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The Roots of Goju Ryu · History of Karate Series Part 1/3

The history of the exact style of Goju Ryu karate-do we train in CMAC is complex. Ultimately, its roots are from Chinese styles of martial arts which have been refined and tested in battle for thousands of years.

Post By Alex Senson


Background prior to the development of Goju Ryu—Bodhidharma and Chinese influences

The history of the exact style of Goju Ryu karate-do we train in CMAC is complex, partially obscured by the shadows of time, and frequently modified when passed down from teacher to student. Ultimately, its roots are from Chinese styles of martial arts which have been refined and tested in battle for thousands of years.

Being on the order of 150 years old, I am curious as to how well the adaptations from Chinese quanfa assimilated into the new art in a practical sense. I didn’t find much information regarding the numbers of people who actually trained in Okinawan Goju prior to Gogen Yamaguchi popularizing it. Therefore, it’s uncertain the level of ‘field testing’ in real combat situations that occurred for Goju Ryu since its inception. I find it interesting just how much the style has changed and evolved in this relatively short period of time. Some of those changes were surely for practical reasons but many were certainly matters of preference or due to necessity based on a lack of available information (not all masters passed down the whole art to each of their students). Those are just a few questions and impressions I had as I studied the history. The following is a brief recount of how I understand Goju Ryu to have been developed. I’ve split this up into three periods – The Roots or background prior to the development of Goju-Ryu, The Creation of Okinawan Goju Ryu, and The Evolution of events that occurred after WWII.

Bodhidharma On An Elephant 2, CMAC Dapo Mississauga

The Roots of Goju Ryu Karate-do

Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple

The roots of Goju-ryu trace back to the legend of Bodhidharma (Damo or Daruma) around 527AD. Legendary stories tend to become larger than life with time, so whether Bodhidharma was a single person or a symbolic representation of Buddhist monks or other foreign teachers of Buddhism is unknown. As the legend goes, he went to China and attempted to spread his wisdom to a southern kingdom but the king was not receptive to his message. The general message was that enlightenment is something one finds within themselves through meditation, and can’t be based on the merits of doing deeds in the external world. Everything is the universe is One and there’s no separation between things or people. Bodhidharma went to a Shaolin temple in the north on Song Mountain, but he was thrown out and went to sit in a cave, facing the same wall for nine years. Afterwards, he may have trained the monks at the temple in some form of martial arts to help them defend themselves. It’s unlikely that this temple had much influence on Okinawan martial arts. Only about 100 students from Okinawa came to study in China over 400 years, and they were likely too busy, too far away or not interested in physical effort to make the journey there.

The history of the exact style of Goju Ryu karate-do we train in CMAC is complex, partially obscured by the shadows of time, and frequently modified when passed down from teacher to student.

However, there is evidence of several southern Shaolin temples and some of these may have had direct influence on the development of the art. It’s thought that some Shaolin monks from the north were sent south to Fujian province to help protect the coast from pirates, and they may have set up additional temples there. The Putian temple was officially announced to have been discovered in 1992, although it was likely destroyed prior to 1700 so none of the founders of Goju-ryu likely trained there. The Quanzhou temple was destroyed in 1763, but there’s a possibility some Okinawans trained there. It was burned down but apparently five masters survived and were able to further spread their martial arts. The Fuqing temple is the only one proven to be truly Shaolin but likely had no impact on Okinawan arts. Generally it can be said that northern Shaolin arts are flashier, more acrobatic and use more foot techniques whereas southern tend to focus more on rooting and hand techniques.

Image 14, CMAC Dapo Mississauga
500 year-old Shaolin Temple mural in Henan province, China

Chinese styles of boxing—Quanfa

Chinese arts which influenced Goju-ryu karate include Fujian crane (white crane), monk fist, tiger, five ancestors and xingyi. White crane is perhaps the most influential, and was developed by a woman named Yongchun who had a background in monk fist style, but invented a new style based on the observation of white cranes fighting. It was a softer, yielding style which did well in combat against harder styles. There were at least five other crane styles based on her original style, and modern Wing Chun is also based on white crane. The whooping crane variation is what was taught to Xie Zhongxiang (Ryu Ryu Ko) – Kanryo Higashionna’s teacher. Tiger boxing had a lesser impact, but some similar forms included San Zhan (Sanchin), Sanshiliu Shou (Sanseiru), Eight Trigrams (Ba Gua). The founder of tiger boxing Li Yuanzhu had a student who added the ‘108 set’ called Suparinpe. Five ancestors boxing was also a mix of at least five other styles and was taught in Quanzhou. It’s interesting to note that this style has some common properties and similarities to Goju-ryu.

Read Part 2: The Creation of Goju Ryu

Articles in this Series

Preface to the Karate History Series
❊ Part 1: Roots of Goju Ryu
Part 2: Creation of Goju Ryu
Part 3: Evolution of Goju Ryu
Conclusions and References

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