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Kyoshi's picture
Sanchin and Seisan Bunkai

Hi All,

Stemming from this thread http://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/kobudo-distinct-kata-or-karate-kata#comment-7209 i would love to see your intepretation of Uechi Sanchin and Uechi Seisan:


Best regards Nikolaj

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

This should be a good thread! Sanchin is not a kata I practise. I have however been lucky enough to experience Dan Lewis’s, Kris Wilder’s and Chris Rowen’s take on this kata when teaching alongside them. All were very impressive and both Kris Wilder and Chris Rowen have material out on those kata.

There are a few differing versions of Seishan and the version I practise is not the same as the one shown here. I have made a DVD on it (Bunkai Jutsu 4): http://shop.iainabernethy.com/acatalog/shop.html

I was going to post a video here, but having looked though my YouTube videos, I am surprised to find I’ve not uploaded anything on that kata! I’ll put that right in the not too distant future.

To pick up on of the themes in the thread that prompted this one, I am not saying that my take on the kata provides the definitive original applications. It is my take on the form which I believe to be functional, entirely in keeping with the nature of the form, and in accordance with the historical information we do have. It therefore can’t be proven to be right (i.e. historically 100% accurate), but it can also not be shown to be wrong.  It works (so it has validity practically) and it is not at variance with the historical information we do have (so its validity historically is not disproven).

In science, for a theory to have validity it need to explain all the available data. It is never taken to be “proven” though as there is the acknowledgment that previously unknown data can be discovered and this could require the theory to be modified or overturned. Scientific theories are extremely robust though and should not be confused with the way “theory” is used in everyday speech i.e. “it’s just a theory”. Try stepping off a tall building and seeing how the “Theory of Gravity” feels about being “just a theory” :-)

I adopt a similar approach with regards to the validity of bunkai. To me, the data that needs to be explained includes why the kata is the way it is, validity in combative application, and historical congruence. Until new data comes along that can’t be explained by the existing theory, the theory can be view as being correct. In this model, there is therefore more than one way to be correct, without it being an “everything is right free for all”.

Just as with science, it is possible to have competing theories that are equality scientifically valid i.e. the various models of string theory. I am therefore of the view that there can be equality valid ways to see kata.

On that basis, I look forward to viewing how those here make use of the kata.

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I don't think Sanchin really has a bunkai as such, or if it did it would be very elemental. It's more about building certain habits, movements, building the frame and and creating locomotion and power generation specific to nahate.

You can extract movements from it if you want, but from a Goju Ryu perspective really that's what the 8 kata are for, Sanchin is mostly strategy. Granted there's no exact division, but that's the gist.

Seisan is a different deal entirely, it's an awesome kata, and is meant to be used as "bunkai". Most of what i've learned is simple, direct, and effective.

I've been lucky enough to learn from Wilder sensei and his ideas on bunkai really resonate with me, his seisan stuff is great.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:
I've been lucky enough to learn from Wilder sensei and his ideas on bunkai really resonate with me, his seisan stuff is great.

Totally agree. Kris’s stuff is very robust and highly recommended. Very nice guy too.

While embedding the above videos, I stumbled across this other one from Kris.

All the best,


PS Kris and I are teaching a joint seminar the weekend after next: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/events/kris-wilder-and-iain-abernethy-joint-seminar

PPS I’m in the office with my eight year old daughter. On seeing Kris in the video she remarked, “That’s the man who slept in my bed and bought me a teddy bear … I still have that bear.” Cute :-)

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Ha! You guys should do a US joint seminar next;)

Tau's picture

Please educate me.

I've never done Goju beyond the odd bits of seminars here and there. I do practice Hangetsu. I appreciate that they're different kata but they appear similar in terms of stance and tension. Please explain how (if at all) are they related. Are they related to the Jig Ma movements found in Kung Fu (I get the term from Lau Gar but I'm sure that the concept is in several styles?) Do Sanchin and Hangetsu actually have the same stance or are there differences?

Assuming they're related, which it would seem that they are, Iain, how about a video or you and Kris doing each simultaneously at the upcoming seminar?

DaveB's picture


A conditioning kata built to drill the student in rooting, generating power from that rooted position, stepping, use of breathing with movement and iron body training.  


Though I practice shotokan Siesan (Hangetsu) my observations suggest that the same principles are at work in the different versions. 

The main strategic thrust is to invade the opponent's space, crushing any defence and intercepting/shutting down any counter attacks through forward motion.

 A number of interpretations see a subtext of applying shallow angles (45d or less) to the forward motion in the kata. 

The more overt direction changes of 90 and 180d seem (at least in the Shorin variants) to indicate the use of some unbalancing and control methods as a follow-up to having entered. 

The sudden retreat at the end of the form looks to me like a "aha" moment technique, I.e. a sudden change of pace designed to catch out a difficult opponent. 

We can see a progression of complexity with this (and many other) kata, especially in the Shorin form. Beginning with a straightforward block and strike sequence then advancing to twin armed close fighting in the steps after and immediately before the first turn. This is followed with more advanced footwork (incl sliding steps and the turns) , which as suggested could be indicative of control techniques for application against more skilled boxers which are subsequently expanded on with kicking techniques and lastly a complete tactical shift in reversing direction, to catch out the unsuspecting fighter. 

The Uechi ryu version seems to (quite pragmatically considering that they have Sanchin as well) move straight past the fundamental end of the kata and into set pieces that describe important close range methods such as controlling the elbow and disrupting the opponent's structure. Very typical of southern kungfu. 

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Shorin Seisan/Hangetsu is the same  kata as Goju Seisan only if you look closely (it's much longer though), but the body mechanics are not like Sanchin at all, being a Shorin kata. The biggest difference is what people do their centerlines and stances...I think.

Anyway, one traditional analogy in Goju is something like sanchin being the center hub, and the eight spokes of a wheel being the other koryu kata. The central hub occupies a vtial strategic place, ann the rest of the wheel doesn't functoin without it.

Dale Parker
Dale Parker's picture

I seem to recall being told or reading that Hangetsu was based on Seisan, but intentially made different.

Dunno.  Some flavors of Shito-Ryu do both as they are different enough to be unique.

Tetsubo's picture

Dale Parker,

Hengetsu was the name Gichin Funakoshi renamed his original Shorn Ryu Seisan Kata to when he taught it to his students in the Japanese mainland.  It was not the only kata he renamed to avoid anti-Chinese sentiments and prejudice that was the contention of the time.  Gichin Funakoshi also modified the Kata movements and stances a little.  He seemingly wished to have a character of Sanchin dachi foot movement and tension stance into this Kata to reflect a Naha Te influence.  So he created Seisan Dachi or Hengetsu Dachi later.  This combination stance was made by combining the Shiko Dachi (straddle stance) with the Sanchin Dachi stance and did not exist before this time. 

Now to throw a wrench into the mix, the Seisan Kata of Chris Wilder is a Goju Ryu derivative which came to the island of Okinawa separately and at a different time than the Shorin Ryu version of Seisan in the Matsumura Shorin Ryu lineages.  These two Seisans have developed on Okinawa Island very differently and if compared will see some similarities but some great differences.  

I agree with Wilder Sensei that Seisan has a lot of bunkai.  It is an entire fighting system worthy of study and the Modern Shotokan does not emphasize Hengetsu as much as was done during G. Funakoshi's time but has fallen to a minor kata and sometimes not existent at all in some Shotokan dojos.  Thank you for reading.  

Donnie Hayhurst, Okinawa Seidokan

Holgersen (not verified)
Visitor's picture

I exclusively study a version of Seisan, the Seidokan version, which comes from the Seibukan version, which comes from who knows where. I've even seen practicioners of each of these styles perform it slightly different. It's not too completely different from Hangetsu though it is absent high "blocks" and focuses on opening chest "blocks." I'm not a Shotokan guy, so I'm not sure what they call them, but in my strict Shorinkan days we called them chudan uke.

Obviously my observations on the kata are going to be different based on the version I do, though I may have practiced it so much that it may have diverged into something different. I don't feel the need to check, because I practice for my own personal enjoyment.

I'm sure Donnie Hayhurst from above would be disgusted with my performance, or maybe not, who knows.

I basically think of the four combinations, which are in sets of three in my version to be techniques that can be layered directly on top of each other. As in, used individually or used in conjunction with each other in any combination you can think of and I've found that one combination generally covers the deficits of the others and can be done to maximum power without changing stances or using extra movement to make stuff work.

There is a "set" of techniques that mirrors each other, one left side, one right side that contains part of the fourth set of three, which involves a small back step, a small forward step where one executes a "hammer fist/ elbow strike" (one interpretation), step back into shiko dachi/ chudan uke, cross step like in Hangetsu, front kick, gedan uke, reverse punch, chudan uke and then the practictioner performs it again the other way using left hand dominent technqiues.

I've interpreted this set as being options for changing distance rapidly in a forward direction to not allow the "bad guy" to regain composure or advantage. Not really the upper body movements though, just the steps because the upper body movements can be plugged in pretty much anywhere and they can apply. Just like pretty much anything in the kata, which is why I believe it only show one set of foot movements at a time. Basically all the configurations you can do, within reason. Stepping forward from feet parrallel, stepping forward when the left foot is forward, stepping forward when the right foot is forward, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, stepping back. So on etc.

I look at these five sets as the core of the proactive techniques or sen sen no sen.

There are "eight" other techniques (even though you can really break all of this stuff down into little individual techniques).

One little group I think of as a Sen no Sen or simultaneous attack. Basically stepping in with a driving chudan uke/ leg entanglement/ shin strike/ foot stomp, which is the most often repeated movement and it being jammed by someone coming at you at the same time, like someone coming in for a tackle, take down, grab, something that jams the attack mid step, which is dealt with either by a forearm strike to the back of the head, turning joint lock or throw, or joint break which makes up the first turn. Basically several options for the same situation that can also be used to cover the other ones if one of the techniques fails. Head strike fails then joint lock, Joint lock fails then throw them, throw fails then joint break. Though not nessecarily in that order because they're just options.

The rest are go no sen, which are not responses to a random attacks, but responses to common counters to the techniques in the kata. Someone grabbing your arm at the end of a chudan uke that doesn't hit the mark, someone trying to tackle you before you go to make a step and other common scenarios based on the techniques or style of the kata, which I believe is all you can really prepare for.

I practice all of these at body contact distances or what could be called the clinch, because outside of that distance almost all of these techniques fall to crap, hence the emphasis on driving/ smashing/ disruptive defenses that can also entangle, stripe or damage limbs on their own and sometimes at the same time.

The two main stances of this style of Seisan is shiko dachi and zenkustu dachi (did I spell that right) forward stance. Most of the steps basically are a step into shiko dachi using a cresent step, which keeps the bulk of the body weight and energy of the techniques going forward followed by a shift into forward stance. The back leg usually comes forward into another cresent step and then almost falling into shiko dachi without bobbing up and down.

It's actually a very efficient means of transfering body weight and power. The first time I tested out the strict movements in a bulling exercise I was able to completely dominate my partner for a full five minutes without even breathing hard. The trick "like Iain has said in a Youtube video" is driving off the front leg, almost like a sprinter and then falling forward to make use of your body weight without using much if any muscle power, and then falling directly back into shiko dachi and starting the process over, almost like walking. The direction changes in my kata basically tell you how to do the same technique at any angle and from any foot position. By shifting the back foot during the step you can even change directions mid-step, so if you start to step forward and your opponent moves left or right you just shift your back foot to get leverage off of the floor and your body starts moving the new direction, without having to fuss with changing your feet around or regaining your balance.

Beyond this, I fill in with the Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail technique of "Run Away! Run Away!"

This is just my interpretation of the kata I practice and it changes as I go. I try never to rule out anything.

I also have a theory about the whole 13 thing. Thirteen like other numbers in Chinese is lucky because the words of ten and three sound similiar to other words that mean good things. I believe ten sounds like the word for "definite" and three sounds like the words for "growth, living or birth."

So instead of thinking of it as "Thirteen Hands" I like to try and think of it as "Infinite Growth" or "Infinite Life" in the way that the more I practice the more it grows within me and the more I grow because of it.

Well that's my thoughts on Seisan or Seishan or Shisan or Ju san or whatever you want to call it. I just call it my kata.

Tetsubo's picture

Dear Holgersen, 

Glad to hear of another Seidokanka on this blog.  I do not know if it is correct to say that the Seidokan version comes from the Seibukan version of Seisan. To the best of my knowledge, Shian Toma, the headmaster of Okinawa Seidokan, learned Seisan from Sokichi Shinjato, at the age of 17~18 when he returned form Osaka and back to Okinawa.  This was 1944.  Far later was his time adjusting this and other kata to the Chubu Shorin Ryu dojo of Zenryo Shimabukuro would have been in the early 1960s (estimated 1963).  For a term of six months he adjusted all of his learned kata to what was considered the Cutoku Kyan standard. These tweaks took Tomas Seisan Kata and added the zenkutsu dachi to shiko dachi transitions. Previously, his Seisan in the early years looked much more like the Shorinji Ryu version with an open hip forward stance (instead of Shiko dachi) that would shift and close on forward movements to emphasise trunkial twist (koshi).   Today we have this longer transition ensuring we develop koshi.  And for the record I have never seen your kata performance nor commented on it.  I do not judge, but I do love to research.  

This blog is about Sanchin and Seisan bunkai.  I am not qualified to comment on Sanchin.  I will put this forth on Seisan and this is compiled from some bare essentials from Shian Toma and my own insight into the kata from a Toide Tuite perspective.  Let me caviot that Shian Toma Sensei did not teach bunkai openly but would allow you to experiment and guide each student to do the best Karate they are capable of.  

1st tract of Seisan Kata comprises of three elbow breaks.

1) The first two are recipocals of one another from same hand grabs/or punch and breaks the elbow upward.

2) The third is a response to a cross-hand grab or cross punch and breaks the elbow horizontal to the ground.

3) The fourth technique is a response to a cross-hand grab/cross punch and executes a knee strike to the femoral nerve or the floating ribs.  

4) The fifth technique is a same-hand grab/same side punch that is captured and joint binding occurs that raises the opponent on their toes and turns under the captured arm to break the radius/ulna over one another and tear out the shoulder as the defender steps through.  

These techniques are then expounded upon, combined and re-combined through out the remaining legs of the kata for a congruent fighting system that slowly builds upon itself.  There like Holgersen says, groups of threes.  The firs tract shows this in the first three techniques broken out of the kata. Then the second tract is another group of three.  The third, forth, and fifth tract (tract = directional change) have one technique to each.  Together they are their own set of three.  From this point on the kata presents only single and recripocal pairs of techniques until the end. The seventh tract has two techniques and the eighth tract has the sevenths tract two technique recripocal. The ninth and final tract are all single unique techniques and some can become pairs with some creativity but in kata are unique movements and I believe the bunkai extrapolation reflects this as well. The way I count out the techniques is I do not count recripocal pairs but unique presented techniques.  There are 13 which just happens to be the translated name of the kata.  Hum.  Love this stuff.

rshively's picture

All of your comments on sanchin and seisan kata are good. Both of these kata are Chinese in origin. The uechi version tries to maintain the chinese connection. George Mattson of uechi ryu was said to have traveled to China. At a public demonstration, Shihan Mattson demonstrated Uechi Ryu while repeating some of the stories he was told as to the katas origins. No one at the demo knew about the original 3 katas: sanchin, seisan, and sanseiru. However, an elderly man spoke up and told them that he recognized the katas. When asked who he was and how he knew of them, the old man told them who his teacher was and who he was, then proceeded to demonstrate the katas.

You have to remember that some of the southern styles of chinese martial arts were innovative in design. They did not have the academic prowess or the desire to intellectually disect there styles, or belabor hundreds of points to infinity. Some of the styles they created and used were: Fukien white crane, Southern Mantis, Pak Mei, Wing Chun, Southern Dragon, etc. Their main focus was on application: i.e. kick ass, period.

This is a short version of a pak mei form or kata. If you look at the hand movements you'll see the similarities.

If you go to Evan Pantazi's kyusho forum you'll see a 2 hour breakdown of the sanchin kata.

I've been studying southern chinese styles for over 40 years, and I still enjoy looking at, even finding new or different applications. I don't adhere to any one specific mindset: japanese, okinawan, chinese, etc. I have my own ideas, and I cannot afford to allow myself to be restricted to any form of normalcy bias...


Kevin73's picture

There was an interesting 3 part article in Classical Fighting Arts called something like "Milk for Karate" that was an interview with a student of Chotoku Kyan.  The person (name escapes me right now) related how the Shuri tradition utilized Seisan as their training kata for students first and how he had to hold weighted implements while doing the footwork for Seisan for a certain period and then weights while doing the arm movements.

This corresponds to how Sanchin and Hojo Undo were trained in the Naha styles.  A student would hold a weighted jar and do the foot movements from Sanchin.

As to Sanchin, originally it was NOT a kata.  It was a training drill to incorporate a lot of core principles into the movements.  A student would move across the dojo floor and then get to the other side turn around and then come back to the other side and so forth.  Later, Kanryo Higaonna patterned it to a set number of steps forward, then turn and a set number of steps, then turn around again.  That was later changed again by Chojun Miyagi to the 3 steps forward and two steps back, because there were no movements in the kata to train stepping back.  Goju-Ryu, then later Isshin-Ryu (patterened after the Goju version) are the only okinawan styles to do Sanchin in this manner.

Here is an interesting article from an Uechi perspective to drill ideas found in Sanchin


There is another one that I can't find right off, but it shows the basic arm movements in controlling an attacker's punch inside/outside etc.  If I can find it later I will post it as well.

rshively's picture

From an okinawan or japanese point of view, that may be true. But, to the Chinese Sanchin is oldest of all. Bai He Quan or white crane, has a 7 steps 3 battles kata as well as a bo kata of the same name. Sanchin, or 3 battles refer to So, Tan, and San He, which were taught separately. San He is the oldest using abdominal contraction and deep breathing to develop iron shirt chi-Gung. As far as whether Sanchin is a true kata or not, that is a matter of opinion. For me the grappling as well as the Kyusho are obvious. The weapons applications also apply. Ueshiba used to watch his students demonstrating their different interpretations of aikido and would often say "good aikido". He didn't object to their application, which often showed their level of understanding. Who, what, when ,why and how have little to do with a kata's origin. Kata, like martial arts, helps you get into the guy's head. What they thought, what they knew, their level of skill, etc. you can learn a lot about a culture by studying their fighting styles.