Uechi-ryu Karate – A short History: Part 1
By Mario McKenna
Editor’s Note: Uechi Ryu Karate is a powerful,
hard Okinawan style, which originated in China. It was brought to Okinawa
early in this century by Kanbun Uechi and shares many similarities with
Goju Ryu karate and the lesser Naha-Te styles of To'on Ryu and Ryuei
Ryu. Uechi Ryu is characterized by upright stances, circular blocks,
grabs, open hand and one knuckle techniques plus low kicking, often using
the big toe.
Uechi-ryu is one of the most popular styles of Okinawan Karate-do practiced
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.
These two pioneering works by George Mattson provided
the first detailed information for English readers about his Uechi
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 its founder Uechi Kanbun.
A younger image of
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. 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 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 by a martial artist named Toyama. So,
in March 1897, at the age of nineteen, Uechi Kanbun left Okinawa for
Kanbun Uechi left Okinawa by sea
to travel to the city of Fuzhou (right, Ca. 1870s) in Fujian Province
in China. This coastal
trade city is located on the mainland of South China.
Off shore lies the island that is known today as Taiwan. Traveling
the East China Sea can be tricky. It is racked by storms and high
seas. Typical craft plying the trade routes to China from Naha, Okinawa
were small sailing craft as pictured here. Kanbun could have traveled
on such a craft.
Kanbun arrived in Fuzhou City, Fujian province, Southern China and like
many Okinawans before him (Higashionna, Kinjo, Nakaima, etc.) Kanbun
reportedly settled in at the Ryukyukan (Kinjo, 1999), a Okinawan enclave
of buildings including a boarding house, homes and businesses established
for those who visited and lived in the area including migrant workers
who came to Fujian seeking employment. Uechi Kanbun started working at
a variety of different jobs and began practicing 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 left, 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
Kanbun Uechi’s Chinese teacher Shu Shi Wa also known as
Zhou Zhi He.
Uechi's teacher, Zhou Zhi He (1874-1926) (more commonly referred to
in Japanese as Shu Shi Wa), was 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, 1999).
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 learned from Chou Pei and Ko Hsi Ti (Cook, 1999).
Zhou reportedly practiced Crane and Tiger boxing, in addition to hard
and soft qi gong (also spelled chi kung -- the study and practice of
internal energy) 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, 1999). 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 its obvious benefit as a conditioning drill,
'kotekitae' is a sophisticated push-hands and trapping flow drill. Also
of note is that Kanbun reportedly did not learn the final xing/kata 'Suparempei.'
In addition to 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 an 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, whoever 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 never to teach quan'fa again. The
year was 1910 (Breyette, 1999).
About The Author:
Mario McKenna is a martial arts teacher, writer and historian who also
translates Japanese texts into English. He began his training under Yoshitaka
Kinjo sensei in 1985, while a high school student in Lethbridge, Alberta.
He moved to Japan in 1994 and while living on the island of Amami Oshima
in Kagoshima, Japan, he trained under Minowa Katsuhiko sensei and his
student Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei in classical Okinawan weaponry. In 1998
he began studying Tou'on-ryu from Kanzaki Shigekazu sensei until his
return to Canada in 2002. His qualifications include: Tou'on-ryu Karatedo
Go-dan (5th degree), Ryukyu Kobudo Yon-dan (4th degree), and Gohakukai
San-dan (3rd degree). Other martial arts experience includes limited
training in Aikido, Judo, Shorinji Kenpo, and 18 months of training in
Chikubishima-ryu bo-jutsu in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. He has
written on the historical and cultural aspects of martial arts training.
He now teaches Okinawan karate-do at his Kitsilano dojo in Vancouver,
B.C., Canada. Mario has previously contributed to FightingArts.com. His
website is: http://www.mariomckenna.com