Charles,
Thank you for that excellent post, which was filled with important and useful historical information.

I have developed an hypothesis that I recognize many will never accept: Chinese military personal likely taught Okinawans military arts to defend tribute vessels, and that these arts survive until today.

But there are some who may be open to the examination of this hypothesis. For those willing to consider this hypothesis further, I think it productive to begin with a review of some fairly well-accepted concepts.

  • The Chinese established a significant presence in Okinawan to support the Tribute trading system between the two countries.
  • There is valid reason to speculate that the Chinese had a vested interest in ensuring the viability of that trade and would take measures to ensure its success. This would necessarily include measures to protect Okinawan tribute vessels from piracy.
  • Prior to the advent of firearms, a primary weapon in the defense of a ship was the spear, a military weapon for which the Chinese had extensive experience with.
  • There is ample documentation that Chinese, in Okinawa, taught Okinawans fighting arts.
  • There is some documentation that Chinese military personnel were involved in this instruction. In McCarthy’s translation of Miyagi’s Three Hypothesis, Miyagi refers to the source of karate as coming from Chinese security personnel. Funakoshi in “Karate-Do Kyohan” refers to by name, five Chinese who taught Okinawans. Four of them he refers to as Military Attaches.
  • There is some documentation that speculates that many kata have Chinese origins.
  • The Okinawans, without question, made modifications to kata. Passai is perhaps the best example of a commonly named form with many radically different versions. Today we find that there are a number of ways in which Okinawan kata fundamentally differ from Chinese systems practiced today.


Based on the statements above, I believe it is reasonable to speculate that the arts taught by the Chinese to the Okinawans, could at least in part, have been useful in the protection of Tribute vessels. If we are to further evaluate this hypothesis, there are several additional points to consider.

1. After 1609, any military-type training in Okinawa would have to be done under the strictest of secrecy.
2. It is documented that the Japanese had an elaborate spy system designed to inform the Japanese rulers on all aspects of Okinawan conformance with Japanese decrees.
3. Okinawans caught training in any spear (military art) would have faced several punishment.
4. Due to the presence of spies, the practice of spear arts outside, in the light, even behind fences, would have been inherently risky.
5. The practice of spear arts, inside, with spears, was likely very problematic due to space constraints in the dwellings of the day.
6. The practice of empty hand arts would have carried a less significant penalty than the practice of spear arts. Therefore, the practice of spear arts, as empty hand arts, would have carried less risk.
7. One should expect that the practice of spear arts as empty hand arts would not have been an odd practice. Many military arts have movements that translate well into empty hand fighting. A variety of Aikido and Jujutsu movements descend from the movements of the sword.
8. Under the weapons ban, it is widely believed that the Okinawans adapted their arts for empty hand. (There are several historical refences to phrases similar to: “Use your hands as spears”).
9. If one accepts the natural overlap of many movements common to both spear arts and empty hand arts, then one should be able to appreciate that the Okinawans could have developed empty hand arts after the 1609 ban, without abandoning their spear arts.
10. While there are significant differences between Okinawan kata and Chinese forms, I believe much of this can be attributed to tempo. Chinese forms are flowing and continuous, compared to Okinawan forms which are punctuated with a great deal of start/stop motions. Both have elements of linear and circularity. Many would argue that Okinawan kata, in general, have more linear movements. These more linear, start-stop approaches to kata, may well comprise much of the differences found between Chinese and Okinawan kata today. In other words, the integration of the traditional Okinawan arts of te, with kata (many of supposed Chinese origin), may have had more to do with the Okinawans modifying the tempo (start-stop) of kata, rather than wholesale creation of new Okinawan forms.

This points discussed above provide additional background support for the hypothesis that the Chinese martial arts, taught to the Okinawans, may have been designed, in part, to aid the Okinawans' ability to protect tribute trade. The statements are not made in any attempt to prove the hypothesis, just to establish that the hypothesis is worthy of investigation. The actual support for the hypothesis lies within the movements of the kata themselves.

There has been discussion on this thread regarding the differences between Okinawan and Chinese martial systems. These differences are readily visible when comparing current Chinese spear arts with Okinawan empty hand arts. Spear arts, at least as practiced by the Chinese today, are flowing arts. They contain a blend of linear and circular movements. Stabbing is a fundamental spear skill and stabs are made in part by linear arm movements. But in general, the Chinese spear arts are more continuous, more flowing.

Okinawan arts also contain both linear and circular movements, but kata are done in a start-stop tempo with lots of pauses. However, one can readily eliminate the pauses, with the result being that the movements can be used to propel a spear in a rich mix of linear and circular movements.

What I will be sharing on my videoblog over the next several years is that a broad cross-section of Okinawan kata work remarkably well at propelling a spear in combinations that would be useful in fighting in the confined environment of a ship.

In summary, I believe the historical documentation supports the argument that the Chinese had vested interests in ensuring the viability (including protection) of tribute trade. There is some documentation, that many kata came from the Chinese. There is some documentation that Chinese military personnel had a role in teaching Okinawans martial arts. The hypothesis I am exploring is that the arts, the kata, taught by the Chinese, were military arts, spear arts, taught in part, to better enable the Okinawans to protect their Tribute vessels bound for China.

Regarding these old arts, much has certainly been lost, and without question, much that has survived has been changed to one degree or another. The hypothesis requires an analysis of kata for support. If the kata movements don’t seem useful in propelling a spear, then the hypothesis can’t be supported. If, however, the movements of a broad cross-section of kata can be used to effectively propel a spear, then I would argue that this is evidence supporting the hypothesis.

There is only really one way to begin testing the kata for evidence. One must train in kata as spear kata, and do so intensively. On my videoblog, over the next several years, I will document my training in 40 of these kata. As a result of that training, I expect to gain some proficiency in the spear movements of each kata, after which I will be able to share what my training has taught me regarding the uses of the spear movements in fighting applications. As I present this evidence, over time, I anticipate that some will find the evidence convincing.

Although I don’t expect all that many will find my arguments compelling, I do expect to persuade some. I think we all recognize that within the world-wide karate community, many are baffled by some kata movements which just don’t seem to make sense in fighting. My goal is to provide these karateka with fighting concepts whose effectiveness leaves little to the imagination. Okinawan kata movements can generate enormous power. When you apply that power to the handle of a spear, then the blade at the far end can be accelerated to remarkable speeds. Few will argue that a fast moving blade, with the mass of a fast moving body behind it, won't do great damage to pretty much any part of the human body.

And if some find more value in the kata they practice, as a result of my studies, then my efforts will have been worth the investment.

I do appreciate your digging into the historical documentation further. The record is sparse, and since there is not all that much out there, we should all know it. Dialogues like this help the general community better understand the historical record and that can only be for the better.

-Mike Eschenbrenner
Cayuga Karate


Edited by kakushiite (01/12/10 03:54 PM)
Edit Reason: Many corrections to improve clarity