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History of Karate

By the creator of American Kenpo SGM Edmund K. Parker


The exact history of Karate has been lost in the antiquity of time, and consequently no definite date can be established RS to when it actually began. Many of the records that exist today are obscure and incorrect. We cannot tell how many writings have been destroyed or how many developments have never been recorded. Nor can we ascertain the truthfulness of the existing records. Bits of information seem to indicate that Karate, as it is known today, may have been practiced in India and China as long as five thousand years ago. Writings on turtle shells tell us that the Chinese did in fact practice the Art as far back as 21 B. C.

Although its true origin is obscure a popular story that prevails gives credit to the Indian Priest Daruma or Bodhidharma in about 525 A. D. However, other great men such as Hua T'o (190-265 A. D.) a brilliant doctor and Yuen Fei a popular general (who lived during the Sung Dynasty 960-1279 A. D.) were considered the forefathers of modern day Karate. Karate originated as Kenpo meaning fist law (a term used by the Okinawans to describe the Chinese system). From China it crossed over to Okinawa where, known as "te", it consisted primarily of blows, chops and rips with the hand and fingers.

In 1923 the Okinawans changed the oriental character of Karate which was then Chinese to that of a Japanese character. Thus the meaning changed from "hands of China to "empty hand". This change assertedly brought about a deeper meaning in which the spiritual overcame the physical.

From Okinawa two experts Kenwa Mabuni and Gigen Funakoshi lifted Karate's veil of secrecy in 1916 to introduce their techniques to Japan. Their aim was not to promote Karate as a martial art but as a sport throughout Japan.

Long before the Art was ever introduced to Okinawa many styles of the Art existed in China. Each style or system was noted for at least one distinct feat such as the development of the tiger claw, butterfly kick, panther punch, etc. In addition, many members of the various systems guarded their secret ways of training. Among the systems of Southern China stemming from the Shaolin or Shorinji temple the most well known were the following five; namely, Hung, Liu, Ts'ai or Choy in Cantonese, Li and Mo. There are other Cantonese as well as northern systems. The northern styles placed great emphasis on floor rolling, use of the feet and jumping movements. Because of this, not much emphasis was placed on strong stances. The southern styles placed great emphasis on stance work as well as hand work.

There are basically five known styles in Okinawa -- Kobayashi-ryu, Shori­ji-ryu, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu.

In the last five decades since the Japanese took it up, the techniques have been modified so that they too claim styles of their own such as Shoto-kan, Shudo-kan, Waddo-ryu, Chitose-ryu and others.

The Koreans have also modified their techniques claiming Such styles as Tai-kwan-do, Moo-do-kwan, Tang-soo-do and others.

Regardless of National modifications that were developed and suited to their individual environment, we can say that four systems exist in the Orient today -- Chinese, Okinawan. Korean, and Japanese. In comparison, Chinese styles are graceful, flowing, circular, and are much more flexible than the Jap­anese (who believe in power punches and kicks), Okinawan (who stress breath­ing exercises), and Korean (who specialize in high kicks and breaking of boards and bricks) styles which are basically rigid.

Unfortunately, many of the classical Chinese styles along with the Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean styles are impractical as a modern means of self-defense. This stems from the fact that many of these systems were originally designed for exercise. In addition, most of these styles today do not recognize the need for change especially in, our environment. While some offer excellent ideas on unarmed fighting, a number of their methods are outdated theories unfit for present day fighting in the United States or Americas for that matter.

These same arts, influenced by the Chinese, were brought to the Hawaiian Islands. It was here that Mr. Ed Parker, a native of Hawaii, learned these arts under one of the World's leading black belt holders and American innovators of the Art, Prof. William K. S. Chow.

In addition to Prof. Chow's modifications, Mr. Parker had also realized the need to revise the old methods to cope with modern day fighting. Thus, the system he developed is unique, practical, realistic, applicable, and encompasses sound logic, reasoning, and theoretical innovations not yet employed by other systems. Through Mr. Parker's innovations a fifth system has emerged -- the American system -- to be more specific "Ed Parker’s American Kenpo".

Although we should respect the various styles of Karate stemming from the Orient we must not overlook their need for improvement. While Mr. Parker's system still retains traditional flavor to enhance ethical behavior it has been designed to fit the needs and ability of the individual concerned.

Chinese history varies considerably. A tradition that has been perpetuated over the centuries tells of a brilliant doctor named Hua T'o (190-2 65 A. D.) who, during the later _Han Dynasty (25-220 A. D.), devised a sequence of movements to relieve emotional tension and to tone the body. These exercises were interpreted, revised, and added upon by observing the animals and fowls of the land. The movements imitated the deer, tiger, bear, monkey and bird. By practicing these movements, one not only improved his health but develops a means of protection to insure good health.

Perhaps the most widespread tradition concerning the origin of the Chinese martial arts is that of Tamo (Japanese: Daruma Daishi), the 28th Indian patriarch of the Buddhist faith. He has generally been called Bodhidharma and is an obscure figure in history. Historical accounts of his activities in China vary considerably. A variation of one his accounts places him in Canton in 527 A. D. At this time, China was split into many warring kingdoms and bandit baronies. The Canton warlord disarmed the civilian population yet failed to protect them from bandits and feuding barons. As a result of this, Tamo called an assembly of his disciples to his cave. He said to them, "War and killing are wrong. But so is it wrong not to be prepared to defend oneself. Thus it shall be -- We may not have knives, so make every finger unto a dagger. Our maces are confiscated, so make every fist unto a mace. Without spears, every arm must be unto a spear and make every open hand unto a sword." After some time in Canton, he traveled northward, meeting the Emperor Wu at Nanking who differed with him whether enlightenment was to be achieved during this life or only after death. Because of this difference (Tamo, regarded the purpose of the religion as the attainment of perfect enlightenment in this life), Tamo proceeded to launch a frontal attack on the salvationist religion he saw about Emperor Wu. This angered the Emperor Wu to the extent that he ordered Tamo out of his kingdom. After being expelled, Tamo traveled northward to the Kingdom of Wei, eventually arriving at the Shaolin Monastery. It is said that when Tamo arrived at the Shaolin Temple, he became disturbed by the inability of the other monks to stay awake during meditation. To counter this tendency and to improve their health, he purportedly introduced exercises, which were the forerunner of Shaolin boxing. It is known that boxing existed in China before Tamo's coming, but how systematized it was is debatable.

Another popular contention is that a general by the name of Yuen Fei was responsible to some degree in the development of movements. He is credited with writing a book called Patuanchin. This is a series, or set of twelve lessons, on surface development generally known as tensing movements. This book has often been said to have been written during the Sung Dynasty (960-12 79 A. D.). However, this is a point of controversy and it may have been written at a later date.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 A. D.), a wealthy young man surnamed Yen became a priest and took the name Chueh Yuan. Our interest in him is not in his biography but in the fact that he is credited with increasing Tamo's original eighteen hand positions to seventy-two. After Chueh had spent some time popularizing his expanded version to Shaolin he met two other martial arts masters, Li Ch’eng and Pai Yu-feng. Chueh, Li, and Pai are said to have enlarged the seventy­two strokes to one hundred and seventy.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) and the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911 A. D.) boxing proliferated and many of the systems of today were born. The conquest of China by the Manchu in the latter period caused many boxers to join up with the secret societies hoping to return the Ming to power. Thousands from the north retreated southward (several thousand went to Taiwan, providing a stimulus for boxing there), disseminating boxing skills as they went. Although unsuccessful in their aims, the boxers seeking a return of the Ming did achieve a result -­ they spread the boxing doctrine to all corners of China.

The Shaolin Monastery at this time was a refuge for the former officials of the Ming Dynasty who were hunted by the Manchus. The Manchurians, through an informer, were told of the activities and whereabouts of these former Ming officials and sent troops to surround and storm the monastery demanding the arrest of all involved. Knowing their fate, these men fought valiantly. All but a few perished when the monastery was burned. Those that escaped sought refuge in Southern China. Thus, a second Shaolin Monastery was erected in the province of Fukien to recruit members for the same purpose -- revolution. As history repeated itself, the Manchurians were notified of this new location which brought about the burning of the second Shaolin Monastery. Fortunately, the majority of the Shaolin members had been informed of the attack and were able to escape. They sought refuge in the southern cities and began teaching there.

The Chinese styles of boxing are generally divided into northern and southern schools. Generally, the boxers of the north are harder in their movements than those of the south. The climate there is more severe, the conditions to live more stringent, and the food more conducive to strength. Moreover, most of the great northern boxers have worked as armed escorts for goods on convoys -- an excellent but dangerous profession in which to test their boxing prowess.

In the southern systems of Shaolin namely, Hung, Liu, Ts' ai (called Choy in Cantonese), Li and Mo. The Hung system consisted of long hand and arm movements executed in a wide stance. Liu was noted for its staff work and short hand movements never exceeding the height of the eyebrows. Ts'ai or Choy consisted of the foot movements of a rat for speed and maneuverability, and the hand and body movements of a snake for weaving maneuvers. Li consisted of short hand movements, rapid changing stances, and stressed defense more than offense. Mo stressed kicking movements. There are many more Cantonese styles besides these five, some of which have found their way into the United States.

As already pointed out, although Chinese styles are graceful, flowing, and cir­cular and more flexible than the Japanese, Okinawan and Korean styles; many of the classical Chinese styles are impractical for modern self-defense. Thus, one can easily value the practical methods now perpetuated by Mr. Ed Parker.

We are grateful for Mr. Parker and his students’ contributions, like Mr. Hartman and Mr. H’s Instructor, Associate Master Mr. Ken Herman that continue the creative knowledge to guide us in keeping abreast with updated developments.

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