Shuri Te

Shuri Te

Shuri-te (首里手) is a pre-World War II term for a type of martial art indigenous to the area around Shuri, the old capital city of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Shuri-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. One of the early Okinawan masters, To-De Sakugawa (1733-1815) is credited as being one of the initial importers of Chinese martial arts to Okinawa, in particular to Shuri, where he started the development of the Shuri-Te style of Okinawan martial arts.

Sakugawa had a student named Sokon Matsumura, who in turn taught Ankoh Itosu, who was destined to become a great martial artist and teacher in the 19th century, who introduced the practice of To-De, as the Okinawan martial arts were called, to the Okinawan school system. Ankoh Itosu’s contribution to To-De was the emphasis of Kata and its practical application, called Bunkai.

Many students of Ankoh Itosu became significant figures in the early development of Karate. Amongst Itosu’s students are Gichin Funakoshi (1867-1957), who later moved to Japan and founded Shotokan Karate, and Kenwa Mabuni (1890-1954), combined aspects of Naha-Te and Shuri-Te, also moved to Japan, and founded Shito-Ryu Karate.

History of Shuri-te: The Shaolin Temples (monasteries) are possibly the most revered and famous structures in the history of all martial arts. The history of the Shaolin order is obscure and shrouded in myth and secrecy. Even from their beginnings, they were constant targets of bandits and rebellious soldiers. According to tradition, the first Shaolin Temple was built in Honan province sometime around 500 A.D., on Shao-shih Mountain south of Songshan Mountain, 50 miles west of Zhengzhou. Traditionally, this was the original temple.

The name Shaolin means “small (young) forest.” There is a legend about how the Honan Temple received this name. The story goes that before the temple was built, there was a forest there. It had been cleared or burned down by orders of Emperor Hsiao of the Northern Wei Dynasty. When construction started on the temple, the emperor’s gardeners planted new trees.

Because some people are not informed, they assume there was only one Shaolin Temple. They also assume that Honan Shaolin was the greatest and grandest. But contrary to popular belief, this is not necessarily the case, although the Honan Temple in the North appears to be the original. There were 2 main temples, the Northern and the Southern.

The legend about the Yong Chun Style is that of the Five Elders (Ancestors) of Shaolin: The Shaolin order was politically neutral most of the time, but in the 1640’s, the much-hated Manchu (Ching) dynasty began. The cruelty of the Manchu made Shaolin reconsider its position. In about 1647, the Honan Shaolin Temple was utterly destroyed by the Manchu. Most of the monks were killed, but a few monks fled to the Fukien Shaolin Temple (some believe this took place in 1570. The problem with that date is that the Ming was still in power at that time. It appears that it was the Manchu that did it. The reasons that the Manchu would have done it make a lot more sense. Other legends allege that it took place not long after the Manchu took over.) Among those that fled to Fukien Shaolin were the most influential Shaolin masters. They brought the precious martial art books from the Shaolin Library with them. As a result of all this, the status of the Fukien temple changed, and it became the new Headquarters of the Shaolin order. It was a better base for anti-Manchu activities, because it was a strategic location.

The Fukien Temple became part of the rebellion almost immediately after the destruction of Honan. The Manchu could not govern very well in the South. There were many areas near rivers that they could not control, because the rebels kept them at bay.

Four sons of four Ming generals were sent to Fukien Shaolin to train in the martial arts. Their names were Chih Shan (Jee Shin or Chi Shin), Fung Doe Duk (Fung To Tak), Mew Hing (Miu Hin), and Bak Mai (Pak Mei or Bai Mei). According to legend, there was also a Shaolin nun there at this same time, by the name of Lui Sei-Leung or Lu Si-Niang. She took upon herself the Buddhist name Wu Mei (Ng Mui or Five Plums) that she is more popularly known as. They became the five elders of Shaolin

They analyzed their situation very closely. They needed to come up with a plan to overcome the Manchu. The combat systems taught in the temple at that time were based on animal movements. They required that the monks master tens and hundreds of long, intricate forms, taking ten or twenty years. There were an enormous variety of techniques, many of them totally dissimilar to each other, and some of them were not very useful, because they didn’t work very well. The Shaolin grandmasters recognized that this approach was unsuitable and unacceptable for the rapid development of an effective and efficient fighting force. A new training method made to fit the needs of the rebellion was necessary. In the South, the terrain was different, and there was a need for close range fighting tactics. Also, they needed a way to fight more effectively against and exploit the weaknesses of the fighting arts of their enemies. What they came up with was a radically new approach. The focus for the new system was on human biomechanics. They refined and modified the existing animal systems and movements into an essential core of techniques.

Because of these new revisions, there became a split between the Northern and Southern Shaolin styles. The North retained the original exaggerated movements and form, and the South adopted the new streamlined and efficient form. When I say North, I don’t mean Honan Shaolin. I mean all the Shaolin practitioners in the North outside of Honan Shaolin. The reason I make this distinction is because Honan Shaolin was always in close contact with Fukien Shaolin, and there was always a heavy interchange. So Honan Shaolin implemented the new temple style form also. This knew style was known under the generic title of “Nan Q’uan” or Southern Fist.

The story of Fang Qi-Niang: A Shaolin monk that had fled after the 1673 destruction of the Fukien temple (some say it was 1674) was Fang Zhonggong (also known as Fang Zhen-Dong, Fang Zhang-Guang, Fang Honshu, Fang Shi Yu and Fang Huishi.) His specialty style was the Shi Pa Lohan Fist (Shi Ba Luo Han Q’uan). He sought refuge in nearby Putian at the Shalian Temple while awaiting the overthrow of the Manchu government for a time. Supposedly, this was another temple clandestinely affiliated with Shaolin. Later, he went to Yong Chun village. It was there that Zhonggong raised a family. His seventh daughter was named Fang Qi-Niang (Chi-Niang, Chi-Liang, or Ji-Niang). He taught her the Shaolin style. She later saw cranes fighting and developed the Fukien Shaolin Crane style using what her father had taught her for a base, which was essentially the Yong Chun style created by the Five Elders. This style in the Japanese language is known as Hakutsuru.

The Shaolin Hakutsuru over time broke up into many branch styles. The major ones are: Wing Chun; the Five Ancestral Fist; the Ancestral Crane (Zonghe, Suhe, or Zanhe Q’uan, also known as Sleeping or Trembling Crane); the Shouting Crane (Minghe Q’uan, also known as Whooping, Singing or Crying Crane); the Eating Crane (Shehe Q’uan, also known as Morning Crane); and the Flying Crane (Feihe Q’uan). The Fukien Jumping Crane is not related to these. It comes through different roots. (Of course, these are not the only styles that branch from it. The Okinawan Styles are also branches of it also, as we shall see.)

The Hakutsuru was the “Shaolin style” referred to by Funakoshi and other sources that Iwah and Wai Shin Zan taught Bushi Matsumura, although one source says that Iwah taught Bushi his own form of it.

Okinawa and the Development of Te : Just off the coast of Fukien is an island called Okinawa, which means “a rope tossed into the water.” Repeatedly it was taken over by invaders. But the inhabitants had the doctrine of no resistance. They just submitted themselves and did not usually fight them, although they would defend themselves. They would do things secretly under the noses of their taskmasters. The inhabitants themselves are a mixture of many different bloodlines. It is the melting pot of the Orient. At first the island had a tributary relationship with China, but that ended shortly after the Japanese conquest by the Satsuma clan in 1609. Since then, the island has been under Japanese rule.

Over the centuries, two indigenous martial arts had developed there. At first the development was independent of China. One was an empty-hand art called te. The other was an art of weapons called kobudo. Later on, there was much foreign influence on these systems.

There was an even greater influx of Chinese influence on te in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more masters visited China and studied under Chinese experts. This led to the creation of three hybrid styles of what became known in Okinawa as “karate,” or “China Hand.” They were a mix of te and Chinese styles. They were Naha-te, Tomari-te, and Shuri-te. The styles were named after the cities of Okinawa in which they were developed. But these “cities” were so close that you could live in one “city” and walk next door and be in the next “city.”

Shuri-te (Sui-Di) : Around 1760, Kusanku, a Chinese envoy, was sent to Okinawa. Some say that he was a Shaolin monk, and others say he learned from a Shaolin monk. Another form of his name is Guan Kui or Guan Gui. Once he was on a boat going to Satsuma, and that it was blown off course during a fierce typhoon, and drifted to shore on Oshima Beach of Shikoku Island. At that time, he gave a martial art demonstration. The book Ohshima-Hikki that contains the account says “with his lapel being seized, Kusankun applied his martial art and overcame the attacker by scissoring his legs.”

Sakugawa was born in Shuri Toribori on March 3, 1733 and died on August 17, 1815 at the age of 82. Sakugawa Satunushi was a samurai. Some say that his name was Shungo. His dying father suggested that he learn the fighting arts. In Akata village, Shuri, Sakugawa found Peichin Takahara (1683-1760). Takahara was a monk, mapmaker and astronomer. Takahara Peichin was born in the village of Akata Cho in Southern Shuri. Takahara who 67 at the time and was a famous warrior of the Okinawan fighting arts. Sakugawa respectfully asked Takahara to become his student, and was accepted. He studied under him diligently.

He asked Takahara for his blessing to study with Ku Sanku, the Chinese Master, and Takahara approved. Sakugawa improved day by day as he studied with Ku Sanku.

When Master Kusanku returned to China, Sakugawa followed him and remained in China for six years still studying with him. Sakugawa became a famous samurai, and was given the title of Satunuky or Satonushi by the Okinawan king. It was most likely, Sakugawa that created the kata Ku Sanku.

Bushi Matsumura : Bushi Matsumura was born in 1797, and died in 1889. According to some sources, Bushi’s family name was Kiyo (Kayo). Matsumura grew up in Yamagawa village of the city of Shuri, Okinawa. He was partly Chinese. Sakugawa began training Bushi at Akata when he was 14 years old, in 1810. According to tradition, it was at Bushi’s father’s request that Sakugawa teach him. Some say that to train Bushi to block, Sakugawa tied to him to a tree so he could not move. Then he threw punches at him.

Sakugawa trained him up until his death, and then Sokon was probably on his own for a while. According to oral history, he studied under Sakugawa for 4 years.

Bushi was recruited into the service of the Sho family. At that time, Sho Ko, the king of Okinawa, desired to have him change his last name, as was the custom, and suggested the name Muramatsu (Muramachi), or “village pine.” After discussing the matter with some friends and relatives, he decided that Matsumura (Machimura), or “pine village”, would be more appropriate. Sokon asked the king to let him change the name to that, and the request was granted. Some say this happened at age 17, which would probably put it around 1813.

Many sources say that Bushi Matsumura trained in China, and it is certainly a strong tradition. Hohan Soken said that Bushi trained at “Fukien Shaolin” for 26 years and some months.

Some prominent students of Bushi Matsumura were Yasutsune Itosu and Chotoku Kyan, although there were many more. Itosu’s head student and successor was Chosin Chibana, who formed Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu from Itosu’s version of Shuri-Te. Kyan’s students formed Shobayashi Shorin-ryu from his personal brand of Shuri-te. Another student of Itosu was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan. Once in a while, Itosu would take him to study under Bushi Matsumura. He was also a student of Azato, a Shorei-Ryu master.

Nabi Matsumura : Keeping with Samurai tradition, a close family member was selected as his successor in his personal system. His grandson Nabi Matsumura was chosen. Nabi’s birth and death dates are kept secret.

Bushi’s senior student was Itosu. Because of that, it is assumed by some that Itosu was his successor. However, Nabi was the heir to Bushi’s personal system. Itosu added some to it, creating his own system. He was not a blood relative to the Matsumura family, and could not be the successor to the family style therefore, although he was a great master. In 1928, Chosin Chibana became head of Itosu’s system following Itosu’s death. It was at that time that Chibana designated Itosu’s version of Shuri-te as Shorin-Ryu. The pure and unchanged Matsumura Shuri-te taught by Nabi and Soken was not known as Shorin-Ryu until Soken changed the name later.

Some say Nabi Matsumura was very strict and secretive. Others received the glory, but he remained in obscurity. Possibly, he wished it to be that way. Not much information is available about him. His birth and death date are either not known, or are kept secret. It is said he was born in the 1850’s and died in the 1930’s. Nabi inherited everything his grandfather possessed, including his title “Bushi Matsumura.” Nabi’s wife and first child died soon after the child’s birth. He did remarry later.

Hohan Soken : Nabi chose Hohan Soken, his nephew, to be his successor. Soken was born May 25, 1889 and died November 30, 1982. He was born into the old Okinawan Samurai class. Because of the hardships placed upon the Samurai when their class was abolished, Soken, had to work a more lowly type of job in the rice fields with the commoners. Nabi, however, noticed Soken’s potential. So he proposed to him that he would train him in Hakutsuru if he would simply show enough dedication, patience and control. Soken eagerly accepted. This was when he was 14 years old in about 1902 or 3. Nabi began training him in the basics. This training lasted 10 years (till about 1913). Finally, after that he knew that Soken was ready for Hakutsuru.

Hohan Soken left Okinawa around 1924 and went to Argentina, where many Okinawans had moved to work. Soken and Chotoku Kyan reportedly had planned to travel overseas together but went their separate ways, with Kyan going to Taiwan. Soken Sensei learned some Spanish during his long stay in Argentina and by the accounts told by his Okinawan students, he lived a very exciting life there. Among other things, he worked as a photographer and had a clothes cleaning business. He did many demonstrations. Soken returned in the early 50’s a relatively wealthy man by the Okinawan standards of the time.

When Soken returned to Okinawa, he found that Karate had greatly changed. Sport Karate had pretty much replaced the old way. He refused to join some of the more popular Karate Associations. For many years he was the World’s oldest living active Karate Master. At first he called his system Matsumura Shurite (Machimura Sui-di), but later named it Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Seito (Seito means “orthodox”) to distinguish it from sport karate. Soken, unlike his uncle and great-grandfather, practiced weapons. He learned the art of Kobudo from Ushi Komesu of Ihonohara village and apparently also from Mantaka Chiken.

Soken, as with Nabi, had 2 wives. One was Argentinean, while his second wife was Okinawan. None of his sons took an interest in their father’s tradition. One of Soken’s sons by his first wife had followed Soken Sensei back to Okinawa and had kept Soken Sensei’s ashes. When that son passed away earlier this year, Soken Sensei’s ashes returned to Argentina as they were left in the care of the son’s Argentinean wife and children in accordance with Okinawan custom. Having Sensei’s ashes in South America and his grave on Okinawa is fitting for a man with ties so deep in both places. If one must pay one’s respects to Soken Sensei, we ask that one do that at the grave and avoid causing the deep offense inherent in trying to make a Graceland-style visit to see his body.

Important Okinawan masters of Shuri-te:

  • Sakukawa Kanga
  • Matsumura Sokon
  • Itosu Anko
  • Asato Anko
  • Motobu Choyu
  • Motobu Choki
  • Yabu Kentsu
  • Hanashiro Chomo
  • Funakoshi Gichin
  • Kyan Chotoku
  • Chibana Choshin
  • Mabuni Kenwa
  • Toyama Kanken

Important katas:

  • Naihanchi
  • Pinan
  • Kusanku
  • Passai
  • Jion
  • Jitte
  • Sochin
  • Chinto
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