Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 3 - shisochin kata

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2 of this article.

Shisochin begins with 3 opening sanchin stances making it superficially similar to cluster H. However it departs from cluster H in almost every other sense: the kata is “symmetrical” and has a high proportion of “soft” techniques. Moreover the opening thrusts are performed as nukite — knife hand thrusts. While it is said that cluster H were originally practiced open hand, it is more likely that, like the uechi-ryu kata, the nukite where executed palm down to a point just below the attacker’s nipple, not with a vertical hand to the solar plexus as per shisochin.

All of this points to shisochin being from a very different source than the cluster H kata (and of the same family/source as saifa, seiyunchin, seipai and kururunfa). But what was that source?

As I stated in Part 2 of this article, shisochin might have existed in Okinawa before Kanryo Higaonna even left for China: there is written record of Seisho Aragaki performing a kata named "chisaukin" at a demonstration in 18671. Seisho Aragaki was, of course, Kanryo Higaonna’s first teacher. Could Kanryo Higaonna have taught chisaukin/shisochin to Miyagi, perhaps as an “extra” or “non-syllabus” kata? Or might Miygai have remembered forms taught to him by his first teacher Ryuko Aragaki (who would likely have known Seisho’s forms)? Either is a possibility: but the odds of today’s shisochin being faithful to the original Aragaki chisaukin seem slim at best. For a start, forms known to have been taught by Aragaki have an architecture and design (including the right side bias) that is far closer to cluster H than cluster M (see Part 1 of this article for a detailed description of, and discussion as to, these features). The same applies to the “feel” of the katas.

While shisochin might not be an exact rendition of Aragaki chisaukin or one of his other katas, it doesn’t mean that Aragaki’s techniques don’t form at least a part of today’s shisochin. On the contrary: an examination of surviving Aragaki kata show elements that are, if not identical, at least highly reminiscent of shisochin. For example, unsu – a kata known to have been taught by Aragaki – opens with 3 “shisochin-like” nukite, albeit it from neko ashi dachi. The video below is the modern shito ryu version. It is hard to know what the original Aragaki form might have looked like, but I note that the nukite feature even in the shotokan version. Generally speaking, the kata seems to vary little from school to school giving me some encouragement that we have a reasonable idea of Aragaki’s karate.

Shito ryu’s unsu kata

You will note that other “shisochin-like” features include:

rising elbow strikes

low counterbalancing pullbacks or shuto blocks/strikes

hiki uke (open hand “pulling” blocks)

open hand haito uke (ridge hand blocks)

Unsu is otherwise clearly a different kata from shisochin, following a different embusen, different techniques and a “cluster H-like” right side bias. However in the absence of a “chisaukin”, kata , might unsu have provided Miyagi with some of the techniques that found their way into his shisochin? Certainly Miyagi was friends with Kenwa Mabuni, so even if Kanryo Higaonna or Ryuko Aragaki never taught unsu to Miyagi, Mabuni could easily have done so...

Another “shisochin-like” Aragaki form is the kata sochin. Again, it opens with 3 strikes in neko ashi dachi (albeit these are closed fist punches). It has some similarity to shisochin, but I would argue that this is less than unsu. I will discuss sochin in the context of seiyunchin in the next Part of this article.

Importantly, one needn’t just look to Aragaki to find “shisochin-like” Okinawan kata: For example the following “Tomari te” version of rohai (a kata I have long suspected of having an influence on Chojun Miyagi’s system) features a start that is identical to the start of shisochin, right down to the 3 sanchin dachi...

Tomari te rohai

This “Tomari te” rohai is practised in Gohakukai, the karate style developed by respected karate teacher and researcher Iken Tokashiki who studied both goju-ryu under sensei Fukuchi and Tomarite under sensei Nakasone. How “original” this version of Tomari te rohai I do not know, but if it is it would be an obvious candidate for at least part of Miyagi’s shisochin (or at least a form that is inspired by the same “source kata” – perhaps the original chisaukin). Alternatively it is also possible that shisochin has influenced this “Tomari te” version of rohai…

In terms of Chinese arts existing at the time, shisochin has a passing similarity to the “Hakka” systems of white crane, bak mei and southern mantis. Researcher Akio Kinjo2 has suggested that shisochin kata has its origins in the cricket/mantis systems of Fujian and that the original characters may well have been which mean "cricket/mantis battle" (pronounced "shisauchin" in the Hokkien/Amoy dialect or "xishuaizhan" in Mandarin). This seems quite possible if one examines southern mantis forms which feature finger thrusts while moving in a stance equivalent to sanchin (it is important to note that southern and northern mantis schools are completely unrelated and look very different — there are no “obvious” northern-style “mantis” postures and hand movements in the southern school).

I think it is possible that Miyagi was exposed to southern mantis during his visits to China. At the very least this might have inspired him in the development of shisochin. Consider the following video examples:

Andrew Chung, a master of various Chinese arts, gives an impressive performance of southern mantis

Another southern mantis form – note the arm bars and their similarity to shisochin

If I were to express my gut feeling about shisochin, it would be that it is Miyagi’s synthesis of techniques from Okinawan forms (if not Aragaki chisaukin, then some other Aragaki kata and/or Tomari te rohai) – possibly with elements inspired by southern mantis that Miyagi saw in China. This might be pure speculation, but it fits with the available evidence...

Next in Part 4: The origins of seiyunchin kata


1. See Mario McKenna’s article “So what did you think you were doing”.
2. See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic