2 posts / 0 new
Last post
Stevenson's picture
Numerology in the Fighting Arts: I Ching and Ku-ji ho

I thought I would start a new thread having been stung into action by Iain's skepticism over the role of numerology in naming of kata with numbers (thanks Iain :)...). I've been trawling the internet and a book on the subject and thought I would write down what I have been discovering and fleshing out my thoughts. Sorry, it's a long one.

We have recently been discussing the origins of kata and forms of other styles, and we noted that one kata in particular, “Seisan”, appears in a variety of styles but looking almost completely different one from the other. Rather than it being the same kata changed a multitude of ways, I propose that it is completely different katas given the same name because of the significance of the name. “Seisan” means “13” in chinese, and it is sometimes said to mean “13 hands/steps/fists”. I’d like to come back to the significance of that addition, but I’d love to find some historical reference for it. But my point is that the number had a meaning and significance which was applied to the kata or form.

My view originates from explanations of the katas in the Daigaku Karate Kai Handbook, but I have been exploring it further. It is impossible to overstate the significance of numerology in eastern cultures, from Tibet through China and Japan, in fact the whole region. Literally every aspect of life was governed by numbers, the significance given to them and the relationships they had with each other. The relationships may vary from place to place and over time, but the various approaches are consistent. The first step is trying to understand the importance is the “I Ching” or “Book of Change(s)”. One of the earliest and most comprehensive European researchers into the Book of Changes is the German Richard Wilhelm who writes (1950):

is unquestionably one of the most important books in the world's literature. Its origin goes back to mythical antiquity, and it has occupied the attention of the most eminent scholars of China down to the present day. Nearly all that is greatest and most significant in the three thousand years of Chinese cultural history has either taken its inspiration from this book, or has exerted an influence on the interpretation of its text. Therefore it may safely be said that the seasoned wisdom of thousands of years has gone into the making of the I Ching. Small wonder then that both of the two branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Taoism, have their common roots here…Even the common-places of everyday life in China are saturated with its influence. In going through the streets of a Chinese city, one will find, here and there at a street corner, a fortune teller sitting behind a neatly covered table….the very signboards adorning the houses…the policy makers of so modern a state as Japan, distinguished for their astuteness, do not scorn to refer to it for counsel in difficult situations.”

The whole introduction is fascinating: https://www.iging.com/intro/introduc.htm

Broadly speaking, it was used as consultative tool, a guide for understanding the relationships believed to exist in the universe. If you had a moral dilemma, or a problem that needed solving, it was used as a resource to guide decision making.

At this stage let me be clear, there are so many relationships and re-interpretations that we could find ourselves making relationships with the I Ching that weren’t really intended. Since our goal is to try to develop some insight into the mindset of kata's originators, we have to try to understand what it is that THEY believed, the interpretation or arrangement that was meaningful for them. That means we can’t just apply one interpretation for all katas or all schools of karate. But, given how consistent the broad principles are, it’s fair to say we can have a stab at identifying the interpretation used, and that in turn might tell us more about the originators intentions. 

The first and oldest interpretation or “arrangement” is the Fu Xi 8 primary gua.

Each side has a pairing with the other. So 1 + 8 = 9 which is Heaven + Earth, North + South, Summer + Winter and so on which constitutes the Tai Chi balance (9). Many katas appear to be named in this way; Sepai (18), Sanseryu (36), Gojushiho (54), and Suparenpei (108) which is a special case. There are 2 kata that would appear to break this pattern; Seisan (13) and Niseishi/Nujushiho (24).

But another arrangement or interpretation is the King Wen sequence, also going back thousands of years and it arranges the dual/complimentary pairings into hexagrams, 64 for of them divided into the upper and lower canon, or earlier and later heaven: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Wen_sequence

Either Seisan and Niseishi are drawn from that, or there is another source or an understanding of the arrangements that I haven’t fully understood yet. In the King Wen sequence, 24 means “turning back” or “return” and is paired with “falling away” or “splitting apart”. It’s possible that that was the sentiment the originator was striving for when naming the kata Niseishi, and certainly it fits better than any other hexagram pairings in the whole set, but without knowing more about the commonality of usage of one interpretation over another, it is pretty speculative.

But there is another possibility for all of these kata in terms of how numbers where used to form meaningful names. Before I get on to that, I still have plenty of questions regarding other katas with numbers involved in their names such as Sanchin (3 battles), Shisochin (“4 way town” or “just flow” or “4 gates”). It’s clear that Goju karate in particular drew from the Tao/Buddhist philosophies and teachings to inform it’s approach to the fighting arts. Even it’s name reflects the hard/soft duality that is the foundation of taoism.

The other possibility is Ku-ji ho and various manifestations of Ku-ji. It literally means 9 syllables, and while derived from the I Ching and brought over to Japan from China around the year 700 AD, it seems to be a system in it’s own right. The wikipedia article on it is extremely rich and informative: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuji-in

It originates from a line from a poem written around the year 300: “(Celestial) soldiers/fighters descend and arrange yourselves in front of me", or “May all those who preside over warriors be my vanguard!”.

The 9 syllables are as follows:

1 = Rin, 2 = Pyo, 3 = To, 4 = Sha, 5 = Kai, 6 = Jin, 7 = Retsu, 8 = Zai, 9 Zen.

There are 3 interpretations, the Shinto and Buddhist ones are almost identical, and the Ninjutsu interpretation is almost completely different (refer to wiki article).


1 = Rin = To face, to confront. (yang/yo)

2 = Pro = The solider, to soldier on. (yin/in)

3 = To  = To fight, to battle with. (yang/yo)

4 = Sha = The man or people, a foe. (yin/in)

5 = Kai = The all, the whole effect, the whole effort, with everyone/entire/group. (yang/yo)

6 = Jin = Formation/position/camp/to prepare.(yin/in)

7 = Retsu = To move in column or row, to focus. (yang/yo)

8 = Zai = To appear, make yourself known, presence. (yin/in)

9 = Zen = To be in front, to move forward. (yang/yo)

According to the wiki article, often a 10th syllable is added at the end which is the syllable for “victory” or “to destroy”. Incidentally the Kuji kiri mudra (symbolic/spiritual gestures) for 9 = Zen is the same as the Chinese salute with the left hand covering the right fist, as in the opening of Bassai Dai. Another interesting aside, the Kuji kiri for 8 = Zai is the same for the opening of kankudai/kushanku, with the hands spread out in front and the thumb and index finger touching. Yet another interesting aside, in Tantric rituals from which mudras arose, the total number practised in regular rituals is 108 (an extremely important number in eastern religions). My final aside, is that the reference to “hands” we sometimes hear (eg. Sepai "18 hands") may be a reference to the mudras since these symbolic gestures were clearly of some importance at that time.

Kuji-in practise supposedly symbolises that all the forces of the universe are united against evil. So how wide-spread was it used by bushi and budo generally? Here is what the wiki article says: “The fact that the Taoist kuji are not seen in Japanese documents and writings until at least the 1500s, and then not extensively until around the Edo jidai (1603-1868ADE) and Meji jidai (1868 -1912ADE) indicates that they were either not extensively practiced, or taught as kuden (oral transmission). However, the fact that so many koryu list the kuji in their makimono indicates it must have been considered an essential teaching (goku-i). And the fact the ku-ji are listed in numerous kobudō makimono from the 1500s onward, is proof that the ku-ji were practiced by the bushi.”

Additionally, there is a text as to Kuji-ho practise from a text called “Sugen jinpi gyoho fuju shu”, edited by Nakuno Tatsue some time around the turn of the 20th Century. There are around 400 rituals listed but two that are important to budo is 199 and 200. They list corresponding deities that relate to each of the kuji. For example 1= Rin = Bishamonten, a god of war. 8 = Zai = Yamantaka, conqueror of death. Without knowing more from this text, it’s hard to say what the reasoning is behind the connection, or whether it can be argued that they were being invoked in the process of naming the kata.

All of this seems to be a Chinese/Japenese connection. We know that there was quite a lot of cross contact with mainland China from Okinawa but was there the same from Japan, especially at the time the katas were evolving? That Taoism/Buddhism and its various practises was ubiquitous throughout the region for hundreds of years is without question, but how much of the culture that evolved in Japan - most particularly kuji-ho made it to the island? Well, in one of the northern most islands of Okinawa is a town called Kuji and the bay it sits on - Kuji Bay. But apart from being able to hire a car, there doesn’t seem to be much other information on the town, for example how old it is. In any case, there most likely was some.

If Matsumura studied from Japanese masters in Jigen ryu, then it is more than likely he knew kuji-in whether he practised it or not, or implemented any of the ideas into the katas he passed on. But, I think it is a worthwhile (if academic) line of thought to guide further research. One further point; from the point of view of practical martial arts it really doesn’t matter, but if we are puzzling over a pattern in a kata that does not seem to make much practical sense, it may be that the original intention may have been esoteric rather than necessarily or primarily practical. We therefore shouldn’t worry too much about finding an application if there isn’t one to be had.

It’s clear the numbered Goju katas were brought over from China specifically the Fujian province and probably were named using principles of the Fu Xi I Ching, but to know for sure we would have to know what version of the I Ching was in common practise at the time in that place. The numbers are consistent with Taoist/Buddhist principles and while it may not be clear exactly what the process and thinking was, it’s pretty sure that that was what was behind it. With the Shorin-style katas, I think there was greater opportunity for influence from multiple sources, and while the I Ching was likely still important, there may have been the influence of Kuji-in as well, especially since there is (apparently) plenty of evidence it was a matter of importance for the martial arts. Given the importance of numbers in the I Ching and Kuji, I think it more than probable that katas using numbers for titles are drawing from those philosophies and practises, even if it isn’t certain exactly how.

Finally, I think we need to say something about Seisan, 13. The name is used for many different katas at many different schools and deep into history. If adding as you would with the primary gua, you get 4, which is considered an extremely unlucky because it is homophonous with “death” in Chinese (and Japanese). There is even a thing called “tetraphobia” in China. In fact, the Chinese (allegedly) didn’t bid for the Olympics in 2004 because it had the number 4 in it. Hotels typically skip floors with the number 4 in it, so you go to floors 1,2,3,5 etc. The authorities have stopped issuing number plates with the number “4” in it. It’s a scary number…

Taking the number 13 literally in the King Wen series gives “Fellowship”, which doesn’t seem a likely connection with a fighting form. There is no obvious connection to the Fu Xi arrangement by adding 1 + 3. All we have really is an established practise of adding numbers and a deeply ingrained cultural fear of the number 4. It’s likely that the adding one and three as would be the case in the I Ching to give 4 either symbolises a fight to the death, or when one’s luck has run out. The word for “death” in Japanese is also “shi” - which sounds nearly identical to the word 4. So in the absence of any other plausible theories and the ubiquitous use of numbers throughout eastern culture, and the wide use of the name “seisan” applied to many katas, it’s fair to say that it’s likely the reason for the name is because of the significance of the number 4 to people from those cultures.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for the comprehensive post. To avoid duplication of discussion, it probably would have been better if it was part of the original thread. It’s been an extensive discussion and I don’t want to have to duplicate why I don’t feel this theory is that convincing.

I will link to this thread from the original and close this thread to avoid aforementioned duplication.    

Everyone wanting to discuss this theory, can do so here:


Please be sure to check out other posts in the thread so you get an idea of the discussion.

All the best,


Topic locked