Early Karate History

India and China - Ch’uan Fa

There is some evidence based on the writings of the famous Orientalist Paul Pelliot that in the year AD 520 Bodhidharma an Indian monk, travelled to China and introduced meditation and exercise to monks in the Songshan Shaolin Monastery. The Shaolin monks developed a fighting system utilising the exercises and meditation techniques of the Bodhidharma known as Chinese boxing.

In the late 1600’s Chi-Nang Fang, daughter of a murdered Shaolin monk, further developed the system of Chinese boxing Ch’uan Fa, “The fist way” or White Crane (nowadays know as a Kung Fu) which eventually spread to the island of Okinawa.


Okinawa is an island south of Japan, situated in near equal distance between China and Japan. A secret indigenous weapon less martial art developed there (called Te, “Hands”) that experienced strong Chinese influences. Chinese sailors, traders and businessmen brought their martial art to Okinawa during their import/export business travels. In addition, many original Okinawan masters travelled to China to learn Chinese boxing Ch’uan Fa directly from Chinese masters.

Having acquired new skills, in particular what is nowadays referred to as White Crane Kung Fu, these masters would return to Okinawa and begin to teach an art that had both original Okinawan and also Chinese heritage. This new way of fighting was called To-De, “Chinese Hands”, to indicate the Chinese origin of many of the techniques.

In Okinawa, there were three villages that, although only a few miles apart, each developed their own style of To-De. In the port town of Naha, Naha-Te developed. In the more aristocratic Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa, Shuri-Te developed, and further north in Tomari, Tomari-Te developed.

This seemingly unlikely isolation has its foundation partly in the geographical location of these villages, with a river separating Naha in the south from Shuri and Tomari in the North, but also by its very different social classes, with business and commercial trade enterprises in Naha, the King and aristocracy in Shuri, and farmers and country people in Tomari.

Okinawa has a long history of both Chinese and Japanese suppression that outlawed the possession of conventional weapons (such as swords). Thus, Okinawan martial arts developed a unique range of substitute weapons that in many cases were derived from farming tools. The use of these weapons is still practiced today in many Karate styles of Okinawan origin.


Naha-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the port town of Naha, the modern-day capital of Okinawa. The martial art Te (”Hands”) and the continuous Chinese influences that incorporated Chinese Boxing Chuan Fa, were eventually reflected by naming the Okinawan martial arts To-De.

Credited for the early development of Naha-Te is Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Kanryo Higaonna’s students include Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953), the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate.

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