wushu style of the Fujian province and some of the original styles of Karate can be used to argue the idea that the trade route between China and Okinawa lead to the aforementioned evolution.

A comparison of Wushu and Karate

When you compare both fighting styles (Fujian White Crane and Okinawan Variants of Karate) the impact of one on the other is clear. Here you can see a comparison of back stances in these styles:

On the left you will see the stance in Fujian White Crane, and many other styles of Wushu, that is commonly referred to as the ‘Tiger Taming Stance’. On the right is a deep Shito-Ryu Karate (a synthesis of Okinawan Karate styles) Back Stance, in Japanese referred to as Kokutsu Dachi (屈立). Both stances concentrate on having the majority of one’s weight distribution on the practitioner’s rear leg, and maintaining balance using your core and other muscles whilst keeping a straight alignment of both heels in a line. The link between traditional Karate and Fujian White Crane Wushu is furthered through the observation that some forms and kata appear to be similar and even share the same name. A good example of this pattern is the Sanchin Dachi (Hourglass Stance). Here is the Karate version [5] of the kata, and the Wushu version [6]. The similarities presented here, between these two crystallisations of Karate and Wushu illustrate a physical relationship that is present between the styles. It also shows how Chinese martial arts teachings and philosophies took a role in the synthesis of Karate as a whole.

The assimilation of kata from Wushu into Karate

More examples of kata and technique appropriations can be seen throughout the history of China and Okinawa. In 1683, a Chinese Kempo master, Wanji, taught villagers in the town of Tomari a kata named after himself. This potentially may have had large ramifications in Karate, considering that the style itself, partially evolved from To-te, and Tomari is famous for having produced one of the main styles of Te - Tomari Te. Te or Ti is an indigeneous, Okinawan martial art, which is considered to be the Ryukyuan ancestor art of Karate. Te was originally a very informal martial art - a collection of techniques passed down from father to son, with techniques varying for different families. This all changed when official styles of Te were founded and named after the three cities that they emerged from: Tomari Te, Naha Te and Shuri Te.

A similar trend was continued by others after Wanji. In 1755, man named Sakugawa Tode made his way into China to study the art of Kempo and a year later, in 1756, another Kempo master named Kushanku, came from China and taught many Okinawans a kata named after himself - Sakugawa Tode became a student of Kushanku, and was later credited with being a catalyst for the development of traditional Okinawan Karate [7]; his experience in Chinese Kempo, will without a doubt have impacted his teachings and interpretation of Karate. Moreover, this inheritance of Kempo kata by the Okinawan folk, also provides evidence for the impact of Chinese Wushu on Okinawan Culture, and continues to highlight a clear pattern of Karate having derived much of its movements from Wushu.

Other factors in the origins of Karate, and the differences between Karate and Wushu

Nonetheless, a vast amount of differences are present too, which could be used to debate the idea that Karate inherited most of its techniques from the Okinawan folk themselves, and their Ti or Te. The dissimilarities within the executions which are present in Wushu and Karate, and the motions with which they are executed are too dissimilar to find any resemblance - it would be near impossible to find a modern wushu style that matches the rigidness and the strict nature of Karate; whilst practicing any style of Karate, traditionally, it was expected that any technique would utilise the same distance regardless of the individual. Although students would have difference in height, weight and body types (mesomorphic, endomorphic, ectomorph), it was a key element that the movements were uniform in distance and technique. In fact, many of the masters that enforced this, carried rulers to measure distance of punches and how wide or long different stances were [Sensei Adrian Starr]. Much of this self-discipline is argued to come from the Japanese influences on the fighting art’s evolution, or due to it being used as the standard self-defence art in the Japanese army, however it is unclear as to why such a strict militarisation is present within the style. The movements themselves are sturdy, and have a snap to them that can be seen within the performance of Shito-Ryu kata [8].

The three aforementioned body types (also known as soma types) are a result of a person’s genetic predisposition on how their body reacts to different types and styles of nutrition and food.

The body type on the left is known as an ectomorph body type. It’s characteristics include a having a harder time building muscle, a delicate frame, a faster metabolism in comparison to other body types, and the build that is similar to one of a marathon runner. The body type in the middle, is known as a mesomorph body type. It’s characteristics involve responsive muscle cells, leading to a muscular and durable build, narrow waist, and a relatively high metabolism. The body type at the right is called a endomorph body type. It involves a slower metabolism, and larger bone structures in comparison to other body types, along with a higher tendency to put on fat. [body types]

In contrast to the strictness of Karate, the movements within many styles of modern Wushu are fluid and have a softness to them which can’t be spotted in the majority of karate, and are also enacted with blinding speed. Wushu differs to Karate, especially in its philosophy when it comes to movement; while Wushu and Chinese Kempo practitioners attempt to imitate the movements of a “willow tree swaying with the wind” [Sensei Adrian Starr], Karate practitioners prefer short, sudden movements backed with the rotational power of their hips. The performance of the aforementioned movements in Wushu is done in a manner that looks more like a dance; this contrasts a lot with the robotic mannerisms of kata performances. Techniques within some styles of Wushu are also more inclined towards the gymnastics or ‘tricking’ side of martial arts, and many of them require a level of flexibility and conditioning that is different to the one within that of karate. Tricking is a martial discipline which involves the seamless blending of kicking techniques and gymnastic movements, jumps, flips and even moves from breakdancing and other types of performing arts. Here is the introduction of a demonstration by Shaolin Monks [9].

The difference between Traditional and Modern Wushu

Although there is a persistent inequality to the movements within these demonstrations, a historical factor hasn’t been considered - the difference between modern and traditional Wushu. In 1949, the Communist Government of China founded Modern Wushu in an attempt to standardize the practices of Wushu across the country [10]. This would lead to a divide between the traditional styles of Wushu that were present across the country and the new, modernized Wushu which would heavily emphasise on more gymnastic and acrobatic movements rather than applicable movesets for fighting. Such standardisation was done in order to create a touristic appeal to the country and to attract more visitors to the country, as well as an attempt to flesh out Chinese culture.

Therefore, given the appearance of the Shaolin Monk demonstration, it may be assumed that it might not be the best comparison for traditional Okinawan Karate. Here is a traditional Wushu demonstration of traditional Southern Fujian White Crane [11]. When comparing modern Wushu, and traditional Wushu demonstrations, the comparisons that were made beforehand become obsolete. No longer are the movements performed with immense speed and acrobatic mannerisms, but with clear-cut precision and methodical shifts of the body. The stances of the feet are much narrower, the demonstrations are slightly slower, and the actual purpose of modern and traditional Wushu differ as well - whilst traditional Wushu is seen as a means of self defence, the modern variant of Wushu was formulated as an eastern counterpart to the western combat sports such as boxing and wrestling [12].

Now when the similarities are considered between traditional Okinawan Karate (Shito-Ryu style) and traditional Wushu (Fujian/Fukien White Crane), it is much easier to observe the relationship between both styles. In both demonstrations of the traditional styles, note the presence of a higher firmness and physical conviction in the movements; the speed and force within each presentation proves an inheritance of techniques and principles from one style to another, and thus, continues to show a relationship between China and Okinawa. But based on the hand movements and stances demonstrated in the videos, many will still argue that the relationship is intangible.

Analysing the role of spiritual and moral systems in Wushu and Karate

In order to further the comparison, it is also important to consider the belief systems that these two martial styles cradle and originate from. In many traditional styles of almost all martial arts, including Wushu, there is a belief in a type of energy that is vital to the existence of any and all living entities. These styles base their fighting philosophy off of this belief system. In traditional Wushu this is called Qi, and it is the essential principle and pillar by which all Chinese martial arts are constructed from. Many mistake it to be a sort of energy that is akin to energy types such as kinetic or elastic energy, but its nature is defined with great difficulty. It is a purely pseudoscientific construct (one that claims to be scientific and tangible, but is completely founded upon non-scientific methods). It has never been directly studied or observed by any credible scientific sources. According to Dr. Yang and his article on the role of Qi in Chinese Martial Arts [13], the application of martial arts must be in completely balance in harmony when it comes to physical and spiritual applications and attributes.

This theory is based on the philosophy of yin and yang. The yin yang theory is a concept of dualism, which claims that two opposing and contrary forces are actually complementary, and form a symbiotic relationship where one cannot exist without the other, thus playing a role in the natural order of our world. An example of this could be the concepts of masculinity and femininity - masculinity or femininity wouldn’t be defined or exist, if their corresponding counterparts ceased to be. The part that this plays in the concept of Qi in martial arts, is that the action of performing any martial form, is divided into two pillars - body and soul. The body, represents everything that is physical: this includes muscle endurance, strength, speed and balance and this is presented by the hard side of the duality, yang. The mind represents the internal workings of a fighter when performing a martial art: the spirit, will and conviction of a fighter and is perceived to be the softer side of martial arts, yin. The yin yang influence the structure and technique to martial arts in terms of training, techniques and conditioning. It has sprouted the mindset, within all martial arts, that complete balance is integral to any technique, and the foundation to master said technique. A more specific example of an art that defines itself on the concept of balance would be the Goju-Ryu Karate style, which utilises almost a half and half approach for its variety of techniques. Many of them are hard (involve striking and brute force) and many are soft (involve grappling, manipulation of body mechanics). Furthermore, entire internal martial arts have been created to develop the Qi, such as Quigong (a chinese form of wushu), which portrays the importance that is placed upon the role of Qi in Chinese Martial Arts.

These concepts in Wushu could have been influenced due its own origins too - it is believed that Wushu was originally developed as a set of strengthening exercises for Buddhists monks. When an Indian monk set out to translate scriptures from complex languages into languages that could be interpreted by the common people, he triggered a chain of disagreements with the emperor at the time, and parted ways. He soon found himself in the Shaolin monastery, where he encountered the monks that were helping with the translations, hunched over desks for long periods of time. As a result, Bodhidharma (in Chinese known as Ta Mo) developed exercises to help them maintain a physical and mental well being, which he supposedly derived from yoga from his native country, India. Soon however, they would come to be blended with the traditional martial arts that existed at the time which were known as Chiou Ti and Shuai Chiao. Although sources back the information provided, it is not currently known how many of these stories are fact and how many are fiction [20].

The equivalent of Qi in Karate is Ki. It is a concept extremely similar to Qi, with few nuances. Again, it is seen as a form of abstract energy with which every living being is conceived out of. However, according to the beliefs of Karate, this can only be developed with breathing exercises found in Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. In both Chinese and Japanese arts, it is a common concept that this energy can be interacted with through the human sternum. For example, in Karate, when performing kata, it can be observed how the practitioner shouts when performing each move. This is his kiai - it is a shout that intimidates his opponent, and enhances his power. Kiai is the sound that the body makes when one flexes all of their muscles at once and exhales sharply at the very end of a technique. However, Karate has always been known to place a greater emphasis on the mind of the practitioner rather than his soul, due to its Japanese and Okinawan roots (which is the best established concept to which Ki or Qi can be compared). Its roots play a part in this due to the differences between Japanese and Chinese culture, especially on their approaches to discipline, with Japan taking it considerably more crucial. Many books have been written to outline the importance of the mindset of warriors, soldiers, and martial arts practitioners. A perfect book to outline this, is the Book of Five Rings [19] by a long gone Japanese swordsman, who was considered so great and skilled, that he is forever known to be the Kensei of Japan, the Japanese Sword Saint.

In this book, the sword saint outlines very important principles and rules by which martial artists should strive to live by, while also outlining some Kendo techniques (Japanese fencing). Whilst both Wushu and Karate underline the importance of the individual and their mentality, the concepts used to represent this are different - the book contains little to no mention on the importance of Ki, but the author has written down a lot of information about the philosophy of martial arts. Some examples are: ““The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means.” The differences in importance to Ki within both styles gives rise to a dissimilarity on the interpretation of the internal (yin) side of martial arts, when comparing Wushu and Karate, and may be used to argue a lack of a connection between China and the development of Karate in Okinawa.

The invasion of Okinawa by the Shimazu Clan and the Weapon’s Ban of 1477

Another factor of the fighting art’s development was to do with the martial arts and weapons ban that came into place under King Sho Shin in 1477. This law continued to be enforced after a hostile invasion by the Satsuma clan of Japan in 1609 in order to quell any rebellion by the Okinawan commonfolk [14]. This is confirmed by source [7]. The main cause for the invasion was due to the Ryukyu kingdom, refusing to pay tribute to the shogunate and the new ruler of the clan, Tokugawa Ieyasu; the weapons ban, supposedly solidified the need for empty hand self-defence techniques since commoners no longer had access to the tools needed to protect themselves from the 3000 invaders that sailed in approximately 100 ships. Anyone caught carrying, distributing, or practicing with weapons was severely punished by Japanese Samurai of the Satsuma clan, who were trained extensively in traditional Japanese Jujutsu (like all Japanese Samurai at the time), a martial designed to disarm and defeat armoured and armed opponents in a battlefield, quickly and effectively. Although martial arts thrive in times of conflict, and are best developed in areas ravaged by war, many would rebuke the idea that the invasion had anything to do with the evolution of karate, due to the aforementioned bans during the kingdom’s occupance by the Satsuma clan. Sources would suggest, however, that To-te and Ryukyu Kobudo (a weapon based martial art) continued to be taught in secret [7]. The same source also claims that many Okinawan Karate-Do practitioners recognise the importance of the weapons ban, and that it was crucial to the origins of their fighting art.

Regardless of the weapons and martial arts ban, Karate and Okinawan Kobudo continued to develop. But there is a lack of evidence for the development of these martial forms to have been developed by the Heimin (a word for common people in Okinawa at the time), rather than the Pechin Warriors in Okinawa. It is much more palpable that the warriors were the ones to continue the development of self defence techniques, since they were known to be Okinawan equivalent of the Japanese Samurai [7]. These warriors formed a complex caste system and served to protect their kingdom and people from invaders and other such threats. Regardless of their status, they were disarmed not just by their own King Shoshin in 1477, shortly after the unification of the kingdom, but by the Satsuma Clan after the invasion - it did not take long for them to become known as the Unarmed Samurai. Nevertheless, they soon adapted farming implements (supposedly) that were present in Okinawa at the time and other tools into weapons; the weapons they formed clearly had Indonesian and Chinese influences, which is another topic that must be investigated, and the flowering of Okinawan Kobudo continued. However it was almost impossible to use such weapons in public. As a result of this, self defence techniques were of severe necessity, and the warriors applied themselves heavily in the discipline of To-Te. This serves as a counter argument to the idea that China served as the driving force for the origins of Karate in Okinawa; the invasion by the Japanese clan, and the weapons ban enforced since the late 1400s, were also a factor that had a big influence on Karate and other parts of Okinawan culture.

A comparison of the assortment of weapons found in Okinawan Kobudo and Wushu

An example of influence when it comes to the relationship between Chinese and Okinawan martial arts can be shown when comparing the weapons in Chinese Kempo to that of Okinawan Kobudo. The oldest document found pertaining to Kobudo is believed to be one from 1762, written by the same aforementioned man who went to study Chinese Kempo, and came back to learn and teach Te under Kushanku - Sakugawa Tode [15.1/15.2]. This reference is necessary to establish the fact that Okinawan Kobudo came after any Chinese weapons-based martial arts that are classed under Chinese Kempo, and have origins that trace far back, before the 12th century, proving it was Kempo that influenced Kobudo, not vice versa. One of the weapons that will be used as an example is a Bo. The Bo is a 6 foot (180cm) staff. It is commonly referred to as a “Bo Staff” and is found to be made out of rattan wood, oak, bamboo, hardwood and sometimes even out of metal, although traditionally it was made of bamboo. The staff weapon used in both styles is exactly the same, and the movements are very similar too. Here is an Okinawan Kobudo Kata, Shushi No Kun [16], and a Wushu Staff Form [17]. There is a clear resemblance between the movements used in both katas, although this video shows how traditional Wushu movements tend to flow more easily, be a little bit faster in execution and have slightly wider stances. It is however, quite difficult to compare movements into account as different styles of wushu hold the staff differently and implement its range and rigidity in unorthodox manners.

However, this is insufficient proof of impact from Wushu on Kobudo, and thus Karate (since some styles of Karate teach the use of weapons too, drawing from Kobudo techniques). This is because the staff, in itself as a weapon, is a poor example to use in comparison of both styles, because the use of long sticks (with no original or discernibly unique features) as weapons has been around since the caveman era, where humans would batter each other with clubs, develop spears and other stick based weapons. Thus, more sophisticated weapons must be used, to compare and conclude that Kobudo appropriated its weapon arsenal from Wushu.

This is where the Sansetsukon steps in. In Wushu it is referred to as the Sānjié gùn, and it consists of a three piece staff, tied together by chains. It is perhaps the most versatile weapon developed in Asia, and as a result is the most difficult, and painful to learn. When wielded with one end in each hand, it behaves as a pair of eskrima (fighting batons) that serve for quick and short-ranged strikes. When held from the middle, the strikes resemble that of the traditional staff, a Bo. When only wielded from one end with one hand, it serves as a whip, or a variation of the chain whip (another weapon present in both styles). Although there is next to no evidence or sources to support this, a popular tale [18] claims it originated when it was invented by the Shaolin trained Chao Hong-Yin, before he became the first emperor of the Sung Dynasty (960AD) in China.

Although it is unknown how Kobudo, and thus other Okinawan and Japanese martial arts, were influenced by the weapons arsenal present in Chinese martial arts, the relationship is very clear. Both styles share very similarities, not just with empty hand techniques, but also in the weapons that they teach, and how they use them.


In conclusion, the effect China had on the development of Karate in Okinawa was insurmountable. This can be seen through the wide variety of historic interactions between both countries. Examples include the migration of the organisation known as The 36 Families from Min and the appropriation of Chinese culture by Okinawans thanks to the organisation - the similarities that have been explored in this dissertation between styles of Traditional Chinese Wushu and Okinawan Karate, and the integration of certain parts of Wushu into Karate, clearly suggest that China was integral to Karate’s development. This is also shown through the integration of Chinese Kempo Kata into To-te and Karate, and the similarities between weapons used in Okinawan Kobudo and those in Chinese martial arts styles. These interactions caused an inheritance of movements, and Kata between both styles; this is only enlarged by the fact that some of these movements were introduced into Karate by experts and masters in Wushu, and other arts that Chinese Kempo consists of. Furthermore, the arsenal of weapons that both styles share, also shows a trait of cultural assimilation into Okinawan culture, playing its own role in the evolution of Karate.

It could be argued that the invasion of the Satsuma Clan, and thus Japan, was much more important than China. The role of the Pechin warriors in the development of Te, which has been known to have had a big impact on Karate too, was one of constant study of unarmed self defence techniques, dating all the way back to 1477. The invasion of the Satsuma Clan made the need for said techniques even greater, considering the kingdom was now under threat from a hostile force, and resulted in the development of not just Karate, but Okinawan Kobudo too. Although, the spiritual beliefs in what a perfect martial arts practitioner encompasses according to Wushu and Karate greatly differ, this is mostly due to the cultural differences between Okinawa and China, and also the impact that Japan on the evolution of Karate. The idea that the spiritual beliefs for both art styles drive a wedge between the relationship of Karate and China, is also rebuked by the different weapons that Okinawan Kobudo and some forms of Karate, share with Wushu. Finally, without the support of China, it’s clear that Karate would have grown to be something completely different. Although the direct translation of Karate, would come to be “Empty Hand”, in Okinawa, it was interpreted to mean “China Hand”. The direct use of this title for what has grown to be one of the most popular, widespread and influential methods of self defence today, connotes a direct and meaningful relationship to where the very foundation of its roots lay - China.


[1] - Okinawan Prefectural Centre

[2] - Ray Pawlett’s Karate Handbook
[3] - The Bubishi: Patrick McCarthy, Page 43
[4] - The Bubishi: Patrick McCarthy, page 47
[5] - Karate Sanchin Dachi Kata
[6] - Wushu Sanchin Dachi Kata
[7] - Okinawan Masters and their History
[8] - Performance of Shito-Ryu kata
[9] - Demonstration by Shaolin Monks
[10] - Fu Zhongwen, Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan
[11] - Demonstration of traditional Southern Fujian White Crane
[12] - O-Mei Wushu
[13] - Article by Dr. Yang on the role of Qi in Chinese Martial Arts
[14] - History of Okinawan Karate
[15.1] - Origins of Traditional Kobudo
[15.2] - Origins of Traditional Kobudo
[16] - Shushi No Kun
[17] - Wushu Staff Form
[18] - Supposed Origins of Sansetsukon
[19] - The Book of Five Rings
[20] - Bodhidarma
[Sensei Adrian Starr] - Shorinji Kempo Sensei and Subject Specialist
[body types] - The Beginner’s Guide to Body Types

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