Table of Contents
The Shaolin Temples
Shaolin Admittance and Training
The Shaolin 18 Monk Fist and Bodhidharma
The Shaolin Five Animal System (Wu X'ing Q'uan)
The Fukien Shaolin Hakutsuru Style, or White Crane
Okinawa and the Development of Te
The Shaolin Temples
The Shaolin Temples (monasteries) are possibly the most revered and famous structures in the history of all martial arts. The history of the Shaolin order is obscure and shrouded in myth and secrecy. Even from their beginnings, they were constant targets of bandits and rebellious soldiers. According to tradition, the first Shaolin Temple was built in Honan province sometime around 500 A.D., on Shao-shih Mountain south of Songshan Mountain, 50 miles west of Zhengzhou. Traditionally, this was the original temple. The name Shaolin means "small (young) forest." There is a legend about how the Honan Temple received this name. The story goes that before the temple was built, there was a forest there. It had been cleared or burned down by orders of Emperor Hsiao of the Northern Wei Dynasty. When construction started on the temple, the emperor's gardeners planted new trees.
Because some people are not informed, they assume there was only one Shaolin Temple. They also assume that Honan Shaolin was the greatest and grandest. But contrary to popular belief, this is not necessarily the case, although the Honan Temple in the North appears to be the original. There were 2 main temples, the Northern and the Southern.
Shaolin Admittance and Training
The Shaolin temples were like martial arts universities. In order to be admitted, one would have to endure months or years of hard work and chores. After being admitted, they had to train for ten years in the basics. Then they could specialize in whatever they wanted to. There were masters who were specialists in particular areas of training, and the students could learn from the best in each field, or specialty style.
The Shaolin 18 Monk Fist and Bodhidharma
The Shaolin 18 Lohan fist was the first style practiced at Honan Shaolin. Legend credits a man named Bohidharma (Damo, Tamo or Dharuma) as being one of the first to have an impact on the temple's style.
To help the Shaolin monks withstand long hours of meditation he taught them 18 breathing techniques and exercises (the Eighteen Hands of Lohan) to develop their strength. These drills were called the `Eighteen Hands of Lohan`. The concepts and principles taught by Bodhidharma were part of the basis that they built the temple's fighting style on.
The Shaolin Five Animal System (Wu X'ing Q'uan)
One of the most important happenings of Shaolin history was during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), probably in the late 1500s/early 1600s (However, some say that this took place around AD 618, and even others say it happened around the 13th century. It makes no difference really when it actually happened.) There were many rebellions against the Ming government at this time. The monks began to document what they had learned in their art. Chueh Yuan Shang-Jen, Li Shou (Li Ch'eng), and Pai Yu Feng (Bai Yu-Feng or Bak Yuk Fung came up with a radically new and balanced internal and external style. They successfully combined internal Taoist techniques with that of the Lohan Shaolin system. The new style had 172 techniques, according to tradition. They also came up with new concepts and principles that they called the Shaolin Five Animals. The techniques were modeled after the characteristics of the following animals: Leopard (Bao), Tiger (Hu), Snake (She), Dragon (Long) and Crane (He).
The Fukien Shaolin Hakutsuru Style, or White Crane
There are several Chinese forms of the name "Hakutsuru" in different dialects: Pai Hao Q'uan, Peh Ho Kuen, Peh Hok, Bak Hok, Pak Hok, Bai He Q'uan and He Q'uan. Other names of it are the Southern Five Elder Style (Wu Zu Q'uan or Five Ancestors Fist), and the Yong Chun Style, pronounced Weng Chun in Cantonese.
The legend about the Yong Chun Style is that of the Five Elders (Ancestors) of Shaolin:
The Shaolin order was politically neutral most of the time, but in the 1640's, the much-hated Manchu (Ching) dynasty began. The cruelty of the Manchu made Shaolin reconsider its position. In about 1647, the Honan Shaolin Temple was utterly destroyed by the Manchu. Most of the monks were killed, but a few monks fled to the Fukien Shaolin Temple (some believe this took place in 1570. The problem with that date is that the Ming was still in power at that time. It appears that it was the Manchu that did it. The reasons that the Manchu would have done it make a lot more sense. Other legends allege that it took place not long after the Manchu took over.) Among those that fled to Fukien Shaolin were the most influential Shaolin masters. They brought the precious martial art books from the Shaolin Library with them. As a result of all this, the status of the Fukien temple changed, and it became the new Headquarters of the Shaolin order. It was a better base for anti-Manchu activities, because it was a strategic location.
The Fukien Temple became part of the rebellion almost immediately after the destruction of Honan.
The Manchu could not govern very well in the South. There were many areas near rivers that they could not control, because the rebels kept them at bay.
Four sons of four Ming generals were sent to Fukien Shaolin to train in the martial arts. Their names were Chih Shan (Jee Shin or Chi Shin), Fung Doe Duk (Fung To Tak), Mew Hing (Miu Hin), and Bak Mai (Pak Mei or Bai Mei). According to legend, there was also a Shaolin nun there at this same time, by the name of Lui Sei-Leung or Lu Si-Niang. She took upon herself the Buddhist name Wu Mei (Ng Mui or Five Plums) that she is more popularly known as. They became the five elders of Shaolin
They analyzed their situation very closely. They needed to come up with a plan to overcome the Manchu. The combat systems taught in the temple at that time were based on animal movements. They required that the monks master tens and hundreds of long, intricate forms, taking ten or twenty years. There were an enormous variety of techniques, many of them totally dissimilar to each other, and some of them were not very useful, because they didn't work very well. The Shaolin grandmasters recognized that this approach was unsuitable and unacceptable for the rapid development of an effective and efficient fighting force. A new training method made to fit the needs of the rebellion was necessary. In the South, the terrain was different, and there was a need for close range fighting tactics. Also, they needed a way to fight more effectively against and exploit the weaknesses of the fighting arts of their enemies. What they came up with was a radically new approach. The focus for the new system was on human biomechanics. They refined and modified the existing animal systems and movements into an essential core of techniques.
Because of these new revisions, there became a split between the Northern and Southern Shaolin styles. The North retained the original exaggerated movements and form, and the South adopted the new streamlined and efficient form. When I say North, I don't mean Honan Shaolin. I mean all the Shaolin practitioners in the North outside of Honan Shaolin. The reason I make this distinction is because Honan Shaolin was always in close contact with Fukien Shaolin, and there was always a heavy interchange. So Honan Shaolin implemented the new temple style form also. This knew style was known under the generic title of "Nan Q'uan" or Southern Fist.
Now comes the story of Fang Qi-Niang:
A Shaolin monk that had fled after the 1673 destruction of the Fukien temple (some say it was 1674) was Fang Zhonggong (also known as Fang Zhen-Dong, Fang Zhang-Guang, Fang Honshu, Fang Shi Yu and Fang Huishi.) His specialty style was the Shi Pa Lohan Fist (Shi Ba Luo Han Q'uan). He sought refuge in nearby Putian at the Shalian Temple while awaiting the overthrow of the Manchu government for a time. Supposedly, this was another temple clandestinely affiliated with Shaolin. Later, he went to Yong Chun village. It was there that Zhonggong raised a family. His seventh daughter was named Fang Qi-Niang (Chi-Niang, Chi-Liang, or Ji-Niang). He taught her the Shaolin style. She later saw cranes fighting and developed the Fukien Shaolin Crane style using what her father had taught her for a base, which was essentially the Yong Chun style created by the Five Elders. This style in the Japanese language is known as Hakutsuru.
The Shaolin Hakutsuru over time broke up into many branch styles. The major ones are: Wing Chun; the Five Ancestral Fist; the Ancestral Crane (Zonghe, Suhe, or Zanhe Q'uan, also known as Sleeping or Trembling Crane); the Shouting Crane (Minghe Q'uan, also known as Whooping, Singing or Crying Crane); the Eating Crane (Shehe Q'uan, also known as Morning Crane); and the Flying Crane (Feihe Q'uan). The Fukien Jumping Crane is not related to these. It comes through different roots. (Of course, these are not the only styles that branch from it. The Okinawan Styles are also branches of it also, as we shall see.)
The Hakutsuru was the "Shaolin style" referred to by Funakoshi and other sources that Iwah and Wai Shin Zan taught Bushi Matsumura, although one source says that Iwah taught Bushi his own form of it.
Okinawa and the Development of Te
Just off the coast of Fukien is an island called Okinawa, which means "a rope tossed into the water." Repeatedly it was taken over by invaders. But the inhabitants had the doctrine of no resistance. They just submitted themselves and did not usually fight them, although they would defend themselves. They would do things secretly under the noses of their taskmasters. The inhabitants themselves are a mixture of many different bloodlines. It is the melting pot of the Orient. At first the island had a tributary relationship with China, but that ended shortly after the Japanese conquest by the Satsuma clan in 1609. Since then, the island has been under Japanese rule.
Over the centuries, two indigenous martial arts had developed there. At first the development was independent of China. One was an empty-hand art called te. The other was an art of weapons called kobudo. Later on, there was much foreign influence on these systems.
There was an even greater influx of Chinese influence on te in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more masters visited China and studied under Chinese experts. This led to the creation of three hybrid styles of what became known in Okinawa as "karate," or "China Hand." They were a mix of te and Chinese styles. They were Naha-te, Tomari-te, and Shuri-te. The styles were named after the cities of Okinawa in which they were developed. But these "cities" were so close that you could live in one "city" and walk next door and be in the next "city."
Around 1760, Kusanku, a Chinese envoy, was sent to Okinawa. Some say that he was a Shaolin monk, and others say he learned from a Shaolin monk. Another form of his name is Guan Kui or Guan Gui. Once he was on a boat going to Satsuma, and that it was blown off course during a fierce typhoon, and drifted to shore on Oshima Beach of Shikoku Island. At that time, he gave a martial art demonstration. The book Ohshima-Hikki that contains the account says "with his lapel being seized, Kusankun applied his martial art and overcame the attacker by scissoring his legs."
Sakugawa was born in Shuri Toribori on March 3, 1733 and died on August 17, 1815 at the age of 82. Sakugawa Satunushi was a samurai. Some say that his name was Shungo. His dying father suggested that he learn the fighting arts. In Akata village, Shuri, Sakugawa found Peichin Takahara (1683-1760). Takahara was a monk, mapmaker and astronomer. Takahara Peichin was born in the village of Akata Cho in Southern Shuri. Takahara who 67 at the time and was a famous warrior of the Okinawan fighting arts. Sakugawa respectfully asked Takahara to become his student, and was accepted. He studied under him diligently.
He asked Takahara for his blessing to study with Ku Sanku, the Chinese Master, and Takahara approved. Sakugawa improved day by day as he studied with Ku Sanku.
When Master Kusanku returned to China, Sakugawa followed him and remained in China for six years still studying with him. Sakugawa became a famous samurai, and was given the title of Satunuky or Satonushi by the Okinawan king. It was most likely, Sakugawa that created the kata Ku Sanku.
Bushi Matsumura was born in 1797, and died in 1889. According to some sources, Bushi's family name was Kayo. Matsumura grew up in Yamagawa village of the city of Shuri, Okinawa. He was partly Chinese. Sakugawa began training Bushi at Akata when he was 14 years old, in 1810. According to tradition, it was at Bushi's father's request that Sakugawa teach him. Some say that to train Bushi to block, Sakugawa tied to him to a tree so he could not move. Then he threw punches at him.
Sakugawa trained him up until his death, and then Sokon was probably on his own for a while. According to oral history, he studied under Sakugawa for 4 years.
Bushi was recruited into the service of the Sho family. At that time, Sho Ko, the king of Okinawa, desired to have him change his last name, as was the custom, and suggested the name Muramatsu (Muramachi), or "village pine." After discussing the matter with some friends and relatives, he decided that Matsumura (Machimura), or "pine village", would be more appropriate. Sokon asked the king to let him change the name to that, and the request was granted. Some say this happened at age 17, which would probably put it around 1813.
Many sources say that Bushi Matsumura trained in China, and it is certainly a strong tradition. Hohan Soken said that Bushi trained at "Fukien Shaolin" for 26 years and some months.
Some prominent students of Bushi Matsumura were Yasutsune Itosu and Chotoku Kyan, although there were many more. Itosu's head student and successor was Chosin Chibana, who formed Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu from Itosu's version of Shuri-Te. Kyan's students formed Shobayashi Shorin-ryu from his personal brand of Shuri-te. Another student of Itosu was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan. Once in a while, Itosu would take him to study under Bushi Matsumura. He was also a student of Azato, a Shorei-Ryu master.
Keeping with Samurai tradition, a close family member was selected as his successor in his personal system. His grandson Nabi Matsumura was chosen. Nabi's birth and death dates are kept secret.
Bushi's senior student was Itosu. Because of that, it is assumed by some that Itosu was his successor. However, Nabi was the heir to Bushi's personal system. Itosu added some to it, creating his own system. He was not a blood relative to the Matsumura family, and could not be the successor to the family style therefore, although he was a great master. In 1928, Chosin Chibana became head of Itosu's system following Itosu's death. It was at that time that Chibana designated Itosu's version of Shuri-te as Shorin-Ryu. The pure and unchanged Matsumura Shuri-te taught by Nabi and Soken was not known as Shorin-Ryu until Soken changed the name later.
Some say Nabi Matsumura was very strict and secretive. Others received the glory, but he remained in obscurity. Possibly, he wished it to be that way. Not much information is available about him. His birth and death date are either not known, or are kept secret. It is said he was born in the 1850's and died in the 1930's. Nabi inherited everything his grandfather possessed, including his title "Bushi Matsumura." Nabi's wife and first child died soon after the child's birth. He did remarry later.
Nabi chose Hohan Soken, his nephew, to be his successor. Soken was born May 25, 1889 (Meiji 22)and died November 30, 1982. He was born into the old Okinawan Samurai class. Because of the hardships placed upon the Samurai when their class was abolished, Soken, had to work a more lowly type of job in the rice fields with the commoners. Nabi, however, noticed Soken's potential. So he proposed to him that he would train him in Hakutsuru if he would simply show enough dedication, patience and control. Soken eagerly accepted. This was when he was 14 years old in about 1902 or 3. Nabi began training him in the basics. This training lasted 10 years (till about 1913). Finally, after that he knew that Soken was ready for Hakutsuru.
Hohan Soken left Okinawa around 1924 and went to Argentina, where many Okinawans had moved to work. Soken and Chotoku Kyan reportedly had planned to travel overseas together but went their separate ways, with Kyan going to Taiwan. Soken Sensei learned some Spanish during his long stay in Argentina and by the accounts told by his Okinawan students, he lived a very exciting life there. Among other things, he worked as a photographer and had a clothes cleaning business. He did many demonstrations. Soken returned in the early 50's a relatively wealthy man by the Okinawan standards of the time.
When Soken returned to Okinawa, he found that Karate had greatly changed. Sport Karate had pretty much replaced the old way. He refused to join some of the more popular Karate Associations. For many years he was the World's oldest living active Karate Master. At first he called his system Matsumura Shurite (Machimura Sui-di), but later named it Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Seito (Seito means "orthodox") to distinguish it from sport karate. Soken, unlike his uncle and great-grandfather, practiced weapons. He learned the art of Kobudo from Ushi Komesu of Ihonohara village and apparently also from Mantaka Chiken.
Soken, as with Nabi, had 2 wives. One was Argentinian, while his second wife was Okinawan. None of his sons took an interest in their father's tradition. One of Soken's sons by his first wife had followed Soken Sensei back to Okinawa and had kept Soken Sensei's ashes. When that son passed away earlier this year, Soken Sensei's ashes returned to Argentina as they were left in the care of the son's Argentinian wife and children in accordance with Okinawan custom. Having Sensei's ashes in South America and his grave on Okinawa is fitting for a man with ties so deep in both places. If one must pay one's respects to Soken Sensei, we ask that one do that at the grave and avoid causing the deep offense inherent in trying to make a Graceland-style visit to see his body.
Kosei Nishihira was born June 10, 1942, three years before the Battle of Okinawa as one of the youngest of nine children. At the time, Okinawa was a possession of a Japan at war across Asia. Many in that generation suffered incredibly as the fiercest battle in the Pacific Theater claimed the lives of as many as one third of all Okinawans. Severe poverty and in many, many cases, orphanhood shaped the early part of their lives.
Sensei’s family had roots in a shizoku family living in a tiny village on the hill overlooking Yonabaru. Although many of these former warrior families transformed during the Meiji era Okinawa and became landowners who served in good jobs as local civil administrators, the circumstances of Nishihira Sensei’s family and youth were humble. It was common at that time for rural children to gather for informal school under a gajimaru banyan tree, learning to read by repeating after the teacher and in some cases learning to write in the dirt.
There was a U.S. military camp nearby and Sensei told us that many of the children first encountered Amerikaa by running alongside the trucks as they passed, calling to the G.I.s to toss them Mars bars from their rations. Some of Sensei’s relatives and acquaintances worked as nannies and housekeepers for servicemen’s families and he told us a few times about the otherworldly experience it was for him to go into camp. Once he told us what these relatives would say about the foreign children on base—that they were angels when their parents were present and umakuu (little devils) when mom and dad were not. Sensei had a playful streak and told us that he enjoyed this about the American children. On Okinawa, sometimes the young G.I.s and other grownup foreigners showed similar attitudes in ways that were less innocent. Mixed feelings about Americans are common among this generation from Japan to Korea to the Philippines—fondness for some foreigners and what they brought, and disappointment with other things and people.
It was during middle school that Nishihira Sensei began going to Soken Sensei’s house. Nishihira Sensei said that Soken Sensei had a story and presence unlike anyone in the area. Soken Sensei had left Okinawa in his thirties during one of several waves of emigrants to Hawaii, Latin America and the West Coast. Very few of those who left came back. Soken Sensei came back from Argentina in the 1950s to a rural community with a relative fortune and with karate largely untouched by the years of the Japonization of much of Okinawan karate—a process that accelerated during his absence. “Tanmei” as Sensei sometimes called Soken Sensei was well-connected and sought out the old karate people who had kept to themselves, sometimes sending his students on exchange to other teachers. Soken Sensei became very well-known. He was a tough teacher, training was difficult and the young Nishihira Sensei often faced off with men who were much older and larger than he was. Sensei said he has been told that fighting bigger and stronger opponents influenced his karate.
Sensei used to walk down the hill from his home to middle school and on to Soken Sensei’s house after classes. At the time, there were few paved roads and the best roads in the area were the ones used by the military. Over the last 40 years, however, the ruling party in Japan shored up a bedrock of support among rural voters by subsidizing employment and infrastructure with extensive public works construction. The very low crime, the beautiful roads and a monorail from the airport to locations not far from Sensei’s house in today’s Okinawa don’t give a sense for what it was like when Sensei’s generation was growing up.
Soken Sensei’s house was located in the opposite direction from Sensei’s school, so training after school meant walking home after dark. After dark, it would get pitch black and being out could get dangerous. After getting home, Sensei used to go into the woods near his house to drill the things he was being taught. The rigorous training he imposed on himself helped shape Nishihira Sensei’s character, aggressive fighting style and reputation. If you ever see pictures of Sensei during his twenties, his facial expression and his bearing show this. He had a number of jobs during his twenties. Time spent as a taxi driver put him in frequent contact with G.I.s who sometimes tried to stiff drivers on the fare or rob them for the cashbox. Sensei tapped into his early training experience on a few occasions when faced with guys much larger than him.
Sensei settled down as he got into his late twenties and early thirties. He married the daughter of a kobudo man and they had two sons. Sensei built a home in Nishihara within walking distance from Soken Sensei’s house in Gaja and opened a bentoyasan lunchbox service which his family still runs today. Sensei’s choices of location and job enabled him to train regularly and to help look after Soken Sensei as he got older.
Soken Sensei had several main groups of students who trained together, guest students from other teachers and some students who did not interact much with the main groups. Nishihira Sensei’s preferred teaching style was the style he liked most when working out with Soken Sensei—“man to man.” One-on-one instruction gives a teacher the ability to pass the oral traditions of the style while helping the student to feel the difference.
Sensei preferred to be kakure bushi and was very private about his training. Despite living in the same place for years, many of Sensei’s neighbors did not know he did karate until foreigners began visiting him in the mid-90s. Over the years, Sensei was approached by other teachers and pressured by some of his students to join associations and to open a public dojo, and he chose to avoid this and stick to the old ways. In 2000 there was a large tournament in Okinawa and a dojo directory was published. Sensei chose only to list himself as the “Kaneku Dojo,” named for the small neighborhood in which he lived. To our knowledge none of his students ever paid him anything. Training and teaching were lonely. He would say that “you learn the okugi secrets by yourself.” Students were expected to be self-starting. Sensei suggested changes and showed a student new things when the student showed his training matured to the point that he was ready for them. Sometimes students look different from others—part of the reason is that with this style of teaching, instruction gets shaped by what each brought to the training.
Sensei used to say that Soken Sensei had a nijujinkaku—a split personality. Sensei said that Soken Sensei could be very encouraging to students on one day, but could show a deep mean streak on the next. This was generally a calculated way of pushing them along. Soken Sensei could be very mischievous and sometimes introduced competition between students to motivate them, talking one up like a prize fighter by saying he was better than another while saying the same things to the other student. Nishihira Sensei sometimes enjoyed doing similar things.
One of our games with Sensei was to call him on this, which added to the fun among students and helped build a tighter bond. This method gets misunderstood sometimes and it has been said that Matsumura karate as a style is scattered (“bara bara”) because of it. This is not inconsistent however with what some people call a “village style” of teaching karate, which operates more like meritocracy and cares little for formal hierarchy among students. Sensei appreciated students’ efforts to make good relations and to respect the style and teacher by keeping the peace inside and outside the group. Sensei trained alone for years and his self-motivation was remarkable. He would use phone calls or visits from a student as a way to boost his and the student’s energy. Even into his sixties, he could get very animated when hearing about something a student just discovered. He himself would talk about how we was trying to develop and would often say “I think I just saw where all this goes from here.” (“Kono saki wo mieta kamoshirenai.”) We never heard him say his karate had reached a peak until he said he thought he had “put it together” in the latter part of 2005. To hear this was surprising.
We last saw Sensei a few months later when we went to see him in February 2006. Sensei tired more easily and we asked several times whether he was feeling all right. He insisted he was fine. Although we do not know when Sensei first knew he was sick, we learned later that October that he was in the hospital to have tumors removed from his brain. Despite medical treatments that are hard on the patient, Sensei kept his sense of humor, and his temper. We tried to respect the family’s request that we not disturb Sensei during his recovery. It was very difficult not to get on an airplane. We spoke to Sensei on the phone. Once while he was in the hospital, Sensei’s response was kind but heart wrenching: “I’ve caused you to worry. As long as you are there, I am fine.” (“Shimpai kaketa ne. Anata ha ireba daijoubu.”) It is still very hard to feel like we were there enough without being present.
Sensei had told us about his last words with Soken Sensei. We tried several times to tell Nishihira Sensei how much he meant to us, but he was not having any weepy talk—he’d tease us instead. Sometimes, things are expressed better by not saying them. We hope that he got our message. Now, training well is the best way to show him what we would have liked to say.
Sensei passed away on May 14, 2007. A wake was held at his home shortly after and was well attended by the karate community.