Shaolin Five Animals

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

In the development of Okinawan Karate there have been three main influences. First of all is the unique Okinawan aspect, which can be symbolized by the term Te. Te, which is usually simply translated hand, has a secondary meaning of skill, which the martial artists of Okinawa strove to develop in an abundant fashion in regard to their fighting ability. At least one Okinawan historian claims that it was by martial arts skills and strategy, that the kings of Okinawa held their post, until the occupation by the Satsuma in 1609. Those belonging to the royal families developed special skills, which included certain ‘secrets’, which were passed on only to family members. These royal martial artists protected their skills and maintained a level of secrecy that existed until modern times.

Minamoto Bujutsu

A second influence came from certain members of the Minamoto family of Japan, who after the Hogen Incident, used Okinawa as a staging area, in preparation of a return engagement against the Taira. It is believed that while the Minamoto trained in their arts, they also shared their skills with the Okinawan royalty. There are several reasons why they might have done this. First of all, some of the leaders and Samurai married Okinawans during this stay on the island, thus to share the art with them was simply to share the art with family members. Second, in case of an attack by the Taira, who were too busy taking care of business in Japan proper to care about the group on Okinawa, the Minamoto wanted their Okinawan allies capable of fighting effectively by their sides. Finally it is believed that the Minamoto thought of their martial arts as a very special treasure, which they shared with the Okinawan royalty for giving them sanctuary.

Shaolin Chuan Fa – Shorin Kempo

The third influence, which has been greatly emphasized in the past, is the Chugoku Kempo influence. Chugoku Kempo, Chinese martial arts, were believed first brought to Okinawa from monks spreading the Buddhist religion. The original date of when Chugoku Kempo first entered Okinawa is unknown, but it is believed that the ancient fist art of Shaolin entered Okinawa early and contributed to the primary use of the fist as an Okinawan weapon. Prior to the sixteenth century, Shaolin Chuan Fa was mainly a palm and fist art. In the sixteenth century Chueh Yuan expanded the Shaolin Chuan Fa, along with Li Cheng and Pai Yu Feng, into the 170 movements and the five animals, which are famous today.

In order to understand how the five animal form of Shaolin Chuan Fa, pronounced Shorin Kempo in Japanese, became such a great influence in Okinawan Karate it is necessary to look at three of the great Okinawan masters of the past and see their training and emphasis in teaching. These three masters are; Sakugawa, Chojun Miyagi, and Zenryo Shimabuku.

Sakugawa – Great Master of Karate

Sakugawa is credited with opening the first Dojo in Okinawa. His training began with Te under the old warrior turned monk Takahara. It is believed this art was a combination of ancient Okinawan martial arts and Minamoto martial arts. During this time the Okinawans were very interested in the martial arts skills of the Chinese who were living on their island and trading with them from the main land. Sakugawa began training under a Chinese man by the name of Kushanku. There are many disagreements as to what Kushanku was, some say a business man, others a military attaché, and still others a monk. Regardless of who he was and what he did, nearly everyone agrees that he taught a version of Shaolin Chuan Fa, most generally thought to be of the Hung Chuan variety.

It is said that Sakugawa merged Te and Kempo creating what was then called Tode or Karate, meaning Tang hand. On his deathbed, Takahara called Sakugawa to his side and instructed his student to open a public school, so that anyone wanting to learn the martial arts, could have the opportunity to do so. It is believed that until that time, only if your parents were royalty and knew martial arts, or if you were fortunate enough to convince a monk or visiting Chinese martial artist to train you, or the least of the methods, convincing one of the sailors who had picked up some martial arts skills during trade voyages to teach you, could you learn martial arts. It is said that Takahara, having once kept skills secret as a warrior, saw the real value in the arts for all people during the time he was a monk, and thus instructed his top disciple, Sakugawa, to open a public school. This is why Sakugawa found it necessary to set forth the Dojo Kun, a code of conduct for a school.

Having trained in the Hung style of Shaolin martial arts, Sakugawa would have been greatly influenced by the Hung family's attitudes, which included the idea that the white crane skills were of the highest level of martial arts. That is why today you can find Shorin Ryu styles that teach the white crane as their 'inner secret'. Interestingly enough, other Shorin Ryu styles promote the dragon as the highest level of skills, which is reflected in northern Shaolin Chuan Fa systems. This points to the fact that at some time northern Shaolin Chuan Fa also entered Okinawa, and not just the southern Shaolin styles, of which Hung Chuan is a branch.

Many styles of Shorin Ryu especially point to the fact that the white crane skills included grappling which have been hidden in the modern Karate Kata that are a part of modern Okinawan development. It should be noted that while the Okinawans adopted many skills from the Chinese influence, they did not accept any forms directly from the Chinese source, but rather, in modern times created their own Kata.

Chojun Miyagi – Master of Strength and Gentleness

The second master to greatly increase the use of Shaolin five animal skills in Okinawan Karate is Chojun Miyagi. Miyagi studied under Kanryo Higashionna who had studied Hung Chuan under a Chinese master known as Ryu Ryu Ko. Miyagi, while a young man, decided to travel to China to study under Ryu Ryu Ko, as his master had done, but upon visiting there, could not find him. However during that one-year visit he did train in Hsing I, Pa Kua, Tai Chi, and a composite art known as I Chuan. It is believed that he also trained under a man by the name of Goken Ki, who was also a Hung Chuan master who especially emphasized the white crane aspect of the art. When Miyagi created the Kata for his style of Goju Ryu, he emphasized the soft movements he had learned in the internal systems he had studied in China with the white crane movements of the Hung Chuan. He also developed the grappling exercise of Kakie from the white crane grappling techniques and it is believed from his Tai Chi study, along with his study of the Okinawan grappling skills from Choyu Motobu.

Zenryo Shimabuku – Master Kicker

The other notable Okinawan master who added much to Okinawan Karate from the Shaolin martial arts is Zenryo Shimabuku. His main teacher had been Chotoku Kyan, who many consider the actual founder of Shorin Ryu. Kyan was very famous as a great kicker and fighter in spite of the fact that he was a very small man. It is said that Shimabuku also loved to kick and sought to constantly improve his kicking skills. Finally, having been told of the great influence of Chinese Chuan Fa on Okinawan Karate, he traveled to China where he studied northern Shaolin Chuan Fa. The kicking techniques of the white crane, dragon, and snake, were especially influential in Shimabuku's training. Upon returning to Okinawa he joined in forming the Okinawan Kempo Association with Shigeru Nakamura, and was very influential is having kicking skills improved and expanded in many Karate curriculums.

Go Ken – Five Fists (meaning the Five Animals)

Looking at the five animals, it is possible to see the actual influence, which the Shaolin Chuan Fa had upon Okinawan Karate. It is important as well to realize that Okinawan martial arts were already highly developed before the Chinese influence and that it was the variety of hand techniques, kicks, and finesse that drew the Okinawans into an in-depth study of the Chinese martial arts. Each of the five animals have something specific, which the Okinawans absorbed into their art. However, one particular point needs to be acknowledged, even as the Okinawans absorbed elements of other countries martial arts into their own, they did so with their own particular flavor. No Okinawan art is merely the transplanted martial art of another country, rather the Okinawan arts are the techniques adapted from other martial arts systems into the skills of the Okinawan warriors and martial artists. It is accurate to say that the ancient art of Bushi Te, the warrior art, was adapted from Aikijujutsu of the Minamoto clan, yet it is distinctly it's own creation, based on the genius of the Okinawan Bushi. Ancient Karate, the Tang hand, is very much adapted from Chinese Kempo, and yet it is not simply the Chinese art relocated, but revamped into a truly Okinawan creation.

Leopard – Fist

We may see some of the Chinese influence by looking at the typical movements of the animals, and how they were changed by the Okinawans for their own use. Let us begin with the Leopard. Since the leopard is the most fist oriented of the five animals, it was already in harmony with the fist art of Okinawa, which was influenced by the ancient Shaolin Chuan Fa, Shorin Kempo. In a typical example of the leopard punch, the arms from the wide position are swung close to the body and then out in the delivery of the strike. The Okinawans refined this, bringing the fists to load at the hips, and torqueing the body in the execution of the punch. It is easy to see how the Okinawans refined their punch from the Chinese movement. Primarily this is the contribution the Okinawans made to the martial arts, whether the techniques came from Japan or China, the Okinawan masters sought the most efficient and direct method of delivery.

The inside forearm block of Okinawan Karate is also derived from a leopard technique. But where the Chinese tend to extend the arm a little more at the elbow, the Okinawans kept the arm bent tighter at the elbow, preferring not to extend it past a 90 degree angle, this was then whipped into the attackers arm for a more punishing strike. The inside forearm block also was used as a soft parry when the Okinawan martial artist wanted to blend into a softer technique.

White Crane – Open Hand

In an example of the white crane, the Chinese martial artist might once again begin with the arms spread like wings, and then shift to a block and counted attack with the heel of the hand. The Okinawan would more likely keep a tighter defense and as the block is executed, load the striking hand onto their hip, and then strike from there. In kicking the arms might once again be ‘wing’ like in a Chinese variation, but the Okinawans choose to keep the hands in close, in order to protect the body. Many say that Okinawan styles of Karate do not kick above the waist, however, this is erroneous in that many Okinawans were famous for their kicks. Such masters as Chotoku Kyan, Zenryo Shimabuku, and Bushi Takemura, have gone down in history as incredible kickers. The actual Okinawan attitude is for each practitioner to develop all the general skills associated with Okinawan martial arts, and then for the individual to excel in whatever their forte might be, such as kicking, or throwing, or punching. However, the rule was always be good at everything.

Tiger – Claw

In many of the tiger strikes, the Chinese tend towards both hand striking simultaneously, while the Okinawans are more inclined to strike with one hand so that the entire power of the body could be generated in the strike. One of the misconception currently being stated today by some martial artists, is that the retracting hand of Okinawan Karate was nothing more than a mistake, or a method used to teach beginners, that had no validity in real combat. This is very far from the truth. The returning hand along with the torque of the body that should accompany it, is in fact an excellent way of generating power in actual combat. Many have missed the timing and rhythm necessary to make the actual use of this skill possible and so deride it. However, before anyone ever discards such excellent techniques, they need to train hard in their use and discover the validity for themselves and not allow others to make the decisions for them.

The retracting hand is also a specific type of grappling movement. It can be used to grab and twist, create wrist circles, and break an opponents balance for the application of takedowns and throws. The Okinawans had all types of grappling skills. Some were derived from the Minamoto Bujutsu, other were from the Chin Na of Shaolin and Tai Chi, while some were created through the genius of the Okinawan masters themselves.

Snake – Fingertips

The snake is another technique, which the Okinawans refined down to a smaller movement. Most snake strikes in Karate have taken on the aspect of Nukite, penetrating hand, strikes. But due to the fact that they are generally aimed at vital points rather than power hits, body rotation is not as important for striking, unless the martial artist is trying to increase the distance of the strike. Snake strikes are generally done with either the two fingers, one finger, or whole hand. In Okinawan Karate these are generally called, Nihon Nukite, Ippon Nukite, and simply, Nukite, respectively. One change that might be noted, though this is more a matter of individual taste rather than a stylistic difference, is that the hand not doing the strike, instead of being extended as in a Chinese method, is kept close to the body as a guard.

Dragon – Grabs and Grappling

The final animal is the dragon, and in some of the Karate systems, this is the style of grappling. Kept as a secret in some styles, the claw of the dragon is the griping hand for joint locks and throws. It is the contention of some, that the dragon of Okinawa was merged with the Minamoto skills to hide the grappling techniques from other practitioners. Others feel that the Chin Na, Chinese grappling, of Shaolin Chuan Fa were added to the previous skills. In any case many sophisticated throwing maneuvers are a part of the dragon techniques. The dragon was also the art of ground fighting, this included delivering strikes from the ground with both legs and hands, sacrifice techniques, which use the fall to the ground to throw, or simply being laying on the ground and using a joint lock or body throw. Dragon techniques also include leaping and flying methods, including hand strikes and kicks. This is where the beautiful flying side kicks and other aerial kicks of Okinawan Karate originated.

Okinawan Masters and their Genius

Okinawan masters of the martial arts were unique and fiercely independent human beings, who saw the value of many nations martial skills, and yet who had a genius all their own. As the Okinawan warriors and martial artists began to research and absorb Minamoto Bujutsu and the five animal fists of Shaolin Chuan Fa, they applied their own unique principle of strength management to them, heightening them and adapting them to their own physiology and psychology. In particular, the five animal fists of Chugoku Kempo, contributed many skills, techniques, and strategies, to the Okinawan martial arts. Yet it must be remembered that in the Okinawan arts of Bushi Te, Karate, and Kempo, is seen the peerless and unequaled genius of the Okinawan masters.


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