China and the Origins of Okinawan White Crane Kenpo Part 1

The martial arts of Southern China have been the source of much of Okinawas martial art culture, especially its emptyhand system known as Naha-Te. Another unique martial art system known as Shuri-Te (Shorin Ryu) was also influenced by Chinese martial arts but it has its own history and evolution distinct from Naha-Te. The white crane system of Southern China has in fact defined Naha-Te.

The people responsible for the importation of Naha-Tes kata from Southern China include but are not limited to Kanryo Higashionna, Nakaima Kenri, Bushi Sakiyama and Arakaki Seisho. The kata they learned from various teachers in China were absorbed into Okinawan karate. The Okinawans have transformed these kata to some extent and added their own cultural touch to them. For example, Kanryo Higashionna changed sanchin kata from an open-handed kata to a kata that uses closed fists. He did this to reflect the Okinawan preference for the use of the fist. Additionally, Chojun Miyagi (1988-1953) created the tensho kata. He used the concept of rokkishu (six wind hands) from the Bubishi, a Chinese marital arts text, as a guide for the hand manipulations and the sanchin kata as the three-step embusen or pattern of footwork. Other kata such as sochin,niseishi (nijushiho) and unshu (unsu) are additional Naha-Te kata brought to Okinawa by Bushi Sakiyama and Arakaki Seisho (Kamadeunchu). This was in the mid-nineteenth century. Arakaki (1840-1920) was known to have performed in a demonstration for Chinese dignitaries visiting Okinawa in 1867. Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1953), the founder of Shito Ryu karate passed these three kata down to the current generation. He was a collector of kata and had the vision and intellectual candlepower to preserve these kata. In fact, Mabuni standardized the techniques within the kata so that they would be performed universally throughout all the kata. He had a repetoire of fifty-four kata. These included what he had learned from Arakaki and Higashionna and twenty-three swift fists or kata he learned from Anko Itosu. Shotokan karate includes these three kata in its curriculum [derived from Mabuni] but they have been modified from the original Okinawan forms.

The modern styles of Naha-Te include Uechi Ryu, Goju Ryu and Ryuei Ryu. Uechi Ryu, originally called Pangai noon meaning half hard and half soft, was a Southern Chinese white crane tradition. Interestingly, Kanbun Uechi (1877-1948) in March of 1897 traveled from Okinawa to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China to learn martial arts and to avoid conscription into the Japanese Army. He studied there with a monk named Shu Shi Wa (1874-1926) (Chinese: Chou Tzu Ho/Zhou Zihe) and learned the Southern Chinese tiger style embodied in the kata sanchinseisan and sanseiryu. Incidentally, these kata are common to Goju Ryu and Ryuei Ryu as well. After ten years of study he earned a teaching license and began to teach in Nansoue, a town about 250 miles west of Fuzhou. He taught there for almost ten years but closed the school because a man was killed because of a misapplied Shu family technique. Uechi felt responsible for the incident and because of this and other legal problems left China. He returned to Okinawa in 1910 vowing never to teach martial arts again and became a farmer. In 1924 he left Okinawa for Wakayama, Japan. He opened a dojo there in 1924 and began teaching again. He only taught the three katasanchin,seisan and sanseiryu. (See: Japanese Martial Arts Dictionary, Alexander and Jespersen). According to one source Kanbun never referred to his style by name but simply called it Pangai noon. This means that the original Uechi Ryu style or Pangai noon as he called it was a pure white crane (or perhaps more accurately Tiger/Dragon and Crane since this system incorporated movements of all three animal styles) style of Southern Chinese Kung Fu uninfluenced by Okinawan karate.

Another style of Naha-Te is called Ryuei Ryu. This literally means the style in honor of master Ryu. The system was founded by Nakaima Kenri (1850-1927) and was perpetuated by his son Nakaima Kenchu (1856-1953). This family tradition was further carried on and perpetuated by his son Nakaima Kenko (1911-1994). The style was kept a family secret through three generations of adherents. The grandfather, Nakaima Kenri supposedly studied in Fuzhou under a teacher by the name of Master Ryu Ru Ko (Xie Zhongxiang). This is the same teacher claimed by Kanryo Higashionna. In addition to using Naha-Te strength-building kata such as sanchin, the style incorporates seisan and sanseiryu as well as niseishi. Additionally, Ryuei Ryu has six unique kata namely ananohanpachupaikuheiku and paiho (See: Okinawa Island of Karate, Yamazato Publications). The style didnt actually go public until 1971 when its current headmaster Tsugo Sakumoto popularized it by becoming a world kata champion using the unique anan kata in competition. Prior to this the karate master Teruo Hayashi studied Ryuei Ryu under Nakaima Kenko and added the six unique kata of Ryuei Ryu to his Shito Ryu style.


The Elusive Ryu Ru Ko (1852-1930) Arakaki Seisho (1840-1920) Higashionna Kanryo (1851-1915)

The Goju Ryu style of karate is no doubt the most widely practiced Naha-Te style throughout the world. Its founder and designer was Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953). Miyagi carried on the traditions of his teacher Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915). Higashionna studied under Arakaki Seisho at age15. In March of 1873 he left for Fuzhou to study martial arts. There he studied for six or seven years under Ryu Ru Ko and Waishinzan, Master Ryus assistant instructor. Apparently, Higashionna studied other styles as well in China. After Higashionnas death in 1915, Miyagi went to China to find Ryu Ru Ko. He only found the dojo, which was destroyed and abandoned. Some years later [in the 1930s] he returned to China with the white crane master Gokenki (1886-1940) and together they searched for Miyagis lost roots and the elusive Ryu Ru Ko. But because of the political climate (Japan was at odds with China over the occupation of Manchuria) he was unable to conduct the research he wanted to [since he was Japanese he was not allowed to leave his hotel room]. Legend has it that on his first trip Miyagi actually discovered Ryu Ru Kos grave and other information about him such as the location of the temple he studied in outside of Fuzhou in the mountains. Ryu Ru Ko had eventually opened his own school in Fuzhou and developed the Whooping Crane style of Chinese kenpo. Unfortunately, the information Miyagi gathered on his first trip was destroyed during the bombing of Okinawa in 1945 during WW II.

Its interesting to speculate as to why neither Uechi, Higashionna and Nakaima ever referred to their styles by their Chinese names. Uechis style was a tiger/dragon /crane system, and both Higashionna and Nakaima studied whooping crane alla Ryu Ru Ko but none of them ever referred to their respective arts as a crane style. Perhaps they were content to simply establish their own traditions melded with indigenous Okinawan martial arts once back in their homeland.

Miyagi was an innovator when it came to karate. He was from a wealthy family who imported herbal medicine from China. Therefore, he had the luxury of time to practice and dedicate himself to martial arts. He designed a number of exercises to help the beginning student become stronger and to prepare him for the more advanced kata. He introduced three new kata gekisai ichi, gekisai ni and tensho. In 1933 he officially named his style Goju Ryu meaning hard/soft style borrowing this concept from the Eight Poems of the Fist contained in the Bubishi.

In an effort to unravel much of the mystery of hakutsuru or the white crane influence on the styles of Southern China and on Okinawan karate the Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo Association (OHKA) was formed. This research group was created to preserve not only the southern Chinese white crane martial art but also its evolution and development in Okinawa. Iken Tokashiki sensei of Okinawa has done much research on this subject as well. The kata syllabus reflects elements of the kata of Goju Ryu, Ryuei Ryu and Uechi Ryu as well as original Chinese influences. The tensho kata in OHKA is practiced exactly the same as in Goju Ryu. This is to honor Miyagi sensei for his brilliance in creating the kata and for his dedication to karate. Sanchin is practiced in OHKA as two kata, hakutsuru so and ton or white crane number one and number two. These kata reflect more of the Chinese origin without Higashionna senseis changes. They are derived from Gokenki the Chinese white crane master who lived in Okinawa from about 1910. The thrusting movements of these sanchintype kata are performed with open hands. The kata are also performed with an artificial or forced breathing method similar to Goju Ryu but without as much intensity. In Chinasanchin is practiced with an artificial breathing method similar to Goju Ryu but with shallower breathing and with a more staccato breathing rhythm. Within the curriculum of OHKA the beginning movements of the kata seisan and sanseiryu are performed with open hands similar to Uechi Ryu. This again is a reflection of their Chinese origins.



Kata Syllabus & Rank Requirements

Shodan Hakutsuru So (sho) (Sanchin)

Hakutsuru Tan (ni) (Sanchin)

Tensho (Revolving Hands)

Fighting Kata Shodan

Nidan Paipuren (Happoren)
Eight steps breathing & Energy kata.


Fighting Kata Nidan
Sandan Matsumura Rohai (Crane standing on a rock.)

Fighting Kata Sandan

Yondan Nipaipo (28 steps) (Pressure points &
knockout fighting techniques.)
Niseishi (Twenty four steps)
Godan Arakaki Sochin (Tranquil Force)

Rokudan Unsu kata (Cloud hand)

Nandan Kumemura Hakutsuru (Highest level kata-
internal and external energy in one kata.)

Hachidan Additional requirements: Kyusho jutsu and a

knowledge of the 48 Techniques of Kenpo

from the Bubishi.

Kudan Honorary

Judan Honorary

On my last trip to China I saw many people performing sanchin (Chinese: sam chien) kata. Members of the Yong Chun Village white crane tradition such as Mr. Su Ying Han and others performed sanchin as well as practitioners of the Wuzu Quan or Five Ancestor Fist style (See: Black Belt Magazine, TheShaolin Path, July 2006). Although I saw no one demonstrate seisan orsanseiryu.

Oftentimes this type of fieldwork and historical research raises more questions that it answers. Perhaps much of the information and the transmission of the lamp so to speak is lost in the mists of time. Richard Kim once said, The kata are a teacher forever! There is no question that the more one practices the kata the more insightful one becomes. The kata are a living record of history and through their practice their essence is revealed. I plan to return to China in November of 2006 to conduct more research and of course to train with the Shaolin monks.

Anyone interested in membership in the Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo Association as well as seminars and training please email me and I will send you an Instructors Guidebook, etc. Presently, we have DVDs with many of the kata and explanations on them. For more on this see Mastering White Crane Karate at

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