History of Uechi-ryu
By Mario McKenna
Uechi-ryu is one of the most popular styles of Okinawan Karate-do practised today. It enjoys not only a large following in Okinawa and Japan, but throughout the world, especially in the United States. Interestingly, there is very little written information in English outlining the history, training methods and philosophy of Uechi-ryu Karate for English speaking practitioners of the style.
Two earlier books outlining Uechi-ryu "The Way of Karate" (1963) and "Uechi-ryu Karate-do" (1974), both written by George Mattson, introduced the Uechi style, history and training methods for the first time to the English speaking public. Indeed, during the 1960's and 70's these pioneering works were some of the few English language sources of information regarding Karate for the general public. Although a welcome addition to students of Uechi-ryu at the time, these books had some serious shortcomings which eventually came to light. Among these were some historical inaccuracies with respect to the history of the style and mistakes in the Kata and terminology presented in the books.
This was remedied somewhat by Alan Dollar's (1996) English language text for Uechi-ryu students entitled, "Secrets of Uechi-ryu Karate and the Mysteries of Okinawa." But even with this welcome and much needed addition, information on Uechi-ryu was still pretty scarce. With this in mind, I'd like to try to give a somewhat different account to what is usually found in English language books on Uechi-ryu history and it's founder Uechi Kanbun.
Uechi-ryu karate is one of the most recent imports to the Ryukyus in terms of fighting arts and was founded by Uechi Kanbun (1877-1948). Kanbun grew-up on the Motobu peninsula of Okinawa under the watchful eye of his father and although his family was 'shizoku'(noble family), they worked as farmers. During Uechi Kanbun's teenage years, it was a fashion of that era to perform "karate and bo dances" accompanied to the music of the shamisen (Kinjo, 1999). More than likely Uechi Kanbun was familiar with these dances and they may have served as a means to inspire his martial studies (Kinjo, 1999).
Kanbun had gained some formal training in karate and bo techniques from a man named Touichi 'Tanmei' (lit. 'old man'; a term of respect). But his resolve to study the fighting arts in China was inspired by stories of Chinese masters told to him a martial artist named Toyama. So, in March 1897, at the age of nineteen, Uechi Kanbun left Okinawa for Southern China.
Kanbun arrives in Fuzhou City, Fujian province, Southern China and like many Okinawans before him (Higashionna, Kinjo, Nakaima, etc.) Kanbun reportedly settled in at the Ryukyukan, a boarding house for the many migrant workers who came to Fujian seeking employment (Kinjo, 1999). Uechi Kanbun started working at a variety of different jobs and began practising at the Kojo dojo, run by the Kojo family located next to the Ryukyukan (Kinjo, 1999).
Unfortunately, it has never been ascertained exactly what form of boxing was taught at the Kojo dojo during that era. Kanbun trained as hard as he could until one eventful day when the head instructor of the Kojo dojo reportedly called him "Uechi no wada buta gwa" ('little fool'). Slighted by the insult, Kanbun decided to leave the Kojo dojo and the Ryukyukan to find his studies elsewhere.
Uechi's martial studies can be documented with some degree of accuracy up to the time he left the Kojo dojo. After he leaves, however, it becomes somewhat difficult to determine which direction his martial studies took. Oral tradition states that Uechi eventually became the student of Zhou Zhi He to further his studies of Chinese boxing, but it is not known how it came about. Reportedly, after Kanbun left the Kojo dojo he entered the Fujian / Fuzhou central Buddhist temple. And it was there that Uechi was introduced to Zhou who was reportedly the 36th generation head of the temple (Kinjo, 1999). However, according to research conducted by the Uechi-ryu Karate-do Kyoukai several years ago, there was no such temple (Kinjo, 1999). Where then did Uechi meet Zhou? Unfortunately, no definitive conclusions can be made and this is still the source of much speculation.
Uechi's teacher, Zhou Zhi He (1874-1926) (more commonly referred to in Japanese as Shu Shi Wa), is a bit of an enigmatic figure and there is little factual evidence about him. It is known that Zhou originated from Minhou, Fujian and was a civil boxing teacher (McCarthy, 1999a). He reportedly studied martial arts under Li Zhao Bei and Ke Xi Di and was proficient in a variety of quan'fa. Still other sources state that Zhou had learned from Chou Pei and Ko Hsi Ti (Cook, 1999).
Zhou reportedly practised Crane and Tiger boxing, in addition to hard and soft qi gong and was noted for his iron palm technique. Besides Uechi Kanbun, his students included Jin Shi Tian, Wang Di Di and Zhou Zheng Qun (McCarthy, 1999a). It has also been speculated that Wu Hien Kui (Jap. Gokenki) was also a student of Zhou. In contrast to this Zhou has also been described as a Taoist priest and a master of Chinese boxing, who taught among other styles his family system of quan'fa (Breyette, 1999).
Be that as it may, Kanbun reportedly studied every day for ten years, but it is unclear exactly what style he was taught. We do know that Uechi brought back the xing/kata: Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseiryu as well as 'kotekitae' (commonly referred to as arm pounding or conditioning). It should be noted that besides it's obvious benefit as a conditioning drill, 'kotekitae' is sophisticated push-hands and trapping flow drill. Also of note is that Kanbun reportedly did not learn the final xing/kata 'Suparempei.'
Besides his training in quan'fa, Uechi's training with Zhou also included the use and preparation of herbal medicines (Breyette, 1999; Kinjo, 1999). In fact, one medicine still in use in some Uechi-ryu karate dojos is known as "Uechi Guza" in Okinawa hogen (dialect) or "Uechi Kusuri" in standard Japanese (English: Uechi medicine) and is used for healing bruises and cuts associated with training. After eight years of continuous training under Zhou, Uechi Kanbun reportedly received his teaching license in "pangainoon" quan'fa in 1904 at the age of 27 (Kinjo, 1999). He was then granted permission to teach, and opened his first school in Nansoue, about 250 miles Northwest of Fuzhou where he taught for nearly three years (Breyette,1999).
During his time in Nansoue, Uechi Kanbun's life was for the most part uneventful. He taught quan'fa and sold herbal medicine to the local people of that area for several years until and unfortunate incident occurred which changed the course of his life. One of Kanbun's students reportedly had a dispute with another man over a farming issue. Sadly, Kanbun's student struck a blow to the other man, killing him (Breyette, 1999; Kinjo, 1999). However, there is speculation that Uechi Kanbun himself may have been involved in the dispute directly and may have delivered the fatal blow (Dollar, 1996). Be that as it may, who ever struck the final blow also struck the final blow for Uechi Kanbun's life in China. Feeling somehow responsible for the man's death, Kanbun closed his school and left China for Okinawa, vowing to never teach quan'fa again, the year was 1910 (Breyette, 1999).
Like his counterpart Higashionna Kanryo, several decades earlier, after his return to Okinawa, Uechi Kanbun never talked about, or taught quan'fa. In fact, many potential students came to know of Uechi Kanbun and sought him out, to which Kanbun summarily dismissed them. It was only after he moved to Wakayama prefecture in 1924, at the age of 47 in search of better work to support his family, that Kanbun was finally convinced to start teaching quan'fa again (Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education, 1997). Kanbun taught full time, and also made and sold the medicinal compounds as he had done when he lived in China (Breyette, 1999). Three years later, in 1927, Kanbun’s eldest son, Uechi Kanei (1911-1991) moved to Wakayama and began learning his father’s system of quan’fa (Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education, 1997).
Around the time that Kanbun was teaching his brand of quan'fa in Wakayama prefecture, the popularisation and modernisation of Okinawan karate had begun. 'Toudi' (China hand) had now become karate (empty hand). During this boom-era of popularisation a multitude of styles were named and renamed. In contrast, Uechi Kanbun seemed reluctant to formally name his system. Indeed, Uechi Kanbun never stated the name of the system of quan'fa he studied in China and simply referred to his art as Pangainoon-ryu karate-jutsu (Jap. Half hard / soft empty-hand technique); a name which his students innocently mistook as a reference to his particular style of karate.
During his time in Wakayama prefecture, many Okinawan karate teachers visited Kanbun. Among them were Shito-ryu founder Mabuni Kenwa and Konishi Yasuhiro of the Shindo Jinen Ryu. Mabuni was intensely curious as to what had kept Uechi Kanbun in China for well over a decade and Kanbun was more than happy to oblige by demonstrating some of the xing / kata and techniques that comprised his ‘Pangainoon karate’. So inspired was Mabuni by what Kanbun had showed him, that Mabuni included some of the basic Fujian tiger boxing techniques in a kata he later developed called 'Shinpa' or 'mind-wave.' Konishi, for his part did not fair as well as Mabuni. Konishi later recalled that Uechi was ‘living like a recluse’ and that he was unable to follow the conversation between Mabuni and Uechi as Uechi Kanbun’s Japanese was limited (McCarthy, 1999b). Instead, the two Okinawans talked in ‘Okinawa hogen’ (Okinawa dialect).
It should be noted that Pangainoon does not refer to a specific style of quan'fa or Chinese boxing. Instead, it more than likely refers to the mixture of training methods from Fujian that Uechi Kanbun combined to make his system of karate. In fact, Pangainoon refers to principles common to all martial arts. These include: goho (Jap. Lit. 'Hard method'), juho (Jap. Lit. 'Flexible method) and gojuho (Jap. Lit. Hard / flexible method). Examples of goho or hard method include: Tiger boxing (Jap. Tora Ken), Great Ancestor boxing (Jap. Tai So Ken, and Lion boxing (Jap. Shi Ken). Examples of gojuho or hard / flexible boxing include: White crane (Jap. Haku Tsuru Ken) and finally Juho or flexible method includes: Shaolin Flower Boxing (Jap. Shorin Hana Ken), and Crane boxing (Jap. Tsuru Ken).
In 1940, Kanbun had renamed his system Uechi-ryu Karate-jutsu (Uechi style empty-hand technique). By 1947 Uechi Kanbun had returned to Okinawa and moved to Ie Jima. He passed away the following year on November 25,1948. The following year after Kanbun's death, his son, Uechi Kanei returned to Okinawa and opened his first dojo in Ginowan calling it ‘Uechi-ryu Karate-jutsu Kenkyujo’ or the Uechi-ryu Karate-jutsu Research Center (Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education, 1997). There Kanei continued to teach his interpretation of his father's art until he relocated his dojo to the city of Futenma in the 1950’s. After Uechi Kanei’s passing in 1991 at the age of 79 Uechi-ryu karate-do splintered into literally dozens of different organisations each teaching their own interpretation of Uechi Kanbun's art.
Thanks Dana is interesting stuff , I wonder if the Bubishi influence was later on or it came directly from Kanbun ... I guess we`ll never know