Ever since I began my training in Okinawa Goju Ryu Karate, I knew that the method by which we practice originated in China. More precisely, the heritage of the Goju Ryu Karate system stems from the city of Fuzhou which lies in the south of China, in Fujian county. For many years, I heard stories from both Higaonna Sensei as well as An’ichi Miyagi Sensei about the origins of the method, and oftentimes they narrated stories about Chojun Miyagi Sensei, the founder of Goju Ryu, and his teacher Kanryo Higaonna Sensei, who studied in Fuzhou and brought the method to Okinawa.
For many years, I had the desire to visit the birthplace of our method, in spite of the fact that the method, as taught by Kanryo Higaonna Sensei, does not exist in China. There is no conclusive evidence left in Fuzhou regarding the method by which we practice. It is known that Miyagi Chojun Sensei visited China, but the place where Kanryo Higaonna Sensei studied from his master Ryu Ryu Ko is unknown.
To date, no one can point to a specific place where the training took place. Even the teacher’s name (Ryu Ryu Ko) which is pronounced based on the Japanese phonetics, can be pronounced in multiple forms in Chinese. Therefore, an attempt to clearly identify the teacher or the name of a teacher who may be attributed to Kanryo Higaonna Sensei’s teacher is difficult and is open to multiple interpretations.
Still, what is known is that the two martial arts which are considered as the origins from which the Goju Ryo Karate system developed are the “White Crane” and the “Tiger” methods. Both of these systems’ characteristics can be found deep within the katas (series of exercises) of Goju Ryu Karate. Additionally, one can occasionally find similar properties in other Chinese methods such as the “Dog” method which was also developed in Fujian county, during approximately the same time frame in which the “White Crane” system developed.
Therefore, it seemed to me that a visit to China in general, and Fuzhou in particular, as well as exposure to the Chinese martial arts which are fundamentally similar to Goju Ryu Karate, would be a natural thing to do. And so, at the end of July 2011 my wife and I undertook a trip to China.
Teachers and students tend to practice in the mornings, in the beautiful, lush parks scattered around the various towns. We set out to meet them. The first martial arts which we encountered were various types of Tai Chi, Chi Kung, and more. We rose early in the morning, and after a long ride and walk, we reached Ritan Park.
Amongst the park trails we encountered many trainees. Some were practicing Tai Chi katas individually in various secluded places around the park, while some trained in groups,
performing katas accompanied by traditional Chinese music. Others practiced Chinese sword katas.
When we stopped to observe a group practicing Tai Chi, several adult trainees approached us and enthusiastically led us to their teacher, who was smiling yet withdrawn. One of the trainees spoke some English, and I explained the purpose of our visit. When my wife explained to them my profession, their attitude became much friendlier, and we immediately developed a lively conversation. They were very interested to learn where we came from and the method by which we practice.
Although communication with the teacher himself was difficult,we achieved mutual understanding. After only a couple motions of our “San Chin” kata, the teacher smiled, pointed towards the “Tan Den”, said “Tan Tien” in Chinese, and demonstrated, in his own way, the energy path and related exercises. The movements were of the same language. While the methods were different, the objective was the same.
Next, I found myself, at the invitation of the teacher, performing / learning / following the teacher as he performed a slow, long kata. This was a nice and enjoyable experience and when we finally parted, there was a warm and affectionate respect.
According to tradition, martial arts originated in the Shaolin monastery in China.Bodhidharma, who arrived to China from India, developed a series of exercises which imitated various animal movements for the purpose of strengthening and training the monks who were mostly engaged in spiritual studies, Buddhism Zen and meditation. These series of exercises turned out to be very useful for self-defense and have evolved into varied martial arts techniques.
We embarked from Zheng Zhou city in the Henan province, a large bustling city which served us as a base, towards the monastery. To reach the Shaolin monastery itself, we had to cross Deng Fend city, which hosts several Kung Fu schools, after which we continued to Song Mountain where the Zen monks live, study and practice.
Tall and lush mountains surround the huge compound, and a large and impressive sculpture of a Zen monk greets visitors. After entering the gates and walking the wide entrance road, one can see residential buildings which are used by the monks who train here.
A group consisting of 3 columns of young monks dressed in traditional practice garbs passed nearby, enabling us to observe the numerous training tools they were carrying, most likely on their way to practice.
The monastery itself is located inside the compound. It consists of beautiful buildings arranged one after the other going up the hill, while large training halls can be seen on the sides.
While the monk’s trainings are not open to the general public, the monks did perform and demonstrated breathing exercises and various katas, allowing us to observe their impressive physical and acrobatic capabilities, no doubt a result of extensive training and practice.
As mentioned, this is a huge compound, consisting of many interesting areas. As it turned out, many Chinese visit here as well to experience, even for a short while, the place where martial arts developed.
Speaking of sources and origins, it was clearly impossible to not visit the place which is the birthplace of “Dento Okinawa Goju Ryu Karate”, the method by which we practice.
Fuzhou–The Birthplace of “Dento Okinawa Goju Ryu Karate”
As previously mentioned,Chinese teachers and their students tend to practice in the mornings in the various parks throughout the cities. And so it was also in Fuzhou. The hotel where we stayed was located next to Wu Yi Park. I wanted to visit this park based on inquiries I made before our trip with overseas teachers who practiced in the area and practiced ancient Chinese methods originating in Fuzhou.
In the morning we went to the park and observed a teacher and several students who were training amongst the trees. We noted a specific type of offensive and defensive exercises, performed in pairs, which strongly resembled in their flow, open-hand use and other elements, the “Kakie” we practice in the Dojo. I approached the teacher, Pin Lin Kon, who spoke only Chinese, and using sentences I prepared in advance, we formed initial communication. The teacher was friendly and very open and went out of his way to communicate, demonstrate movements and write, in Chinese, answers to my questions. A passerby got interested in our conversation and as it turned out he knew Japanese, I (and mostly my wife who translated) were able to communicate with him and the conversation became more fluent.
The method by which he practiced is called “Ba Gua Sansu” which incorporates elements of open-hand, circular walk and continuity in the performance of exercises. He also mentioned he knew a martial arts teacher from Okinawa. After talking for some time, and a souvenir photo, we bade warm farewell from the teacher and his students and continued on our way throughout the park.
Later on, we met a group practicing “Chen Si Tai Jun”, which included a form of “Pushing Hands” similar to our “Kakie”. To our surprise and delight, it turned out that the Japanese-speaking bystander we previously met was training with this group. The group’s teacher, who was practicing with one of the students, turned out to be a nice and modest person. Gradually, we struck up a conversation with the trainees, who were curious about the purpose of our trip. As before, the conversation warmed up rapidly. I pointed out that their drills similar to our “Kakie”, and after I explained and demonstrated the method, the trainees asked, one by one, that we practice together. After more than an hour of this, with the encouragement of the trainees who left us no choice, I also practiced a few minutes with the teacher. It was apparent that they were trying to figure out the stranger who appeared unexpectedly. The practice, therefore, was of serious nature, yet was performed in a friendly, good-natured manner. The seriousness of the trainees was rather apparent, and it turned out they met each morning for a lengthy workout.
During our conversation, I learned that the group was familiar with the“White Crane” method. It turned out that their teacher knew this method, and that one of the trainees had been training for several years in a “White Crane” style named “Fu Zhou Min He Jun” (a style specific to Fuzhou). When asked if they had a similar kata to San Chin, several of them replied in unison “San Zhan”, according to the Chinese pronunciation. When I asked the trainer if I could visit his teacher, he explained that this was impossible as the teacher, whose name was Dong Ruan, passed away. He did mention that his teacher used to visit Japan frequently.
The trainer then demonstrated the “San Zhan” kata. The postures were similar to our “San Chin Dachi”, but were broader and the hands more open. While the kata was different, the resemblance was apparent in several elements. I’ll mention that also in our case, originally the kata was performed with open hands, and only when it was brought to Okinawa, the attack was hidden in a closed fist. In return, they asked me to demonstrate the “SanChin” Kata, and I gladly complied.
This extended session was especially interesting and fruitful, and after a group photo and warm handshakes, we bid farewell to our new friends.
It is interesting to note that the “San Zhan” kata, which in some ways is the foundation for our “San Chin” kata, characterized numerous “White Crane” styles. Of these styles, the one called “Five Ancestors” is considered the most influential on Goju Ryu Karate as well as other Okinawan styles such as “Uechi Ryu”, also originating in Fuzhou. The resemblance is not limited to just the “San Zhan” kata which is pronounced similarly to “San Chin” Kata in Japanese. There are numerous “White Crane” style katas, as well as other katas whose names, in spite of their Chinese pronunciation, sound very similar to our katas as they are pronounced in Japanese. As an example, during a conversation with one of the trainers I met, he mentioned that in a style called “Flying Crane Fist” there is a kata called “Shi Meng,” which means “Four Doors”. This made me immediately think of our “Shi So Chin” kata. There are many other examples.
The next day we met several additional trainers. With one of them we barely communicated as he spoke only Chinese. I presented pre-prepared questions and he replied by writing a few words in Chinese which were translates only after the meeting. This person was noteworthy since it turned out he knew the Goju Ryu system, which most other trainers that we met did not.
He also mentioned that a monument to the memory of a Kanryo Higaonna Sensei was built in Fuzhou.
The meetings, some of which were described in this article, with Chinese martial arts in general and particularly with the martial arts in Fuzhou, highlighted the connection and special relationship that exists between the Goju Ryu Karate and Chinese methods. Additionally, it is known that the local arts in the city of Naha, located in Okinawa Japan, also contributed to the development of Goju Ryu Karate into the profound and extensive system which we know and practice today. The meetings with the teachers and many trainees, who kindly allowed me to experience the various martial arts in which they practiced, were both enjoyable and fruitful.
The warm welcome we received allowed me to ask and receive answers which have greatly contributed to my understanding of the issues and topics which I wanted to study, and for that, we thank them.
Additional information and points for further studies will be discussed during practices.
Ilan Oppenheimer Sensei