Historical Progression of Sanchin

sanchin, Uechi-ryu, Goju-ryu, Karate-do, Lessons, Vancouver, BC, Kitsilano, Martial Arts
Uechi Kanei sensei performing sanchin kata

This week I’ll be teaching a short workshop on Sanchin kata at Vancouver Mind Body Centre. I’ve been organizing my ideas on what I will try to convey at the workshop and would like to share these preliminary ideas in this blog post. The motive is entirely selfish as writing them down helps me better organize my ideas. Although not fully formed, here they are.

We do not know what the original Higaonna Sanchin kata looked like, but according to Kinjo Akio from the recollections of his teacher Higa Seko, who was also a student of Higaonna Kanryo, the original sanchin kata that Higaonna taught included the following characteristics:

  • The hands were always held open
  • The arm was thrust out using a spear-hand
  • The speed of the strike was very quick as was the return to the guard position
  • The sound of the breath was almost inaudible when striking
  • A short, sharp exhale was done when the hand returned to the guard position

What should strike the reader (no pun intended) is the the startling similarity of this description to the modern Uechi-ryu version of sanchin kata. The similarities, at least on paper, are uncanny.

As Higaonna grew older and more experienced as a teacher, for whatever reason, he modified the way he taught sanchin. He dramatically slowed down its cadence, emphasized deeper and longer inhalations and exhalations, and of course closed the hands into fists. But he did not totally abandon the Uechi-like performance of his original version.

If we look at the Tou’on-ryu version of sanchin (sorry, I know, there’s no versions available of it online so you’ll have to trust my description or come to the workshop ;-), its an interesting bridge between the version taught in modern Goju-ryu and the Uechi-ryu version (using the Uechi-ryu version as a proxy for the Higaonna original).

Kyoda probably taught his version of sanchin fairly close to what Higaonna settled on (although not completely) so when we examine it we can see the following characteristics (1):

  • The hands are fists
  • The speed of the strike and return to the guard position is faster than the Goju-ryu version, but slower than the Uechi-ryu version (i.e. right in the middle)
  • The sound of the breath was almost inaudible when striking

I think most readers are familiar with the modern Goju-ryu version of sanchin so I don’t think I need to go into detail about it. Suffice to say, that we know through oral tradition that Miyagi slowed the kata down even more and modified the breathing of Higaonna’s sanchin. Again, as related by Kinjo Akio from his teacher Higa Seko (1),

Chojun Miyagi went to Fuzhou, China on business of tea trading. After returning to Okinawa, he asked Sensei Kanryo Higaonna about Sanchin in China, “In Fuzhou, China, they were breathing with the sound “Haa Haa” or “Fuu Fuu” like a giant snake roaring when they performed Sanchin. Why don’t we have such a breathing way?” Sensei Higaonna replied, “Theirs are authentic. And ours are authentic, too.” Then again Chojun Miyagi asked, “If so, will you teach me their breathing way with the sound?” Sensei Higaonna replied immediately, “You are too young to learn it.”

What this suggests is that Miyagi used the final template of Higaonna’s sanchin to incorporate what he had seen of how sanchin was practiced on his trip to Fuzhou, China. Therefore, for me, the structural and historical progression of sanchin kata (using Uechi-ryu as a proxy) would be the Uechi – Tou’on – Goju.

(1) Oral History About Kanryo Higaonna Handed Down By Disciples Of Seiko Higa Translated by Sanzinsoo

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