108 Steps of the White Crane
George W. Alexander, Ph.D.
Suparinpei is a unique goju ryu kata that means one hundred and eight hands. It is the most advanced form in the goju ryu system and contains the most techniques and variations of crane movements. The number one hundred and eight (108) has a real significance in the martial arts. Since the Chinese have a penchant for numerology in both philosophical and religious doctrine this is then the source for the name suparinpei. Furthermore, many other kata have names that are numerical representations as well. These include seisan (13), seipai (18) and sanseiryu (36).
Temples in China were places where martial arts were often practiced not only by monks but also by members of the local populace. Therefore, it is feasible that the numerical representations for the kata names were derived from the Buddhist religion. (1) Thus suparinpei means the 108 evil passions that man must seek to rid himself of. This logic is further expanded upon to gain an understanding of the numerology involved. For instance, the number 108 occurs in Buddhism as a tenant of the faith that recognizes the 108 worldly desires. The Buddha in his sermon at Mount Bernares revealed the four noble truths as follows: 1. All life is suffering 2. All suffering is caused by desire 3. The cessation of suffering is affected by the elimination of desire. 4. To eliminate desire one must follow the eight-fold path. The concept of the 108 worldly desires is the expansion of the second noble truth. Additionally, the breakdown of desires is organized in multiples of six, which gives rise to various levels of desire. It has been noted that a certain Buddhist scripture known as Hannya Shinkyo purports that, “When the six aspects of kon touch the six aspects of jin, eighteen worldly desires are created.” Therefore, the kata seipai or 18 is derived from this Buddhist concept. This kata is also listed as a form that was practiced in the southern Shaolin Temple. (2)
According to Buddhist doctrine another set of worldly desires gives rise to yet another set of 18 desires and add up to 36, which is the representation for sanseiryu kata. This kata is also listed as a form practiced in the southern Shaolin Temple along with seipai and others. Finally, 36 times 3 yields the number 108, which is the numerical representation for suparinpei, a form with 108 movements used to find enlightenment and escape from worldly desires. The derivation of the pronunciation suparinpei is said to be the Fujianese dialect for 108. It has also been referred to in Chinese as pechurin and Yi Bai Ling Ba or literally one hundred and eight hands [or steps].
There is also a legend that the name of the kata suparinpei was derived from a band of 108 warriors [or perhaps more likely bandits] that roamed the countryside in the 17th century. Supposedly their credo was to rob from the rich and give to the poor in a more or less Robin Hood fashion. The Fujian area of southern China was also the birthplace of the Triad society. The Triads originally started out with the same idea of mutual protection and good deeds but ended up corrupted by their own power. The Triads have often associated themselves with the marital arts of shaolin as a cover to their heritage of illegal activities.
Another theory on the origination of the name suparinpei is that it refers to the 108 striking points in the Bubishi. The number 108 occurs in other areas as well. There are 108 pressure points and perhaps coincidentally there are 108 movements or postures in the Tai Chi Chuan form. There is also a tiger style form from southern China [known as suparinpei], which some authorities refer to as the lost Uechi ryu suparinpei that contains 108 movements. However, this form is definitely a tiger style form with crane elements in it as opposed to the white crane suparinpei that is a crane form with tiger style elements in it. The white crane, a defensive style, is considered the counter to the tiger style. (3) Although, most forms have elements of tiger and crane in them and contain other techniques from animal forms such as snake, leopard, dog, etc. The white crane style relies on speed, evasion and accuracy in techniques delivered to vital points. In any case, it seems as though numerous styles [in China] used the 108 theme to name their forms or systems.
Suparinpei is a white crane derived kata and it is part of the curriculum of goju ryu and shito ryu. It is also part of the Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo system. It is perhaps originally derived from a Yong Chun Village white crane form with 100 movements. It found its way to Okinawa from Southern China and has become the most advanced form of Naha-te kata. It is believed that Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915) learned the kata while in China from his teacher Ryuryuko (Xie Zhongxiang). Higashionna spent six or seven years in China from March of 1873 studying with Ryuryuko and Wai shinzan. (4) In fact, it has been reported that he brought back to Okinawa the kata sanchin, sanseiryu, seisan and suparinpei. Although according to research done by Iken Tokashiki sensei, the suparinpei kata was performed in Okinawa for Chinese dignitaries (Sappushi) in March of 1867 by Tomimura Peichin. According to other sources the kata was known to have been practiced for a long time prior to Higashionna’s departure for China in Kume Village, Okinawa. Therefore, it seems as though the form existed in Okinawa prior to Higashionna learning it in China. The folklore behind the kata states that the form suparinpei was originally based on a Chinese kata called pechurin. The pechurin form supposedly had three levels or three variants called jo, chu and ge or upper, middle and lower. These three were combined to form the modern form suparinpei. The modern form is said to be the jo form and that chu and ge were lost. One aspect of the form that is consistent with the other Naha-te style kata is the change [by Higashionna] from open hands to the Okinawan method of closed fists during the performance of the kata. All of the Southern Chinese based forms (quan) use open-handed thrusts. This open-handed thrusting is ubiquitous methodology with regard to the performance of nearly all of the Chinese forms. Additionally, if you look at the techniques in suparinpei it is easy to see elements of sanchin, seiunchin, seisan and sanseiryu. These are all forms that were practiced in the southern Shaolin Temple. Interestingly, this is not unlike seeing elements of kusanku in the pinan kata, etc.
The form suparinpei starts with the three-step sanchin model using chudan morote uke posture while thrusting as described in the Bubishi (Yamazato Publications, 1993) with a gyaku zuki or reverse punch. Then it proceeds to use a grabbing and pulling motion indicative of seiunchin kata. This is actually a toraguchi or tiger mouth movement accompanied by a hooking block and finger thrust. This is done in four directions or to the four gates. Then a series of three retreating toraguchi movements in a cat stance are repeated. Next is a double punch like sanseiryu with a simultaneous down block and reverse punch combination. The next movement starts with stepping diagonally into a shiko dachi and then executing a series of outside middle blocks, single point fists and double down blocks. Next is a series of crane blocks followed by a front kick elbow strike back fist combination. Then a blocking method is performed using a series of scooping and simultaneous hooking blocks. Next is a turning movement with a 360-degree spinning crescent kick, hooking block/kakete uke and then flying front kick elbow strike back fist combination. A final kakete uke or hooking block with a finger thrust is performed. Finally, the form is completed with an inu gamae or dog posture. This is also interpreted as a crane beak posture.
What makes this form difficult to learn is that the series of different movements do not all have the same symmetry in their turns. In other words, the pattern of their turns does not repeat exactly 180 degrees, 90 degrees and then 180 degrees. The double punch simultaneous down block reverse punch combination has turns that proceed in the following pattern 180 degrees, 180 degrees, 90 degrees and 180 degrees. Finally, what is unique about this form is that it not only features the four cardinal directions in its movement but also four diagonal directions thus revealing the “eight gates of attack and defense” or eight points of the compass.
Despite its vague origins suparinpei has proven to be one of karate’s most practical forms. It contains nearly all the elements of the white crane system. In addition, it is aesthetically pleasing to watch whenever it is performed. Consequently, many world-class karateka perform it in competition on the world stage of international competition. It has great value and it is now part of the Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo system.
The suparinpei kata will be featured in the upcoming White Crane Speed & Evasion Volume 7 DVD along with push hands, body conditioning and yakusoku kumite.
1. Taoist philosophy often uses the same numerology as Buddhism. In fact, Taoist temples often exist [even today] right next to Buddhist temples in China. Many Taoist concepts such as the trigrams come from the I Ching – The Chinese book of divination. The book manifests its concepts of divination from the trigrams. The trigrams are a series of eight diagrams each consisting of three lines. The trigrams add up to 64. Interestingly, pagua is a martial art that is associated with both Taoist and Buddhist (shaolin) martial arts and uses the trigrams as the basis of its forms.
2. This information has been gleaned from a Chinese white crane manual translated by the author.
3. The kata gojushiho is a tiger/crane form whose name translates as fifty-four steps and is mentioned in the Bubishi. Interestingly, 54 is one half of 108.
4. Xie Wei Ling (Ryuryuko’s grandson and second generation successor) supposedly has a genealogy that names Kanryo Higashionna as his Okinawan student. This is yet to be verified by the author.