Shorin Ryu

Shorin Ryu by Sensei Robert Hunt

That was my first reaction to Shorin Ryu kata. It wasn’t snappy like Shi-to Ryu,
nor smooth and fluid like Goju. It wasn’t athletic like Shotokan. It wasn’t pretty.  It
was…clunky. Stiff.  Rudimentary. Hard. Basic. Unsophisticated. Slow. Not dynamic.

That’s all true. And once I began to learn what karate was all about, it began to
make sense.

Emperor Hirohito, as a Prince, saw a karate demonstration in Okinawa in 1922.
He asked that someone come to Japan to teach karate and Funakoshi, and later Mabuni, stepped up. What Funakoshi took to Japan at the bequest of the Prince
was Shorin Ryu karate, which eventually morphed into Shotokan and Wado Ryu. When I first started learning karate as a young man, what I studied was a version of karate somewhere in between Funakoshi’s Shorin Ryu and modern Shotokan.

In 1930, one of the early Okinawan teachers of the modern era, Chibana Chosin, was the first to officially name his style Shorin Ryu, following the lead of his teacher, Itosu, who had openly used the term around 1905.  Shorin is the Okinawan pronunciation of the Chinese word “Shaolin” and Itosu used it because he believed Okinawan karate traced part of its origin to the Shaolin monasteries in China.

Chibana’s style eventually came to be known as “Kobayashi” Shorin Ryu to differentiate it from other styles that also began using the Shorin Ryu designation, like “Shobayashi” Shorin Ryu.

Ironically, the words “kobayashi” and “shobayashi” both mean “small forest” in
Japanese, as does “shorin”.  Both style names, then, are really repetitive syllables that read “small forest small forest style”.  Another style, Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu, translates as Matsumura Orthodox Shorin Ryu, leading one to assume that someone thinks the style is more faithful to Matsumura’s instruction. I don’t know if that’s true or not;  everyone in the martial arts world claims that their stuff is the real thing – like religion. Be that as it may, a large part of modern Okinawan karate is referred to as Shorin Ryu by a lot of people.

Old Okinawan Shorin Ryu katas do look “clunky”, not as “slick” and refined as
many of the later Japanese versions.  Much of that is because the Japanese spruced them up for tournaments, intentionally making them less clunky – sleek – in the hope that a panel of judges might give them a higher score.  The early Okinawans had no interest in tournaments and stressed “martial”.  Shorin Ryu was never supposed to be sleek, or dynamic, or pretty.  It was supposed to kill people. It wasn’t intended to win tournaments.  It was intended to hurt.

In about 1756, a man named Kung Shang K’ung emigrated from China to
Okinawa as a government emissary.  He knew some kind of Chinese martial art, no one seems to be sure what. An Okinawan named Sakugawa, a seeker of martial knowledge like you and me, became his student. That may have been the pivotal point of the karate that came to be called Shorin Ryu.

The story goes that Sakugawa’s father was killed by bandits and, because of that,
he dedicated himself to the martial arts.  He studied from K’ung and then traveled to
China, himself, to bring more knowledge of Chinese martial arts back to Okinawa. He became renowned throughout the island for his karate knowledge and received the title of Peichin from the King, as well as an island – Sakugawa Island. Sakugawa became famous for his martial prowess, so much that he came to be referred to as “Tode” Sakugawa. “Tode” means “China Hand”, one of the terms Okinawans used to refer to their early martial art. Tode is also pronounced “Karate” so Sakugawa can also be called Karate Sakugawa.

Sakugawa had a student named Matsumura, the later famous Bushi Matsumura.
Sakugawa apparently passed on a kata to him based on K’ung’s teaching and Matsumura referred to it as Kushanku, the Okinawan pronunciation of Kung Shang K’ung. Matsumura’s student, Itosu, and his followers all maintained the name Kushanku for that kata, except for Funakoshi, who renamed it Kanku Dai for the Japanese. Almost everyone who claims Shorin based karate as their martial art learns a version of it eventually.

Itosu reinvented the kata for middle school kids, and that is the version most of us
know, but the original is still around after 260 years, under the name Chatanyara
Kushanku. Yara was also a Kushanku student who came from a village called Chatan
(hence Chatan Yara) and the kata seems to have passed down through his family to Kian Chotoku, who was kind enough to take the trouble to preserve it for you and me. I learned Chatanyara Kushanku from my late friend, Dan Carrington, whose karate lineage extends back to Kian.

Whether K’ung was affiliated with the Shaolin monastery, no one knows for sure.
Possibly, otherwise why call it Shorin Ryu later on? Matsumura used the term Shorin, so it is likely that there was a history.  Maybe not.  Maybe Kushanku was just pretending to be a student of a Shaolin priest for reality TV. Who knows? Whatever the case, during the period when Emperor Hirohito and I discovered karate, there were a lot of people referring to Kushanku’s legacy as Shorin, and the more of it I learned, the more I appreciated the martial effectiveness of its clunky moves.

Some of this information can be found in “Unante”,  John Sells’ encyclopedic
karate tome, which I recommend if you want to know more about the history of karate.