In Search Of Shaolin – Connecting the Roots of Karate! Part 1

George W.Alexander, Ph.D. & John Graham

The Shaolin Temple of China has been the progenitor of many styles of Asian martial arts. But how did the Shaolin tradition and the legendary monks of Shaolin influence modern karate? The Shaolin School of martial arts was born of the Shaolin Temple. The legend of the Shaolin fighting style is well known but it is important to distinguish the fact that there were two Shaolin Temples, a northern temple and a southern temple. The northern temple is the one we most often hear about and is now a tourist attraction. However, the southern temple is the one that had the most influence on karate’s development. The folklore of the various marital art styles of southern China point to the southern temple’s existence. This temple until recently was thought to exist only in legend. John Graham of Mobile, Alabama, a Kung Fu master recognized by the International Southern Shaolin Wushu Federation invited me to go to China on a fact-finding tour. This journey was to become an adventure and a search for the Southern Shaolin Temple and the connection between southern Shaolin martial arts and karate.

The adventure began before the actual journey started. Researching the legend of the Southern Shaolin Temple and sifting through historical fact and folklore was just the beginning. I learned that during the waning years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China experienced a period of economic decline marked by war with the Manchus. The Manchus, who were invaders from the northeast, toppled the Ming Dynasty by 1644 and set up a new dynasty named Qing. As the Manchus pushed their way south many Chinese fled southward to cities such as Canton and Fuchow (Fuzhou). During the Ming period monks from the Shaolin Temple in the north fled south as well and they eventually established a Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province. Some skeptics say this temple never existed but evidence to the contrary reveals this thinking is far from the truth.

The flight of the Northern Shaolin monks from the Manchus, who were invaders from Manchuria, was the genesis of the Southern Shaolin Temple. According to legend, the Southern Shaolin Temple located in the Putien District near the city of Qingzhou (Quanzhou) in Fujian Province is where the southern style was developed. The southern Shaolin style consists of eighty percent hand techniques and twenty percent kicking techniques. Another distinguishing feature of the Southern Shaolin style is its emphasis on hand techniques for thrusting and chopping as opposed to Northern Shaolin, which makes use of kicking and jumping to a greater extent. Most martial arts historians agree that the martial arts techniques of the Southern Shaolin tradition were imported to Okinawa and greatly influenced the development of modern karate. But just exactly what style of Southern Shaolin was imported and what styles did it affect?


The Southern Shaolin Temple became a center for revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the Manchurian hegemony and to preserve the last vestiges of the Ming Dynasty.[1] According to legend, the Qing emperor personally infiltrated the monastery under the pretense of learning Shaolin. This led to its demise. The Qing Army was called in and the temple was destroyed. More likely the Emperor was persuaded by the Manchu officials to send in spies and then later an expeditionary force was sent against the monks on a charge of sedition. Subsequently the temple was burned and only five monks survived the onslaught. As a result of this event the Anti-Manchu Triad Society was formed or Hung League as it was known with the battle cry, “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming!”[2] Accordingly, the monks were scattered throughout Asia. This led to the further proliferation of the Shaolin style. The exact location of this temple has been a mystery for scholars and historians. But recent developments by several groups including the Fujian Province Archeologists Association indicate that they have unearthed evidence of its existence and location.

The monks at the Southern Shaolin Temple practiced numerous martial art styles. These styles included the crane, dog, tiger, five ancestors and Hung styles, which were indigenous to the area. They all emphasize close range fighting skills using fists.  A style known as wuzuquan, the five-ancestor fist was developed by a Master named Bai Yi Feng during the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368). The genesis of this system was realized when Bai Yi Feng invited numerous masters who had previously graduated from the Shaolin Monastery back to the monastery to display their skills. Of those invited, the techniques of five masters who demonstrated the highest skill levels were selected by Bai Yi Feng and combined into one style. This style became known as wuzuquan or the fist of five ancestors. This style eventually became very popular in Fujian even though it originated in the north. Strong-arm movements, elaborate hand techniques, low-level kicking and solid stances characterize this powerful system. The distinguishing feature of wuzuquan is the form known as sam chien or sanchin in Japanese. It means three battles or three conflicts and is often equated to mean the unification of body, mind and spirit. This same form can be seen most evidently in the Okinawan karate styles such as Goju Ryu and Ryuei Ryu, etc. Additionally the sanchin kata is used by many other Japanese styles as well. The practical use of the form is for developing strength as well as combative applications. This style still exists today and is practiced in Fujian by the International Nan Shaolin Wuzu Federation. It consists of basics, catching (two-man prearranged sparring sets) and set sparring (spontaneous reaction set sparring). More recently Sifu Lin Xian taught Sifu Chee Kim Thong (1919-2001) of Putien and he has passed this style on to the current generation. After witnessing a performance of this style there is no doubt that this is the grandfather of Okinawa’s Naha-Te style of karate.


In the latter part of the nineteenth century when the Ming revolutionaries were still active and many secret revolutionary societies had been formed, an Okinawan by the name of Kanryo Higashionna (1851-1915) arrived in the city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province. He eventually found a teacher by the name of Ryuryuko or Xie Zhongxiang in Chinese who lived from 1852 until 1930. According to Higashionna, Ryuryuko taught at his house and is said to have studied at a temple in the mountains of Fujian. We visited numerous temples high in the mountains above the clouds on our trip to China. After spending a number of years in China he returned to Okinawa and founded the Naha-Te tradition of karate. His successor was Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953). Miyagi built upon Higashionna’s teachings and founded the Goju Ryu style of karate. He introduced the Okinawan practice of using closed fists during the performance of the sanchin kata. Miyagi made several trips to China after Higashionna’s death in order to further study the Chinese martial arts and to find Ryuryuko. Supposedly, Miyagi was successful in finding Ryuryuko’s grave. But much of Miyagi’s information and notes regarding his trips to China were lost as a result of WW II.


This accounts for one side of the development of Okinawan karate. But the other style practiced on Okinawa was called Shuri-Te, literally the Hands of Shuri. Interestingly enough, today it is called Shorin Ryu, which actually means Shaolin. Developed in the town of Shuri, Okinawa some authorities claim it is a combination of both the northern and southern styles and that is why it looks different and has a different set of kata or forms. This doesn’t seem likely in that most of Okinawa’s contact with China was through Fujian. Although, if one looks at Shuri-Te it [Shorin Ryu] does in fact look like a combination of both the northern and southern styles of Shaolin. The fact is that Naha-Te was much more influenced by the Southern Shaolin style and Shuri-Te is a combination of the original indigenous Okinawan martial art (Okinawa-Te) and the Southern Shaolin tradition. Because of the seafaring adventures and maritime trade of the Okinawans their kicking methods and martial arts style may have been influenced long ago by the martial arts kicking techniques of Thailand. These methods were brought back when sailors returned from numerous trading missions (See Okinawa Island of Karate, Yamazato Publications, Alexander). Additionally, Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands have had contact with many other Asian countries throughout its economic history. Therefore, it is safe to say that Shuri-Te is a more eclectic Okinawan karate style and a composite martial art with a long history.


Matsumura Soken (1809-1898) is considered the fountainhead of this system. However, many generations before Matsumura’s time the Okinawan style of martial art was influenced by Chinese immigrants known as the Saposhi. These were the thirty-six families (sanjuroku seito) sent to Okinawa by officials of the Ming Dynasty to help with Okinawa’s development and relations with China. They are known to have taught the Okinawans martial arts as early as 1393 in a Chinese settlement know as Kumemura.[3] How all this blending of Okinawan martial arts and Chinese martial arts occurred over the centuries is no doubt lost in the mists of time.


Other teachers of karate in Okinawa preceded Matsumura, but nonetheless Matsumura is considered the organizer of the kata system and nomenclature of modern karate. As the king’s bodyguard and royal envoy he traveled to Fuzhou on several occasions and it is believed that he studied at or at least visited one of the Shaolin Temples in Fujian. What is most interesting is that Matsumura was known to have brought back a Chinese Shaolin white crane master to Okinawa by the name of Iwah in the 1860s. And together they taught many Okinawans.


To understand Okinwan karate you have to understand the roots of the martial arts of southern China and their migration to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands. Okinawa was a satellite or vassal nation of China for over three hundred years. These close geopolitical and cultural relationships led to the migration of the southern Shaolin style that so strongly influenced Okinawan martial arts. This will be further discussed in part two of In Search of Shaolin. The authors will discuss their new findings as a result of their trip to China and will trace the roots of karate and the location of the Southern Shaolin Temple.

About the authors: George W. Alexander, Ph.D. is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation. He is the author of Okinawa: Island of Karate, The Bubishi Martial Art Spirit, The Japanese Martial Arts Dictionary and Warrior Jujitsu. To contact him write to ISKKF Honbu Dojo, 180 Yellow Jacket Drive, Reliance, TN. 37369. Or email to

John E. Graham is Vice President of the International Nan Shaolin Wushu Federation and Chief Instructor at the United Academy of Kung Fu in Mobile, Alabama. He can be contacted at 1121 Dawes Road, Mobile, Alabama 36695 or email at
[1]         Kit Kiew Wong, The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu, (Rutland, VT, Charles E.Tuttle & Co., 2002), p. 38.

[2]        Donn F. Draeger, Asian Fighting Arts, (Palo Alto, CA, Berkley Publishing Corp., 1974), p. 44.

[3]        George W. Alexander, Okinawa Island of Karate, (Reliance, TN, Yamazato Publications, 1991), p. 22.



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