Museum Pieces and Their Names

Museum Pieces and Their Names

The Karate Tapestry – Part 19
By Robert Hunt


What’s in a name?

Translating ancient Chinese kata names from a Chinese dialect into Okinawan, then Japanese, then English can conjure up some interesting imagery.

“Penetrating a Fortress (or perhaps a Rock).” “Surreptitious Steps.” “King’s Crown.” “Extraordinary Hands.” “The Long Silent March.” “Four Calm Monks.” “Come, Stay, the Waves.” (Patsai. Naihanchin. Wankan. Chinte. Seiunchin. Shisochin. Kururunfa.) These are all someone’s colorful translations at one time or another of the names of those Okinawan kata, for the most part, meaningless, albeit sometimes very poetic.

Then there are the numbers: 13, 18, 24, 36, 54, 108. (Seisan. Seipai. Niseishi. Sanseiryu. Useishi. Suparempai.) Why numbers?

Where did those names all came from? The best answer is – nobody knows for sure. When you delve into the history of Okinawan karate, it is amazing how little anyone actually knows with certainty and how much is conjecture, fantasy, repeated error or wild guess, especially when it comes to the names of kata.

Some kanji attempts by Joe Swift

Some kanji attempts by Joe Swift

Okinawa had no written language. They spoke a dialect called Hogan, and, like the Japanese, adopted Chinese calligraphy as their written language, but most Okinawans never learned to write. Higashionna, to site one famous example, was illiterate.

Most also didn’t speak Chinese, specifically Fukien Chinese, the dialect from which many kata names derived. Therefore, Okinawans learned the names phonetically, that is to say, the way they sound, not the way they were written. Two hundred years later, when historians started to write things down, they dug up Chinese/Japanese characters that had similar pronunciations and extrapolated names.

There are two major Chinese dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is historically the language of the court and, in modern times, is what the Communists refer to as the “Common Language” and which everyone is supposed to learn. But it wasn’t the common language 200 years ago. Cantonese was the language of the common person. The two dialects don’t sound a lot alike. To further complicate things, Fukien is a regional dialect that most of the Chinese martial arts teachers spoke who influenced karate and it, in turn, has its unique sounds, different than the rest.

Mix in the fact that almost every village in China has its own dialect, sometimes unintelligible to a village 50 miles away, and you have something akin to an Asian Tower of Babble. It’s no wonder no one knows what the kata names mean.

Take Seiunchin, three syllables – sei, un, and chin. Find three kanji that have similar pronunciations and you might come up with – “long, silent, march.” A meaningless translation to a martial artist (unless you possibly happen to be a soldier). But recent evidence has shown that Seiunchin may have also been called something like Chaiunchin a hundred and fifty years ago so scratch the “long” thing. The change could have been someone’s take on the sound, or a speech impediment, or bad hearing, or who knows what.

Liu Chiang Yi, a Feeding Crane teacher from Taiwan, who happens to speak the Fukien dialect explained that, in Fukien, the word “chin” means “power”. You would think that word would appear in someone’s translation. It seems self-evident that “power” and “karate” go together like “ham” and “cheese”. That could explain at least part of the meaning of NaifanCHIN, ShisoCHIN, CHINto, CHINte, SoCHIN or SeiunCHIN.

Some names can actually be associated with something relevant. Wanshu may have been the name of a Chinese emissary to Okinawa in 1683. Kushanku was another Chinese visitor in 1750. Annan may have been the name of another Chinese (or a place in China).

As for most of the rest. Your guess is probably as good as the next person’s.

It is commonly repeated, for example, that the kata Rohai means “Crane on a Rock” or “Vision of the Crane” or something like that. But historian Joe Swift made this observation. The word Lohan in Chinese refers to a Buddhist who has attained enlightenment, particularly at the Shaolin monastery. Lohan Quan, the “Lohan Fist” or “Monk Fist” is another name for Shaolin martial arts. The word “Lohan” is pronounced “Lohai” in Fuzhou, the place in China where most Okinawans studied. A Japanese or Okinawan person pronouncing that word would pronounce it with an “R” sound rather than an “L” sound, hence “Rohai”. I think Mr. Swift is on to something.

The numbered katas are a different story. Those actually are numbers. A modern Chinese speaker would even recognize them.

But why numbers? What do numbers have to do with fighting? There have been numerous theories, the most often quoted being that they were at one time the number of moves, possible bunkai or possibly opponents in the original katas.

Probably not.

Another theory is that they were named for such things as the number of the room they were practiced in at the Shoalin monastery or something along those lines. A name for Shaolin fighting is the “18 hands of Lohan”, supposedly referring to the 18 different styles that were taught within the monastery. (Seipai means “eighteen”.)


Numbers had special meaning for the Chinese. They still do. My phone number is 1456. In Chinese that is pronounced yi su wu lyu. According to Chinese friends of mine, that combination of syllables forms a sentence (kind of like “seven ate nine” in English). They say it is good luck and that I could sell my phone number in China for a handsome price.

The idea of numbering kata may be linked in some cases to the number 108 and the Buddhist religion.

Buddhism (as well as Judaism) is filled with references to 108. The number of Brahmans invited to the Buddha’s naming ceremony. The number of salutations to the sun. The japamala is a string of 108 beads that a monk wears, each representing a step to enlightenment. There are 108 delusions of the mind, such as abuse, aggression and ambition, to be overcome for enlightenment. The number of torments or defilements experienced by the Buddha.

It’s interesting that the number 108 has meaning for other cultures and science throughout the history of man, as well. A google search turns up a bunch. Here are a few.

In this formula, 1 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 108.

For mathematicians, 108 is divisible by the value of its φ function, which is 36 (Sanseiryu, by the way.)

In neo-Gnostic teachings, an individual has 108 chances (lifetimes) to eliminate his egos and transcend the material world.

In Homer’s Odyssey, 108 suitors coveted Penelope, wife of Odysseus.

In India, 108 (1-0-8) is the toll-free emergency telephone number.

An official Major League baseball has 108 stitches.

Who knew?

It could very well have been the Buddhist influence from the Shaolin and the Chinese penchant for numerology that influenced the numbered names of kata. Suparempai means 108. Useishi (Gojushiho) means 54 (half of 108). Sanseiryu is 36 (3×36=108). Sanchin supposedly means “Three Battles”, but the “three” part is probably more important than the “battle” part and chin probably means “power”, anyway.

Stabs at translations by Joe Swift and Mario McKenna

Stabs at translations by Joe Swift and Mario McKenna

(Does Sanchin times Sanseiryu equal Suparempai?).

Seipai means 18 (36/2). There were 36 families that settled Kume Village. (There probably weren’t, but the number 36, as we see, has some significance.)

In Buddhist philosophy, the road to enlightenment is divided into groups or sections which total 108. The names of kata may reflect that journey. It is possible that the number-names of kata originating in the Buddhist Shaolin monastery are named after those steps along the Buddhist journey to salvation rather than the number of moves of the kata, (which, by the way, never work out, no matter how hard I try to divide up the sequence).

Three is a foundation number. The triangle is the strongest geometric form. Sanchin stance is described as a triangle with the feet as the base and the intersect is a point where lines drawn from the direction the feet meet.

Three is also a basic rhythm of life – Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Three Musketeers, the Trinity, the beat of a galloping horse. Primitive man recognized this and attributed power to the number and the rhythm.

Funakoshi apparently recognized the problem of ancient Chinese names when he introduced kata to Japan. The names meant nothing to the Japanese. In addition, the Japanese had no interest in Chinese martial arts, even if they had meant something, being, as Japan was, aspiring to Asian domination (specifically China). Knowing that, Funakoshi changed the traditional names of the kata to Japanese names, to (in his words) make them more meaningful to the Japanese.

We want to think that his reasons were not influenced by Japanese bigotry. We want to think that the originators of our styles had pure motives, that they always told the truth and were honorable people. But it is difficult to look past the fact that Funakoshi passionately wanted his Okinawan art to be accepted by Japan, and that the Japanese were, at the time, incredibly racist, and that the very word “karate” was being changed from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand” and that karate was being proclaimed a “Japanese” martial art. Politics always plays a part, and in the case of Funakoshi’s renaming, it would seem, a major part.

There was a Shaolin monastery 1500 years ago. Everything in it and in China, itself, was influenced by Buddhist or Taoist ideas – numerology, lucky numbers, superstition and ghosts. Those ancient names of kata have filtered through almost two millennia of Chinese history and then through the prism of Okinawa. What we end up with are, as our friend Marlon Moore puts it, “museum pieces”, secret remnants of an ancient civilization, preserved outside of China and its various dynasties and Communist purges, to bubble to the surface in Okinawa in the 20th century, through people who probably had no more knowledge of the origins of names than we.

What the names mean is probably lost to history. To try to force them to meld into 21st century thought is a difficult quest. We can only guess.

We watch teachers confidently demonstrate bunkai and explain the origin and names of kata. But the more we study, the less we believe anyone knows and that the teachers so confidently expounding are simply repeating someone else’s mistakes as gospel.


This article was assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum) the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

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