The White Crane Style

In spite of his fighting skills in Monk Fist Boxing, a vicious gang wallop Fang Zhonggong and later he died from his injuries. His daughter Fang Qiniang vowed revenge on her father’s murderers. But how could she defeat them when they beat her own father, her teacher in Monk’s Fist so badly? She pondered this question while mourning her loss.

One day, Fang Qiniang spotted two cranes fighting in a bamboo grove outside her home. She tried to frighten them off with a long pole, but they evaded her with ease. Although small and delicate, they defended themselves with precise and strategic maneuvers.

Finally, she had the answer to her question.

Through careful study of the instinctive defensive movements of the white crane, Fang Qiniang “came to understand the central principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.” When she combined these new revelations with her father’s Monk Fist techniques, she created the White Crane style of kungfu.

So goes the legend of Fang Qiniang, as related in the opening sentences of the Okinawan Bubishi. A woman founded The White Crane style on “principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.” The white crane is elusive, until suddenly, it strikes. Inner force of spirit must come with physical strength. The traditional Okinawan styles of karate later incorporated these ideas.

White Crane, kung-fu, Guan Fa
By BinViper (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gichin Funakoshi – Father of Modern Karate

Chōjun Miyagi’s “hard-soft style,” Gōjū-ryū, uses “hard” closed hand techniques and straight linear attacks, along with “soft” open hand techniques and circular movements. People originally called Kanbun Uechi’s Uechi-ryū as Pangai-noon, or “half-hard, half-soft,” while they originally called Kenwa Mabuni’s Shitō-ryū as Hanko-ryū, or “half-hard.”

As for Gichin Funakoshi, paying homage to karate’s roots was clearly not a high priority. His Shōtōkan style developed towards employing predominantly “hard” techniques, in contrast to the “hard-soft styles” descended from Chinese martial arts. To make karate more appealing to the mainland Japanese, he instituted changes that today form the spine of modern karate.

The “father of modern karate” Gichin Funakoshi at practice
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The “father of modern karate” Gichin Funakoshi at rest
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Tou Ti

Starting from 1879, when Meiji Japan annexed the Ryūkyū Kingdom, many of Okinawa’s native traditions were proscribed. Especially anything with strong cultural ties to China, such as tou ti (唐手), which at that time was known as “Chinese hand.” In the beginning of the 20th century, they teach tou ti as martial gymnastics in classrooms. But it would never be the same again. It had been passed down from master to student in complete secrecy for generations. Now many students studied it in open classrooms. The peasant farmers began to learn tou ti as well. The days of the Pechin’s exclusive practice of Okinawan fighting arts were over.

In the Spring of 1922, Japanese invited Gichin Funakoshi to Tokyo to give a demonstration of tou ti. The demonstration was a success, so Funakoshi remained in Tokyo to continue teaching. In November 1922, he published a book《琉球拳法唐手》on Ryūkyūan tou ti, still using the moniker “Chinese hand.” That same month—according to legend—a tournament was held in Kyoto, in which Chōki Motobu, a fierce fighter with royal Okinawan blood, knocked out a hulking Russian strongman using a single hand strike to the head.

Sensational! With this proof of the power of tou ti, the Japanese were keen to learn more. Capitalizing on this growing interest, other great masters of tou ti, such as Kenwa Mabuni, Chōjun Miyagi, and Kanbun Uechi, moved to mainland Japan to teach their own respective styles. They all sought to spread their knowledge and popularize tou ti—an attitude of openness fitting for the modern age.

Karate school circa 1923
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Karate school in modern times
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Tou Ti Became Karate

Inevitably, the popularization of tou ti brought many changes. Gichin Funakoshi realized that he would have to make tou ti seem less foreign and more Japanese. The name “Chinese hand” would have to go not least because Sino-Japanese relations were in free fall at the time.

In fact, people already called tou ti (唐手) as karate in Japanese. Funakoshi simply promoted a switch of characters: he changed 唐 (“Tang” or “Chinese”) into 空 (“Empty”). People pronounce both characters as kara in Japanese, so the pronunciation didn’t change, merely the written form and meaning. This seemingly trivial name change was a controversial move at the time, raising deeply thorny questions about identity, history, and tradition. Okinawan martial arts community took many years to fully accepted it.

Of course, there were other reasons to support such a change—“the way of the empty hand” is a poetic name, after all, reflecting the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Funakoshi wrote in his book Karate-do Nyumon (空手道入門):

Just as an empty valley can carry a resounding voice, so must the person who follows the way of karate make himself void or empty…Make yourself empty within, but upright without. This is the real meaning of the “empty” in karate. [In this sense] karate explicitly states the basis of all the martial arts. Form equals emptiness; emptiness equals form.

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Japanese Karate

Whatever Funakoshi’s motivations, his efforts helped transform “Chinese hand” (唐手) into “the way of the empty hand” (空手道). Ryūkyūan tou ti (琉球唐手) became Okinawan karate (冲绳空手), and later—Japanese karate, once it was fully assimilated into Japanese culture as a traditional Japanese martial art.

For his role in making karate palatable to the masses, Funakoshi is known as the “father of modern karate.” In addition to renaming tou ti to karate, he renamed katas to sound more pleasing to the Japanese. He incorporated elements of kendo, or Japanese fencing, into his approach to fighting. And he moved away from the “hard-soft style” of his peers toward a more linear, external, “hard” style. His campaign to popularize Okinawan fighting arts in Japan contributed to the creation of a new, more Japanese identity for karate (空手道).

Nowadays, the average layman associates karate almost entirely with Japan, unaware that it was actually birthed from a synthesis of Okinawan and Chinese martial arts.

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