Sunday, May 25, 2008

Taisabaki and tenshin - evasion in karate: Part 2

Further to Part 1 of this article...

I discuss how tenshin/taisabaki has been used as the foundation of our "embu" or 2-person forms in the article "Muidokan embu: 2 person forms for karate". That tenshin is a vital, yet largely forgotten, skill is something that I highlighted in Part 1 of this article.

Yet recently the value of tenshin (and accordingly our embu) has been debated on an online forum (in relation to our gekisai embu in particular). The argument is a considered and sophisticated one, but not one that is without answer. I will address it here because it is worthy of being dealt with comprehensively.

The correspondent (whose opinion I respect greatly) offered this viewpoint:

"Also, as far as taisabaki in the drill, this is where I think my training differs a bit from your approach, we do not spend much time doing any kind of circling movement as evasion, we practice the "getting small" and blending you see in many movements in Goju kata, we practice close in angles, and we practice going through and "splitting" the opponent in receiving techniques.While I can greatly respect your work Dan, the circling movements and almost aiki-style evasion (sorry if you don't like the term, I can't think of anything better to describe it at the moment) do not fit into my own understanding of Goju Ryu. That said, there are many different interpretations of Goju and I suppose that I wouldn't have it any other way. All in all what you're doing really looks great and it's a shame we are so geographically removed otherwise i'd definitely be wanting to visit!"

What most people misunderstand with our gekisai embu is that they are strictly for beginners - the tenshin (evasion) is larger, just like basic bunkai where you move 45 degrees back, etc. This is actually quite basic.

If you look at the seiyunchin embu the tenshin is very subtle - moving in and splitting angles very finely indeed. In our shisochin embu the evasion is even more abberviated.

In other words the evasion that the correspondent referred to (not unreasonably) as "aiki" is a basic: an enlarged or magnified movement. It functions just like most people's ippon kumite bunkai. However, just like basic blocks, the movements become smaller, more subtle in the higher kata. Understanding the basic tenshin lets you apply and understand far more subtle evasive skills.

In the internal martial arts this level of ability is taken for granted. Evasion is barely noticeable.

You'll note from Part 1 the 8 principle angles of evasion. However this description is, at best, a crude description that permits beginners to begin understanding evasion.

For example, we tend to use terms like 45 degrees back/forward. This is just a label for a complex angle that depends on the nature of the attack and the experience of the defender. In reality it could be just a sliver of an angle. And also, it might not involve just forward at an angle, nor sideways nor any one of these: it might involve a compound movement that varies during the movement itself. So I have found anyway.

In our school we have attempted to take all these factors into account as well as the student's level of ability in structuring our drills and syllabus. None of this is apparent to most casual observers - and unlike the particular correspondent in question who has offered a reasonable debate, many are just plain derogatory about our embu or other "tenshin" related training without offering any basis for their criticisms.

Nevertheless I always try to give critics the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't mean that I am not inwardly [censored] that someone has casually dismissed all my research, hard work and sincere efforts in a single line.

However I have often found that when I have let a person explain themselves a bit more, I've learned something I didn't know before...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Karate and the Chinese martial arts: Part 2

Continued from Part 1 of this article.

I doubt there is any information that will shed further light on the extent Chinese forms were adopted by Okinawan karate. To some extent, all we can do is conjecture.

Having said that, we can arrive somewhere by logical deduction.

It is interesting to note, for example, that Seisho Aragaki taught a form of sanchin, yet he did not study with Ryu Ryu Ko or with Shu Shi Wa. His kata (eg. Sochin and Niseishi) also have a lot of similarity to the kata of Kanryo Higaonna.

It is also odd that many karateka from Okinawa went to China and came back with a very similar art form - Norisato Nakaima, Kanryo Higaonna, Kanbun Uechi etc - regardless of when these visits were made (some were decades apart). The kata passed down by these men all have an identifiable stamp as being a common (or at least related) artform. This is odd, considering the changes that were taking place on the mainland between those visits (Boxer rebellion, natural evolution of art forms etc.).

The fact that the Okinawan community had a large expatriate base in Fujian may account for some of this (ie. it is known that Okinawans in Fujian continued to train in Okinawan karate while there - eg. Kojo family).

However it is also clear that many did study with Chinese teachers. The similarity between ryuei ryu and goju (despite the former being kept secret until the early 70s) tells us something. The fact that, say, seiyunchin is common to both systems might indicate a likelihood that it is a Ryu Ryu Ko kata, passed from Kanryo Higaonna to Miyagi - as is claimed in Morio Higaonna's book - and not a Miyagi innovation or something he learned on his own visits to China. There is even a startling similarity in the kata that are not common - eg. Anan clearly shares techniques with saifa and shisochin. This might also support the history in Morio Higaonna's book. On the other hand it might reveal no more than this: despite their studies in China, the Okinawans were reluctant to teach a “pure” Chinese form.

In the end I think that while Okinawans were taught certain kata in China, they either borrowed only elements or modified them to fit into their own systems. This is perhaps because they saw their own methods as being at least of equal worth to the Chinese. In other words, it seems likely to me that they were *adding* to their native Okinawa te - not replacing it.

Even if the sequence of a particular kata is quite faithful to the Chinese kata they were taught, the feel and method of movement has been altered. Try teaching a goju kata to a shotokan practitioner and you'll see what I mean - they convert it into their own framework unconsciously. Whenever I have learned a Chinese form I have been criticised for making it look too much like karate. On the other hand some kung fu students who have trained in our school still look like they are doing their own art when doing our kata - eg. their zenkutsu dachi looks the same, but not. Over time (and generations) the movements will further morph back into the practitioner's culture and look very little like the original. The technique will remain, but will be executed with a different style.

[For more information on this topic see also my article "Naha te and its Chinese cousins".]

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, May 16, 2008

Government regulation of martial arts

After 28 years of continuous training in the traditional martial arts I get quite annoyed when someone compares me to a bloke who started up his own school after training for less than a year (sometimes in some made up drivel). We in Australia share the "McDojo" trend - there a number of different kinds - that allow people to teach after only a trivial amount of training.

On the other hand, would I support some sort of government intervention/registration in relation to martial arts? No way!

Since I have worked in government law (specifically in the area of legislation) since 1990, I feel I am qualified to make this assessment of the regulation of martial arts: it cannot work.

Who would decide who is a "legitimate" martial artist and who is not? You and I might have an idea (and have substantially the same opinion), but would you trust some government appointed committee? The very bloke who comes to your door to “sell” you martial arts after 12 months training might be chairman! He might say that you and I are the charlatans...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grappling in karate kata

I think we all accept that karate kata contain some grappling methods, be they grabs, locks or throws. Otherwise the kata would not contain any subtle hand techniques - they would consist purely of punches and kicks with a few blocks thrown in. I am of the view that, like punches and kicks etc., the grappling techniques in kata are based on sound biomechanical principles. I also think that they are far more complex than many instructors currently understand. This may account for why some books say that grappling applications of karate kata are "crude" by comparison with, say, jujustsu. I have seen some very dubious applications accepted as mainstream, applications that are very crude to boot. On the other hand I have seen very effective and advanced grappling applications of the same movement that are far more appropriate.

The essential problem many people have with karate grappling applications is that these techniques are mostly performed by practitioners while standing up. In my view there is no reason that these techniques will not work on the ground. An application from a kata (eg. the gyaku shuto in geki sai) might be used to lock an opponent's arm while standing, but it works just as well on the ground.

I think there are only so many ways a human can move. I have yet to see a technique in grappling that does not fit, biomechanically, with movements in the kata. Call it revisonism if you will, but I call it understanding the principles in the kata. This is the road I choose to take. I choose to use my kata to understand how the body moves and why something works in one way and not in another. Perhaps the original kata creators did not envisage an "ura kote gaeshi" arising from the opening move of Seiyunchin, however what they did do was utilise the optimum angle for applying force to the opponent from a particular position. The ura kote gaeshi might be just one of many techniques that one can execute in that situation.

So by all means, look at other arts and learn from them. But go back to your kata. My experience is that they will give you a framework to "attach" all your knowledge in a way that is systematic within your own learning framework. Abandoning your kata or disparaging them means that you will be jumping horses mid race. More importantly, you will be rejecting the effectiveness of techniques that you use based on someone else's say - so (propoganda)? Let's not forget - in the end, fighting is fighting. There are only so many ways to skin a cat. The more I look the more convinced I am that effective martial arts all comes down to the same thing. The differences are merely cosmetic or a matter of emphasis. As the late Shihan Jan de Jong said to me about Brazilian Jujitsu: "It is all jujutsu. There is nothing new."

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sport karate

I continue to see "sport karate" and "self-defence karate" as 2 separate things. You can do them both, and they can look similar, but one is a very much pared back version of the other. It's like comparing classical music with pop.

Sport karate is like a demonstration one might prepare for an expo or festival - quite artificial and in many respects largely irrelevant to training for self-defence/combat. But does this mean it is worthless? Absolutely not.

Firstly the sport aspect is an end in itself. If it is what you enjoy, then do it. Secondly, there is some benefit even for combat purposes - putting yourself out of your comfort zone into a stressful situation is good training.

The flip side is that competition might also introduce a lot of bad habits for self defence. In "non contact", not guarding your head is a common one, pulling your punches is another.

In terms of the latter, a good mate of mine who was a shodan at a shotokan school was so used to non-contact kumite that when he got into a fight all his strikes either stopped short or contacted with no more than a light touch. He got his nose broken by a rank amateur after he “pulled” his punch. I have eschewed this type of "deliberate missing" ever since. Controlled punching is very different to deliberately executing a full punch that finishes 10-20 cm away from its target. This is probably the most dangerous "bad habit" you can get - and it comes from too much competition training.

Those who engage in "contact" sports have considerably more benefit, particularly as you experience (and learn how to take) blows. However contact practitioners also run the risk of bad habits (learning gloved fighting methods at the expense of bare fist, or becoming too used to rules, such as not punching/guarding against head punches in kyokushinkai “knockdown” karate are just 2).

Nevertheless, if a karateka knows the limitations of competition and puts it in perspective, competition can be beneficial.

On the other hand one might not care at all about "combat". I once trained with a taekwondo practitioner who, when considering goju's close range techniques, admitted that TKD high kicks were not as realistic for a packed bar-room attack. But as he said: "I just love doing high kicks anyway." Fair enough. (BTW, despite his comments, this mate of mine makes taekwondo as effective in close situations as any art I’ve encountered, proving that it is the martial artist, not the art that is important.)

My beef is with those who confuse competition karate with self-defence karate. Note that I use the word "self-defence" karate, not "traditional" karate: there are many who practice what I consider to be sport karate (ie. the techniques appropriate to sport karate) under the guise of "traditional" - the only difference being that they don't compete. They ignore bunkai (applications) of kata and just go through the moves, like a dance. Their sparring is just competition sparring - lots of distance and bouncing/dancing around and a very limited repertoire of basic techniques (usually reverse punch and thrusting mae geri) that bear little resemblance to the kata and bunkai that they learn (certainly no grappling). This is what I mean by a "pared back" version of karate.

If you enjoy competition karate, but go back to the dojo knowing that what is in competition is just a small facet of karate, then you can't go wrong.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Karate and the Chinese martial arts: Part 1


Graham Ravey of the TOGKF said to us many times his view that goju-ryu karate was essentially a Chinese art. What did he mean?

Well certainly many researchers are somewhat dubious about just how much “Chinese” is in Okinawan karate, including such respected writers as Mario McKenna (see "What did you think you were doing?"). However I think they are commenting on whether exact sequences have survived intact in their transmission from China to the Ryukyu islands and whether they are practised with the same emphasis and style as they were in China.

Clearly the exact forms have diverged. Furthermore the influence of Okinawan culture on the kata must have left a profound impact on the way they manifest today.

However the fact that they owe their origins to China is undeniable – in much the same way as I think it is self-evident that no matter how human races have diverged in appearance, culture and beliefs, they share an common ancestry.


Experience in martial arts may help an instructor identify a relationship between techniques in karate (in my case goju) and those in the Chinese external and internal martial arts - even if those techniques are not obviously similar. Whether or not the instructor is correct in discerning such a relationship is, of course, a matter of opinion. As James Sumarac (of Gojukensha/Kakurinkan) said to me recently, there are some people's opinions he would trust, others he would not (incidentally we were speaking about the fact that we felt inclined to trust the opinions of the late, great Chen Pan Ling of Taiwan, master of the 3 internal arts and various Shaolin external arts and arguably one of the most respected and famous masters in modern Chinese history – more about him later).

In terms of a comparison with the internal arts, my first and primary instructor, Bob Davies (founder of the Wu-Shin Chi-Dao International Martial Arts College) was later a private student of the late Hong Yi Xiang of Taiwan. He made certain observations about goju techniques after studying certain internal movements (particularly from xingyi) that were aimed at producing a similar result/effect. I happen to trust (and share) his opinions.

I have in recent years had the honour of studying directly under Chen Yun Ching and Chen Yun Chow of Taiwan (sons of Chen Pan Ling) and hope to continue studying with them in the future. My experience of their arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan (systems partly inherited by Hong Yi Xiang) has given me fresh insight (correct or otherwise) into goju techniques.

When you are presented with the xingyi way of, say, deflecting a straight line attack using a rising or falling circular deflection, you might find there is very little difference in their result in comparison to deflections found in, say, seiyuchin and seisan. Your focus might then shift to the most efficient angle of interception, the most efficient part of your palm/forearm and the most efficient timing in executing the application of the technique, rather than to debating the formalities of a kata move.

The fidelity of Okinawan kata to their Chinese ancestral forms

My take on the Chinese roots of Okinawan kata (as currently practised) is this:

The katas may have been modified extensively, but their individual components (ie. the techniques themselves) have remained more or less the same. There are only so many ways to skin a cat, as they say. Consider the techniques of BJJ and classical jujutsu and I'm sure you'll see they have the same components - it is merely the order/methodology/technology of teaching/practising that is different.

Chen Pan Ling, who studied and collated the various principal forms of taiji in China before the Communist takeover, says in his book on taijiquan that most of the variations he saw were sound, reflecting a mere preference on the part of the instructor. Only in a few cases did the variations constitute mistakes - ie. technical errors that could not translate into a valid method of, say, putting someone into an arm bar or striking to the carotid sinus.

And so it goes with karate, specifically goju. Most variations of kata I have seen are not "wrong". The individual techniques are quite valid. It's just that the particular school emphasises one application over another. Sometimes this reflects the founder's build, sometimes a particular philosophy, sometimes a favoured tactic etc. On rare occasions I have seen a version of a kata that has movements that are, in my view, biodynamically or technically wrong/inefficient/daft.

Accordingly it seems to me that it is appropriate to focus on the techniques contained in kata - not on the sequences in which they are arranged. If a technique in a kata is biodynamically sound and reflects a variety of realistic applications (all of which clearly come out of the same essential movement), then this may well reflect ancient knowledge. Ultimately the question is, "does it work?" If it does, examining whether the the technique (eg, "single whip" which occurs fairly consistently in all the schools of taijiquan) reflects some deeper knowledge of electromagnetism, chakras, the phases of the moon, Buddhist/Daoist methods etc. might offer you some insight into why it works, but then again it might not. The answer might be a great deal more simple (Ockham's razor and all that). I'm always open minded.

Some of my preliminary conclusions

So what is the "original" way in which the fundamental techniques were performed (eg. mawashi uke/tora guchi)?

As I noted earlier, my teacher spent a great deal of time cross-referencing goju with the internal arts to reach his own conclusions on what is the "original" way of doing a particular goju technique. I have my own views on this based on my own study of the internal arts. Ultimately all we can do is each have our own "gut feeling" (influenced by our own technical background and preferences), but we'll never really know one way or the other.

A recent example debated on the net is our “tensho kakie” as set out in the video below.

In that particular case Taiwanese crane techniques corresponding with the moves in tensho have given me fresh insight into the meaning of that kata.

Here is yet another example of Chinese influence on goju kata: consider the final move of shisochin: the taisabaki employed in that move is to step towards the opponent (arguably at an angle) then pivot into a neko ashi dachi and employ a double chest and downward block reminiscent of moves done in Wing Chun and Southern preying mantis – both derivatives of white crane.

I have copped some criticism of my interpretation of this move as being “just wing chun”. However I feel that this sort of criticism ignores that karate and wing chun are related (albeit distantly). In this regard I note specifically researcher Akio Kinjo’s view that shisochin may well mean “cricket battle” in the Amoy dialect indicating that it is descended from Southern preying mantis (see Mario McKenna's article "Higaonna Kanryo and Nahate"). In those cases you would expect the bunkai reflect some similarity in application to arts such as wing chun.

Indeed most bunkai I have seen of this move in karate circles ignore completely the taisabaki (step forward and pivot). Instead the applications rely on completely different footwork that is not even implied in the kata. The double block is often performed as a downward block and a rising inverted nukite (finger thrust). I’m not saying this application is necessarily wrong: I just don’t see it as a primary application. My view is that the footwork gives you a strong clue as to just what the primary application was intended to be.

For other examples of a “Chinese” analysis of goju techniques I refer you to my article in relation to "sokumen awase" in the kata seiyunchin and sanseru.

In future articles I hope to analyse other specific karate techniques from a Chinese (particularly internal) martial arts perspective.

Go to Part 2 of this article.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Taisabaki and tenshin - evasion in karate: Part 1

"Taisabaki" means body movement. Most schools however use this term to refer to a type of body shifting the goal of which is to move in relation to the attacker both to avoid a blow and gain a position of advantage. Certainly that is how we used the term “taisabaki” when I was first taught in my "home" dojo.

However, translated literally the term “taisabaki” or “sabaki” might mean any kind of body movement – including stepping up and down the floor in zenkutsu (forward stance) for that matter.

It is my view that the Okinawan word "tenshin" is more accurate to cover evasive body movement. It encompasses any kind of evasion - whether the feet move away from their position or not.

“Embusen” is a term generally used to refer to the directions of movement in a kata although some use that term to describe the angles of evasion. There are 8 principal angles of evasion — 10 if you count up and down and more if you factor in compound movements such as "weaving”.

There are also multiple ways in which those angles can be attacked (ie. stepping, lunging, pivoting, stepping and pivoting, stepping and turning etc.) Then there is also the question of what stances are used, where weight is distributed at a particular point, and so on.

Stepping 45 degree back in zenkutsu/sanchin/neko was the first tenshin I was taught. Soon afterwards I was taught the "open door" evasion (ie. pivoting on the spot so that you slip your attacker’s blow and end up “side-on”).

Kata have within them advanced forms of tenshin – both manifest and necessarily implied. A source of study for me in recent years has been deconstructing the kata with a view to examining the different tenshin that arise, particularly in bunkai.

It is precisely these tenshin that we have used as the foundation of our “embu” (2 person drills) for each kata. In future articles I hope to examine specific tenshin from kata in more detail. For now those who are interested can download a summary of tenshin from kata up to sanseru here:

I am amazed at how many karateka look blankly at me when I refer to particular tenshin (such as the one I call "opening the door"). Many are surprised to find that one can do more than step straight backward in zenkutsu. I think this is very lamentable given the importance of tenshin in karate.

Graham Ravey (head of the TOGKF) said to me back in 1989 that tenshin is at the core of goju-ryu yet it is a largely forgotten skill. I respectfully agree with him. Deconstructing a kata by reference to the tenshin, in particular the footwork, gives surprising insights into kata. [The picture to the right shows Graham Ravey during a seminar in Perth in 2004.]

Go to Part 2 of this article.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 1


In recent years various prominent martial arts researchers have postulated that goju-ryu kata fall into 2 groups that come from different sources:

The first is “cluster H”, being kata that were taught to Chojun Miyagi by Kanryo Higaonna and consisting of:

sanchin (Higaonna style)

The second is “cluster M”, being kata that Chojun Miyagi acquired, or developed from material acquired, from a different source and consisting of:

(as well as the gekisai kata and tensho that Miyagi is known to have created).

The theory and its supporting arguments were recently published in an article a few months back in Journal of Asian Martial Arts (16:4, 2007) entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of Goju-Ryu Kata Structures” by Fernando Camara and Mario McKenna.

For those who cannot access the article, you’ll get the gist of Mario McKenna’s argument here: on his blog1. Researcher Joe Swift explores what is principally the same theory in his Meibukan Magazine article "The Kempo of Kume Village"2.

Oral evidence

The principal sources for this theory are Shigekazu Kanzaki and Katsumi Murakami, who were both students of Juhatsu Kyoda, Kanryo Higaonna’s most senior student and Chojun Miyagi’s sempai.

Their evidence is that, according to Kyoda, Higaonna only taught 4 kata — ie. cluster H. In other words, Juhatsu Kyoda was never taught the katas that comprise cluster M.

This is supported by the fact that today Kyoda’s school of tou’ on ryu (tou’on being another way of pronouncing the characters of Kanryo Higaonna’s name) does not teach cluster M. Instead the tou’on ryu syllabus teaches cluster H (with the exception of seisan — they teach Kanyu Higaonna’s version, not Kanryo Higaonna’s), together with Gokenki’s nepai and the shorin ryu kata jion.

As far as I am aware none of Higaonna's other students who went on to study with Miyagi (eg. Seiko Higa) claimed to have learned cluster M directly from Higaonna. In Seiko Higa's case his sanseru (from cluster H) has small, but significant, differences to Miyagi's. The same does not appear to be the case in relation to any cluster M kata.

Similarly, ryuei-ryu's cluster M kata are very close to goju's (closer in some respects than even shito-ryu). While they claim their kata were passed down from Ru Ru Ko to Norisato Nakaima then Kenko Nakaima, I find this unlikely in the extreme - one would inevitably expect a far greater difference if this were be true. Rather I think it is almost certain that Kenko Nakaima also learned his cluster M kata from Miyagi or one of Miyagi's students.

In the end, it seems that Miyagi was the only person to have taught cluster M (assuming I am correct about Mabuni and Nakaima). Even if Higaonna passed all the cluster M down to Miyagi, he did not do so to anyone else (again, assuming I am correct about Mabuni and Nakaima). So the “cluster M” tag would be accurate in this sense at least.

But why would Higaonna teach an extra 5 kata to one student (Miyagi) and not teach them to any other student — including his most senior student, Kyoda? And when would he have done so? It is known that Miyagi tended to Higaonna in his final years of ill health. Was it then? Would his health have permitted it?

On this issue Mario McKenna1 postulates that Miyagi didn't even learn sanseiru from Higaonna because —

(a) the tou'on ryu version is significantly different; and
(b ) it seems that Miyagi was away on military service when Kyoda was taught it.

In Morio Higaonna’s book “The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju Ryu” the author recounts a story of how Miyagi went to China and met a man who claimed to have studied from Ryu Ryu Ko. When asked to demonstrate his kata Miyagi agreed, but left out sanseru because it was his “least favourite”. The Chinese gentleman commented that the kata were the same, but that he had left one out — and then proceeded to demonstrate sanseru.3

Is it possible that Miyagi didn’t demonstrate sanseru because he didn’t know it at that point? Might he have learned his version of sanseiru from the gentleman to whom he was demonstrating kata?

In any event, I actually find it odd that Miyagi would have demonstrated 8 kata. I've been asked to demonstrate forms to Chinese stylists and the most I have ever managed is 3.

Determining kata origins by technical deconstruction

For my part I've come to the view that kata origins can be determined by deconstruction of technique.

I liken this process to DNA sampling to determine human origins. For example many early researchers postulated that the indigenous people of Honshu in Japan, the Ainu, were Caucasian or perhaps related to the north American native population. These were reasonable assumptions given their totem/animist culture and physical appearance. However DNA analysis shows that they belong to the Y-haplogroup D common to some areas of Tibet and, curiously, the Andaman Islands of the Indian ocean! Their links to Caucasian or North American people are far more distant.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, in a similar way, kata deconstruction shows surprising (and in my view, persuasive) evidence contradicting "conventional" history.

In the case of the present issue, I feel that this deconstruction strongly contradicts “conventional history” and supports the theory espoused by Messrs McKenna, Camara and Swift.

So what do I mean by “kata deconstruction”?

Essentially I’m referring to a detailed analysis of —

(a) the overall structure/design, including the embusen (pattern and direction), sequence, repetition and right or left side bias on one hand, or symmetry on the other; and

(b) the individual techniques employed in the kata (their nature and emphasis) , including ashi sabaki (footwork) and tenshin (evasion).

Architecture and design differences between clusters H and M

In my mind there is no doubt that, from a architectural/design/structural perspective the katas comprising cluster H come from a different school than those comprising cluster M. I would guess that the latter are of later (post boxer rebellion) origin, where the former date from before the boxer rebellion. Why? Principally cluster H is asymmetrical (ie. right side biased) while cluster M has a consistent level of symmetry.

Essentially the design of both clusters H and M can, broadly speaking, be classified has having the following “modules”:

Module A (an opening sequence of techniques)
Module B1
Module B2
Module B3 etc. (repeating sequences of techniques along an x or + pattern)
Module C (a closing technique or sequence of techniques)

However this is largely where the similarity ends.

Cluster H

In the case of cluster H Module A consists of an opening sequence of 3 chudan uke and punches, terminating with a transitionary move.

The following B modules tend to have a level of repetition, but all on one side. In other words, there is no attempt at symmetry in cluster H (reminiscent of, say, arts such as Yong Chun baihe (white crane).

Module C is a combination of finishing moves constituting the double ko uke / fuk sau in sanseru and suparinpei or the neko ashi dachi in the case of sesan. It is worth noting that the tou’on ryu version of sanseru does not finish with the double ko uke / fuk sau, but instead finishes with a neko ashi dachi like seisan.

Cluster M

In the case of cluster M, module A also consists of an opening move or moves except in the case of kururnfa (which launches straight into a B module). In sepai the opening module is quite extended and contains no repetition while in the remaining kata it constitutes 3 moves.

Shisochin has the most “cluster H like” opening because it features 3 sanchin steps with blocks and thrusts (albeit open-handed). Many speculate that this gives it some nexus with cluster H, however I disagree. It is true that the cluster H opening moves might originally have been performed open-handed, however I think the techniques were more likely performed in the manner of uechi-ryu, eg. the thrusts were palm down. The hand positioning on the blocks and pullbacks is also subtly, but significantly, different. Otherwise shisochin is very much of the same design as the cluster M kata.

The B modules of cluster M are generally a series of techniques that are repeated equally on both the left and right side. Again, kururnfa is the only exception insofar as it contains a B module that is asymmetrical (the breakout and throw – perhaps this is module A relocated).

Otherwise, as with cluster H, module C comprises a finishing move ending in neko ashi dachi (an ending that seems common to Fujian forms regardless of pre-boxer or post boxer creation), with a mawashi uke and tora guchi in 2 kata, namely saifa and kururnfa. The double ko uke / fuk sau does not occur.

For an insight into what sanseiru might look like if it were a designed along cluster M lines, take a look at my article: "Asymmetry in sanseiru".

In my research I have found that 3 opening movements are common in monk fist/arhat boxing systems, perhaps because of Buddhist symbolism. It seems to me that older Fujian systems of martial arts also tend to be asymmetrical, where newer ones tend to have a level of symmetry (perhaps indicating an influx of different schools to Fujian to replace those that had been purged in the aftermath of the rebellion).

Technical differences

In terms of the individual techniques there are also significant differences:

Cluster H tends to focus more on harder (ie. “go”) techniques of striking and thrusting, delivered with a sharper and crisper execution.

Cluster M on the other hand has a greater percentage of softer (“ju”) techniques involving grappling and controlling and these are performed with a more “whip-like” action (consider kururnfa and saifa for instance).

The variety of technique is also greater in the cluster M case; you would be hard pressed to find a substantial “double up” of techniques in any 2 cluster M kata, while cluster H is the opposite: The sukui uke (scooping block) and hike uke combination is repeated 4 to 5 times in sesan and suparinpei, the yoko geri kekomi kansetsu occurs before turning in sesan and sanseru, the double ko uke / fuk sau in sanseru and suparinpei, etc.

The only real overlap between the cluster H and cluster M kata can be found in the sukui / ura nukite combination found at the beginning of seiunchin and after the tora guchi in suparinpei, however I think this is more readily explicable by “cross-pollination” than by common historical roots, especially when you consider the technical focus in the rest of the form…

Coming in Part 2:

Factors that might explain the “traditional” or “standard” history
Did Kanryo Higaonna even learn cluster H from Ryu Ryu Ko (Xie Zhong Xiang)?
Where and when could Miyagi have possibly picked up cluster M?
Gokenki’s influence on Miyagi


1 See Mario McKenna's article "Higaonna Kanryo and Nahate"
2 See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6
3 See The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-ryu by Morio Higaonna Thousand Oaks, CA: Dragon Books, 1995

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic