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Iain Abernethy
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Hi Nimrod,

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Again, the distance between Shuri and Naha (in Okinawa) is less relevant for my argument. It is more relevant where these katas came from in China, before reaching Okinawa, because it is then and there that the katas got their names.

Not wanting to throw more confusion into the mix, but there is a plausible argument to be made that not all of the kata that claim Chinese origins have Chinese origins. Some people, way more knowledgeable than me on this historical stuff, have suggested that some of the kata were created in Okinawa and then a Chinese lineage invented for them to give them greater legitimacy.

We do know some of the kata created in Okinawa (Kushanku, Chinto, etc) are said to be based on Chinese methods, even if the kata itself was created in Okinawa. It’s therefore not too great a stretch to suggest others we practise today, that do claim the kata itself came from China, did not in fact do so. It’s a minor aside to what we are discussing, but I feel it’s worth adding into the thread as a footnote.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Would you consider also Shitoryu Sochin and Unshu as "katas that ran from home"?

Not really because Shito-Ryu is still part of the Naha line because it draws kata from both Shuri-te and Naha-te. Sochin is also still practised on Naha-systems (i.e. Goju-Ryu); where as Neiseishi is not. A case can be made for Unsu because it’s also found in Shotokan, but Shotokan’s Sochin is a very different kata (sharing a name but little else). However, Unsu is not that widely practised in Shuri-te systems overall, whereas Neiseishi has a more of a foothold. It’s a jokey term I use for the fact Neiseishi was a Naha kata, but is now widely practised in Shotokan, Wado, etc (primarily Shuri-te in linage) whereas it is absent from Goju. I would not read too much into it :-)

Nimrod Nir wrote:
What makes you call Niseishi "the kata that ran away from home", other than its lineage? Do you find any stylistic similarity between it and the Goju katas?

Nothing more than the fact it was part of the Naha-te line, but now primarily “lives” with Shuri-te stylists.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Following your logic, we would have to assume that Juroku got its name because it has 16 martial steps/stages within it. However, we know this isn't the case. Did Mabuni break with tradition here?

Do we know that isn’t the case? I’ve read on the internet that is the case, but none actually quote a primary source for that information. Plenty of others also say it refers to “steps” / “hands”. Without a reference to Mabuni himself saying why he named the kata, then we don’t know. Internet articles – especially those that don’t quote sources – are to be treated with caution. If such a primary source does exist (?) then that would be a very useful addition to the discussion.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
In addition, to the best of my knowledge, Nipaipo is the "Okinawaized" version of the original Chinese form, which was called Neipai, which also means 28. So Mabuni didn't even pick the name by himself.

We don’t have an original kata to compare to, but that’s really beside the point. If an original kata did exist called “28”, then Mabuni added “po” (steps) to the name for his version of it. We also know that the kata without the po/ho suffix in their name (as commonly used) were written with the character in place i.e. the program from the 1867 event where Aragaki demonstrated Seisan and Tomura demonstrated Superimpei. They wrote “thirteen steps” and “one-hundred and eight steps”, not “thirteen” or “one-hundred and eight” despite that being what the name translates to. It seems clear to me that “steps” are when is being counted, even when the name is “abbreviated” to just the number. If the older kata did indeed exist (I don’t know) then Mabuni’s addition of the character would support this yet further.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
As for the meaning of the name 28, the best explanation I could find was from this wonderful kata dictionary site …

“The number 28 is significant because it is considered an auspicious number in China and represents prosperity, specifically “double prosperity.” Nipaipo is practiced by most Shitō-ryū traditions.”

I’d again ask for a source for these claims? What is the connection between the alleged symbolism of the number and the kata itself? Why assume numerology – without any supporting evidence – when there is no need to do so?

Nimrod Nir wrote:
I must disclose that I am not aware of the level of research behind the information presented in this wonderful site, but at least there is a suggestion (which might be wrong) that Nipaipo is based on an auspicious Chinese number (unrelated to Buddhism, to the best of my knowledge).

According to this site, some other possible explanations of the kata names are …

Sources? Without any, it’s a regurgitation of what I feel is historically baseless, needless pseudo-mysticism. It’s also an incomplete hypothesis that grossly violates Occam Razor.

If they are counting steps (stages) – and the written and spoken names strongly support that position – then that explains what the number represents, and the link between the name and the kata that bears that name.

If another significance is proposed, then what is the evidence, and why should that be preferred over “steps” to the degree that we should ignore the fact they wrote steps?

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Seipai - 18 - There is a tradition dating back to the 16th century of Moon Viewing, or Tsukimachi (月待ち) where people would gather inside to wait for the moon to rise on the eighteenth day, share food and drink, or give offerings and prayers to the moon.

Why is the kata named after a religious celebration connected with the moon? Was the creator of Seipei a dedicated worshiper of the moon? How did their moon worship influence the kata? Why was the kata named after this alleged lunar symbolism? With no answers to these questions, let alone any supporting evidence, the simple counting of steps remains the preferred explanation.  

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Niseishi - 24 - 24 divisions of the solar year. These are the classical 24 terms used to denote the changing of the seasons that was adopted by Okinawa.

Why is the kata named after periods of the solar year? What’s the connection? How does this summary of combative methods have any connection to astronomy?

And so on.

The burden of proof is on those proposing the connection. Why were the specific kata given these specific names? Without any adequate explanation or any evidence, it seems to be very questionable.

To me, they are simply taking the number and looking for an obscure “mystical” connection – without any justifiable reason to do so – when the much simpler explanation of “they are counting steps / stages and that’s why they wrote steps / stages” has none of these problems.

In short, when you hear hoofbeats, then assume horses not unicorns.

In my experience, although such numerology-based claims are widespread, they have exactly zero evidence to support them. It strikes me as an attempt to make the kata seem “deeper”, but in reality, it adds nothing but baseless confusion and is harmful to our understanding of karate and kata.

The creators of the kata were martial artists, not “eastern druids” obsessed with astronomy, astrology and numerology. As I say, my own take is they wrote “steps” and therefore the simple counting of said “steps” is the logical conclusion to reach.

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
The creators of the kata were martial artists, not “eastern druids” obsessed with astronomy, astrology and numerology. As I say, my own take is they wrote “steps” and therefore the simple counting of said “steps” is the logical conclusion to reach.

Hope you guys don't mind me jumping in here again, it's just too interesting.

To me this seems to assume a level of across-the-board pragmatism that wasn't always there, including in pre-modern martial arts. Just read a Tai Chi treatise or the Bubishi, there is all sorts of stuff in there that is not directly applicable to martial study, it seems to me like that sort of stuff has been around in martial arts for a while.

At times I sort of wish historical martial arts -were- that exclusively practical in their aims, but this does not seem to be so to me, given the existence of the sort of the texts mentioned, and lots of others. you can find paralell esoteric studies in European martial arts (Spanish Magic Circle Fencing etc.) I am sure these things are driven by the social needs of the time.

While not directly related to Okinawan arts, you can even read Musashi to see someone complaining about the florid and overly philosophical stances of some of the martial artists of his time (perhaps it is a "peacetime" thing?)....then he went and wrote The Go Rin no Sho. While certainly full of some martial stratagems, it is pretty out there and philosophical in places too. I am not convinced that the Kata creators were 100% practical. This is due not only to the varying social milieu around martial arts, but aso to the Kata themselves, which from my perspective do not always exhibit a uniform level of practicality at all.

It appears to me that non-martial stuff in martial arts simply is not that new. This is why (while I get your skepticism about Kata names a bit better now Iain) I also don't see why the notion that non-martial stuff would have made it in is such an outlandish one. I can agree that the Kata creators were unlikely to be "Eastern Druids", and to a degree I can also understand the skepticism around the Kata names, however I cannot as easily swallow the claim that the Kata creators were full-on pragmatiststs concerned only with martial applicability, because I am not sure that has ever been the case, in any time.

I think I better understand your position on Kata naming now Iain, and I need time to further educate myself and think about what we've discussed. Along those lines, can you link or reccomend the writings by Lin Bouyan or others which specifically talk about "The Myth of a Shaolin Origin" in a more general sense? I found your argument on the modernity of the Bodhidharma myth fairly convincing, but I am not sure about the general claim that Shaolin or other forms of esotericism are a new thing in Chinese (or Okinawan for that matter) martial arts, I have my doubts about that as an overall historical claim, though I'm happy to be proved wrong. Perhaps that should be a new thread in order not not have this one drift so far off topic?

My concern is that  the notion that the Kata creators were uniformly practically-minded seems pretty reductionist from what I know circumstantially, and I am not sure it is not also a bit of a wishful gloss on the evidence we have about practical vs. less practical concerns.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
Hope you guys don't mind me jumping in here again, it's just too interesting.

Not at all! It is an interesting topic and I always find the threads like this one (where there is not a uniform viewpoint) to be the most productive and interesting for readers.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I also don't see why the notion that non-martial stuff would have made it in is such an outlandish one. I can agree that the Kata creators were unlikely to be "Eastern Druids", and to a degree I can also understand the skepticism around the Kata names, however I cannot as easily swallow the claim that the Kata creators were full-on pragmatiststs concerned only with martial applicability, because I am not sure that has ever been the case, in any time.

To clarify, I am not claiming that all the past masters / kata creators are full on pragmatists who were devoid of a worldview which was common in the location and time in which they lived. What I am claiming is that the full-on interweaving of these worldviews with the martial arts, to the point where they were an overriding consideration that must be front and foremost at all times, is a modern reimagining of the history.

The claim that all the katas that have a number attached to them because of that number’s significance in Buddhism, Taoism, Astrology, etc is what I am specifically challenging here. I feel the evidence firmly point to them simply counting steps / stages and the modern preference to attach these numbers to mystical ideas, instead of simple counting, is a continuation of the false history used to promote the martial arts in the early 1900s. It is possible to simply count and still hold a religious worldview.  If people do believe that the religious symbolism is taking preference to counting, I would ask them to show how the number’s symbolism relates to the kata.

By away of analogy, I – living in a predominantly Christian country – made a kata for my own practise of Motobu’s drills. I named it “12 steps” (Seinipo) because there are 12 drills within it. In 200 years would it be logical to conclude I named it “12 steps” because Jesus has 12 disciples? Or would people accept that that it’s called “12 steps” because there are 12 steps / stages / drills in it?

We have 7 drills for the first kata we teach. Is that because of the 7 days of creation? Or simply because I felt that seven was the number of drills required to explain that kata?

Now let’s say in 100 years, people start promoting karate by saying it is inherently Christian in nature. They make up myths about how karate has its origins in the Temple on the Mount and was developed there by the Knights Templar. Historians quickly debunk this as nonsense, but the karateka of the time love the idea and don’t question the history. That myth spreads and most karateka accept it to some degree. I think we would agree that such a myth may make it more likely that people would start attaching Christian symbolism to the numbers, despite that never being the case originally.

However, in spite of this, if people concluded I was indeed simply counting in the above instances, does it therefore follow that I must be areligious, as must be all those who taught me and trained with me? Is that evidence none of us were Christian, or that the culture we were in was not predominately Christian? I would say not. It is possible to hold a religious worldview and count without always making connections to that worldview.  

A similar thing has happened with karate over the last century or so. I therefore don’t see the need to invent an overarching religious / philosophical approach to the numbers related to the kata when simple counting is a better explanation. However, the act of them simply counting does not mean I am saying the past masters were all areligious. What I am saying is it is possible to practise martial arts, and count, without having the worldview one holds, and is prevalent in the culture, dominate all else. The idea that Zen, Bushido, Buddhism, etc were an inextricable and dominant influence on martial practise - to the point where they should be the prefered "go to explanation" for kata names, etc - can be shown to be historically false.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Along those lines, can you link or reccomend the writings by Lin Bouyan or others which specifically talk about "The Myth of a Shaolin Origin" in a more general sense

A great place to start is this book:

https://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Martial-Arts-Training-Manuals/dp/1583941940/

It’s a fantastic book that everyone I have recommended it to has enjoyed.

There’s also a fantastic BBC podcast / radio show called “In Our Time” where panels of experts discuss various historical, scientific and religious topics. This is the one they did on Zen:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04sxv29

At 33:40 they specifically start to talk about the alleged link to martial arts, and all three experts quickly dismiss the idea as a modern myth.

Wikipedia, for all its faults, can be a good jumping off point too (check out the referenced sources linked in the text):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhidharma#Shaolin_boxing

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Thanks Iain, I will take a deeper look at these resources, the manuals book looks fantastic. One thing to note here:

e wrote:
I feel the evidence firmly point to them simply counting steps / stages and the modern preference to attach these numbers to mystical ideas, instead of simple counting, is a continuation of the false history used to promote the martial arts in the early 1900s.

I agree that there is a powerful drive to connect martial arts to mysticism and religion, for a variety of purposes, many of which are not great. However, my contention is that this is not a new thing, though our time (and the specific art we study) has it's own version of this, it is something with historical precedent well outside of Asian martial arts.

On the larger issue and the resources being shown so far:

Even in Japan and China, "Zen" (or Chan for the Chinese version) is far from synonymous with all Buddhism. There are and were others schools with a huge influence. Along a similar line, in many cases it is not easy to say (particularly with regard to laypeople) whether they were exclusively practicing one or the other school. So, the assumption that the form of Buddhism involved (if any) in martial arts is Zen or Chan is a fairly large, and somewhat incongrous one, from what I know. Focusing on that form of Buddhism to the exclusion of others as possible cultural influences actually misses the nature of the issue quite a bit, from my perspective.

In short, if we are to allow for the possiblity that such influences are possible, assuming they would come only from Zen, or only from formal connection to Zen Buddhist institutions does not make any sense, though it is certainly where academics studying Zen specifically would tend to focus their time. I should also say that the world of academic Buddhist studies is quite diverse, and there are few subjects on which there is much expert consensus.

One of the academics in the podcast at 33:40 actually mentions Tantric (esoteric) Buddhism as having some possible presence in martial arts and somewhat gives a piece of anecdotal evidence to my case, mentioning things like Tantric deities on swords. What she is saying is that there the connection between Zen Buddhism and martial arts is a modern one, she is not making a blanket statement about Buddhism or esoteric symbolism in martial arts being exclusively being modern, and in fact seems to briefly indicate that the contrary is true in some cases. So while I get what you are saying, you are making an assumption there that because the  Zen connection is said to be modern, it all is.

Re - listen to what is said and you will see what I am talking about. I mentioned Shingon (a form of Japanese esoteric Buddhism) ealier because I personally speculate it might be a more likely influence than Zen on things like numerical symbolism.

With regard to possible symbolism though, it should be understood that if/when these things might be found in Karate, they would not neccessarily be found as some direct connection to Zen (and in fact likely would not), but rather as part of a larger cultural mishmash of esoteric Buddhism, Zen, Daosim, Shinto, Pureland Buddhism, general folk religion and other stuff. I personally think they are likely folk/Buddhist influences, but of course I cannot go beyond speculation there. The reasoning behind such naming conventions could be as simple as what we would term "superstition" to be plausible, particularly because it seems quite possible that the Kata creators were not neccessarily religious scholars or subject-matter experts themselves, just as the warriors who reasoned that they should put Tantric deities on their swords were likely not priests or scholars either.

I will agree that beyond this we get into pure speculation of course as far as Kata names, because  the specifics of the symbolism are nearly impossible to know. It is also not particularly relevant to my own martial arts training, simply something I find interesting.

I'll also agree that the kind of detailed speculation often engaged in on the symbolism with the Karate world is not neccessarily helpful - hand positions as mudras is a good example.

That said, nothing said here so far convinces me that symbolic meanings for the Kata other than Suparinpei are unlikely, it simply convinces me that we can only speculate on those meanings. So far most of what you've mentioned has been about Zen/Chan, and that is a quite specific subject matter, seperate but related to the larger question.

In short, this question cannot be examined by only talking about Zen, and we would actually get a very inaccurate picture of it if we tried to draw conclusions based only on the modern Zen/Martial arts reconstruction thing.

Anyway, I have probably taken up too much time on this, I am mainly playing devil's advocate here because while I tend to agree with you that people wanting to create complex meaning in what we cannot know for certain (Kata name meanings) are probably off base, I also think it might be a bit reductionist (to the point of being somewhat inaccurate) to imply that religious or esoteric symbolism in martial arts is a modern phenomena, or that pre-modern martial artists were uniformly practically minded.

It's a particularly incongruent statement if it's being made based only on the modern historical circumstances and misrepresentation of one school - i.e. Zen (i'm not clear that it is, but most the stuff you are referring me to is specific to Zen, and is actually connected to some larger issues in modern presentations/revisionism of Buddhism generally) This is why I asking if you knew of more general sources on the subject of Shaolin mythology, or even just general esoterism in Chinese martial arts.

If we could transport ourselves back to the beginnings of proto- Karate, indeed we would likely not find a group of "Eastern Druids", I do not think we would find a uniform group of pragmatists either. I'm guessing we would find an ecclectic mix of people, plenty of whom would have practices that we would deem strange or absurd to modern eyes.

Anyway, I do respect your opinion on this Iain, and will delve into the subject further. If I am taking up too much forum time or space here just let me know.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
Focusing on that form of Buddhism to the exclusion of others as possible cultural influences actually misses the nature of the issue quite a bit, from my perspective.

Apologies if I was unclear in my intent there. Zen is the one that is most frequently attached to karate i.e. Nagamine’s “Zen and karate are one”. It’s also the one more widely attached to the martial arts generally. I was pointing out that that specific claim is specifically debunked in that podcast. I was not claiming it was the only religious / philosophical worldview linked to karate. As an example, Gogen Yamaguchi makes a link to Taosit ideas in his book (although that proposed connection is far less common). Others also talk of “Budo” as an extension of “ancient Bushido” (itself an historical fiction).

My core point remains that I’m not seeing anything that would make me think there was a pre-1900s connection to religion that was so great that any kata with a number needs to have the number viewed in that context.

Other kata are named after the martial artis that taught the methods within, or are given directly combative names. If this religious thinking was so infused and dominant in the thinking of the karateka of the past, and had a huge influence on the nomenclature, we have to ask what is the religious significance of, “Smash and Tear” (Saifa), “To hold ground and suddenly destroy” (Kururunfa), etc? Or does this religious naming only extend to numbers? If that’s the case, why? Why are none of the kata with proper names religious in nature? That would make no sense is the proposed thinking was so dominant.

To me, the logical conclusion to draw is that the naming of the kata is martial in nature and tell us something about the methods within i.e. who created them, what is their nature, and, in the case of the number kata, how many stages / steps are contained.

I’d again say to those who chose to assign a religious significance, then what is that significance and the connection to the kata?

How does the religious significance of, say “18”, relate to Seipai? If the hypothesis can’t get to this point, then it has no real use. It’s an assertion with no value.

With the “counting approach” we can maybe seek to identify those stages as we explore the bunkai. The approach has a potential value to us.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I will agree that beyond this we get into pure speculation of course as far as Kata names, because  the specifics of the symbolism are nearly impossible to know.

That problem only exists if we assume there is some symbolism in place in the first place. As far as I can see, there is no basis on which to make that assumption.

As I’ve said throughout the thread, they wrote “steps” so why assume there is a deeper philosophical meaning when there is no evidence that is the case, when no such symbolic meaning has ever been explained, and none of the kata with proper names show any sign of such symbolism?

To me, it’s a clear violation of Occam’s Razor because we are asserting there is an unidentified symbolism and without any justification to do so.

If it were not for the popularity of the martial “creation myths” of the 1900s, I doubt anyone would seek to make such a connection today.

Zach Zinn wrote:
That said, nothing said here so far convinces me that symbolic meanings for the Kata other than Suparinpei are unlikely, it simply convinces me that we can only speculate on those meanings.

Where I struggle is to see why you think they are likely enough to consider and speculate on?

If all of the other kata had religious names, then it would make sense that the number kata were also named along those lines, and there would therefore be an open question about the specific symbolism of the numbers.

However, when all the other kata have names related to the combative methods within the kata – leaving aside Funakoshi’s later poetic names in Shotokan – why assume that’s not the case with the numbers? Why the inconsistency between the proper names (martial) and the numbers (religious)?

My own take is that all the names are martial (names and numbers). They all refer to the nature of the kata itself. When it comes to numbers, they wrote steps / stages, so the logical conclusion is they are counting the steps / stages within the kata. This is consistent with names of all other kata and does not have the unanswered questions that appear when a religious symbolism is assumed. Two key unanswered questions would seem to be:

1) What are the numbers referring to, and why was that specific number attached to that specific kata?

Counting Approach: They wrote steps / stages, so they are almost certain to be counting steps / stages. Therefore, the name reflects the number of steps / stages within the kata.

Religious Approach: Some unidentified religious significance that was attached to the kata for an unidentified reason?

2) Why are the kata proper names martial in nature, but the number names are religious in nature?

Counting Approach: No inconsistency here. All the kata have names that either tell us about the origins of the methods (i.e. name of the creator, such as Kushanku) or the nature of the methods themselves (i.e. methods that “Smash and Tear”). The numbers are likewise descriptive, and they would therefore refer to the number of steps / stages within the kata.

Religious Approach: The number kata are especially religious in a way that the proper name kata are not? The proper name kata were named by areligious / less religious martial artists, but the number kata were named by especially devout martial artists? What’s the explanation / hypothesis here?

As I say, the simple counting of steps / stages is much simpler and does not have the presently unanswered questions above. Occam’s Razor would therefore have us prefer counting to any religious meaning / symbolism as that would seem to have more gaps (so not an equal hypothesis) and it adds in unnecessary complexity (so it would still not be the preferred hypothesis even if these gaps were sufficiently addressed).

Zach Zinn wrote:
Anyway, I do respect your opinion on this Iain, and will delve into the subject further. If I am taking up too much forum time or space here just let me know.

Likewise, and not at all! I think this is proving to be a good thread and there’s loads for readers to unpack! I think, at this point in the discussion, we are unlikely to find a consensus that we both can sign up to, but the back and forth has really broken the issue down and I am therefore confident that readers will find it very useful in thinking these things through for themselves and reaching their own conclusions. It’s been fun too! I really appreciate you sticking with it.

All the best,

Iain

Tau
Tau's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Other kata are named after the martial artis that taught the methods within, or are given directly combative names. If this religious thinking was so infused and dominant in the thinking of the karateka of the past, and had a huge influence on the nomenclature, we have to ask what is the religious significance of, “Smash and Tear” (Saifa), “To hold ground and suddenly destroy” (Kururunfa), etc?

Doesn't Jion refer to a temple?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Peter,

Tau wrote:
Doesn't Jion refer to a temple?

It’s my understand that that was a hypothesis put forth by Kanazawa. There are temples by that name, and some would point to the opening hand gesture (which looks like a related greeting, but I personally think is a combative motion). It’s not impossible, but not conclusive.

We need to be careful when “name matching” like that though. It’s little like saying that the hook punch must have originated in the town of Hook in Basingstoke. Comparing kata names like that is also additionally problematic because the kata names are generally Okinawan approximations of Chinese dialects, so a match with a Japanese name is not a “direct hit”. They may sound alike after being “processed” through various languages and dialects, but to then claim a link with no other supporting evidence is far from sound.

In his early books, Funakoshi wrote the name of the kata in katakana (sounds but no meaning) and it was only later, after he had changed all the kata names, that he started using “慈恩”. I think this may have added to the belief in a connection, but this new rendering has no bearing on the meaning of the original name which is lost to us (my highlight):

“Another reform to which I give my attention was that of nomenclature. Shortly after I came to Tokyo in 1922, the firm of Bukyosha published a book I had written called Ryükyü Kempo: Karate. At that time, the word was still being written as “Chinese hands,” and almost all the names of the katas that I described in my book were Okinawa origin: Pinan, Naifanchi, Chinto, Bassai, Seishan, Jitte, Jion, Sanchin, and the like. These were, in fact, the names that I had learned long ago from my own teachers.

“No one, by now, had any idea how they had come into being, and people found them difficult to learn. Accordingly, after having transformed “Chinese hands” into “empty hands,” I began to give the kata names that were easier to the Japanese people to use and that have now become familiar all over the world.”

Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do: My Way of Life.

We can theorise about what “Jion” may refer to, but the bottom-line is we don’t know and will probably never know. Again, we need to remember all we have is Japanese characters being used to approximate an Okinawan pronunciation of what could be Chinese dialects; and, unlike kanji, katakana does not give us any clue as to the meaning. It’s something of a linguistic nightmare to unentangle; which is why Funakoshi went with new names. I don’t think we should draw firm connections based on transliterated homophones alone.

We also have to ask if anyone from the temple, who made it to Okinawa, would produce it “Jion” (modern Japanese). The same characters (慈恩寺) are pronounced something like “sue-aanne” in traditional Chinese; which would seem different to the name passed on to us. I guess it’s possible the Okinawans translated or transliterated the name into “Jion” and then forgot what it was in reference to when writing the name, only for Kanazawa to correctly guess decades later. It’s far from being a solid link, but it’s not impossible either.

If the name was in reference to a Ci'en temple, or someone connected with it, as is suggested by those who think there is a connection, then the name is again descriptive as per my post above. It is not a religious idea, religious symbolism, or religious numerology, but simply a place. It’s telling us about the origins of the kata. As to whether that is what “Jion” is referring to, we can’t say.

All the best,

Iain

Wastelander
Wastelander's picture

To build on Iain's point about language and kata names, those Chinese dialects mostly don't exist, anymore, having been overtaken by Mandarin and Cantonese, and that isn't even getting into Uchinaaguchi. The Japanese worked very hard to stamp out the native Okinawan language, labeling it a "dialect" of Japanese specifically so they could shame and punish people into using "proper" Japanese. There are several groups working to preserve and restore the language, but Uchinaaguchi is probably about as dead of a language as Latin, and less well-documented, so we have no way of knowing how many words and phrases are lost to time. We can certainly assume that many of the kata had Chinese names, of varying dialects, transcribed into the Japanese katakana syllabary, but it's also entirely possible that some of them were Uchinaaguchi words, or even names. To branch out even further than that, Okinawa's long history of trade throughout Asia/Indochina, and tendency to be a melting pot of cultures, adds the possibility of words from many other languages being incorporated into the Okinawan vernacular. Whose to say that Jion isn't the katakana representation of an Okinawan pronunciation of an old Siamese/Thai word? Or a Malaysian word?

This kind of speculation gets really interesting, honestly, and I do like to poke around at it and roll the ideas around in my brain, but I never like to permanently attach meaning to the names of kata that were classically written in katakana, because we just have no way of verifying any of it. The Naihanchi debate comes to mind, in particular, because so many people have searched for the "original Chinese version" for decades, and constantly claim to have found it based on the name, or people have found references to old Chinese martial arts that use words that sound similar, and use that. There are so many people, today, who will argue with absolute certainty that Naihanchi means "in-close fighting," or "bear paws tearing the ground," or "fighting on a line," or "divided inner conflict," or any number of other translations. It's neat to think about, but I don't think it's usually all that helpful.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I don't know any of these katas and really have no dog in this fight, but I will note that there is a plausible middle ground available.  It could be that katas are named with numbers because there are (approximately?) that many "steps" (techniques, sequences, or literal steps) in the kata  but also that there are that many steps because the kata creators had some numerological perspective on their art.

In the introduction to Chin Na Fa: Traditional Chinese Submission Grappling, translator Tim Cartmell writes:

In the introduction to the book the author writes, "... The art includes 72 techniques."  In the martial arts world, there are many references to the so-called thirty-six main cavities and the seventy-two minor cavities.  In the art of Chin Na Fa, there is also often reference to the "thirty-six techniques," "seventy-two techniques," or "one-hundred-and-eight techniques."  These correspond to ancient ideas of celestial and terrestrial formations and should not be taken as the literal number of techniques in the art of Chin Na Fa.

There are literally 72 techniques in the book, on the other hand this number presumably has some numerological significance and if the numerological system had been different, it would not have been hard to include a few more or less techniques in a Chin Na manual.

Something similar might go for karate katas?

Kiwikarateka
Kiwikarateka's picture

Nimrod Nir wrote:
In addition, to the best of my knowledge, Nipaipo is the "Okinawaized" version of the original Chinese form, which was called Neipai, which also means 28. So Mabuni didn't even pick the name by himself.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
We don’t have an original kata to compare to, but that’s really beside the point. If an original kata did exist called “28”, then Mabuni added “po” (steps) to the name for his version of it. We also know that the kata without the po/ho suffix in their name (as commonly used) were written with the character in place i.e. the program from the 1867 event where Aragaki demonstrated Seisan and Tomura demonstrated Superimpei. They wrote “thirteen steps” and “one-hundred and eight steps”, not “thirteen” or “one-hundred and eight” despite that being what the name translates to. It seems clear to me that “steps” are when is being counted, even when the name is “abbreviated” to just the number. If the older kata did indeed exist (I don’t know) then Mabuni’s addition of the character would support this yet further.

Slightly off topic but in regard to Nipaipo, I came across this video recently which compares it to a Chinese form with which it which bears a striking resemblance:

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

That’s a very interesting video. Thanks for sharing. What’s really relevant to this discussion is that the “steps” character is also present in the names of the Chinese versions of the kata. Thanks for sharing!

All the best,

Iain

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