THE CHINESE CONNECTION
Black Belt|June/July 2021
Critical Look at Chojun Miyagi’s ndmark 1936 Lecture on the rigins of Karate
GARY J. GARRAHAN

We know that karate was developed in the Ryukyu Islands, an archipelago located southwest of Japan. The largest of the Ryukyu is, of course, Okinawa.

The people of the Ryukyu shared a common ancestry with the people of Japan and spoke a language, called Uchinaguchi, that had a common origin with the language of Japan. This is why many of the words we use in karate are actually Uchinaguchi words. 1

Before 1429, there were three warring factions on Okinawa: Hokuzan (literally, “northern mountain”), Chuzan (“middle mountain”) and Nanzan (“southern mountain”). In 1429 Chuzan emerged victorious, and all the Ryukyu Islands became unified under its first king, Sho Hashi.

But precisely when on this timeline did karate develop? The origins of the art are obscure — and have been made even more so by the passage of time and the spread of myths and misconceptions. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, addressed this subject:

“Inasmuch as there is no written material on the early history of karate, we do not know who invented and developed it, nor even, for that matter, where it originated and evolved. Its earliest history may only be inferred from ancient legends that have been handed down to us by word of mouth, and they, like most legends, tend to be imaginative and probably inaccurate.” 2

In 1936 Chojun Miyagi, the founder of goju karate, gave a lecture in Osaka, Japan, titled “Karate-do Gairyaku,” or “General Explanation of Karate-do.” In one section that dealt with the history of karate, Miyagi stated that it has its roots in the Chinese martial arts:

“The name karate is a special term in Okinawa, and if we look for its origin, we find it can be traced to Chinese boxing.” 3

Later in the lecture, Miyagi discussed the major theories concerning the introduction of the Chinese martial arts:

“How was Chinese boxing introduced to the Ryukyu Islands? There is no definitive historical evidence, but there are many theories. The three main theories are:

• The 36-Men Theory. This theory asserts that in 1392, 36 Chinese men came to the Ryukyu Islands and introduced Chinese boxing to the Ryukyu people.

• The Oshima-Note Theory. In 1762 a Ryukyu ship bound for mainland Japan was forced ashore by a storm at Oshima in Tosa, a province of Shikoku Island. Among the crew was an intellectual named Shiohira Pechin Seisei, who talked about the Ryukyu Islands and their people to a native scholar of Tosa Province, Choki Tobe. The latter recorded the conversation in a notebook, which was titled Oshima Hikki (Oshima Note). In the third volume of the Oshima Note, a section of gossip entitled ‘Skillful Boxer’ relates that a Chinese boxer by the name of Kusanku traveled to the Ryukyu Islands with his students and practiced what, at that time, was called kumiai-jutsu (combat techniques). This book, then, contains some of the most reliable literature about the origins of karate in the Ryukyu Islands.

• The After-Keicho Theory. In the year Keicho 14 (1609), the Satsuma clan conquered the Ryukyu Islands and established a regime based on brutal repression. Official policy prohibited ownership or use of weapons. One theory has it that for lack of better means of protection, the art of karate developed naturally among the defenseless Okinawans. Another theory asserts that it was during this time of crisis that karate was actually introduced.”4

Let us consider each of these possible explanations.

THE 36-MEN THEORY

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